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Keith Cooper and black and white photography

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Keith Cooper and black and white photography…

Keith talks about some of his thoughts and influences in his landscape work

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Earlier this year, Keith was interviewed for an article in a special black and white photography ‘bookazine‘ from Digital Photographer magazine.

Talking with Claire Gillo, they discussed some of his background, how he got into photography and what inspires him.

keith cooper photographer

This web article contains a wider selection of the interview, which includes tips and advice that Keith feels might be of interest to those wanting to get more out of their B/W work. It also links to some of the many other related photography articles on this site.

“Feel free to disagree with my views, but above all, think about what is important to your photography and don’t let others tell you what to think!”

Some background

I was born in Ipswich, Suffolk. I moved to Leicester, originally to go to university, moved away, worked overseas, and for assorted reasons ended up back living there since 1987

At Leicester University I received a BSc (Hons.) in Geology/Computing in 1982. At Loughborough University, in 1996, I was awarded a MSc in Human Factors (Ergonomics, usability, organisational change), gained during my research into the impact of technological change on organisations.

I’ve no formal photography qualifications whatsoever – not even any of the assorted letters after your name you can procure from photographic societies or organisations.

See also Keith’s longer bio. on this site.

How did you get started in photography?

Zorki 4 rangefinder cameraMy interest started at about Age 7 or 8 with a 126 cartridge loading camera. This cost the grand sum of 5 shillings (25p) and 3 packet tops from Rice Crispies (although it could have been Sugar Puffs)

When I was 11, I was given a Russian 35mm Zorki 4 rangefinder camera.

The Zorki is a Russian rangefinder camera that is manual only – no metering, so you learn to use a light meter and get a feel for estimating light levels.

Manual focus too, with a 50/2 lens.

For my 16th birthday I was given a Zenith Photosniper kit.

I still have the 300mm f/4.5 Tair 3a lens and the rifle stock from the kit, but such a camera setup attracts a bit too much attention, compared to what it did in the less paranoid times of the 1970’s…

What shooting techniques do you use to create your black and white landscape images?

For landscape, I shoot almost entirely hand-held. As an architectural and industrial photographer I almost always use a tripod.

Landscape has immediacy, so that personally, the slow measured approach just doesn’t usually work. In some ways I feel landscape work is like street photography on a different scale.

Ideally, the image has to be there when I see the scene. My commercial work (in these areas) does benefit from taking a bit longer, it is more planned – in my landscapes, all my favourites have been the spontaneous ones.

I will go back to a location if I think the light is going to be particularly good, although if I’m travelling, there is only what I see while I’m there.

One of the best examples of this is the Hood Canal shot. I was driving around the Olympic peninsular in Washington State, with a meeting in Seattle the next day.

Hood Canal - bw photography

It was a grey damp day and I was wondering if the light would change. Looking across the water I saw a beach and roadside pull-in. I stopped and took a 16-35 and 70-200 lens with me for my Canon 1Ds (11MP 35mm full frame) and walked some 50 yards to the edge of the water.

This Google map view shows approximately where I stopped – you can see the spit of land in the distance.

I took a few wide angle shots (~24mm) but the shape of the hills/trees/water didn’t quite make a composition that ‘grabbed’ me. I put the 70-200 on and looked around to see what detail I might have missed. This is where I saw the view of the boat and trees. [See the article link below for more about making this photo]

As it was a bright, but grey day, I exposed well to the right, aiming to get what does indeed look to be an overexposed colour image. The important part of this is over exposed, but –not- clipping.

This pushes all the detail into the brighter parts of the image. Because of the way digital sensors capture light, and store it as digital data, this over exposed view holds more information from what are (in the print) going to be darker shadows.

Once I apply some moderately steep curves (working at 16 bit) I can get some excellent tonality in the sky and mist. This is without resorting to local contrast enhancement, other than a light application as part of my final print sharpening.

As to camera settings, I generally shoot a combination of manual or aperture priority (Av) depending on the lighting conditions and lenses I’m using (always manual with tilt/shift lenses). Depending on subject I’ll either focus manually or with AF.

I’ve never followed the hair shirt attitude to photography, that it’s not ‘authentic’ unless you have full control over the camera. I respect those who mix their own emulsions and prepare their own plates, but owning a £4000 camera body does give some useful short-cuts.

