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….


Mountains – Pictorial

Back to monochrome for this weeks post, and I wanted to try something a little different with an image I took in the Rocky Mountains, Canada. A lot of the mountain was swathed in cloud and there was low lying cloud over the trees as well. I liked the image, but it did look very washed out originally with flat lighting and the trees in the foreground were a distraction. I decided to darken the entire bottom of the picture leaving just the tops of the trees in silhouette against the cloud. I also softened the image to give it more of a pictorial feel and did some dodging and burning to create more interest in terms of the lighting. Looking forward to seeing what this one looks like in print!

Finding the way – photography vs painting part 2

Continuing on from last week, my overall aim in comparing the differences between painting and photography was to create a photographic image with the same ‘feel’ experienced when looking at a painting… and in more specific terms of an example, the look and feel of a landscape painting by an artist like Gainsborough or Constable.

To create the images in this post, I applied a number of different techniques aimed at addressing each of the key differences between photography and painting that I outlined in last weeks post (colour, texture, complexity, depth of field and sharpness).

The big one for me was colour, mainly because I’m not used to working in colour. I thought about what type of colour images I really liked (in both photographs and paintings) and aimed to use a limited, more muted colour palette that appealed to me personally, i.e concentrating more on browns and greens. I like warm colours, so I also used colours that gave a ‘warming’ effect.

I didn’t actually bother with texture for these images. I knew I could always apply a textured overlay if need be, plus if I was printing the images then I could use textured paper or canvas as a print medium.

To address the issue of complexity, I tried to use images in which there was more than one focal point of interest or where equal prominence is given to lots of objects in the image. I wanted the viewers eye to look at the image in its entirety and then focus in on different areas of detail… in other words plenty to look at within the image.

In terms of depth of field, I deliberately avoided any images with narrow depth of field i.e. out of focus backgrounds. I wanted the entire image to be in focus.

With sharpness, I wanted to avoid digital photography sharpness but yet at the same time I wanted the detail in the image to be prominent so that the image didn’t look ‘soft’ or blurred. Aside from the colour palette, this was the biggest challenge. I didn’t want a flat HDR (high dynamic range) style look but I did want lots of detail in the midrange while retaining the shadows. It took me a long time to work out how to do this!

I admit, I’m pleased with the results. I was after a painterly feel in a photographic image and I think that for me personally, I’ve succeeded. It’s been a long time, but I’ve finally found a way forward in terms of post processing some of my colour images (specifically landscapes). Hooray!

if anyone is interested in seeing these images a little larger, I’ve posted them up on my Flickr site here:


Finding the way – photography vs painting part 1

I’ve mentioned this several times in past blog posts, but for me personally, a great painting is far superior to a great photograph. When I look at a great painting, I become ‘lost’ in its beauty and can just stare at it for ages. I can appreciate great photography but when I look at a photographic image, there is no way I can stare at it for ages and get the same feeling. I have tried many times this year to try to work out what it is about a painting that makes it more pleasing (to me) than a photographic image. In this two part blog post I want to try to analyse the differences and similarities between a painting and a photograph and describe my latest attempts to capture the ‘feel’ of a great painting with a photographic image.

There have been many essays written in the past comparing paintings to photography e.g. here and here so I will just very briefly summarise what for me are the key points.

First let’s talk about the similarities:

Subject matter – both painting and photography cover a broad range of subject matter. I don’t think there is any one subject that cannot be created using either painting or photography; even religious paintings can be emulated by setting up the shot in a studio with actors. The only limit is the imagination…

Composition – everything that applies to photography also applies to painting. The composition should draw the viewer into the picture…

Lighting – light is crucial for both paintings and photographs. Photographers can learn a lot about lighting from studying the work of many great painters.

and now for the differences:

Colour – A painting will never give the viewer the exact colour of an object seen in reality. It can come very close, especially with photorealistic paintings, but the colour in a painting is an approximation of reality. This is because the palette of colours used in a painting is usually far more limited than the palette of colours obtained using a camera. Photographic images generally use many more shades of colour than a painting. The colour in an oil painting tends to have a different effect on the eyes compared to the colours captured via light in photography.

Texture – A painting has texture in the form of the canvas itself and the brush strokes. The picture is applied to the surface of the paper and this gives it a third dimension of depth. A photograph can also have texture added to it digitally as well as being printed on textured paper or canvas, but it will always look two dimensional in comparison to a painting… a photograph lacks physical depth.

Complexity – I’ve discussed this before. A good photograph concentrates the viewers eye on the subject and aims to eliminate any extraneous or unnecessary objects that create a distraction. Less is more and simplicity is preferable to complexity, otherwise the photograph can look cluttered with no obvious focal point. In contrast, a painting can show great complexity of subject matter and still be very pleasing to the eye.

Depth of field – I very rarely (if ever) see paintings where the background is blurred out as in a photograph. Of course it’s possible to do this in a painting, but whereas blurring out the background (bokeh effect) is a common technique and practice in photography, I don’t think many painters apply this effect when creating their paintings.

Sharpness – Modern cameras produce very sharp, crisp images. It is possible to create photorealistic paintings that emulate this sharp look, but in general most paintings do not look as sharp and crisp as a photograph. Paintings generally have a softer look to them, something the early pictorialists in the past tried to emulate by deliberately blurring their photographs or manipulating them in the darkroom.

