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.
Some discussion last session, the sharing of the light trails outing, about what is and what is not a keeper. Should be easy yes? Well most of the reasons to reject an image are fairly obvious: incorrect exposure, out of focus, poor framing or all three. Except what one sees as fodder for the recycle bin another sees promise. I suspect it was ever so, from the first daubs on a cave wall there were, no doubt, discussions on what one could plainly see and another, just as plainly, could not.
As we are all aware the cost of taking another frame with a digital camera is very marginal, which both helps and hinders. It helps in that reframing a shot in refining the outcome isn’t then much of a cost consideration. Effective when it is done deliberately. Spray and pray, though it can get results, doesn’t get consistent results. Establishing whether you should have taken that shot in the first place is a bigger consideration if you are serious about improving your photography overall and that only when you take your own advice – and I don’t mean by taking the same photograph as everyone else. That is a goal that can only be achieved through persistence, the ability to be objective about an image and to repeat the exercise from a different angle. If you don’t do something different you will only get the same result. Yes it’s basic logic but it is also something that takes each of us a time to learn. This is, at least in part, because what we are learning (or failing to) changes. We deal with a shifting medium, light, that we have varying degrees of control over, from zero to total. Lighting, as many a cinema photographer or serious videographer will tell you, is often easier in theory than in practise.
OK so the lighting when you are on the city centre taking six to eight second exposures (sometimes longer) of moving lights you have no influence on doesn’t make for a great deal of control. What it does leave you in charge of, aperture, ISO, focal length and which way and from where you point the camera, gives you scope for sufficient variation to make a different photograph every time. It is also trial and error and to differentiate that from spray and pray you have to change one of these things. The environment might also help. For instance, the bus lane going south ends in a traffic island. I saw the potential for two things in this. One was an s-bend formation in the lights as the buses made their way towards Redcliffe, the other was a boomerang effect as some of the buses use the same roundabout to do a 180 and start the return journey.
As it turned out these were the two closest shots to keepers I got all night. Other members certainly got better. I didn’t get them first time and I couldn’t guarantee to be able to exactly replicate them the next time I am light trailing down there (it sort of gets under your skin as does most forms of light painting I find). I would dearly like to lose the lamp post sitting on the thirds of one of those shots and I am not 100% convinced, given the nature and spread of the light in the boomerang shot where there is quite a bit of diffusion, that I can convincingly edit in post. The obvious answer is to avoid it by getting in front of it and using a wider angle lens or crossing the street and shooting from the opposite pavement. They will, however, be very different pictures, because the perspective will be different. Notice I haven’t said better or worse, just different.
Getting the clutter out of the way helps us to focus on the subject. Shooting without the clutter in the frame in the first place saves us time. Don’t, as a default, shoot first and fix later, because you will end up making the same mistakes a habit, a stylistic tic. Such decisions, say shooting a wedding at a constant aperture to yield a continuity of style, is fine when deliberate, distinctive and adding value for the viewer. Otherwise it just keeps the recycle bin full, or sits there in the unloved space that could be better used of your hard disk.
Poor light, endemic to light painting, is a tough test for any auto focusing system and that shot can just pass you by in a faint whirr of a never focusing lens. Certainly low light focusing has come on in leaps and bounds, especially if you are in a position to splash the cash. The actual cause – which is also why a clear blue sky can be difficult to focus on – is the lack of contrast, because contrast is what your autofocus system needs, more accurately the boundary between two objects of different luminance. That said the camera you have is the camera you’ve got is the camera you are using and regardless of model actively and fully using the auto-focusing capabilities and manual focussing are useful skills to have in the armoury. Panning can also be a useful skill, but one that needs practice, and like many other photographic techniques has a simple base but comes with some useful variations, and gets better with practice. The trick is to know what you want in the finished product and to plan and execute accordingly. That in itself cuts down on the number of shots binned, is not to say avoid experimentation, which would be self defeating. Madness, as defined by Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
The whole essence of light trails is capturing movement on a still image. Light trails are vibrant, high contrast, busy blurs, they have a rhythm and a tempo not associated with say, a corporate style headshot, a formal portrait or, I hope, obviously, their antithesis, a still life. There is a single theme that links the whole gamut of photographs you can take, indeed every photography ever taken and that will be ever taken. Composition. If you want to make and take more keepers you need to practise your composition. You don’t have to wait to happen across a dramatic scene to do so, indeed it could be argued that that is the moment you most need your composition skills, you practice with anything to hand. The key is to move, just as I should have moved taking the boomerang picture. Maybe then I would have made a keeper, not a binner.
