Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Inspirational Apps

In the years when I was shooting weddings, it used to amuse me that, having spent thousands of dollars on a Hasselblad 6x6 system to get the best, sharpest, clearest results, I used to slide a thin piece of scratched resin in front of the lens to make things go nice and soft. Not for all my shots, but when the occasion demanded it.

Now in the digital era the demand for similar such image effects is as strong, if not more so than in those fuzzy days of film.  This might be because digital EFX are infinitely repeatable, but I think it’s mainly because digital options are affordable, highly achievable and introduce a very cool look to our photo editing efforts.

Traditional digital photographers use desktop computers to create truly astonishing feats of graphic illusion and special effects wizardry.  However, since the advent of the ubiquitous e-device that EFX revolution has become available to a far wider audience because the software is faster to download, is far cheaper plus it’s far simpler to use.

When you look at the imaging market today, many of the original big software players have disappeared.  In the desktop arena photo editing and design is almost entirely dominated by US software giant Adobe.  Its products are excellent, but many find them expensive, and most find them quite complex.

Despite this desktop dominance the current crop of photo e-devices have not only radically changed the way we work on pictures, they have also changed the way we buy and use the software that does the editing magic.

The App and Play Stores have made the process of purchasing new photo-editing software so easy and affordable that it has revolutionised the way photography appears in the public domain.  You only have to check out Instagram to see the amazing effects being added to our photography with the simplest of tools, tools that can replicate the look of a seriously Photoshopped image, only without the time it takes to complete using Photoshop.

The overwhelming benefit of software for portable devices is that it is capable, inexpensive, and easy to use. Successful results rely on a simple process, and often a single, finger gesture.  IOS devices simply cannot support the complex menu structures found in desktop software.  E-devices have been designed therefore to respond brilliantly to simple gestures and it’s this one fact that makes the process so appealing to a very wide audience, from young kids to old age pensioners.

Some might think this lack of complexity means that the post-processing world has been dumbed-down – and they’d be right.  But, interestingly, the potential, and the results produced by these image making Apps, are both complex and considerably more creative than anything an average photographer might hope to achieve using desktop software.
Apps have to deliver the goods using nothing more tricky than a finger movement that sets into motion the choice of a preset template, layer, mask and even blend mode change. Unlike Photoshop, App users have little control over exactly how the end product is shaped.  The creative processes are hidden from view, yet they produce error-free results and, in most instances, astonishingly effective imagery.

The really big bonus is in the ability to present novices with creative possibilities.  Previously when pushed, most might consider changing a colour photo to black-and-white for example, but few envisage something as complex as converting a photo with a ragged-edged mask and full-on texture overlays.  Sure, we might think about it if we have seen something online or in a magazine, but getting it done in Photoshop is an hour most of us don’t have the time, or head space for.  
I read recently that because Instagram has significantly improved its online effects filters, this might effectively put professionals out of a job.  Nonsense, what it’s doing is giving amateur photographers the choice to create something new and visually exciting.  Even before the advent of Instagram, no one was going to hire a professional to shoot the sort of photos most produce every day of our lives.  So, taking jobs from professionals?  I don’t think so. What gives the humble App so much power is that it presents newcomers with a range of immediately achievable, and very creative successes.

Apps therefore offer not only ease of use but also a range of creative options that were never considered beforehand.  For example, I usually look at a picture and if I feel it needs something extra to make it zing, I might try converting it to black-and-white, just to see what that does to the feel of the shot.  Sometimes this works, while other examples get flicked back into colour so I can try another technique.

In general beginners might take it further and try a sepia or even a faded, 50s colour look.  Sooner, rather than later, most photographers run out of ideas about what to do next with their images. But with one of these new wave Apps, different versions, and therefore different creative options, just keep coming.
One of my all-time favourites is by video effect software guru, Red Giant.

Its Plastic Bullet produces a continuous display of colour effects on a selected picture using a clever range of textured mattes, colour filters and brightness levels. Actually it’s not clear what happens behind the scenes but that doesn’t matter because it can generate hundreds of different colour and tonal combinations that’ll have you swiping for more.  If you see one effect that you like, save it and continue swiping your way through a seemingly never-ending line of colour possibilities.

Snapseed is another classic software application that I use regularly.  Originally designed by Nik Software (but recently purchased by Google), Snapseed offers the photographer a wider range of possibilities than Plastic Bullet, with options like Grunge, Centre Focus, Black-and-White, Drama and Vintage, among others.  Its inbuilt control point technology means that you only have to swipe left or right to increase/decrease the selected effect (brightness, softness, colour and more) depending on the genre chosen.  I thought it was cracking value at $5 when originally released by Nik.  Now that Google own it, it’s even better because it’s free.

