“It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind.”

Terry Pratchett, “The Color of Magic”

Photographers, especially beginners, often hold the mistaken opinion that shooting is reserved for broad daylight – especially if you are looking to make an effective color picture. When it rains, in twilight or at nighttime you should (they say) refrain from shooting or, at most, settle for black and white. So photo tourists coming to a new country are often put out by precipitation forecasts and cloudy conditions. I say, it is an occasion to rejoice! Shooting without direct sunlight opens great opportunities for expressive color photography, and I have proof – not just pictures I myself have made, but work of acknowledged masters.

Contents:

1. A few words in defense of the sun
2. Now that night is coming
3. Rafal Milah: “I can’t see colors in sunny weather”
4. Work in interiors
5. Leave a bit for contrast
6. Mixed-temperature lighting
7. Is rain the most anti-photographic weather?
8. The opposite myth: “Noon light is too harsh and colors are drab”
9. By way of an afterword


1. A few words in defense of the sun

Let’s start by saying something in favor of the sun. Of course, of course there is no color without light, and “photography” literally means “drawing with light.” But direct sunlight is not the only kind of light there is. There is also diffused, reflected, mixed, directional, artificial, colored light and more. We lose many opportunities for color expression if we limit ourselves to sunny weather and direct sunlight and its derivatives such as back light.

The main “problem” of shooting in the sun is high contrast. The brighter the shine, the more contrast you are going to see in the images. On one hand, we all know that strong contrast brings out colors at their most saturated, on the other, the number of colors themselves drops.

This picture of Alex Webb’s is a good illustration. He made it in Paraguay. (Here and everywhere I am going to use the most blatant examples to get my point across – in practice results are usually more mild.)


© Alex Webb, Magnum Photos

Now notice that we can straight away point out the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue. They are saturated enough, but do not have too many hues. Only red has some subtlety, and that is only because of the texture of the planks. Certainly this does not detract from the artistic value of the image. High-contrast shooting in sunny weather can be and often is an intentional artistic choice. But it only one of many ways color can be made to appear.

To get richer variations of hues and generally more detail in shade and lighting photographers often choose softer colors that can be obtained during so-called “blue hour.” That means early mornings or late evenings. The scene’s contrast is lower then and brings out color subtleties.

Compare the picture above with another photo by the same Alex Webb. This shot was made just before dawn, in the softly lit blue hour.


© Alex Webb, Magnum Photos

Overall contrast is the same between the pictures. How is that achieved, considering the difference of scene contrasts? By means of image processing – through the right selection of film, development, printing, scanning methods, always controlling exposition when shooting and in the case of digital photography also with Raw file conversion, Photoshop treatments etc. The same level of contrast in the outcome lets us compare the two pictures more easily.

Notice how many color variations the second image has. The actual colors to name are few here as well, just the sky’s turquoise and the skin’s brown. But what a range of gradients, variations of brightness and saturation!

One can take a step further and shoot after sunset or before sunrise. This gives more saturation and hue variety, but makes the colors look unusual, because at those hours the camera registers scattered rays of the sun as they reflect off the sky. Combined with artificial light this can give very original colors. Witness picture three by Alex Webb.


© Alex Webb, Magnum Photos

It is important to understand that the more unusual and expressive colors we are looking to catch, the farther we have to stay away from regular sunny weather and the deeper into inventive lighting territory. You can invent your own lighting techniques, e.g. get movie lighting equipment, the sort Dedolight makes or similar. Or you can search for interesting lighting in real life. That is what I prefer, so I am going to use unstaged photography for my examples.

2. Now that night is coming

Night is great time for color photography, especially in cities or country towns. Wherever people live nowadays, there is artificial illumination. Streetlights, store windows, brake lights of passing cars, even mere candles or the moon offer many opportunities for original lighting. Use them intelligently and you may produce a very expressive night shot.

Here are pictures by some other photographers, just so I do not sound biased.


