Stuart Shafran Conceptual Photography

Welcome to my very first attempt at writing a blog. I’ve always been a bit of a writer, but I’ve never written a blog before, so I guess I’ll have to see how it goes. I guess I’ll also have to explain what this blog is meant to be about, who it’s for and why I”m even bothering to write it. First, let’s start with what this blog is meant to be about. Quite simply, it’s about photography. Or more specifically, it’s about conceptual photography. Conceptual photography is basically photography where the purpose of taking the photo is to illustrate a specific idea. So the photo itself isn’t being taken to make money, to capture a particular moment in time or to present the viewer with a beautiful picture. The main objective of taking the photo is to express an idea. Now this can be pretty open ended, because an idea doesn’t have to be based on a particular genre and the only limitation is your own imagination. I’ll be talking far more about this in later blogs, but for now let’s just leave it at that and explain who this blog is actually for. I’m hoping to obtain a fairly broad readership, but the people who will read this blog probably all have one thing in common – they will primarily be interested in photography, or at the very least, in taking photographs. I’m also hoping that the people who read this will be interested in using photography as a means of expression, as an art form, as an outlet for their own ideas.

Portrait of man holding up one finger

No, the photograph above is not me. It’s a black and white picture of a man I met in the street in Montreal, Canada. I had an idea; I wanted to take pictures of people I met in the street. I wanted to take this man’s portrait because he was an appealing character and I wanted him in a certain pose that would express that character. I enjoy taking pictures and I enjoy thinking about the reasons behind why I take the pictures. Which brings me on to why I’m writing this blog. I am now at a point in my life where I can begin concentrating more fully on my photography. I feel like I’m at the beginning of a new journey, and I have the urge to describe this journey in detail, in the hope that people reading this can get something useful from it. But also in the hope that I can obtain something useful from the people reading this blog as well. It’s a two way thing – your thought, your comments, your criticisms, I’m hoping to use them to help me on my journey….

So there we have it! Let’s see happens next….


Japan Part 6 – Modern Japan

This is the final part of my Japan series, which I’m ending with a brief look at modern Japan. The images in this post were all taken in Tokyo. Although I took several shots of Pachenko parlours, maid cafe’s, cat and owl cafe’s etc., most of these were just fairly ordinary looking snapshots. So I decided to concentrate on images that either had lots of compositional lines in them, or were strong in contrast between light and dark. I also tried to give this set of images more of a black and white ‘film noir’ look.

I’ve really enjoyed going through my images of Japan, categorising and post processing them and thinking about which ones I should include in a photo-book and/or send off for printing. Next week though, it will be time to move on to something a little different…Tokyo, JapanTokyo, JapanTokyo, JapanTokyo street scene, JapanTokyo, JapanShinkansen, Japan

Japan Part 5 – Mystical Scenics

And a return to colour for this weeks blog post. Another of the many things that attracts me about Japan is the phenomenal scenery. Around four fifths of the country is mountainous and around two thirds is forest. Mountains and forests… the perfect combination for a landscape photographer. Which I’m not… but I do enjoy trying to make a modest attempt! When I began processing the scenic photos I took in Japan, the thing that I really wanted to portray with these images was the sense of mysticism and magic that I felt at the time. On certain days the weather conditions really helped… the mist and clouds high in the mountains and the light filtering through the trees. The selection of images here are a few that for me, represent some of the magic and mysticism of scenic Japan…Heron in tree with temple in backgroundLake by temple shrineBamboo forestDeer at NaraBridge over waterMisty mountains at Hakone

Japan Part 4 – Black and White, Dark and Gritty

Another selection of photographs from Japan… this time in black and white. The images this week are all high contrast, moderately grainy images showing a variety of still life subjects. The first image (above) was taken at night in the Gion district of Kyoto, famous for the traditional profession of Geiko and Maiko (Geisha).Two dragons playing Shogi

Shogi, or Japanese chess is a two player strategic board game, similar in some ways to Western chess but in other ways, vastly different. For example, pieces that have been captured can return to play on the side of the player who made the capture. Pieces can be promoted when reaching the opponents zone (the three rows closest to the player) and a promoted piece becomes more powerful in terms of how it can move. The object of the game is the same as Western chess though, to checkmate the king. I spotted this particular wood carved set in a folk art museum.The above two images are street shots. The first is the front of a traditional tea house (I think) and the second shows a row of hanging lanterns above a Chozuya (a sort of water fountain). I’ll explain more about the Chozuya for the next shot…A Chozuya is a Shinto symbolic purification facility and can be found at every shrine in Japan. It has running water from a spout (in this case the mouth of a dragon) into standing water. There are ladles available for people to use for washing hands and drinking, although you’re not supposed to drink directly from the ladle; you’re meant to pour the water into your left hand to drink.The image above is one of a number of stone statues of monks outside a temple in Kyoto.The picture above is a shot showing one of the older streets in Kyoto, this time taken during the day. I do have a good selection of street shots showing the modern side of Japan as well, but that will have to be a subject for another blog post!

