Archive for March, 2009

Critique, Advice and Mentorship

March 26, 2009

The-Wrestler A few days back I came across “Photo Critique” videos on Zack Arias’ Blog (thanks to Matt Brandon). These videos are surprisingly entertaining, they have that reality TV talent show feel to them, but much more substance. The critique is really insightful for those interested in “making it” in the photo industry. Zack is witty and sarcastic, and he’s got a real gift – he is able to say that an image sucks and the “photographer” shouldn’t quit his day job without ever sounding like a condescending asshole.

Besides the entertainment value of Zack’s videos I found something that reminded me of my own photographic path and led to some related thoughts, which I think may be worth sharing.

In one of the critiques Zach talked about his photo-school teacher as a mentor of a sort, he said that the things this teacher taught him still echo in his mind every time he lifts the camera to his eye. To me this is interesting and important stuff.

It’s really helpful to have a mentor at some stage of your career. The way I see it, a mentor is someone who inspires you and puts you on the “right” path, the stuff he/she tells you may be so powerful that it’ll forever change the way you photograph.

I’ve been lucky enough to have come across two such people. Two very different photographers and even more different human beings.

The first is an amazing B&W travel portrait photographer by the name of Eugene H. Johnson. I met Eugene by chance, I saw him taking photos of life by the river in the holy Hindu town of Varanasi. He had an old film camera and was shooting from a tripod, this made me curious enough to approach him and ask “Why?” What transpired was a lengthy conversation which forever changed the way I took photographs of people. Prior to that, I hadn’t planned my shots or consciously spent time with those who I photographed. Hearing Eugene’s poetic tales of interaction with his photographic “subjects” made his way of photographing sound like the most romantic and rewarding thing in the world. After our conversation I felt compelled to see his work online and after seeing the work I realized two things –  Eugene was indeed an incredible photographer and the stuff that I had been shooting was child’s play, too “raw”, too dependent on chance and luck.

I spent less than a couple of hours in person with Eugene, but even a moment with a wise man can amount to a lifetime of thoughts and ideas. Since then our interaction has been rather sparse, though I have received a few encouraging emails from Eugene over the past few years. In one of the later emails he told me that he was following my progress online and had become a fan of my work. I knew that I had progressed a lot since I first met him, but it was very encouraging to have my own opinion “validated” by the person who influenced me so much.

I feel that Eugene planted a seed that would enable my photography to become something bigger and the next mentor has helped me nurture and grow this seed, albeit in a rather unorthodox way. Unlike Eugene, who doesn’t seem to have a cynical bone in his body, this fellow could be the most cynical person I’ve ever met. I won’t even mention his name because I am sure that if he ever reads my blog he’ll have a good cynical laugh at this post, (so, I won’t give him the credit:)). Well, I guess that’s what years of war photography can do to you and that’s what this man did for a large part of his career. These days he seems to be done with war and shoots for Russian National Geographic, as he journeys around the world on his motorcycle.

As was the case with Eugene, I crossed paths with the Russian, motorcycle riding, Nat Geo photographer by chance, in Nepal. I rode there from India and he from Russia, we met in a roadside restaurant in Pokhara. My question “Why do you have that photographic bag?” began our friendship, the ongoing criticism of my photography and the never ending smart-ass comments such as – “Oh, yes this is the sad eyes of a crapping dog photograph, very good.” Such comments can break one’s heart when they are a response to something you consider strong work, or they can make you think – If my image is as strong as I thought it was, then why has the impact not overshadowed any such remarks?

The Russian mentor is old-school. He’s used to dealing with top people in Russian press, they are economic with words and praise. You got a great shot – good, it’s going in the paper and if you didn’t, then; why the hell are you not out there shooting? That’s his approach. No fluffy compliments. But he has also offered me countless bits of photographic wisdom. It’s like Zack says in his video – you hear those words every time you lift the camera to your eye. “This is boring! Get down, shoot from a different angle! What are you trying to say with this photo? You know what it is, I don’t! Show me, make it understandable! What’s really important here? Why are not showing anything about the person you’re shooting! I want to see emotion!”