© David Alan Harvey, Magnum Photos


© Geuorgui Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos

It feels awkward putting my own creations in this pageant, but I hope you understand – I am, after all, sharing my own experience. Without claiming the merits of great photo masters, here is how I made the following night shot:

It was long after the sun has gone down. Me and a photographer friend were strolling in Cao Bang in northern Vietnam and saw flickering shadows on a wall next to a crossroads. We became curious, naturally, and stood there for 40 minutes or so snapping strange silhouettes and people walking by. Almost all of the light falling on the wall was from motorcycle headlights, and therefore yellow. But then a red brake light flashed just as a woman in a Vietnamese hat came by – and voila. Could I have made a picture of this color on a sunny day? Of course not.

3. Rafal Milah: “I can’t see colors in sunny weather”

There is a wonderful Polish photographer Rafal Milah who I think is very much worth referencing here. He said during his workshop in Moscow something that went like this: “I never shoot in sunny weather, because I can’t see color at all. Color appears in the shade, at night or with artificial lighting.” And, in fact, Milah really has no pictures made in direct sunlight, but plenty with excellent color expression:


© Rafal Milach, «7 rooms»


© Rafal Milach, «7 rooms»


© Rafal Milach, «Black sea of concrete»


© Rafal Milach, «Black sea of concrete»


© Rafal Milach, «Black sea of concrete»


© Rafal Milach, «Disappearing circus»


© Rafal Milach, «Disappearing circus»


© Rafal Milach, «Disappearing circus»

Looking carefully, you will notice that Rafal Milah does shoot in sunny weather as well. But he takes care to do it from inside buildings. His interior pictures look like they were taken in partly cloudy weather, but they just as well might have been taken with an overcast sky. Interiors give us even more choices of beautiful, unusual and vocal color.

4. Work in interiors

When shooting indoors, the basis of color expression is soft diffused light, usually from a window or around an awning. We saw examples of pictures with one source of light, a window, predominating in Milah’s Disappearing Circus series.

It is possible, however, to get interesting lighting just by hiding from direct sun rays in tree shadow or under an awning. That may be enough to soften the contrast of a scene. However, you can only bring out color if there is any to begin with. Look at this:

This picture was taken in Myanmar, and color here comes not only from low contrast of the scene (I raised it later during processing), but from actual texture of the wall and the monks’ skin. Those added a great deal. Without such a deliciously colored wall the result would have been very different and probably less interesting color-wise.

By the way, that is the reason many people doing color photography look for color “in the dumps.” Not literally, though some go that far. I mean they scour third-world countries and poor neighborhoods not whitewashed by civilization. You can find nowhere near as much interesting shade where it is all glass and concrete. “He gathereth filth and scandal to himself, and his fame shall not be done away,” as the book says. But I digress.

5. Leave a bit for contrast

There is a rule of thumb students of color photography can benefit from: the lower a scene’s original contrast, the more contrast you can add when processing.

Let me remind my readers that all pictures are processed. I talk about that at length in my book, but in a nutshell, those who say they do not process their shots fail to understand that there is always some processing that happens. It can be the Jpeg picture created by the camera itself, or the H&D curve of the film together with exposition, development and printing conditions, or the default Raw conversion settings in place.

In any event, to get a picture that looks like what we actually saw on the spot, we have to increase contrast from what the level imprinted on the matrix or film. Added contrast always boosts saturation of colors, makes colors and hues within colors more distinct.

The higher the original contrast of a scene, the less maneuvering space you have in processing and the fewer your options to bring out color variability and intensity. A high-contrast scene helps hues come out, but, as I said, the overall number of colors in the image diminishes, bottle-necked by the contrast. Extreme contrast eliminates color subtlety and detail and, among other things, turns shadows into pitch-black abysses. That may be what the photographer wants, but generally speaking there is always less detail, including color detail, in an image with high original contrast. That detail is hard to get back later on in processing.

Now if a scene is low-contrast to begin with, every kind of detail is more abundant, and in processing we can increase contrast to help bring it out. This is more difficult with a high-contrast original.

Here is the picture with the monks as it was made, without boosted contrasts. This pale, low-contrast image is what the camera snapped up:

If they monks were not standing under an awning in diffused light but partially or completely in the sun, I would not have been able to raise contrast so strongly later on, get such colors and preserve detail – including color detail.

This rule, of course, is not universal and works within the limits of common sense, so do not give up on the sun completely.

6. Mixed-temperature lighting

Continuing with the subject of overcast skies and work in interiors, here is another curious example. It is also picture of mine from Myanmar, this time made on a train.

