Tintern Abbey was our rendezvous last meeting, the next is at Gloucester Docks and we have a themed shoot. Please see the club’s Facebook Page or email the club for details (link on the main page). Not a bad showing considering it’s the other side of the Severn Bridge, even if we seemed to lose each other when we moved on to the Old Railway Station and its sculpture trail. Possibly the others I lost track of went on to the bridge at Brockweir, or home. Still it was a rewarding evening.
So the Olympics have just started and on display this week were the armouries Canon and Getty have provided, several million dollars worth. Then this is an enormous event. One photographer has already had £30,000 worth of kit heisted by a street gang using distraction tactics (and that had an interesting postscript). Whatever else you might say about it, there are no small numbers involved in the providing of it. The International Olympic Committee have banned GIF’s from the attending photographers (among other formats) in an effort to maintain control on who and how money is made from the images taken of the action. GIF’s, Graphic Interchange Format, are generally thought of in their animated form these days, though it is a lossless file format for stills too, and it is this animated form that has the IOC so animated, or at least its ability to simulate film/moving pictures. Which is all very fine, but what is a lossless file?
Lossless files describe the performance of data compression – squeezing the raw data into smaller storage spaces without losing quality. They are not just photographic formats but audio formats too and there are general formats for other data, the most familiar of which are Zip files, but also for computer code. GIF has been around a fair few years, but it has grown in both popularity and capability, but it only handles 256 colours. Its appeal to the web is its tiny size, and of course its ability to be turned into short animations. As a format it actually predates the Web as the it has been around (unaltered) since 1989.
JPEG on the other hand, is a “Lossy” format. Lossy “is the class of data encoding methods that uses inexact approximations and partial data discarding to represent the content” (Wikipedia). It is a one way street, meaning it cannot be reversed. Lossless preserves the colour data (but might reduce it as in a GIF). Its irreversibility had Reuters making JPEG their only accepted format, one suspects, as there are more limitations on its ability to be manipulated as well as the economies of scale available in limiting the number of formats they have to accommodate. It is pretty universal as formats go. Outside of the personal storage areas you won’t find RAW on the web, but JPEG you will find pretty much everywhere. Most cameras shoot JPEG of course – it is the photographers format, JPEG stands for the Joint Photographic Experts Group. It will give you 16 million colours, more than you can actually see, but the trick is in the transition between colours and shades of colours, which are generally pretty vibrant. Its widely accepted of course (see above) and you would have to look long and hard to find a computer that cannot handle it.
We linked to the JPEG v RAW argument in the last post, but RAW doesn’t get a look-in when talking about most of the images we see. Then, in the days of film we saw a lot, lot, more prints than ever we did negatives. The world, though , has changed a lot in the last 25 years where digital is the new normal – normal for taking and displaying images. The world’s first digital SLR was a modified Nikon F3, The Kodak Professional Digital Camera System (DCS) which was tethered to a 200MB hard drive, that the photographer carried over the shoulder. Its capacity was 156 uncompressed 1.3MP images and was yours for around $30,000 US (about £23,000 at current exchange rates, but actually closer to £40,000 when you take inflation into account). That was 1991. On the 6th August that same year Tim Berners Lee posted the first page to the World Wide Web (the internet is actually the system of computers that powers it) and though one and the other are now inseparable, the first image was posted in 1992. CERN made the code a gift to the World in 1993, and the rest, as they say, is a gloriously messy history.
Whereas we will find lots of JPEGs and GIF’s on the web, as presentation formats at the very least, they are by no means the only formats. BMP, often called a “Bump”, is sometimes used by photographers but it is not very flexible and the . TIFF, or Tagged Image File Format, is more common because it is the standard digital format in the printing industry. It has been controlled by Adobe since 2009 but was originally created by Aldus as a format for Desk Top Publishing, which for many years was the next big thing. It was designed to be a very flexible format, supporting such types of compression as JPEG, LZW, ZIP (or none) and retains all colour and data information as well as being saved with layers. But the files are huge. Hence camera RAW which compresses the original data losslessly, but it isn’t a single agreed format as the camera manufacturers all have their own versions of it.
PNG Portable Network Graphics), the last of the more common formats, was envisioned as a replacement for GIF. Not all web browsers – think of how we store most of our images on line these days and browsers are a very big thing – support it, though that is increasingly uncommon now. It can’t be animated like GIF’s can, which probably keeps the GIF a more common file type, and whereas it does, otherwise what GIF does, only better, those files tend to be large.
