Last week we talked about the concept of visual weight, the idea that objects in a frame, depending on their position, colour or mass, draw the eye around an image and that we photographers can take advantage of this.
So this week we are going to take the opportunity to look at some other tools of composition and the opportunities they give us to reveal just a little bit more. These tools evolve around seven basic ideas, in no particular order: line, shape, form, texture, pattern colour and space. These were more and less in the background of what we discussed last week and in a past post about Gestalt Principles.
First up is the tool of odds. Impanumerophobics aside (persons with a fear of odd numbers) the human brain has an affinity with odd numbers. Were I to speculate why it would be to say that odd numbers make it easier for the brain to determine a middle.
If we can determine a middle then we are as far as we can be from right or wrong, more likely a manifestation of the heard instinct and the fact that predators stalk the fringes for the young, sick and old who will make for a lower energy expenditure in the hunt.
Or maybe not.
We find the balance comforting, and in truth a single frame will possibly hold no more than five items comfortably and certainly three in a frame is commonly found, or groups of three or five. An exercise in looking for them, as is an exercise in looking for any of these tools, is a good exercise in looking with a purpose and that is one of the keys to making a strong image. It as much about exclusion as inclusion.
Diagonals are also a powerful composition tools and are often bracketed in with triangles as occurrences that build “Dynamic tension” sometimes known as visual tension. All these tools are methods to create a focal point or points in a frame.
The diagonals and the triangles can either be actual or implied, The key is to move our point of view until we get those visual clues in line and the frame balances out the way we want. This can mean font and back (zooming with our feet) up and down and even a bit of Dutching, maybe a combination of these.
Re-framing is a good habit to nurture. “Working the Angles”, to give it another name, a.k.a. “Working the Scene” gives us more options. We see the world from a relatively fixed position.
This is the “mistake” most photographers make, not altering that position, or at least leaving it at that. The image remains the photographers view of the object, it tells us a lot about the photographer’s view but maybe there is more to be made of the point of view of the subject and/or the subjects environment.
The stronger visual stories are those that have a strong point of focus, where our eye as the viewer first falls and where it is lead to next. This is the dynamic bit of that dynamic tension we were talking about earlier. The movement of the eye across the frame, purposefully driven by what the photographer has chosen to show and what to exclude.
More tools of composition to help you practice seeing are the subject of the main blog this week. There is no level of skill that these do not apply to, but there is considerable skill in knowing when to break those guidelines and in doing so make a different but still effective image.
Neither is this the case of being born with a talent, though the right talent is a boon to have. A lot of people pass over the fact that working hard on something is a talent in itself, and certainly it is the core skill in developing in any field.
We tend to forget that we are surrounded by objects in our everyday lives that we can make into mini photo projects. Watch the following video and choose three ideas to replicate and improve on over a week or weekend. You don’t have to spend hours on one, in fact limiting your time can force you into decisions, which can tell you a lot when reviewed. Video link is here.
Lighting options, from basic budget and food photography after break, special thanks to the ever inventive Ian Coombs for the artistic food plates, and to Myk Garton and Richard Clayton among others for their light tutorials.
The most important thing in photography is light and the best camera for the job is the one you have got on you. Two propositions that in themselves are their own truths. That said the cameras that we have offer us varying degrees of flexibility. Beyond developing us by making us think of the things that we do automatically more deliberately, an effect that quickly wears off, new/new to us equipment is just another way of getting the job done, maybe a little easier.
These days we are as likely, in fact, more than likely, to move from a camera phone to a more traditional form factor – something we think of more as a traditional camera – as a means of getting “better” photographs. Form factor is the physical size and shape of a piece of equipment. These days we think of cameras as being, mostly, hand holdable items. Certainly, when coming from a hand-holdable device like a camera phone, we look to how the camera handles, where the buttons are, weight and heft, balance.