These two mentors have played a big part in who I am as a photographer. There is no substitute for having a knowledgeable person critically look at your work and give you advice. The way Zach Arias does on his blog and the way those two individuals have done for me. So, in the end I guess I just wanted to share my own experiences. Perhaps the seasoned pros will be reminded of their own mentors from the past, while those who are starting to get serious about their photography may simply run out the door and find a photographic mentor for themselves.

(Above is a mud wrestler from Kolhapur. It’s one of the images that I’ve recently “played around” with in PP.)

Demystifying Post-Processing (to an extent)

March 16, 2009

I said in the last post that I would put up some “before” and “after” images that would give people an insight into how much post-processing I do to my photographs, so here we go. As with the last post this isn’t a tutorial, but those who have a better than basic understanding of post-processing may get some ideas from this post. The “before” images which are unprocessed, as interpreted by “Caputre One”, they are on top and I have listed the key things which I have done with the post-processed “after” photographs. Click on each image for a closer view.

Timor-FireBarda-HillsAlor-WarriorSalt-workersThe above images have pretty much been worked on in the same way.

  1. Slight cropping and sometimes rotating.
  2. Multiple versions of the same image created at varying exposures, later made into one in Photoshop. The reason – bringing out the details in highlights and shadows.
  3. Curves, levels adjustment layers created, I paint inside of these wherever I feel needed, to selectively darken and lighten areas
  4. Shadows and highlights – to further bring out the details.
  5. Dodging and burning for finishing touches.

ShepherdThe image above had a little more done to it. On top of the previously mentioned processes I played around with the saturation and the white balance in the RAW file. More intense dodging and burning was required to add a bit of drama to the scene, to make the image look the way I remembered seeing it.

GrandmotherThe process for the image of this grandmother was similar to the first few and I chose to clone out a little black pipe that stuck out of the wall (top/center/right). I’m not a huge fan of cloning things out and some may argue that once things start to get modified on this level, the photograph becomes less “pure”. If it’s something small that doesn’t make or break the image, but bugs me I’ll clone it out without thinking twice, if it’s something that can radically change an image I’ll usually be a bit more cautious.

Rabari-Woman Out of the images I have presented here this one required the most work. I felt that I really needed to bump the contrasts and to dramatically darken certain parts of the photo. This sRGB conversion has a limited color range and is actually a little too dark (you loose details in the material), but you get the general idea. Same processes as stated above and just really a lot of playing around and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

That’s about it. As you can probably gather I like to keep my images looking as realistic as possible on the one side and as dramatic as possible on the other. I try to find the right balance. There are plenty of photographers who like to make their images look more dramatic, more saturated, more contrasty,  to a point of surreal. There are also those who like to selectively de-saturate parts of an image, but to keep contrasts high. Lots of particular “looks” are popular these days and many people try to emulate them. Sometimes these “looks” work and sometimes they are boring, repetitive and unnecessary. I’m not really into stylizing my color shots too much. I feel that this is a bit of a fad and at times this stylization is used to mask crap light or inconsistent color. A great image will be great regardless of whether it has been realistically processed or stylized (when this is done well). A crap, stylized image may pass off as decent at first glance because it grabs you with the dramatic, surreal color, but hang it on the wall and look at it for a few days and you’ll become very bored. Maybe I am somewhat conservative – for me it’s either the dramatic, yet realistic post processing approach or if I want to do my own kind of stylizing – it’s black and white. I do quite a bit of black and white and I will post something about that in the future.

