27th September – 4th October Club Exchange and Tony Cooney

This week three for the price of one: an exchange visit with fellow WCPF club Hanham, things being helped by the clubs regular meetings being on consecutive nights. So we showed them ours at Hanham on Wednesday and they reciprocated on Thursday. This was followed by the return of former member Tony Cooney this week, who, last year, graced us with his pictures from his time serving in Iraq and this time showing his work with portraiture and a variety of models.

These three events set themselves squarely in our development as photographers of whatever level. Looking at, thinking about, talking about our and other people’s pictures is an absolute essential of developing not just appreciation but also a store of looks, effects, puzzles and things to try out.

In order to so we need to have some sort of method to regularise and make useful comparisons. This is generally known as a critique and is something we have used before (using some prints leant to us by Hanham by coincidence). It is what we have competition judges do for us, where they give is feed back from an outside perspective, and a great deal of experience.

We can use this to our advantage by rationalising our own reactions to others opinions. Nobody rational is going to like 100 percent of our output equally (nor dislike). In that we can garner likes and views and favourites on social media that has as much, if not more, to do with niche marketing than actual photography. And a lot of people seem to make it an end in itself. It, like the histogram of our last image, lies between perceptions of absolute light and dark because the image and our true opinion lie in the range in between. We critique to articulate these ranges. We learn by applying this through the viewfinder.

And we do this over time. Tony showed us a development line going back several years and made the point that the single biggest early improvement came from investing in a lighting course. Now there are good courses and there are mediocre ones and price is not really a good indicator of anything other than this is what your provider can afford to charge and still get enough people to engage.

Personally I rate these things, among others, by the number of people on the course. One where you get 20 minutes a day, if you are lucky, with a superstar of that genre is worth far far less in terms of personal development and value than one where you get an hour or two hours individual attention. You might get some excellent photographs, much time in course development is spent on making sure of that because then your customers become your champion marketeers, but unless you develop the faculty of seeing rather than looking, that is not going to teach you much.

Of course we are in a position nowadays that access to opinion and information is instantaneous and in volumes we cannot hope to handle. The self taught route can be very rewarding, of course, but the accelerating the pace needs some sort of external input. Quality not quantity and when you have grasped the basics that provide quality, consistency, was something that came across from Tony’s set and certainly this was evident across both the evenings he has done with us.

The “Studio” portrait conjures up images of large format cameras, assistants, assistants to assistants, big lighting rigs, expensive clothes on professional models and an equipment bill most of us don’t have sufficient kidneys to sell to pay for. Try scaling down expectations a little and the basics become more do-able. When learning a new skill it pays to Keep It Short and Simple (an extension of Kappa’s If-it’s-not-good-enough-you-are-not-close-enough mantra) and in something practical like this, plenty of do and review. Improvisation is part of the fun and the skills set of photography.

Of course there are the intermediate courses that you can buy on line and these range from good to bad as does anything else. In these cases finding people who have used them and have something to say about them and explain why they came to that conclusion (not testimonials) are few, far between and invaluable. In this case forewarned is fore armed. Managing our own expectations is also part of the process. It isn’t just about talent and it is also about recognising that hard work is a talent in its own right. If we have this capacity then a little direction is what we need.

101 Corner

Sooner or later we end up taking photographs of people. Before the days of mass photography that was almost the soul purpose of the art. OK, a bit of landscape thrown in. Today’s social media probably hasn’t done a huge amount to change that ratio, neither has it done a huge amount for the overall quality of photographs taken. Being in it counts for more than the quality of it.

There are things we can do to improve this easily enough. Last post we talked about the effect of sensor size on quality in the main part of the post. It has another impact too – depth of field or how much of the image is acceptably sharp. This is important because of the requirement to make the eyes (both eyes) the point of focus. That is the area of a face we will look to first. Not in focus? No second thought.

A camera phone has a deep depth of field. Shooting with a wide open aperture on a larger sensor means that that which we perceive as being acceptably sharp is far more limited. Both eye-focus is easier if we fill the frame with our subject, photographer Robert Capa once famously remarked, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, it’s because you aren’t close enough”. Aperture controls depth of field.

This applies to all sorts of cameras. With that in mind try replicating this video.