Off to Weston we went, aka “Super-Mud”, last meeting and though the skies were lowering the turnout was pretty good and a good time was had by everyone I talked to. What more can you ask for? Well it was Weston Bike Night, organised by the Royal British Legion Riders Branch, and runs every Thursday from May to September. So I hopped on my motorbike and made my quid (£1) donation to the RBL to park on the Marine Parade Lawn and wandered round with my camera, before meeting up with the rest of the club on the beach by the Grand Pier. They had, it turned out, been taking pictures of a convict making his way up the beach, with the express purpose of compositing them into a single photo in post production (Photoshop, Gimp). If you look back through this year’s competition galleries you will get the idea of who and what sort of thing. The sun also made a show right at the end of the day and we were presented with a salmon pink sunset against the grey of the clouds as a finale. Not too shabby.
It is often said, not least by me, that in photography, painting with light, the light is everything. So far so obvious. What we are really saying is that the contrast in any given light situation is everything, as the same subject in different lighting gets a different reaction from its viewer. We are not just talking of low light here, where we have options within the exposure triangle, and in the way the camera works in other ways, but, when the weather is as it was on Weston’s beach and the contrast is low, the temptation is to save it for another day, but we can be missing opportunities. Contrast is what determines how “flat” the light in your image looks. Possibly, most logically, we can see this in monochrome images, but it most definitely applies to colour ones too.
Essentially, contrast comes in two flavours. Thinking of the black and white image and we can imagine the more obvious of these expressed as a tonal range, which we have touched on before. The tonal range is that between (theoretical) absolute black to (theoretical) absolute white which we would affect in post production editing programmes through levels and curves. The second flavour is colour contrast which is about the predominance of a colour in relation to the colours around it.
When we are producing black and white photographs we are really talking producing images constructed of the shades of grey (no tittering at the back). Soft images record little range in those shades, it is all middle and very little of the absolute ends, whereas hard looks stark because we have a band of hard blacks and a band of hard whites and very little in the middle. This is not the same as low key (mostly darker shades of grey surrounded by blacks) and high key images (mostly lighter shades of grey surrounded by whites). The emotional tone that low key images give out tends towards the sombre whereas high keys have a lighter mood, but tonal contrast isn’t just limited to black and white.
Colour, as we have explored before, tends to overwhelm tone when provoking emotion in a viewer, but good tone is a major element in the construction of a colour image too. Because there is more variation in colour, more information to play with, then the possible outcomes are multiplied accordingly. Broadly the more saturated a colour is in relation to the others in the image and relative to its position on the colour wheel. The degree of saturation is also important to colour contrast and that can be affected by exposure (try bracketing a couple of shots by two thirds of a shot and look at them in comparison, warmth, feel/mood can be subtly or not so subtly effected.
Meanwhile, back on the beach at Super-Mud, we are faced with some impressive cloudscapes that are throttling the contrast out of our seascapes, aided and abetted by a distant haze shrouding the South Wales coast. Looking on the (not too) bright side we are not trying to photograph either a black cat in a coal hole or a polar bear in the Arctic). Those both represent zero contrast situations. Give up go home, assuming you survive contact with said cat and/or polar bear. As we are in neither we can do something about our rather dull scene (other than retreat to the pub). All the rules of composition still apply but we are not bereft of options. The exposure triangle was mentioned above and in pushing two of the elements in that, aperture and shutter speed, we could just make a keeper.