Japan Part 3 – Ukiyoe, the world of Woodblock Prints

I was already familiar with Japanese woodblock prints as an art form before my most recent trip to Japan, but seeing them again in specialist shops in Tokyo and Kyoto inspired me to think about how I might go about emulating the particular look of a wood block print based on a photograph. Japanese woodblock prints originated in the seventeenth century and initially had a very limited colour palette. More colours were introduced in the 18th century, using vegetable dyes. By the 19th century the prints were getting fairly complex and the colours were more vibrant. To create something resembling a woodblock print from a photo, I would need to base my work on a particular style and colour palette.

For use as a reference point, the following picture is an example Japanese woodblock print of a more modern design:

It’s by an artist called Kawase Hasui and I selected this example as it shows a landscape view… something I might possibly be able to emulate (as opposed to an earlier style print featuring people which would be a lot more difficult to emulate). The colour palette isn’t overly vivid and there’s a fair amount of detail.

The first picture (top, above) is an initial attempt to create my own woodblock style print from a photograph. I first tried to simplify the photograph as much as possible by balancing the highlights and shadows to make the photo ‘flat’ i.e. remove the shadows and simplify the sky. I then used a software package called ‘Topaz Simplify’ which transforms photographs into cartoon-like images or simulated sketches. I had to play around with the settings a lot to obtain the particular look I was after. I also added a texture layer in photoshop to the image, which I thought made it resemble a woodblock print even more.

Having got something that I thought vaguely resembled the look of a woodblock print, I tried again with a few more photographs. Some worked quite well, others didn’t. Below are the results of transforming some of my photographs (that I thought worked) into simulated woodblock prints. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do with these images now, but it was an interesting experiment!

Japan Part 2 – People and Tradition

Mifune boat festival, Arashiyama, Kyoto

This weeks selection of photos from Japan feature people, either dressed in traditional clothing or participating in a traditional activity. This time I’ve processed all my photos in colour. To bring out the vibrancy of the colours and in keeping with the theme, I’ve used settings that emulate traditional film… mostly Fuji Provia.

So, on to the photos! The first one (above) was taken during the Mifune boat festival held on the third Sunday in May, which is a re-creation of an imperial boating party held by the emperor and his court during the Heian period, about 1000 years ago. The participants are on their way to the boats, where they engage in traditional dances, music and poetry recitations.

The above two photographs show women dressed in traditional kimono’s. Both shots were taken in the temple area at Asakusa, Tokyo.

Another traditional activity that seems quite popular (primarily in the tourist areas) are the rickshaw rides. The first of the two photos above is obviously a posed shot complete with ‘peace sign’ gestures. Normally I don’t like this sort of posed shot, but because they so readily agreed to be photographed and looked so happy, I had to include it.

The shot above is of a traditional flat bottomed boat similar to a sampan ( Chinese river boat) being propelled along by means of a pole. This photograph was taken in Arashiyama, Kyoto.

This final picture is of a rice farmer in the agricultural area at Hida, close to Takayama. Rice planting used to be manual work carried out with the aid of oxen, but the farmers nowadays use rice planting machines or tractors that can plant several rows of rice. Although retired now, this farmer owns and maintains his own rice field plot where he can cultivate and sell rice to supplement his income.

Japan Part 1 – Scenics in Infrared

Having recently spent a few weeks travelling in Japan with my wife, I’m now back in the UK with around 1600 photos ready for post processing. Japan is probably my favourite country in the world. This was my third visit to Tokyo, second to Hakone, but my first time in Kyoto and Takayama. Armed with two cameras, my little Fuji XE-2 and a Nikon D80 converted for infrared, I wanted to capture a wide range of shots which I could play around with; scenics, temples and street photography, colour and black and white.

Shooting in infrared involves a completely different way of working. You need bright sunlight, so no waiting for the ‘golden hour’ in the morning or evening – midday is the best time to get the shots. You also need to look for high contrast subjects, so trees or foliage against a dark blue sky or building works well… scenes with lots of non-contrasting foliage don’t work. And people look very strange in infrared, almost ghostly, so I try to make sure they’re either in the distance, with their backs turned or completely absent from the shot. The white balance has to be set up for the foliage to obtain that beautiful snow-white look and only certain lenses (usually primes) work properly with an infrared converted camera, otherwise you risk getting the dreaded ‘hotspot’ – an unnaturally overexposed bright spot in the photo which ruins everything. For the Nikon D80 I only use a 20mm prime which is equivalent to around 30mm on a full frame camera… a nice focal length for general use.

