Meet my new camera; the OnePlus 1 cell phone with a 37mm clip that allows a polariser or variable ND filter. These two filters prevent the two big issues with mobile phone cameras (clipped highlights due to low dynamic range, loss of contrast when pointed at bright scenes).
Images saved as .dng. Post processing: Tiffen Dfx 4, but only to emulate ND Grad filters, which I didn’t have on the day.
A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real Photoshop filter that screws onto the front of your camera lens and just makes color look better? If landscapes, architecture, seascapes and vehicles are your thing, there is such a filter: the varicolor polarizer.
The varicolor consists of two tinted polarizers rotated 90 degrees from each other. Thus light is colored by one or other of the two tints depending on its phase… um, that means absolutely nothing to most people, so here’s a better description:
Most landscape scenes have two types of light: direct and reflected light, such as
Direct light from the sky vs light that has been reflected from water
Direct light from the sky vs reflected light coming from the ground.
Reflected light coming from two very different surfaces, typically shiny vs rough.
Highlights and reflections vs non-highlights from the same metallic object (typically vehicles).
The varicolor filter will separate the direct and reflected sources and tint them via two different colors. The amount of tint can be varied by simply rotating the filter.
Many photographers assume a varicolor is simply a variable warming and cooling filter, and the packaging on one of the main suppliers of varicolors, Cokin, does little to kill this miss-assumption.
It is true that a varicolor filter can be used just for global warming/cooling, and can totally change the lighting.
More usually though, you make slight changes to the ambient. You are more typically not trying to tint the scene so much as tint the direct and reflected light via two complementary colors ( typically, but not always, warming and cooling) to get a visual separation between the two.
Buying a varicolor filter
Varicolor is an effect most suitable for wide angle lenses. There are two companies that sell wide angle varicolor filters, Singh-Ray (‘gold-n-blue’) and Cokin (P173). Hoya also do them, but in smaller sizes (typically 58mm) that are not really useful as we are nowhere near wide angle diameters.
The Singh-Ray is priced too high for most people’s pockets. The Cokin is about 1/5 the cost and very affordable, but comes as a square cassette for the Cokin P Series holder rather than a standard 77mm filter thread (such as the one I need for my Tokina 11-16mm, a lens that suits a varicolor perfectly).
There is a third option: make your own standard varicolor filter, using a cheap Cokin P173 and an even cheaper no-brand circular polarizer filter.
Making a standard 77mm varicolor filter
The Cokin filter cartridge is easy to open (you just prise it open with a knife at one corner enough to get your fingernails in, then open it with fingers – it opens very easily as it isn’t glued down) to reveal a much more standard looking circular 75mm glass filter body. We next need a standard 77mm CPL (circular polarizing filter) to put the varicolor glass into. It has to be a CPL filter because like a varicolor, the CPL has to be rotatable on the lens for it to work. It also has to be a non-low profile CPL, for reasons we will see next.
When you take the varicolor filter glass out from the Cokin cassette, the first thing you will notice is how heavy and thick it is. A standard CPL is about 1.5mm thick glass. The varicolor is three times that: 4.5mm. In other words, it is half the thickness of a standard window pane!
That makes a kind of sense: the varicolor is two CPL filters, each with its own color filter added on, so we are talking x2 CPLs which takes us up to 3mm, and then x2 color filters on top of that. The upshot of this is that you cannot use a low profile CPL filter ring: it has to be full height.
Even with a full height filter, I had problems putting the varicolor into the CPL filter ring. The varicolor is just too thick! The only way to get it to fit was to reverse the filter retaining ring as shown below. The varicolor is about 2mm smaller in diameter than a standard 77mm CPL, and you can use that space by turning the retaining ring over so it goes down further into the filter, and just enough to become fully threaded into the filter body.
Rotating the completed filter whilst looking through it at the sky, you will see the sky tint from bluish to yellow, going through a series of pinks and magentas at the midpoint. If you have any reflected light in the scene (coming from windows, water, or highlights on pretty much anything), they will take the opposite tint to the sky. This occurs because one CPL is tinting the direct (sky) light and the other one is tinting the reflected light.