My Digital Workflow and Why I don’t use Lightroom

March 14, 2009

workflowOk, so I thought it might be useful to let people know how I go about working on my images after I have captured them with the camera. This is not a tutorial, just some steps that I take, a word on the software that I use and some thoughts behind why I use it.
I’ll start with a statement that will likely surprise many photographers; I don’t use Lightroom, at all.
In a perfect world things would be much simpler than they are and I would absolutely love if Lightroom was my answer to everything, but it’s not. “Why?” You ask. I’ll try to make it as short as I can: I really don’t like certain textures that Adobe Camera Raw creates (this is what both Photohshop and Lightroom use to interpret RAW files) and I don’t like how it handles color. The textures often look “too computer generated”, progressions of really dark tones to a really light ones are a little too harsh, too sharp and sometimes pixelated. The colors and the tones often seem to blend with each other and the image takes on a somewhat de-toned, de-saturated look. 
I feel that Capture One 4 Pro handles RAW better, it’s not perfect, but for most part I find it superior to anything else. I must note that the aim of this post is not to start a debate on which software is better; I’m simply sharing my thoughts. If you want to see for yourself, download a trial of the current Capture One, experiment and see if it’s for you. I came across the software after being unhappy with Lightroom’s and Photoshop’s handling of RAW files that I wanted to make into rather large .jpegs, which would later be turned into 20X30 inch prints. Sometimes it takes a large print to see whether an image holds up or not in terms of quality. I could create large prints from images made with Lightroom and I have done it, but boy did that task take a lot of unnecessary time.
And so as a result of living in a not so perfect world of computers I use a combination of programs to achieve my goals:
iView, (now Microsoft Expression Media 2) – to sort through the files and catalog them.
Capture One 4 Profor conversions from RAW to jpegs.
Photoshop (still CS3, although that may change soon) – for in-depth editing of images.
Adobe Bridgefor keywording and descpriptions.
expression-media-21After I download my day’s shoot onto the computer I create a “catalog” in Expression Media 2 and import all the photos there. Then comes the selection process. In Expression Media 2 you can assign colors to images. I usually only assign colors to the images I want to keep – green, basically every image which I think is pretty decent is marked green. There is an option that lets you sort images by color and by the end of my selection I choose this option to bring up all the images that actually don’t have a color under them – these go directly to the recycle bin. I look through the decent, green images again, pick some standouts and assign another color to them. If I want to make the selection even tighter I simply repeat the steps and use a new color. I love Expression Media 2 because it’s very simple, fast and it doesn’t eat up HDD space with its catalogs.
capture-one-proNext comes the RAW to JPEG conversion. All the images that I want to work on are downloaded into a temporary folder. This folder is opened in Capture One. The software has a great option called “variables”, it let’s you create multiple copies of an image and allows you to compare these copies/variables side by side. For quite some time I have been doing a thing that some people on the net call HDR portraiture – all this means is that I create multiple images from a single RAW file. I do this because the tonal range of all digital SLRs is still somewhat limited – if you shoot a person against a bright sky, either the person will be really underexposed (very dark) or the sky will be really overexposed (very bright). I shoot such situations in a particular way, you could say that I expose in the middle, so the person is not too dark and the sky is not too bright. When I bring this RAW file up in Capture One I will usually make three images from it – one underexposed, one overexposed and one neutral. That’s basically what I use Capture One for.
These three files are opened in Photoshop and are “blended” into a single image that now has a greater tonal range than anything the camera can produce by itself. I use curves or levels adjustment layers, as well as dodging and burning tools to apply the finishing touches.
The finished images are key-worded and described in Bridge and the RAW files are sometimes copied from the temporary directory into a permanent one, which is basically a backup of all the images that I consider good.
That’s about it. As I mentioned this is not a tutorial, I haven’t gone into much detail on anything, but these are the steps that I go through. Perhaps, if people are interested, at some stage I will release an in-depth tutorial on post-processing images with techniques that can also be used with Lightroom and Photoshop. I don’t want to just post something “half-baked”; I’m against formulas and quick fixes and all for in-depth understanding of each process.
One question I get asked quite often is: “How much post-processing do you do? How do you achieve a particular look in an image?” I guess this post has shed some insight on how I achieve the “particular look”. In the next post I’ll share some “before” and “after” images that will give a better idea of just how much or how little post-processing I do.

