Monday, 17 November 2014

10 shades of grey - A book review

The Trent in flood. The kind of photo I hope to do better

I don't remember where I first came across Julia Anna Gospodarou and Joel Tjintjelaar's work, but something about it definitely piqued my interest. As always it is difficult to quantify why a particular piece of art catches your eye, but the use of long exposure was probably part of the reason. One of the things that has always fascinated me is how photography can play with the way time is represented and perceived.

If you set the shutter speed short, you capture the fleeting instant of an image, in a way that would be impossible to discern with the naked eye. On the other hand, use a long exposure and all those quantum instants blur into one, to create a totally different photo; a summation of all the instants, resulting in the smoothing of the dynamic elemants, and the highlighting of the static, non-variable objects.

Maybe its the ex-physicist in me, but I like the idea that each photo can be thought of as a unique recording of a single point in space and time and one that can never be repeated. This is something I find both fascinating and humbling (or just as an excuse for lousy photos. "Hey, I know it's not great, but it is unique"). It is one of the reasons that I am drawn to (re)photography with the concept of taking two photos separated  not by distance, but by the 4th dimension (also talking like this is why people tend to edge away from me at aprties :))

The technique of using a high end ND filter on the end of the camera, placing the camera on a tripod and taking long exposures to smooth out clouds and water is not a new technique. However Julia and Joel's photo's have an extra wow factor. Their photo's result in images that seemed to transcend normal architectural pictures, producing images that would not look out of place in some 1930's utopian science fiction novel.

The photos are often composed to show strong geometric or symmetrical forms. Seeing and taking such shapes has always been somewhat challenging for me. I struggle to separate such shapes from the surrounding clutter. The ability to see, compose and take such images is an area I have always wanted to improve in my photography.

So when I saw they had written a book out I knew I had to get it ( even though £40 is expensive for a book, and even more for a e-book, ),

This is my review of that book   

En)visionography-From Basics To Fine Art – B&W Photography – Architecture & Beyond

Rule 7. Be Different, Be original, be personal

The first part of the book is the setting out the authors vision and philosophy.

Julia has termed her photography as "(en)visionography" which she defines as follows

"The process of using reality as a tool for 
translating one's inner self and representation 
of the world into an art object that can make 
others react and feel emotion"

This is based on the concept that what we produce today is not the simple taking of an image as in the photography of yesteryear, but is now only part of a much longer process towards realising our final vision of our image. Today the raw image is further finessed through tools such as Photoshop which takes as much time and effort as the actual taking of the photo. The picture itself is just the raw materials.

However the important part of this process is having the clear vision of what you want the photo to show and a plan on how you wish to get there.

Julia sets out 35 rules which she feels will help anyone achieve their vision. The rules are not so much technical, but more a personal philosophy on how to achieve your own style. This is a theme that Julia revisits regularly throughout the book and it is clear the she has given a lot of thought about her own motivations.

It is hard to argue with any of the rules, and some certainly hit a chord with me. For example rule 21 is "Try to be unconventional, even if you are not accepted". This matches much of how I feel that a photograph should provide a unique viewpoint of the world and should not simple be a copy of similar work.

The next chapter is a master class on composition. Like I have mentioned before, composition is an area that I feel I struggle at, and Julia gives great advice on ideas of how to approach composing an image. It is here that her artistic and architectural background shows through, with advice such as taking inspiration from the great masters of art such as Vermeer.

In truth though, good composition is one of those skills that cannot be easily be taught, but only gained through trial and error. Also it is easy to get too analytically about composition rules. For example a photographer told me once that when taking pictures of buildings, one building line should always be parallel to the pictures edge. However that is a rule that Joel's and Julia's pictures often break to no apparent detriment. This brings us to the last "rule" about composition that is once you have learned the rules of composition, you should then learn when to break them.

The following chapter concerns the use of light and is equally illuminating (sic). Since the authors work is in generally in black and white (more accurately in tones of grey), it is essential to understand how light affects the subject and how these can be manipulated to produce the image.

This is where Julia introduces the concept of photography drawing. This is thinking in a visual rather than a literal way when approaching a subject. Julia's approach is very akin to the approach an artist would make when sketching a subject, using shading to create form rather than relying purely on the lines to create the form. Unfortunately since my drawing abilities are virtually nil, this kind of approach will always be a challenge. However it is interesting to see the parallels between photography and drawing, especially in the use of the different tones.

Again the chapter completes with a number of rules for photography drawing such as "show space and volume, not only space" and the steps to get from your raw picture to your vision.

To help achieve "photography drawing", Julia describes how to utilise the tonal range. This is based on a system used by the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams and shows how a black and white image is broken down in a set of tones, Joel expands on this with the "rule of grays" which allow us to separate components of the image based on tonal grays and the manipulate these to create the final image. This is a useful chapter if not least because it is one of the few which provide a practical demonstration of creating an image.

Rule 30. Do not rely on your gear or software to do more than it is supposed to do: Be a tool

In Chapter 13 Julia suggests possible areas of architecture which will make interesting subjects and follows this with suggestions on how to shoot architectural details and some general principles on camera settings.

It is here where we start getting into descriptions of the various pieces of photography equipment required. The truth is much of the kit specified is not cheap, and it would of been useful if their had been more acceptance that some of this kit is out of the price range of many amateur and hobbiest photographers. There is also a long description on the physics and use of tilt shift lens. While interesting, this is not a lens you are likely to have in your bag unless you intend to make a career taking photos of buildings.

By chapter 19 we get back to the concept of building photography as an art, by looking at abstract photography with some good advice about finding new angles by tilting the camera so to represent buildings in new and interesting ways.

