Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's nice to be home!

It's been a while since I've written anything -- work has a habit of getting in the way of fun.
I've been giving a lot thought to the direction -- especially in terms of equipment -- that I want to follow photographically.
In future, the bulk of my work will once again be shot on good old film. A few factors have influenced my decision.
Chief amongst these is the fact that Nikon has become like Nokia with a propensity to seemingly launch five new models per month! The camera you buy this week could well be outdated next week!
I know the camera will still do the job perfectly but it becomes uncomfortable when you arrive at a job and see the bridegroom has a "later and greater" digital camera than you. The fact he knows only how to put it in "program" mode and uses it as nothing more than a fancy point-and-shoot, matters not. You still have to field questions about why you're not using the new D-whatever.


I recently had canvas prints A2-size made from images I shot with the 6 mega-pixel D40. They are magnificent and the size was limited only because of the processing power of my computer. On a more powerful machine I could easily produce extreme-quality A0s. Yet, I still get told: "my cellphone has an 8Mp camera and, as such, I should consider using something more up-to-date than my ancient, 15 month-old camera.
It's a treadmill to nowhere. The fact is you'll always be chasing new technology with useless, unwanted features, that have have only one purpose -- to fleece you financially. Face-recognition and built-in video capability are two cases in point. How did we ever manage without that before?!
In future I will be using the digital camera primarily as a sort of Polaroid. Kinda like in the old days where we used Polaroid backs to check exposures, lighting, shadows etc and then switched to a film back.
Using film gives me an element of uniqueness in a clutter of digital sameness. It also keeps me at the cutting-edge of scanning technology. When my lab scans my film today, it is with the latest, state-of-the-art scanning equipment. In ten years-time their current scanning equipment will not doubt have been replaced by what will then be the state-of-the-art technology and my present negatives will be able to be scanned at that level.

Nikon F3

The digital image files I now have are as good as they're going to get and, if recent history is anything to go by, I probably won't be able to open those files.
With this in mind, yesterday, I took a trip to Johan at Kameraz and, after a bit of horse-trading, walked out with a Nikon F3 fitted with an MD4 motordrive.
The F3 was (is) the greatest pro 35 mm camera ever produced and I am by no means alone in that belief -- do a Google search and you'll see why so many feel that way.
It is built like a tank and, that is no idle statement. In the mid 80s a friend and colleague, well-known in press circles but who shall remain nameless here, killed a car thief when he buried his F3 and lens into the top of the criminal's head. The blood and other goo was simply washed off and the camera continued to function perfectly.
When I picked up the F3 yesterday, it was like coming home to an old friend. It has everything you need and absolutely nothing more. It's the ultimate photo-making machine where, you, rather than the camera, are in charge. There is nothing to get in the way of the process -- no decision to make about which of the 11 focus-points the camera wants to use, no poncing about trying to figure what program mode is best, or if the matrix-metering requires compensation to balance with the i-TTL flash.
Then there is no processing in RAW or NEF or whatever before you can start working on the image and no need to shoot multiple images so you can produce an HDR image because your digital camera lacks the dynamic range of flm.
You want automatic functions on the F3? Simply turn the dial on the top to "A". Choose the aperture that best suits the depth-of-field you want, rotate the ring on the lens to that aperture setting (no thumb-wheels here!), focus, compose and shoot.
No computer algorithms to take into account. No custom settings buried in the depths of a menu. Just pure, unadulterated photographic purity and joy.
It's nice to be home!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Abandoned Canons and processing film in coffee.

Rolleiflex - developed in Rodinal

Contaflex - developed in Rodinal

Contaflex -- developed in Caffenol

Contaflex -- developed in Rodinal

Contaflex -- developed in Caffenol

Contaflex -- developed in Caffenol

The Canon is gone! I ran a roll of film through it and was really disappointed with the results.
Even at apertures of around f11 the pictures are soft. They have no bite.
So that was it, it had to go back. I traded it in on a Nikon F80 that has given much better results.
I also put a roll of film through the Zeiss Contaflex and am happy with the images produced. They have that kind of old Tessar look about them that is reminiscent of those produced by cameras of its era. It's definitely a keeper and when I get 'round to it I will do a head-to-head test, putting it up against the Kodak Retina. It'll be interesting to see how the Zeiss lens shapes up against the Schneider - Kreuznach on the Kodak.
I developed two rolls of Ilford FP4+ shot with the Contaflex, the same subject was shot in pretty much the same light. The difference was, one roll was developed in Rodinal (about 20 years old but still perfect) and the other in a mixture of coffee and washing soda generally called Caffenol.
(If anyone wants specific mixtures, times, methods, etc that I used, drop me a line and I'll let you have them.)
I have only ever read about Caffenol so this was a first for me. I don't think I'll be dumping my regular developer but I really do like the effects created by the Caffenol and certainly can see some application for it.
Finally, the lead picture in this post was shot with a Rolleiflex. It's of an old, abandoned mine not too far from where I live. There's no doubt, there's no substitute for negative size!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

It was Christmas and my birthday this week!

A few years ago, I figured I'd learn to play the guitar and my wife bought me one for my birthday.
I quickly established that, when it comes to music, I have absolutely no talent or aptitude. About the only instrument I have any hope of playing successfully, is a portable radio!
It was with this in mind that I was delighted when, last week someone offered to buy the guitar from me at the price originally paid for it. I jumped at the offer and, with R1000 (about US$120) in my pocket, immediately set out to purchase something more useful -- a classic camera or two.
What a week it turned out to be -- like Christmas and two birthdays all rolled into one.

Spoiled for choice

At a Johannesburg camera store I was spoiled for choice. I fondled a Pentax SP SLR with a clip-on light meter, drooled over a couple of beautiful Minolta SRTs and considered another, high-quality Nikkormat.
But then I saw it, and it was love at first sight. An absolutely, like-new, seemingly never-used, Canon FTb QL with a 55mm f1.2 lens. At R350, including the original owner's manual, there was no way I was leaving without it. Heck, I would have paid three times that and still believed it a bargain!
But it didn't end there. I added a 28mm f2.8 Hervic Zivnon lens, still in its leather case and with a lens hood, for R50, a beautiful Kodalux, all metal light meter that slides into a camera hot-shoe and that can take both reflected and incident light readings for R35 and a Gossen Sixon light meter, complete with leather case for R40. Both light meters are as accurate as my digital meter and accordingly, I am delighted.
I also bought what looked like a perfectly-working Gossen Pilot (what can I say, I like light meters) but wasn't. I don't know if I'll bother to get it repaired and will probably just use it as a teaching aid.
I don't know anything about the Hervic Zivnon lens and can't find much about the brand on the Internet. It's made in Japan, appears to be all-metal and seems to be well-made. I have no idea of the quality of the images it will produce, as I have not yet used it but will post results and impressions in due course.