So there we have it, in aggregate some of the reasons why, as photographers we deal with RAW and JPEGS the majority of the time, and why TIFF is still used to store images by some. All because you can animate a GIF and the IOC voraciously defends its commercial properties….
N E X T M E E T I N G
Costume shoot at Gloucester Docks, see Facebook/email club as per above.
Last meeting was convened at the Grand Pier Weston Super Mare for a evening’s photography along the front covering both Weston Bike Night, the beach and the sunset across the Bristol Channel. Have to say that the clouds and the sun didn’t disappoint and the turn out wasn’t at all bad given the weather forecast and people’s work commitments. Certainly the black of the rain bearing clouds in banks and the gold of the setting sun made for interesting vistas out over the Channel to Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Of course there was also the Grand Pier itself, which is not exactly a hidden feature, Brean Down and Knightstone Island.
So this week a little on photographing motorcycles. It goes for cars too but your Blog editor is a motorcyclist, so that’s what we are mainly going with. There are not quite a half dozen of us in the club I know as motorcyclists (there are a few more former motorcyclists) and a couple of us have trekked with our cameras over the years to the National Exhibition Centre for Motorcycle Live and other venues and events. As machinery goes motorcycles are actually quite photogenic, but they are not, necessarily that easy to photograph well. In the street they are either moving among traffic – not the easiest of things to get a clear shot of – or parked on a side stand – occasionally a centre stand. Usually among other motorcycles, which doesn’t always work out favourably for photographers. In more rural settings they are generally a blur of noise and speed, or parked up as per the above.
Certainly shows and sporting events are the best way of getting chances to shoot more memorable images. Also going to and from events like the Weston Bike Nights (Thursday’s over the summer), Poole (Tuesday’s and, possibly, the biggest in the UK) and Paignton (Wednesdays) at a suitable and safe place can be good too. Static displays can be captured at wide angles but the pictures with movement in generally speak to short telephotos. This speaks to both practicality and safety for you and the riders, who, by and large, tend to be quite friendly.
The most important element, as ever, is the photographer, not the equipment, but as we are talking equipment then the statement about lenses made in the paragraph above needs to be qualified. The “best” focal length is probably short telephoto, certainly 50mm and above. The reason for this is that the shorter, wider lenses, add an element of distortion which can exaggerate the length of frames or make wheels look, well, not very round. This is fine if that is the look you are after, but accurate record (side on) shots, regardless of how creative, really need a perspective that 50mm and above create.
Apertures, more often than not, tend to favour the wide. This is because the background easily distracts and it is not unheard of for there to be gaps in the bike frames, especially on classic bikes, where in focus backgrounds can be a little diversionary. In fact one of the best pieces of advice I have been given about taking a photograph I have heard – though it can be a counsel of perfection as with any other – is start with the background first. Keep confusing strong lines and confusing strong colours that clash with the paint scheme of what you are trying to photograph out of the frame as much as possible. Of course, if you are photographing a row of motorcycles then the depth of field might well need to be deeper, but generally a moderate depth of field will allow for some background blur and sufficient depth to allow for the bits that stick out of the frame to be kept reasonably sharp. Remember here we are still talking about taking images of static bikes.
As with most forms of photography a low angle to the sun helps with illuminating the subject, so getting up early in the morning might not be avoidable, though Bike Nights cure this affliction. However, shooting from a low angle is pretty much standard. One other piece of equipment that can prove invaluable is a reflector. You can get a 5 in 1 cheaply enough from eBay (I have seen 60cms reflectors for £5 and 110cms for a shade under £10), and it is a good investment because more often than not there will be areas around the engine that are in shadow and rather than faff around in post light reflected back onto the engine and frame can eliminate the problem at source. Also very useful for other sorts of photography too.
On the move there are a different set of circumstances to be taken into account. Primarily safety. It’s very easy to get lost in that narrow field of view that is the world through a viewfinder but we have to be, legally and morally, aware outside of it. If you want movement shots at the Bike Night or other event get to know the approach roads on a map before you go. Roundabouts tend to be a favourite, the larger ones at times without too much traffic flow are generally good for getting pictures of bikes at an angle of lean. Actually any bend is good that requires more than minimal input from the rider. Lenses will depend on the situation that you are taking the pictures in, but again telephoto makes more sense, especially from the point of view of safety. Of course you won’t be the only one who has thought of that, and some people make money out of doing so – some organised events have cameras at the entrance so you can see yourself arriving – for a price. Whatever the case you are going to have to sort that out according to the location and some common sense.
