Some discussion last session, the sharing of the light trails outing, about what is and what is not a keeper. Should be easy yes? Well most of the reasons to reject an image are fairly obvious: incorrect exposure, out of focus, poor framing or all three. Except what one sees as fodder for the recycle bin another sees promise. I suspect it was ever so, from the first daubs on a cave wall there were, no doubt, discussions on what one could plainly see and another, just as plainly, could not.
As we are all aware the cost of taking another frame with a digital camera is very marginal, which both helps and hinders. It helps in that reframing a shot in refining the outcome isn’t then much of a cost consideration. Effective when it is done deliberately. Spray and pray, though it can get results, doesn’t get consistent results. Establishing whether you should have taken that shot in the first place is a bigger consideration if you are serious about improving your photography overall and that only when you take your own advice – and I don’t mean by taking the same photograph as everyone else. That is a goal that can only be achieved through persistence, the ability to be objective about an image and to repeat the exercise from a different angle. If you don’t do something different you will only get the same result. Yes it’s basic logic but it is also something that takes each of us a time to learn. This is, at least in part, because what we are learning (or failing to) changes. We deal with a shifting medium, light, that we have varying degrees of control over, from zero to total. Lighting, as many a cinema photographer or serious videographer will tell you, is often easier in theory than in practise.
OK so the lighting when you are on the city centre taking six to eight second exposures (sometimes longer) of moving lights you have no influence on doesn’t make for a great deal of control. What it does leave you in charge of, aperture, ISO, focal length and which way and from where you point the camera, gives you scope for sufficient variation to make a different photograph every time. It is also trial and error and to differentiate that from spray and pray you have to change one of these things. The environment might also help. For instance, the bus lane going south ends in a traffic island. I saw the potential for two things in this. One was an s-bend formation in the lights as the buses made their way towards Redcliffe, the other was a boomerang effect as some of the buses use the same roundabout to do a 180 and start the return journey.
As it turned out these were the two closest shots to keepers I got all night. Other members certainly got better. I didn’t get them first time and I couldn’t guarantee to be able to exactly replicate them the next time I am light trailing down there (it sort of gets under your skin as does most forms of light painting I find). I would dearly like to lose the lamp post sitting on the thirds of one of those shots and I am not 100% convinced, given the nature and spread of the light in the boomerang shot where there is quite a bit of diffusion, that I can convincingly edit in post. The obvious answer is to avoid it by getting in front of it and using a wider angle lens or crossing the street and shooting from the opposite pavement. They will, however, be very different pictures, because the perspective will be different. Notice I haven’t said better or worse, just different.
Getting the clutter out of the way helps us to focus on the subject. Shooting without the clutter in the frame in the first place saves us time. Don’t, as a default, shoot first and fix later, because you will end up making the same mistakes a habit, a stylistic tic. Such decisions, say shooting a wedding at a constant aperture to yield a continuity of style, is fine when deliberate, distinctive and adding value for the viewer. Otherwise it just keeps the recycle bin full, or sits there in the unloved space that could be better used of your hard disk.
Poor light, endemic to light painting, is a tough test for any auto focusing system and that shot can just pass you by in a faint whirr of a never focusing lens. Certainly low light focusing has come on in leaps and bounds, especially if you are in a position to splash the cash. The actual cause – which is also why a clear blue sky can be difficult to focus on – is the lack of contrast, because contrast is what your autofocus system needs, more accurately the boundary between two objects of different luminance. That said the camera you have is the camera you’ve got is the camera you are using and regardless of model actively and fully using the auto-focusing capabilities and manual focussing are useful skills to have in the armoury. Panning can also be a useful skill, but one that needs practice, and like many other photographic techniques has a simple base but comes with some useful variations, and gets better with practice. The trick is to know what you want in the finished product and to plan and execute accordingly. That in itself cuts down on the number of shots binned, is not to say avoid experimentation, which would be self defeating. Madness, as defined by Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
The whole essence of light trails is capturing movement on a still image. Light trails are vibrant, high contrast, busy blurs, they have a rhythm and a tempo not associated with say, a corporate style headshot, a formal portrait or, I hope, obviously, their antithesis, a still life. There is a single theme that links the whole gamut of photographs you can take, indeed every photography ever taken and that will be ever taken. Composition. If you want to make and take more keepers you need to practise your composition. You don’t have to wait to happen across a dramatic scene to do so, indeed it could be argued that that is the moment you most need your composition skills, you practice with anything to hand. The key is to move, just as I should have moved taking the boomerang picture. Maybe then I would have made a keeper, not a binner.