Do you use filters?

Only in the rain or particularly dusty conditions to protect the lens – screw-on lens caps as it were.

Coloured filters are not much use if you are shooting RAW files – great for film though.

I sometimes use a polariser to cut down on glare, but sparingly, since if I can spot its use then I’m minded to think I could have overdone it.

One of my pet hates are graduated filters – I disliked them when there was the big Cokin ‘creative’ filter fad in the late 70’s, and I find I still dislike their use when you can obviously see they’ve been used.

My personal difficulty is that I see very few prints where such obvious filter use contributes much to the final print. It’s all too often applied to an ‘average’ image to try and make it into something it isn’t (like HDR).

A particularly egregious misuse is where the tops of mountains (or trees) show the darkening effect. I should add that every so often I will use the graduated filter function in Adobe Camera Raw to alter the look of an image, but this has (to me) the advantage that I can decide on how much and where to apply it – and then change my mind. This is a choice I much prefer to leave to post processing.

Another current fashion is the use of very dark neutral density filters to allow for very long exposures – something to experiment with perhaps, but I’d be very wary of it becoming too much of a habit.

The picture below shows some of the kit I regularly use for my B/W work (1Ds3, 14mm, 17mm T/S and 24-70mm).

Of the three lenses, only the 24-70 will even take traditional filters screwed to the front.

Canon 1ds3, TSE17, EF14, EF 24-70mm

In view of my dislike for overdarkened skies from grad filters, it will probably come as no surprise that I also dislike many examples of the currently fashionable ‘HDR look’.

I do use HDR techniques for my architectural and interior work, but go to great lengths to make it look just as if my camera had more dynamic range.

In general, the real world around me does not show sharpening halos. Such fashions come and go in photography – I await their exit.

Do note that this is with regard to my landscape work – if a paying commercial client really wants HDR effects that make your head spin, then so be it ;-)

I do sometimes use multiple raw conversions of the same image, blended to extract more detail. However this can requires some considerable post processing work to look natural (as if any B/W image is ‘natural’ to start with)

When it comes to coloured filter effects I’m much more likely to use a software version such as Nik Color Efex Pro, although for working on colour images before converting to B/W I do like Nik Viveza.

How do you come up with your concepts?

Ah, concepts… This is the sort of stuff you need when doing a photography degree, having exhibitions and dealing with art directors.

As someone whose academic career (both studying and teaching) didn’t encompass much of the arts, I’ve always had difficulty with such things as artist’s statements. To me, most of them are nonsense and if I suspect the ‘artist’ actually believes them, a matter of concern…

For my architectural and industrial work, my clients pay me and we work together to get images that reflect my interpretation of their ideas.

For my landscape work, the ‘client’ is usually myself – so it’s reflecting how I felt about a location and anything else going through my head at the time.

burnt tree - mesa verde, monochrome printHowever if you were wishing to put on an exhibition of my work, I’m sure I could come up with something much more meaningful and eloquent.

The burnt tree, with snow and an approaching storm, is a classic example of a shot that I visualised as a print when I saw the tree.

At 9000 feet on a cold snowy day, with big storms shooting about the sky, it’s one of those times when an object (the burnt tree) just fits in with the whole scene.

I’ve read a student report that happened to include a discussion of my (supposed) influences and concepts with regard to this print.

Lots of fine academic stuff about primordial elements and all that sort of thing.

In actual fact, I’d walked a few hundred yards up a hill and realised that I should have put a coat on – I was absolutely freezing and remembering that I normally live at sea level, so 9000 feet is more than enough to notice the effects of altitude.

Burnt tree – Mesa Verde
Canon 1Ds, EF 16-35/2.8L lens

What excites you about black and white landscape photography? What keeps you motivated?

B/W images of a scene seem to encapsulate more personal meaning to me – what it felt like at that moment.

I have some great colour shots as well, but it’s the B/W ones, more often than not, that resonate the most.

In some ways I also identify B/W with ‘structure’– it reflects the underlying scaffolding that makes up the world.

