28 February 2019 – And then …

Slightly longer than anticipated break between posts, unforeseen circumstances. We have been to visit another club, Portishead this time, and the club showed a good range of all abilities which gave a good idea of where the club is and what it tries to do. We look forward to their return visit in the near future.

This was followed by an evening on movement and blur, a practical and then a speaker, Richard Sercombe, all the way from Exeter and the ROC reactive Round. So quite a variety. In this blog, we shall be looking mainly at Richard’s contribution.

Richard brought a talk about low light photography and illustrated it with a variety of images accumulated from trips at home and abroad. Night time itself is not really the subject it is what’s in it that becomes the subject, be it places, buildings, people, animals, light trails, light painting or anything else.

Aside from the absence of light the material thing that changes with photographing in the wee small hours is the ambience, the feel, the emotional atmosphere, add in the joys of colour casts from various light sources and we have a whole new set of problems to solve.

But we don’t have to forego sleep in order to make the most of it, though empty streets have their lure (and also possibly their dangers – be aware, that kit is both expensive and portable and not necessarily by the lawful owner of said expensive kit). From the blue hour onwards provides ever-changing light and ever-changing challenges.

The basics of dealing with these challenges is no particular secret. It lies in the adaption of the camera settings to the conditions, or, in plainer English, we are still manipulating the exposure triangle just as we do every other time we take an exposure.

So we have ISO, shutter speed and lens aperture. Exposures get longer, ISO’s higher, apertures wider as the light fades. Essentially we adjust these to deal with the luminance in the scene we are seeking to capture in such a way as to get us the desired look.

As shutter speeds get lower then the probability of camera shake begins to be a factor. This is where VR or vibration reduction becomes the desired option. VR is basically a system that compensates for the shakes we introduce from being, which are always there but they are also at a lower frequency than we capture when pressing the shutter and thus do not appear. Essentially shutter speed is quicker than required to catch the movement.

So we break out the tripod, or use something steady we can rest the camera on that eliminates movement. There is a school of thought that says turn off the VR on the lens when it’s on a tripod. Certainly, this is probably the case with older lenses, but there is no loss in doing so. Some lenses will sense when on a tripod. RTM (Refer To Manual).

Bringing our own lighting is an option, probably best to avoid any on-camera flash as that produces very direct, hard images with hard to control shadows – and we need those shadows. As we are talking low light and after dark here it is well worth getting a handle on slow synch/rear curtain flash, it opens a whole lot of opportunities.

That said there is much to be experienced from not taking our own light. The challenges are as we have outlined above, the general ambience at night is very different, contrast tends to be very high, “Sunny 16” it ain’t. Well, it is mathematically, but, practically, there tends to be a lot more trial and error involved, and the best insurance still remains “Expose to the right” (because of the latitude digital cameras have, especially when shooting in RAW).

Blending existing light and using constant or flash lighting as a fill-in is also an option, especially when taking portraits, and it’s not even necessary to go outdoors to get the effect. The fact is it is a very different situation to photograph in and one full of opportunities. Try it.

31st January 2019 – Sheila Haycock on AV Presentations

Sheila Haycock came to talk to us, all the way from Exmouth, on the first snowy day of 2019, about AV – Audio Visual if you are unfamiliar with the term – and showed us that it is a fairly straightforward technique to grasp but, like everything else in photography, something that needs a fair bit of practice to pull off.

 

In essence Audio Visual in a photographic sense is sequencing stills and setting them within a time frame to commentary, music and/or sound effects. As such, as Sheila amply illustrated, we can recycle our existing images or script a shoot specifically for the purpose. Or mix the two.

 

What this can do is spark the creative process anew, as well as be a rainy-day-nah-lets-stay-in activity that still involves photography. What it won’t do is rescue a ropey set of pictures. Sheila’s are high quality images that she weaves into stories – and wins awards for.

 

As for software, well there are the Adobe / Final Cut paid for (very flexible and not cheap) routes all the way down to free. Sheila uses PicturesToExe which is a mid priced alternative. You might even have a copy of Microsoft Movie Maker on your computer, depending on its age, though that is no longer supported but you might have Video Editor loaded, which includes 3D effects but is otherwise pretty basic.