Different formats have different aspect ratios, basically the ratio of the width of the sensor to the height. The 16:9 of our camera phones fits the the aspect ratio of our TV’s. Mirrorless and DSLT APS-C crop sensors are usually 3:2. DSLR’s (and SLR’s) 4:3. That effects how we frame – one isn’t necessarily better than another – because those are the dimensions we are given to work with. Those frames are given and we tend to adapt accordingly. It becomes more evident when we move between formats, such as cropping a 3:2 to a 4:3 competition format, especially for prints.
The sensor size is usually the single biggest factor in overall quality. Not necessarily the number of (fantasies of camera company marketing departments, by and large) but the size and number and layout of the pixels. A phone sensor is approximately 5mm x 3.5mm, a full frame camera 34mm x 24mm. Compacts, Bridge Camera’s, Micro Four Thirds, APS-C come in between. Bigger is generally better.
More complex is the arrangement of knobs, switches and dials, which at best will be software options, more likely not options at all, on a phone. Full manual is a lot easier concept to mount on a larger form factor.
On the flip side pure convenience, connectedness with programmes and channels that enable sharing of pictures, and, not least, portability are on the camera phones side. These days people rarely travel beyond the front door without their phone and therefore a camera. The biggest downside remains those lower quality images, which look fine on a phone screen, probably the most frequently employed method of display.
Although what we see as a “proper” camera these days is subject to change, the fact remains tha the best camera you have is the one you have got, but there is no escaping the fact that cameras still take pictures but photographers make photographs. Make a poor photograph and it will not be improved one iota by how much money was spent and how sophisticated the means of capturing it were. It will remain poor.
Last week we put forward the proposition that light is everything in photography. It is. This, sooner rather than later, leads the photographer to the question of “Settings”. Indeed the more time we spend on the internet the more it would appear that settings are the most important thing in photography. They are not. Light is. This obsession as Mike Browne points out, is nonsense on stilts. Settings do not lead to the picture. The scene, what we are taking the picture of, leads to the settings. The light is what nature or the photographer, makes it (natural/artificial light). Light is everything in photography.
The principles set out using a portrait setup are applicable to everything else. A good way to think about using light is that we are manipulating the direction of light and from that the direction of shadow. The same effects can be replicated using a torch or reading light, LED or other strip light, a flash or a specifically designed lighting rig. A piece of grease proof paper makes a great diffuser. Black card or material makes a good flag. Aluminium foil makes a good reflector. The important thing is to practice. As with last weeks video a simple set up is best. To remove the effect of colour use black and white. Try replicating this short video on your own table top.
So last session was editing the session before output into a five frame presentation and we got ten panels out of it. Have to say that this was a display of imagination and collaboration that produced a wide range of interpretations of our theme of shadows. Essentially we have introduced two concepts to our preparation for the 2019 Kingswood Salver, that of starting with the end in mind and the compositional elements of an effective group – see the last two posts.
This post we are going to look at the panel idea in a little more depth, as a product and as a development tool. As such we are going to stray a little from our idea of a panel of five photographs and look at multi-image frames as a project for a weekend or day out. As ever, taking the basic framework and building that into something that we can call our own is important but if we have fun doing it then we will learn more and develop faster.
Most of us will have at least a passing acquaintance with the idea of a diptych or a triptych, even if we did spend most of our art lessons in detention. A diptych is a hinged double plate or leaf (as in a book) containing two pictures, typically of religious significance. Often diptychs were altarpieces. More widely and in the sense in which we are going to explore it a diptych is two photographs separated within a single frame. Whether they are of religious significance is by the by for the purposes of this piece. A triptych goes one better and locates a central element between the two pictures that form the wings.
All the pictures in the frame have a common theme, which is something that can be exploited to mix general and details of the same image or different angles of the same subject or a specific time sequence of events through stills photography. The posh name for it is visual sequencing.
We can play with zoom, where we combine the telling detail in close up and its relation to the rest of the scene in a wider view. We can tell a story, show cause, and effect in two or three scenes. We can show before and after, possibly add a midpoint as a transition and as a passage through time. A variation of this is to take three frames of a single object multiplying, say like one, two then three Lego figures entering a conversation or the impact of a water drop into a pool and the expansion of ripples. Or we can follow the same action through from beginning to end – children moving around at speed and at play springs to mind here – where the story isn’t captured in the fraction of a second that the shutter takes to open and close.
