This week three for the price of one: an exchange visit with fellow WCPF club Hanham, things being helped by the clubs regular meetings being on consecutive nights. So we showed them ours at Hanham on Wednesday and they reciprocated on Thursday. This was followed by the return of former member Tony Cooney this week, who, last year, graced us with his pictures from his time serving in Iraq and this time showing his work with portraiture and a variety of models.
These three events set themselves squarely in our development as photographers of whatever level. Looking at, thinking about, talking about our and other people’s pictures is an absolute essential of developing not just appreciation but also a store of looks, effects, puzzles and things to try out.
In order to so we need to have some sort of method to regularise and make useful comparisons. This is generally known as a critique and is something we have used before (using some prints leant to us by Hanham by coincidence). It is what we have competition judges do for us, where they give is feed back from an outside perspective, and a great deal of experience.
We can use this to our advantage by rationalising our own reactions to others opinions. Nobody rational is going to like 100 percent of our output equally (nor dislike). In that we can garner likes and views and favourites on social media that has as much, if not more, to do with niche marketing than actual photography. And a lot of people seem to make it an end in itself. It, like the histogram of our last image, lies between perceptions of absolute light and dark because the image and our true opinion lie in the range in between. We critique to articulate these ranges. We learn by applying this through the viewfinder.
And we do this over time. Tony showed us a development line going back several years and made the point that the single biggest early improvement came from investing in a lighting course. Now there are good courses and there are mediocre ones and price is not really a good indicator of anything other than this is what your provider can afford to charge and still get enough people to engage.
Personally I rate these things, among others, by the number of people on the course. One where you get 20 minutes a day, if you are lucky, with a superstar of that genre is worth far far less in terms of personal development and value than one where you get an hour or two hours individual attention. You might get some excellent photographs, much time in course development is spent on making sure of that because then your customers become your champion marketeers, but unless you develop the faculty of seeing rather than looking, that is not going to teach you much.
Of course we are in a position nowadays that access to opinion and information is instantaneous and in volumes we cannot hope to handle. The self taught route can be very rewarding, of course, but the accelerating the pace needs some sort of external input. Quality not quantity and when you have grasped the basics that provide quality, consistency, was something that came across from Tony’s set and certainly this was evident across both the evenings he has done with us.
The “Studio” portrait conjures up images of large format cameras, assistants, assistants to assistants, big lighting rigs, expensive clothes on professional models and an equipment bill most of us don’t have sufficient kidneys to sell to pay for. Try scaling down expectations a little and the basics become more do-able. When learning a new skill it pays to Keep It Short and Simple (an extension of Kappa’s If-it’s-not-good-enough-you-are-not-close-enough mantra) and in something practical like this, plenty of do and review. Improvisation is part of the fun and the skills set of photography.
Of course there are the intermediate courses that you can buy on line and these range from good to bad as does anything else. In these cases finding people who have used them and have something to say about them and explain why they came to that conclusion (not testimonials) are few, far between and invaluable. In this case forewarned is fore armed. Managing our own expectations is also part of the process. It isn’t just about talent and it is also about recognising that hard work is a talent in its own right. If we have this capacity then a little direction is what we need.
Sooner or later we end up taking photographs of people. Before the days of mass photography that was almost the soul purpose of the art. OK, a bit of landscape thrown in. Today’s social media probably hasn’t done a huge amount to change that ratio, neither has it done a huge amount for the overall quality of photographs taken. Being in it counts for more than the quality of it.
There are things we can do to improve this easily enough. Last post we talked about the effect of sensor size on quality in the main part of the post. It has another impact too – depth of field or how much of the image is acceptably sharp. This is important because of the requirement to make the eyes (both eyes) the point of focus. That is the area of a face we will look to first. Not in focus? No second thought.
A camera phone has a deep depth of field. Shooting with a wide open aperture on a larger sensor means that that which we perceive as being acceptably sharp is far more limited. Both eye-focus is easier if we fill the frame with our subject, photographer Robert Capa once famously remarked, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, it’s because you aren’t close enough”. Aperture controls depth of field.
This applies to all sorts of cameras. With that in mind try replicating this video.
Lighting options, from basic budget and food photography after break, special thanks to the ever inventive Ian Coombs for the artistic food plates, and to Myk Garton and Richard Clayton among others for their light tutorials.
