We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
Quiz Nights. You can’t beat them so we joined ‘em. Thanks to Myk Garton for putting the evening together, I know from first hand experience just how much effort goes into making it look effortless. And of course all participants showed themselves masters of their hobby. This week on the blog we will wrap up two of the three remaining questions from the Week 2 Q by looking at: What is front curtain, rear curtain and slow flash? And what is Back button focus? This week has also been the big European photographic trade show, Photokina, held in Germany, one year I will have sufficient time and money to go …..
Still, daydreaming aside, what is front curtain, rear curtain and slow synch flash? Flash, aka strobes, aka those lighty things, is an area that is both technical and often ignored by the amateur. Yet it is one of the most effective accessories we can purchase. After all most of us have one built into our cameras, even if it does get overlooked most of the time. There is more to this than we will look at here, indeed we will visit this in a future blog, but for now we will explore the question that was put concerning these three often found menu options.
For this specific question we do not have to differentiate between off camera flash (or strobes if you prefer) and on camera (that is pop-up or otherwise built in). The reason behind this is that this is a specific question of the firing order of the flash in relation to the curtain or shutter. Mostly this is done off the position of what is known as the front curtain. The majority of cameras have a two curtain (shutter) set up. This enables faster shutter speeds, the flash synch speed of your camera is actually around about the fastest speed that the whole of the sensor is exposed. Otherwise it is exposed through a slit formed by the front and the rear shutter curtains moving across the sensor plane at a fixed distance apart. The faster the shutter speed the closer the gap.
If you expose using a strobe/flash unit above the flash synchronisation speed you get a dark band of varying width according to the shutter speed as the duration of a flash is extremely short. Because the lens projects things upside down onto the sensor and the shutters move from top to bottom this band will appear from the bottom upwards. Not so much of a problem if you only need light at the top of the frame, but not actually something that is easy to fine control both because of the position of the shutter at any given time and how much darker the rest of the frame is.
So why have a front curtain flash and a rear curtain flash? It’s to do with the motion blur in the frame and where the pulse of light freezes that in time. The least subtle explanation, nonetheless one that actually holds true, is that you use front shutter curtain to freeze the action. You might use your maximum shutter synch speed (often automatically set but that depends upon make and model of your camera body) to give yourself the maximum chance of freezing the action. You use the rear shutter curtain and, usually, a lower shutter speed to freeze the foreground and retain some motion blur in the scene. And slow synch flash? Well that is an automatic camera mode that forces a slower shutter speed and synchronises the flash. You can get some very different looking results from the same scene using these variations. As ever, try it out for yourself.
Back button focusing, once you’ve tried it you will never go back. At least that is what its fans say and there is no denying that it is a very useful tool. We looked at this on the blog last August viz “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 …). 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.”
Yeah, that is what it is but what use is it? Well first off there is the fact that, whilst depressed, the AF button means that you hold whatever it is you have focused on. In the automatic modes focus shifts when you shift what you are looking at, which can be time consuming. In order to keep the focusing, for instance if you want to shift the main point of focus to the edge of the frame and blur the background. You might want to add to that you can use the continuous mode (AF-C or AF-Servo depending on your camera body manufacturer) of focusing on your camera when following action and use the AF button to freeze the most advantageous point (takes some practice but worth the effort with a high degree of movement in the frame). Or basically no more having to focus every time you let go of the shutter which takes time and can mean that you loose your shot. Annoying when it was already in focus the last time you half depressed the shutter.
So now you know. Next meeting is Table Top photography, a practical so bring your cameras and tripods. Maybe your flashes too!
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?
Last meeting and we were on an away day in Queens Square where we were joined by the Filton Orphans Scooter Club for a 1970s themed photoshoot. Huge club thanks to Myk Garton for organising this, it was a good evening enjoyed by everyone I talked to and an equally big thank you to the Filton Orphans for providing some magnificent props. Megan Gearing, Kelly Wolf Rogers and Paul Walker were our models.
