Trey Ratcliff, Miss Aniela, Paris and the seduction of surrealism

Just over two weeks ago I visited Château de Champlâtreux, just outside Paris, an imposing example of French architecture built around 1750. An appropriately dramatic setting for the Midnight Workshop with Miss Aniela and Trey Ratcliff.

Much of the building is unoccupied and left to collect the dust and cobwebs that veil a chaotic heap of antique relics, chairs, taxidermy, sculptures and paintings. Silk curtains ripped, tattered and draped over tall windows, throwing soft light over the debris. A photographer’s paradise.

Down in the Dungeons

Two Models were organised by Miss Aniela and partner Matthew Lennard, styled in fashions of the period like Madam Pomodour. There were dungeons, damp and dark with glimpses of daylight through the bars. An impossible challenge for any sensor, lens or camera. Having tried HDR for the first time the previous evening on Trey’s Paris Photowalk, now was the chance to use it.


The challenge was to retain detail in the walls and the window

Some HDR processes can flatten an image, losing the drama of light against dark which often defines an image and strengthens composition. Here was a situation where I wanted detail in the dark, the damp moss, cobwebs, and texture, but I didn’t want to completely blow out the window. The window and the model are important, they need to balance each other, both are pushed to the corners of the frame. Confined to the corner, she looks small and the stone prison engulfs her.

Whilst I’m not particularly creating a totally natural look, sometimes light just needs to be light so I’ve brightened the window back up a little. The danger is that it becomes so bright it is too distracting from the model. The only black in the final image is the arched doorway behind the model which gives the image depth. I bracketed my exposure and used a tripod to get 5 different exposures. The model is then re-added choosing the best exposure and pose from the 5 frames. I have used a really high ISO which is good on the 5D because I needed a fast enough shutter speed to get the model reasonably in focus in one of the frames.

The second day was spent processing. I had Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS5 with me.

If you are shooting in RAW it is probably best to export these as jpgs first and use these for your HDR image as the RAW files can be a bit big to process. I selected all five exposures in Lightroom and chose:

Photo> Edit In> Merge to HDRpro in Photoshop

Wait for your Mac or PC to chug through them and then you can play with the sliders until you get the effect you are after. In My case I wanted to keep the dark walls dark and imposing in contrast to the window lit model.

Once happy with the background I then found the clearest exposure of the model from my original RAW files and pasted the image over my HDR version. Add a layer mask and mask out all of the background.

Where the model has moved slightly so that you can still see bits of the HRD version behind the RAW version but I can tidy up behind the model with the clone tool.

I took this image in a landscape orientation with the square crop in my head. I use a square crop a lot of the time now. Somehow you can be more adventurous with a square. We don’t expect things to be composed in a certain way when presented with a square.


Constructing reality


Victorian postcard

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about constructing and manipulating reality in my work, so seeing how Trey and Miss Aniela work was great timing.

One thing that intrigues me about Miss Aniela is her capacity to see the possibilities for an image as she works. She takes images on the tripod either side of the model horizontally and vertically in case she gets a idea later on that would need a different composition.

She may merge these images later after she has decided what space to let the model occupy in the frame. There may be other elements she can add to the image, for example stock images taken for the purpose of creating surreal manipulations at a later date.

She showed us how to warp scenes using the warp tool in Photoshop instead of vertical and horizontal perspective shifts. You keep more of the composition in the frame this way because you are not forced to crop the image. Top Tip.

Tom Anderson (yes THE Tom Anderson of MySpace was at the workshop), remarked at our farewell dinner that he was interested in the way Natalie created and stage managed a set using props. Whilst the images she creates are unique and original the concept of creating a stage for a person is not a new one. The Victorians used to paint backgrounds, use props and literally cut and paste!

I had to include this image, I love  everything about this image, this is Warsaw 1946, unknown photographer. More images like this on my Pinterest “about life” board.