Choosing the varicolor tint pair
The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.
As well as the P173 (blue-yellow), Cokin also do the P170 (red-green) P171 (red-blue) P172 (pink-orange) and P174 (blue-lime). The p173 varicolor is the most popular because its two colors match the white balance temperature range. I’d be tempted to start with a P173, and chances are that it’s the only one you will ever need.
So, using the P173, you can tint the two light transmission types (reflected, direct) in a scene so one is warmer and the other is cooler. In the photos of the wood above, the light coming from the sun is cooled via the varicolor, and the leaves and foliage are made warmer. This creates a nice contrast between the two, and the lighting and reflected light thus become more prominent than it was on the day.
Using a varicolor
Although a varicolor can be used to give a nice warm-cool color balance differential between the sky and ground, its standard textbook use is where there is water, reflecting metal, or glass.
The above three photos were all shot with the same P173 filter, rotated to get the leftmost and rightmost versions.
Most people don’t care for this effect. Not only is the water overly tinted, every other color is way off via an undesirable cast. The effect puts a lot of photographers off, until you realize the secret of using varicolors properly…
The secret to using a varicolor is realizing that they move your overall white balance, and you need to fix this in post, removing any introduced color cast and pulling the varicolor effect back towards something much more desirable.
Setting the white balance (in this case by clicking the Lightroom white balance selector tool on the ground below the tree trunk to set it back to its original neutral grey) will also reduce the effect of the tint.
If you are shooting landscape, a bit of white cloud or grey ground will suffice to set white balance, but more generally, you need a grey card. If you don’t have one, an almost perfect stand-in is a square of card from an unwaxed, unbleached breakfast cereal box. The inner side makes a perfect grey card for the purpose of white balance. If you expect to be in direct sunlight, get a smooth stone or a bit of fine emery cloth and sand the grey side down for about a minute so it starts to lighten slightly. I’ve tested such a piece of sanded card against a calibrated X-Rite grey card, and the resulting color balance is consistently within 1% of the calibrated (and very expensive) X-Rite!
Varicolor filters and seascapes
A varicolor really starts to shine when you use it on seascapes.
The situation where a blue-yellow varicolor absolutely excels is when you need to take a photo of the sea on an overcast or very bright day. In this case, both the sky and sea will be the same grey (or blue-white). Grey on grey isn’t a very compelling color scheme. The grey light of the sky is at a different phase to the grey coming from the sea though, so using a varicolor we can save the day by creating a color separation where there was previously only grey. In fact, in this situation, the varicolor is a requirement to getting a decent shot unless you want to do some serious post processing!
In the shot below, I used the varicolor to turn the water blue, ignoring what was happening to the sky.
We now have some color separation between the sky and sea, but white balance has been totally destroyed and we need to reset it in post. We can either select the blue of the sea as our white balance point (which will warm the entire image towards sepia, and might have been appropriate if the sun was in the sky), or the grey of the sky (which will give us a blue sea and grey sky). Both will fix the issue, but will give us a totally different look. I want a blue sea, so have clicked the sky:
Tweaking the image further gives us our final photo…
In the actual scene, the sky and sea were the same color, and although this final version has been processed for exposure, I have hardly altered color at all apart from the initial white balance correction and lowering yellow from the foam. I left most of the color correction to my trusty real-life Photoshop filter – the Cokin P173.
Another cool use of the P173 is when you are using HDR photography. HDR will take the varicolor tints and overdrive them, giving you a dramatic effect.
When shooting HDR of fast moving water, it makes sense to use a fast shooting camera. The Sony A77 does 12 frames per second. That and its fast WYSIWYG live view make it perfect for landscape HDR, especially if like me you prefer to shoot hand held.
Disadvantages of the varicolor
As mentioned earlier, the varicolor is really two tinting CPL filters. It comes as no surprise then that the varicolor has such a strong color effect as it is really two filters, each with two elements (CPL+tint).
You will have the usual negative issues of stacking what is really two filters onto a lens, the biggest one being stop loss: you lose up to two stops of light. That’s enough to kill your autofocus even on a bright sunny day. Fast f2.8 glass is pretty much a must, otherwise its down to tripod and manual focus.