The most important thing in photography is light and the best camera for the job is the one you have got on you. Two propositions that in themselves are their own truths. That said the cameras that we have offer us varying degrees of flexibility. Beyond developing us by making us think of the things that we do automatically more deliberately, an effect that quickly wears off, new/new to us equipment is just another way of getting the job done, maybe a little easier.
These days we are as likely, in fact, more than likely, to move from a camera phone to a more traditional form factor – something we think of more as a traditional camera – as a means of getting “better” photographs. Form factor is the physical size and shape of a piece of equipment. These days we think of cameras as being, mostly, hand holdable items. Certainly, when coming from a hand-holdable device like a camera phone, we look to how the camera handles, where the buttons are, weight and heft, balance.
Different formats have different aspect ratios, basically the ratio of the width of the sensor to the height. The 16:9 of our camera phones fits the the aspect ratio of our TV’s. Mirrorless and DSLT APS-C crop sensors are usually 3:2. DSLR’s (and SLR’s) 4:3. That effects how we frame – one isn’t necessarily better than another – because those are the dimensions we are given to work with. Those frames are given and we tend to adapt accordingly. It becomes more evident when we move between formats, such as cropping a 3:2 to a 4:3 competition format, especially for prints.
The sensor size is usually the single biggest factor in overall quality. Not necessarily the number of (fantasies of camera company marketing departments, by and large) but the size and number and layout of the pixels. A phone sensor is approximately 5mm x 3.5mm, a full frame camera 34mm x 24mm. Compacts, Bridge Camera’s, Micro Four Thirds, APS-C come in between. Bigger is generally better.
More complex is the arrangement of knobs, switches and dials, which at best will be software options, more likely not options at all, on a phone. Full manual is a lot easier concept to mount on a larger form factor.
On the flip side pure convenience, connectedness with programmes and channels that enable sharing of pictures, and, not least, portability are on the camera phones side. These days people rarely travel beyond the front door without their phone and therefore a camera. The biggest downside remains those lower quality images, which look fine on a phone screen, probably the most frequently employed method of display.
Although what we see as a “proper” camera these days is subject to change, the fact remains tha the best camera you have is the one you have got, but there is no escaping the fact that cameras still take pictures but photographers make photographs. Make a poor photograph and it will not be improved one iota by how much money was spent and how sophisticated the means of capturing it were. It will remain poor.
Last week we put forward the proposition that light is everything in photography. It is. This, sooner rather than later, leads the photographer to the question of “Settings”. Indeed the more time we spend on the internet the more it would appear that settings are the most important thing in photography. They are not. Light is. This obsession as Mike Browne points out, is nonsense on stilts. Settings do not lead to the picture. The scene, what we are taking the picture of, leads to the settings. The light is what nature or the photographer, makes it (natural/artificial light). Light is everything in photography.
The principles set out using a portrait setup are applicable to everything else. A good way to think about using light is that we are manipulating the direction of light and from that the direction of shadow. The same effects can be replicated using a torch or reading light, LED or other strip light, a flash or a specifically designed lighting rig. A piece of grease proof paper makes a great diffuser. Black card or material makes a good flag. Aluminium foil makes a good reflector. The important thing is to practice. As with last weeks video a simple set up is best. To remove the effect of colour use black and white. Try replicating this short video on your own table top.
Week two, tutorial night with members Richard Clayton and Steve Dyer doing their bit with one light and three light portraiture set ups either side of the break and yours truly trying not to cause too much confusion in a Camera 101 short session for new members and anyone else who was passing that corner of the hall.
So the blog this season will take on a slightly different format, at least between now and Christmas. There will, most weeks, be a second, smaller, thread, dedicated to short observations and exercises aimed at the less experienced members of the club and casual readers/subscribers who want to develop their photography from a fresher perspective.
Both of these threads and all of these blog entries are based on one philosophical observation by Mr Ansel Adams. “You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph”. To tease that out a bit, there is a difference between taking and making a photograph. Taking here means recording the fall of light on a subject and that is what we see using the three things a camera lets you control. It is what a camera does. Now what we see maybe a possibility within the natural fall of things, indeed will be, but that is more than just a record. We frame and manipulate and the relationships between foreground and background and the objects within that field to make an image which we then take a record of with our camera. More simply cameras take photographs, photographers make photographs.