Warsaw 1946

Warsaw 1946


A developing fascination with the surreal

If you are familiar with my images you are going to see a change. I want to go back to a place of total creative freedom, building up images from different sources, using my camera, props, taking new stock and using archived images, putting them together in a way that tells a story.

Back in 1992, on a Graphic Design BA, I created a photo montage photographed it, changed it a little and photographed it, again and again in the same place, letting small flowers die, taking things out of the image and adding objects in. I photographed it with an angle poise lamp so that I could replicate the movement of the sun over time. The raised parts of the montage cast shadows like sundials.

I found the negatives of these a few weeks ago although some are damaged. I took these with a Canon EOS, a film camera I still have, they called it a digital camera because it had electronic buttons to change your aperture and speed and an LED display, mega modern in those days, may publish them soon.

I want to get into changing the meaning of things by using more than one image in an interesting way. My current board for montage inspiration is here.

Sometimes in deliberate and transparent ways like John Stezaker. (Deutsche Börse photography prizewinner 2012). I can’t get enough of his images at the moment.

Mask XXXV by John Stezaker


I’m also looking at ways to create subtle combinations of images in ways that look surreal, constructed to look like reality or nearly real.

Not being prepared with suitable stock for the midnight workshop, I needed another idea to create something different. What I loved most about the Chateau was the dust and cobwebs, the dramatic contrast between a once glittering example of all that was lavish and the careless abandonment, the greyness and quiet. I considered how to enhance these qualities  While Natalie, the other model and delegates were busy in one room, I took the opportunity of setting up in an opposite room. I cleared a space for the model in the heaps of chairs as I wanted her to be central. She looks more imposing here and her direct gaze is unnerving. I took 5 exposures, when merged to HDR the furniture looked flat and grey, a look you’d often try and avoid, but in this instance, perfect. Again I took the best exposure of the model and put her back in the picture using a layer and mask.

great expectations

great expectations

I thought about how I might make dust and cobwebs, so did a search for brushes, many cobweb and dust brush downloads later and I had the tools I needed. I sampled colours from the image then made them lighter and greyer and painted dust and cobwebs in layer, referencing images of real dust and cobwebs to see how they picked up the light, and dusted the edges of things. I drew them on layers varying opacity, colour and brushes. I then masked out any area that I didn’t like. Her eyes looked dull so I added some light and clarity to the eyes. This looks great printed big, I’ve just prepared one for a performance photography exhibition at the Dome from December 6 in the Founders Room. You can order prints there or order online from Redbubble.

What’s next?

I think I’ve been shy of obvious manipulation in the past, too sensitive to the online hammering I sometimes get from street photography purists.

I will always do street though, there will just be more variety. When in the streets surrounded by noise and people, I see that angle and I move fast enough to catch it just as real life all falls into place for a split second, I actually get an adrenalin rush. It’s magic and nothing can beat it. Why would I ever want to give that up?

I don’t want to just break the rules though, I want total freedom to influence and create at every step of the way from conception, the creation of a set, the photography, all the way through to the processing. I may do more self portraits. I built this set from seed in March this year and spent several months growing it inside my Victorian conservatory. I made the dress out of the leaves, with the help of my niece Amber.

self portait

self portait

This is one of my favourite self portraits by Mary Britton Clouse – Self Portrait, 2005, surreal, constructed and natural – an amazing image.

Mary Britton Clouse – Self Portrait, 2005

Mary Britton Clouse – Self Portrait, 2005

I’m not sure quite how it’s going to go but expect my work to be more varied for a while.

The thing that intrigued me about Miss Aniela is her capacity to see the possibilities for an image as she works.

She takes images on the tripod either side of the model horizontally and vertically in case she gets a idea later on that would need a different composition.

She may merge these images later after she has decided what space to let the model occupy in the frame.

There may be other elements she can add to the image, for example stock images taken for the purpose of creating surreal manipulations at a later date.

She showed us how to warp scenes using the warp tool in Photoshop instead of vertical and horizontal perspective shifts. You keep more of the composition in the frame this way because you are not forced to crop the image.

