31st May 2018 – Spotlight On Portraiture

Our thanks to all those involved in setting up the portrait areas on Thursday night, in particular to members Steve Dyer, Gerry Painter and Myk Garton. Also thanks to our models Melisa Wright, Helen Morgan-Rogers and Bethany.

Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses”. Wikipedia

The key phrase there is “Effective lighting”. Yes the pose matters and yes the backdrop or background matters, but the lighting has to be effective too, it is the biggest single factor. Let us dig into this a little bit further.

All photography is about the fall of light on a subject, I know. We are here weekly (more or less) in this blog. We are here every time we push the shutter button, for good or otherwise.

Effective – having an expected or intended outcome; producing a strong emotion or response. So, we are talking about lighting that does as we designed it to do and in so doing produce a strong emotion or response in the viewer. Or as we have said (frequently) always start with the end in mind.

This is easier in the studio than outdoors and in fully candid photography a.k.a. Street. It is true that beggars can’t be choosers, but this merely underscores the importance of picking the background first then letting subjects pass through it. Obviously we have to mindful of the fall of light and, if shadows are part of the composition, the dynamic range that we are asking our cameras to deal with. What we want to avoid is the background swamping the subject to we end up with unintended under or over exposure.

Outdoors we need to be more mindful of natural reflectors and flags, that is light sources and environmental shadows rather than the ones we create for the purpose of getting an acceptable shot. Again, putting ourselves in the optimal position and waiting for the subject or scout and bring your model along on the live shoot.

With the studio, as we had in the hall, then the preparation is just as important. For those of us new to it, on a restricted budget, or just casual studio portraitists one light can be used. Grids, beauty dishes and soft boxes can be improvised. Cheap versions can also be sourced (e.g. Grids, beauty dishes and/or softboxes / diffusers) but if we are going to use them often then we are better off on paying for more robust versions.

Poses are as established as any other part of art and the symbolism and interpretations that the idea of the pose creates are based on, or at least can be based on, the assertion that body language accounts for 55% of the communication between two or more actors. A photograph takes out the verbal and the wordage, the other 45%, and in doing so makes the visual element more important, makes the subject’s form and shape the only. So far so obvious, but the human body can express so much with just a few small adjustments.

There are differences in posing men and in posing women, based in culturally based perceptions of masculinity and femininity. As ever practice makes perfect and preferably with the same subjects. Posing in itself is a big subject, but in essence it is a form of composition, or at least a branch thereof. Mastering the art is still 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, and as ever, having the end in mind when we start can help us immeasurably.

There are any number of poses that work, but the pose itself may break an image but it is not going to make an image. The eyes have it. Engagement between the subject and the viewer make the image, the rest of the subjects body, that is that of it which is visible in the image. This goes for any pose, and any gender and age.

In putting these three essentials, light, background and pose, together meaningfully lies the art of photographing people. And here we are talking the difference between grabbing a picture and making a photograph, between reciting the alphabet of buttons on our camera body and writing with light. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though that won’t stop people trying to make it so. It is about two (or more) humans communicating to a common purpose. Even so it has its own grammar.

It is worth repeating that the image that works most effectively is the one that is the product of the photographers craft, not their camera’s algorithms. As was once said of the example of the great American Jazz player, John Coltrane, their “Must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft” (Cornel West).

I think the same can be said of portrait photography, whatever its form.

24th May 2018 – ROC Round 4 and A Little Blur Goes a Long Way

Reflex Open Competition Round 4 last meeting and congratulations to the award winners and I hope everyone took something away from the evening. Our judge was Roger Mallinson, the man to go to if you want to know about making audio visual presentations and a returnee to judge at Reflex and many thanks to him for his time and effort. As usual the winners will appear on the club website in due course.

There is no special way a photograph should look“ – Garry Winogrand.

