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.
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.
Mike Martin, a member of Kingswood Photographic Society, and a fine photographer, was our speaker. Happy to be a photographer who shoots with post production in mind and only himself to please, Mike showed us a strong, varied and interesting set of mainly art images, with some interesting detours into other genres.
He never accepts images as they come out of the camera, viewing this as a stop on the way to what he imagined in the first instance. This can mean a long time in post production, but as an unashamed amateur – i.e. he’s not shooting to a deadline and other people’s tastes – this is a luxury he can afford. This is part of a long art photography tradition and now that we have the tools to do things in seconds what it would have taken hours and much coin to achieve – if it could be done at all – for an absolute fraction of the cost.
Although there is much to be said for getting as much right in camera, that is an awful lot easier when starting with the end in mind, in having a strong idea of what the finished product will look like. This may change as you go along but having a defined end usually leads to less time wasting. Not always, but usually.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t experiment or take on new ways of doing adjustments. There is a balance and if we want to learn then making ourselves a little bit uncomfortable by trying new things is going to be an essential part. Looking, emulating, developing, employing is as good a learning cycle as any.
Mike also quoted Henri Cartier Bresson, which we have discussed before: “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” – that is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. Certainly it has its place – sharpness is one thing that sells new and ever increasingly expensive lenses. Yes you could back a modern lens against the ones that HCB used pretty much every time in the sharpness stakes, but it’s the brain behind the camera that makes a difference. Mind you context is everything:
“He had his little Leica,” Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”
Dana Thomas interviewing Helmut Newton, Newsweek, 1 June 2003.
Movement certainly formed part of HBC’s photography, two of his most famous images in particular (“Man jumping over a ladder” and “A man rides his bicycle through the Var department”) and blur is certainly going to feature in that – as opposed to the shaky hand of the nonagenarian, as Newton observed.
So shaky hand blur and motion blur might be two different things. One will happen at some point in an otherwise unsupported situation as shutter speed, that is the length of time the shutter is open, comes down. Lens/sensor stabilisation certainly lowers the point to where such shake becomes evident and it can even be used as a creative effect by giving us time to move the camera around a fixed point or through a plane.
The motion blur we are probably most aware of is the one created by panning with a slow(ish) shutter speed. This keeps our main subject in focus and acceptably sharp but blurs the background. We often see this used in motorsport photography and it is also known as a tracking shot. The flip, of course can also be used, where we use a slow shutter speed with a fixed camera and our subject moves across the frame. So we can freeze or blur our subject to get a different feel of motion. The key to both is shutter speed. It can be achieved with a single strobe, or with mixed lighting, the key to both is synchronising the flash with the second curtain also known as the rear curtain. Essentially this means firing the flash at the beginning or the end of the exposure. The effects are very different
There is another way of using motion blur that you can use with a zoom lens. It’s called, wait for it, zoom blur. Again it really requires a tripod or at least a monopod because we are working with slow shutter speeds, but the mode, shutter, aperture, manual is less relevant. All these effects are relatively easy to use, but, as with everything else, need a little practice to get right. Even then, especially with unpredictable subjects, it is best to plan a series of shots to give you one or two to work with in post – assuming you need to. That said, motion blur is rewarding to play around with the effects and can also be used in the dark!
So an interesting evening that showed many possibilities, the value of forward planning and an artistic vision and not just by adding things in post, but in taking distractions out too. An interesting, varied and singular evening. Our thanks to you, Mike Martin.
For most of us, it appears, Adobe Lightroom is all we are ever likely to need in a photo editor, and in this insightful evening, Kevin Spiers, Mark OGrady and Dan Thomas gave us a whirlwind tour of some of the possibilities. It certainly isn’t the only editor available, Gimp, Pixlr, Picasa, Paint.Net are all free alternatives with their supporters but none, as they appear to me, have an interface quite as slick and certainly none have the full capability of the cloud based full suite (Photoshop CC and Lightroom) which can now be rented at just under £9 a month. Mind you, photo-shopping is not always approved of!
