View Full Version : Making lemonade

Struan Gray
8-Oct-2014, 12:50
I've been bowled a googly (look it up) by my genes*, and have been trying to imagine a future which doesn't include large or heavy cameras. Current digiboxes make very nice photographs, but I still hanker for large sheets of film when it comes to subtle colour reproduction. I have always been attracted to LF by tonality rather than resolution, and there has not yet been a digital solution I could ever afford which matched what I see and value in LF film.

This baffles me slightly, as I somehow assumed that everything film does when it records an image could be expressed as a transfer function. This might be non-linear, or involve spatial effects, but I was pretty confident that wide dynamic range capture would allow subsequent processing to get a suitable reproduction. I'm not there yet.

This may just reflect my lack of expertise, but I'm arrogant (and experienced) enough that I don't think that's the real problem. Rather, I think the root cause is the tendency of digital colours to migrate to the corners of their colour space upon almost any manipulation. It is just too easy to saturate channels, or to bump up against the edges of the colour space polygon.

So I'm making lemonade. Trying to find ways of using this effectively. Allowing detail to be lost in areas of saturated colour, in the same way as I routinely allow detail to be lost in areas which I allow to drift out of focus.

Here are three examples.




I don't really want another film vs. digital discussion (not now I've had my say :-) but I would be interested in seeing attempts to use the characteristics of the new medium in a photographic way - that is, to turn bugs into features, and embrace image characteristics that others might regard as problems inherent in digital capture. In my case, that means accepting that blobs of undifferentiated colour can be as expressive in photography as they undoubtedly are in painting or graphic prints, and that being subtle can sometimes involve strong, primary colour.

* I have gout, which sometimes puts me on crutches, but more often has me self-censoring in the hope of avoiding an attack. It's a blow, but my life is pretty good, and there are far worse things to have to work round.

Darin Boville
8-Oct-2014, 13:04
Hey Struan,

Sorry about your genes, but you are exactly right in terms of color photography. Color photography need not lay a claim to being realistic photography--it need not be any closer to reality than black and white photography is. Digital has opened up a wealth of possibilities in color work that were impossible or too difficult before.

It is in many ways a new medium.


8-Oct-2014, 13:45
Color photography ... need not be any closer to reality than black and white photography is.

I know you're talking about day-to-day reality, but worldwide art (literary and visual, recent and ancient) provides overwhelming evidence that color is more representative of transcendent reality than black and white – typically in the symbolic form of flowers and precious stones.

Oren Grad
8-Oct-2014, 13:48
We can (and always do!) have undifferentiated color within gamut, too, to varying degrees depending on the characteristics of the particular CFA and the demosaic algorithm. To my eye, within fairly broad limits, that's usually easier to accept than the eye-popping, posterish flatness you get when breaking through the edges of the gamut. Nothing wrong with it if it suits your esthetic purposes, of course, but it's not what I'm after for mine. I usually prefer pictures to be quiet, not loud.

A side note: this...

>> Rather, I think the root cause is the tendency of digital colours to migrate to the corners of their colour space upon almost any manipulation. It is just too easy to saturate channels, or to bump up against the edges of the colour space polygon. <<

...may be too strong. I can get away with a lot in the larger color spaces. The main trouble is the gamut limitations imposed by the output media, especially sRGB for the web but sometimes I have gamut trouble in printing too.

Finally: orange traffic cones are the work of the gamut-devil!

8-Oct-2014, 13:50
I agree affordable digital hasn't matched the subtleties of MF/LF color film. Nothing wrong with an old rolleiflex loaded with porta160 if you want subtle results and a lighter camera. Your choice of shooting under tame/gray light helps with the subtleties with digital. My D600 is far from abilities of Portra160, but it does a nice job when it's not too contrasty out. I think a Pentax MF digital camera would do better, but I'm not going to spend the $ to find out!

Another thing to do is to have a professional digital photographer you respect review your color management setups too, just to make sure you're using the right options for all that. They usually work cheap.

Richard Johnson
8-Oct-2014, 13:57
Ben Franklin suffered gout too, you're in good company ;-p

Bruce Barlow
8-Oct-2014, 14:18
My photography has improved more in the last three years - after adding digital to film - than it did in the 22 previous years.

