Saving our bacon by coming in as a late replacement judge, Beryl Heaton got the Reflex Open Competition 2018-19 underway. The club thanks her for stepping up, even if we did rather make it more difficult than it strictly needed to be!
The entries were as varied as usual and there is a definite benefit to seeing and listening to someone with experience critique work, our own and others. Agreeing or disagreeing is one thing, and we will quite naturally, but analysing why is at the heart of our development.
So it is as much about looking with a purpose as anything else. This is a process that transfers logicically into our practice of taking photographs. We have light falling on a subject within a frame. The trick is to manipulate the elements in that frame into an interesting story.
The minimum we will have in any picture is figure and background (aka figure and ground). This is a psychological principle and describes how we see an object. Reading this we can see the words (figure) against background (the electronic “paper”). We ‘togs think of this as contrast.
Contrast, that which we use to direct the attention of the viewer to our subject, comes in two varieties. Tonal and colour. Tonal is all the shades from absolute black to absolute white. Colour is the way colours interact with each other.
An image that is high contrast has strong black and strong white with little in the way of greys. Low contrast images have very little by way of highlights and shadows. Normal contrast, well, that is somewhere in between. These are an active part of composition.
Composition is the ordering of elements within the frame. Some things are more important than others, they have more gravity and pull our attention towards them, demanding more of our attention. We have a limited amount of attention to pay so will concentrate on what has the most visual weight.
Our brains assign an importance, a weighting, to objects in our frame and this is what we use to our creative advantage. Knowing this we can apply the tools of composition to manipulate this concept of visual weight to maximise the impact of an image by affecting the balance of objects within the frame. As with contrast there are opposites, though these labelled heavy and light so:
LARGER we perceive as HEAVIER. Big we tend to perceive as heavy and more visually dominant.
DARKER we perceive HEAVIER. This is especially the case if the background is generally light.
HIGH CONTRAST we perceive HEAVIER. This is similar to the above principle. A high contrast subject draws attention to itself.
COMPLEX we perceive as HEAVIER. Multiplying something gives it more weight as the brain naturally groups them together making them perceptually larger.
LIGHT COLOUR we perceive as LIGHTER. The less saturated a colour (like sky blue), the less visual weight it has. You need a lot of it to balance out the heavier elements in a scene.
PHYSICALLY HEAVY we perceive HEAVY. Because it is, and we know it, it gets more visual weight too.
INTERESTING PLACEMENT we perceive HEAVY. Objects placed in the corners or on a third yield more visual weight as per the rule of thirds. There is another tool that is related to do with the treatment of what is called negative space.
These observations by themselves need some managing, of course, but the good news is that we can see these effects quite immediately. We need to balance the effects to good use, that is, too much is too much and undermines the overall effect at best and creates a total mess at worst.
The trick is to take an instant to ask ourselves “Does it balance?” before pressing the shutter.
101 Corner – Focusing
If we have anything but a fixed lens on our camera (and even with some that do) we have the capacity (and the need) to use some focusing system or other. It’s all about getting a sharp image.
This can get a little confusing at first because we have Auto Focus and we have Manual Focus and there will be as many opinions as people you ask as to why they choose any particular mode. To make things worse there are usually three different types of autofocus and two different systems to make it work.
Then someone tells us that we absolutely must use back-button focus.
As usual, much of this is hearsay or ignorance. Each of the autofocus options are designed with certain types of shooting in mind. Manual focus is far easier on manual focusing lenses. Autofocus is the one that makes sense most of the time.
The different autofocus modes are: Single frame (one picture then refocus) which suits most stills photographers most of the time; Continuous, used by videographers and when there is a constantly moving subject, such as using burst mode; Automatic where the camera decides which you need (not a feature on all cameras).
Taking someone’s photograph. Simple enough concept. A person, a camera, a photographer, a photograph. We might hope that the exposure is correct, the focusing correct and the person in the photograph recognisable if not by name at least as a person, as opposed to a smudge in a frame, a blur, a blot on the landscape. The technicalities don’t cover that, the story, the connection between viewer and subject. It could be the technically inept smudge, barely recognisable in some anonymous background, means the world to someone, because the person it is, or was, the world to them, or a substantial part of it. The casual observer cannot tell, for each of us, regardless of connection are pulled in or gloss over the representation of the person/s in the frame according to our own lives.
So much so passport photograph. Easy enough to gloss over the stare-into-the-lens, remove-all-distractions, flat-light-hard-lit likeness used for identification, though there are simple reasons for that style in an identification document. Its value is embedded in its function. It is a statement of who we are, where we are from, rather than an expression of it. Yet it is only an issue when we lose it or use it. The photograph on our photo-id is probably far more important to us than any other in the practical sense, but among the least regarded.
