Fossilised shadows

Stones, lichen and shadows

I’m currently trying to write an article about imagining depth in a photograph which is after all, a flat piece of paper. The task is proving to be quite difficult.

In the article I want to move beyond compiling a list of compositional techniques that help to create the illusion of depth, for example the use of converging parallel lines, overlapping objects or diminution in scale where the same sized objects look smaller the further they are away from us.

There are plenty of sources for that sort of information and the techniques can easily be incorporated into our compositions to create the illusion of depth or as it is sometimes called, to create the ‘z axis’. In the article I want to go beyond tips and techniques to say more about the way depth perception works – how our brain creates a three-dimensional image of the world based on the two-dimensional data received from each eye. That goal has led me into the realm of ‘visual intelligence’ (a term coined by Professor Donald D Hoffman at the University of California).

Although we might think we see with our eyes, it’s much more complicated than that. We actually ‘see’ with our ‘mind’s eye’. We see what our ‘visual intelligence’ constructs and we learn to do that in the first year of life, even before we can walk and talk. Fortunately our ‘visual intelligence’ relies on a set of universal rules that transcend languages and cultures. This enables the photographer and a viewer to reach a similar conclusion about the three-dimensional reality a photograph is attempting to convey even if they’ve never met or discussed the photograph, or if they speak different languages or live on opposite sides of the globe.

The problem I face with the article is condensing everything that is fascinating about the concept of ‘visual intelligence’ into a short post. I can easily write twenty pages on the subject but trying to condense all that into one or two pages is proving difficult. Nevertheless I’m getting there slowly. In the meantime I decided to do some more work on a photograph I took a year ago in Padley Woods – a place in the Peak District of England. In a way it’s related to the concept of ‘visual intelligence’ because my photograph is deliberately trying to create some visual ambiguity about the subject matter, so when someone looks at it their ‘visual intelligence’ has to work a little harder to try and make sense of the image. As a consequence, I hope the viewer is encouraged to engage with and explore the photograph in more detail (even if that only happens unconsciously).

The title of this post (‘Fossilised shadows’) adds to the ambiguity away by suggesting that the subject matter could be fossilised leaves on the stones and some people have interpreted the image in that way, rather than ‘seeing’ a photograph of a dry-stone wall with the sun casting on to it the shadows of fern leaves. Even though our ‘visual intelligence’ is pretty smart, it’s not foolproof so it doesn’t always get it right. There are plenty of famous optical illusions that demonstrate that point. Oscar Reutersvärd’s 1934 illusion ‘the devil’s triangle’ is one example where our ‘visual intelligence’ is fooled into ‘seeing’ a three-dimensional triangle that can’t physically exist.

Another connection with ‘visual intelligence’ is the perception of colour and in particular our sensitivity to the colour green. Our eyes can only see three colours – red, green and blue – our brain has to do the rest to construct the wide palette of colours we can distinguish. Green can be a particularly difficult colour for landscape photographers because our camera sensors are biased to collect more green light than red or blue, also because we are particularly sensitive to green – possibly as a result of its importance in our evolution as a species when we were more reliant on the natural world for our survival, and also because the green colour in a lot of our subject matter – grass, trees etc. – represents a ‘memory colour’ – viewers ‘know’ what colour that sort of subject matter should be in a photograph.

The photograph in this post (‘Stones, lichen and shadows’) relies on the colour green quite a lot to give the image a subtle variation of interest and texture. However, the green tones vary quite a bit from yellow-green to blue-green. The Impressionist painters understood the subtle variations of colour in a predominantly green landscape scene often adding for example, blues, pinks and yellows to add visual realism to a scene that the casual observer or the untrained eye would simply describe as being green. Adjusting the ‘greens’ so they appear realistic without losing their aesthetic appeal and compositional contribution therefore formed an important part of post-processing with this image.

Working on the green areas in this image without altering other parts of the image could be difficult because of the generalised, almost random, distribution of the green across the stones and the differences in how the same colour looks (light green – dark green) depending on the localised ‘lighting’ effect created by the sunlight and shadows, and the variation in colour from yellow-green through to blue-green. Fortunately the RAW converter ‘CaptureOne’ has a neat way of constructing extremely complex ‘masks’ to separate parts of an image based on a selected colour and it does that in seconds which is really useful. So in this image I wanted to select the green colour (whether it be yellow-green, green or blue-green) and tone down the colour saturation a little. The following image is a screenshot taken with my iPhone of the mask ‘CaptureOne’ created in two seconds.

The quality of the screenshot isn’t perfect but hopefully you can see the way ‘CaptureOne’ has avoided some parts of the image but still picked up even small, isolated areas that it saw as matching the colour I’d selected as the target for creating the mask. Drawing in this mask by hand would be extremely difficult and time-consuming which is why I often use ‘CaptureOne’ as my Raw converter of choice, particularly when I anticipate the need for complex masks where I can use colour as the defining parameter. In this particular image for example, including the green in small parts of the fern leaf shadows without effecting the entire shadow, or including parts of stones without damaging the colour integrity of the rest of the stone colours would be a major challenge to first identify all the green (pixel by pixel) and then to draw the mask by hand.

I find the colour-masking ability of ‘CaptureOne’ particularly useful in landscape photography. I’ve also used it to select parts of tree trunks on silver birch trees where I want to alter colour, contrast, sharpness, exposure without having to hand-draw complex masks. If you haven’t seen the software and use masks in post-processing then I would suggest having a look at the software particularly since there is a trial version available.

Anyway, time for me to stop and get back to the article I’m trying to put together on the perception of depth/’visual intelligence’ in photography. In particular the way ‘visual intelligence’ helps a viewer of a photograph to reach a shared perception with the photographer of the three-dimensional world represented in the photograph even though the location where it was taken has been flattened onto a sheet of paper or a monitor screen, and the viewer has never been there.