Choosing the images is key. All of (or none of): Shape, colour, situation, repetition, textures, strong graphic lines, opposites, all have varying roles to play when selecting images or scenes for diptychs and triptychs. Images don’t have to be shot at the same time, but it is often more productive if we keep our attention on the idea of the two or three picture format to begin with, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t fruitfully employ our back catalogue (Adobe video but the processes are doable in other editing programmes).
Of course we don’t have to stop our multi-frame images at three. Polyptychs of four or five, are not uncommon and larger panels are possible but need a lot of careful planning and forethought. Five (by five different photographers) you will remember is the Kingswood Salver format and what we are eventually aiming for.
The chief development advantage here is that these things are not as we usually perceive our photography and therefore require us to think in innovative ways. This is good for our practice because forcing us out of our comfort zones can open up fresh perspectives, not least about how we look at detail and at the logic we employ when looking at an image.
So, out we go and get some diptychs and triptychs done. There are more than one good reason to try this, let ‘s see the results.
Annual General Meeting last session and the picture is broadly good, most importantly the average attendance is up and the finances are sound. Two committee members stood down, Steve Hallam from the Treasurer post (and thirty years on the committee covering just about everything) and Julie Kaye as Competition Secretary and who has conducted and introduced and overhaul of the competition rules as well as run the competition rounds for this season. Club thanks to them both for their service and for making a difference. We are still looking for a replacement for Julie so club members this is your chance to step up. Welcome to Dave Hughes who takes over as Club Secretary.
Next two sessions are about building a panel and will be a pair of group focused practical sessions and an introduction to the Kingswood Salver, a subject to which we will return later in the year. There will be a shoot this next session and an edit and present session the following week. The subject will be shadows, so lets take this opportunity to talk about photographing umbra.
A shadow is a dark figure or image cast on a surface by a body intercepting light. Interpretation of this opens up a huge range of possibilities. The first is do we include all three of the elements involved, the light source, the intervening body, the resulting shadow. The result is a product of contrast, captured by the sensor. Compositionally it is, or can be, quite challenging. Like any other photography it has to be deliberate to be successful.
Perhaps the most effective way of creating a shadow effect is from a single light source, but there are ways of modifying that light before it reaches the intervening body so as to create interest. Gobos are stencils put in between the light source and the background. They are widely used in film and television, and are an easy DIY project for us still photographers and can be very effective.
From portrait session variation to a whole genre, we are talking here of film noir, there are a myriad of possibilities, some very straightforward. However the scale does not have to be large for this little venture to the left side of the histogram.
It is, as ever, about keeping things simple, and the usual suspects: Have one thing that bears the visual weight of the image; Police the boarders of your frame for unwanted intrusions and remove them; Check exposure for the effect you are looking for – high key, low key or on the button; Fill the frame and check the relationship of the foreground to the background; Are the objects in the frame balanced for the maximum impact? What is going to have to be done in post? Colour balanced and depth of field sufficient?
Do silhouettes count? Well yes and no. Yes in that it fits with our definition we started with no in that the silhouette is a dark shape and outline of a subject against a lighter background (i.e. it is back lit) whereas a shadow is a dark area or shape produced by something coming in between the light source and the and a surface. The less picky way of looking at it is that they both produce high contrast areas for effect and the cause of that effect isn’t really important to the outcome.
Silhouettes, by the very nature of their production, are harder where shadows can wrap themselves over the and around the subject, can be soft or hard, can be modified, coloured and generally manipulated for a range of effects. The shadow is also a way of modelling the 2D environment that is a photographic image to give the appearance of something that is 3D. There are plenty of options.
So club, this Thursday, bring your camera, tripod, torches and or flash guns, bring some props to practice on.