And in that process light, not the brand or model of camera we bring to the event, nor the accessories bolted to it, no matter how expensive, is everything. Visualising the shot as a product of our imagination and the possibilities of light and shape is where the art lies. The one thing that cannot be taught is the minds ability to see a shot. No amount of knowledge of the arts of composition will overcome brain-wiring. “There is nothing worse than a sharp shot of a fuzzy idea”. Ansel Adams again.
Visualising and pre-visualising a shot (working out what we are going to shoot before we shoot gets more reliable shots than a spray and pray of something vaguely interesting regime) is all work that pays off when it comes to capturing what we see. This is in part because, if we conscientiously practice it, we are attuned to what light is telling us. Light for a photographer works like a plot for an author. It is the key component in telling a story. Typing random words might enable the basis of a plot to take shape, but the author works her/his thoughts and feelings into something someone else might be interested in by applying details and structure. Words by themselves don’t make a novel.
So, light first and last. In between is composition, itself a huge topic the subject of much academic and cultural importance. To a photographer it is the arrangement of the objects in the frame and how they are lit to tell the story. Photographs, by and large, really can only tell one story without becoming confused. Where the brightest light in the frame falls will be where the eye gravitates first. How we arrange the objects in the frame in relation to light and dark determines where the eye goes next. Volumes have been written on the subject and we will revisit it but, at this stage of the club year, I think that the best thing that can be said of them is that they are tools not rules, but they make a difference. One good exercise is to take one and make it an exercise in what I am going to shoot today. It can be fun too.
Light being the starting point end point and everything in between, it is something that we can practice with a minimal amount of equipment and pretty much anywhere. This Mark Wallace video is a good starting point and can be replicated at home regardless of the weather. Try it, the light sources don’t have to be photographic lights or strobes/flash guns/speedlights, it can be desk lamps, torches, LED’s etc. and the effects are even more striking in black and white. Camera doesn’t matter either, your phone will do just as well as a full frame all singing all dancing camera.
Happy New Year and we celebrated our return with a well attended evening of table top photography – next week we show the results. This is a good entry point to the year, it’s practical so we get to see and do with others and exchange ideas, but also it is something that we can exercise (more or less) total control over. Yes it might not be our “thing”, yes in the hall we are at the mercy of the overhead lighting and others waiting their turn (on occasion) but the opportunity is the thing.
The fact is we can, with very little resource, replicate these moments and use them to our advantage. Find an object – betting the house is full of them. It doesn’t matter what particularly, but, to start with, one that isn’t too shiny, so as we avoid bright spots (specularity) where light sources are reflected in the objects surfaces and not too big – it’s called table top for a reason. This can be controlled but we will come back to that presently.
For lights we have torches, they don’t have to be big and powerful (actually something of a disadvantage at close quarters). Some wire twists and something that will be stable when we attach the torch(es) to it as a light stand (or co-opt a friend or relative). Some plain paper to use as a diffuser and Christmas having just passed some coloured sweet wrappers for gels. If we want we can construct yourself a makeshift light box out of an old cardboard box and some grease proof paper, though there are even more minimalist options we can take. We can use tin foil and black card for reflectors and flags. Ladies and gentlemen I give you your complete photographic studio in miniature!
So it’s an entertaining way to pass an evening, useful if we are selling small things on line and we can learn quite a bit about product shots in the process. But it also has other, practical, training uses. It doesn’t make a difference how experienced we are there is always a value to practicing, especially if it is on a subject we don’t usually do. Photography, as David Bailey once pointed out, involves dealing with what is there, photographers don’t enjoy the luxury fine artists have in that anything inconvenient in the scene just doesn’t make it onto the canvas.
We have to deal with what is in front of us. The studio is the closest we will ever get to that situation, in miniature or otherwise, being places we put things in rather than take things out. Being a photographer is about having an idea of an image and working with tools we have or can find to work towards what we visualised. Yes I know, that doesn’t really apply to street (actually is does but that is for another time) or at least some forms of street photography. Oh, OK, spray and pray, but like I said, that is for another time.