Notice how the windows here are tinted a cool hue on just one side. That makes lighting mixed, combining different temperatures, which is an effect often used in movies. Many people did in fact write in comments that it was “movie-like” when I first posted it.

I remember how when I was travelling in Myanmar with my friends weather was mixed too – sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy and not too inspiring to shoot in. That was almost 3 years ago, and I was rather unhappy about it. But later on, reviewing my pictures, I found a good number of really expressive snapshots. Now time has passed and of all the pictures I made in Myanmar I care only about the ones made in the shade.

This is how Alex Webb used mixed-temperature in one of his photos. The foreground is lit by a green light, the background by a red one.

7. Is rain the most anti-photographic weather?

To close the topic of bad weather, let us consider its extreme ─ rain. When it rains, photography students often just leave their cameras behind. They miss out on expressive color objects that rain brings out and on low scene contrasts. Colors on pictures made in the rain often look glossy, shiny, create a special mood. If you have a good sense of color, you stand a chance to catch something particularly unusual and beautiful.


© Burt Glinn, Magnum Photos


© Steve McCurry, Magnum Photos

Snow, blizzard, gale and other displays of nature’s power are also wonderful chances to make expressive color pictures. Let us have a look at winter pictures of a Turkish photographer and film director, Bilge Ceylan:


© Nuri Bilge Ceylan


© Nuri Bilge Ceylan


© Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Remember, if you find yourself wintering the Arctic night, you have an exciting opportunity to capture Aurora Borealis! And that is sure to have some interesting colors in it.

8. The opposite myth: “Noon light is too harsh and colors are drab”

Just to keep you from one-sided conclusions, I would like to spend a moment to debunk the opposite myth – that the sun at high noon or thereabouts is a bad time for photography. Trust me, any time and place are fine, or almost any. :) Success depends much more on your own mood and determination than on conditions.

Shooting in strong light is really a topic in its own right, so here I will just put up a couple of my own pictures that illustrate how even noontide shots can have expressive color.

In the first one the sky has a bit of a haze, but in the second you get full down-beating summer sun almost at zenith.

9. By way of an afterword

So if the you are out of luck with sunny weather, you may be in luck with your camera and produce some impressive color pictures! What conclusions would I draw from all the points above?

1. Do not be afraid of bad weather!

Far from being an obstacle to shooting, it can gift you with color effects you would never seen in “standard” sunshine.

2. Use creative lighting

A rainy day or (and) a low-contrast scene is not enough for an expressive picture. You must find or arrange interesting lighting conditions, be that light natural, artificial or a combination thereof.

3. Look for colored textures

Provided they do not clash, the more unusual and richer the colors of the objects in the picture, the more original and expressive the end result.

***

Lately I have stopped checking the weather forecast before I go on a trip. Sometimes friends who are going with me write me “They promise rain and cloudy sky. Damn!” And I write them back, telling “Great! Will see some nice color.” I am not always understood, and then, after I have explained myself along these lines, we embark on trying these techniques in practice.

Here are a few recent photos I made on bad-weather trips.


Saigon, Vietnam, 2012


Hanoi, Vietnam, 2012


Saigon, Vietnam, 2012


Istanbul, Turkey, 2012


Istanbul, Turkey, 2012


Colombo, Sri-Lanka, 2012


Madrid, Spain, 2012


Madrid, Spain, 2012


Madrid, Spain, 2012


Moscow, Russia, 2012


Beirut, Lebanon, 2011


Beirut, Lebanon, 2011

Comment. For night time, interior and generally low-light shooting night-vision cameras, as they are called, are highly recommended. That means cameras with quality, low-noise ISO. I have been using a Canon 1D X lately as my “mainstay” and a Fujifilm X-Pro1 for quick shots. You can find out what kind of camera was used to make an image in the image’s EXIF data.

My examples are not an argument for shooting only in the rain, at night or under lamps, of course, but I hope they inspire you to keep snapping the shutter without a strong sun out there.

P.S. Look through your image folders. You will probably find attractive color pictures made outside direct sunlight. If you care to share them, feel free to attach them here – but please only choose the best. :)

© Original post in Russian:
http://fujifilmru.livejournal.com/17013.html
29 November 2012

“LIFELIKE: A Book on Color in Digital Photography”