 

The basics of telling a story, regardless of medium, are the same, including a photograph. First we need something to hook our audience, the subject in a photograph is the subject in our story. The difference with an AV is that we are going to transition between stills in order to progress the story, using words/sound and the strongest element, the picture itself.

 

The transition, basically the next image or set of images, purposes, in a well told story, to build the tension (and release it a little) so that we get to the crux, the point, of the story. Then the conclusion, the punchline.

 

This is the basic structure of a good story. Of course we can have a good structure but if the materials aren’t good enough then all we are left with is a good story poorly told. It has to be logical throughout, but it also has to be engaging.

 

The role of the sound track is not something to be underestimated. It effects the emotions and dictates our reactions to what we are viewing. It is a powerful point of connection with the story. With this in mind it has to be picked carefully, music especially.

 

There are copyright issues with the use of music, rights need to be respected, and the requisite licenses should be purchased, and though there is copyright free music to be sourced, the licensed music option opens up a much wider catalogue.

 

Sound effects can also add to the impression of a three dimensional place within the presentation, but again, it needs to be appropriate to what is being shown and to the direction of the story, it is both clue and environmental enrichment.

 

The third element is the script and that can be the hardest one to get right, not least because most people reading aloud will do so in something approaching a monotone. This can be a real buzz-kill because, if the artist is sounding like they are uninterested, how can we demand the audience stay awake, let alone engaged? It needs rehearsal and it needs a certain amount of delivery skill.

 

There is, then, a considerable amount of flair in putting a successful AV together, but the proficiencies themselves are there to be mastered and the tools, even beyond the basic level, are easily enough resourced. It demands a blend of talents but it can be an effective and entertaining way of telling a story, using new or existing images.

24th January 2019 – Paul Walker, Model.

The other end of the lens this week, with a presentation by Paul Walker, who has been a model at the club on several occasions, and his experiences as a model over the last five years. Paul has gathered about 20,000 images over that time from the photographers he has worked with, including present and former members of the club and his is an interesting perspective.

From the off Paul framed his presentation within the context of mutual collaboration, certainly within the idea put forward here before (it escapes my memory by whom, unfortunately) that we do not take someone’s photograph, they give us their photograph, or as Jean-Luc Godard put it “When you photograph a face …. you photograph the soul behind it”.

It may not be a scientific fact, but after a while of taking pictures of people, there are certainly those who the camera takes to more than others. In part that is to do with symmetry and features but it is mainly about the connection either side of the film plane. Paul talked about the photograph as a collaboration, having an idea and communicating it.

Certainly, there are two people in every photograph (at least) the subject and the viewer and it is the viewer that we work to engage. We, the photographers, are the unseen intermediaries, we are the mentors and the coaches as much as the producers and directors, we take and shape the light, we work with the subject to make the image.

“If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.” – Eve Arnold.

But the emotion, the feelings, the communication all comes from the subject. It is their story, we merely light and frame and take the image, a little slice of time and circumstance that never happened before or since and being unique to that time, but we need to do it empathetically.

Of course, there are the techniques of lighting and posing and exposure to apply but Paul’s commentary on his favourite shots underlined photographer David Alan Harvey’s advice “Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like,” and that has to come from both sides of the lens coming together.

Certainly, there are differences in posing men, posing women, posing children, and using natural or artificial light and any number of different styles (High Key, Low Key, Noir, to name but three). Small differences between shots are worth recording and studying. And discussing with our model. Let’s face it, an experienced model probably has more experience of doing these things than we do and though they may not be au fait with the technical side of the camera they know about how to work with light from their end.

And if it is all about communication then there needs to be a dialog of some sorts, allowing photographer and model to play to our strengths. To do that we need to be mindful of the atmosphere we are in and the one we are trying to create – pointless in being somber and funereal when trying to create a party atmosphere and vice versa, pointless not shooting what it feels like but shooting what we think it looks like. And always be polite. Be respectful.