Even a themed competition will tell you that and whereas there are things that work as a general rule, the tools of composition, and sharpness, as we have quoted before, is a “Bourgeoise concept” (maybe). It does rather make you wonder what club competitions are for.

Well the first two clues are in the name club competition. It is about members of the club, first and foremost. Members having a framework into which they can receive feedback. And it is about competition, that is to say a test of skill and ability against other like minded individuals. They coexist but, depending on our choices and personalities, one side will be more important than the other. Recognition is both a middle point and the backbone that connects the two extremes.

If no two pictures are the same how do we differentiate between two pictures on merit? The tools of composition give us a clue, more particularly how they are used and abused, but there is no one accepted system, though some sort of system is required to be consistent.

No two judges are the same and that is a good thing. All our judges are fellow photographers and have their own development route. OK we have all sat there and thought, on occasion, what are they on and where do I get some? when our carefully crafted images totally fail to convey their message. The fault does not lie with the viewer. It is still a good thing if that failure comes with an explanation. Better yet one that we can apply to the next similar situation.

If we don’t fail, at least occasionally, and have an inkling of why we fail then we will not learn. It all comes back to that word “Because”. There is no way a photograph should look. There are individual tastes and opinions and that will apply to any judge the same as to the rest of us.

Lets come back to that idea of sharpness and its evil twin blur as one example. Generally, when looking at a photograph, one of the first things that strike us is can we see it clearly. It is important because I, for one, can see blurry things just by taking my glasses off. Rather like a number of my fellow club members, I paid rather a lot of money specifically to do the opposite and see things in focus. Focus is a thing and having something sharp within our depth of focus is generally desirable.

If there was a single way of producing an acceptable image all images must either be all in or all out of focus. We would then be free to challenge this convention or rule in the pursuit of artistic interpretation. Hold on. Wait one. That’s exacly what we do on occasion. It is one of the most popular nights we have for practicals on the calendar. It’s called light-painting.

Blur can be creative when it is deliberate and controlled (or we can pass it off as that). We generally differentiate blur from focus as one is produced by movement and one by mechanical physics. Ultra wide and expensive prime lenses producing very limited acceptable focus and blury (often sold as dreamy) backgrounds are all the rage. Bokeh is a thing too and now deemed as a selling point in a lens. Figure to ground is an established art principle of grouping things together visually (visited recently in our tour around Gestalt theory) where the subject is seperated from but relational to the background (and or foreground).

Creative blur is an accepted technique. That is it is deliberate and measured in its application to a suitable subject. The idea of photo-dynamism is over a century old and is linked to a wider art movement known as Italian Futurism, though photography was initially rejected by the Futurists for being static.

It has several variants we might use. First up we have the deliberate de-focusing effect. Bokeh originated from this in Japan and became a form all of its own but was always an incidental to taking photographs with points of light in the background. Defocusing works best in colour, with large blocks of identifiable shapes such as flowers, people, painted walls etc. It also works well when shooting against a bright background. Where to stop defocusing is a personal call, again there is no fixed point, but it’s fun to do.

Next up we have panning. We talked last week about taking panoramas, basically a linked series of photographs of something from a fixed point that usually extends beyond the horizontal field of focus of our lenses regardless of there orientation. This uses the same movement idea but within the same period of exposure. By necessity this involves longer shutter speeds but doesn’t have to be on a tripod,.though a pair of steady hands is useful. Keeping the focus and speed in synch on the subject is one option, but the other is to slowly follow the subject through keeping it identifiable but blurred.

Thirdly we have the deliberate shake of the camera during the exposure, up and down or left to right. This doesn’t have to be violent to give an effect but it is best if slightly exaggerated. A fourth variation is to rotate the camera during the exposure around a fixed point.

A fifth variant is known as zoom blur sometimes known as zoom burst and is pretty much as it says on the tin. Whilst the camera shutter is open we zoom in or zoom out (obviously we need a zoom lens).

So five variations that we can try and combine into a little project and maybe use to generate entries in the next round of ROC.