Vignette is another issue, so you may need to correct for that in post.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, a varicolor is seriously thick glass: 4.5mm, which is half the thickness of a standard window pane. On the bright side, such a filter is complex, so you simply can’t get cheap knock-off versions, and there are really only two brands available (Singh-Ray and Cokin).
Varicolors are typically only recommended for landscapes with water, and many photographers simply dismiss them as a variable tinting filter, but they can be used for so much more once you realise that the secret to their use is fixing white balance in post. After that, they become very useful, being able to make mundane color look dramatic (and often the focus of the shot).
They allow you to set the warmth of reflected light coming from windows in architectural and motor vehicle shots.
They allow you to crank up the contrast between the light coming from the sky and the light reflected from the ground, something that can make all landscape shots look different, bringing up color and enhancing lighting.
They create iridescence (think ‘body of a peacock’) when you shoot close-up foliage and car bodywork, especially when you have highlights.
They can act like an all-in-one warming-to-cooling filter when you have flat lighting
A blue-yellow varicolor is something to try out in all use cases where you would reach for your wide angle lens. It will be a firm favourite with anyone who has one of the affordable super-wide lenses (Tokina or Sigma) but you will need to do some DIY to move the filter glass from a Cokin P series cassette to a screw in filter, or you need to hold your breath and get a Singh-Ray.
Perhaps the best thing about the varicolor is that not many photographers use them. They don’t realise the white balance trick or are off put by the two stop light loss. That makes the varicolor a less used filter than it deserves and far from being an overused effect. In fact, if you pull back the effect with white balance, nobody will guess you created the effect optically!
All forest photos shot with an Olympus Stylus 1 (the varicolor was hand-held in front of the lens).
All seascapes shot with a Sony Alpha A77, Tokina 11-16mm, with the varicolor modded to screw onto the Tokina as a standard 77mm filter.
One: finish Everything, Two: leave physical marks, Three: set a personal standard, Four: upgrade skills not equipment, Five: create a journey.
We all do photography for various reasons: work, enjoyment, or simply because its a good reason to get out (and unlike golf, doesn’t ruin your walk) but there is one thing that we all want. We want to be better. Here’s how I intend to be better.
One: Finish Everything.
Whatever you do, finish it. The only thing you ever waste is uncompleted work.
If you have an idea that you don’t want to expand, at least share it as a complete concept that others can pick up. If you take a series of bad photographs, compare them to your best work and reach closure by knowing what went wrong.
Two: Leave Physical Marks.
Every year, select your single best photograph. Get it printed on a canvas. Sign it on the front and date it on the back.
We live in a digital, social world, and it is easy to believe that the online world is where your final work sits. It doesn’t.
Print your best photograph for posterity every year. Canvas prints don’t even cost much anymore, (even archival canvas prints are now cheap). Over time, they will become your body of work: a display of your best stuff. More importantly, you will have this final medium in mind whenever you raise the camera, and will start thinking ‘what do I have to do to make this one my best of the year?’. Competing with yourself is the best game because there are no losers.
Even if you do not intend to earn a living or find fame through photography, those canvases will go to your family when you die. Something for them to remember you through what you did. Forget Facebook and Instagram: those canvases will become real social media.
Three: Set a Personal Standard
If you want to get better at photography, you have to set a standard.
The main subject must be sharp unless there is a good reason for it to be otherwise.
The main subject must be within 0.3eV of correct exposure out-of-camera.
I must be able to explain the composition to myself.
I must be able to explain the artistic direction or theme to myself.
Here’s an example of this:
OK, my four rules are not much of a standard, but they do something crucial. They allow me to recognize an unsuccessful photograph through structured self-criticism.
Have a look at this photograph. Lots of mistakes here! A few years ago, I would have discarded it because I can see my thumb (bottom left), the scene is crooked and the lighting is a dull grey. Despite that, I now know it meets rather than breaks my standard: it’s a keeper.
I know I took this shot specifically because the lighting is grey (I can easily re-color or even replace it in post because it is so uniform), and the composition is sound despite the camera being crooked. The finished shot is the first photograph in this article, and it is exactly what I was thinking of when I took the shot. In fact, the big difference between me as a photographer now and five years ago is that now I can see the final, post-edited shot when I raise my camera (because points 3 and 4 of my standard rules are always now at the back of my mind).