If you are at a motorsport event then there are a couple of givens. The pro’s have all the best spots. You will be a longish way back from the actual action. That said there are a couple of obvious things you can do about that. Position yourself on a or as close to a bend as you can. Easier photographing a bike doing one mile a minute rather than three miles a minute. Your autofocus will thank you. Actually it will thank you for turning it off and zone focusing (pre-focusing), but more critical is slowing the action down relative to the camera position (usually head on or as close to it as is possible safe and desirable). Motordrive is an option that shouldn’t be over looked but it has to used deliberately. Spray and pray won’t get you a huge amount of useable material. Chimping is a great way to miss the action totally. Panning is an art that requires a lot of practice but if the shutter speed is low enough and the focus on the moving object good it gives a great feeling of speed (which actually can be very low, as per most supercar on road magazine shots). Go out and give it a go its actually rather fun.
N E X T W E E K
Tintern: – which means bridge tolls so lifts etc might be a good idea.
Meet in the Abbey Car Park at 7:30 pm.
Change of venue to a walk around the docks in pleasant company, always interesting thing to photograph going on as it is now a social centre for the city. It being evening and ending after dark rather suggested that we take a look at night photography, both with and without a tripod.
On the face of it, night photography is defined by two of the absolute essentials of photography. Firstly contrast, you have to go and find it. It will either be very low, which can make things muddy and ill defined or very high, which can call into question shadow and or highlight detail, losing it mainly. Then there is the whole light thing, rather the relative lack of it and the effect that has on the exposure triangle, camera shake and sensor noise.
Situation is also key. This post is going to look at the urban setting as that is where we were, which sets a very different array of questions than say, photographing the milky way in the Brecon Beacons. Urban settings have more immediate and multiple hazards, multiple opportunities too. That is not to say that you should go prancing around the countryside with anything but due care, it is a far more dangerous place than townies think.
Whereas there is a joy in wondering around looking for photo-opportunities you are far more likely to find them if you know what you are looking for (planned serendipity). Let’s start with the golden hour. The Golden Hour isn’t exactly an hour, it is short hand for, in photographic terms, a quality of light that is a function of the relationship between the angle of the sun to the earth. During that time the colour temperature of the light is around 3500 Kelvin because of the greater depth of the atmosphere it has to travel through.
Now you say, being on the ball, that makes the light bluer than the standard daylight of around 5500 Kelvin and you would be right. That soft quality of light that makes for good portraits as well as land, urban and seascapes (we will ignore sun rise for the purposes of this piece but the golden hour is that which starts around dawn) is a product of the low angle of the sun to the horizon which scatters the blue wavelengths relative to the red/yellow wavelengths which, psychologically, look warmer to us. Think instant no cost tanning. That low angle means long shadows too that are also softer than you will experience later in the day.
The time it is available is limited so there is a time pressure (though no excuse for bad technique, of course). It’s all in the preparation (a point worth repeating). Cloud cover will need to be monitored and factored in too. Knowing when today’s golden hours are, or tomorrows etc, depends upon your planning window, is fairly easy to calculate. I feel almost obliged to mention The Photographers Ephemeris at this point. It also worth persisting throughout the hour because of the speed the light changes is so rapid. ISO’s are likely to be higher and/or apertures wider and the White Balance, which will try to correct to daylight if left on auto, should be set to cloudy to preserve the warmth in the light.
Not that the setting of the sun should stop you, the urban landscape presents a myriad of possibilities, some of these we have spent some time on club outings photographing. The first thing to remember is a piece of advice from Scott Kelby and that is the last thing you do is put the camera on the tripod. Make up your mind what you are photographing, “Working the scene” to determine the most productive angles. Then fix the static element around that rather than restricting yourself the other way round. Handheld is also an option, depending on vibration reduction/how steady your hand/availability of something solid to brace yourself against or set the camera. Another tip I have found very useful is, when holding everything steady as you can, is to shoot a sequence using the motor drive that is built into virtually every camera these days. Five will get you one steady shot more often than not, though there are, of course, limits to what you can achieve. Wide angle are a lot easier to get results with this way than telephoto lenses which, with exceptions, need a tripod.