Pixelsticking, if there is such a word, was our last little venture and thanks to members Rob Dyer and Myk Garton for providing the pieces of kit aforementioned. The pixel stick is a relatively new device, for those of us unfamiliar, that allows the projection of an image across a frame using a long exposure. It is a form of light painting and requires a certain amount of dark in the frame in order to get a long enough exposure and a high contrast.
October 2013 and the Pixelstick was yet another project on Kickstarter a way for pre-designing a light painted image invented by two photographers, Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan, and as we saw, the possibilities are almost endless. Frazier and McGuigan’s invention allows not just for sweeps of coloured LED’s to be recorded, but by breaking down image files into 198 x 1 pixel format and displaying them one line at a time any image can be rendered. Each full colour RGB LED in the 198 high (6 foot) stack represents a line when moved across the field of view of the camera lens (utilising anywhere between 1 and all 198 pixels) and combined make for a time lapsed light painted image.
Not that light painting is new. (Time line by light painting photography). The first light painted image on record was taken in 1889, and had the really snappy title of “Pathological walk from in front” (only in French). As such it was a documentary photograph, recording the movement of joints, created by Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny. Denemy was a student of Marey, when Marey was teaching physiology at the Collége de France. They attached a set of incandescent bulbs to the joints of a subject in the dark and took a long exposure. Long exposures were pretty standard in 1889. Marey also was the first photo-sniper, being the inventor of the chronophotographic gun, and a very great deal more.
The next name in the development of light painting is not a photographer but an early supporter of the Scientific Management movement, you’d probably know it better as Time and Motion, though that was only part of the larger movement, and certainly those of us who engage in any volume of editing in post are aware of the idea of efficient workflow. As with Marey and Demeny Frank Gilbreth Snr used the light painting to study the actions of workers in their work looking for the least effort to produce the most work volume (read profit). He also invented a concrete mixer, but that is by the by.
Perhaps the first name recognisable name to us as photographers to use light painting to effect is that of Man Ray. Man Ray is regarded as a leading figure in the Avant-garde and Dada movements, and he was an extensive, but not exclusive, user of photography in creating his art. He used light painting techniques in a series he called “Space Writing”.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s there were experiments in light painting by artists like Gjon Mili, famous for attaching lights to the boots of ice skaters and his experiments with flash exposures, but most famously in the light paintings executed with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; Barbara Morgan; Jack Delano; and Andreas Feininger. In the 50’s David Potts started moving the camera rather than the subject and explored the use of colour film in what became known as Kinetic Light Painting a.k.a. Camera Painting. George Mathieu, an Abstract Expressionist, used the more traditional method to portray movement for a Japanese magazine cover but his work was mainly as a painter and portraying movement a key feature of that work.
Light painting, then, was something of an oddity, not at all mainstream even though the technique, comparatively, is pretty straight forward. It lurked upon the fringes of photography until the digital age. It starts to look more familiar to us in the 1970’s. David Lebe’s Light Drawings came from his experimentation with pin hole cameras, which capture movement over long periods of time on an essentially still medium. He has an extensive oeuvre in the style. Eric Staller’s work looks like it could be contemporary, many of us have images that look like a Staller, only his were the originals. That said it is David Chamberlain who is the flag bearer in the modern era, being the only artist to exclusively use the techniques of light painting to present his body of work, at least the only one wrooith an extensive reputation. Susan Hilbrand, Jacques Pugin, fill out the cast and into the 80’s artists like Jozef Sedlák, Viki DaSilva, Mike Mandel, Kamil Varga, John Hesketh and Tokihiro Sato show the popularity of such techniques moving towards, if never actually becoming part of, the mainstream of photographic techniques.
But it is simple to do and you can get a lot of very striking images and it engages the imagination. It is a problem solving exercise, as photography is at heart, and it is fun. It is also getting more popular and though the PixelStick is part of that, it is still expensive and in its infancy. Flickr has its small assembly of PixelStick groups, in the wider Light painting communities there are dozens of groups to choose from. Other social media has its fair share too.
It doesn’t take a lot of extra equipment, most of us will have something around the house we can use to get started. It’s one of the more fun aspects of photography, if you haven’t tried it, why not give it a go?