I don't know much about color, so am trying to learn. But the improvement to my sense of composition is nearly unbelievable, and my "hit rate" has improved dramatically.

Still love the big negatives, but the digi-stuff is fun, and freeing.

Struan Gray
9-Oct-2014, 00:05
Thanks all, especially for the sympathy. Most people snigger - gout in popular culture is invariably funny (http://www.aardstore.com/*/figurines/Gout-Limited-Edition-150-The-Pirates-Aardman-Figurine-Statue/1A7Z023U000). I laugh myself :-)

Bruce, I think it's good to be perpetually learning. Like learning a foreign language which you rarely get to use in earnest, it teaches you things about yourself and your primary language which are directly applicable. I don't see colour in opposition to black and white, and I think the process I'm now going through is more like a freeing of preconceptions about what a 'good' photograph (or a 'Struan' photograph) should be. I've learned to live with blur, defocus, and – in B+W – graphic tonal scales, so it's interesting to challenge my prejudices when it comes to colour.

Oren: when you talked about lack of discrimination within gamut, did you mean metamerism, or the granuarity of colour space (or both)? I've seen posterisation in secondary and tertiary colours, but usually only in web-based colour spaces. My comment about colour spaces was a condensation of my experience that it is easier to lose subtlety in the secondary and tertiary colours than in the primaries – the triangular shape of a colour space in CIE coordinates ensures that the boundary is closer to the origin (and further from the spectrally pure colours) for oranges, magentas and cyans. The darker versions of those colours include many of my favourites (umber, turquoise, and various slate blues).

Traffic cones are hell. As are many plastics used in children's toys. My primary use of digital is photographing my children's sports. Match colours tend to be primaries, but there is a current fad for teals, oranges, and magenta-ish pinks for practice and warm up clothes which would drive any recording medium mad with frustration. Dark halls with ancient fluorescent lighting and green plastic flooring don't help either. The kids end up looking like they're starring in a psychedelic version of De Stael's footballers (http://www.google.com/images?hl=sv&q=nicholas+de+stael+football).

Anyway, I'd be interested in any other pictorial examples people have of challenging their biases w.r.t. digital, or of aesthetic epiphanies enabled by the use of new tools.

Struan Gray
27-Oct-2014, 04:08
I've always wanted my very own thread.


Traffic control centre, Södertälje

Oren Grad
31-Oct-2014, 21:36
Oren: when you talked about lack of discrimination within gamut, did you mean metamerism, or the granuarity of colour space (or both)?

Metamerism is what I had in mind.

So far no digital lemonade here, alas. The technical and perceptual aspects of that, which I'm still unpacking, might make for an interesting discussion over a drink someday, but for here and now I'll leave it at that. I'm weary of the polemic too.

Down with the uric acid...

David R Munson
31-Oct-2014, 22:19
I've only ever had a quasi-friendly relationship with color in general, but digital has been good to me in this regard. I put color film in a camera maybe three times a year and only then because I have some particularly strong urge. And even then, half of the shots I choose get converted to b&w. But with digital, it's easier for me to fiddle with it, to play and get it just so. Because if I'm going to do color, I'm going to do it my way, which is never the usual way (though it would be easier if it were).


This is from a project I'm working on in Shanghai. It's all digital (Canon 5D Mk II), all in color, and is a major change of pace for me for both of those reasons. I still cling to film cameras much of the time, but I'd be lying if I were to say that digital has been anything other than a freeing thing for me. So I say shoot film as long as you can, in the ways that you can, but don't begrudge digital when it steps in to take up the slack left by big, heavy things that get left at home. The photographic toolbox has never been bigger, so why not play with it?

P.S. I have a bit of gout, too. Nothing near as bad as yours, just enough to make me more stubborn.

Struan Gray
27-May-2015, 02:41

Exploration of colour continues. What works well is areas of artificial colour, so the images I am most happy with are taken in urban environments. The natural world seems resistant to being tamed, and I find myself raging against the default decisions taken by camera engineers, in the same way I used to rage about the default decisions taken by emulsion scientists. Then, you had the option of trying other emulsions. Now, the least bad solution is a RAW workflow and a lot of tedious minor adjustments. I haven't find a catchall way to reach my preferred look, certainly nothing as simple as shooting LF Portra with standard development and scanning.