And yes, it helps enormously if both sides have an idea of what point we are trying to get to, so time spent in reconnaissance, as Napoleon Bonaparte was apt to say, is never wasted. And it is better to stay positive when things aren’t going to plan, doom and gloom will kill the vibe and as the photographer, we are the key to keeping the momentum going.

It is a collaboration and our thanks to Paul for providing an informative and stimulating evening in giving the far side of the lense’s perspective.

17th January 2019 – Return to the Lakes and Return of Richard Price

Two weeks to report on, with a common link, landscapes, firstly the latest Lakes trip from November and secondly a welcome return for former member Richard Price in a philosophic frame of mind. Now I am not suggesting that that is Richard’s soul photographic concern but it is the one that has spoken for him more than any other. We shall return to that.

The English Lake District in November is good for photographic enthusiasts who like rain and fog more than anything, was the common theme that came back, but that just raises the question, what do we do when the light isn’t right?

Aside form taking our chances and wrapping up well, there is always something you can do. The first thing that springs to mind is switch to black and white and get closer, look for details, patterns, textures, symmetries and so on.

Or dress up and do multiple selfies (meaning the self-multiplied in different positions across the frame) as member Ian Coombs did as part of a larger project (entitled The Ultimate Selfie).

Or pack up and go home as some photographers with a particular focus and mindset have been known to do. There are always options – though I admit that the idea of a miserable trudge to a distant view followed by a freezing and unfertile wait topped off with a miserable trudge back as anything productive has never been the point for me, but it takes all sorts.

So it was illustrated in our Lakes talk that there are sometimes noticeable differences in shifting viewpoint (where the same view had been taken by adjacent photographers in this case) and amply illustrated by Richard in a slightly different way. The assumption we make as photographers is that the landscape is harmonious and balanced and it is our job to find The Viewpoint that best captures this.

That reduces the art of landscape photography to three components: viewpoint, lens, and frame. But, whereas there are common things in photography that make for a balanced and interesting frame, the art of photography is anything but formulaic.

The first thing that a lens does is gather light. The second thing that a lens does is focus the light on the sensor or film plane so that we can capture an image. The third thing that the lens does, by default, is set the amount of the scene we can see across the frame and how big/small/close/in focus the frame contents are.

Taken all together, the lens is the most influential part of the camera system. It is the mechanical element that determines, more than anything else, the quality of the final image. Its shortcomings can only be edited to a limited extent and what you get is the limit on how good that frame can be. It sets the upper limit.

But camera systems alone do not for good photographs make. At least three of Richard’s photos were taken on a camera phone – we only knew that because he told us – and they did not look substantially different to the other, full-frame DSLR images when projected on our large screen from a distance. The lesson from that? Get to know your equipment inside out.

The frame is about what we exclude as much as it is about what we include. It is the invitation to find the things that make the story in our framework and concentrate on them. It is the box within which we arrange the objects that make our subject interesting and it is the box where we make a harmony of light and content.

And over time and with repetition it becomes a style. That style can be a deliberate following of one school or style of photography or it can evolve naturally over time and become our own bundle of influences.

Style put simply, is an identifiable, personalized way of doing things. Deeper than that, as professor Richard Greaves once pointed out, about writing style, it is “A way of finding and explaining what is true” and that fits too.

That can be said of photography because all art forms exclude and include, it’s just that in our chosen field we have to deal with what is presented to us, aside from some very limited, studio, situations of total control. We include nature somewhere, even if it is only the angle of light falling on a subject. We may shape it, augment it, restrict it but we do include it. Sometimes imitate it.

With landscape photography in particular, forewarned is forearmed, much of the chances for success in a photo shoot come from having a good idea of where to be when to be and what to expect. That doesn’t mean that nature won’t rain on our parade, but when it goes right it goes right for a reason and that means we have something we can use again and again. We develop our own techniques.

And as Richard pointed out, there is something rather soothing about the whole enterprise, from the planning through the doing to the post-production, that yields a satisfaction. The boss might want Wednesdays target by Monday afternoon but in the middle of nature, and cut off from those considerations, there is the chance of re-finding our own balance and harmony.

So, two interesting presentations to kick the year off with and our thanks to all those who presented.