Four: Upgrade skills, not equipment
Upgrade your camera only when it is preventing you completing a project. Don’t upgrade simply because there is a newer model.
Upgrading hardware is a fool’s errand: there is always something better out there. Instead, identify the skills you need, and buy the equipment that facilitates them. Further, if there is no client with high spec deliverable requirments, a good photographer can get good results from almost any equipment irrespective of the price tag and manufacturor badge.
My main DSLR is an APS-C camera (a Sony Alpha A77). Full frame cameras are now cheap, so perhaps I should upgrade to one of those. Thinking about future work though, I realize I am poor on lighting skills, so I have instead kept the A77 and bought a set of flashes and modifiers/stands, the cost of which would have got me a second hand Canon 5D or Sony 7r. That Full frame camera would have been obsolete in two years, but a new set of photography skills created by investing in lighting will never go out of fashion.
Consider the photograph above. There’s direct sunlight coming in from the right, the subject is in shadow, and I only have a prehistoric HTC Desire cameraphone with very poor dynamic range and awful high ISO. I made it work by reflecting sunlight into the shadow from my red t-shirt. I knew to do that because of practice with speed-lights and modifiers, and the photo you see is practically as-shot (I’ve increased contrast, but that’s about it).
Five: Create a journey
Photography is a journey. If you look on the internet, you will be forgiven for thinking it is a technical journey: getting better at photography is a process of being comfortable with more advanced equipment. That’s the ‘upgrade path’ to becoming better, but there are alternative journeys:
Look at photographers you admire and see what they were doing when they were you.
Social media is a wonderful thing for learning: pick an upcoming photographer and they will have a 500px, Flickr or even Facebook site. Don’t look at their best photographs though: look at their first few. You will find that they started taking photographs just like the ones you started with, then they got better.
Look at that transition from the early photographs to the final style and you can see the journey you would have to take if you want to end up at the same point as them. By breaking it down to the actual photographs, you get the literal path they took.
Invariably, you will find that everyone who becomes famous sets a theme or style early on, and then quickly gets good at it. That’s a big clue: you do not get better by simply taking lots of photographs: you get better by setting yourself a direction then defining and completing projects within that direction.
As a good example, I just Googled ‘500px’, and one of the top results that came out was Elena Shumilova. Some nice shots of her kids growing up there, but look at the earliest five, and work forward to see the progression of skills: it’s obvious the photographer here started with solid photography skills but has seriously ramped up Photoshop skills to get the final look. Look carefully and you can identify the specific post-editing skills develop, because they start off obvious and get better with time.
Do what interests you
You’ll only ever complete anything if it interests you or you are getting paid for it. There always has to be a ‘more’ factor to make you care. For me it is an interest in places, stories and motion-graphics/video. Find what that ‘more’ is for you.
Everyone who excels sets themselves projects early on that fast track a skill-set. They finish what they start (or keep it all related and ongoing) to create a body of work that meets a standard they have set for themselves. To do the same, you have to do all the things I have already mentioned:
You have to define projects and finish them to a self-imposed standard.
You have to create a physical body of work because that is the end medium for photographers.
You have to define your equipment by the projects you envision yourself doing, and not define your projects by your equipment.
You have to enjoy and have a passion for what you do.
Every new year, WordPress sends all blog owners a traffic summary report, including the option to publish this report. Not for me: rather than share my blog stats I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about photography in 2013.
Beauty is never original
Beauty is defined by a set of common stereotypes and well defined templates and attributes. If you are only driven by a sense of beauty in your photography then by definition your work is not original because you are following the same well defined stereotypes and templates.
This hit me last year whilst looking at photographs someone else had taken of a location I had recently visited. His choice of photographic opportunities were not dissimilar to mine: we had taken the same photographs! Try it for yourself. Search on Flickr for a place you have been to and see how different the photographs are from yours. Usually not by much. What to do?