The lights in the urban environment are both static and mobile. The very wide and the very narrow are both good for picking image subjects. Cityscape panoramas provide, usually, both static and mobile elements. Shop windows, street lights vehicle light trails. Getting high up, windows, multi storey car parks with a view, bridges and alike offer vantage points. Shop windows make for a great free soft box for street portraits. Neon light always sticks out and often uses reds and yellows which are particularly striking and blues can be arresting set on a dark background. Reflections in windows or water are worth paying attention too. The light sources in the scene really are the first thing you should weigh up These are, light trails aside, entirely static. Waiting for something or someone to come along and add interest to it is really quite logical.
Exposure is always going to be tricky at night as we discussed above, because of the high dynamic range that you will be dealing with. This is one situation where it really does make more sense to shoot in RAW than in JPEG (or, if you want your cake and eat it, both) unless your camera is using a version of HDR with a high ISO and a black frame to reduce the noise, which will be a built in function and therefore not one where you have the data format option, necessarily. Noise reduction in camera will slow down the write to card times by approximately the same length of time as the exposure so if you are going longer than a second or so and/or shooting sequences with long exposures it probably makes sense to turn it off and do your noise reduction in post.
Flash has it’s uses, but not if you are trying to be discrete. Nonetheless, meter for the highlights, shoot camera RAW, accept that post production is almost inevitable in these things. Dark images are not necessarily a bad thing, you are shooting at night after all, but the mood after dark is always different. The mood of some people is also rather different so make sure you play it safe. The tripod is a good idea, of course, especially if you are looking at longer exposures, when it becomes an essential, either because of the generally low light levels or because you want to include some blur in your subjects – also useful if you are putting in some zoom blur too – or you are looking to put some light trails in, as discussed above. And we haven’t even broached the subject of light painting.
All in all a great way to extend your photographic day and pretty much what e shall be doing at WSM this Thursday, with the added incentive of it being bike night. See you there.
An evening out last meeting where a goodly number of brave souls battled the elements and congregated on the Tramway Centre for a spot of light trailing. Actually it wasn’t that inclement, but it sounds more epic if there are elements to battle. Also skateboards, bicycles, motor vehicles, the occasional well oiled passer-by and the odd curious body wondering why so many people were taking pictures of buses. Buses, it appears, aren’t usually that popular even for the people riding them, so their prompted inquisitiveness was understandable, but each to their own.
As we have already done a brief tour of light painting and light trails recently so we will take a little tour around some other items of interest. Probably the most immediate impact to photographers is the future of Yahoo, particularly Flikr, which Yahoo acquired in 2005. Aside from the bile that periodic changes to its format from a percentage of entrenched users generates (the fate of all user platforms, which will lose users if they are not seen to evolve, it’s pretty much no win). Rumours have been around that Yahoo might be looking to dispose of the E-Mail, Search, Photo, that for which the general population probably know them best, their core business. They used to be King of the Hill in the web sector, but are seen to be in trouble, at least in the terms of the market. The way that they value this core (core is not the same as profitable) business means that it is worth virtually nothing. To the shareholders.
To the 112 million free-lunchers, give or take, who use Flikr, that virtually nothing is a whole lot more. It is primarily for free, but for free still needs paying for. The Pro, paid for version, doesn’t, it appears, generate sufficient income for that. So Yahoo sell off some royalty free (creative commons)images on its servers, as well as some other users images as creative wall art, which upset some people and not others. The creative commons pictures don’t get royalties. Huffington Post, when it was sold by its founders Huffington and Lerer to AOL, attracted some controversy as it had, in part, been grown by the traffic attracted by the unpaid bloggers who used its platform. There was an unsuccessful class action by some of them against Huffington and Lerer for a share of the proceeds. The bloggers lost their action broadly on the basis that no payment had ever been promised. The bloggers did it for exposure, one assumes, as they were free to cross post. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
One person’s fair use is still another person’s theft. Groupon finds itself on the end of a law suit under local copyright laws in Illinois on the grounds that they regularly raid Instagram for photos to use in their publicity misrepresenting the people who posted them. Misrepresentation takes many forms and the rights and wrongs of the Groupon case will be settled in a court of law. Others are not so serious. A small, local competition was recently won by a striking image which was duly praised and published by the company running it. But the photo was badly Photoshopped and the company running it was a local incarnation of a rather large one. A rather large camera company. Nikon. It went viral and much hilarity ensued. Canon Canada is even running its own version. All very embarrassing but it will blow over and I doubt it will affect either Nikon’s or Canon’s sales one jot. The individuals involved were duly chastised but, given the nature of modern communications, internationally, which might strike you as being a little disproportionate. This is the world we live in.