17th May 2018 – Stephen Spraggon

Landscape the year round was Stephen Spraggon’s topic in his presentation “Four Seasons In One Day”. Stephen has been to Reflex before and this was another high quality session. A locally based photographer Stephen makes a substantial part of his income from the Somerset countryside and across the south-west. He showed us that time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted and is a regular user of The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE also on IOS and Android) and OS Maps. Above all time, patience and a lot of practice are key, as, I would imagine, are a decent set of notes.

 

The essential piece of equipment, aside from  glass and body, is a sturdy tripod. Stephen related that  all his landscape photographs are tripod mounted, necessitated by shooting at low ISO’s, 50, 100, sometimes 200 chasing minimal noise, which when combined with deep depths of field mean low shutter speeds.

 

There are hundreds of different tripods on the market and choosing the right one is as much about perceived need, experience and value for money as it is weight or brand. Basically tripods come in two parts. The legs and the head.  As with everything else photographic you can spend as much as you like as design and function are moderated by the materials of construction: aluminium; carbon fibre; magnesium and alike. The heads can have pistol grips or a selection of knobs and locks to keep them steady and again money is no object.

 

Tripods for landscape are probably the ones open to the most compromises and certainly involve the most decisions. This is primarily due to the weight rigidity pay off. Your average 1600mm f5.6 Leica lens weighs in at 62kg so needs a particularly rigid tripod, though, lets face it, the people who are going to lug it around are probably accommodated in its 4 x 4 Mercedes support / camera bag and do not include the photographer. The weight of what the photographer wants to support, comfortably, is the primary factor and that is going to be the heaviest combination.

 

The variation of weight and the requirement for good rigidity to ensure stability over fairly long exposures in sometimes hostile weather conditions. This extends to both legs and heads. A 3 way geared head, one that has knobs that finely control movement and provides sturdy locking in three planes, means a lot of engineering and materials in its manufacture. That means, to keep the weight down the serious landscaper with deep pockets is probably going to go for one made from magnesium which ensures that the cost goes in the opposite direction to the weight.

 

Height is also a factor. If you are going to get that vital foreground object in focus you will often have to go in low. A decent height can also save the back when using the view finder or if your live view doesn’t have a tilt facility to it. An adjustable centre column is also desirable for those in between heights. Then there are the way the legs are locked into position, these days almost always via screw locks though there are still tripods around with catches.

 

So the rock steady, shake free image is in the bag, still or video (video ‘pods tend to be more rigid, heavy, technical and expensive, especially the heads) but a tripod can also help in creating panorama’s by keeping a fixed point around which the camera turns whereas hand holding it sometimes works to skew some uprights (parallax error where the lens acts as the eye). Or maybe that’s just me. Either way slower shutter speeds can be selected with no penalty in terms of camera shake.

 

The key is in setting up the tripod on the level in the first place. Most tripods have levels built in as do most camera these days. It is always wise to check that the camera stays level throughout the pan. It is an easy technique to get good looking results from. The key is to make sure the settings on the camera are the same all the way through (meter in aperture or shutter priority first then set the camera to manual for the capture) and to leave plenty of overlap. Essentially what is on the right of frame 1 is on the left of frame 2. Most cameras have grids that can be viewed when composing, thirds being the most popular but some have fifths and other variations. These can be used to ensure a decent overlap for stitching the panorama together using the same right left pattern.

 

Although 180 and 360 degree pans are popular, there is good mileage in smaller three or four frame panoramas especially when the camera is used in portrait mode which allows for more ground and sky. It also allows for greater detail and much larger prints. The downside can be the size of the stitched image, especially with larger megapixel count sensors, so there can be some useful mileage in using lower resolutions when constructing, especially the wider portrait version, panoramas.

 

Stitching the images together is far simpler than it used to be, thanks to options within Photoshop and Microsoft’s ICE (or MICE) is free and very easy to use for both horizontal and vertical panoramas.