Some of the better photo fixing Apps not only have tone and texture enhancing features but also a range of special effects, edge masks and even picture frames. So, with ten different colour effects, ten different frames and multiple texture overlays, one simple $1.99 app like Photo Toaster can produce thousands of creative possibilities at the flick of the finger.

Another favourite App of mine is Moku Hanga produced by a company called JixiPix.  Moku Hanga means woodblock in Japanese and that’s exactly what this app does – convert your shots into awesome-looking Japanese woodblock prints. For an iPad app, Moku is very sophisticated.   You can choose the style, colour palette, brightness, contrast, colour intensity, background paper texture and edge border style.  What’s even better news is this App, along with 19 others, is also available for the desktop PC or Mac.  Even better, if you buy a bundle of them, it only costs around $6 each.  Fantastic value when compared with one of the more traditional packages like Elements or Photoshop.   

Resolution and e-devices
One of the issues earlier iPad and mobile devices had was in handling the ever increasing resolutions produced by our cameras.  On one hand Apps were designed to handle the low resolution photos shot by the device’s inbuilt camera but pretty soon photographers were importing 18 megapixel, and higher resolution files, to the device and processing these through a range of Apps.
While some Apps dumb down the resolution, I think you’ll find most these days can process full resolution images.  It might take a few minutes to crank through a 24Mp RAW file but it will do it. Check the File, Export or Save command online for that App before you buy it.  Choosing to export the finished art as the original is the best option, but expect it to take a bit longer than if processed on a desktop PC.

Combining the final image with your Original
I found that some of the heavier effects, though superficially impressive, often obscure the finer details of the original picture, especially if it’s a portrait.  So much so that people might become unrecognisable and places appear so obscure as to make the process somewhat pointless – the subject ends up becoming secondary to the special effect.
By copying and pasting that altered image back on top of the original, then erasing through the top layer, the altered image, with the Eraser Brush (set to about 25% Opacity), you can literally paint details back into the image.  Clearly you’d need Photoshop Elements, or another layer-based desktop software program to achieve this, but it’s a relatively easy technique to try and can be used to breathe significant life back into any picture suffering from too much special effect and not enough reality.
One thing is for sure, getting creative with these IOS device Apps has never been easier or more fun.

Apps to Try
Google Snapseed
JixiPix Grunge
JixiPix HDR
JixiPix Aquarella
JixiPix MokuHanga
Red Giant Plastic Bullet
East Coast Pixels Photo Toaster HD
Please note that the cost of Apps was correct at the time of writing but things change over time. The predominant advantage of the App is that any price variation is only ever going to be plus or minus a couple of dollars…

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Kalashnikov Sisters

The Kalashnikov Sisters
Much smaller group shot of my photo tour guests in Rwanda: Tamara and Angela
With an army guy, just for protection (ostensibly against marauding buffalo)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Golden Monkeys in Rwanda

When you visit the Virunga National park in northern Rwanda to trek for the mountain gorillas you can also spend an easier day trekking (actually 'ambling' would be a better word) to find the golden monkeys in another part of the park.  

Though these primates appear to be plentiful in the area we trekked in, the Golden Monkey is officially an endangered species.

A day after the 2.5 hour slog up the steep sides of the park and the slip-sliding about to locate a family of mountain gorillas, the walk to view the gorgeous Golden monkeys was a doddle. 
The park rangers make it a bit more fun by pretending that we might never set eyes on the animals but truth be told, they have trackers almost permanently in the park keeping an eye on both the whereabouts of the various mountain gorilla families, and the golden monkeys.
We walked for 35 mins through open farmland, potato fields and acres of pyrethrum flowers before having to squeeze through the narrow gap in the stone wall marking the park's boundary (which apparently extends for 75kms - from a distance it's an impressive sight).  The thin gap is to prevent larger animals like Cape Buffalo from getting out of the park.  In the park the terrain is relatively flat as you walk through dense bamboo forests (pictured). As soon as one of the armed rangers appears in view you know the monkeys are not far off. You ditch all your baggage, taking only a camera and walk off for another five or so minutes before coming face to face with your first golden monkey.  As you can see from the shots here, these guys are really beautiful to look at, and are quite used to humans.  You can get as close as a metre or so before they flit off in to the shrubbery.
Young monkeys tumble and wrestle all over the forest floor, while the adults groom each other in the sun.  We were regaled by a large troop - probably 30 monkeys in all, frolicking about among the bamboo.  Getter a good shot of the critters was slightly easier than with the gorillas - for a start they are not black, were a lot more active and often stopped, albeit for only a few seconds, in a perfect pose.