So I lug the LF when I can, and play with blotches of primary colour when I can't. Old dogs can learn new tricks, if pushed.


The council finally put a convenient bridge over the railway. Once their new offices were on the far side. There's a contemporary trend, or schtick, for coloured glass panels tarting up otherwise boring facades, and Swedish public buildings have embraced it with passion.


We've got some interesting new plantings too.

David: I too value the control over colour digital provides. I never understood the supposed purity of an all-analogue workflow: you have to disregard all the little tricks and wheezes embedded in the emulsion by its designers if you want to sustain that myth. Ironic then, that I have developed such an attachment to the look of an analogue medium, albeit mediated by a scanning step.

Oren: stop by for a chat any time you're passing. Our house is the one with the rampant biodiversity out front :-)

As for the gout. I'm a couple of months into medication - allopurinol - that is supposed to help regulate uric acid levels. The rollercoaster ride of bad attacks has smoothed out, but at a level where I cannot take exercise, and only risk lugging LF on the very best days. On the other hand, I can now play with the kids in ways I couldn't before, in the face of which all photographic concerns seem minor. I count my blessings - anything else seems spoilt and juvenile.

Oren Grad
29-May-2015, 15:59
Struan, thanks for the update - it's always interesting to see what you're working on and thinking about. Hope you can get the gout further under control and gain back a little more maneuvering room.

Bruce Watson
30-May-2015, 06:51
Rather, I think the root cause is the tendency of digital colours to migrate to the corners of their color space upon almost any manipulation. It is just too easy to saturate channels, or to bump up against the edges of the color space polygon.

The German company Arri (cinema cameras, not still cameras) figured out what the problem is. It comes down to digital being RGB (additive), while negative film is CMY (subtractive). Where film reaches maximum saturation in the shadows, digital reaches maximum saturation in the highlights. This is bad for exactly the reasons you have articulated. Arri's answer is to restrict saturation of the highlights at the processing chip level. So even RAW files from Arri cameras have this reduced saturation of the highlights.

The effect is a more film-like response, which people (cinematographers, DOPs, etc.) like so much that the Arri cameras have taken over the markets. The effect on skin tones in particular is remarkable. Arri now dominates in serious cine cameras even though they were very late to market digital cameras. They were late because they were doing the most R&D apparently.

So, here's the lesson, if there is one, from Arri. Build a mask for everything mid-gray (maybe down to 40% gray, I don't remember exactly) and up towards white, and use this mask to desaturate your source image. Arri reduces saturation in the range of 40-50% IIRC. You might want to research this to be sure, and if I run across the source I read this in again, I'll try to post a link.

My theory of operation here is that if you start with more "normally saturated" mid tones and highlights, you'll mitigate the "tendency of digital colors to migrate to the corners of their color space upon almost any manipulation."

Give it a shot. What have you got to lose?

EDIT: Found the link to that article on Arri (http://www.dvinfo.net/article/production/camgear/what-alexa-and-watercolors-have-in-common.html) by Art Adams.

Struan Gray
15-Jun-2015, 08:27
Bruce, thanks very much for the info, and the link, which made for fascinating reading. I have always envied the control over colour that seems to exist in graded movies, and it's useful to get some insight into how they achieve their effects. The scientist in me favours a brute force approach, capturing linear data with a wide gamut and lots of bit-depth, adding any interpretive effects later in post-capture, but I can see how that might use excessive storage for movie use.

In good light I already will often underexpose by a stop or so to preserve highlight colour descrimination, and it is interesting to see Arri keeping the lid on saturation from mid-grey upwards - which makes them even more conservative than I am. In bad light it's a toss-up between ugly highlight colour and noisy shadows. On 4x5 Portra, I enjoy taking long exposures in twilight and then bumping them back up to daylight equivalent brightness after scanning, but none of the digital machines I have used make that a pleasurable process.

On the other hand, digital does have lovely glossy blacks and detailed shadows. Film can't win them all.