Of course that could just be because as an ex geologist, I view landscape as a whole, including what’s below the surface. I also see it as a snapshot in deeper time…

A concept: “If you spend a minute looking at one of my prints, then that minute as a proportion of your life, is the same as your life is to the age of the Earth”

What have been your favourite landscape locations to photograph? Why? Any stories, exciting things happen here?

Empty places – people rarely feature in my landscape shots, perhaps in the distance to give a feeling of scale, although I have no issues with ‘photoshopping out’ people that appear in inconvenient places.

Interesting things happen before and after the photos, this is one of the reasons I now try and keep a ‘photo-blog’ or travel diary when I’m away for more than a few days.

A few years ago I believe I was shot at in Utah – well, it certainly sounded like it does in a film and there was a distant ‘pop’ a second or so later. I put the camera away and left the area.

Are there any locations you are hoping to photograph soon?

I’m going back to the Pacific Northwest (Oregon/Washington) in the autumn – It’s an area renowned for rain and changeable weather – but for black and white that’s much more interesting than clear blue skies.

In my 2004 visit to the US I feel I didn’t get enough from my time in the big empty states of Wyoming and Montana – I’ve always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore too, although that’s probably just because North by Northwest is one of my favourite movies :-)

What equipment do you usually take on a landscape shoot?

Currently I shoot with a Canon EOS 1Ds Mk3 21MP DSLR.

Lenses do vary with how much I feel like carrying, but a basic set would be… EF14 2.8L II, EF 24-70 2.8L, EF 70-200 2.8L IS. Depending on what I’m doing, my ‘walk-round’ lens is usually the 24-70mm or sometimes the 14mm

black and white print of viaduct at john o' gauntMy more extended bag includes an EF 15mm 2.8 fish-eye, TS-E 17mm and 24mm tilt shift lenses (both of which I do use hand-held for landscape work)

If I’m in the UK then I’ll probably have a tripod in the car – mostly for if it gets dark.

John O’ Gaunt viaduct, Leicestershire. Canon 1Ds3, EF14 2.8L II lens

The viaduct picture used the 14mm for a strong sense of movement, as opposed to a more static scene if I’d gone for the more architectural approach of using a shift lens.

How long have you been shooting digitally? How long film? How do you find the difference out in the field?

I developed my first B/W film and printed it in 1974 at school – there is still nothing in digital that quite compares to first seeing an image appear on a sheet of paper in a dish of developer. I’ve thought about this several times, and think it’s the fact that it appears gradually, that gives it some of the excitement.

film and digital 1Ds vs. OM2nI moved fully digital in 2004, with the Canon 1Ds (11MP ‘full frame’)

The photo shows my 1Ds with a 16-35 2.8L lens, next to my Olympus OM2 + 24/2.8

Note the light orange filter – coloured filters are useful with B/W film, but much less so when shooting in RAW images.

In April/May 2004 I went to Colorado for a month, taking just the digital kit with me. I did seriously think that I should take along a film camera ‘just in case’ but thought better of it.

The biggest change in B/W was to re-learn about exposure. The immediacy of digital means that you really can experiment and quickly learn how different lighting affects your camera metering and your choices in exposure.

With my dislike of tripods and a view of landscape photography as ‘large scale street photography’, I’ve never been one for methodical approaches such as the zone system for exposure. I’ll try and get the important parts of the image out of deep shadow, but always with an eye as to what might be clipping highlights.

I find it important to distinguish between clipped highlights that are OK, such as some reflection on water, and those where it’s not OK, such as parts of clouds, when cloud structure is going to be an important textural element in the image. Histogram displays are better now, but it’s important to appreciate that they are only a guide and require some practice to interpret.

I had to make a new print from an old film scan the other day, I was struck by things like dust and grain structure, and how ‘clean’ digital images look.

Sure I’ve some excellent shots on (35mm) film, but there isn’t one where I don’t suspect that if I’d taken my 1Ds3 back in time, I couldn’t have produced an image that would probably be better, from a technical point of view.

I have a case full of medium format Mamiya 645 kit sitting nearby in the office – every so often I take it out, tinker with all the various bits and wonder about shooting a few rolls of film – it then goes back in its box. I really have no desire to use film any more – yes, perhaps from a curiosity point of view, but with my ex-darkroom now housing two large format printers and several OSX Mac servers, it would mean going off to a local lab just to get the film processed.