Given the colour of the buildings and the fact that we were shooting into that period of the evening when the light turns more blue, I decided to shoot with the white balance set to shade. This warms the general look of the image (more than cloudy, see below) and I think worked well. I remember having a conversation with a photographer a couple of years ago, before I got into digital myself, and he reckoned that shooting with the white balance set to cloudy was the best setting for his photography. Basically he had his camera permanently set on that because he likes/liked the effect. He is not alone in this. Maybe a little extreme for my taste, all the time, but I can certainly see that there are occasions when it makes a strong case. There is an important thing to take into consideration here, because what we are talking about is the final look of the image and the idea that there is a correct aesthetic for the colour rendition of subjects within an image, when there is in fact only a set of choices. Accurate is quite often a word that is thrown around when talking about rendering an image as an exact a record of an object in the real world. In the camera it becomes a series of electronic artifacts, that represent an object or set of objects in the real world. That is to say there is a certain amount of interpretation involved.
With the permanent cloud conversation in mind, I thought that I would use this week’s blog to look at that setting probably most ignored by most photographers because the camera does it for them, in a manner generally acceptable. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the White Balance.
Let me set down at the outset that if you are uncertain about what you are doing auto will work in most situations. Sort of. It has got better over the years, that is for sure. Certainly it will work well in sunlight. If you look at the settings on your camera, even most compacts these days, you will find a range of settings other than auto white balance. The settings themselves we will return to later. The reason that these exist is because light changes colour over the course of the day and we talk about it in terms of its temperature, which is measured in degrees Kelvin. The colour of this light will affect the colours in your photographs because what we see are objects reflecting the available light into our eyes which are converted into images in our brains. Cloud cover also plays a role in determining the colour of light at any given moment, lending the light a blue hue. This is before it starts to bounce off objects absorbing different wavelengths. But our brains colour correct and so we see not the colour modified hues and shades but the brain’s algorithms for determining what it should look like. Your camera sensor records according to the temperature of the light it receives reflected from the object(s) you are framing. Please note it is where the objects are and the light it/they is/are in that is important not the light where you are (unless it is the same when it obviously doesn’t matter).
Well, again, sort of. White is 18% gray in photography, you may have heard. This is to do with colour neutrality. Some people never leave home without a gray card, certainly they have their uses, but they are not a deal breaker when it comes to taking photographs. You can colour correct in post production (yes even with jpeg but only to a relatively small degree and not in the same way as in raw, as the assumption of what the white balance is is coded into the jpeg file when you press the shutter. With raw its more WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get – and can be manipulated over a wider range of possibilities because all the information is left in).
So there are reasons of colour temperature for the settings in the white balance menus on your cameras. AWB – automatic white balance – is a fire and forget mode, just not always accurate. We then move into general categories. Daylight calibrated from the noon day sun, is fairly neutral and the target which the other settings are designed to immitate. Flash is cooler than daylight on tone (has a higher Kelvin temperature). Shade compensates for the blue by warming up the colours (counter-intuitively lowering the colour temperature) so does cloudy, but to a greater extent. The picture of the light bulb denotes a tungsten colour temperature. Almost orange if uncorrected, with a dollop, to use the scientific phrase, of blue. The picture of the flourescent tube tells you that the sensor is going to have the warm tones boosted to overcome that rather cold, sterile light. Then we get into the custom settings which can be used in conjunction with colour temperature meters and those grey cards we mentioned earlier. They do take getting used to to use properly. If you are interested in getting a light meter and or colour temperature meter and have a smart phone they can easily and freely be downloaded from the Android or Apple stores. They seem to work pretty well (I have Colour Temp meter and it falls into the category of useable. Grass is generally around the 18% grey mark and makes a good substitute as does the palm of your hand which will read about 2/3 rds of stop under exposed as a general rule).
As I started out saying at the top of this piece, you can play around and adopt he settings at will. Cloudy and shade have been the two I have used most often (which I would quantify as not very often) to warm up, and it works well with Cotswold stone backgrounds. I have also tried the bluer settings against a sky of pretty uniform grey cloud. It didn’t work out well but there is a germ of an idea there. Whatever you use you will almost certainly have to change the settings when you get the camera out afresh, or you will, with equal amounts of certainty, have some unplanned colour balances when you download to your computer. This is where CSC’s win out. They are WSIWYG – though it doesn’t work if you ignore the evidence of your eyes. A friend told me that, you understand. Wouldn’t do it myself. Of course not. No.
For all of that there is, you will be happy to know, one more universal setting that eliminates all this faffing around. It’s called black and white.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
NEXT MEETING: Round 4 of the ROC.
Check out the Flickr competiton on the club Flickr page. To be found on the discussion page.