Two days later Johan from Kameraz -- who knows my fondness for classic German cameras -- called to tell me he had a pristine Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super that was mine if I was prepared to part with R250 -- more or less what I had left over from the proceeds of the guitar sale.
I quickly high-tailed it over to his Rosebank shop and, after a couple of cups of coffee, departed with another, rescued, classic, film, camera.
It is in beautiful condition, apart from a few flecks on the mirror -- as is the case with my Kodak Retina SLR -- that have absolutely no effect on the final image.
The Contaflex is like handling a piece of jewelry and I am looking forward to running a roll of film through it. Once I get 'round to doing so I will post the results and a "review" of the camera but first want to put the Canon through its paces.
Which explains why there are no pictures accompanying this post. Right now, I am having so much fun shooting the 39 year-old Canon that I don't feel like firing up the digital Nikon to shoot pics of the new additions. Maybe on the weekend.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What a difference a lab makes!

Earlier this week I had a roll of Fuji Superia 400 ASA film developed. It was shot with my 53 year-old Kodak Retina SLR. You can read the background story behind the camera here.
To put it mildly, I was absolutely blown away. The f2 Schneider-Kreuznach lens did a phenomenal job of extracting detail in the images. In my initial article I said I was somewhat disappointed and that the lens could not hold a candle to my Nikon glass. It seemed a bit soft.
I have now completely changed my opinion. What has changed? Why the sudden improvement? I believe the reason for my initial view was largely the result of the output of the lab I used to process and scan the film.
This week's roll of film was processed by a different lab and the improved quality is astounding. The two images displayed here are a fair representation of the other pictures on the roll. Exposure for all images was set manually, using the camera's built-in selenium exposure meter, with the white incident disk clipped in place.

This allowed me to measure the light falling onto the subject, rather than the light being reflected by it. It is, without doubt, the most accurate way of determining exposure. Click here to read about taking incident meter readings.
I am loving this old camera. I would imagine I'd get the same feeling driving a '54 Gull Wing Mercedes!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

About to dump M$ WindoZe once and for all!

A few years ago I dumped Windows and loaded Linux on my PC. I was sick of the hassles that accompany a Micro$oft WindoZe system -- the blue screen of death, pouring money into an endless pit called anti-virus software and its updates and the once a year (in a good year that is) obligatory computer crash, hard disk reformat and complete reinstall.
I loved Linux. It just worked. Plain and simple. I used it and spent my time accomplishing what I wanted rather than fart-arsing with crappy software. There were some programmes I missed, primarily Photoshop, but I managed with the earlier versions with Gimp and, in any case, only needed to do a bit of tweaking of my images.
Then I replaced my PC with a laptop and signed up for a data package with a mobile phone provider. The laptop came loaded with Windows XP and my new provider emphatically told me I would not be able to use Linux to connect to the internet on their network.
I sighed, shrugged my shoulders and accepted I'd once again have to make do with an inferior system.
Two years later, after much frustration, the removal of countless viruses -- despite having two, up-to-date anti-virus packages installed -- I'd had enough. In spades.
I wanted the freedom of Linux again but at the same time was afaraid, if I dumped Windows, I would not be able to access the Internet and may have problems getting my computer recognise my camera, printers and other peripherals.

Burning bridges

I wanted to dip my toes in the Linux waters again, without completely burning my bridges.
The solution was remarkably simple. I bought a Linux magazine that came with a free DVD containing a new version of Mint Linux. I believe it is based on Ubuntu which in turn is built on Debian. The beauty was, I could run it off the DVD without having to install it on my computer. That way I could test it completely before making any drastic changes.
To cut a long story short, running off the DVD, Mint Linux recognised all my hardware and seamlessly connected to my service provider's mobile network. I could even read files created in WindoZe!
There was no doubt. It was going to be installed but I still wanted a safety net, (is that not an oxymoron when talking about Windows?) so I decided to set up a dual-boot system where I could choose to run either Linux or Windows.
My new Linux distribution was up and running in about 20 minutes and was a completely automatic, painless and simple procedure that anyone can do.
For those who are not familiar with Linux, the beauty of it is it's not just an operating system but comes with thousands of absolutely free software packages. If you want an office suite, for example, there are three or four different suites to choose from and, because they are all free and available at the click of a mouse, you can try them all and see which you prefer.
Along with all the other bundled software, my Linux distro, included GIMP 2.6, Linux's equivalent of Photoshop. It's a wonderful programme that, as far as I am concerned, is the equal of Adobe's product -- with one major exception, the price! (Search my blog for a GIMP photographic tutorial.)
It's now been almost a month since I installed Mint Linux. I have since not booted Windows once, nor have I missed it. I also have not had a single crash, frozen screen or forced reboot. And, in addition, I have used 50% less data, by not having to download Windows updates, security patches or anti-virus updates.
I think the time has come to dump Microsoft once and for all!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What an amazing weekend it was!

The Delegates and our hostess, Rina (front row,3rd from the left)

Pic by Dani

It's been a while since my last blog entry mainly because I've been busy with work that pays (some of!) the bills and also because Joy and I were feverishly getting the first photographic breakaway weekend organised.
And what a rousing success it turned out to be!
Delegates arrived at Fountain Villa in Klerksdorp at around 17h00 on Friday evening.

Pic by Freek

After settling in and enjoying a gin and tonic, we commenced proceedings in the Gallery where we sat on genuine oriental hand-knotted rugs and antique Balinese furniture. It was a time to get acquainted and I gave the delegates a lesson on the "Golden Pyramid of Exposure". (Search this blog for a post about that.) It was new to all of them. These were all "auto" shooters who'd never heard of "aperture", "shutter speed" or "ISO".
Dinner was in the restaurant, the oldest building in what was once the old Transvaal and one of the original 12 Voortrekker houses built in 1837. Our hostess, Rina, prepared a meal few will soon forget -- four legs of lamb roasted at a low heat for 24 hours.
Much wine was consumed and it turned out to be a late night. Fortunately no one
wanted to get up to photograph the rising sun so, after breakfast and a lecture on composition and other photographic tricks of the trade, I issued each person with an assignment-sheet containing ten subjects, of which five had to be chosen and interpreted in whatever way the delegate chose. Topics included, portraiture, photo-journalism, lines, textures, nostalgia, natural beauty and self-portraits.