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Up to my ankles in water

A few days ago I was persuaded by a friend to accompany him on a hike up the Rio Chilar near Nerja in southern Spain. A great day out. The hike is fairly short – about 10km (6 miles) round-trip. The altitude gain is only about 250 feet so not strenuous but it can be difficult. Most of the time you are walking through the river and the river bed can be difficult with stones, boulders and changes in depth. One minute the water is above your ankles and then, if you choose the wrong place for your next step, its above your knees. So an easy hike on the lungs but hard on the feet, knees and leg muscles.

Along the way there are some great opportunities for photography. There are a number of water cascades in the river. They can be difficult to clamber over but they are great locations to stop and explore. Slow shutter speeds work well so a tripod is essential kit along with neutral density filters because the light can be bright. The first photograph was taken at one of those cascades with the camera set at ISO 100, 30sec exposure, f8 aperture and the lens set at 180mm focal length. The long exposure (courtesy of a 10 stop neutral density filter) helping to give a blue tinge to image which I feel fits with the idea of an ethereal, mystical mood.

The next photograph gives an idea of what the cascades look like. Plenty of opportunities to search for details and ideas within the complex mix of rocks, trapped wood and water.

Another great feature of the Rio Chilar trail is the mini-canyons where the river has cut through the rock. Depending on the time of day and the direction of the sun it would be useful to have a flash gun in your bag that can be used off-camera as a fill light for the shadows. I decided not to take my Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites with me but fortunately I was able to get a reasonable shot of the river flowing through a mini-canyon.

There are also plenty of small details in the river bed that provide good material to work on in Photoshop. I’ve used ‘blending’ in this next photograph to show the sort of images that can be created in post-processing. Here’s an example using the ‘vivid light’ blending mode at 85% opacity.

So, a good day out but you need to get to the start-point for about 8:30am to get parked and beat the rush, its a popular walk for the Spanish and for tourists on holiday. Minutes after taking this last photograph the pool below the waterfall was filled with a procession of people all wanting their ‘selfie’ photo-opportunity in the pool with the waterfall behind them. A bit annoying for us landscape photographers but a great way to cool down after the first half of the hike before returning back down the river.

 

A camera in every pocket

In the past photography was the preserve of special occasions, darkrooms and chemistry but along came digital technology. Cameras became smaller and ultra-portable. Processing became instant using the technology already there within the camera. Now we carry a camera and processing ‘laboratory’ in our pocket or bag without giving it a second thought. The portability and quality of our phone cameras means we never need to miss an opportunity to make a record of where we are, who we are with and what we are doing. Here’s an example of that technology in use.

The technical quality isn’t great but this photograph records a chance encounter that would have been lost if I hadn’t got my iPhone in my pocket. I would have still seen the shot, admired the artistic combination of colours and shapes, the way the text reinforced an important element of the composition along with the irony that someone probably paid a lot of money for an advertising agency to come up with a brand name for their new blue wine and got ‘Blu’ – which is quite catchy I have to admit – but the image would have only lived on in my head. Not anymore.

The photograph was taken at a beach restaurant at Cabo de Gato in Almeria, Southern Spain.

‘Woodland massacre’

Wandering around woodland with my camera is a great way to spend time outdoors. One of the reasons I usually explore Padley Woods when I’m in England is because there are so many different photographic opportunities within a relatively small area. There are of course the traditional woodland scenes but you can also find abstract designs within the textures and shapes of the trees and there’s even a stream ‘painting’ a watery path through the woods. Once you’re immersed in the woodland, every turn reveals a silent clamour of landscape scenes, all auditioning for the photographer in the hope they’re chosen to be ‘painted’ onto the camera’s sensor to give them visual immortality. Spending time in Padley Woods is synonymous with the pastoral tradition of landscape photography – picturesque countryside as we like to remember it.

Recently a different type of woodland photographic opportunity presented itself. I was driving across Beeley Moor near Chesterfield in Derbyshire heading towards Chatsworth when unexpectedly I saw a field that obviously used to be a wood. A quick reverse revealed the trees had been felled for timber and most of them were neatly stacked waiting to be taken away to be converted into something ‘useful’. What struck me was the sense of devastation left behind. There were trenches filled with water which was starting to freeze because of the cold and hundreds of broken and discarded branches lay on the cold ground littering the field wherever I looked, inexplicably a few trees had survived and were still standing. The scene triggered thoughts about photographs from the World Wars where the countryside had been flattened by an artillery bombardment or tank battle. The scene also reminded me of pictures I must have seen of elephant ‘cemeteries’ where the carcases had rotted away leaving behind a mass of bones littering the ground. With those thoughts in mind I set about producing a photograph that tries to capture those sorts of associations. ‘Woodland massacre’ is the result – a dark, grainy, monochrome image that makes me think about war, massacre, devastation rather than the picturesque, pastoral images normally conjured up when I think about woodland.

'Woodland massacre'

Lifeboat in Filey Bay

A recent post raised some interesting thoughts about our reliance on visual clues to help make sense of the scale and context of a photograph. I’ve posted two images here that were photographed from the same position and at the same time. The first image, posted recently (click here for that post), resulted in some interesting insights into our reliance on visual clues to help us make sense of ‘abstract’ images. For example, some people didn’t register it was a photograph of the sea, others misinterpreted the scale thinking the photo was a close-up, perhaps taken by someone standing in the sea. I thought it would be interesting therefore to re-post the original photo alongside another from the same location. Including the lifeboat in the photo provides extra visual clues to help clarify the subject, context and size of the image but in doing so it loses the sense of ‘abstraction’/visual uncertainty I tried to create in the first photo.

 

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