Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. A bourgeois concept is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. He never once won a club competition round thinking like that. He did co-found the rather classy Magnum photo agency though, which he described as “…. A community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Well he would say that, I mean, not even a commended? Obviously a case of if you can’t join them beat them.
Our last session on the endlessly fascinating light painting and the impromptu follow up at Abbots Pool on Sunday techniques set me to thinking about this. Not particularly to bourgeois concepts, you understand, but how the technique generally requires stripping the camera electronics to the basics, especially when not combining any ambient light. Full manual set on a tripod and long exposures, at least we can sympathise with a William Fox-Talbot or a Roger Fenton, though we still have it a lot easier. Equipment is smaller and lighter, we can get, with digital at least, instant review and no messing about with chemicals – though that is a different kind of fun in itself.
We are still paying attention to the same basics then. Pre-focussing the lens in the general area of the soon to be action is more guess work than we are used to with auto-focus but we still have to maintain a level of sharpness. What we don’t want is our lenses hunting for a spot with sufficient contrast to lock on to. Most of the time it’s not going to find one in the dark. So, manual focus it is on two grounds. Most people at Abbots Pool seemed to be shooting towards the end at F10, yours truly, different as ever at F8 (actually from aquick excif check it was F8 all night), but that might be the difference in using an SLT camera as opposed to a DSLR. We want our images to retain the lines and patterns in what is technically known as an acceptable circle of confusion. Basically a zone of focus we register as “sharp”.
Shutter speed. Bulb is the order of the day with light painting, at least in the conditions we were shooting in at club and at Abbots Pool. If we are shooting traffic in town in order to capture the light trails then we are probably looking at somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds as a start point (again at F8, maybe F11) but that is just to find a base line. Similarly we would want to keep a constant aperture and most likely exposure time if we were painting a large object with a single light source (and that would be across frames).
The usual advice for a sharp picture is to use the reciprocal of the focal length, so a 50mm lens would suggest 1/50th of second minimum, a 210mm lens 1/250th. Theoretically at least. However this rule of thumb (tool) has been around a long time. Certainly on a full frame 35mm camera with no vibration reduction then it’s no bad way to go. However, should we lengthen the time by 1.5x or 1.6x to account for an APS-C lens? 2x for a Micro Four Thirds? And how much do we need with VR built in and turned on? Firstly that full frame thing is a bit of a false lead. As magnification increases the degree of movement needed to register as blur decreases. Magnification does not change with sensor size, the field (and depth) of view does (and low light capabilities and quality given the same number of photo-sites – or pixels as they are commonly called – and the relative numbers on the exposure triangle).Think of it as Width not depth, you won’t go far wrong. Practically, by the way, if it’s too big to see in the viewfinder, it aint gonna fit on the sensor. Secondly VR does allow us to lower shutter speed but how much depends upon the individual and the situation.
But hey, we are on bulb (shutter stays open as long as the shutter mechanism is activated), so all that doesn’t matter. And if we are on bulb then we are on a tripod or the camera is stabilised by some other means like a bean bag or a wall etc. The bulb by the way comes from the history of photography as it was a rubber bulb shaped object used to fire the trigger. As long as it was depressed (squeezed) the shutter mechanism remained open. Sound familiar? There is some question as to whether the VR should be turned off on tripod, I have never had to and I have VR on both my camera body and my main lens. Other people have and it has made a difference. Test it and find out for your camera. Then move on.
Shooting RAW or JPEG is a personal choice, get those things above right then it doesn’t matter. If you want or need to do a lot of playing around with colour channels, contrast etc then RAW is better. Otherwise do not fret. Fretting about RAW or JPEG is probably a bourgeois concept. Arguing about it rather than taking pictures is definitely a bourgeois concept. Move on.
Composition still counts. When in doubt about the area that is going to be used to complete the picture go wide and crop in post. You can take things out, you can’t put things in that you haven’t got a record for. Generally with the sort of light painting we were doing then going wide was not a bad strategy.
Post production is certainly a matter of personal taste. It can be fun to play around with effects and balances but, by and large, we don’t want it to look over processed. Unless we do. That’s why it’s a matter of personal taste. Printing your results though means that we are going to want as much colour space as we can get to reproduce the tones and subtleties of colour. sRGB is best for monitors, so we need to make allowances for this.
It doesn’t have to be complex, it gets better with practice and it is fun. Get out there and try some.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Speaker – Welcome to my outdoor office – Stephen Spraggon