This is an HDR image of the bamboo forest that the monkeys prefer. 
The bush is high enough to provide safety from predators on the ground while providing some cover from flying predators, mostly eagles, circling above.

Wherever you go in this corner of Rwanda, the impressive volcanoes dominate your view.
Mt Muhabura (4127m) is off to the right hand side.
The highest peak, Karisimbi, reaches over 4500m.
Good view of Mt Sabyinyo (3645m) most of which is in the Congo

Under the bamboo, shooting required an ISO of 1600 or higher, but once in the glade in the sun, I found ISO 200 ideal.  Best lens: a 70-200mm f2.8 lens is ideal.
The subjects are close enough for the focal length range while the fast max aperture is brilliant when the subjects sit in the deep shade of the bamboo forest
With your super-active subjects only five foot away from you, anything more magnifying would be too powerful.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park, Rwanda

Today was 'the big day' for our Rwandan adventure -  we left the hotel at 6am for the 30 min drive to the park HQ. Processing and a briefing took about half an hour - the guides divide up the visitors into groups of eight. As it is low season there were not so many visitors. The three of us were teamed up with three Canadians. We watched an amazing drumming demonstration then left for the hike into the park. 
Virunga has numerous gorilla families. The Rangers know them, and their characteristics, well. We were headed for a group over to the western edge of the park so drove for 30 mins on a dirt track before parking and heading off up the mountain. It took all of an hour to climb up to the dry stone wall bordering the park. At 2800m it was tough going up an incredibly knobbly path through acres of potatoes and pyrethrum flowers. In fact before we climbed through the stone wall we all smeared ourselves liberally with Rid, possibly containing an active ingredient grown in these fields (but probably not). Once in the park I found the going easier simply because it was so muddy and slippery all of us were forced to walk at a slower pace. The vegetation over the wall is 100% tropical rainforest. Impressive to see, slightly less impressive when you are slip sliding along paths being nipped and prodded from all angles by branches, brambles, bamboo and giant nettles. Although I was only wearing a short sleeved shirt, my first encounter with these massive stingers was an increasingly painful upper leg area. I must have walked into a stinger - it was very irritating for about 15 mins then it faded (thank goodness...).

We slithered on for another thirty minutes before we met the Rangers whose job it is to monitor the activities of this family. We dropped our kit, took whatever lens we needed and crept forward. After a few mins I spotted something black amongst the green undergrowth. It was two females lying on their backs sunning themselves. Or at least I think that was what they were doing. Apparently they eat early in the day - then relax for a few hours before moving off to find more food so it was a pretty good guess that they had stuffed themselves full and were sleeping it off. This was a very peaceful group because as the two Rangers cut their way through the dense bush so we could get a better view, the gorillas hardly even bothered to look up.
We nervously lined up and shot photos of this smallish group before moving on to look for the group's two silverbacks. I have to say it was very exciting because it soon became apparent that we were surrounded by gorillas - they were sitting in clearings, under bushes relaxing, seemingly impervious of 10 people making a right royal noise stumbling about in the rain forest. After 100 metres of slashing we found the boss silverback, all 220 kilos of him, just lying on his back in the sun scratching his boy bits rather like an overweight Aussie male in his backyard. It was both fascinating and compelling to see such a powerful and intelligent creature acting like it was his afternoon off.
We spent the best part of an hour and fifteen mins slashing and tramping round this small patch of jungle observing this silverback plus another junior silverback as well as several females. The group is supposed to have 14 members but I don't think we saw them all. A lot of stills were shot during our visit, plus a good few video clips - even a couple of selfies (thanks Angela!).
Despite the flog up the steep volcanic paths, the thin air and the dense bush in the park, it was a totally exhilarating experience. Both Tamara and Angela shot some great images of the gorillas. At times we were less than two metres from the gorillas. It was exciting and a bit scary too knowing that, despite their apparent ease with our proximity, gorillas are still very much wild animals and are powerful enough to inflict serious damage on a human. Thankfully none of our family were drunk on belly-fermented bamboo shoots so there were no drunken displays of aggression ( I recently read about a French photographer who was punched by a drunk male gorilla that was probably high on fermented bamboo shoots).
How do you get great shots of mountain gorillas?
Most shots are in the bush under cover, so choose a high ISO = 1600 or more
Best lens = 70-200mm, preferably with a fast f2.8 max aperture.

The power brick on my MacBook Pro is broken so I could not download and edit my pics for this blog so have pinched some excellent photos from Tamara and Angela and squeezed them into this post using my iPhone. A truly wonderful day!