As Canadian photographers are granted the first copy right as authors of their own images, the thorny issue of other people’s property and the reproduction rights therein have been back in the news. The issue was a snap taken and entered into a competition run by Thompson Holidays, a £2,000 holiday being the prize. A horse photobombed a father and son in the winning entry. The owner of the horse wanted a cut of the prize, after all, the horse was their property (animals count as property) and was on private land and had not given permission for it to be included in the photograph. Not sure how that would pan out, it not being a cash prize. The photograph, as I understand, was taken from a public right of way and that is a salient fact as there is the idea of a right of panorama, which includes the idea that that which is on view from public land does not require prior permission to be photographed (as long as no offence is committed in order to take it).
Photo-releases are a part of the necessary process of commercial photography. They are not the exclusive domain of the professional photographer. Any photo that is paid for, whether it was taken with that purpose in mid or not, should have the basis of its copy right subject to written confirmation, even those taken in public, as far as is reasonably practicable. It can save a lot of grief later on.
I’ve said it before in this post, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Petapixel reports that wedding photographers are not on the list of suppliers worthy of being fed according to Brides Magazine. Written by a Wedding Planner, apparently Wedding Planners are on the list of worthies. Now there is a surprise. This appears to be predicated on an idea of how long a supplier attends, and seems to me to be a good way to limit the attention you get from the people who create the record of your day. It is no longer the case that the photographer is expected to turn up at the church, take a few photos, go to the reception and ditto, before leaving for the next appointment.
N E X T M E E T I NG
R.O.C. creative round judging.
Dockside this week, the last meeting of the 2014-15 season, near full moon and clear skies and the biggest boat ( the Lady Sandals, a private yacht that was, maybe, once owned by the actor Nicholas Cage for a few days, who also, I seem to remember, once owned a castle hereabouts he never visited – he is a man of expensive hobbies) seen in the basin for a long while (the MV Balmoral possibly accepted and then there wouldn’t be much in it either way though she was in the Bristol Channel I believe). We met under the “Big Shiny Ball” aka “The Disco Ball”, in reality the Planitarium in Bristol’s Millennium Square. Can’t say my own pictures were particularly heart stopping but I do have one, straight out of the camera, absolutely no post production, that apparently breaks the laws of physics. Need some time to puzzle that one out, or possibly engaging a Galactic Lawyer, but hey can’t say the evening wasn’t productive!
The Millennium that the Square celebrates was supposed to bring in many apocalyptic changes. Photographically it marked the beginning of the commercial change from film to digital and the relegation of a dominant medium to a men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth medium in a couple of years. Then nostalgia isn’t what it once was. Stephen Mayes in an article in Time Magazine (thanks Mark Stone for posting via Facebook) this week argued that the changes were bigger than we first thought and that the photograph as photograph isn’t “Dead as many have claimed, but it’s gone“. The interconnected context of a photograph today, never mind the volumes of data about ourselves their sharing gives away, does not represent the optically and physically fixed idea of an article of record we think it does. Only a third of any image produced digitally, represents this century and a half truism of an unadorned record (and that was always at least part myth anyway), the rest of a JPEG or TIF file is interpolated. And the data in a RAW file, the digitally closest thing to a negative, can be manipulated in a near infinite number of ways. He cites Kevin Connor’s conjecture that the camera has evolved from picture making device to a data collecting one.