Pic by Douw


Then we set off for the old Boer War and concentration camp cemetery.
The place is run down and the graves vandalised but it makes for creating haunting and disturbing images.
It was interesting to see how people saw and photographed things differently, despite all being in the same environment. We spent a fair bit of time there then returned to Fountain Villa where delegates were free to wander around and photograph both inside and outside the 104 year-old house.
It was incredible to see how many were now manually setting their cameras and by doing so able to achieve the results they visualised. They were "making" rather than "taking" pictures!

Pic by Maggie

Judging and prize-giving took place in the gallery before dinner and proved to be more difficult than I'd anticipated. Each photographer had to choose and submit their five best images which were loaded onto a laptop for general display.
The standard of images was truly amazing and it was hard to get my head around the fact that, just 24 hours ago, all many of the delegates knew, was how to turn the camera on.
Photographs were judged and scored by other members of the group.
Over a chicken curry dinner that had some returning for three helpings -- you know who you are!-- prizes were handed out and another late, wine-filled evening ensued.
It was a blast and we're already busy planning the next photographic breakaway. Interest has been shown in a trip to Namibia and that is something definitely being considered.
I've posted examples of some of the images made during the breakaway and will load the rest on my website just as soon as I get the chance. Once done I will add a link here.


Pic by Marcelle

If you are interested in joining a photographic breakaway please click the link on the side panel.

Pic by Marieta

Pic by Nicolette

Pic by Ria

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Flowers don't carry batons!

I guess it’s a world-wide phenomenon, as I read many similar complaints on photographic websites and bulletin boards.
As a result of paranoia, imagined terrorist threats and a just plain and simple, hard-assed attitude, practising street photography is becoming increasingly difficult and in many cases, impossible.
In most South African cities there is effectively no street life -- it has all moved inside privately-owned shopping malls and that is where the problem arises.
Last week while wandering around the Sandton City shopping mall, I stopped to take a shot of lunchtime office workers sitting in the food plaza watching a soccer match on a giant screen.
It was a simple picture showing a slice of South African life that may be interesting to look back on in a couple of years.

Within moments of raising the camera and firing off the shot two security guards descended upon me.
“Where’s your permission?” they demanded. “You can’t take pictures here. It’s private property.”
They huffed and puffed, threatened to call the manager and generally displayed the attitude exhibited by lower-end life forms when they have some authority.
Naturally I ignored them and left.
A few days later I went to the Rosebank Mall, not too far from Sandton City. I had with me my Kodak Retina and stopped to photograph a mime in an open square through which dozens of people were passing.
You guessed it! Within a minute I was accosted by a security guard who called the manager, who arrived so quickly I am sure he was convinced he’d caught an international mime-spy!
Same story, same demands while, at the same time, two other passersby continued to snap away with their cellphone cameras.

I fail to see the logic of the policies of the centre-owners. The fact is, I was not trying to sneak in and photograph something hidden away, beyond the eyes of the public. All was in full view, openly displayed and intended to be seen.
The manager muttered something about “combating industrial espionage” before I left.
I shot the images on film and I have not yet had them developed. I doubt they will be anything more than a mildly interesting record of a moment in time. But the incidents got me thinking, is it worth the hassles?
Probably not. For me, photography is not a contact sport and, as a former press photographer, I paid my dues as, on many occasions, I was harassed by jack-booted authorities.
I’m too old to put up with that kind of crap now.
So it was with that in mind that I decided, for the time being, to follow a different route in photography. My plan now is to find and photograph beauty surrounding us that we do not always see.

Searching for beauty

I am fortunate to live on a small farm and at this time of year some very attractive wild-flowers bloom in the veld. They are not something I have ever photographed before, in truth, I have always walked past and hardly glanced at them.

But, for the past few evenings, about an hour before sunset, I have spent some very pleasant times searching for splashes of colour in otherwise dreary surroundings.
Some of the images I captured were shot on Fuji 400 colour negative film, the others were taken with a Nikon D40 but in all cases, either a prime 50mm f2 or a 105mm f2.5 Nikkor lens was used. This allowed me to shoot wide open (in some cases I used a 2x neutral density filter) and end up with wonderful, creamy bokeh.
In truth, I prefer the shots taken on film. Though more grainy, I think they have a painterly quality about them that is absent in the digital images.
(Image 1: digital, Image 2 & 3: film, Image 4: digital, Image 5: film, Image 6: digital)
For once, it was nice not to look over my shoulder for a baton-carrying goon!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

10 steps to winning camera club competitions.

1. Throw originality out of the window. Judges love pictures of wild animals. Birds are also particularly popular, especially masked weavers. Photograph them hanging upside down at a nest. Look at what other people are doing and DO EXACTLY THE SAME!
2. Go on club shoots, take a big lens, set your camera on “auto” and shoot the same animal from the same position as everyone else. As long as your camera’s software algorithms correctly expose the image, the camera’s auto focus function is working properly and the subject is located on diagonals or thirds in the frame, you will win a gold.
3. The guy with the most Photoshop filters wins. Add motion blur, wind-shear, neon edges or any other combination of filters and effects to crappy pictures. Judges love that. They think its creative.
4. Shoot pictures of lonely trees on top of hills against over-saturated skies. Better yet, replace the sky with a painted-in unnatural blue.
5. Desert scenes are also a favourite. Study the picture submitted by a thousand other photographers and DO EXACTLY THE SAME.
6. Always paint highlights into subjects’ eyes, even if the light-source is located in such a way that the highlight defies the laws of physics. Remember, judges don’t care about such things, they want highlights!
7. Bugs are big. Insects may be uninteresting but they’re big with judges.
8. Saturate, saturate, saturate. Judges are fascinated by bright things...saturate.
9. Never use a fish-eye lens. Judges don’t know what it is and are frightened by anything unusual.
10. Stay away from the “photo journalism” categories. Photo journalism shows backgrounds in order to establish context. Judges don’t understand that. They will tell you they are marking the image down because it has a “busy” background. Rather stick to safe categories like birds and animals.

  • Judges look for what is wrong, rather than what is right.
  • They don’t look at the actual image, preferring rather to focus on accepted “rules”. Therefore, follow the rules, dammit!
  • Always use fill-flash so that your pictures look like everyone else’s.

Read this hilarious brilliant satire on how famous photographers would be judged on the internet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Expensive disposable cameras.

