About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Basic blending of layers in Photoshop

A simple tutorial recorded on location during the 2017 Composing The Dunes workshop in Namibia. This 7 minute video covers an easy workflow to blend two images in Photoshop using layers and masks.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The ethics of Travel Photography

Like a lot of photographers, I find it extremely difficult to approach complete strangers and photograph them. It’s the same if I am photographing an event - where I am supposed to be the photographer - or whether I am wandering down the street pretending to be Henri Cartier-Bresson or Eric Kim. I have lost images because I didn’t have the courage to simply raise the camera and press the shutter, or even ask the person whether I could take their picture. I am simply in awe of photographers like my friend Myllo Menorah who are completely at ease photographing strangers. More than that, he is able to create an instant connection that translates into the images that he creates.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Balancing The Light - Graduated Neutral Density Filters

The Fish River Canyon photographed using a Nisi 2 stop Hard filter on the Laowa 12mm ultra-wide with it's dedicated filter holder (Nisi also makes a filter holder for this unique lens)

Despite the incredible gains in photographic imaging over the last 20 years, one of the problems that photographers still have to contend with is the way that the visible range of tones in an image is recorded on a sensor (or film for that matter). Nowadays we talk about dynamic range as the range of tones that a digital sensor can faithfully reproduce without either blowing out the highlights in a burned out explosion of white, or sinking the shadows into unfathomable inky blackness. The way we have gotten round this for the last 30 to 40 years is through the use of graduated neutral density filters (or GNDs for short). These are particularly important for landscape photography as it is in this genre of that we most come across the problem of bright skies against a dark foreground.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Big Stoppers - Blocking The Light

Photographed in the early morning using Nisi 10 Stop neutral density and Nisi 2 stop reverse graduated neutral density filters

This is part two of a multi-part essay on square filter systems available to South African photographers (although this is applicable internationally as well). The first part on the holder systems themselves can be read here. An earlier article on shooting long exposure photography can be read here.

Prior to the advent of digital photography, film photographers relied heavily on the square filter system in order to balance contrast in a scene. More particularly, to balance the bright sky against the comparatively darker foreground. The graduated neutral density (GND for short) was the most important reason for having a square filter system. Solid neutral density filters (ND for short) tended not to be the primary reason you invested in a filter system to start with. In fact, it wasn’t really until digital still photography overtook film that solid neutral density filters became a ‘thing’ that photographers looked for. Looking back at an old Cokin brochure (which I think is from the late 1990s) there are only three options for a solid neutral density for their square system; these being 1, 2 and 3-stop filters. Now however, we get filters that block as much as 15 stops of light from passing through them.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The 100mm Square Filter System : Part 1 - The Filter Holder

Shot using a Nisi 6 Stop neutral density and Nisi 2 stop Hard reverse graduated neutral density on a V2 holder

Prior to the introduction of digital cameras into mainstream photography, even beginner photographers tended to carry a selection of filters in their camera bags. These filters ranged from the technical through to the ridiculous (remember the rainbows and kaleidoscope pictures that graced all photography magazines in the 80s? Very kitsch). Thankfully digital photography put an end to the use of some filters. After all, now the average photographer could ruin a good photo with digital effects rather than with oddball filters. Unfortunately a number of photographers also abandoned technical filters right at a time when they actually became more important in controlling exposure (more important as early digital cameras had less dynamic range1 than print film, and in some cases, less even than transparency film). 