The next chapters look at different types of architectural photography such as skyline, night and street photography, together with the different issues and techniques of each. Finally we get a chapter on classic or realistic photography which is more designed to cater for those who wish to make a living from traditional building or real estate photography.

In Chapter 24 they touch on HDR photography, which is a subject that is widely used (and abused) today. There was also the mention of EF (Exposure fusion) photography although I felt the book did not really describe the differences between EF and HDR and how the former is achieved.

Finally their is a look at Infra red photography. I must admit I have a yearning to try this sort of image making, but the cost of getting a camera converted makes it difficult to justify (as an aside, I wonder whether Sony DSLR's would be great for this work with their translucent mirror technology allowing the equivalent of continuous live view)

Rule 16: Slow down when photographing a place (The Art of Long Exposures)

Chapter 26 is where we get into long exposure photography.  There is a lot of good advice on the long exposure technique and how to go about calculating the correct exposure. While little was new, it was well described and explained.

One of the things I realised after reading this chapter was that one of my problems with such long exposure photography was that my ND filter is just not dark enough. Up to now I had been using a ND10 filter (actually it was a bit of welding glass stuck to a filter ring, but that's another story), when really I needed to go to ND13 or even ND16 to achieve the kind of results I wanted. Joel also introduces the 5MF8 rule which is basically that you should aim for an exposure time of 5 minutes and a aperture of F8. In order to achieve this you needed enough ND filters to achieve the necessary reduction in overall exposure.

Julia's final chapter goes back to her artistic philosophy, where she discusses the need to create the perfect vision of what she feels is beauty by using all the tools at your disposal. She discusses her workflow when she approaches a subject and the steps she goes through to get to the perfect picture.

Finally Joel discusses processing in Photoshop using what he terms iterative select gradient masks. or iSGM. This is the process of selecting various element of the photo and applying gradient mask on these to naturally merge the objects by introducing smooth transitions between the various gray tones.

(There is also a chapter on pricing for professional photographers which for obvious reasons held little interest for me)


So how did I feel about this book? Did it meet my expectations?

I must admit I balked at the price. £40 is a lot for a book that you cannot physically hold in your hands, and I must admit that I am still old school enough to feel that e-books are a poor substitute of books that you can hold and cherish in your hands.

Hopefully one day they will get around to producing a dead tree version. However I am sure a book of this size (423 pages), containing so many high definition images would cost far more if on paper, so maybe I am being a little churlish here.

Putting aside the issue of cost, the real question was whether this book met my expectations and whether it will help me to become a better photographer?

When I read the book for the first time, I did find myself getting a bit irritated about t the books emphasis on the requirements for high end photographic equipment (As stated in this blog, my philosophy is that photography should not be limited to only those who can afford the best equipment). Reading through the book again I realized that I was being harsh here and actually there is lot advice for those of us on more limited budgets.

For example they fully accept that a tilt-shift lens is an expensive and specialist piece of kit. If this is an area of photography that you wish to make into a full time career, then it is a must have lens. For us occasional amateurs however, it is at the end of a long list of equipment that we may one day get, but not a priority. I must also say that the photos I found best were ones which did not require such a specialist lens

(To go totally off topic, one photo hobby I have had over the years is (re)photography - taking the same image from the same viewpoint many years apart and super-imposing one on another. I used to get very frustrated that I could never match some photos up, till I realised later that many of the originals were made using the old view cameras whose flexible canvas design allowed the photographer to basically tilt-shift the camera, so distorting the produced image from the actual scene)

However I would of liked to have seen more of concession for those of us who cannot as yet aspire to the best the photographic world has to offer. For example, I am sure the Formatt HiTech ND filters are the best available , but their price also reflect this. What they did not explain however, was why the fact that cheaper ND filters can introduce a red colour cast to the final image will affect the final photos, when in the end they are destined to become black and white images? Similarly while the Topaz B&W plugins no doubt make the process easier,  I would of liked a discussion on alternative techniques such as luminescence masks.

My other criticism of the book is that although there is a plethora of detail on the thought processes and techniques used to create their images, it is left up to you to bring all the pieces together. I felt that a worked example describing work flow from choosing your subject to the final processed image would of been a useful addition to the book and help create a common thread throughout the book.

However these are relatively minor criticisms when offset by the book strengths. For example the chapters on the use of light and composition techniques are worth the price of the book in themselves. I see myself re-visiting these chapters often for inspiration

Of course one of the problems with a book on architectural photography is where to find the subjects. If you live in one of the worlds major metropolis, this should not be a problem. For those of us who are not so lucky(?) we have to be more imaginative when locating subjects, Saying that, there is no reason why many of the same techniques would not equally apply to other forms of photography such as landscapes.

So in summary, how you feel about this book will probably depend on your attitude to photography as art. While the book contains some technical information and process descriptions a large amount of the book is taken up with discussions on the philosophy and motivations of photography and (en)visionography is general. If your interest is purely in the technical side of taking photographs there maybe better books for you. Personally I found the artistic element fascinating and and invaluable.

It is great to read a photography book where the artists describe not only the technical operations, but also their motivations and philosophy that drive them. In the end these are the elements that shine through the pages

This is a book that I am sure I will re-read many times and is a must for anyone interested in improving their architectural or landscape photography. 

The Book

(En)visionography-From Basics To Fine Art

Number of pages 424
By Julia Anna Gospodarou and Joel Tjintjelaar


Book Download Links -
 Julia Anna Gospodarou blog -
Joel Tjintjelaar website -
(en)visionography facebook page -

1 comment:

  1. enVisionography is - in truth - an intelligent updating of the centuries old principle of mimesis or 'making', taking a closer look at the mechanism behind hermeneutics (the mechanism behind how we understand), and putting that new understanding, that new vision into something made or created - the photograph. Its an excellent and timely book.