Berlin in monochrome

Pergamonmuseum Contrasts

Pergamonmuseum – Contrasts

The fact that black and white photography is thriving so many years after the advent of colour film is testimony to the impact that this medium can have when trying to capture memorable images.  Berlin as a city lends itself to monochrome images and in spite of trying to see how I could use colour to enhance the subject most of the photos I took there recently ended up being processed in black and white.  There is no point in using colour unless it adds something significant that cannot be addressed through black and white alone.  The scale of that city, the huge monoliths that line the wide streets, the great halls of culture, the wide open spaces and scars of the past also tend towards wide-angle photography.  All of the photographs in this post were taken with a Fujifilm XT1 camera and Fujinon f2.8 14mm lens.

Noir at Tempelhofer Ufer

Noir at Tempelhofer Ufer

Most of the time during the visit the light was not good – overcast skies caused diffuse rather than dramatic lighting and the sun only shone on one day out of the five.  This took away a lot of potential for dramatic skies in the outdoor shots but you have to work with what you have.  The camera was set to ISO Auto (maximum ISO 6400, default ISO 200 with minimum shutter speed of 1/200).  All of the shots were done using aperture priority with the shutter speed set to automatic.  This set up is simple, prevents camera shake if subjects are moving, and allows you to concentrate on the subject rather than the camera settings.  The photo above was taken while walking back from a day of street photography – it was early evening but to get the starburst effect on the lights the camera was stopped down to f 22 with the default shutter speed of 1/200.  This is rather counter-intuitive as it forced the ISO up to 6400 and people always advise you to shoot wide open when it is dark.  Sometimes you have to break the rules to get the results you want and the image leapt out of the viewfinder as I framed the shot.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin lends itself to street photography and is generally safe for this as long as you are sensible as for any big city there are some places more edgy than others.  I had a run-in with some locals in Mariannenplatz who took exception to me photographing street art near their squat but it was nothing serious and soon resolved by a little discussion.  The chaps in the photo above nearly ran me down after I took this photo – the perils of wide-angle photography!

Memorial - Unter den Linden

Memorial – Unter den Linden

There are many powerful images to be captured – the memorial above is in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden near Museumsinsel.  It is a powerful monument that was dedicated in 1993 as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship.”  To get the effect above I exposed for the highlights and knelt down to emphasis the subject against the lighter walls.

Konzerthaus near Jagerstraße

Konzerthaus near Jagerstraße

One of the characteristics of Berlin is that it is full of parallel lines – cobbles marking out the pavement or the grand squares are everywhere.  If you have a wide-angle lens you can kneel down and use the converging lines to draw the eye into the photograph as in the photo of the Konzerthaus above and the Berlin Wall below.  The three main areas to see the Wall are at Niederkirchnerstraße (below) where you will find a large section of preserved Wall near the foundations of the Gestapo HQ in Berlin.  Part of the site is the Topography of Terror Museum and running parallel to the Wall here is an exhibition on the destruction of Warsaw.  Powerful stuff.  The best preserved piece of the Wall that we found was at Bernauer Strasse http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/ which has a Berlin Wall memorial and a long section of the Death Strip along with lots of photographs and interpretation panels.  For street art on the Wall the best location we found was the East Side gallery at Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

Berlin Wall at Wilhelmstraße

Berlin Wall at Niederkirchnerstraße

The large museums and cathedrals also offer great opportunities for photography – a few more examples are below with the locations.  The next post will be in colour and on the Berlin street art scene (with some suggested locations and a contrast with the street art in London).  After this trip I have once again fallen in love with Berlin and one thing I can say for certain – I’ll be back…

 

Deutsches Historisches Museum

Deutsches Historisches Museum

 

Museumsinsel, Berlin

Museumsinsel, Berlin

 

Potsdamer Platz

Potsdamer Platz

 

Holocaust Memorial – Cora-Berliner-Straße

 

The Crypt below Berlin Cathedral - Museumsinsel

The Crypt below Berlin Cathedral – Museumsinsel

 

Bode Museum - Museumsinsel

Bode Museum – Museumsinsel

 

The camera in your pocket

Sunset over Arran

Sunset over Arran

When it comes to photography there is one universal truth – the best camera you own is the one you are carrying. Too many of us invest a lot in high quality cameras only to find that we don’t have them with us when a good photo opportunity presents itself.  Well it is worth remembering that with the arrival of the camera phone there is now no excuse for missing those shots.

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A lot of people think that camera phones are simply too limited to deliver good photography.  After all most of the basic options we all take for granted are missing – you can’t vary depth of field by changing the aperture, the ISO is often not controllable and the cameras tend to decide their own exposure settings. However with a little time you can learn the characteristics of your phone camera and use these to your advantage (or you can download an app that gives you more control such as 645 Pro).