For the most part the digital revolution has meant that a great deal of image adjustment can take place in the computer rather than the camera. Despite the fact that the dynamic range of cameras extends almost to that of the human eye, the camera is still limited by its own controls and lens characteristics. This is where intelligent use of high quality technical filters comes into its own. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Truth and Perception

Unfairly the photograph is held to an esteem that it cannot uphold. That of truth. Of late there have been a few instances where the veracity of the image has come into question. The young photographer, Souvid Datta, has once more been caught in the crosshairs of negative opinion where an image of his has been found to have been staged, but depicted as reality. Earlier this year he found himself in hot water when it was shown that some award winning images of his had subjects cut and pasted from Mary Ellen Mark’s work. Then there is the practical hounding of veteran National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry and his heavy-handed use of photoshop in some of the images of his, as well as his apparent efforts to stage images in his famous coverage of India in the 1980s for National Geographic. Do we expect too much of photography, or should we rather adjust the way we see the medium?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sharpening in Lightroom

Before getting into the sharpening protocol in Lightroom it’s important to point out that I don’t think LR has the best sharpening abilities available. It works well as a first stage sharpener to rid the camera of any softness caused by the camera’s Anti-Alias filter. Thereafter I recommend using a sharpening protocol in Photoshop which I'll be posting shortly, but is also available on the legacy link here. If you are wanting to sharpen straight from RAW then I would also suggest using either a plugin for Lightroom like Nik’s Sharpener Pro (sadly now discontinued of support, but still working for the time being) or a plugin like that from Topaz Labs.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Overcoming GAS

What the Duck - What camera to buy

Gear Acquisition syndrome that is, not the flatulent kind. I’m not really sure when the term GAS was first coined (possibly it was Eric Kim), but I suspect it’s been used for a long time and if not named has been around for as long as photographers have set their tripods up and peered down a brass encased lens. To this day I don't think I have met a photographer who doesn’t have some level of GAS. There are varying degrees of affliction admittedly, but we all have it. The worst is obviously the silver bullet chase…seeking out the piece the of gear that will make your photography better, will transcend everything you have used before, and turn you into a Cartier-Bresson overnight. Those with not quite as serious an illness will still spend hours poring over the minutia of the equipment that they are looking to invest in, deliberate for weeks, and then still wonder whether they have acquired the right kit once it is finally in their hands.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Four More Lightroom Tricks that Work to Speed Things Up

Speeding up Lightroom Workflow
Last year I wrote a brief article suggesting some tips to spending up your workflow in Lightroom. To whit, these were to learn some shortcut keys, learn to copy and paste settings as well as use the ‘previous’ button and figure out how to create presets. These are still extremely important, but here are a couple more to digest and hopefully increase the speed with which you work through your images. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Exploring the Island Continent - Madagascar Photographic Recce

Several years ago, sitting in the dry heat of Namibia sipping a beer, I asked Nick van de Wiel, my partner with Nature's Light, "What about Madagascar?"
I remember him laughing and saying something along the lines of, "Sure! You organize it, we do it", not for a second thinking that we would actually manage to put together a photographic trip on the odd land mass floating off the east coast of Africa. That conversation was on the tail end of our now annual Composing The Dunes workshop in Namibia. Typing this, I am sitting on a Airlink Avro plane with the ochre coloured rivers of Madagascar shimmering in the late afternoon sun far below us. Somehow we managed to put it together...

Madagascar is not an easy country to visit. Putting together something like a photographic workshop is even more difficult. To try and sort out the logistics in the French speaking country, we teamed up with the dynamic team at Island Continent Tours. Meeting with them last year at Durban’s Travel Indaba, they were the only tour operators that were prepared to give us the inch of flexibility that is required for the specific needs of photographers. Even then, there are a number of things that need to be adjusted when we return in 2018 (yes, as I write this we are taking inquiries and bookings for next year’s workshop to this mysterious island). In a nutshell, there are virtually no dedicated photography workshops (as opposed to tours), that take in Madagascar save for a few wildlife workshops in the country’s northern regions.

The dearth of dedicated photographic trips is not surprising considering the logistics of getting virtually anywhere in the country. Travel in Madagascar is difficult. Driving in Antananarivo - the country's capital - makes driving in Kenya's Mombasa look like cruising down open highways (if you have ever been in Mombasa's nightmarish traffic you'll appreciate the sarcasm). Driving on the  winding potholed roads is exceedingly slow, and that's on the tarred roads. Much of Madagascar relies on narrow sandy tracks. In some places access can only be made on foot. Then there is the spotty electricity, occasional lack of decent accommodation (for anything except the roughest of travellers) and the usual issues of travelling in third world countries.

