‘Dahlia, Vic­to­ria Ann’, 2011, by Kenji Toma

Amateur Photographer - - Photo Critique - Roger Hicks con­sid­ers…

In Lords and Ladies, by the late Sir Terry Pratch­ett, Granny Weather­wax says of a fake crown in a the­atri­cal per­for­mance some­what re­sem­bling the Scot­tish play, ‘ Things that try to look like things of­ten do look more like things than things. Well-known fact.’ A rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a dahlia can, stripped of all con­text and pre­sented like this, look more like a dahlia than a dahlia.

Ac­cord­ing to Kehrer Ver­lag, the pub­lish­ers of The Most Beau­ti­ful

Flow­ers (ISBN 978-3-86828-789-9), Kenji Toma’s pic­tures are an ‘ homage to the botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions in Choix des

plus belles fleurs by Pierre-Joseph Red­outé, one of the most well-re­garded flower en­cy­clo­pe­dias of the 19th cen­tury.’ Well, all right, well done Pierre-Joseph; but I find it even more fas­ci­nat­ing how Toma recre­ates del­i­cate wa­ter­colour il­lus­tra­tions us­ing pho­tog­ra­phy.

The an­swer, as is al­most in­vari­ably the case in pho­tog­ra­phy, is that there are prob­a­bly sev­eral routes to the same end. But what if you are suf­fi­ciently in­spired (as I am) to try to re­peat the trick? Here are a few ideas, but they may not all work and you’ll need a lot of prac­tice be­fore you are as good as Toma.

Back­ground, ex­po­sure, con­trast

First, there is the off-white back­ground. Not only does this re­mind us of the age­ing paper of a 19th-cen­tury tome, it also serves as a use­ful foil to the bril­liant white of the petals. Sec­ond, ex­po­sure is gen­er­ous – there are no murky, un­der­ex­posed ar­eas. Third, there is quite high con­trast and sat­u­ra­tion. The whites of the petals on the left (though not on the right) are ‘ blown’ to fea­ture­less high­lights. It doesn’t mat­ter, though, be­cause they are edged by that spec­tac­u­lar crim­son-pink, and in some cases with shadow as well. Fourth, there’s a lot of grainy tex­ture. This sug­gests a well-con­sid­ered ap­proach to res­o­lu­tion and sharp­en­ing.

Per­son­ally, I’d try high dy­namic range (HDR), com­press­ing the mid-tones in or­der to see into the shad­ows as well as giv­ing rea­son­able high­light def­i­ni­tion. Of course, it is pos­si­ble (and even com­mon­place) to overdo HDR to the point where the pic­ture ap­pears un­nat­u­ral. But what if the pic­ture is sup­posed to ap­pear un­nat­u­ral? What is ‘un­nat­u­ral’, af­ter all? Hyper­re­al­ism is a well-known tech­nique in paint­ing, es­pe­cially in air­brush paint­ing. We’re straight back to things that look like things of­ten look­ing more like things than things.

In other words, ‘re­al­ism’ in pho­tog­ra­phy is a flex­i­ble con­cept. In re­portage, it might be wob­bly colours (or black & white) and big grain. In por­trai­ture, it might be any­thing from 1940s Hol­ly­wood soft focus and retouching to the Tay­lor Wess­ing De­pressed Teenager of the Year Award. Un­til we ask what ‘re­al­ism’ means, we can­not at­tempt to achieve it.

‘The off-white back­ground serves as a use­ful foil to the bril­liant white of the petals’

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