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With a little care and creativity your smartphone is capable of delivering some pretty good images.  All of the photos in this post were taken with an iPhone and a couple of them would not have been possible without the unique features that smartphone cameras offer such as the ability to take panoramic shots by simply moving the camera allowing you to create an image similar to that from an ultra wide-angle lens.  As the manual options are currently  limited the single most important thing to concentrate on when using your phone as a camera is composition.

The photograph below was taken at the GoMA in Glasgow using the panoramic setting on the iPhone – a careful sweep of the camera from left to right allowed for the entire installation to be caught in one image.  Things to remember when doing this is that you should practice the sweep first to make sure all will be captured, move the camera at an even pace and keep the arrow in line with the white line that appears in the middle of the screen.  There will be distortion in the middle of the shot but this can be used as below to enhance visual impact.  Often taking care to ensure clarity between the subject and the background can really help with a shot like this one.

The Lamp of Sacrifice

The Lamp of Sacrifice

Once you have taken a photo with your phone there are a whole range of options for developing them on the phone to give you the effect you want.  The two apps I use most for this are Snapseed (ridiculously cheap and easy to use) and iPhoto (quite limited but has some good options) although the photo below was developed using Colour Efex Pro in Lightroom 5.

The Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis

Most camera phones use wide angle lenses so remember the characteristics of these when composing a shot.  They will tend to have a large depth of focus (i.e. both the foreground and background tend to be sharp) and they will make closer subjects look disproportionately large and far away subjects look tiny.  It may be a good idea to put something in the foreground to draw the eye into the shot as you would with any wide-angle lens on your system camera.

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Ultimately the thing to remember is that good photography is not about the quality of the camera – all you have to do is look back in history at some of the iconic images from the early days of photography to realise this is the case.  The camera in your phone is way better optically than the early cameras used by some of photography’s past masters.  Given the choice I would always choose to use my Fuji over the iPhone (that goes without saying) but that is not always an option.  So perhaps it is time to stop playing Bubblewitch on your smartphone and start taking some great photos – after all the sky’s the limit…

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Unmitigated England

Great Central Railway, Sheffield Victoria to Banbury
by Sir John Betjeman

‘Unmitigated England’
Came swinging down the line
That day the February sun
Did crisp and crystal shine.
Dark red at Kirkby Bentinck stood
A steeply gabled farm
‘Mid ash trees and a sycamore
In charismatic calm.
A village street – a manor house –
A church – then, tally ho!
We pounded through a housing scheme
With tellymasts a-row,
Where cars of parked executives
Did regimented wait
Beside administrative blocks
Within the factory gate.
She waved to us from Hucknall South
As we hooted ‘round a bend,
From a curtained front-room window did
The diesel driver’s friend.
Through cuttings deep to Nottingham
Precariously we wound;
The swallowing tunnel made the train
Seem London’s Underground.
Above the fields of Leicestershire
On arches we were borne
And the rumble of the railway drowned
The thunder of the Quorn;
And silver shone the steeples out
Above the barren boughs;
Colts in a paddock ran from us
But not the solid cows;
And quite where Rugby Central is
Does only Rugby know
We watched the empty platform wait
And sadly saw it go.
By now the sun of afternoon
Showed ridge and furrow shadows
And shallow unfamiliar lakes
Stood shivering in the meadows.
Is Woodford church or Hinton church
The one I ought to see?
Or were they both too much restored
In 1883?
I do not know. Towards the west
A trail of glory runs
And we leave the old Great Central Line
For Banbury and buns.

Taken from John Betjeman Collected Poems (1989)
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Subject against ground

 

Umbrella

There is a simple tip to remember when you are trying to make an impact – your subject must stand out against the background.  A messy background or lack of clarity between the background and the subject makes for a distracting image and reduces impact.  I was given this advice by my brother (who is an incredible street photographer) and it is the single most important piece of photographic advice I have ever received.

When taking the above photo there were a lot of decisions that needed to be taken.  The shot was not posed but taken on the hoof at a procession that was filled with movement with lots of photographers doing battle over the best shots.  It was a bit of a bunfight in photographic terms.  When I saw this man walking along blowing bubbles I instantly thought that the umbrella could be used to isolate him from the background and potentially make for a great image.  This is what the overall scene looked like:

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As you can see the background was a mix of buildings and people and although it provides context it draws the eyes away from the main image.  The answer was simple – get in close and take the shot from below using the umbrella to bring the subject into prominence.

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It had been raining and the ground was covered by a large puddle – there was only one option, kneel down in the dirty puddle and take the shot!  The second photo in this post was taken by a friend (who wants to remain anonymous) just as I was taking the photo above so captures the context of the shot perfectly.