Take that self same fixed-stare, clean-background, no-distractions and Rembrandt light it. In reality we are adding, rather adjusting, the full-on photo booth glare for an unequal amount of light and shadow to construct a more pleasing aesthetic (More accurately, if not so informatively, we are subtracting light, but we will let that pass). By moving the light up and to one side we get a very different story. By doing so we immediately break the rules of passport photography, we render it bureaucratically void, but we make another, aesthetic, case for that image. The strength and appeal of that case is dependent upon the viewer, their literal and psychological perspectives.
Pull back a bit. Step backwards, zoom out which ever takes your fancy. Create a little space around your subject. Yes I know what Robert Capa said, and we are still looking at a plain background and the Rembrandt light because that is where we more or less started. What can you do with that space? Space doesn’t sound very productive, but handled in the right way adds to the overall balance. Essentially the way we use space in a frame is to give the subject a focus when not looking directly to the camera, so that there is enough space in the rest of the frame for the subject to look into. This helps form the question within the viewers mind as to what we cannot see what it is that takes the subjects attention. It is a well of curiosity and viewers will tend to look into the area the subject is looking into.
Space used in this way (usually asymmetrically) divides into two. The active space is the one described above. Negative space, apart from being the rest, and also being known as dead space, is what makes the subject stand out from the background but it needs to be handled carefully or it detracts from the overall image. As such this is all part of the rules of composition and the visual balance, which we last visited last two weeks ago.
Now comes the but …. Robert Capa was right. At least he was also right. Different crop, different picture, same image. Take a look at the pictures you took of Ashleigh, Becki and Keith last meeting (and thanks to you three for being such patient models). Some great one’s posted by club members but not a single one that couldn’t be made into one, two or three other pictures. Cropping in post is one way of doing it for sure, but changing your position, up, down, left, right, nearer, further gives you six variations of that first framing. Seven different pictures. Have a go in post. Just the cropping – at least at first, then maybe light and shadow – you will get two or three useable, different pictures out of the exercise. Then go find someone to photograph, natural lighting will do, but using those six variations to get seven pictures.
So, following the above, we have a Rembrandt lit square on image of someone in too much space. Time to move the model. Now there are posing guides and techniques – Gerry Painter did a very informative evening based on Lindsay Adler last season and Mark O’Grady and Rob Heslop did a studio lighting presentation back in November that showed a lot into a short time – aplenty on the web.
It is important to establish exactly why whoever you are taking the pictures for wants them taken. Business, fashion, blog, CV, anniversary, all have different requirements in formality and style. That really is question number one when taking portraiture – why am I taking this? Even when we are taking them on a club night for pleasure, the question is what story am I telling here? Mystery? Mirth? Sadness? Loss? Happy times? Want? Wanton? When Damien Lovegrove took a session a couple of seasons back, he was happy to show how a story colours our perception of the picture. That is what we allow others to see, no matter that their story is different.
There are certain conventions attached to certain types of portraiture which is tied up with their use. Corporate head shots is the obvious one that springs to mind. They differ from actors head shots in some small ways. Then there is the whole baby/infant/toddler/child thing. For all those expectations, indeed to meet those expectations, it is still the contact with the subject that counts.
Rule, and I do mean rule, one. Talk to your subject. Do not talk at your subject. The point is the person in the picture, not the smart-arse button operator. For sure some people have a very strong opinion of how and what should be done on both sides of the camera, however, this whole interaction is a bargain. A bargain, in the most colloquial sense, is the receipt of something that represents more than the time, effort and most frequently hard cash that we have put into something. Effort takes time and time is money if you need that squared away. It is an agreement between two or more people based around give and take and when entered into proportionally can produce something more than either party bargained for – in a good way. Good rapport is at the centre of any successful portrait session.
N E X T M E E T I N G
9th Feb 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Lyn James LRPS: “People and Places”.
Morag McDonald was our guest last meeting and she addressed a lot over a short time. Interesting history and a combination of the academic and the practical. There was a lot of talk after the meeting about cropping and composition so it was to the latter that we address ourselves in this post and will look at colour next week – which is also editing part ii so bring your laptops.
Composition, or getting the stuff you are looking at in the right place in the right proportion to tell our story most effectively is going to be part of any successful photograph. It is the grammar that supports the plot that tells the story that grips the reader. Rules are often talked about, but talked about as rules, “Authoritative, prescribed directions for conduct, especially ones of the regulation governing procedure …” are not at all helpful to the developing photographer. We need to learn to look for stories first then compose, rather than look for structure then find a story. Rules are designed, applied and enforced to reproduce a stable set of circumstances. We must do it this way in order to ape the greats and get an acceptable photograph. Logically, then, all photographs should look the same, should comply to a half dozen, or less, formats and nothing of any worth happened after Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was classically trained and used it to great artistic effect.
Tools, on the other hand, anything used as a means of performing an operation or achieving an end, are very useful. Cameras are tools. Lenses are tools. Flash guns and strobes are tools. Light modifiers are tools. Filters are tools. These are the ones we to tend to think of as tools because they come at a cost to our bank balances and credit ratings. They are the tools of capture. The most effective tools we have to tell our stories, on the other hand, are free, easily accessed and well known. They are the tools of composition.