1st January 2019 – Happy New Year and a Resolution for you

Regardless of the camera we use, light is still everything. The camera that most of us will have most of the time is the one attached to our phone and on the basis that the best camera we can have is the one that we have got on us, then maybe more should be made of the opportunities that this presents.

This post, being the first of 2019, will be set around making the most of our camera phones, an easy to keep New Year’s Resolution, not necessarily as a primary, go to, choice of camera, but on the basis that it is the most portable and the most accessible. Few of us feel properly dressed if we leave the house without our phones, but that’s another problem.

The camera’s on modern phones are really quite remarkable in their capacities to capture decent images. Things that mitigate against them tend to be form factor – what they feel like in the hand – dynamic range – the amount of light that can hold detail between the very brightest to the very darkest part of the image – and a lack of optical zoom, for the most part.

Note that the word megapixels doesn’t appear in this short list. My cheap and cheerful phone, bought in 2017, has a 12MP rear facing camera, the same as the original Canon 5D. Top end phones are now boasting 20MP plus cameras. Megapixels are rarely a problem these days.

That said a camera phone makes for a lousy sports camera and when on safari and photographing prides of lions the distance we would need to keep to fill the frame would be well beyond wreckless. Similarly a 20 by 30 foot poster at 300 dpi is going to look pixelated (from most cameras it has to be said) but then you wouldn’t print that big at that resolution.

Everything that we did in our 101 Corner series can be done, effectively, on a camera phone (Links to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10) and we need to see our camera phones as our primary practice camera, if not our primary camera (as some professionals do) the one we can use over a luch break or someother gap in the day – it doesn’t have to be a long one, most of the things we will talk about can be done in ten minutes as effectively as sixty. Sometimes more so as we are forced to do rather than ponder.

So we need to make an ally of our camera phones convenience and we need to make the most of its features and take account of rather than make an issue of its limitations. All camera set ups have limitiations. Without exception. Doing something about it delineates the photographer from the person with a camera.

The first thing to note is that most of us will be shooting with a fixed focal length lens, usually around 27mm equivalent on a full frame camera, 18mm on an APS-C. This means wide angle shots which means filling the frame means getting close to small and people sized subjects. Use your feet to zoom not the digital zoom on the camera – it rapidly degrades the image quality.

It also means that we need to pay more heed to having something in the foreground to skirt the problem of having unproductive negative space that diminishes the impact of our main subject. We could also use leading lines and/or forced perspective, or moving to reframe to combat this. Remember the object is to fill the frame with our subject.

Zooming aside, there isn’t a lot that we can’t do with the right app (I will come to lighting presently). If the native camera app on our phone is limited then there are plenty of others available. The one I use (Android) is Open Camera that gives a lot of control (DRO, HDR, Manual, Exposure Compensation, Differential Focusing, Noise Reduction, Burst Mode, RAW etc).

Apple has a very good native app but generally lacks manual controls. There are plenty of other apps available such as ProCamera (widely recommended), VSCO, Camera+ 2. As with all these things, it comes down to personal preference regardless of operating system.

There is also the question of an editor. Now there is a big difference between slapping a filter over a mediocre image and editing for the best effect. As a development tool the object is to get things as right as possible in camera and then edit as necessary. As for apps we can do worse than Snapseed, but again there are plenty to choose from and it is personal preference that matters.

Lighting, bearing in mind we are making the most of what we have, or can be very cheaply obtained, really should remain natural. The single LED is fine up to about arms length (and that is being very optimistic), may be synched as a flash, but will be very slow.

For slow read useless in most situations. It can be OK in macro but even that can be fiddly. Stick to natural light, though you can get a ring LED light for about a tenner (AKA a selfie light, which tells you what you need to know), are you going to carry it with you everywhere?

And this, more than anything else, is about looking for those opportunities everyday life gifts us, using the best camera we have, being the one we have at that time. It is about sharpening our skills, its about injecting some fun into parts of the day.

It can also be about trying something new, say like street photography (if you want to be incognito plug in your headphones and use the mic switch to activate the shutter) , or a project as we discussed in the last post.

It is the New Year, time for resolutions, make one that’s fun and easy to keep.