If you look at the photographs taken by renowned photographers you will see the ‘subject against ground’ theme repeat itself over and over again.  One of the best examples of this is a well-known photograph by Marcin Ryczek which can be seen here http://www.marcinryczek.com/sales-photo/a-man-feeding-swans-in-the-snow.html

So there you have it – subject against ground.  Hope you find this helpful.

The first and third photographs above were taken with a Fujifilm X-T1 with 55-200mm zoom lens. Settings were 1/200 at f/4 and ISO640.

 

It’s all about the light

Turbine Hall

Turbine Hall

The difference between a good photograph and a mediocre one normally comes down to one thing – the quality and direction of the light.  This can be illustrated quite easily by looking at two photographs taken within minutes of each other in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London.

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The main difference between the two photographs is that in the second one a cloud had covered the sun removing the dramatic lighting that fills the Turbine Hall between 5.30 and 6.00 during the summer months.  When taking a shot like the first one you need to make a few decisions.

First how is it to be exposed?  Expose for the shadows and the highlights will burn out.  Expose for the highlights and all of the detail is lost in the darker areas of the photograph. When faced with a scene like this an option is to select spot metering on the camera and expose on the cusp between the light and dark areas.  If your camera has an electronic viewfinder (like the Fujifilm X-T1) then it should show you how the photo is likely to look before you take the shot.

You can then use the exposure compensation dial (if you have one) to fine tune the image and if possible set the camera to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG as this will give you far more options when it comes to processing on your computer.

Once you are satisfied that the settings are correct then it all comes down to patience.  You want to get dramatic shadows to complement any people in the frame which means you want them walking in the lighted strips – the only problem is that when people are walking towards a bright light source it is often more comfortable on the eyes to walk in the shadowy areas which is no good for your photo so you will get a lot of misses before you end up with a photograph you are happy with!

A few considerations include making sure the people in the photo do not overlap (this approach makes it a far cleaner image and should be considered for many shots of people together).  Using the bright sun to backlight hair can make the subject more easily visible against a dark background and adding in the mirror effect of the glass wall on the right can double the dramatic effect of the window.  The only other thing I did with this photo was to stop down the lens in order to maximise the starburst effect on the sun (I think that the slight added noise of using a higher ISO is worth it).

Settings were 1/200 of a second at f/22 and 1600 ISO and the photograph was taken with a Fujifilm X-T1 and 18-55mm zoom lens.  The photo was developed in Lightroom 5 with Silver Efex Pro 2.

We are all humans beneath the mask

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James Franciscus – describing the spontaneous segregation of the actors that occurred during the filming of Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1969.

“During lunch I looked up and realized, my God, here is the universe, because at one table were all the orangutans eating, at another table were the apes, and at another table were the humans. The orangutan characters would not eat or mix with the ape characters, and the humans wouldn’t sit down and eat with any one of them. I remember saying, ‘Look around — do you realize what’s happening here? This is a little isolated microcosm of probably what’s bugging the whole world. Call it prejudice or whatever you want to call it.  Whatever is different is to be shunned or it’s frightening or so forth.’  Nobody was intermingling, even though they were all humans underneath the masks. The masks were enough to bring out our own little genetic natures of fear and prejudice. It was startling.”

The little anecdote above is a chilling reminder of mankind’s natural tendency to segregate itself into groups and create a culture based on ‘them and us’.  It is self-evident that we are all ‘us’ and there is no ‘them’ other than one that we have drawn in our own minds and painted with our prejudice.  Across the world a storm of intolerance is raging, with people’s basic human rights being eroded on a daily basis – this is why it is so important that London sets an example of support for the Pride movement and opens its arms to everyone without recourse to preconceptions.  Once it is accepted that we are all ‘us’ then everything should change – whether this will happen in my lifetime I remain unsure.

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It was with this in mind that I headed down to Pride in London 2014 to give my support to all of those taking part in what is an essential statement to those areas in the world that are mired in the swamp of intolerance and bigotry.  I would urge everyone to consider doing the same if we are to send a message to the world that prejudice and civilisation are mutually exclusive concepts.

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If you are a budding photographer and want a chance to practise your photography while giving support to this important cause while interacting with some great people you should go along to the next Pride procession in your town.  This was the first time I had tried to photograph the procession using the new Fuji X-T1 and I can confirm for all that it is indeed weather-sealed as I was soaked within minutes of arrival – the camera did not miss a beat.  A few tips for photographing something like this include getting the settings right on the camera up front (I set the default lowest shutter speed to 1/200 to freeze the action and shot all of the shots wide open to reduce the depth of field).

I have posted a gallery of photographs from the day below and wish all of the participants my very best.  If your photo appears here and you would like it to be removed or want a high resolution copy for your own use please let me know and I will oblige.  All photographs taken on a Fuji X-T1 with 55-200mm Fujinon lens.

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