RUSSELL BROWN – Correspondence and Interview – James Allan

RussBrownCover 1Hi Russell,
I am writing from the Blackwood Photographic club from South Australia.
We received an e-mail advertising your book, “Paths to Artistic Imaging in Photoshop”.
I was interested in your promotion as we like to encourage our members to improve their skills in image processing.
What I had in mind was a small piece for our Camera club newsletter.  Currently we put this out as a blog.
I haven’t really done this before and was not sure how it would work.  I was hoping for something like an interview. Maybe you might answer some questions or provide a small sample of your material.
In the hope that you might find the time to respond to my request, I look forward to hearing from you.
James Allan

71N6YNCO4+L._UX250_Hi James

I’d be happy to help out.

We could do an interview like the one my friend Marco Olivotto did, or I could write a short tutorial on any subject you think would be useful to your members.

I’m presenting a paper on the use of the LAB colour space at Create World in Brisbane tomorrow. It might be somewhat advanced stuff but then again, maybe not, if your members are really keen!

FWIW (for what it’s worth), there is a link on my website to download a pdf of the introduction chapter to my book, which may be of interest and I also have been sending out a bonus chapter pdf on effective use of the Adobe Camera Raw module, to buyers of the book. If it wasn’t overkill, I could send that to you too.

Let me know what is most suitable for you and I’ll sort something out.

Talk soon  Russ B

Thanks Russell,

Thanks for taking the time responding to my e-mail. Also I am pleased that you are happy to try and help us.  Thanks for the offer of the introductory chapter and bonus chapters.  I enjoyed looking at your material.

What I would love to do is ask you a few questions and publish a short interview in our newsletter, with links to the material you have offered.  I am also interested in the LAB colour.  With this in mind I have included a few questions below.

Perhaps as way of introduction – we are an amateur photography group.  Most of the members are not professional photographers, but do this as a hobby.  Many are just beginning, while others are using all their spare time honing their skills to win the next club competition.  In common, they all have a camera and do what they do for enjoyment.

There is certainly a photoclub culture. I personally find that the club scene is a little limiting.  The conventions of the judges are too restrictive and inhibit creativity.   I understand that you come from another world.  I think there is much we can learn from you.



  1. I understand that you have been a professional photographer for a long time.  What is it that you enjoy most about this career?

I have worked as a press photographer for the past 33 years, beginning as a cadet with the Herald & Weekly Times organisation in Melbourne and moving to Brisbane at the completion of the cadetship in 1985. I have loved photography from a very early age and so feel lucky to have been able to make a career from it. I enjoy being out and about every day, meeting many interesting people and experiencing situations that most others never have the opportunity to, while having the challenge of producing striking images in often difficult situations. It is very satisfying to come away from an assignment, often unexpectedly, with a great set of pictures.

  1. Were there any ‘breakthrough” moments that define what you do?

I’m learning new things all the time, especially since the advent of digital imaging. I’ve been lucky to have worked in both the film and digital eras, with the knowledge from the former, still helpful and relevant today. The landmark moments that spring to mind that have led to my present work, include my initial introduction to film processing when I was just 10 years old, which is what hooked me into serious photography, and then subsequently, my experience at the Herald as a cadet, my later interest in preparation of custom processing chemistry and finally, the introduction of digital imaging, which more than anything else, has allowed my work to flourish. Also, discovering the work of US author Dan Margulis in 2006 was a catalyst for the vast improvement in the work I have produced since then.

  1. I know that I often suffer from “getting stuck in a rut”.  The same old images the same techniques, lacking something.   Is it possible to become fresh again?  How do you do it?  Do you have any tips?

Probably most people in creative fields have such problems from time to time. I think that the advantage we have now, is the availability of the vast source of information and inspiration on the internet. I remember when I first found the site, I was impressed by the array of techniques that people were using to make wonderful images. I made an effort to learn how these results were achieved and integrated many of them into my own work, giving me a range of new options and possibilities that I didn’t have previously. If you are passionate about photography as I am, I think that this sort of path is helpful to inspire you and keep your work fresh. In my case, this experience was one of the factors that led to me writing my book. All these methods were around but it was often difficult to find detailed information about them, so I felt that compiling them into a single resource would be helpful to many who had similar interests to me.