Our thanks to Gerry Painter for a very informative evening, using his photography to show how to play light and dark using a basic home studio. Gerry showed us how to get great results using a sound grasp of how light and flash work, and the basics of posing your subjects for effect.
And it doesn’t have to demand a big budget. There are hacks you can take in order to get the look you want without, necessarily, spending a fortune. You certainly don’t need a full-time studio so you can use flash for portraiture, but a studio does present the peak of the idea of a controlled photographic space. We have touched on this before this season with club member Steve Dyer when we talked about a basic off camera flash set up, and I would suggest that post is worth a re-read from the point of view of building the hardware side. It also links back to two earlier posts, one covering hard and one covering soft light modifiers.
Photographing people is, quite possibly the major part of photography. Certainly, it makes up a large, perhaps the largest, sector of the professional market. What people are paying for is not, necessarily, a straightforward record, but a record of a connection, one that brings out their personality, a fraction of a life, something which speaks of them and of the moment. Even though we live in the age of the selfie there is still a perception that there is something else to be had from the viewpoint of another.
Even so, the motivations behind the selfie, which love it or loathe it are massively the largest by number photographs posted online, 24 billion 2016 according to Google, are not so simple. The motivations for those so bent on broadcasting their lives to the point of dying of it, more people were killed taking selfies than in shark attacks that year, are not just narcissistic.
Within this huge volume, the data for Instagram alone, and what can be derived from it, is far from trivial, there are, apparently, three categories of motivations : Communication – those who want to inititiate conversation; Autobiography – those who are recording key moments in their lives, not necessarily to bait a response, but as a record they can look back on in a handy format; and the smallest of the groups, the Self publicists – those with a personal or professional need to be “out there” and recognised. “It’s a different kind of photography than we’ve ever experienced before” (Steven Holiday, Brigham Young University) important because it is today’s social history for the future. It can also prove expensive, in more ways than one.
Even so, the basic human form hasn’t changed and that means there are more natural and flattering angles than others, and Gerry took us through some of the basics. First off there is not taking pictures square on, something you can sometimes get away with on male subjects, but almost never seem to work with female ones. And there is a big difference to be had through the simple expedient of shifting the by slightly putting one leg slightly forward, shifting your model’s weight and causing an S-curve. Shifting the weight onto the back leg Leaning forward from the waist and raising the chin smoothes lines around the neck and invites the viewer into the picture. For effect this doesn’t have to be exaggerated, indeed it can look slightly comical if it makes the model look overbalanced. This works for male and female models. As does crossing the arms, which with the other moves described, makes the body look more dynamic.
If the model is sitting then the relative height differences are going to become exaggerated and the crops tend to be much tighter. The leaning forward posture still applies otherwise the model looks like they are backing away. Elbows on knees will tilt someone forward and an accompanying tilt of the head makes things much more personable. In all cases, the eyes are the most important point of focus. If there is one other thing that is universal is the general advice that it is better to have the model angle one shoulder towards the camera.
Gerry packed a lot into one evening not least the need for a connection between the model and the photographer, especially with a model who might not be used to having his/her photograph taken. A lot of people don’t like having their photograph taken. A lot of people buy a camera to make sure they are the comfortable side of the lens. Our job is to put them at their ease. This can be easier said than done and the reasons are pretty hard-wired because the thing we as photographers are looking for is the thing we as individuals do not want to give away.
Experience in other fields leads me to believe that the single biggest factor is the attitude of the photographer towards the person being photographed. Put simply, the attitude you give dictates the attitude you get back. If you are wound up and edgy guess what your model is going to pick up on? Give out a “This is going to be a nightmare” and you get a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s as much to do with what we do before we start shooting as it is during the shoot. It’s about time spent introducing ourselves and what we have in store for our subject. It’s about promoting the shoot as a joint project either side of the lens. It’s about making being the model on a photo-shoot as something enjoyable. You only have to get part of the way to free things up.