Next week I want to discuss my thoughts on trying to capture the ‘feel’ of a painting by concentrating on applying certain techniques to my images to address some of the above differences…

The Letter A

So, the above image is the first of a new series I’ve been thinking about creating for a long while. It’s based on the art of illuminated manuscripts – ‘a manuscript in which the text is supplemented with such decoration as initials, borders and miniature illustrations’ (wikipedia).The first illuminated manuscripts were created at least 1500 years ago and were produced throughout the middle ages up until a few hundred years ago. The ‘book of hours’ is a particularly famous and beautiful illuminated manuscript which was produced in many different variations. Nowadays this is virtually a forgotten art – there are only a very few people creating books containing illuminated letters although the related art of calligraphy is still being practiced.

The first letter of a sentence on a page is usually enlarged, often bordered and ornately decorated with illustrations. The illustrations often consist of animals, birds, people and flowers. Flowers in particular are used to intertwine the letters or act as a border for either a single letter or an entire page.

My idea was to create a series of illuminated letters, one for each letter of the alphabet, using a combination of photographs and vector art borders. I wanted a calligraphic font for the illuminated letter and I wanted to create an image for each letter which was monochrome, textured and in some way either represented an idea or told a story. I also wanted at least one photographic element to interact in some way directly with the letter.

The theme for this first letter is ‘action’ – A for action. I went through my portfolio of action photographs and selected three similar styled images, all of which showed movement where the person has been captured suspended in mid-air. There are two background images; a macro image of an exotic flower and some clouds. I wasn’t sure initially about using vector images for the border, but after some experimenting I realised that the vector border and flowers balanced the vector letter, creating a striking contrast between photography and drawing.

So.. just another 25 letters to go!

The Garden of Earthly Delights

‘The garden of earthly delights’ is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch that expands across three oak panels (a triptych) and contains some of the most fantastical scenes I have ever seen in a painting. It also has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the photograph above, apart from the fact that when I was photographing the scene, the first thing that popped into my head were the words ‘the garden of earthly delights’. This was because the scene I was photographing was a garden, and it was full of earthly delights, including cactuses, stones, rocks, numerous plants, a tree, some pieces of wood and even a small rowing boat. The garden was jam packed with objects and it looked spectacular.

I was originally going to post a colour version of this scene, but decided that the monochrome version was darker, more mysterious and full of interesting textures. This is one of those photos that looks really good in a large sized print where all the different objects and detail can be seen, but not quite as nice on a small digital screen. In fact a bit like looking at Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych on a single page of a book as opposed to seeing the actual painting in real life… unless you own Taschen’s amazing book on Hieronymus Bosch where the details of his paintings are magnified and depicted across multiple pages.

Rembrandt style portraits in colour

These photos are part of a series of colour portrait images I took with the idea of creating something dark, with subdued colours, similar in some ways to the style of portraits that Rembrandt painted. I didn’t try to use the particular lighting style known as ‘Rembrandt lighting’ for these portraits, where one side of the face is shadowed apart from a triangle of light below one eye. I was primarily interested in the stunning contrast Rembrandt used between his darkened backgrounds and his lighted subjects, where the face stands out beautifully illuminated from the background. Rembrandt is an absolute master of portraiture and one of my favourite portrait artists, along with Caravaggio and Vermeer.

The world of Kodachrome

I was looking at an old film review book from 1944 the other day (as you do), and came across some outlandishly coloured photographs of actors in glorious ‘technicolour’. Now it was probably down to the printing process that gave the actresses green and orange faces, but I was quite taken with the highly saturated look of the images. In the foreword, the author of the book had stated that the colour images were all taken with Kodachrome film.

My interest in photography only began during the digital era so I’ve never played around with film, but I was prompted by these photographs to do some research into Kodachrome. This was a colour film that was introduced by Kodak in 1935 and was produced right up until 2010. Many famous photographers used this film including Steve McCurry who was a big advocate of Kodachrome.

Now, the great thing about digital images and post processing is that it’s easily possible to emulate lots of different film types, including Kodachrome. Different films give different colours, tonality, grain and detail. Depending on the software used, the colours and feel of film can be emulated to varying degrees of accuracy, though purists will always argue that the look of film can never be properly reproduced using software.

For the images in this post, I used Nik Colour Efex 4 to apply a filter preset that was designed to emulate Kodachrome 64. I actually had three filters available to choose from representing iso speeds of 25, 64 and 200. I chose the Kodachrome 64 to introduce a little grain to the images… 25 looked pretty smooth and 200 appeared a little too grainy. I’m not sure how accurately the filter has emulated the look of Kodachrome, but I liked the vivid colours and almost nostalgic feel it produced!

Fabric seller, Lanzarote

Man on cruiser bike, Lanzarote

Spanish dancer

Feathers of a Bird

Two feather diptych

The idea for this image came about when I spotted some loose feathers in the garden… one from a dove and the other from a wood pigeon. I wanted to create some sort of still-life using the feathers, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what I wanted to do in terms of presentation. It had to be simple and it had to show the contrast between the different coloured feathers. I took several images where both feathers appeared in the same shot in different configurations, including a shot where one feather pointed down and the other up, and one where both feathers lay side by side. I also experimented with backgrounds and textures… a single image showing a half white / half black background… white on black and black on white etc. There were some interesting effects but nothing really that satisfying, until I took two separate images on textured backgrounds.

Once I had the two images, it was then a case of playing around with the black and white conversion to bring out the detail in the feathers and give the image an old fashioned pictorial look. I added a glow effect to prevent the feathers looking too flat.. I wanted them to look as if they were suspended in mid-air, almost as if they were floating. To emphasise that these were really two shots combined into one, I used a white border around each shot.

For something so relatively simple, it took me the best part of a day to figure out how to create the final image!