It is also helpful to try to train the eye to see in different ways. Our habitual way of seeing is perhaps the main reason that our work suffers from sameness. Again, being curious about the work of others can provide ideas about new ways of seeing. Most people see some interesting subject and simply take a picture-postcard image, without examining it more closely and focussing in on the most interesting aspects. A helpful tip is to take some of your current images, enlarge them substantially on screen and then pan around, examining the various details more closely and without the distraction of adjacent elements.

(Further to what I said earlier, I should add that sadly, using the 500px site today is not quite the same as it was in the early days. At that time, most of the work was of a high standard and the quantity was not so great, so it was easy to follow along with new work by talented people. Now though, with it becoming so popular and with virtually no restriction on quality or quantity of images uploaded, it has become very difficult to sift through the mass of rubbish, that appears there just as often as the quality stuff.)

  1. What do you think is often done badly? (in regards to photography or manipulation) – (Alternatively – what is done well?)

The digital tools we have available these days, make it relatively easy to achieve results that would have been virtually impossible in the days of film. That being said, skilful use of those tools is what separates the work of the experienced from the rest.

The proliferation and ease of use of digital cameras, from traditional types to smartphones, means that almost everyone now considers himself a photographer. I have often remarked that if you want to call yourself a surgeon, then you actually have to be one, but anybody can buy an expensive looking camera and call himself a photographer.

Of course, everyone has to start somewhere and I have produced my share of embarrassing rubbish in my early days, thinking at the time that it was amazing. A lot of work by those new to image enhancement tends to look a bit ham-fisted, simply because doing a proper, professional job takes experience and skill and can be actually quite difficult.

Digital imaging as we know it today has only existed for a few years and the learning-curve for everyone has been steep. In the early days, many techniques were used that have since been superseded by vastly better ones, however the outdated ones often persist. Use of the Levels command in Photoshop is a good example. The Curves command is far superior and yet many still swear by Levels. In this way, some processing is done badly, simply by use of outdated, inferior methods.

The things that bug me most when I see them, are heavy-handed colour saturation, predictable, boring subject framing and over-use of whatever the latest “in” technique happens to be.

  1. Photoshop was a proper noun.  Now it has become a verb.  It implies a degree of deception.  It is used quite extensively by some of our members.  People who are new to the club are often horrified at the extent to which images are manipulated.  What is your opinion? 

This one has been debated at length by many in the past and will continue to be for quite some time. Again, I think that it depends mostly on whether the methods are used skilfully or not, and also for what purpose they are used.

In my work as a press photographer, there are strict rules as to what is and is not permissible. Technical improvement of colour, luminosity, sharpness, etc, along with dodging and burning is fine and deceives no-one. Moving elements around or adding/deleting elements though, is definitely a no-no. I could reference Dan Margulis again here, as one of the methods he advocates in the LAB colour space, is that of enhancing colour to more accurately reflect what was perceived by the viewer, as opposed to the camera. Cameras record colours in a fairly literal way, jpg algorithms aside, which is often not how the human viewer would have remembered them after he had taken the picture. LAB can enhance such colours (green foliage for example) in a realistic way, to recreate the sort of effect that the photographer himself would have experienced. Again, how “correct” one considers this to be, is debatable and clearly, this is quite a complex topic and more detail is beyond the scope of this humble interview!

When you move from documentary photography into the world of art however, as I do outside of my day-job, all bets are off. Art is not about faithful reproduction of subject matter, so I think that one should use all the tools at one’s disposal to achieve the desired outcome. We return again to skill here though. Many of those new to Photoshop, attempt tasks beyond their abilities and produce less than desirable results.

As far as photographic club competitions go, I think that it needs to be made clear at the outset, whether the task is documentary or artistic and what sort of proficiency is being looked for. If camera skills are being encouraged, then over-use of image enhancement would probably be unwelcome, as this may mask the goal of the assignment. If artistic though and a given participant has sufficient photoshop skills, I think they should be allowed free rein.

The whole purpose of my book is to provide means to achieve such artistic outcomes. The end results often bear little resemblance to the original image but for me, that’s the whole point. Anyone can take a photograph, colour-correct it and then finish, however their results will very often look much the same as anyone else’s similar attempt, unless the photographer is lucky enough to have found a truly remarkable subject and captured it in a striking way. Skilful, creative processing on the other hand, can lead to truly unique and eye-catching art, which is certainly my goal.

Ultimately, camera and Photoshop skills are two different things and the person who produces the best results will in my opinion, be the one who is proficient in both.

Thanks Russell

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