Long hours of staring at the monitor and Podcasts

March 12, 2009

itunes

I guess I can say that I’m well and truly settling back into life at home. Once again I’m spending insane hours in front of the computer, post-processing images and deciding where to find a home for them. I have a love/hate relationship with this aspect of photography. It does require a good amount of creativity and this is the time when you really polish your photographs and make them look the best they possibly can. But I hate being indoors for so long and staring at that monitor. After a while it feels like a pathetic existence, especially when your images are a constant reminder of where you’ve been and of the adventures you’ve had, it doesn’t take long until you get the urge to say “The hell with everything, I’m leaving this crap and going on another adventure!”

But of course in reality you can’t do that. The raw files that I’ve spent months capturing are only half-baked photographs, so to say. In order to create a finished product I have to work on each and every image, which I or my editor deem worthwhile. And so it’s back to the computer and more hours spent like a hermit, away from the world.

How does one stay sane during this time? Music would be ideal, but I rarely discover anything worthwhile and when I do, I play the same tracks till my ears bleed. So, I turn elsewhere and the next best thing after music, at least for me is – Podcasts! If someone’s been even more isolated from the world than me and has no idea what podcasts are, then podcasts could be described as recorded radio shows, in fact sometimes that’s exactly what they are. They air on the radio first and then become available for download on the net. There are podcasts on virtually every topic. Just go to iTunes and search by category or keywords. I listen to many things that BBC puts out and being in Australia we have some decent Aussie content too. But I’ve found that most of all I have found myself listening to TWIP (This Week In Photography) and  these “geek” shows by CNet, as well as almost everything by Leo Laporte – a self-confessed geek and a gadget fanatic. Their stuff is great and because they talk about technology it’s very relevant to the side of photography which I’m working on as I listen to them. The big plus is the fact that they don’t talk about anything that would make me want to abandon my work. There’s no mention of travel, adventure or anything that’s really outside of the world of technology, and that’s great – I can focus on my work, on being a sort of a geek myself, as I stare at the freakin monitor.

So, in short, anyone who finds themselves in a situation similar to mine – get iTunes and start listening to podcasts that you can relate to. You’ll be absorbing a lot of info, true lots of it useless, but some will give you ideas that can help in your photographic world.

In the next post I think it may be useful to talk a little about my workflow. Some people may be surprised that Lightroom is not a part of my workflow. Well, I have my reasons and use what I feel is a better alternative.

Back home and Capture Magazine

March 11, 2009

capture-coverIt’s a bit late, but I thought I’d post it anyway. I’ve won “Exposed” a competition in the Australian “Capture” Magazine for young photographers with less than 3 years experience in the industry (when I entered I had less than 3 years experience). You had to send in a portfolio of images and I sent my “Rabari” series. The whole series can be seen here: http://rabari.mitchellkphotos.com/
They did two speards of my work, one of the Rabari photos last year and another this month with a little write up on what I do, oh and they used my image on the cover (above), although they rotated it and cropped it, it’s still kinda nice to see your photograph on the cover of your country’s major photographic magazine.  “Capture” is out now, it’s the March/April issue.
I’ve been home for about a week. I don’t get a “reverse cultural shock” when I come home after a long trip these days. I guess I’ve been through this whole thing enough times. It sure does feel nice to sleep in a comfy bed, with no traffic noise or insanely loud music outside.
I’ll be in Sydney for a few months, a lot of stuff to sort out. But, I figure it’s only a matter of a month or two before I get the urge to get out somewhere again.
I guess the blog may start focusing less on travel, since there will not be any and more on photography – the technical side, the practical side and the work of other photographers who I admire.

Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai and Good Bye India.

March 6, 2009

curious-in-mumbaiBangalore – we didn’t originally plan to stop in this city, but it was the nearest place from where we could get a train to Pune, our final stop before we’d fly from Mumbai. I didn’t want to ride any more either, but all trains to Bangalore were full and you can’t put a motorcycle on a bus.