Exposure Value Compensation it’s called and it’s that button that allows you to adjust the average that your meter is measuring up or down, usually by up to two or three stops, depending upon what camera you are using. It does not matter whether you are in Shutter or Aperture Priority or shooting in manual (though this is a bit of overkill bearing in mind you already have control of aperture, shutter and ISO in manual mode, but it is possible to employ as another way of under or over exposing from the average). First meter as normal then apply +0.3 ev on the scale. Try again up to a stop, or in the extreme, up to 2 stops or more, basically adding dark. In manual you will possibly be moving in half stop intervals depending on the age of the lens, but most modern ones seem to move in thirds. The same basics apply. Shoot in RAW for the best post production options. What you will do here is affect the colour contrast. Yes the whole image will look progressively darker, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the Mini group trip to Weston, where there was a vivid orange sunset, this actually strengthened the composition by allowing the sky and certain reflections to be the focal points against an increasing rich, dark background. Essentially for this technique you are looking to set the narrowest practicable aperture matched with the highest shutter speed you can get a workable image in the light conditions.
Try it next week when we visit Portishead Marina. Dock Gates, 7 pm. See you there.
Temporarily peripatetic, the last meeting was a photo-shoot at the Clifton Suspension Bridge and a photo-shoot with a twist. And maybe a shout. Allison had arranged a little surprise in the form of the Filton Orphans Scooter Club, the weather co-operated gloriously and Mark S. lost a lens hood. Did anyone happen to pick one up? Well attended (despite the horrors of trying to find a parking space in Clifton of a sunny summer’s evening – two wheels do have their advantages) it looked to be a happy and productive couple of hours. Club thanks to Allison and to everyone who made the event possible. Next Thursday we meet at the Charlotte Street Car Park in BATH; that’s Bath NOT Queen Charlotte Street in Bristol. 7:30, photo-walk. See you there.
So, I got to thinking (dangerous habit, don’t recommend it, certainly not without a crash helmet): as one who needs to improve, how can I take advantage of our temporarily homeless state? We have talked before about the role of structure (on the blog: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Photography) so maybe time I got my head in gear and choose an element to concentrate on at the Bath photo-walk.
So, no sooner than I decide on this noble quest than I come upon the first dilemma. Where to start? Taking the hobby a little more seriously and applying the ideas of critiquing one’s own work still leaves me with more than a few avenues to explore. Well, start with the glaringly obvious, even if that takes tea amounting to several pints in volume and two similar equipment failures in three days of the glad-I-am-doing-this-as-a-favour-not-as-a-business sort of thing, need to collide first. The equipment failures were both lights, and the second was more serious than the first because that shoot cannot be done again for various reasons.
The first was a simple blown bulb when I was showing a friend of mine – after lugging the table top stuff, camera and tripod on the motorbike a hundred miles to do so with the added bonus of a nail through the virtually new rear tyre and a non repairable puncture – the possibilities of recording the techniques he uses to build models. He might also sell them as they are taking up a fair bit of space. No worries, I packed a spare, like a good boy scout. No, I packed an empty box, like an idiot. Back to a one light strategy and a couple of other adjustments. Got the point across and made the point of taking my trusty compact camera just to prove you don’t need an expensive DSLR to do this. Result is he is now building a combined spray booth and light tent apparatus.
The second was taking some shots of another hobby group at a location I have been to once previously and which has a black floor and a black backdrop. Two (cheap and cheerful) flash guns on simple remote triggers to balance out the over head lights, which make the shadows quite heavy (even with a reflector) under the eyes so two guns make life a lot easier. Relatively straight forward. Eventually get the balance about right when one of the flash guns goes ffft. Change batteries from the third flash gun no result. Change to third flash gun which decides, after several previous occasions of faultless performance, that it doesn’t want to play with the triggers tonight (this was actually at 02:30 am, not my peak time for tolerance of uncooperative mechanicals). Hey ho. One light, get the light closer, reduced power point at the floor seems to do the trick but have to under expose to keep some of the detail (which is actually important detail for these shots). OK switch to RAW (yes I usually shoot JEPG). Check with chap who is doing the post processing which I don’t have time to get involved with. Not sure that his editing programme will handle the Sony version of RAW as it is a tried and trusted copy of a programme (i.e. somewhat old) and that is a problem I have encountered before. JPEG it is then, but contrast, brightness an curves seem to render things OK (I checked on a couple when I eventually got home).