Modern art is often seen as ugly because it follows few of the standard/commercial ‘beauty stereotypes’, but that can make it much more original and cutting edge. So before you start following the same old set of templates (rule of thirds, only photographing photogenic people/landscapes, shooting only in good light and generally following accepted rules and practices), ask yourself ‘am I setting up my shots this way because I am trying to take something beautiful/commercial/safe (or worse, simply copying) when I should be aiming at something original?’.
Look at the photograph below. It’s my partner.
It was taken during chemotherapy for cancer. She’d lost all her hair and feeling very ill. She was sat in a nightgown and (understandably) feeling down and claiming she looked awful. I said she looked beautiful and that I would prove it. I took about 30 photographs over about 5 minutes. This is the first one in the sequence.
There’s lots of photo retouching tips and courses out there that defines ‘good’ in terms of stereotypical beauty. Believe me, there is far more to beauty than that. Sometimes you have to look for it, but often it is staring you in the face.
A photograph is a one frame movie
This is a key point that video editing has taught me. Look at your best photographs. I bet they are the ones that evoke memories, tell a story, include a visual joke, illustrate a concept, assume a context (or subvert an assumed context) or visually show the relationship between its subjects.
In all cases, a single frame sets off a visual or emotive sequence of thought in the mind of the viewer. That is also a good definition of the best movie scenes you have seen, right? So a good movie scene and a good photograph are perhaps more similar than we assume.
By thinking as a cinematographer when you take your shots, you start to include so much more in your photography. Instead of ‘capturing snapshots’, you start to think about other things, such as movement, relationships, story, back-story, humor, context, emotion. Thinking about ‘story’ in a single frame may seem a stretch too far in a single photograph, but bear with it, because as we will see, thinking about movement will always imply story.
The photograph above is taken some time after the chemotherapy had ended. Hair has started growing back and is nearly long enough to be styled. My partner should be happy, right? Have a look at the photograph, and tell me what you think she is saying about her hair. Is she as happy as she should be, and is she better than she was in the last photo? I was laughing when I took this photograph. Can you tell? Why?
I have clearly changed the color balance between the foreground and background. The background has a much colder color balance, and I have desaturated everything in the background except the reds. I have left the skin at the original, warmer balance. I have also used a very odd focal length: at 28mm, it is far wider than a typical portrait shot. What does this all add, and why have I taken it that way?
Finally, take a look at the photograph below.
This photograph follows almost no compositional rules. Yet for people born in the UK, it tells a very strong story: Summer. During summer, we get ice cream vans stopping on every street to sell ice-cream (US version is ‘ice cream truck’, although from what I am told, they tend to park near public events or near busy areas rather than go street to street).
That the ice cream van is almost totally hidden is part of the story: the photo was taken at child eye level. Just by looking at this photograph, I can imagine a much younger me running inside and asking/pestering for money to buy an ice-cream. and there’s the story and stream of images that our ‘one frame movie’ intends to instil in its target audience.
Learning about movement creates better stills
If your camera has a video capability, learn to use it as well as stills. The brain works in strange ways, and one of them is learning two related skills makes you much better in either of them. Developing a good cinematography eye will make your composition eye better. Here’s things I have learned through my video editing that I feel have made me a much better stills photographer:
Position your camera in the expectation of movement. If your subject is moving, you will already tend to leave free space in the direction of movement. By moving your camera like a video camera and anticipating future movement, you create a better composition. In fact, I now always move my camera as if I am taking video, and my photographs are now essentially key frames in the footage I would have taken if I was shooting video.