This does actually matter in our interconnected world, one where the next evolution of the i-phone may have a 12mp camera and 4K video capability, but also one where ALL the data on the phone, your life, good days, bad days and secrets between friends are shared globally in real time without you ever thinking about it. The delete button ONLY works on your phone. The myriad privacy statements and unread end user licensing agreements (EULA) allow us, distracted by the shiny things that these little miracles do and say, to unthinkingly give away data worth billions and permanently record those things we, maybe, one day wish had been left to fade from memory. Oh yes the digital camera now fits right in and not just camera-phones either because we upload/share not just the image but the exif data as well, maybe add a few comments, most of them instantly forgettable, lol, corny or otherwise steeped in a sauce of our own delusional wit, rotfl – to the point of incontinence. The point is “Except in photojournalism, there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph’; everything will be an amalgam, an interpretation, an enhancement or a variation – either by the photographer as auteur or by the camera itself” (Mayes after Marc Levoy).
My answer to that is, it always was. Composition? Decisive moment? Story telling? All a part of the art from day one because it was life imitating art at the beginning and ever since the very presence of a camera makes a difference to the way people act. That’s why “authentic” street photography sounds akin to stalking or surveillance in behavioural technique. That, however, maybe to (slightly) misrepresent Mayes, who is actually pitching that the photograph has and is becoming much more. It may, at the simplest level, represent a 2D representation of a 3D world but that 3D world now includes other experiences. Like the hyperlinks in this post represent layers of definition, interpretation and ultimately meaning through multiple perspectives with the text serving as guide in the same way as the image fires the story we put to it. Another point that this raises in my mind is that photojournalism isn’t immune from these things it is enhanced and increasingly depends. Apart from? Especially? Isn’t a crowd sourced citizen journalism closer to the notion of a cinema verite (Though someone still has to curate it)? And who has got the time to navigate this planet around every image world? Apart from Cultural Historians, Auteurs and the long term unemployed “Ain’t nobody got time for that“. Maybe that is the point. An image has a during, usually of a fraction of a second, we can only speculate about the before and afters for the most part.
Without a doubt photography is changing. Arguably there are fewer professionals around these days and someone turning up with a camera is no longer an event because everyone, virtually, has a camera as long as they have a Smartphone – and not just in the advanced economies. Mind you, turn up with a tripod and everyone thinks you know what you are doing. Within seconds you can be surrounded by men-in-cardigans-sucking-teeth telling you that nostalgia isn’t what it was and sticky fingered children asking you what that button does (not to ignore a few sticky fingered adults making off with your camera bag). Mayes is right though, new technologies, or the shrinking and disseminating of old ones does ask questions of society, not all of them comfortable to answer and in a culture of exploitation for profit the balance of privacy v profit will not naturally fall to the best individual interests of you and I. Then can you take the word of a bloke on the run from the World’s Creator Myths for breaking the laws of Physics?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Back to School for the first meeting of the 2015-16 calendar. Bring along your images of the summer and share.
Two away days to cover as last weeks scheduled blog got displaced. Hopefully back on track now. An unexpected opportunity to tour a Tannery courtesy of member Nick Hale replaced our scheduled Millennium Square trip the week before last and a trip to Blaise Hamlet last week both threw up some tricky light conditions, namely the lack of it and flat light with low contrast. The Thomas Ware & Sons Tannery was formed 175 years ago. The process and buildings are fantastic material and I look forward to seeing members images after the summer’s road trips. Thanks Nick, that was a fascinating evening and all the members were suitably impressed, I thought. Blaise Hamlet was built to house the workers who serviced the John Nash designed main house of the Blaise Castle Estate when they retired. John Harford bought the estate land in 1795 for £13,000 (a bargain £1.2m in today’s coin, using the Retail Price Index, but the average wage in 1795 was circa £20 per anum, in 2014 £25,000 – Source EH.Net ) The castle itself was a folly built as part of the evolving grand design of the estate.
The sun was hidden by a uniform blanket of rain-threatening cloud for both events, which was a pity, as the plentiful sky lights and doorways held the promise of some photogenic lighting in the tannery and the warm coloured stone of the main house and the intertwining of nature and construction to be found at the Blaise cottages (cue debate on the use of buildings to reinforce social order) offer a lot of subtleties that contrasting light brings to the fore. So, if photography is about light, and it is all about light physically, what do we do in the absence or limitation of it? The obvious answer to this is to provide our own, but this is not always feasible, so this week we are going to look at shooting in low light situations, what can and what cannot be reasonably achieved and the costs of doing so in terms of quality. We shall be looking more closely at ISO, the more mysterious member of the Exposure Triangle.