I planned to ride the 480km from Madurai to Bangalore over two days, but somehow Tanya and I summoned up enough energy and finishing the ride in one day seemed possible.

480km is the longest distance that I have ever ridden in one day on a motorcycle, anywhere. If I were riding in Australia, this distance would not seem that far, really. But this is India and here distance is not only measured by milestones along the road. It is measured by how many cows, chickens, goats, children and women with firewood on their heads you almost hit (because they almost jumped under your wheels) as well as how many buses and trucks almost hit you (because they are bigger and don’t care). It’s a long distance, almost unbearably long. Your butt feels like it’s burning on the motorcycle seat all the way, but you finally pass the pain barrier after 400km, you stop feeling or caring.

Bangalore – the “I.T. City”, “The future of India”. You could have fooled me by the last 20km of road that leads there. Countless potholes, puddles of black water, construction, everywhere and that horrible, dark smoke, the whole thing felt like traveling through a post-apocalyptical landscape, and then you reach the city itself. I’m sure that Bangalore is as amazing as people make it out to be, but whatever it has to offer, it can offer to someone else. I had no time to discover its charm under the black cloud of traffic smoke; I was to finish my “business” and to head off.

At the railway station we sent what was left of the motorcycle back to my Gujarati friend Hardik, who is now in Ahmedabad (Gujarat’s commercial capital). Then it was our turn to go. We’ve become soft when it comes to public transport. We avoid buses because of the loud music and no leg-room; we avoid the sleeper class on the train because of the countless beggars and hawkers that pass through every other minute and we even avoid the “Three-tier AC”, because it still feels somewhat crowded. So we got two “Two-Tier AC” tickets for our 24-hour train ride to Pune. “Two Tier AC” means that you have a compartment with four beds in it and two beds along the corridor, what it does not mean is that you will get the peace and quite that you long for on a tiring journey. I had to force myself to sleep to the sound of continuous burping, farting and snoring of fellow passengers. At 11:30 pm a young boy with a loud, squeaky voice decided it was a good time to have a conversation with his father about Superman. Oh, the joys of travel on the Indian Railways!

Pune – just a one night stop here, a quick catch up with a friend – Rahul, a young man who had recently spent a year in Germany, a year which radically changed the way he now looked at his own city, his country for that matter. The first time I met him I told him that I thought Pune was very modern and developed. “Modern, developed?! No, this place is not like that! You see a high-rise glass building and then you walk inside and you see the people there, spitting on the shiny floors, throwing their shit around. That is modern? Developed?” With his unusually cynical views and his stories about Pune’s Koregaon Park and the infamous “Osho International Meditation Center” Rahul certainly kept me amused and entertained. I hope I meet him again one day.

Mumbai – the city of dreams for millions. I never liked this place very much, but make no mistake about it, it is absolutely, incredibly fascinating.

One more friend to catch up with in Mumbai – Santosh, an independent filmmaker who works as a sound engineer in various Bollywood drama-series out of necessity.  Santosh is one of the most intelligent fellows I have come across on my Indian journeys. Whenever I meet him he tells me countless stories about various places we come past in Mumbai. These stories have probably played a part in forming my view of the city – yes there is crime and there are slums, but there is so much more that you will simply pass by if you are visiting by yourself. So many cultures and sub-cultures and everyone has a story, a fascinating story.

As we walked to a restaurant in Colaba, a place where I usually eat, we passed through the parts of the city where the horrors took place in December. It’s eerie when you hear what happened and picture things, but now, just a couple of months later life goes on as before. Sure there are a few policemen with machine guns, but you couldn’t even imagine what took place in the very same streets, where today people are laughing, drinking and celebrating life. That’s how India is. It doesn’t stop for anyone, nor does it compromise or change because you want it to. It is every bit “The Incredible India” of the romanticized advertisements and it is every bit as dark and hopeless as its worst slums, its deranged beggars and its corrupt politicians.