20th September 2018 – Commanding Light and Equipment

Lighting options, from basic budget and food photography after break, special thanks to the ever inventive Ian Coombs for the artistic food plates, and to Myk Garton and Richard Clayton among others for their light tutorials.

The most important thing in photography is light and the best camera for the job is the one you have got on you. Two propositions that in themselves are their own truths. That said the cameras that we have offer us varying degrees of flexibility. Beyond developing us by making us think of the things that we do automatically more deliberately, an effect that quickly wears off, new/new to us equipment is just another way of getting the job done, maybe a little easier.

These days we are as likely, in fact, more than likely, to move from a camera phone to a more traditional form factor – something we think of more as a traditional camera – as a means of getting “better” photographs. Form factor is the physical size and shape of a piece of equipment. These days we think of cameras as being, mostly, hand holdable items. Certainly, when coming from a hand-holdable device like a camera phone, we look to how the camera handles, where the buttons are, weight and heft, balance.

Different formats have different aspect ratios, basically the ratio of the width of the sensor to the height. The 16:9 of our camera phones fits the the aspect ratio of our TV’s. Mirrorless and DSLT APS-C crop sensors are usually 3:2. DSLR’s (and SLR’s) 4:3. That effects how we frame – one isn’t necessarily better than another – because those are the dimensions we are given to work with. Those frames are given and we tend to adapt accordingly. It becomes more evident when we move between formats, such as cropping a 3:2 to a 4:3 competition format, especially for prints.

The sensor size is usually the single biggest factor in overall quality. Not necessarily the number of (fantasies of camera company marketing departments, by and large) but the size and number and layout of the pixels. A phone sensor is approximately 5mm x 3.5mm, a full frame camera 34mm x 24mm. Compacts, Bridge Camera’s, Micro Four Thirds, APS-C come in between. Bigger is generally better.

More complex is the arrangement of knobs, switches and dials, which at best will be software options, more likely not options at all, on a phone. Full manual is a lot easier concept to mount on a larger form factor.

On the flip side pure convenience, connectedness with programmes and channels that enable sharing of pictures, and, not least, portability are on the camera phones side. These days people rarely travel beyond the front door without their phone and therefore a camera. The biggest downside remains those lower quality images, which look fine on a phone screen, probably the most frequently employed method of display.

Although what we see as a “proper” camera these days is subject to change, the fact remains tha the best camera you have is the one you have got, but there is no escaping the fact that cameras still take pictures but photographers make photographs. Make a poor photograph and it will not be improved one iota by how much money was spent and how sophisticated the means of capturing it were. It will remain poor.

101 Corner

Last week we put forward the proposition that light is everything in photography. It is. This, sooner rather than later, leads the photographer to the question of “Settings”. Indeed the more time we spend on the internet the more it would appear that settings are the most important thing in photography. They are not. Light is. This obsession as Mike Browne points out, is nonsense on stilts. Settings do not lead to the picture. The scene, what we are taking the picture of, leads to the settings. The light is what nature or the photographer, makes it (natural/artificial light). Light is everything in photography.

The principles set out using a portrait setup are applicable to everything else. A good way to think about using light is that we are manipulating the direction of light and from that the direction of shadow. The same effects can be replicated using a torch or reading light, LED or other strip light, a flash or a specifically designed lighting rig. A piece of grease proof paper makes a great diffuser. Black card or material makes a good flag. Aluminium foil makes a good reflector. The important thing is to practice. As with last weeks video a simple set up is best. To remove the effect of colour use black and white. Try replicating this short video on your own table top.

13th September 2018 – Fiat Lux

Week two, tutorial night with members Richard Clayton and Steve Dyer doing their bit with one light and three light portraiture set ups either side of the break and yours truly trying not to cause too much confusion in a Camera 101 short session for new members and anyone else who was passing that corner of the hall.

So the blog this season will take on a slightly different format, at least between now and Christmas. There will, most weeks, be a second, smaller, thread, dedicated to short observations and exercises aimed at the less experienced members of the club and casual readers/subscribers who want to develop their photography from a fresher perspective.