 

Easy to do and fun why not give it a go?

10th May 2018 – Polyptychs! Bless you!

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.

3rd May 2018 – Shadow Play

Jo Gilbert took us through the first exercise in generating materials for the 2019 Kingswood Salver. If you missed last Thursday’s “Shadow” Panel session, fear not, bring in your versions and, if available, a lap top or similar device that you can edit on and you can join in too. This week we shall be editing our panels and extra shots will be welcome. Doesn’t even have to be a shadows panel at this juncture, though it would be better if it were.

Three things we found out across the shadows session: They are simple to create, difficult to capture just right and working in teams can be very productive. We started with a look at some past panels entered in the Kingswood Salver and applied a critique to each individual image in the panel and the overall panel itself. Certain patterns started to emerge and each of the six teams then at least had a grounding in where to start.

I have mentioned Stephen R Covey before and his most famous work: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and specifically his admonition to always “Start with the end in mind”. When faced with a task and a time limit the temptation is to wade straight in and start experimenting. The flip side of this is that it can quickly become quite dispiriting when the expected result doesn’t emerge or doesn’t emerge quite as quickly as expected.

As amateur photographers (and not a few professional ones) have found out that having a clear idea when we start shooting simplifies the looking, framing, shooting of our images is “A good idea”. In our we set out some common criteria to the panel entries from last year and included or rejected ideas simply by adding the magic word “Because” to our impressions.

It was, on looking at what was being produced around the room, “A good idea” because the story behind the panel became part of the focus of producing our own. Mainly the story seemed to follow the images, which gets us going, but drawing a story from what resulted wasn’t always going to be easy. Without the continuity then building a panel gets a lot harder and we end up with a frame driven by necessity rather than by design. Other than by luck this will produce weaker stories.

Weaker stories are a problem in photography because photography is a way of exploring and telling the stories we gather by the reflection of light. Stronger photographs tell better stories. This then can be easily extended to a series of pictures, can’t it? When introducing photographs in a series they may be equally strong, then the problem becomes, if not complementary, of there being a tussle for attention and the whole display becomes weakened.

So the idea is that, in any multi panel presentation, the whole is more than the sum of its’ parts, which is as far as most people get with Gestalt theory. There is something – a whole photo-book at the very least – absolutely useful in the eight “Laws” found in Prägnanz (and you didn’t think you could at your age), basically that:

Proximity – when objects are close together we perceive them as a group and give them meaning as such.

Similarity – elements, (colour, form, shape, shading etc.) within an assortment of objects we group together in our mind’s eye if they correspond to each other.

Closure – we perceive objects such as shapes, letters, pictures, etc., as being whole when they are not complete, we fill spaces in the visual gap to produce a consistent view.

Symmetry – our minds perceive objects as being symmetrical and forming around a centre point. We tend to like splitting scenes into an equal number of symmetrical parts which goes some of the way to explaining the rule of odds when we want to make a number of objects stand out in a composition.

Common fate – states that objects are perceived as lines that move along the smoothest path. Short explanation: this is why leading lines work. The eye and all objects in the frame are visually drawn to a point which becomes the point of visual weight.

Continuity – We are less likely to group elements with sharp abrupt directional changes as being one object, we like things to go as expected.

Good gestalt – objects tend to be perceived as grouped together if they form a regular pattern that is simple and orderly.

Past experience – under some circumstances what we see is categorised according to past experience.

As photographers rather than psychologists we can use these ideas to promote harmony and continuity among not only objects within a frame but subjects across frames. For the Salver competition that means across five frames.

Frames are useful in the context of our individual development as photographers. I remember from when I first started out in photography as a hobbyist in my early teens coming across a piece of advice that came back to me when discussing their progress with one of the groups.