13th December 2018 – Alistair Campbell and Personal Projects

Local (very) professional Alistair Campbell was our guest speaker last meeting before the Xmas Social and a very engaging one at that. A videographer and photographer, Alistair presented a structured but loose format evening with plenty of Q and A and plenty of engagement from club members.

The takeways from this evening were, in no particular order: understand but don’t obsess about things like camera settings (the light, unless totally artificial isn’t going to be the same if we go back and shoot again, or even, sometimes from a different angle); travel light and get to know your gear; find your background first, then put your subject in it; and the talent that comes before any other is the one we can all develop – putting in the hard work.

One of the things that Alistair put forward was the idea of a personal project. That might sound a bit like a busman’s holiday for a professional photographer but it allows Alistair to do what he wishes with the photographs. For hire there is a certain amount of tooing and froing when working with clients, the results have to be satisfactory to them for them to pay up and also place repeat business (the cheapest sort of business to get). They get a say.

A project is a good way to concentrate on skills and styles, maybe favourites maybe new. They are something that can be allocated a specific time or something that we pick up and put down. And about anything.

When a subject has been hit upon, then comes the technical bits. We may be learning new techniques but it is very unlikely that the entire project is new to us. At the very simplest level, it is still all about ISO, shutter speed, aperture (or controlling light) and composition.

What it does is give us a chance to look at getting as much right in camera as possible, another of Alistair’s themes. This saves time in post, of course, but in this context teaches us something about using our equipment to the best advantage. If the equipment is new or unfamiliar it is a great chance to learn how to get the best out of it.

Start with the end in mind, something we have visited before. The purpose that this infers, doing the things we enjoy deliberately, enables us to put some markers down as we progress, points that become important when we review what we have achieved. It doesn’t matter what the end looks like – documentary, images over time a multitude of possible outcomes are viable – as long as we know what it looks like.

Intent is one thing, actually doing something can often be quite another. This is why keeping the outcomes limited but definitive is important, so that we can visit and revisit the project frequently. Under this same heading if the thing we are photographing happens on a regular basis then we have more of a chance of being able to connect with it, photograph it.

It also makes sense that a subject with some variation to it makes for more opportunities. This means there will be different if related challenges involved. It could mean applying a lot of patience in getting the effect we are after, maybe several visits. That doesn’t mean other opportunities should be overlooked, but keeping focused on an outcome means we are more likely to engage our problem-solving skills.

And if photography, taken seriously, regardless of skill level, is anything, it is a system of problem-solving exercises linked together in pursuit of a goal. With a nice picture at the end of it.

With the Christmas festivities nearly upon us there are plenty of opportunities for Christmas Light Bokeh, portraits of the family (assuming you can get them to co-operate!) pets dressed as Santa, shop window decorations, festive light trails, the list goes on and on, with just a simple tweak – theming these opportunities and, of course, taking them – we can sharpen the tools we have and take on some new ones.

So, the logic goes as follows. Tools build things. We control the light and the composition to build our photographs. Skills take practice. We all need practice regardless of the level of mastery we think we are at. The personal project gives us the head-space and the focus we need to practice the skills that sharpen the tools that build better photographs we make.

What you sitting there for? Get on with it!

101 Corner

Finally, following the review in the previous post and, hopefully, a few more goes and more understanding of some of the reasons that our photographs look like they do. This last exercise is an important one to do regularly and the personal project is an excellent vehicle.

As with the running theme in these mini-tutorials, the essence of things is to keep it short and simple. Aim to get things as best as they can be in camera. This teaches you a lot about the capabilities of your camera and how to get the best out of it without thinking (too much) about the things that can be achieved, often, more than one way.

This leaves you free to concentrate on the second half of the equation, the composition. Having secured control of the light arranging things in the frame is the thing that, in almost all photographs we are likely to take that will make or break.

So here are three more composition techniques we can think to use: vanishing point; forced perspective; symmetry.

Make one of these your personal project over a day or two with your camera and (very importantly) review. The more you do this review thing deliberately, the quicker and more effective it becomes.

29th November 2018 – ROC Round 2 and Taking Note

Round 2 of the ROC and again a wide variety of images for our replacement judge, Adrian Herring, to weigh up. An enjoyable evening and some names beginning to filter through we haven’t seen for a while.