Both of these threads and all of these blog entries are based on one philosophical observation by Mr Ansel Adams. “You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph”. To tease that out a bit, there is a difference between taking and making a photograph. Taking here means recording the fall of light on a subject and that is what we see using the three things a camera lets you control. It is what a camera does. Now what we see maybe a possibility within the natural fall of things, indeed will be, but that is more than just a record. We frame and manipulate and the relationships between foreground and background and the objects within that field to make an image which we then take a record of with our camera. More simply cameras take photographs, photographers make photographs.

And in that process light, not the brand or model of camera we bring to the event, nor the accessories bolted to it, no matter how expensive, is everything. Visualising the shot as a product of our imagination and the possibilities of light and shape is where the art lies. The one thing that cannot be taught is the minds ability to see a shot. No amount of knowledge of the arts of composition will overcome brain-wiring. “There is nothing worse than a sharp shot of a fuzzy idea”. Ansel Adams again.

Visualising and pre-visualising a shot (working out what we are going to shoot before we shoot gets more reliable shots than a spray and pray of something vaguely interesting regime) is all work that pays off when it comes to capturing what we see. This is in part because, if we conscientiously practice it, we are attuned to what light is telling us. Light for a photographer works like a plot for an author. It is the key component in telling a story. Typing random words might enable the basis of a plot to take shape, but the author works her/his thoughts and feelings into something someone else might be interested in by applying details and structure. Words by themselves don’t make a novel.

So, light first and last. In between is composition, itself a huge topic the subject of much academic and cultural importance. To a photographer it is the arrangement of the objects in the frame and how they are lit to tell the story. Photographs, by and large, really can only tell one story without becoming confused. Where the brightest light in the frame falls will be where the eye gravitates first. How we arrange the objects in the frame in relation to light and dark determines where the eye goes next. Volumes have been written on the subject and we will revisit it but, at this stage of the club year, I think that the best thing that can be said of them is that they are tools not rules, but they make a difference. One good exercise is to take one and make it an exercise in what I am going to shoot today. It can be fun too.

101 Corner

Light being the starting point end point and everything in between, it is something that we can practice with a minimal amount of equipment and pretty much anywhere. This Mark Wallace video is a good starting point and can be replicated at home regardless of the weather. Try it, the light sources don’t have to be photographic lights or strobes/flash guns/speedlights, it can be desk lamps, torches, LED’s etc. and the effects are even more striking in black and white. Camera doesn’t matter either, your phone will do just as well as a full frame all singing all dancing camera.

6th September 2018 – Back from the Summer and thinking food.

New season and a full programme to look forward to. We started with an evening of member’s summer photographs and I can honestly say I was delighted that this year that was from half the people in the room. There was a broad variety and a decent standard of photography, meaning that we all had the opportunity to take something new away, from location, angle, technique but above all, lighting. After all light is everything when we are talking about photography.

Looking at other people’s images is a great way to develop our own when we look beyond the initial reaction to what we like, and what we would change about angle, subject, editing – and then go out and try it. it’s called looking critically and it is something that we can all learn to do, but if we don’t apply it it’s just called looking at pictures. Pleasant enough but not what a photographer does. It is what delineates a photographer from a bloke-with-a-camera (or a woman-with-a-camera though the kit-bores I have met have been male universally).

We have a full programme again this year – our thanks to the hard working Programme Team, there is a lot, lot more that goes into it than meets the eye. Next week we are taking a look at food photography (part 1 of 2), and the evening will be split between a tutorial session and a practical after break, or for those who want to get stuck in then the option to start with the practical is there. For those of you who want to get a start then head over to this B&H video on YouTube which covers a lot.

Now that isn’t to say that you are going to walk away an expert, but it does give you a way into something that is easy to practice basic techniques to which you can apply any number of hacks, mods and tricks to get that image you have in your mind’s eye. Like everything else it is down to practice, practice, practice with that critical eye we mentioned above. An important qualification here. Critical does not mean trashing, your own or anyone else’s work. To work it must be open and honest, it is about the image not the photographer and certainly not about the critic’s ego nor the kit the photographer used to take the image.