Ken Rockwell has a way of riling people.
I first started reading his writings about three years ago when his site, turned up in an internet search.
The Californian is opinionated, shamelessly self-promoting and has a tendency to present himself as a scientist, “real photographer” and latter-day sage and philosopher.
He likes to pepper his articles with scientific terms and jargon.
But for all of that, I like him. Rockwell calls a spade a shovel -- even when it’s sometimes a rake.
Over the years that I’ve visited his site I have seen his tone and almost blind worship of the merits of, particularly Nikon, digital cameras change and watched his enthusiasm wane.
It was therefore not all that surprising when Rockwell called Nikon’s latest flagship camera, the D3X “disposable.”
This 24.5 megapixel machine boasts more options, buttons and software than was used to put Apollo 11 on the moon. It also comes -- without a lens -- with an approximate R100 000 (US$10 000 approximately) price tag. There is a comprehensive article about it here.


The fact is, Rockwell has got it right this time. All digital cameras are in effect disposable, much like computers. The 10 year-old, top-of-the-line digital SLR that cost a similar price back then, is today, pretty well worthless.
Every time a new generation of DSLRs arrives it invariably has a different version of RAW that is not backwardly compatible with the previous firmware version. And, while it is true, software vendors like Adobe quickly introduce new editions of Photoshop that are able to handle the format, it is yet another expense.
It is a fallacy that digital is cheaper than analogue. Right now, a roll of Fuji colour film costs me about R13 when I buy it in a pack of three. Developing costs around R25 and a 16-base scan of a roll of 36 exposures comes in at around R25. That is a total of R63 or R1.75 per image.
“Ah,” I hear you say, “But you still have to buy Photoshop.”
No you don’t. There are plenty of free alternatives that do the job of photo-manipulation and re-touching just as well and I could just as easily do the necessary adjustments on the lab’s computer.
The truth is, I hate sitting behind a monitor sorting through hundreds of digital images. When I shoot film stock, I shoot fewer images and the computer work is so negligible it takes only a few seconds per image.
But what about quality?
Nikon’s new wonder camera is the first DSLR to have a sensor that is...wait for it...exactly the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
There are differing opinions on what resolution 35mm film is capable of capturing, ranging from 15 to 25 megapixels. I don’t know, I just know it’s enough. I also know film has a higher dynamic range and can capture more detail, particularly in the highlights.
Let me lay my cards on the table and say right here: I am not anti-digital in any way. I recognise, the convenience, the superb image quality and all the other advantages.
I guess, like Rockwell, I am trying to say the prices charged for an item likely to become obsolete in just a few years, are ludicrous.

Screwing us

The camera manufacturers are screwing us. There is no way on earth the Nikon D3X -- and the equivalents from the other manufacturers -- is worth R100 000, or even R30 000 for that matter!
Consider this. A new analogue, Leica system will probably come in at about R50 000 (still way over-priced) but it will still happily be taking quality pictures 50 years from now, long after the current crop of digital cameras is just a footnote in history.
And, if history is anything to go by, the Leica will sell secondhand for the price it was bought new, effectively making it free.
Digital camera makers have done a wonderful job convincing us that, after the initial investment in equipment, our picture-taking is free.
The world is littered with similar marketing examples: “free” cellphones, a free holiday when we sign a contract etc.
As they say, there is no free lunch. The first hit is free - then you’re locked in and have no option but to purchase over-priced manufacturer-only, non-standard rechargeable batteries, flash-guns that only work with that particular model, new wireless remote triggers, “upgraded” software...the list of never-ending expenses is endless.
And all to produce and image that is the same practical quality as that produced by my 25 year-old Nikkormat bought for R200. Let’s not even talk about the quality a used medium format camera system I saw advertised for R5000 will dish up!
I for one will not be dumping my film cameras.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Take an incident reading.

The quickest way to take your photography to a new level is to invest in a hand-held light meter.
No doubt many will disagree and point out that, with the arrival of matrix metering -- I believe first seen in Nikon’s FA in 1984 -- and now digital cameras complete with built-in histograms, separate light meters are completely obsolete.
Today’s camera metering systems, with intricate algorithms and databases containing thousands of lighting permutations are incredible, no arguing that.
Most of the time, stick your camera on “program” or “auto” modes you’ll end up with a well-exposed picture.
If you used negative film and the camera’s meter, it was a rare case that exposure wasn’t acceptable. But that is not so with digital cameras and their tendency to blow out highlights. In far too many instances do-it-all matrix metering does not cope with intense highlights.

Reflected light

The problem with built-in camera meters is they measure REFLECTED light. Brighter objects reflect more light and, unless you take that into account and adjust accordingly by using your camera’s exposure lock facility, you could end up with an image not as you saw it.
Reflective meters see everything as being 18% grey and adjust exposure accordingly. Photograph a pure white object using a reflective light meter and it will reproduce as grey. Do the same to a pitch black subject and it too will reproduce as grey.

The fact is, if you want you whites to be white (sounds like a washing powder advert!) you need to give MORE exposure than indicated by your meter. The opposite applies if you want your blacks to be black.
So what’s the solution? Learn to use your camera on its “manual” setting and adjust accordingly or, keep you camera on “manual” and get yourself a good hand-held incident light meter.
An incident meter has a white dome or disc that covers the light-receiving cell. Often it looks like a cut-in-half ping-pong ball.
The main advantage of an incident meter is it measures the light that is falling ON the subject and that reflected by it. It does not matter whether the subject is black, white or anything in between.
It is the most accurate way to measure light and set exposure. Period! End of story. If you doubt that statement ask why it’s the method used by Hollywood when shooting million dollar movies.

Simple steps

How do you use an incident meter?
Follow these simple steps and you’ll be amazed at how dramatically your images improve.
1. Remember you need to measure the light falling ONTO the subject.
2. Set the ISO speed your camera is set at on your meter.
3. Position yourself in such a way that the light-gathering dome FACES THE CAMERA IN THE SAME LIGHT STRIKING THE SUBJECT.
4. Read off the aperture/shutter speed setting that is appropriate to the effect you wish to achieve.
5. Set your camera to “manual” and transfer the light-meter reading to your camera.
6. Take the picture.
Why not simply “chimp” until you get it right or just try to fix it in Photoshop? You can do that but I personally hate sitting behind a computer and fiddling with images -- much better to get it right in-camera first time, with a minimum of fuss.
A separate light-meter also allows you to use the wonderful old cameras manufactured without built-in exposure meters or whose meters have died or for which batteries are no longer available.
In my case it also allows me to use the phenomenal old prime lenses I’ve gathered over the years that work perfectly except for the fact they will not meter on my digital camera.
Each image posted here was shot in difficult lighting circumstances, with a manual prime lens and metered with my hand-held Polaris digital light-meter.
No Photoshopping other than slight sharpening and re sizing was done.