Kevin was first up and showed us the cataloguing feature. An image isn’t much use to anyone if it can’t be found, and with the ease and cheapness of taking another frame comes the problem of sheer volume. The number of images quickly adds up. Looking for that photograph can soon become evidence of that old proverb involving needles and haystacks, though why anyone would think to even begin to look for a steel needle in a stack of dried grass, much less think that was a suitable storage medium in the first place, has always defeated me. Sounds like bad filing practice, which is exactly what the cataloguing system is designed to overcome. Like trying to find a needle in a sewing box. Simples!
Frequency separation is a technique that gives the user the ability to process the surface and the depth of an image in different detail layers. The image is divided into two layers, containing the high frequencies and the low frequencies and allows the use these layers to work on colours, on broad and fine details independently, using non-destructive changes to the original image.
Definitely an advanced users technique, but one that seems to be getting wider use over the last couple of years . It is, in essence, about utilising the different strata (think of a photograph as a sandwich and each component of the sandwich is both part of the overall sandwich and a thing in itself) that make up a photograph. Or think of your favourite song played by different artists , there are individual notes and there are chords arranged together in subtly different ways that form the overall, still recognisable but differently rendered, tune. If you change the chords and notes sympathetically you change the harmonies but can still retain the tune. Frequency separation is about using these strata to enhance or alter parts of a photograph in the process of retouching and moving the image to a more striking, enhanced representation. Again not a process without controversy, but something that started when the first human artist drew the first image and the first human critic ,that is the first person the artist showed it to, thought “That ain’t right”.
The technique involves creating two layers, a high frequency layer and a low frequency layer. The low frequency layer contains large areas of colours and tones and the high frequency area fine details like skin pores and blemishes, hair and so on. Julia Kuzmenko McKim gives a blow by blow account of this and also includes a Photoshop action that automates the process (which you might use, but entirely at your own discretion). These actions can be replicated in some other programmes too, Gimp, for instance has its own frequency separation plug in.
To the low frequency layer, Mark applied desaturation (taking it to black and white) and Gaussian Blur, also known as Gaussian Smoothing. Carl Friedrich Gauss was an C18th mathematician, perhaps the greatest since antiquity, whose work has had a huge effect on the modern world. It is the application of an algorithm derived from his work and that of Fourier which we need to know not even that much about, leaving such technicalities to people who have use for them. All we need to know is that it is a blur effect that reduces image noise and detail. Mark suggested using a brush around 3.5 to 5 pixels and though the size used would depend on the job to be done and the preferences of the user he suggested that would be a happy medium. The larger the brush the bigger the effect. On the high frequency layer he changed the blending ode to linear light and talked about the relative merits of the healing brush and cloning.
Starting with the low frequency layer Mark evened out the skin tones and then switched to high frequency layer to work on the blemishes, making sure that the healing brush was set to sample from the current layer. There are a number of techniques, he assured us, that can be applied, and people derive their own favourites and short cuts. The results were quite stunning and well worth trying out, more finely controlable than just stamping around with a clone brush. Mark recommended Scott Kelby‘s book on photoshop.
After break Dan took us through the Lightroom layout, which is set out in a way as to aid workflow in that the tools that it shows you at the top of the menus the things you are more likely to productively work on first. This all helps with the work flow. Dan emphasised the lossless nature of using Photoshop, leaving the original untouched. To emphasise these points he took us through some images that he had provided earlier and applied some of the options that the abundant menus allow the user to easily apply. Dan’s top tips? Take in RAW and Slide the Sliders! RAW gives you more data to work with and the sliders let you apply effects incrementally and as long as preview is switched on you can see the effects on your image in real time, saving considerable effort in going back and forth to check your image. There is a downside of course and that is, in the words of Yogi Berra (American baseball player and yes, that was his real name), “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else”. It helps to know what you want to do before you start fiddling around.
A great evening and thanks to Kevin, Mark and Dan for making it possible.
You can find an expanded version of what Dan took us through here and includes ground covered by Kevin as well and a whole lot more too.