The options on camera are, basically, open the aperture, select a lower shutter speed, or select a higher ISO. The other useful option is to use additional, artificial lighting, either constant light or flash/strobe. A tripod can help with longer exposures. The two other options that spring to mind are focus on details rather than panoramas or switch to black and white, but these are variations, though very useful ones (yes photography is about details and exclusion but we are talking about large buildings here remember and in general at the moment, not in particular). Then there is the pack-up-go-home option and its local variant, pack-up-go-home-come-back-another-day. But where’s the challenge in that and where the learning opportunities? Are you a photographer or a Sherpa?
ISO stands for the International Standards Organisation, doesn’t just apply to cameras, it does exactly what it says on the tin, publish standards for a huge variety of items, systems and products. One of them covered film “speed” or the way that film reacted to light, more specifically, the sensitivity of the crystals in the emulsion applied to the transparent film base react to light. The most widely used standard was the American Standards Association (ASA now known as ANSI, the American National Standards Institute) and that was eventually adopted by the ISO (DIN or the Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. was used by Agfa among others and had a different numbering system) ISO was carried over to digital processors by the manufacturers, the familiar making sense when introducing a new way of doing something.
Of the three parts of the exposure triangle ISO is the one that acts directly on the sensor. The other two parts, aperture and shutter speed work by throttling the amount of light before it reaches the sensor. ISO directly plugs into the sensor to alter its sensitivity to the amount of light reaching it with its own particular characteristics. With aperture it is depth of field and with shutter speed it is motion blur. ISO can boost it. It can also cut it to a point. There is a constant where the sensor will provide the best quality image, usually around 100 ISO and a group of ISO numbers where very little difference is made by the sensor manipulating the light received, but gradually, as with faster film emulsions, there comes a point where the image will begin to noticeably deteriorate with the incursion of noise. Noise is a product of the signal moving around the sensor, and is a function of all electrical circuits. How much signal (desired data) there is and how much poor data there is in relation to it. As poor light produces more poor data (noise), and the chip amplifies that data to produce the image, the quality starts to deteriorate as artefacts generated by the process become more apparent. All sensors will have a certain amount of noise present at any ISO, it’s part of the mechanics of the sensor. The amount of noise as a proportion of the overall signal determines the reproductive quality of the image. When the light is good and the ISO is set at or close to the speed of the chip then the signal is strong and the noise is low but gradually this inverts the more boost is applied. When you amplify the signal you amplify the noise in the circuit, when the signal to noise ratio is good this doesn’t matter much, but noise will increase as you boost the signal and it will be an increasing amount of what is going on. Hence, well, noise at high ISO’s.
On the part of the photographer getting to know your cameras useable limitations – and it is a judgement thing rather than a given absolute – we have to judge how much noise we are prepared to put up with in an image. There are ways of limiting its effects in post production, also in camera with some models, but the pay-off is a softening of the image. Also do not forget the idea of an optimal viewing distance, as a rule of thumb 1.5 – 2 times the length of the diagonal of the viewing area (works for tv’s too) AND the minimum pixels per inch – calculated by dividing 3438 by the viewing distance). So that is pretty much it, without getting over my head in technical details. ISO and noise.
Tonight – Millennium Square. Meet under the big shiny ball at 19:00 hours (7 PM).
You cannot deny the poetry of Bath stone in a soft sunset, with the canal and the river yielding mirrored Georgian realities on a pleasantly warm and breeze-less evening. At least until you get home and look at your images to finally yield to the notion “What the hell was I thinking?”. Last minute change of venue with the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta closing roads around the intended destination of Leigh Woods, and a fine suggestion from Vice Chair Myk Garton saw us decamp the dozen miles or so to the World Heritage City of Bath. Two topics left over from last week to discuss this: back button focusing and exposure lock, both of which were useful tools on the night.
There are two buttons on the back of most DSLR/CSC’s from the hobbyist models upwards that are rarely if ever troubled by the majority of hobbyist photographers. One is the “Back Button” AF and the other the AEL (which may be represented on your camera by a star or asterisk). Both are incredibly useful and are really worth cultivating as default, in the case of the back button AF, and useful tool in the case of AEL, that can help increase your number of keepers. A little bit of background is useful in understanding both.