Whilst I’m not going to go all HDR, I’m really interested in using as a technique to get images that no sensor, camera or lens is currently capable of.

I’ll aim to keep things fairly natural looking in terms of light and colour, anything else is game as long as it adds to the image in some way.

Is Photoshop Good or Bad for Photography?

Some people claim that Photoshop is destroying the art of photography.

There is so much information out there on improving your shots with Photoshop that we do seem to be encouraged not to worry about learning good camera techniques but simply learn how to ‘fix it’ in Photoshop.

london market

This was more or less finished in the camera. I have selected the correct exposure, decided on the focus, waited for a good position of the lady in the background and click. I have, however, added a vignette and boosted clarity in Lightroom – no Photoshop here! (Click this image to buy )

In a way Photoshop allows you to skip some of the key techniques that can improve your camera skills in favour of trying to quick fix it on the computer.

Though I use Photoshop extensively in my work, I do think it’s really important to learn how to use, aperture, focal length, ISO, Shutter Speed etc, and understand camera settings and the effects they have on your images in order to get it right at the time of taking the shot. This can save you hours messing about with Adobe Photoshop afterwards, after all, who would prefer an hour of fixing a problem in front of a computer screen to messing about outside in the landscape or street having fun experimenting with your camera? More time out in the field rather than spending hours at a PC also gives you more opportunity to see and capture a moment and to enjoy the natural world and it’s inhabitants. Photography should be fun, exciting and free, it should not be about being glued to a computer screen all day, what’s the fun of that?

Photoshop is still amazing, and it is great to be able to recover a missed opportunity, but maybe we are becoming too reliant on it and wonder if the tendency these days to use it instead of learning the correct technique is makes us poorer photographers.

You can, on the other hand, use Photoshop (or Camera Raw or Lightroom for that matter) as a leaning tool by noting the adjustment you need to make each time and trying to get those right first time in camera next time. It can be good when you have limited time in on location and don’t have time to take different images on different settings, because it’s all about the moment, like at an event when everything is moving fast. So it’s useful if you have made a mistake on a great image or change your mind after the event, or for doing really funky things that are impossible in camera.

skateboarding brighton

This has been in Photoshop! Whilst the shutter speed, apperture and ISO have been carefully selected to freeze the action. I have moved one of the lamposts on the promanade so that it doesn’t go up his bottom! The Black and White conversion, the square crop, and the burning in of the edges especially the left corner has been done in Lightroom. (Click this image to buy )

However – ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear” – Photoshop cannot correct a badly focused image or a badly composed one. It can correct things the camera got wrong, like white balance, and you can go to any extremes in processing to create a particular effect if that is what you want.
If you want to visually transform an image then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. You can combine images, change skies, get rid of blemishes, clone out things, get rid of noise, desaturate parts of an image, selectively darken or lighten parts of a image- these are the things that Photoshop excel in.

Things you should definitely learn to do in camera:

1. Select the right depth of field / lens aperture
2. Decide where you want your Focus
3. Choose a great composition
4. Choose the right shutter speed to avoid camera shake, or enhance movement.
5. Choose a filter when necessary for example a polarising filter

Things you can learn to do either the camera or Photoshop

1. Colour balance
2. Sharpening (jpegs only)
3. Using filters (on camera) or filter effects (PS)

Things you can only do in PS

1. Cropping and straightening
2. Dodging and burning
3. Adjusting low and high levels independently
4. Adjusting levels brightness / contrast, hue / saturation etc
5. Lots of strange filter effects.
6. Cutting and pasting part of on photo to another.

If you get it really wrong in camera delete – don’t waste your precious time. Learn as much about your camera settings as you can and start to experiment and practise with your settings. If you get it nearly right you can recover in PS, even though cameras are really sophisticated they don’t alway get it right on Auto.
I know photographers have very different opinions about this, what do you think?

If you need help with learning Photoshop I can recommend the beginners Photoshop Training course and the Advanced Photoshop Training courses at Silicon Beach Training