Yet Madagascar has been one of the most rewarding places that I have ever been to visit. The people were open and friendly, the scenes fascinating, the food utterly phenomenal, and the photography richly rewarding in everything from mountain landscapes, to fascinating faces, to incredible forests and trees, to lonely sweeps of coastline and more besides. Every day brought something new into the viewfinder.

Travelling from Anatananrivo on our first day we made an early start in order to miss the dreaded traffic that is akin to Dante's seven circles of hell. Then we suddenly found ourselves on a sinuous highland road floating above thick pockets of mist that drifted lazily up from the yellow and green patchwork of rice paddies that are the hallmark of Madagascar's agriculture (being something of a reconnaissance trip we didn't spend nearly enough time photographing these scenes - an error that we intend to correct next year). Slowly we made our way down from the highlands to the flat lowlands and their broad rivers and sped (finally), on towards Morondava on the west coast of the island.

Morondava is home to probably the most iconic scene of Madagascar; the 'Allee de Baobab'. I remember looking at the Alley of Baobabs in a National Geographic magazine as a child and thinking how incredible it would be to visit this phenomenal location. Standing in the dark as stars twinkled above the giant trees was something of a lifelong dream. The silence is shattered pretty suddenly though as a village is literally 20 meters from the alley, which we were very much surprised by. Being there before dawn meant that we had a precious few moments to explore the baobabs before village life erupted and other tourists arrived..

From the baobabs we then took the extremely long and bumpy road to Bekopaka and the Big Tsingy. As amazing as the Tsingy was, we may very well not visit again as the travel involved getting there and back literally exhausted our group, to the point that less than half of us went to visit the famous geological feature that is the 'Stone Forest'. More exciting in many ways was the actual effort of getting there…two long ferry rides in rumbling, smoking ferries with their worn and splintered wooden decks and numerous water crossings through thick clinging mud. Getting to the Tsingy was an adventure indeed.

One of the primary reasons for visiting Madagascar as a photographer, a landscape photographer in particular, is the fact that the island is home to six of the nine species of baobab trees found. Nowhere else in the world do you get to see this many baobabs in such close proximity to each other. Even Kubu Island in Botswana with its incredible baobab stand, is positively bare of trees in comparison to the alleys and spinneys of trees that are found throughout Madagascar. The Allee de Baobab is the best known of these groupings, but we came across countless others as we travelled south of Morondova towards Tulear.

Just before reaching Andravadoaka, as you exit the spiny desert on the coast, we spent some time with an incredible stand of Adansonia rubrostipa, commonly known as the fony baobab. These low and squat bulging trees all had a row of wooden stakes driven into their sides as villagers use these step-ways to collect the baobab fruit annually. As the sun sunk low on the horizon the trees’ skins glowed a vivid orange against the purpling sky above. It’s hard not to feel in awe when you stand next to these strange giants.

This is the thing with Madagascar. Everything was slightly strange to our eyes. It really is as if the island has developed separately from the rest of the world. Looking at the quintessential Madagascan animal, the lemur, seems to be proof enough to the ordinary visitor of Madagascar’s separate identity. Walking along the paths of Anja park near Ambalavao, we were mesmerised by the antics of the famous ring-tales lemur. Here the quixotic animal is considered if not sacred, taboo (or fady), to harm. As a result, despite not being a national park, the lemurs mingle up close to the visitors, only really becoming concerned if you move within hands reach.