The following shots are a few examples of some of my scenics shot in infrared:Imperial palace, Tokyo

Bridge leading to entrance of imperial palace, Tokyo

Trees at Hamarikyu gardens, Tokyo

More trees at Hamarikyu gardens, Tokyo

Temple, Kyoto

Zen garden

Statue within temple complex

Heron by lake

Ryokan at Hourai-en, Hakone

Venice – Scenics

Venice is easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Because it is so beautiful though, it is also one of the most photographed cities in the world. With its narrow waterways, gothic architecture and vibrant colours, it’s a photographers (and painters) paradise. Canaletto set the bar high with his photo realistic paintings and it’s pretty easy to emulate the look of a Canaletto when taking colour images. That wasn’t what I was aiming for with this particular set of images though…

I had taken around 500 photographs in and around Venice, mostly scenic shots. Because my usual style is monochrome, I began post processing those images initially in black and white:

This seemed to work fine for architectural shots where I could emphasise the texture of a building or the contrast between a building and the sky, but I was finding that certain shots just didn’t work as well in black and white. I tried experimenting with more of a pictorial style:

But ultimately, Venice is a city of colour. I had no choice, it would be a crime not to do at least a few shots in colour! Starting initially with a subdued colour palette:

I began adding more colour:

Until finally succumbing to all-out full blown glorious technicolour!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be starting to process photos from my most recent trip abroad, so expect to see a few more scenic shots pop up in the blog… this time from Japan!

HDR by accident

Bath street scene with skeleton

‘HDR’ is an acronym for ‘high dynamic range’, which in photographic terminology means a photograph that has had its dynamic tonal range extended. An HDR photograph has lots of detail in both the shadows and the highlights. Usually, a photographer will take several shots of the same scene at different exposures, then combine the images so that the resulting combined image include all the details from each exposure.

Personally, I don’t particularly like the effect produced with many HDR images. The pictures were often over saturated and looked artificial… ‘over-cooked’ was a term often used when referring to an HDR image. A few years ago these super saturated over-cooked images were very popular, especially in landscape photography. HDR images nowadays are generally a lot more subtle, as photographers have learnt how to use the extended dynamic range to much better effect.

The picture above is not a true HDR image. It is a single exposure and has not been tone mapped (a common method for creating HDR images). It does look a lot like an HDR image though, but this was purely accidental – I had no intention of creating an HDR image from this shot. I was actually trying to emulate the look of an 18th century hand coloured engraving!

These old antique engravings are highly detailed pictures, often with subdued colouring. Because these old prints usually show detail in both the shadows and the highlights, in a way they are like the 18th century equivalent of an HDR image, without the over-cooked look! To try to emulate the look and feel of one of these antique prints, I concentrated on enhancing the details and toning down the colours. Modern digital SLR’s like my Fuji xe2 (even though it’s several years old) have a very good dynamic range already, so all the detail in both shadows and highlights was brought out by increasing the detail and clarity sliders in Photoshop. Yes, it makes the photograph look pretty artificial, but it did produce roughly the effect I was after, at least in terms of the detail and colouring. The fact that it also looks like an over-cooked HDR image is purely incidental!

Catching the Drip

A dripping tap can be a real pain, especially when it’s still dripping even after changing the washer. It’s a waste of water as well. When I was taking this tap to pieces, it suddenly hit me that maybe this would make a good photo. So I took a photo of the still dripping tap and it looked pretty boring. I tried it from another angle and it still looked pretty boring. But I had an idea in mind to use this tap in a creative way and to express an idea… I had just read about the water problems in Cape Town (South Africa) and the efforts they were making to conserve water. What could I do to express the idea of water conservation with this dripping tap?

The first thing I did was to remove the background and replace it with something more interesting than a bathroom wall. Now the tap filled the frame with a more dramatic background. It looked like a looming metal monstrosity, but it didn’t actually say anything. So I thought about some sort of object or implement to catch the water and conserve it, but nothing so mundane as a bucket or a pot. I started going through some of my old pictures with the thought that maybe I could use a person to catch the water droplet directly in their mouth.

I remembered that I had taken a picture of a particular woman in London with her mouth open in animated conversation with her partner, so I decided to use that image for the water receptacle. Et voila, water conservation! The image was then processed with a sepia monochrome look to give it more of a ‘pictorial’ feel.

However, when I looked at the image again a couple of minutes later, it looked like the poor woman was in agony, undergoing some form of Chinese water torture. And the tap looked like a metal monster with its arms outspread. So I guess there are a number of ways to interpret this image depending on the viewers particular frame of mind, but at least the image is no longer boring!

A Brief Return to Pictorialism


After experimenting briefly with colour in my last post, it’s back to good old monochrome again for this week’s blog. It’s also been a while since I posted a pictorial style image, so the photo of the cat with a whimsical expression on its face is another attempt at creating an old fashioned pictorial image. What on earth is this cat thinking about?

The key thing that makes this a pictorial type shot is the softness of the picture. I took this picture indoors under fairly dark conditions with no flash, so the photo was already quite soft and grainy due to the high iso (iso 6400) used. I also used a low f stop (f/2.8) to let more light into the camera, which had the additional effect of knocking the background out of focus. Due to these camera settings, the only thing that was actually in focus was the cats eyes and nose. And even these were fairly soft.

A lot of pictorial images have colour tints due to the toning processes used when developing the photograph for print. So many pictorial images have for example, a sepia or selenium tone, or in cases where metals were used for the print, silver or platinum tones. The image above has a very slight blue and silver tint. A blue tint was originally created using a chemical process known as cyanotype printing. Nowadays it’s very easy to simulate the effects of film toning using Photoshop, although whether the resulting print would look as good as a chemically toned print is a matter for debate.