Back Button Focusing (refer to your manual for the native translation in your Camera’s Brand-Speak) does exactly what it says on the incredibly expensive magnesium alloy tin, or plastic camera body as befits your pockets/needs/delusions of grandeur. It is a button on the back of your camera body that activates the camera’s focusing system in isolation from the shutter release. When you operate via the shutter release a half pressure triggers the autofocusing system (assuming you are not mounting a manual lens) and a full depress activates the shutter release. Usually the shutter will not fire until the camera processor detects all the algorithms are in place to produce a point of focus and an acceptable circle of confusion (i.e. something is in focus as we discussed last week). The button itself is usually marked AF or a version thereof and is normally accessible with the right thumb (I’ve never seen one on the left but then I haven’t conducted a survey in any depth). And it’s on the back of the camera.
So far so blindingly obvious. Also, so what? Well, my skeptical friend, for that we shall have to take a brief incursion into the Trinity of Focus you played with once, got annoyed with then left on single shot. That, incidentally, is a perfectly acceptable solution because it’s your picture, your way. You want to do it the hard way, then suffer on for your art. It will not take better pictures, only you can do that, but it will help you be prepared for those better pictures, if only by speeding the whole process up and in more than one way. It is a little like buying a fully spec’d DSLR and leaving it permanently on auto or programme. In one way an expensive choice, but if you know what it does in those modes and you know how to override it in the situations where you think you need to push something to get the effect you want, then, pilgrim, it’s not such an expensive choice. It’s one that is made with a purpose rather than one made unthinkingly.
There are in our CSC/DSLR and some bridge cameras usually three flavours of autofocus. They may have slightly different sets of initials and names but they will be essentially the same. They will be in the menu system and may be programmable, at least the menu access may be programmable, to a button on the camera body. RTM (Refer To Manual). The auto focus programmes in your camera were designed because your subject is doing one of three things. It is either static or it is moving. Or you are. Or you both are. The important dynamic is that between the subject and the sensor. What the back button does for us is allow us to switch between modes as required without having to resort to the menu system.
So, lets take the modes in alphabetical order, starting with AF-A. -A is where the camera decides, as is the case with all auto and programme modes, and it chooses between the other two modes depending upon what is closest to the idea set by its algorithms, i.e. is the subject static or moving relative to the sensor. On modern cameras it is pretty good but it only responds to what is, it won’t anticipate your next move, so it will always be playing catch up. -C is continuous. When the subject is moving the focus moves. -S is for when the subject is still, like a portrait. What the back button does is take a step out of the process of firing the shutter, the focus (at half way down) is done by the back button and so the shutter button becomes just that. Without disabling the focus step the lens will attempt to refocus that which is in focus (which you have already framed as part of your composition). Doing things twice, slows things down. You are effectively switching between –A and –C at a press of a button. There is always manual focus of course, but this tends to be easier with manual lenses which have a longer throw (the barrel twists further because they are geared lower to make them easier to focus by hand) and no where near as rapid. In the words of Professor Fate, “Push the button, Max“.
We’ve talked about exposure before and its relation to colour saturation, detail contrast and so on so I won’t go over that in this blog. I want to concentrate on an option rather than an effect, though the two are linked, of course. The exposure lock button found on most DSLR/CSC cameras and some bridge cameras. Sometimes the exposure you need is not the one your camera is showing you. This can be down to the metering mode you are using and the fact that it is metering an average from the area you have selected to measure from in terms of both the subject and the percentage of the sensor coverage involved. There will be a wide, centre weighted and a spot option. Wide is usually factory default. Spot takes a very small area in the middle.
Essentially, in tricky lighting situations, probably but not exclusively covering a wide variation, you meter from the most important part of the scene to your image, keep the AEL AFL or * button depressed then recompose and take your image. The overall exposure will be governed by that part you selected. You don’t have to use spot to do this, just influence that part of the scene you want to feature to your satisfaction (this is far, far easier on a CSC/DSLT where what you see is what you get or in your live view if it allows composition other than pure review). It is very effective and can be used with ISO compensation for fine control. On our Bath perambulation it was very useful when we were presented with a glorious sun set and allowed for much of the foreground to be silhouetted whilst retaining the exposure for the sky. Yes this could have been done in manual, but it was done far quicker using Aperture Priority and AEL. Try it, it is surprising useful.
Next week a change in programme where Nick Hartley has negotiated access to the Tannery where he works. Details on Facebook and the club Flickr page as numbers are limited. If your name’s not on the list your not coming in. Who’d a thought leather had a door policy?