Saturday, December 14, 2013

Otherworldly photographic colours

click photo to enlarge
I was looking at some competition-winning photographs online recently. Those judged the best were chosen by the popular vote of the particular online community. As I went from category to category - landscape, still-life, travel, etc - a recurring thought kept popping into my head: "Which planet were these shots taken on?" The reason for my query? The colours of many of those selected were so heavily saturated, so unnatural looking, so "otherworldly" that they were unbelievable as images of planet Earth.

This penchant for bright, deep, fantasy colours has, I think, grown with the rise of digital. Sometimes it's down to the preference of the photographer. On other occasions "vivid", "saturated" or some other synonym is the default setting of the camera, chosen by the manufacturers in preference to "natural" or "standard", because the they know these stronger colours will appeal to buyers. Deeper colours can also be a deliberate or perhaps even an unwitting manipulation of the saturation slider by the photographer who makes that choice because they feel that's how "good" photographs now look or how they must look in order to win photographic competitions. Then there's the influence of HDR, Instagram and all the other "effects" that are so easily applied digitally. Well, I wish it would stop. I wish that photographic colours would look more like they do in life.

However, there are three more reasons why saturated colours abound. Two causes are hard to deal with and the other should be left alone. The first is the inability of camera sensors to accurately record all colours in all situations. Colour film couldn't do it and neither can digital. If you want total accuracy you've sometimes got to adjust the hues the camera records to a closer approximation of what your eye saw. And that's not always easy. Then there's the fact that monitors are frequently not colour calibrated. Consequently there is often a mis-match between the way the colours of a particular photograph are seen on different computers and devices. Finally, there's the fact that sometimes, in some lights, the natural colours of the world are saturated in a way that makes them look unreal. A few weeks ago I pointed out a pasture to my wife that was so intensely green it looked like it had been spray painted. It probably had been sprayed, but with fertiliser and herbicides. Then, more recently we saw dozens of small clouds at sunset that were a vibrant salmon pink against a glowing cyan blue sky. On this occasion I actually said to my wife, "A photograph of this sky would look like it had been heavily manipulated in Photoshop." Where otherworldly, unusual colours occur naturally there's nothing that needs doing to change the photograph. Today's shot has something of these qualities because the colours look unreal or manipulated. I took it near the River Thames in London, and it's as it came out of the camera, the colours fairly close to what we saw in what was the second best London sunset I've ever seen. For the very best London sunset of the past few decades, one that was widely acknowledged as such, see my photograph here. Note - I did use a graduated neutral density filter for this shot.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Sony RX100
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: crop of 37.1mm (100mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f5
Shutter Speed: 1/100 sec
ISO: 125
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On