So as a photographer we either point and shoot and get disappointed or we make adjustments more to our tastes (and possibly still remain dissatisfied, though probably less so). There is a lesson here for yours truly to absorb (along with stupendous amounts of tea). The basics are common (come on Ian you are not far off a conclusion here) so, concentrate on the true basics. How do we do that? Well ….. shoot manual? That is how I learned on an Exa Thagee my dad bought very second hand circa 1971 (with a 50mm and 135mm lens) using 80 ASA print and then 25 ASA slide film (ASA = ISO to the uninitiated). You could even do macro on it by loosening the retaining screws on the 135 and sliding the assembly out a little (do not try this on a modern lens or you will likely find yourself with a modern lens kit where your pride and joy used to be).
Manual mode forces the issue. You have to think of the composite elements of your photograph. You can go fully manual and switch the autofocus off, but I am not sure that helps other than in situations where the system is overwhelmed or, more usually, underwhelmed. Either way not whelmed. With manual mode your starting point can be exposing primarily for highlights, or mid-tones or shadows. Doing so is an invitation to think more intently about metering and explore the metering modes. These are the sort of things that mean you can become more consistent in the way you get your results. This then helps with the times when the conditions aren’t ideal or otherwise exceptional. You have a known and measure starting point from which to make your adjustments.
I normally shoot Aperture Priority because of the depth of field control it facilitates with relative little faffing about. I shoot AP almost exclusively, but now out of habit rather than conviction. So changing that is relatively easy, fundamental and a good learning opportunity. It also concentrates attention, if I am not mindful, on the camera body not the image. The image is what I am after, not the camera body, so we are back to square one pretty quickly if an actual picture element isn’t what I am trying to capture in manual mode. That for me is what separates someone on the way to becoming a photographer from someone with all the gear and no idea. You are attempting to achieve a “good” image, not a “good” camera. It’s the fan-boy thing (and let’s face it kit obsession is a very male trait) getting in the way of the job.
Another decision, another prodigious amount of tea, then. Well yes, but only because I like tea. After a couple of minutes going through the options the thing that grabs me strongest, actually the first thing I think of but give the rest a go in order to try and dismiss it, is contrast. Not just the difference of light and dark, but (possibly) of tones, textures, situations. What, exactly, I dare say I shall find out on the photo-walk, next Thursday. Charlotte Street Car Park, Bath. 7:30 pm. See you there.
IN THE NEWS (again)
The world of stock photography takes another turn with the launch of an app by Dreams Time that encourages people to share their “In the moment” images (3mb and above) according to this article in Amateur Photographer. It offers both further opportunity for new and existing entrants to the market but also accelerates the destruction of the existing market. Whether this is an act of “Creative Destruction” remains to be seen but it will almost certainly make getting a foot in the market that much more chaotic if not actually more difficult. Dreams Time claims 8 million users, so the supply side is taken care of but careful curation is still a service to the industry (and a revenue opportunity). Timely then, that the latest Photoshop Express development that brings RAW, among other things to the free version of the photo editing programme and is available for iOS and Android.
Well, elections over all-bar-the-shouting, which is going to increase as we approach the end of Westminster’s first fixed term Parliament, and the use of the school as a polling station, Dan Ellis had us meet at the Dovecote in Long Ashton for a trail around Ashton Court. We are, in the nature calendar, between the bluebells and the lavender. It may have been the weather but there were more stay at homes than usual and that got me thinking about its effect on how and when and where we take photographs.