What post production system do you use?

Epson 9600 printer in northlight's print roomAt Northlight Images, we’re entirely Apple Mac based, including all our servers and admin. Not a Windows machine in the building…

My own desktop machine is a dual (quad core Xeon) processor Mac Pro with 8GB of RAM and a 23″ main monitor, with a 17″ at one side, just for palettes and the like.

It’s got 3 1.5TB disks inside, one of which is just used as a working backup.

All our machines are on Gigabit Ethernet, so everything is shared by everyone.

One of our printers (an Epson 9600 right) is driven from an old Mac in the printer room – with a fast network and screen sharing, it’s just like printing directly from my desktop machine.

Right – the Epson 9600, a few years ago.

We now use a Canon iPF8300

The shelves are now packed high with boxes of paper and there is an Epson 7880 where I’m standing to take the shot.

This used to be my darkroom, with a sink in the corner.

I use a graphics tablet quite rarely, preferring a mouse for most editing work.

I know that some people prefer the absolute positioning capabilities of a tablet, but I like mice (currently an old Compaq optical mouse I got in a ‘Radio Shack’ store in a small town in Montana)

Do remember that most of my work is as a commercial photographer, so we’re just that little bit more paranoid about backups and duplication of files.

What techniques do you use post production on your black and white landscape images?

Raw processing is with Adobe Camera Raw 6 or DxO Optics pro V6.2

Subsequent work is carried out in Photoshop CS5 – I generally use the raw converter to get the best colour image for the conversion, rather than apply it there. I do sometimes try out B/W conversion in the raw converter, just to get a feel for how the image will look, but prefer to leave the actual conversion to later.

For conversion from colour to black and white I’ll either use the Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in, or a combination of basic Photoshop techniques, such as its greyscale conversion, or a layer based technique.

I’ve looked at Lightroom and don’t find it offers that much to my own workflow. However, if you’ve not got years of Photoshop experience behind you, I’d seriously suggest it as an option for many photographers. Similarly, Apple’s aperture is very good for some workflows. If I did wedding photography I might look again at both of them, but I wouldn’t do weddings if you paid me three times my commercial day rates…

Whilst I don’t have any problem in airbrushing out annoying electricity pylons or people if they mess up my composition, I won’t change major features (such as a sky from another image). I’m working to produce a print that fits my requirements and desires, not to document the landscape. I do landscape photography for planning applications and road schemes, but this is much more akin to my architectural and industrial work.

Fish Creek falls 5After working on an image, I’ll often end up with a master version at the native camera resolution. This is what I’ll resize and sharpen (selectively) for a particular print on a particular printer/paper combination.

I often crop pictures to just the ratio I want for a particular view, so my images are rarely standard sizes. The aspect ratio and positioning of the edge of the photo is an important compositional element, and I’ve found that quite subtle cropping can make a noticeable difference to a print.

In general, one of my dislikes of the four thirds system is the 4:3 aspect ratio, it’s not square and it’s not wide enough for many of my compositional choices.

Right – Fish Creek falls – a 64″x30″ print

My current favourite tool for print sharpening is Nik Sharpener Pro 3 – I’m firmly of the opinion that carefully done selective print sharpening is what can give a print just that little extra stopping power – that’s its ability to hang on a wall and stop a passer by, even if just for a moment.

When a print file is ready for printing, I always save a version (16 bit, with all layers) that includes the size and sharpening status in its name.

An example would be ‘Southwold_beach_4_L26x17p.psd’. This is a print ready version of a file to print at 26″x17″ on lustre finish paper (I still think of print sizes in inches). The ‘p’ designation is very important, since if I go back to the file for another print in two years time, it might not be immediately obvious from the file that it has been sharpened.

I’ve written an article that outlines aspects of my whole workflow, with an example colour image for people to download and try their own variations.

What about presentation? E.g. printing, framing etc.

Currently we’ve an Epson 9600 (44″ width) and Epson 7880 (24″ width) in the print room.

The 9600 is used mainly for B/W printing on matt papers via the ImagePrint RIP.