This trip has exhausted us more than any of our previous visits to the country. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it’s the distance we’ve covered by motorcycle or perhaps it is because we understand things a little more now. The naivety is gone and it is not only the exotic, beautiful India that we see these days. We realize just how hard it can be to survive in this country, to live with dignity or to at least make it possible for your children to live with dignity. We haven’t learned something that we didn’t know before, but it has really hit home this time. Our realization however, doesn’t make this country any less fascinating. It is a matter of time until we come back. Although I want to spend a few years seeing other parts of the world, I know that just like this time, when India calls – you simply pack up and go.

 

Photo: The image at the top was taken on a previous India trip. I shot it in a neighborhood about 500 meters from the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. It wasn’t quite what you’d classify as the slums in India, but not much better. Insane contrast, the richest of the rich were staying at the Taj, while the poorest of the poor were living in less than ideal conditions and all that separated them from each other was a five minute walk. It’s the old cliché about India – the land of extreme contrasts, but it is so true and it is still tough to get your head around the whole concept when it comes to the rich and the poor.

Madurai

March 3, 2009

madurai-prayer-011From Kanyakumari it is a 250 km ride to Madurai. We’ve made it…barely. After over 10,000 km on the road over the past three months, our bodies are aching in places we didn’t know could ache. The two-wheeled machine which has been transporting us all this time is “exhausted” too. It experienced another “major injury” – another crack right through the middle of its chasis on the way to Madurai, but somehow we managed to pull through to our destination.
madurai-market-02madurai-market-01 Madurai is a fascinating city. My short time here would not do it any justice. However, I decided to at least have a peek at it, rather than to simply pass it by. Parts of the city are particularly photogenic. The fruit and vegetable market inside the city is as bustling and challenging to photograph as the fish market in Kollam. I came to this place every morning, I suppose more to absorb the atmosphere than to create any compelling images. Later in the mornings I’d go to the temple, the most famous temple in all of south India and arguably the finest example of Dravidian architecture – the Sri Menakshi. To my huge disappointment there was restoration work being done to the Sri Menakshi during my visit. Its giant, elaborately decorated towers were covered with faded, dry palm leaves. I was left only with post card images of what it looked like and my imagination of how it may look after the restoration.
madrurai-temple-011 Thankfully the inside of the vast temple grounds was very much intact and buzzing with religious activity. I have a strange feeling in Hindu temples; it is as if I am both – a complete alien and totally at home there. All the rituals, the hundreds queuing up for darshan (blessing) or prashad (blessed food) and bowing to the Gods carved out of stone; on the surface none of it makes much sense to someone like me. I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, in fact I’d say I’m anti-religious at times, but the essence behind every religion is very human and when I think of that, I, as a human being can connect with it. I feel that behind the multitude of layers, the rituals at Hindu temples or for that matter any sites of worship, stand two universal factors – misery and hope. Misery and hope go hand in hand in and around the Sri Menakshi Temple. A poor farmer’s family spends the night on the pavement by a make-shift fire, a deformed man begs for money, a newly-wed couple makes an offering and the fat businessman who has “made it” bows down to the Shiva statue – there is a degree of hope and misery that drives all of these people. They plead for a better life, money, happiness, forgiveness and they all hope that they will be heard by the divine. There isn’t an individual in the world that doesn’t suffer or hope. And as for surrendering to the divine, if it’s not God that a person looks to, it’s love, work, alcohol, drugs. The essence remains the same, only the layers around it change. Knowing this makes me feel at ease about the blanks in my knowledge of Hinduism. I can fill in those blanks. What makes me comfortable is the fact that those in the temple are humans, before they are anything else. Their actions are a manifestation of their cultural upbringing, but these actions are driven by the same misery and hope that I and every other human feel.
We spent three days in Madurai. Our next stop is Bangalore. How we have to get there is another story.