Create Tension. In script writing, the difference between a scene and ‘just people talking’ is the element of tension (which can be any kind of tension, comedic, suspense, suspension of disbelief, a growing call to action, etc). For example, a scene where two old friends are reminiscing is just ‘two people talking’ and has little interest. If you change the context so that the viewer knows one character is hiding an unfulfilled romantic love for the other, you have introduced tension making the conversation interesting. By creating an element of structural or emotional tension in your photographic composition, you make the photograph much more interesting in exactly the same way. If you think about it, this point is really just a rewording of beauty is never original. By setting up a beautiful or perfect scene and then adding an element of tension or opposition, you create an original twist that begs further investigation. If you are on a typical engagement shoot, where would you take the context if you gave the bride a gun as a prop? Would it take you in an original direction? You bet it would! Tension can also trigger a sequence of events or story in the mind of the viewer, which brings us to the next point
Color is a story shortcut. Color is routinely used to signify emotion or atmosphere in photography, and there’s nothing new in this. Blue for cold or natural expanse, red for strong emotion or heat, green for balance or nature. In cinematography, color is routinely used in a different way: it can give a visual cue to where the story is about to go. Read ‘If its Purple someone’s gonna die’ or any good book on movie scripting. If you want to buy into the ‘a photograph is a one frame movie’ concept then use of color to imply story or relationship between characters (or between characters and their environment) is key. Your ‘movie’ is only one frame long so you have to be succinct and you have to use color cues to imply story. Almost all my color edits in the photographs above are purely cinematic.
Take stories not photographs.
We are nothing without our internal stories. Without them we would only be instinctive animals with no sense of context, self, or history. The same goes for photographs. Don’t create visual icons or good-looking stereotypes: they are just not memorable because they have already been done to death. Instead, tell a story. One of the best ways to do this is think in terms of cinematography.
The easiest way to begin forcing yourself to do this is to make a resolution to press the video button on your DSLR more often. You will not only learn video. You may also start to think about stills differently.
Another easy way to think about your photograph is as a one frame movie. As well as thinking about photographic composition, its worth also thinking about cinematic scripting: what is the story and how do your choices in framing, color, depth of field and choice of focal length carry this story forward? Are there any elements that do not add anything to the story, and can they be removed?
I just noticed in the second photograph that the background mask misses bits. Look at the top of the hand on the right. This is what comes of uploading photographs before you’ve really finished the edit!
Natural textures tend to be similar, so using ice textures to change a sky is not as odd as it might seem
Although Photoshop can now generate organic noise and texture, back in the day we had to use our own. Even now, I find photographing my own textures, and using them instead of synthetic textures is much better. One of my favorite sources is ice.
A few days ago, I was wandering about the garden with not much to do. I came across the wheelbarrow. Not much to look at…
It contained leaves covered by iced water. I pulled out the ice to drain away the water and was about to walk away, when the sun came out. Never mind the mundane subject: I could only see the wonderful textures the light had suddenly created. I ran for my camera.
The photos here have not been re-colored in any way: I just waited until the side of the wheelbarrow was in full sun.
The photos have an ‘alien sunset’ feel to them. This is the sort of thing that comes in very useful in Photoshop, when you want to layer textures over an image to give it a more painterly or grungy effect. Using colored textures such as these, rather than just solid color filter values) is also useful when you want to add warmth or coolness to your photos.
Here’s what happens when I layer my alien sky over a simple and initially boring tree line.
I took some more photos…
Using a macro, I now zoomed into the ice surface.
All the images are taken with my 24MP Sony Alpha A77 at ISO 64. Looking at an actual size section above, you can see that there is zero noise, and lots of lovely organic texture (and as you can see, ice is rarely white: there’s every color of the rainbow there if you look close enough). Perfect source files for Photoshop layer effects!
Okay, onto an example of using our textures…
The photo on the left is as-shot. Looks nice, but for me it was missing something: the background is a little boring and dead. Layering in some ice texture in these areas lifts the final photo up considerably by adding movement, turning the final image into something much more organic.
Consider using your own textures rather than relying on Photoshop generated textures, except when you want pure noise. Natural textures tend to be similar, so using ice textures to change a sky (say) is not as odd as it might seem: both are natural fractals and therefore easier to blend into each other than (say) starting with synthetic Gaussian noise and trying to blend that into the sky.
Using your own photographed textures in Photoshop rather than using something like Instagram or Pixlr is preferable because the former (a) gives you a higher resolution final image, (b) you can create something more unique and personal to yourself because you are the sole content creator for the image and effect, and (c) with Instagram, any idiot who knows how to press a button can’t do just that and copy you!
Photographic equipment used: Sony Alpha A77, Sony 50mm/f1.8 prime, Sigma 24-70/f2.8, Tamron 90mm/f2.8 macro.