The RIP was an important tool in getting excellent B/W prints from the 9600 and normal Epson inks in 2004. Unfortunately it is extremely expensive to upgrade, so we keep it running on an older Mac in the print room.

keith cooper testing the Canon ipf6300 printer and holding a black and white printIn the six years since we got the 9600, new printer’s abilities to print good quality black and white have improved dramatically.

I would no longer choose to use a RIP like ImagePrint for my B/W work – the Epson 7880 is used just with the basic Epson printer drivers.

I’m currently looking at Canon’s latest iPF6300 printer to see how it compares (right)

Choice of paper when printing is about as much as I feel happy in changing the colour of a print.

In general, I rarely see a toned or tinted B/W print where I feel the extra colour makes a big (positive) difference to the print.

Much as with graduated filters, it seems all too often an attempt to make up for a print that doesn’t quite work on its own.

Currently, my two main choices for B/W prints are the 285 gsm lustre finish Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss (IFA49) and the 315gsm matt cotton rag based Innova Smooth Cotton Natural White (IFA 11). I do also print some matt images on the whiter High White (IFA14) version.

We’ve now got an awful lot of different types of paper in our print room, often from reviews I’ve written.

These papers tend to get used up for limited runs of prints at a particular size, often for commercial use (such as sets of ‘decorative’ images produced for hotels and businesses).

Most of our print work is supplied unframed, particularly for international sales where they are supplied in a solid cardboard tube, interleaved with large sheets of tissue paper.

If you ever need larger shipping tubes, then look to your local carpet supplier, since such tubes are regarded as industrial waste. I know several carpet suppliers happy for me to take a carload of tubes away.

Where I do frame prints, I get the basic frames from a wholesale frame maker and cut the matt boards to size myself (I have a matt cutter) – just remember that this is something you have to be quite precise with, and if you are charging for the work, it usually costs far more than it did for you to make the print.

I do not currently supply my B/W work on canvas, although I am re-evaluating this since as a business I do have to remember that just because I wouldn’t have an image on my own wall, doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t pay for the privilege…

Who/what are your influences?

My appreciation for skies comes from growing up near the coast in Suffolk, and my love of mountains from summer holidays at my grandmother’s in the Vosges (Alsace) and mother’s friends in the Black Forest and Switzerland.

Some of my interest in landscape comes from knowing what makes it work (geology and geomorphology) and the vast periods of time reflected in any scene.

Photography wise, given my interest in B/W landscape, I’ve always appreciated the work of Ansel Adams, particularly how he was prepared to work on getting a print to look how he wanted it, and how this changed over the years.

I’ve not actually studied the work of other photographers in any depth, so I see individual images I like and other images I don’t so much care for. Whenever I go to second hand bookshops I always look out for photography ‘annuals’ – and older books about learning photography. It’s interesting to see fashions change and photographs that were technically difficult in 1968, but simple today for a modern digital SLR and maybe a few seconds work in Photoshop.

I also like flipping through such books at fairly high speed, looking for the photos that arrest my attention. Why? What was it about one picture that meant I looked at it for 10-20 seconds as opposed to a glimpse. I suspect that many of my own compositional abilities come from a subconscious level, and this helps me hone my abilities. Remember too, that I’m a commercial photographer, and producing work that catches peoples’ attention is a useful business attribute.

Whilst there is plenty to be learnt from looking at other people’s work and even producing your own versions, there is a more important need to identify what it is –you- want from your photos and develop your own style that you are comfortable with.

Influences… (1Ds3 EF14mm 2.8L)

line them up - drinks at a bar EF14mm 1DsMk3

Do you have any current projects you’re working on/projects lined up for the future?

As a working professional photographer, ‘projects’ are often a euphemism for lack of paying work.

However I am looking to produce more ‘local’ work (in the UK East midlands), both as a challenge to my ability to find locations, and as a means of getting some of my work to a different audience.

I’m also spending time in the US Pacific northwest this Autumn.

How would you describe what you do – artist / photographer / creator?

I’m a professional commercial photographer who has the luxury of including my black and white print work within the context of my business.

My landscape work influences my approach to Architectural and Industrial photography and vice versa.

Photography is what pays the bills, so my choices in what work to do and when are a little more driven by the requirements of the business.