Yet, Madagascar is also well known to be a country that is slowly tearing itself apart environmentally. Astronauts on the International Space Station have famously said that from the earth’s orbit the silt laden rivers make the island look as if it is ‘bleeding’ out into the ocean. The obvious signs of environmental degradation are virtually everywhere to be seen. Driving from the Highlands to the West, vast sprawls of grassland, pock-marked with the scars of red erosion, are pointed out as having been heavily forested no more than 50 years ago. Crossing thick ochre and red coloured rivers heavy with minerals washed away by the extraordinarily intensive rice growing agriculture. Standing atop a range of mountains where the only trees visible are all alien, invasive from Australia and South America. Flying over the mountains and seeing the deep gashes of uncontrolled mining. All of these are the worrying signs of a country that is rapidly, rather than slowly, losing it’s environmental wealth. Disturbingly I heave heard from several places, ‘visit Madagascar while you still have the chance’.

Then you look into inquisitive and inquiring face of one of the many children that we came across. Stop the car for more than a minute and you will find yourself surrounded by youngsters that seem to spill out of the surrounding forest or bush in an unabated stream. Admittedly, children the world over exhibit open curiosity towards strangers - particularly those that they hope are bearing sweets - but here adults too would wave and smile, an open welcoming that seems fast to be disappearing from the rest of Africa, if not the rest of the world. We found this to be the case in all but one location which we visited, (a cultural tourist trap where we felt our presence was resented by some and seen as a money-making exercise by the rest).

One of the most striking aspects of the country though, is the seeming halt in the passage of time. Wandering past the red mud plastered walls of the houses typical to the highlands, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you have re-entered a pre-industrial world. An ox cart rattles by as villagers swipe long bushes of rice against an old log to release the grains from the stalks. The dress of the people is more reminiscent of the 19th century, let alone the 20th. The incongruousness of it  all can be overwhelming as you drive into Antananarivo in the fading light of dusk and see a rice paddy being worked by hand, chewing zebu cattle to one side, while a beautiful woman with the cocoa-butter skin of Polynesian ancestry, dressed as if on the streets of Paris or London, strides past speaking rapid French into the brushed metallic casing of an iPhone.

Before setting out to Madagascar I heard contradictory opinions of the island. As the Bradt travel guide points out; people seem to either love Madagascar, or hate it. It is not the kind of location that hits you in the face with it’s wonders. Namibia, which I visit regularly comes to mind. Rather Madagascar creeps up on you. I personally enjoy finding new scenes to photograph, new places to explore. For photographers who want to try something new, Madagascar is very much brimming with potential. I was astounded looking at the limestone coastline of the Andavadoaka area, mesmerised by the razor-sharp stone spires of the Big Tsingy, in complete awe of the dolomite peaks of Betsileo, completely smitten with the myriad shapes and groups of the majestic baobabs and fell in love with the rolling plateau between Isalo and the Bishop’s Hat, (itself worthy of far more photographic attention). Yet, with all these fascinating locations, Madagascar is actually under-represented photographically. A quick search through 500px pulled up far fewer images than a similar search of Namibia or Iceland - those it did find tended to be of lemurs and chameleons. So there is a wealth of potential for the photographer willing to travel to Africa’s satellite island.

Flying back, as the thrum of the aircraft engine plays like a memory-enhancer, I am already looking forward to revisiting the island continent. The shimmer of the Mozambican Channel is broken below by the shallow waters of the reef-bounded west coast. I think I can make out the estuary system that must be Morondova as it slips from view behind the tail of the aircraft. There is so much more to explore.

Nature’s Light will be returning in May 2018 with a slightly altered 17-18 day itinerary. The brochure and pricing will be available from the 1st of August, but early ‘bookings’ will be accepted. There is limited space for only 5-6 guest photographers.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Getting Negatives Digital

Recently I have been shooting a reasonable amount of film. This is both as part of a personal project that I started two years ago as well as for the fact that shooting film is fun. I started shooting film back in the early 90’s as a teenager so there is no problem with understanding how to use it. Back then though I had access to darkrooms where I could develop and print the images. At University I had an almost unlimited supply of film and chemicals as well as unhindered access to an excellent darkroom that gave me both black and white development as well as E6 development for transparency film. At that stage the best way to get your film onto a computer - if you needed it there in the first place - was to scan the film on a neg scanner or send it off to a lab where you could get a proper drum scan. A friend and I bought a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED together which I still have and which to this day is still considered the benchmark for desktop scanning (I still sell images through Getty Images of transparencies that were scanned using this scanner).