Scabious, sorrel, bedstraw

This photo has caused me endless grief, particularly once when the conversion to CYMK for printing in included. The red stems of the sorrel can end up all over the colour map, depending on how you go about nudging the bedstraw flowers towards tintless white. True, the lighting included a great deal of blue skylight, and down in the undergrowth there were heavy green casts from all the foliage, but sheet film Portra would handle this with ease, even with a scan step before digital printing.

This, on the other hand, would never look as good on film. At least, not when taken by me.


Tadpoles in the retting pond. Attared sawmill


15-Jun-2015, 12:46
Sweet jesus, Struan, the second image in the opening post is Freaking amazing.

Struan Gray
15-Jun-2015, 13:36
Thanks Natenaaron. Taken at a very special place in Coigach, Northwest Scotland - a perfect storm of interesting geology, flora, birds and wildlife. The scene is weird enough when the dock stalks are new and bright green, but it just gets odder as summer progresses and the docks turn red.

Struan Gray
1-Mar-2016, 15:26
Update. Still feel like I'm shouting, but at least I'm shouting things I want to say.


PS: Gout sort of under control. Carrying big cameras not impossible, but risks putting me on crutches for two weeks. Normal life livable, its the fun extras I'm having to self-censor on. First world problem.

10-Mar-2016, 12:47

Do you have a version of Stockholm_Typology that does not use Adobe Flash? I have uninstalled Flash because it is such a malware magnet, and I refuse to re-install. I find your earlier images impressive and would like to be able to see your latest.


Struan Gray
10-Mar-2016, 13:21

Thanks for the kind words Bob. I'm hampered by the need to keep some legacy software running, so I'm on a machine and OS that can't run the updated, Flash free gallery generators. For this kind of thinking out loud, it works well enough, although I get increasing numbers of complaints from people who only use iOS devices.

When I figure out what I'm doing, I'll settle into some 'real' galleries. I'm at a stage where I can see a consistency of presentation and composition, but the thematic material is all over the place, so it ends up looking like one of those enthusiast's galleries organised by the camera used, rather than a coherent photographic project.

Working title is 'Adult Colouring Book'. It probably sounds like I'm over thinking, but I'm actually having a lot of fun. Just trying to avoid the worst colour cliches. And ('Hello moderators!') Using a lot of my LF experience to create a 'look', even it's not obviously LF-ish.


Struan Gray
23-Oct-2016, 02:34
An update. Still using LF, but not really enough to put together coherent sets of images. I'm starting to feel at home with DSLR colour, although every now and then I'll try to take an image that needs LF portrait film to work, and then I remember what I'm missing. My gout treatment is working, if not perfectly, but this summer hiking with the kids took precedence over lugging camera gear.

New galleries on the website: http://struangray.com/photo.htm

Thinking out loud, flirting with mainstream nature work: http://struangray.com/lovelypictures

Ed Richards
23-Oct-2016, 06:32
Might be interesting to try a Foveon sensor camera, if you could borrow or rent one. Still additive RGB, but with actual layers for each color like slide film. It could have a more realistic gamut.

23-Oct-2016, 07:45
I've recently discovered the X-Rite Color Checker Passport. Using this form of color management for digital has allowed me to nail colors even in very tricky light.
"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

Kent in SD

Struan Gray
23-Oct-2016, 11:59
Ed, the Foveon sensors are intriguing, but any digital camera I invest in also needs to be able to photograph my kids sporting activities, and there a DSLR has distinct advantages. The Sigma cameras (and Fujis) seem less extreme in their pursuit of 'punch' and contrast, but they're still channelling a slide film legacy rather than my favourite portrait neg films.

Kent. I've played with various forms of colour calibration. You are still limited by the choice of colour filters for the Bayer array (or the progressive absorbances in Foveon sensors), and they are chosen with a given aesthetic in mind. The saving grace is high signal-to-noise, which is why my preferred digicams would be the high end Nikon DSLRs and digital medium format, none of which are affordable.

I'm not complaining (much :-). I'm a tinkerer at heart, and will find a way to make any tool work for me, if I have to. I've been enjoying looking at different things and working in different ways. I miss movements from LF more than the wealth of detail, or even the colour, but it's more important to be active than perfect.