So, what is the value of judging to the entrants? The competitive element aside, and that is more of a spur to some than others, there is a considered viewpoint about merits, demerits and options not taken. It is a photographers view, more succinctly, another photographer’s view.

Our photographs have many potential audiences. Some of those audiences mean more to us than others, though we should be dismissive of none of them. Our job, as the artist and as far as we can, is to elicit why that viewer has that opinion. To us “Because” is the most powerful tool in the box.

Now there are some very important rules to apply to this as an exercise. Some people’s opinions will mean more to us than others, and the ability to maintain perspective given those sources is important. If every negative comment lands as a blow and every positive one brushed away then we are setting ourselves up for a bad experience all round.

It is about the work not the photographer. The outcome is one thing, win/loose is the short term, growth, choosing to take the opportunity to learn, makes getting stuck less likely.

Balance is crucial. The one thing that you can say about the judging within the club, within the WCPF, is that the feedback is impartial. Yes it is going to reflect the judges tastes, but never yet has there been a lack of reasoning (in my experience). That reasoning is the wheat in the chaff.

What went right is as important as what went wrong.

The judge’s job is to make decisions on the entered images, but, also to expand on this and grow it into an interpretation of those images. Constructive criticism. They tell us what they see. Their general purpose is to enrich our understanding of the work in front of us. In doing so they will create points of agreement and dissension. And winners and losers are appointed accordingly.

But we can critique (not beat up, please note) ourselves. There isn’t one model but it helps if we adopt the same model each time, the same basic questions. We have talked before of this in relation to developing a style, but it is a general skills developmental tool in a broader sense.

This is better yet if we commit it to a journal or scrap book of images that attract us and why, of techniques, looks and resources. Yes, YouTube has many excellent videos, but finding them again can be easier said than done and it necessarily makes us passive by taking the time to watch the videos and more so if we then don’t go and try it.

Competitions such as the ROC are a chance to look at other peoples photography critically. We shouldn’t wait till then to do that. We live in a visually oriented world, so much so that it is too easy to let the everyday opportunities pass by. Flickr, 500PX, Instagram and other sites dedicated to users photography are an easily accessible source of images at all levels.

And if we go to these sort of sites with a critical but open mind it becomes an enjoyable way of getting our own thoughts ordered and in finding new ideas and things to try. Similarly in looking for the works of acknowledged masters of the craft we can use our critical framework to get our own insights from their work.

It all helps us see the photograph we want before we take that photograph. Visualisation, as it is called. Where we reach that point where the “Camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera” (Dorothea Lange). It is based, I would argue, in knowing how the pieces are going to fit in the frame.

And that can only come through a conscious regime of planning, doing and reviewing. That isn’t a recipe for doing the same thing to death, it’s an invitation to learn how to do things well. It is also an opening to learn from others. That is why it is a good thing to enter club competitions, whatever you think your level is. Because ….. well, only your photographs can answer that.

101 Corner

If you have been following this series you will by now have generated a good few images. Some will strike you as being better than others for reasons that are obvious and not so obvious. This session we are going to look at a, but by no means the, system we can use to level the playing field in terms of how we come to those conclusions.

For this you will need, pen, paper, a selection of your images and written answers to the following questions:

  1. Where does my eye rest (which part has greatest visual weight)?

  2. Are their any distractions? (List them if so).

  3. Is the exposure correct? (Too light? Too Dark? Spot on?)

  4. Would a different crop make it a stronger picture? (What should be left in/out?)

  5. What is the effect of the background? (Supports the picture/too crowded or busy how?)

  6. How does the depth of field effect the picture?

  7. How are things arranged? (How effective is the composition and why?)

  8. Is the colour accurate and what effect does this have?

  9. Is the image a cliché (Why? What about it makes it so?)

  10. What is your overall impression (a summary of all the above points with reasons)

This is an exercise you should do on your own and other peoples work. Keeping a record helps us to see patterns emerging – the first inklings of our style – and it forms a basis that stretches across genres. Do it with another photographer and a non photographer and compare the outcomes.