Using an incident meter meant the detail in the bright concrete trough was still maintained. The bright reflectance would have fooled the camera's built-in meter.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shooting a "new" old classic

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to shoot some portraits of an uncle and aunt on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. Somehow, the talk got around to my fondness for old film cameras and my uncle mentioned that he had a camera he bought when they were first married.
It had not been used for years and, if I wanted it, it was mine.
Did I want it? Is the Pope Catholic? Do big dogs pass gas?
A few days later I collected a beautiful Kodak Retina Reflex, the first SLR Kodak made.
Made by Kodak AG in Stuttgart, Germany it is an SLR camera with interchangeable lens components. It is unusual in that the rear of the leaf-shuttered lens is fixed while the three front elements are contained in a capsule that bayonet-fits into the front. The 50mm standard front lens-cell can be replaced with one of three Schneider components - an 80mm, and two different 35mm components.
Sometimes called the "Stuttgart Leica" or the "Poor Man's Leica", the Kodak Retina was introduced as a rangefinder in 1934.
The camera is also unusual in that the winding mechanism is situated on the base-plate and it has a few other quirks you can read about if you do an internet search.
The Retina is a phenomenal example of German engineering -- some would say OVER-engineering. It is all metal except for the film winding-spools and is like handling a piece of jewelry.
The leather, ever-ready case is a work of art.
I received the camera in perfect working order except for stuck-open shutter leaves, a common problem with lenses of this type that have been left unused for lengthy periods.
It was an easy fix. I simply removed the front lens capsule and doused the shutter in lighter fuel which dissolved the gummed-up lubricants.
Naturally I couldn't wait to run a roll of film through the camera that, according to Kodak records, was manufactured in 1957.
The Retina SLR comes equipped with a built-in selenium light meter that in this case, still works perfectly and does not need a battery. Also supplied is a white disk that can be clipped over the light-gathering cell to convert it into an incident light meter. The readings from the Retina's meter exactly match those of my hand-held digital light meter.

How well does the camera work?

Within it's limits pretty well but it is certainly no Leica. With the lens wide open images are very soft. In my opinion, unacceptably so. Sharpness increases from about f5.6 and is not bad from f11 but the truth is, it cannot hold a candle to my Nikon lenses.
Without a lens-hood, the 50mm lens -- the only lens I have - is particularly prone to flare. Fitting a lens-hood helps a lot, but does not entirely eliminate the problem.
The truth is, beautiful as the Retina is, there are other cameras of that era (Voigtlander and Leica in particular) that are considerably better. It is also easy to see why Japanese SLRs that were beginning to make an appearance at around the same time, quickly captured the market.
But with all of that said, it does not mean this is not a fun camera. It's a precision instrument, kind of like driving a beautiful old vintage car -- you know, in terms of features and performance it comes a very distant second to a modern vehicle -- but there's still something wonderful about it.
There is no doubt, I will continue to lovingly and often use the Kodak Retina. It produces a look that, in some ways is unique.
I have posted a few pictures -- nothing special or particularly artistic -- that I shot in an effort to see what the camera can produce. A few have had their levels tweaked in Photoshop but no sharpening was done.
Also posted is a picture shot with the Retina and then "hand coloured" in Photoshop.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ignore the old farts!

On Sunday I attended a photographic exhibition titled “Then & Now”.
It was a display of the works of eight of South Africa’s most significant documentary photographers organised by Johan at Kameraz.
Over the years David Goldblatt, George Hallett, Eric Miller, Cedric Nunn, Guy Tillim, Paul Weinberg, Graeme Williams and Gisele Wulfsohn captured significant moments in this country’s tumultuous history and still continue to do so.
Their images, the majority shot in black and white, tell the story of a county in transition...a transition that was often bloody and brutal. Today they continue to reflect our society and although the occasions photographed are less dramatic, their images are no less moving.
But I could not help but think had those pictures been entered in camera club competitions few, if any, would have been praised by the judges or awarded gold certificates.
While camera clubs undoubtedly help amateur photographers raise technical standards, they do little else. Impact, particularly in the photo-journalism category, appears completely ignored. Creating an image that is moving, tells a story, causes the viewer to mentally ask questions about the story behind the picture or awakes some sort of emotion, counts for little.

Check list

In the minds of the judges there is a checklist to tick off:
* Is the image well focussed?
* Does it follow the “rule of thirds”?
* Are there diagonals or curves that lead the eye to the focal point?
* Does the focal point present a contrast to the rest of the image?
* Is the sky a deep blue with fluffy clouds?
* Is there a highlight to be criticized somewhere in the background?
* Is the background busy? (Yes it is, it was part of a riot and I didn’t have time or opportunity to arrange the people involved!!)
* Is there a fancy border that separates the image from the screen?
Meet all of the above and success is guaranteed.
I am sure there are other “rules” but one is certainly not: “Is this picture not just another rule-meeting, boring image of a lion/impala/bird/flower/bug the likes of which we’ve all seen hundreds of times before?
The pictures taken by the photographers listed above do not follow the “rules”. They don’t have to. They capture decisive moments, tell stories, evoke emotions and document history. Maybe that’s why such photographers get to have exhibitions, sell prints and publish books while the windbag camera judges, most of whom have never worked as photo journalists, pontificate and spew crap.
Almost 30 years ago I entered an image at a local camera club. It was shot at an Eastern Cape political funeral where activists shot by police were being buried. The image is of a group of ANC cadres running through a huge crowd of township mourners, carrying the coffin of one of their slain comrades on their shoulders.

Not pin-sharp

The judges, three old farts with inflated ideas of their own significance, tore into the photograph. The criticized it for not being absolutely pin-sharp, for not having the coffin located on a diagonal bisecting an image third, they said some of the people in the picture were looking back and not at the camera.
And they were right! Those rules were all broken but some background is in order.
At the time, all political funerals and gatherings were banned and breaking the law brought swift ploice retribution.
It was winter, late in the afternoon and the light was as murky as pea-soup. This meant shooting wide open, at a shutter speed of something like 1/15th of a second. It was also in the days before auto focus and meant constantly back-pedalling while manually trying to pull the focus.
At the time picture was taken the police had just begun to fire teargas and rubber bullets so the fact the picture was not sharp, the background busy and the main subjects not neatly arranged on diagonals was hardly surprising.
But it added to the drama. It captured the feelings of panic and disorder.
As I listened to the criticism I became increasingly angry but then consoled myself with the fact, that particular image was published in around 65 countries -- I shot it while on temporary assignment for one of the world’s largest news agencies.