On a slightly different note, regular club members will know that Myk Garton last year had a successful exhibition called AS I SEE IT at the Totterdown Canteen (141 Wells Rd Totterdown Bristol BS4 2BU). Myk has got the club a return gig which will be called AS WE SEE IT and photographers within the club have opted to show in the exhibition which will be in May June this year. This is a great opportunity to get and see the club in action. Opening times are 8 a.m. till 3 p.m. seven days a week, More on it as we get closer to the date.
We did Programme as a camera setting back last November, when an alarming number of members were convinced that Elephants were a European phenomena (you had to be there), possibly confusing them (the pachiderms) with Mammoths, possibly from remembering seeing them at the zoo. This meeting it was the turn of the rest of the dial and no such confusion reigned thanks to the scholarly efforts of Chris Harvey, Gerry Painter, Steve Hallam, Eddie House and Simon Caplan. Between them they had manipulation of the exposure triangle well and truly nailed.
And if we nail the exposure triangle we have the control of light within our grasp. The other thing we need to have control of is what is acceptably sharp in the picture, a function of lens aperture and shutter speed moderated by the selected ISO setting. With these two things nailed in under ten minutes we are a photographer! Our position in the Point and Shoot Pantheon is but a matter of time!
Ah but …. these are the mechanical issues of image capture. Often photographers are as interested in the settings a frame was taken at as the content and whereas they are the key mechanical elements in capturing the image we are viewing they are actually a long, long way down the list of priorities in making a good, bad or outstanding one.
Unless our job is making, marketing and or selling cameras for a living.
The reasons are thus: to plagiarise that image you have to be in the same place, at the same angle, in the same light, focused in the same manner, with the same connection to the same elements within the frame, and using the same size sensor. Even then all you have done is copy. The only thing worth copying is the look and that can be as much about post processing as image capture these days. The valid reason for copying a look is to learn about photography by applying it to other opportunities. The camera settings represent one choice from a multiplicity of options to arrive at the same amount of light captured.
Let’s put it this way: ISO 100, F8, at 1/125th second gathers as much light as ISO 400, F11, at 1/250th of a second, gathers as much light as ISO 1600, F4, at 1/8000th of a second gathers as much light as ISO 200, F32 at 1/15th second. What alters is the depth of field and the relative degree of that in these examples would depend on sensor/film size. This other variable is why we refer to crop factors compared to the old film size “full frame” 35mm standard (so that those of us set in our ways can get a handle on the perspective generated by a given focal length) and perspective is relative, he wrote with entirely deliberate ambiguity.
As we have been plugging the last few weeks rather heavily – and in every blog published for the club, regardless of author – the issue of absolute prime importance is composition. Yes we have to get the mechanicals “right” for the image we have visualised but that will not arrest the attention of our viewer nearly as much as the arrangement of the elements in the frame. The legendary crime/street photographer Weegee, coined the phrase “F8 and be there” when asked what was the secret to success in his photography. Weege used a Speed Graphic 4 x 5 inch camera and a flash bulb for illumination. The point is, know our equipment and how it gets us the results we visualised. To be fare some people ascribe the quote to Robert Kappa but the point remains the same. Being there means we get the chance to get the picture the f stop is only of relevance If you have the camera with you.
Now, we can argue what being there actually implies. and the list would probably be quite lengthy. Most photography to do lists seem to end up that way. Some people even write books about it. Reading photography books is a very good idea, but putting the ideas we draw from them to use is even more productive. Knowing what camera settings other people use can be informative, knowing the performance limitations of our own camera gives us the confidence to experiment. In fact, it could be argued, there are two sorts of photographers who are happy about using Auto/Programme settings. Those who are just starting out and those who are confident enough in their use of the camera to know what it is going to do and when and under what conditions we might have to over ride or compensate. And that leaves us to concentrate on visualisation and composition, which is where the art is coming from.
Most photographers, however, set their cameras to aperture priority and leave them there to control the depth of field. Which is fine. So is shutter priority to control blur. So is manual to control everything, though as a permanent setting does rather slow things down – which can be the point. Auto/Programme is fine. Find one that works for you and use the others to play to their strengths.