The composition of an image has three parts to it. The focal element, the structure and the balance. We will look at each of these in turn, starting with the biggest culprit in dulling the impact of an image, the focal element. Without a focal element, or with too many focal elements, the eye goes on a hunting trip for something to focus on. The eye isn’t really the problem here it is the brain, of course, and our brains work on the principle of rapid summation of our environment and the ordering of threats in it. Basically that has not changed since we all lived in caves, in Africa and shared the name Ug. What’s the point? That is the first thing the brain looks at when it surveys a scene. What’s going on? It needs limited information to form an initial judgement which will be refined as other information adds to this judgment or detracts from it to the point it becomes redundant. We constantly reconcile what we see with what we think we know.
The sort of things our eyes will latch on to the focal elements that show high contrast, high saturation, sharpest focus, motion, faces and or figures. These in turn will be influenced by items such as leading lines, framing and geometry.
Structure is probably what we think of first (and that might be part of the problem) and certainly it’s where the idea of rules in composition is seated. We are talking about such items as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, pyramids and triangles, symmetry and filling the frame. They are all sound under the circumstances that tell the story best for that structure. Think of them as plot devices.
The rule of thirds has four points, known as eyes, of importance and the idea of these is to put something of importance at the intersection one of these points a third or two thirds across the frame and a third or two thirds down it. A second element can be place on one of the adjoining thirds to provide balance (diagonals seem to work best by adding depth in 3D in a 2D environment, but that might just be a personal preference). It has to be said that these points are not absolute (it’s a tool remember) and that objects placed in proximity work just as well or good enough depending on your aesthetic. Of course not everyone is a fan of it.
The Golden Ratio is everywhere we look it seems. It also explains why all those classical Greco-Roman statues are beholding grapes at odd angles. The Rule of Thirds is often referred to as a simplified Golden Ratio, but when it comes to classical composition the Golden Ratio is king. It is found commonly in nature and can be expressed through the Fibonacci Sequence. Now whether it is there and we impose it or we find it because it is there is always open (this link explores in detail). It is also a tricky blighter to get right and its mere presence is no guarantee of the perfect image – plenty of images to be found that are technically proficient but subject deficient. There is no denying that it is fascinating and when it works it works, but remember to the viewer it is an explanation of why this image works not the point of it.
Pyramid Composition, aka triangle composition, is really a matter of converging lines. Converging lines are more usually associated with wide angle lenses because they are more obvious in those perspectives and indeed, we spend time in post “correcting” them. Really we are imposing order on physics because we want our vertical lines vertical not curved (unless shooting with a fisheye lens of course) nor angled at anything but the perpendicular. As we are talking composition we are talking about deliberately converging lines not incidental ones. Leading lines are the most frequently encountered pyramidal tool in the advice given. They converge on a point, our eyes naturally follow that conversion so we need to make certain that our focal point sits at the point of conversion. If the lines within that pyramid follow its boundary lines then the effects are reinforced. It’s a matter of our next tool, symmetry.
Symmetry is repetition of a pattern on both sides of an axis. We associate it with power and beauty. It is explained in Gestalt psychology but we have already touched upon this when we talked about the brains need for patterns and conforming details. Basically our brains crave patterns and if we can find them and use them to concentrate the viewers imagination in the frame we present them then we are on the way, given a sufficiently compelling subject, to making a successful photograph.
Last but not least of our little selection of tools and before we go to our third element, balance, we are back with the oft quoted (here at least) Frank Capa: If our photograph isn’t good enough it’s because we are not close enough. We are moving beyond Capa’s original intent here, which was about connection with your subject. Basically, fill the frame. Essentially you use a single element, like the details in a face, to take up the whole frame. A face is a good example because it has a high degree of symmetry to it and so fits in a frame quite balanced along the central vertical axis. Doesn’t have to be a face, of course, but it should be minimal in the number of subjects In the frame, that is, one image in the frame.
Is there any order to these? No. These are just a very few of the design principles, tools, we can use. we need to learn to decide what tool we are going to use in order to get the result we want. Advice for the beginner would be to start by ensuring you fill the frame and try the rule of thirds. When you have mastered these tools then expand your tool kit, deliberately, by which I mean we go out to deliberately shoot x number of frames in a session based on tool y. Take notes.
So the third element of this composition monster is a thing called visual balance. Basically everything you capture in a frame has an effect a weight in relation to the rest of the frame and the other things in it. Things that can affect the visual weight of an object in a frame include relative sizes, shape, number, high contrast, saturation, brightness, faces, figures etc. They need to be played off so everything seems to part of the whole and those things have a harmony to them. There are a Of course disharmony has a place too, but let’s get the basics right before we start to get cocky.
So, this composition thing in a nutshell: One clear element arranged within a structure to make a point in a scene that is balanced. Simples. Maybe …..
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.