Psychologists have evolved a thing called the 10 second rule. Negatives are easier for us to process (assuming the best preparing for the worst is as good a description of a balance, but maybe that is just me). Use the sandwich approach. Good-Improve-Good. Each good point we keep in our mind for 10 seconds because our brains seem wired to give more weight to negativity (Rick Hansen memorably uses the analogy “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”). The 10 second rule balances out this negativity to some degree. The improve section goes along the lines: “The next time I make this photograph I will …”. We can then look for similarities between images and go out and try our remedies and/or new things. That is where a notebook comes in handy.

Taking and making notes is a good development tactic. This can be about the process, the set up, the lighting, the equipment, techniques, general observations and or reminders or even random thoughts generated as a consequence of taking or thinking about a photograph. Artists sketch books are a centuries old idea and they work, whether you consider yourself an artist or not. Photographers are no exception to this. Monographs and sketch books are always a good source of inspiration.

As ever there is the idea of the photographic project. Food is one of course and that is where we will start in the club. Each week of the club calendar is a little project in its own right if we care to make it so. The club, through its Flickr and Facebook accounts is a place where we can get some of the feedback that helps with our development, just post and ask for feedback. Constructive feedback, such as we talked about above, is the fuel for development in any field, photography is no exception.

So, in preparation, we can start reviewing what we have done in our own collections of close up photography, including table top sessions at the club and start thinking about composition in a situation where we control all the elements including the light.

And as we said at the top of this piece, it’s all about light.

30th August 2018 – Cars Seaside Cars

You can’t help but wonder what American cars, especially the classics, now that the laws of physics and the demands of aerodynamics homogenise nearly all cars, would look like if their roads actually had bends and the distances between towns shorter. But road trip is something big within the American cultural psyche and you may as well do that in style. A short trip down the A38 to Colliters Brook Farm in my rather small Toyota wasn’t quite the same – until I got there.

The club outing was to the bi-weekly American classic car meeting at the aforementioned farm, another one of those things that I hadn’t quite got round to taking the camera to – and I am not alone in my guilt there. So two expeditions in three weeks to photo some classic American metal.

Now, professional photographers specialising in motor vehicles do rather have advantages over the amateur on a club night at a social gathering in terms of access, but essentially we are both taking pictures of metal boxes. True, they are, for the most part, desirable metal boxes, but they are metal boxes nonetheless.

As always there are the two extremes, detail and the whole view, and the best image lies within a combination of those two. Location also makes for impact, but when it’s someone else’s car in a static display details are probably going to take up the bulk of the successful shots taken. And car designers take a lot of time in designing those details in, even if the demands of price sensitive mass production hammer the more exotic and difficult to manufacture ones out.

Being shiny metallic and it being evening the best we could hope for was a cloudy sky, or at least a sky with some cloud in it. A polarising filter certainly helps, but lack of one shouldn’t stop you photographing cars or other shiny surfaces, you just have to be a bit more savvy. The reason behind this is reflections and, to some extent with a low sun, shadows. Again we have got two choices, use them or loose them. Both are fine. In the latter case we have the option of using a polarising filter, which will help a lot but not be a total solution. Making a feature of them gives us more scope, it also means that the photographer ends up in more of his/her shots than s/he wished for, but careful use of angles can mute the impact.

As in the last post on portraiture, street and art there are more telling pictures to be had in the details than in worrying about getting the whole thing/person in frame. Those details, the automotive ones I am talking about here, are deliberate and functional, and collectively go into what the whole picture looks like, even if it is increasingly homogenised by the demands of legislation and aero dynamics. It is the details that tell the story often more effectively in photographic terms.

Those details may be manufactured, but detail can also be the difference in a familiar landscape. The more recent outing to Clevedon for sunset shots of the pier demanded exactly that. There is no doubt that the sun going down over the Severn Estuary with the stone beach as foreground and the long span of the pier leading the eye towards the setting sun is an effective and sound, emotive even, scene just right for capture. But it has been done. Many times and whilst it is good to have our own version of this it can look rather like a copy, even though the skies will never be exactly the same in detail, the angle ever so slightly different.