Do what pleases you

So what does this all mean? In essence shoot pictures that please you and that tell the story of your life and those around you.
Most of the time the so-called experts are trapped in their own, limited, narrow thinking. Go ahead and break the “rules” if by doing so you achieve the emotion and impact you desire. The only rule you should uphold is never shoot boring images, no matter how technically good they are.
The fact is, the images of many of the great photographers would not impress the puffed-up judges at camera clubs, but they’ll be around long after that bloody shot of masked weavers building a nest is forgotten!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Photo Breakaway is organised

The first of the photographic breakaway venues has been a few weeks in coming but now all is done and it's only a two-hour drive from Johannesburg!
I have negotiated great rates in the historic Voortrekker town of Klerksdorp that was started in the mid 1830s. In fact, the oldest building in the old Transvaal, a Voortrekker "huisie" (little house) erected in 1837 still stands on the grounds of the guesthouse where we will stay.
Fountainvilla, our accommodation, was built in 1905 by a local liquor baron and is itself a national monument.
Heavy fighting occurred in the area during the Anglo-Boer War. There is a Military and Concentration Camp cemetery on the outskirts of the town that is now overgrown and vandalised. A few years ago I photographed many of the soldiers' graves, including, what is probably, the only spot in the world where two Boers and two Britons are buried together, in the same grave.

This photograph is very possibly the last photographic record of the site before thieves sawed off the metal crosses and sold them to some shit-bag scrap metal dealer! It is a blight on the town's authorities but makes for moody and evocative photography.
The main objective of the weekend breakaways will be to have fun, while learning to use a camera. Just a small bunch of people with a common interest and a desire to have fun.
There are countless photographic opportunities right on the premises and nearby are many historic sites.
It's going to be a blast. Click here for more details and pictures.

The link below will present you with some of the history of the area.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not photographing the Chinese New Year celebrations

Last Saturday Johannesburg’s Chinese community held its New Year celebrations at a local shopping centre and the camera club to which I belong suggested there may be a number of good photographic opportunities.
Everyone and his brother was there, all armed with top-of-the-line digital cameras and everyone scrambled to get a position near the stage, so they could photograph the kung fu demonstrations or stick a camera in the face of the lion dancers.
I felt as though I had stepped back in time to the bun-fights I had years ago with hordes of other press photographers as we all jostled and shoved to get the same picture.
And that’s exactly what was happening - everyone was shooting basically the same image. It is an aspect of camera clubs I dislike. Camera club judges place emphasis on technical excellence but largely ignore creativity and uniqueness. I have no doubt, at the next club meeting, ten different people will present exactly the same shot and, so long as it is properly exposed, in focus and the main subject is located on one of the intersecting thirds in the image, it will score gold.
I wanted to do something different and the Chinese celebrations, colourful as they were, just did not do it for me. The light was harsh, contrasty and unattractive. So, after I’d had my fill of kids kicking and punching pre-broken wooden planks, I wandered off to see what else I could find.
I ended up with three images I liked. For me, they capture critical moments and tell a story.
Let me know if you agree.

Buy me! Buy me!

See no evil.

Pleeeeease, Mom!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Are pro photographers doomed?

One of my favourite blogs is the Strobist. Published by David Hobby, a veteran newspaper photographer, it is a most comprehensive and definitive source of information about lighting techniques and how to use off-camera flashes. David is undeniably one of the most knowlegeable guys around and I have learned much from his blog. Check it out, it is listed in the blogroll in the right-hand column.

Recently David wrote about the need for photographers to sometimes do work for free. The article evoked a great deal of discussion. While many agreed with his point of view, some took a completely different position, particularly John Harrington. Those who had opposing views felt that doing work for free adversely affects the way a professional photographer's value is perceived. You can read the debate on the Strobist site, so I won't rehash the arguments here.
But it got me to thinking that much, as I hate to say it, I believe the days of the professional photographer are largely numbered. I say this for a couple of reasons. Technology has brought convenience and simplicity making it easy for camera-owners to shoot properly-focussed, well-exposed, pictures -- the fact that little thought or creativity is involved, means nothing. Consumers of images have, since the advent of web publishing, been dumbed down and most wouldn't know quality if it walked up and slapped them in the face.

Anyone with a camera

Nowadays, anyone with a digital camera, figures he or she is, or can be, a professional photographer. By way of example, I live in a small town in South Africa that has fallen on hard times as a result of local gold mines shutting down. There are 57 "wedding photographers" here, pretty well all of whom are equipped with a digital camera, painfully slow kit zoom lens (most don't know what that means) and built-in, pop up flash. Their standard operating procedure is to speculatively shoot around 1400 images, download them, burn a CD and present it to the client at the end of the wedding. They justify this mediocrity as "photojournalistic wedding photography," although the nearest any of these "photographers" has ever come to photojournalism is buying a newspaper from a street-corner vendor.
They are happy to work at a rate that, in many cases, just covers traveling expenses. But the client is happy because he's never seen better or "just good enough" is indeed good enough.
Recently, a young-buck newspaper sports photographer asked how I could shoot a motorcycle race with a manual Nikkormat that doesn't autofocus, has no motor-drive and does not allow me to immediately see the shot taken. He spoke from behind some or other 10 frames per second DSLR. As soon as I started to explain zone focussing and the decisive moment, his eyes glazed over. He had no clue what I was talking about an mumbled that those things didn't bother him, he simply put the camera on "auto" and of the hundreds of images he shot he was sure some would be good enough for publication.
I do not think it is the guy shooting for free that is going to put the pro out of business. I think the wave of technology - in much the same way easily-used office software signalled the doom of typists - and the general acceptance of mediocrity, where purchasers of photography can't recognise the quality offered by the true professional, will do that.
It's sad but I think we are a bunch of dinosaurs in a rapidly-developing ice-age.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A story of unthinkable love and courage!

