22 May 2014. Between the Bluebells and the Lavender

Well, elections over all-bar-the-shouting, which is going to increase as we approach the end of Westminster’s first fixed term Parliament, and the use of the school as a polling station, Dan Ellis had us meet at the Dovecote in Long Ashton for a trail around Ashton Court. We are, in the nature calendar, between the bluebells and the lavender. It may have been the weather but there were more stay at homes than usual and that got me thinking about its effect on how and when and where we take photographs.

 

We always have the weather. It’s an environmental thing, no matter where you are you cannot but help taking the weather with you. There’s a song about that.  In Britain the weather is always a topic of conversation – we generally have less extremes of it than other places and “Four Seasons In One Day” is not unknown (there’s a song about that too). One way to see it is as a regulator of activity: It’s too hot/cold/dry/wet , though others have it worse. There are two ways of looking at it – as a brake or an accelerator.

 

Of course there an infinite number of ways that the weather can effect a photograph, not least when it is its subject. At Ashton Court we had rain and sun together, which usually result in rainbows and one arced over Bristol, though was quite unusual from the perspective available in the car park of the Dovecote as the full Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet spectrum were visible, though that may not have transferred to all camera sensors. This was offset against a dark grey sky. Contrast! The clouds were quite low and at one point the prospect of Dundry hill was flooded in evening light framed through the trees of the park. The sun filtered through gaps in the low rain clouds picked out the flowers in the meadow, but eventually the clouds won out and the light went flat. The degree of contrast presented by the available light was diminished to the point that any shot of the landscape was not going to yield anything useable. I am sure more than one of us became covetous of the lighting rigs of the period costume drama that was being filmed at the house (This coming Thursday it’s the turn of the Antiques Road Show).

 

Nature doesn’t always co-operate. If it is the broad sweep of the meadows in front of the mansion you want come back during the golden hour to give the best chances – the Photographer’s Ephemeris for the regular, or you can look it up with a little more effort using Google Maps and the relevant tables. But the photograph is in the detail, it is as much about what is excluded as is included, it’s about looking for pattern and detail. And of course, in a flat(ish) light the easiest way to maximise contrast is to swap to black and white, or shoot for black and white and de-saturate in post processing. It doesn’t work for all photographs. There still has to be something to contrast. Black and white works best when there is a plenty of texture and tone in a scene. The easiest way to affect tonal separation is through curves in an editing programme, meaning affecting adjacent areas of black, white through shades of gray, but you can’t put in what isn’t there in the first place. You can do a similar thing with levels. You can see the difference between them here and though specific to Photoshop the principles are the same.

 

Flash maybe the first thing that comes to mind, direct, bounce, diffused, but we don’t always have the benefit of a separate flash for reasons of economy or space. There are reasons for not using the onboard flash, not least because it can look very harsh. There seems to be a lot of advice that says turn up the ISO and forget the flash, but turning up the ISO doesn’t do anything for the overall level of contrast in a scene. Power is a limiting factor, built in flash isn’t usually that flexible or that powerful for reasons of size and design. This just puts the same sort of limit a fixed focal length lens. You have to move the camera and given the relative under powered nature of built in units that means getting in close. Anything over about 10-12 feet then it might be a case of having to turn up the ISO to get the image, again depending upon the power of the unit.

 

Some of the harshness innate with a direct fire flash can be avoided by using  slow synch flash. Flash photography freezes the image, but with slow synch, the slow referring to the shutter speed used, the extended shutter speed can cause the background to blur whilst still remaining lit and sharp because of the freezing effect flash. Smaller apertures are possible allowing greater sharpness in the final image.  Then there is front curtain and rear curtain synch. Rear curtain sync tends to give a faint image trail and a sharp main subject. Front curtain sync illuminates the main subject. All these things get better with practice of course. Still need to look for the detail, to get up close, it is, as all the speakers we have had this season have emphasised, about the selection of detail.

 

Because the flash head is fixed doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to model the light from it. Various solutions can be purchased but DIY can be just as effective – and cheaper! Not that most bought solutions are that expensive. Masking tape, pre-cut white card and black card, handkerchief or paper napkin, Styrofoam cup can all be pressed into use. There may be a need to use exposure compensation because of the increased distance the light has to travel or the translucence of the materials used if the camera does not meter automatically, or it can be dialled in using the ISO settings.  And, of course, there is fill in flash, which can be used to highlight your subject against the background of ambient light.

 

So, if the weather is keeping you in, think again.