It is one of those shots that is almost a right of passage for any local, budding, landscape photographer. All areas have have them. But how to get more out of that ever changing scene? Different angles, different foregrounds, different areas of interest can make for quite stunning images, but there are always questions of what respects the landscape and what impact the photographer has upon it, especially when everyone is doing it. The general guide lines for landscapers is you leave it as you found it, don’t go gardening nature and claim it as a part of creation. But this maybe a bit narrow. There are other ways to capture an arresting landscape image without the threat of getting arrested. There is even a use, actually a fair number of uses, for that circular polariser again, though it does not have to be screwed on to the lens taking every landscape photograph.

Landscape doesn’t have to mean travelling hundreds of miles to catch the first or last rays of the sun (also some great twilight pictures to be had for the patient and informed), there is plenty of it here in the West Country you can capture in the Golden hour or the Blue. Or switch to black and white and shoot from dawn till dusk. Middle of the day is a great time for infra red too (full and very technical discussion here). You don’t even have to change loction once you have settled on a composition as there is always something going on in it.

And there is always something going on in Reflex. Thursday 6th September is the start of the new season back at the Wicklea Academy in St Annes. If you are in the area why not pop along to our members summertime review?

9th August 2018 – Walk Abouts

It’s been more than a couple of weeks since I last posted. This is because I have been rather busy and I apologise for the omissions. What do you mean by “I hadn’t noticed?”

We are now on the summer break which means we go out to the club to various locations around the city and sometimes outside of it. Next meeting is at Colliters Brook Farm on the A38 between the layby and the golf course just past the Towns Talk and it is American Cars that are the subject of the evening.

We have done two shoots so far in our summer Programme, the first being the M Shed photoshoot (well outside it to be precise) with models from the local area most of whom have worked with the Dream Team that have been blocked about before. Many thanks go out to all those who participated in what was a very successful evening and was generally enjoyed by all I talk to.

Then we went for a stroll around Bedminster (Bristol not New Jersey) which is where the annual Upfest is held which for those of you unfamiliar is an urban art festival using local buildings as canvases around the North East and West Street areas of Bristol. It is Europe’s largest street art festival and it always leaves me astounded at its imagination and its breadth. This was probably the first time in ages I actually took my camera along specifically to make a record and if you can I would suggest that you pay a visit.

Both events have been very successful and we’ve even seen some members we don’t normally see when we go out joining in so that is really good. Our thanks to the Programme Team for putting these things together, A lot of hard work goes into it, and it is appreciated.

At least part of that success for us as individual photographers is turning up to something where, if we don’t know the exact details, at least we know the outline of what is going to happen. This is more important than sometimes people give it credit for, because we have many opportunities that we can shoot, but we don’t always see them when we are not focused.

I forgot who it was said that in Street photography there are two basic methods, fishing and hunting. In fishing, we go select a background and wait patiently for our subject to wander through it and because we already set up to eliminate things like lamp posts bins and what have we that can get in the way, We have a very good chance of getting a memorable photograph. Please may I did not say guaranteed as there are no guarantees. What we can do is eliminate much of the problems we get with clutter and with things like not having level Horizons through the process of pre-planning background.

When learning it is often said that the best way to do this sort of thing in the street is to use the fishing method. That is not to say that the Hunting method, where one goes around with the intention of seeking out subjects and prizing them out of their every day with the lens, is better or worse. It is the result that counts. Sorting out the background is a basic skill for any photographer who wants to progress, “Border Patrol” as it is sometimes called. This is because there is a difference between looking and seeing. But what we are hunting and fishing for is light. What we need to be looking for are the things that will draw the viewers attention to what we want to capture in the frame.

The hunting method is often seen as a more aggressive of the two and saying that there can be problems with permission and people leaping out with wide angle lenses to poke in the faces of and promoting reactions from startled passers-by, but this is very much in the minority. Could also get us locked up in some countries. Then “Easy ain’t worth nothing”.

So if we started out taking photographs of models and street art why are we talking about street photography? Basically, because we have to remember, if we are not going to miss some interesting things that we could possibly capture, we need to be aware of our surroundings. People will, in urban situations, be part of the scene. We need to see the opportunities before they turn into something we can capture that has something to say. But we need to be aware of that one detail that we need to tell the story. A photograph can only tell one story, our job is to make it a strong one. It is as much about what we leave out as keep in.

Happy hunting.