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Lure of Landscape


Several years ago I wrote an article about why I call myself a landscape photographer. Paul Greenway wrote a really insightful response to this around why he felt a photographic label was unnecessary; we are photographers first and foremost. I agree with this, but (there is always a but isn't there), I still feel that there is something inherently different in the way that landscape photography can be pursued. Note that I say 'can' rather the way it is pursued by many. An invitation to speak at the Ballito camera club gave me the excuse to think a little harder about why I think this is so.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Story-Telling in a Sea of Imagery

The rise of photography and the consumption of imagery has been utterly inexorable. Photography is now 178 years old if we take the first official announcement of the first permanent daguerrotype image as it’s birth date. In 2000, at the absolute crest of celluloid film’s realm as the photographic medium of choice,  Kodak announced that 80 billion images were produced in that year. In 2015 we apparently hit 1 trillion images created annually, making something of a mockery of the 80 billion figure reached at the turn of the century. As we progress into 2017 it is estimated that we will produce between 1,2 to 1,3 trillion images. Just to be clear on this - That’s a thirteen digit number (twelve zeros)!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Love of Film

 I check the thermometer once more before noting the time on my phone's stopwatch and inverting the Paterson tank, followed by the usual tap-tapping of its base against the kitchen counter. I'm doing this so that air bubbles don't get trapped between the loosely wound celluloid film, leaving pockets that don't get enough of the silver dissolving chemicals that are sloshing around inside the light-tight tank. Fourteen minutes is up and I pour out the now blackened (dark from dissolved silver crystals) developer before adding the hypo solution we call fixer to the tank. This will then 'fix' the light sensitive silver halide crystals that remain on the film, ensuring that when I finally remove the film from the tank, the images won't immediately fade into a splodgy darkness. Five minutes later, unable to contain my excitement, I check the wet film against the light to see the faces and places I have captured shining back at me in inverse tones (it's always been like this, that sense of excitement and trepidation after developing a roll of film). Then, being responsible, I return the film reel back to the tank for a thorough wash.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Using Guided Transform in Lightroom

A few updates ago Adobe went and added one of their more useful updates to Lightroom CC. Often I am very critical of the way they update their apps, but the addition of the 'Guided' transform in the Transform panel is a genuinely useful tool that speeds up adjustments to architectural images. Essentially what it does is add the ‘Distort’ feature from Photoshop’s Free Transform to Lightroom while simultaneously making it slightly simpler or more intuitive to use.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Seeing the World in Slow Time

Several years ago (okay possibly, more than several - more like a decade) I came across an article by the Canadian nature photographer Darwin Wigget entitled ‘Painting With Time’ (I tried to track the article down but it seems to have been converted into an ebook so is no longer freely available). I had always been interested in long exposure photography, but the images that Darwin Wigget posted were mesmerizing. From then I found myself increasingly trying to slow the world down in a single frame so that a dimension of time played out in the image. Rather than a frozen moment in time - Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ - a period of time could be seen in an instant. In some ways it’s seemed to invert the way we look at photographs. Rather than a single moment gazed upon for longer than the image took to capture, now we would look at the image for a shorter period of time than it took to create (well in a way; we always hope that our images resonate and that people gaze at them for ages, and if we are extraordinarily lucky they do).

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Image Divorced From Context

Usually at the end of every year we have a series of images paraded before us that are supposedly ‘the images of the year’. If the publication nominating them is a journalistic enterprise, we tend to see images that convey some of the more newsworthy events of the year. Other’s such as National Geographic pull from the images that were created for their stories, but tend to be nominated along lines of photographic prowess. Admittedly I am prone to an introspective cynicism at the start of the year, but found myself rather depressed at this year’s crop of images. Not because they weren’t good. No, in fact the imagery is brilliant. Rather, it is because of the response to the imagery that my usual levels of cynicism were bested.