When I worked for newspapers, magazines and news agencies I was always on the lookout for the big story. The story that would move people, get them talking, be remembered for years to come. Although I did some substantial articles none comes anywhere close to the story that follows.
Today I came across a tale of unimaginable courage and love. It's by no means my "scoop", in fact almost 10 million people have already downloaded the video but I do not remember ever being moved as much by any other story.
This is the background information I received:
A son asked his father, "Dad, will you take part in a marathon with me?"
The father who, despite having a heart condition, said "Yes".
They went on to complete the marathon together.
Father and son went on to do other marathons. The father always said, "Yes" when his son asked them to race together.
One day, the son said, "Dad, can we do the Iron Man together?" to which his father replied: "Yes".
The Hawaiian Iron Man is considered the toughest triathlon in the world. Competitors must complete three endurance events in the race: a 2.4 mile (3.86 km) ocean swim, followed by a 112 mile (180.2 kilometer) bike ride, then end with a 26.2 mile (42.195 kilometer) marathon run along the coast of the Big Island, Hawaii.
The father and son went on to complete the race together.

Do yourself a favour and take the time to view this 4 minute 36 second video. It will uplift your spirits!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Everything you ever wanted to know about the credit crunch but were too afraid to ask.

Although this blog is mainly about photography I got sent this and thought it was simply too funny not to share.
Here follows everything you wanted to know about the credit crunch but were always too afraid to ask.

Q: With the current market turmoil, what's the easiest way to make a small fortune?
A: Start off with a large one.

Q: What's the difference between an investment banker and a large pizza?
A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.

I went to the ATM this morning and it said "insufficient funds".
I'm wondering is it them or me.

Q: What's the difference between Investment Bankers and London Pigeons?
A: The Pigeons are still capable of making deposits on new BMW's.

Q: What have Icelandic banks and an Icelandic streaker got in common?
A: They both have frozen assets.

You know it's a credit crunch when…

1. The cash point asks if you can spare any change.
2. There's a 'buy one, get one free' offer - on banks.
3. The IRS is offering a 25 per cent discount for cash-payers.
4. UK Prime minister Gordon Brown has stopped chewing his nails and started sucking his thumb.
5. Your builder asks to be paid in Zimbabwean dollars rather than US dollars.

Q: What's the capital of Iceland?
A: About $3.50.

Uncertainty has now hit Japan. In the last seven days, Origami bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly up and Bonsai Bank has announced plans to cut some of its branches. Yesterday, it was also announced that Karaoke Bank will go up for sale and will likely go for a song, while shares in Kamikaze Bank were suspended today after they nose-dived. While Samurai Bank is soldiering on after sharp cutbacks, 500 staff at Karate Bank got the chop and analysts report that there is something fishy going on at Sushi Bank, where it is feared that staff may get a raw deal.

Q: What's the difference between an American and a Zimbabwean?
A: In a few weeks, nothing.

Q: George Bush was asked today "what did he think of the Credit Crunch?"
A: He replied: "It was his favourite Candy Bar."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How long will film still be available?

How long will film be around?
It’s a question that often pops up on photographic forums and in chat rooms. The answers range from “a year” to more than “100 years”.
As a dyed-in-the-wool film guy, with a love for old film cameras -- my favourite is a beautiful 1957 Voigtlander Prominent -- it’s a question that does concern me, as it no doubt does hundreds of thousands (more like millions) of other film-camera users.
It will be a sad day when I can no longer lovingly fondle and use my Nikkormats or my Rollei because film is no longer available. But I do not think that scenario is likely to happen, either in my life nor more sons’ and I think my future grandchildren will also enjoy the wonderful experience of opening a fresh canister of film.
For many that will be a wild, optimistic statement they’ll vigorously dispute.
“Film is already dead,” they’ll say, “it just doesn’t know it.”
There is no doubt digital photography has made major inroads into the market for film. The biggest blow has come, not from dedicated digital cameras, but rather from camera-equipped cellphones. No arguments there.

Where the argument falls down.

Where the contention falls is it is most often made by people living in rich western countries and, the truth is, there is a big world beyond that.
I recently stopped in at a few one-hour mini-labs in Johannesburg and nearby towns. I asked the owners what their experiences were and the answers surprised me. All reported that around 50% of their “film” business still comes from developing, scanning and printing 35mm film.
In more affluent areas digital photography occupies a larger proportion when compared with poorer areas. In a busy mini-lab in Randfontein -- a less affluent area -- I was told film make up two thirds of their business.
I would guess the situation in South Africa is reflected in Asia, China and South America. There are a lot of people in those parts of the world who already own film cameras, who cannot afford, nor want or need to supposedly “upgrade” to digital cameras. For them, using film requires no computer equipment, no power, no expensive batteries, no CD burners, no external hard-drives...well you get the picture.
And as long as that remains the case, someone will make and supply film. It may not be the traditional, large, film manufacturers, although Kodak, Fuji and Ilford have all, in the recent past, said they are committed to continuing to make film although, in fairness, it must be pointed out, some non-profitable lines have been dropped from their ranges.
But even if those companies decide to withdraw from the film market, someone else will step in. I am surprised that, with the flood of Chinese goods into South Africa, I have not yet seen anyone importing Chinese film which, by all accounts, is very good.
Film will never occupy the position it once did but it will be around for a long time. We may not be able to buy it in every corner shop and garage kiosk, as we can now.

Medium format difficulties

Unlike the situation in Europe and the US, where reports say medium format and large format film sales are seeing something of a resurgence, the opposite seems true in South Africa.
Many professional labs that used to process such film have shut down and, even if you develop it yourself, getting it scanned and printed is a problem and setting up a wet darkroom is something I do not want to do again!
But, if push comes to shove, the world is a small place nowadays, so I’ll either buy a medium format scanner or mail the negs to a lab overseas.
I love film and I love the fact that so many phenomenally good cameras are now within my reach because people are dumping them for crappy digital point-and-shoots.
Dust off those old cameras and get out there and have fun, then when, you’re too old, give ‘em to your grand-children so they can give those old gems another lifetime of use.
Film is dead! Long live film!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Photo-compositing IS manly!