21st June 2018 – Dream Team

The presentation this week was by club members who are also members of the “Dream Team” which was started by former Reflex member Tony Cooney, who gave an excellent talk to the club on his time serving in Iraq at the beginning of this season. The Dream Team is a collective of models, M.U.A’s (Make Up Artists) and photographers, some of whom are also Reflex members, who meet once a month to shoot in a variety of venues on a given theme.

This links well into next weeks reflection on how the club has affected two members photography, because one of the ways that we improve is to get ideas and feedback from other photographers. Now it is a fact of life that some people are thin skinned and others immune to the criticism of others and it is also a fact that we are more likely to listen to positive criticism, of which there are two sorts. There is that which is founded in reason, and when reasons are given then we can learn and there is that which is founded on prejudice, the one and only way.

The first of these is worth listening to the latter is, largely, just somebody telling you at length that they did not take this photograph. That which is founded on experience and an open mind may be just as subjective as that which is founded in ego but is by far the more useful of the pair. If there is some form of standardisation to the process then there is a basis for a shared understanding. Mix this with practice (and make it fun) and we get somewhere on the road to results.

The Dream Team’s wide ranging interests and themes and the interconnectedness of the various art forms involved make for something much bigger in the end. Any fool can press a shutter button, daub their body in some paint and gurn at a camera, but that whole Gestalt thing is vastly different when specialists come together to produce a result outside their individual discipline. The inter-connectedness of those disciplines and the imaginations of the people involved make for something much larger.

There is a scientific basis to this, according to research at Stanford University that looked into the difference between finding our passion and developing one. It concluded that being told to find our passion maybe well intended but ultimately it is misplaced advice.

In the short term to find our passion we must go looking for it, for sure. In so doing we create deliberate actions and with such purpose comes results. In the short term, the very act of looking opens up our minds to new opportunities. Open up our minds to new opportunities and we open up ourselves to creative possibilities. Open up ourselves to creative possibilities and we may find our passion. It is what comes next that is critical for development of that passion.

It is the relaxing bit that comes with having found our true passion in life that does the damage. The comfort food of “True Passion” turns sour – maybe it’s our true yoghurt – when it comes to the hard bits. First off, in relative ignorance, we can kid ourselves that we are quite good at this thing, and that we have got it cracked. This is the brain looking for time off and we will get stuck there if we don’t become critical of our own work – creatively critical that is.

Learning by looking at the greats is as old as art itself. Photography is no exception. You can look at your Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, Weegee, David Hockney, Martin Parr, Richard Avendon, Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Edward Weston make the list as long as you like, with the internet it can be done. Look at what they have published and have some sort of framework to go by BUT, we are not going to be them. Their time and pathway are different to ours, as well as their artistic sensibilities, no matter how much we admire them. What do we learn from what they see?

The point about that is that it is a great way to learn technique. It’s a great way to set ourselves challenges and that is where finding and developing take separate paths. If we go the development route we are much more likely to stick with it and to use the challenges and frustrations as spurs rather than drift way from something we found.

Collaborative working, under the right sort of atmosphere, is a great way of developing. Knowing the direction we are going in, or want to go in, forces us into certain choices. Again these are better if they are deliberate choices. The biggest factor in this is having somewhere there is a free flow of ideas and an informal collective can be a very good framework for that, especially when ideas are coming in from different disciplines.

Get this bit right and the way that the team works becomes more flexible and responsive to the overall goal – everybody is ending up with some great shots to add to their portfolio. Because there was time and effort put in then the capacity to use these skills, set ups, lighting, composition tools and so on again, under different challenges, adds to not just the photographers, skill sets.

When taking photographs of people, which the Dream Team essentially is, it can seem that it is the photographer who is doing the final work. OK the MUA’s/hairdressers/ got the subject’s look ready, which determines a successful outcome by altering and enhancing where light, shade and attention will fall, and the models give the look, clothes, posture and attitude, but it’s the tog who is determining the final composition. Sort of. Really it is the photographer who has the greatest opportunity to foul everything up and the easiest way to do that is not to take efforts with the other people in the process.

Essentially the photographer has to give credence to the fact that successful photographs of people are not taken they are given. It is a collaborative process.