Perhaps the greatest part of this is that we can go through the whole process from visualisation to capturing an image effectively and quickly. And then we can go through the variations of the set up in order to experiment and learn. Starting with a blank canvas, the light tent is exactly that, we can populate, arrange and light our little stories from scratch. It is a great way to practice basic lighting skills, pretty much for free. In fact thinking of the exercise of placing shapes in relation to each other in a way that gets the attention and lighting it is pretty much the basic definition of photography. Everything we do in these little vignettes can be scaled up. They are good fun and good practise.
There is more good practice to be had in controlling light angles too. We mentioned specularity above, basically unwanted reflections. The solutions are straight forward enough and apply to other photographic situations too. Basic rule of reflections is that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. What that means for us is that to avoid glare from a shiny object we don’t need the light source and the camera to be facing the same way. Frame with the camera and then move the light around till the glare disappears. Start at 45 degrees to the camera, you should be plumb in what is known as the family of angles.
Constant lights are more convenient here but if we use flash and have triggers so we can use them off camera and using test frames and, of course, knowing the rule of reflection, we know where not to place the lighting in relation to the camera, so that is a start. You don’t necessarily have to have triggers though. The rest of the solution isn’t complicated and if we use a “big” light source, say from a large soft box then the problem goes away. Don’t have a soft box? A light tent is one answer (basically a multidirectional diffuser). No? A piece of white card to use as a reflector, shoot with the camera facing the card, that will effectively diffuse the light.
Finally shadows are just as interesting, if not more so on occasion, and balancing out light and shadow is the root of generating mood in a shot. This is done with what are known as flags. They are used a lot in cinematography and videography. They are also used in product photography. Using them in a table top situation means that DIY options are easily available.
So, on these cold and dark evenings there is something to try out.
Blog has been on a bit of a hiatus through other commitments but hopefully is back to being regular now. Our last session was the club Christmas party and a good time and a few quid raised for club coffers means that it was a success. A record was probably set for unflattering-photographs-of-club-members-whilst-sober but it was all in a good cause. Our thanks to Myk for running a very enjoyable evening.
The programme in the new year is full of promise too, underpinning the aim of the club to be one where we learn together rather than one where blokes (it always is blokes) stand around, sucking the air through clenched teeth, fiddling with the string in their cardigan pockets whilst moaning about things not being as they used to be in the good old days.
Like any skill we learn as much, arguably more, by not getting it quite right and keeping a balanced and critical eye. Use the judges’ opinions and try them out. Critique the result for yourself and compare it to your original. Use the clubs internal online presence (sorry members only) to try out others opinions. Use a buddy group, use external sites that offer critiques (thick skin sometimes required). There are lots of options.
Try something new. Christmas is rapidly becoming the one time in the year many photographers decide to try out bokeh. Everything to do with the Christmas Tree lights. Bokeh is an example of making the most out of something you can’t change. In this case, the laws of physics, branch optics.
If you look at the world through your camera phone, most of it is in focus most of the time, even though the lens aperture is usually pretty wide. Think of the situations cameras are used in phones for the most part and keeping things still enough not to blur means a wide aperture is a good idea to keep shutter speeds up. This is because of the depth of field relative to the size of the sensor you are using for capture. Basically F2 on your camera phone is roughly F11 on a full frame (35mm) sensor in terms of depth of field and camera phones use wide angle lenses (compare further). Note that is not an expression of the amount of light transmitted, only the area we find acceptably sharp. It also means, practically, that, mostly, bokeh effects on camera phones are software rather than optically driven. This is by the by for most users.
You can, at least in theory, construct bokeh on any lens (tougher on a fish eye, but possible). The term bokeh is Japanese and an art term for the aesthetic qualities of out of focus light. It can also, given the right context mean senility or mental fuzziness, apparently, but that too is by the by. The keys to successfully taking a bokeh photograph are pretty straight forward. Paying attention to the basics of composition is as important as always. The effect may be out of focus but the subject must be in focus. Maybe obvious, maybe not, but essential nonetheless. Get as close to your subject as possible, framing is important and only having one subject is as important as ever it is.
The largest aperture on your chosen lens is also a given if you want to maximise the effect. Prime lenses are probably better than zooms as they tend to have larger maximum apertures. F2 is more convenient for this than F3.5 which is better than f5.6 in that the depth of field is less for any given sensor size the wider the aperture set at a fixed focal length. But as with everything kit wise the one you’ve got is the best for the job.