We always have the weather. It’s an environmental thing, no matter where you are you cannot but help taking the weather with you. There’s a song about that. In Britain the weather is always a topic of conversation – we generally have less extremes of it than other places and “Four Seasons In One Day” is not unknown (there’s a song about that too). One way to see it is as a regulator of activity: It’s too hot/cold/dry/wet , though others have it worse. There are two ways of looking at it – as a brake or an accelerator.
Of course there an infinite number of ways that the weather can effect a photograph, not least when it is its subject. At Ashton Court we had rain and sun together, which usually result in rainbows and one arced over Bristol, though was quite unusual from the perspective available in the car park of the Dovecote as the full Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet spectrum were visible, though that may not have transferred to all camera sensors. This was offset against a dark grey sky. Contrast! The clouds were quite low and at one point the prospect of Dundry hill was flooded in evening light framed through the trees of the park. The sun filtered through gaps in the low rain clouds picked out the flowers in the meadow, but eventually the clouds won out and the light went flat. The degree of contrast presented by the available light was diminished to the point that any shot of the landscape was not going to yield anything useable. I am sure more than one of us became covetous of the lighting rigs of the period costume drama that was being filmed at the house (This coming Thursday it’s the turn of the Antiques Road Show).
Nature doesn’t always co-operate. If it is the broad sweep of the meadows in front of the mansion you want come back during the golden hour to give the best chances – the Photographer’s Ephemeris for the regular, or you can look it up with a little more effort using Google Maps and the relevant tables. But the photograph is in the detail, it is as much about what is excluded as is included, it’s about looking for pattern and detail. And of course, in a flat(ish) light the easiest way to maximise contrast is to swap to black and white, or shoot for black and white and de-saturate in post processing. It doesn’t work for all photographs. There still has to be something to contrast. Black and white works best when there is a plenty of texture and tone in a scene. The easiest way to affect tonal separation is through curves in an editing programme, meaning affecting adjacent areas of black, white through shades of gray, but you can’t put in what isn’t there in the first place. You can do a similar thing with levels. You can see the difference between them here and though specific to Photoshop the principles are the same.
Flash maybe the first thing that comes to mind, direct, bounce, diffused, but we don’t always have the benefit of a separate flash for reasons of economy or space. There are reasons for not using the onboard flash, not least because it can look very harsh. There seems to be a lot of advice that says turn up the ISO and forget the flash, but turning up the ISO doesn’t do anything for the overall level of contrast in a scene. Power is a limiting factor, built in flash isn’t usually that flexible or that powerful for reasons of size and design. This just puts the same sort of limit a fixed focal length lens. You have to move the camera and given the relative under powered nature of built in units that means getting in close. Anything over about 10-12 feet then it might be a case of having to turn up the ISO to get the image, again depending upon the power of the unit.
Some of the harshness innate with a direct fire flash can be avoided by using slow synch flash. Flash photography freezes the image, but with slow synch, the slow referring to the shutter speed used, the extended shutter speed can cause the background to blur whilst still remaining lit and sharp because of the freezing effect flash. Smaller apertures are possible allowing greater sharpness in the final image. Then there is front curtain and rear curtain synch. Rear curtain sync tends to give a faint image trail and a sharp main subject. Front curtain sync illuminates the main subject. All these things get better with practice of course. Still need to look for the detail, to get up close, it is, as all the speakers we have had this season have emphasised, about the selection of detail.
Because the flash head is fixed doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to model the light from it. Various solutions can be purchased but DIY can be just as effective – and cheaper! Not that most bought solutions are that expensive. Masking tape, pre-cut white card and black card, handkerchief or paper napkin, Styrofoam cup can all be pressed into use. There may be a need to use exposure compensation because of the increased distance the light has to travel or the translucence of the materials used if the camera does not meter automatically, or it can be dialled in using the ISO settings. And, of course, there is fill in flash, which can be used to highlight your subject against the background of ambient light.
So, if the weather is keeping you in, think again.