I continue with my foray into digital scrapbooking -- to make it sound more manly I have decided that in future, I'll use the more high-falutin' term, "Photo-compositing."
In my defence, it was done while waiting for my eldest son to arrive so we could head into the mountains for a bit of dirt bike riding -- a very manly pursuit! While awaiting his arrival I figured I'd fiddle around with some images of my other son, Kevin, and see what I could come up with, using Gimp and "layers".
I could just as easily have used Photoshop but, as I run post-processing photo courses in which students receive a free copy of and learn to use Gimp, I thought I should use that program to illustrate what is possible.
In total, eleven layers were used to build up the image, which is a little more complicated than it appears at face value.
I am pleased with the result and, in truth, found the process thoroughly enjoyable. Photo-compositing is definitely manly!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Digital Scapbooking and Photography

Recently I was asked by someone if I could teach him digital scrapbooking. It is not a craft with which I am particularly familiar. In fact, I had to do some internet searching to see exactly what it entailed.
Scrapbooking is something that I figured only bored housewives got together to do, so they could complain about their husbands. But a friend, who runs a scrapbooking studio, showed me examples of her work and I was blown away by her creativity.
I can't say I am likely to be joining a morning housewives' scrapbooking session any time soon but I learned once again that I should keep an open mind before judging things about which I know nothing.
I reasoned the principles of digital scrapbooking must, in many ways, be the same as those applied to photographic manipulation and post-processing.
So I sat down behind my computer, fired up Gimp and had a bash. To be honest, I am quite pleased with my first effort - though I am sure experienced scrapbookers could pick many holes in it. That's fine. I saw how a number of scrapbooking techniques can be applied to conventional, art photography and will be experimenting in the future.
In truth, I rather enjoyed the process. I just hope none of the guys I knew when I wrote for Soldier of Fortune magazine read this blog!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Your tripod is your sharpest lens

Over the years I have been fortunate to work with some great photographers, all of whom taught me something.
None more so than the late, great, Jimmy Soullier, for many years Chief Photographer at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.
Jimmy was a small, unassuming Australian, always ready to help neophyte like me. He always seemed to just get on with his job, never seeking the limelight but he was brilliant at what he did. I stand under correction but I believe he won the World Press Photography Competition twice.
Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jimmy started and ended his adult life as a painter, with photography filling the gap in between.
I only ever knew him to use Leica rangefinder cameras -- M3s if I remember correctly.
On the occasions we worked together -- I did the words, he did the pictures -- he never once used a flash, no matter how dark the scene was. When I asked him why, he replied like a painter: “Why mess with the natural light? Isn’t press photography about capturing the scene the way it is and not altering it?”
The most I ever saw Jimmy do was use a reflector -- often just a sheet of newspaper -- to bounce a bit of light, if contrast was excessive.

Set apart

It was that outlook that set James Soullier’s pictures apart from the rest. They always had atmosphere, were dramatic and told a story, a far cry from today’s press images that tend to be blitzed and over-lit with high-powered speedlights.
It was this in mind that I recently shot the image of a vet taking a tea-break in between operations.
The light in the picture is completely natural and exactly as it was.
I don’t remember the exact camera settings as I was using the Rolleiflex which naturally does not record EXIF data. But it was slow enough to have to use a tripod, somewhere around one second at about f8. The exposure reading was taken with a hand-held light meter.


The old pros always said: “Your sharpest lens is your tripod”. They were right.
On photographic courses I run, I always urge students to invest in a quality tripod and to use it along with the natural light to illuminate their images.
Try it, it’ll take your pics to new levels.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Five simple steps in GIMP to improve your pictures

Many people own digital cameras, either sophisticated DSLRs or simpler point-and-shoot versions.
It is my guess, based on questions I am asked on the courses I run, that the majority of people do not end up with particularly good images. Most digital camera-owners simply hand their camera’s memory card to the guy or gal behind the counter at the one hour lab and pretty well accept the results dished up to them.
This entry is a quick, down-and-dirty lesson that I hope will help you improve your images during the post-processing phase and show you how to get them the way you want them to look. This page can be downloaded as a PDF here.
To do this you need an image manipulation programme. The market-leader is undoubtedly Photoshop and Photoshop Elements followed by an up-and-coming Paintshop Pro.
These are brilliant pieces of software but for many, are simply too expensive.


But there is an extremely powerful, albeit quirky, absolutely free alternative. GIMP has been around for years and, in my opinion, is in many ways better than Photoshop, though others will feel differently. More power to them. This entry is not about the merits of the software. Use which ever you prefer, the principles are the same.
GIMP can be downloaded at and the latest stable release now is version 2.6.4. I’ll assume you have it loaded on your computer.

Note: Images are not displayed at full size on these blog pages and are not easy to see. Simply click on the image and a full-sized version will be loaded!

Step 1:

Launch GIMP. The toolbox and the working area will open in separate windows.

Step 2:

Click “File” then “Open” and select the image on which you want to work. Click the “Image” drop-down menu and make a duplicate so you always have the original if you mess up. Name the duplicate and close the original.

Figure 1. Open an image

The image I selected for this example was shot with a Kodak digital point-and-shoot and, as you can clearly see, is washed-out and lacks “oomph”. The highlights in the sky on the right-hand side are blown out and cannot be recovered but let’s see what else we can do.

Step 3:

Select “Colours” from the list of drop-down menus at the top of the working window then select “Levels”. (In Photoshop the sequence is “Image” then “Adjustments” then “Levels”.)
A window like that in Fig 2 will open displaying a histogram. Notice how the graph stacks up against the right-hand edge of this picture’s histogram -- that clearly shows some of the highlights have been blown out.
Directly under the graph are three “arrowheads” that indicate the image’s black point, mid-tone and white point.
Figure 2. Adjusting Levels

In this example I dragged the black point as well as the mid point to the right in order to darken those areas. There is no purpose in attempting to adjust the white point as dragging it to the left will only make it lighter.
Adjust the arrowheads until you are happy then click “OK”.
The picture already looks better but there is still more we can do.
I think the colours should be more punchy.

Step 4.

Figure 3. Adjusting Hue and Saturation

Select “Colours” then “Hue/Saturation”.
Dragging the “Saturation” slider to the right makes the colours pop. Play around with the sliders until you have the result you want. When you’re happy click “OK”. Remember you can undo any step by opening the “Edit” menu and selecting “Undo”.
Now it’s time to add a little contrast.

Step 5:

Figure 4. Adjusting Contrast

Go to “Colours and select “Brightness-Contrast”. Move the sliders until you are happy then click “OK”.

Step 6:

Figure 5. Unsharpening

The final requirement is to sharpen the picture. Select “Filters”, “Enhance”, “Unsharp Mask”. Yep, that’s correct it’s UNSHARP MASK for reasons I won’t discuss now.
I believe sharpening must be done in small steps or else it is easy to over-sharpen and end up with an unnatural and unattractive image. These are the settings I use, but experiment and see what you like.
Click “OK”, you’re done. All that remains is to save your picture, write it onto CD and get it printed.

The finished product. Not great art but a definite improvement!

Before I get flames from the experts I know there are a lot more ways to improve images by using layers, masks, dodging and burning HDR techniques etc. I teach some of these in a course I run.
The intention of this article was to present a quick, easy way to improve images.