What has been your favourite black and white landscape photograph that you’ve created to date and why?

Much like movies, my tastes vary depending on what mood I’m in…

The Shingle Street beach.

Shingle Street 1

It’s a personal favourite, since it captures what a lot of the Suffolk coast feels like to me.

Also from a technical point of view, it was taken on 35mm film (Tri-X) and, as a negative, was unprinted for several years (apart from a contact sheet). It was only after I scanned the negative and cropped out much of the foreground that it just worked.

This also reminds me to go back through the archives every so often and look for things I’ve missed.

When revisiting old collections of shots, I always remember that there must have been something there to catch my attention in the first place.

What advice would you give someone trying to follow in your footsteps? Training, hands on experience, practice etc.

Take more photos – be quite ruthless in dismissing ones that don’t quite work, but try and realise –why- they don’t work.

Look for your photographic habits – can you break them? Try and do some ‘uncomfortable’ work every so often to push the boundaries.

Just because you join a photographic club, don’t feel obliged to enter competitions – do it if you want to. Personally, I find competitions stultifying and all too often promoting a perceived version of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘not good’.

Make an effort to understand the technology – appreciate what it can do and how it is changing. Most of my own technical expertise is not needed most of the time, but when it is, it makes a lot of difference in getting the shot.

The screen is –not- the print. Unless you are producing work for a web site or projection, then what you see on the screen is just an intermediate stage in getting to your print.

Attempts to make the print match the screen are inviting disappointment – understand how ink on paper behaves and how it differs from what you see on screen – make lots of small test prints if need be. You should rarely be surprised, in a bad way, by how a print looks on paper.

Decide what it is –you- like and explore it. Watch out for fashions and trends – by all means explore them (graduated filters and HDR spring to mind) but don’t be afraid of making your own choices about what sucks.

Re-evaluate your workflow – look at different software tools, particularly if available as demos. I’ve found that exploring a particular bit of software changed my approach to other aspects of my work, even if I didn’t use the plug-in I was testing.

Test it for yourself – if you see some authoritative sounding advice on a forum somewhere, that suggests X is better than Y, then try and see for yourself. Be suitably wary of ‘experts’ on the internet (myself included)

Be particularly wary if someone tells you that ‘professionals’ do something a certain way – this is rather too often a way of putting down people who don’t share a particular viewpoint.

If you want to do all of this as part of your business, remember that it’s primarily about business, but that’s another matter all together.

Do you have any general black and white landscape photography tips?

This article is an extended version based on an interview Keith Cooper gave for a special issue of a magazine covering Black and White photography. It contains lots of other peoples’ views on B/W and lots of useful tips for B/W photography.

Black and White

black and white photography magazine

When converting a colour image to black and white, remember that it does not have to be a good colour image. The colour version is just an intermediate stage, so don’t spend too much time on making the colour ‘right’

The old adage about colour being best with the sun behind you and B/W with it elsewhere is based on sound principles. Learn to see shadows as part of the image structure.

Look at the clouds – I often take pictures of scenes just for the clouds. I may not print them, but it helps me explore ways of representing them for when I am making prints

Accept that some scenes just look impressive but probably won’t make a good photo, whilst other seemingly uninteresting scenes may have a stunning print there in front of you. What I’m saying is try and learn to see the scene before you as a finished print.

Anything extra you wish to add?

Remember the ‘new toy effect’ every time you discover some new bit of software/lens. “To the person with a new hammer, every problem is a nail”

Whenever I get a new lens (think something different like a fish-eye) I always get this burst of thinking how great it is and how different and ‘interesting’ it makes my pictures.

This is perfectly natural, but I prefer to let this enthusiasm work itself out somewhat before trying it out on paying clients – I have lots of shots that on a second look really do not justify my initial enthusiasm.

My own view is that amongst the new toys that some people have not yet got over are graduated filters, HDR and the ‘Toytown’ look with camera movements (as in ‘Tilt/shift’ lenses)

All my best work usually comes after I’ve explored what these things can do and added them to my arsenal of available skills.

Thanks to Claire Gillo for asking the questions, making me think a bit more about some aspects of my work, and giving me an opportunity to vent some of my dislike for grad filters and the ‘HDR look’ :-)

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