Basically it was an axiom that, and this is in the days of film (of course!), you should frame your shot three times from different angles before pressing the shutter to capture the strongest view of the three. In these days of virtually zero cost to the additional frame this is still good advice but one where we have taking the luxury of pressing the shutter each time we frame.

A very good general exercise is to think of your compositions in terms of three frames – a form of triptych. This allows us to expand the possibilities that just one shot precludes, it is also good practice in presenting different angles and it is a very good way to remind us to vary our perspectives, It is also generally quite instructive when we take even a basic structure to looking and critiquing our own pictures.

So, next meeting, editing and presenting our shadow panels! See you there.

26th April 2018 – AGM and Photographing Shadows

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.

19th April 2018 – Myk Garton

Club and committee member Myk Garton took us through fifteen years of photography last meeting, showing a wide variety of subjects and a definite progression as experience grew. Digitally a Fuji shooter from day one Myk started with an Instamatic, which many of the audience could certainly identify with.

Currently showing nearly 27,000 photographs on Flickr, Myk has had images adopted by local festivals, publications and alike and had a successful exhibition at the Totterdown Canteen last year and has organised one there for this for the club next month. He is also leader of the programme group for the club.

A lot of us, including the club, use Flickr, of course, which has suffered in terms of development from the decline of Yahoo, and is now with its fourth owner the American photo company SmugMug. SmugMug is a pay-to-use photo-sharing website and image hosting service which allows users to upload both HD photos and videos, so whether or how long the 1TB Flickr option is still available is an interesting point – and I only have 5,000 images on it at present. Not entirely sure how long that would take to download one by one.

Myk showed us the value of persistence and repetition in personal development and we have talked before of the value of doing something deliberately, critically, sometimes the same thing differently. We can end up taking the same style of images because that is what we do. It carries with it the threat of becoming stale, static, uninspired. What we need to do is to keep moving and that requires photography aforethought, not post production afterthought. “I’ll fix it in post” is very different from knowing from the outset what we will need to do to an image in post production.

A lot of that comes from knowing our equipment and its limitations. Our preferred manufacturer’s latest megabuck sensor may well be capable of dealing with a fifteen stop dynamic range but in the real world, where some of us live, we have to get by with our five year old sensor that was designed eight years ago and can just about handle plus or minus 3. In RAW. We learn that through taking photographs in different lighting conditions.

Then we learn to bracket and to merge to create our own HDR photographs, and what we need to do to those images to make them acceptable to our tastes. Or we learn to use on camera or off camera flash or continuous lighting to fill the darker areas allowing us to meter for the lighter ones. We learn how to modify the lighting we have to blend in with the image we want to create.

And so we fail. A lot. Fail as in laying a Firm Anchor In Learning. We learn to critique, starting with I like this because …. I don’t like the way this is because …. and we do something about it next time based on that. That way we not only learn our equipment but we develop a style. That style may change over time, either as an evolution or as a deliberate attack on our comfort zones – or both, but it allows us to make the stories we capture our own and to keep on doing so.

The other key, besides persistence, is to look at the works of others with that same critical eye. Our goal is constructive criticism. That can be other club members, exhibitions, magazines, websites, tutorials, talks and other presentations, newspapers, awards, the list is as long as you want to make it, we don’t lack for opportunities and it doesn’t just have to be Ansel Adams for landscapes, Cartier-Bresson for street and David Bailey for fashion. There are plenty of others and it does well to look regularly and above all critically. It is, after all, the images people take that make the mark, not the camera they used.

Variety is also important. This can be in set up, composition, treatment, subject, lens, aperture, shutter speed, lighting conditions, the list is as long as you want to make it. Above all it is about taking images. That is, when all is said and done, why we bought the camera in the first place. We can get a lot more out it with just a little deliberation coupled with a little curiosity. In the digital age we have the capacity to take hundreds more photographs as very little extra unit cost compared to the days of film, but the deliberation that the costly additional frame imposed on us was and is a useful thing.