The other key is the separation between background and subject (and, of course, having some light in the background!). The larger this gap is the larger the bokeh effect will be. Of course the Christmas tree isn’t likely to have a lot of room behind, nonetheless the effect is still obtainable, though colour balance can be tricky. If you are at macro distances then the effect on the background can still be striking, though of course through a more restricted field of view. That includes the use of lenses and extension tubes, just bear in mind depth of field is extremely shallow.
The shape of the bokeh is determined by the number of leaves that go up to making the iris. Cheaper lenses tend towards having five or six blades to the iris, more expensive lenses 9 or more (and in between). The more blades the more circular the bokeh appears. The other factor is the placement of the blades, straight or rounded making for hard edged or circular smooth points. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
And that is pretty much all there is to it. It can be done indoors and out. It can be done in different light levels. It’s a simple technique that makes the most of a physical necessity. It can be one point or many depending on light source(s). Straight forward and quite striking. Try it.
2017-2018 Season Round One of the Open Competition (DPI) was an evening of considerable variety. The prints will be judged next session. Congratulations to Wendy Goodchild for her winning entry and thanks to our judges, multiple award winning husband and wife team Peter Brisley and Sue O’Connell, who are back next session to judge the prints. We have had to split the judging for this round because of the volume of DPI’s in particular, but the number of print entries, gratifyingly, is also up. Our thanks to our judges for being so accommodating.
What was striking was the variety of subjects and styles on display. This we can take as a good thing because we get to see other people’s interpretations of subjects we have almost certainly chanced our arms at in the past. There is also an advantage, not immediately obvious, in watching our and fellow club members progress over the course of a season. Thinking about what we do is an important part of developing our art. There is a difference between someone who has taken 10,000 photographs and learned from their mistakes and someone who has taken one set of mistakes and repeated them 10,000 times (with several, increasingly expensive, kit upgrades in the interim, no doubt). There is a difference between a photographer and a-bloke-with-a -camera after all. Well, most of the time, if not for everyone and increasingly for next-to-no-money whatsoever.
Yet we cannot get anywhere meaningful without the effort. There really aren’t “bad” cameras anymore. Ditto lenses. This rather points to the photographer as the weak link in the chain. At some point we want to be more than just the button pusher. Creativity requires effort and lots and lots and lots of practice. Not a blinding revelation and not the first time it has been mentioned on this blog, but certainly it is a truth of learning. Anything we learn pretty much follows that pattern. We know this so why not use it?
Critique, like we get in competition rounds, but not exclusively restricted to that, is a good source of fuel for our development. Structured in its delivery and used as a starting point, or rather a restarting point, if we were to take that image and again and apply the observations we have been given, would the image be more effective at relaying its story?
Like or dislike of an image is natural and almost instant. When sorting through a large number of images for editing or weeding a good rule of thumb is if it doesn’t hold your attention for two seconds (or more) bin it. Critiquing requires we go beyond the immediate reaction. Even the most experienced of judges can suffer a failure to understand. A good judge will be honest about this – and we are also our own judges so I am not just talking about club photo competitions – and give us a reason or set of reasons why not. But it will be structured and it will provide information we can consider the next time we have the camera out. The key is the word because. This is, absolutely, the key.
For sure critique needs a framework to be meaningful and for sure it is subjective, but there is no one method, and every time we look at it we take a slightly different path to reflect this. This might give the impression that it is not very effective. Yet no artist ever develops without nurturing one. The same way as having a purpose in taking the pictures we want rather than the pictures that present (that’s not to say we shouldn’t be open to the unexpected) is part of the same process.
Look at the opportunities the club presents. Practicals for sure, are pretty obvious. Ditto the competition rounds. Speakers are a chance to get ideas from, to look for alternatives and also to interact with the material presented, to say I like that because … or I don’t like that because … I would alter that … I will try that … how did they do … Whatever else, you cannot beat a bit of deliberate action.
And take lots of pictures.
And look at lots of pictures. There are plenty of sites on the web to give us ideas. Flickr, 500px and other general sites to more specific and curated ones, like the Magnum Agency and the stock photo sites like iStock or Shutterstock, or social media groups like those to be found on Facebook or sites like Instagram. Look, but look critically.
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.