There comes a time when, like our speaker Ann Cook FRPS FRGS MBFP FBPPA, on a welcome return to Reflex, you have a considerable amount of work to reflect on. OK there is a considerable chance that yours won’t cover the extensive geography that Ann has been able to cover, but as that old Honda advert used to make the point about, to someone, your life is exotic.
What are the stories you can assemble from that work? In the term of the story, the narrative, we are often told – and it has been asserted here too – that a photograph can only tell one story or it becomes confused. That is the perspective of us as photographers, the makers of this story/image/narrative. From the point of the viewer we make our own story, of what lead to this, what this is and what happened next. As humans we are hard wired for stories, we make narratives if detailed ones aren’t provided to us and we will meld and fold the one’s we are given into new ones of our own. The stories are not necessarily complete, nor do they have to be.
The photograph is, in this instance, a pointer, a way post, but the destination is one of our own making and each and every one of us has a slightly different destination prompted into mind. That’s quite a lot from what is, essentially a subject, a fall of light and a background. Ann made a lot of taking the opportunities presented to us – those that fall to the prepared. As she said, again a recurring theme in the blog, you make your own luck. Ann illustrated that being shepherded on a bus, as long as you are sitting next to the window to control boarders (what’s in frame) and reflection, is no barrier to getting stunning vistas that go on to sell. Being aware and being prepared gives us a far better chance of being successful.
Even so, we still need an empathy with our subject (the imaginative assigning to an object feelings or attitudes present in oneself – being as one with, a part of, the atmosphere of what we are photographing). This because not everything that drives the narrative in a photograph is visual. We often hear talk of “Connection” and that, more often than not, is driven by composition. Back to that old thing again, for sure, however, the arrangements of objects within a frame is a very powerful driver of viewer connection with a photograph.
Lines, for instance, have different emotional qualities (at least in art theory), depending on their shape and direction. So: converge parallel lines to create a vanishing point (a concept that has been around since the Renaissance) to create depth and perspective; diagonals are dynamic, suggestive of movement and change; horizontals give a composition a sense of quiet and peace; vertical lines feel powerful, solid, permanent; straight lines feel formal, deliberate, man-made; curved lines, especially an S-shape, feel casual and add sophistication, nature, grace. Shape, similarly, has a profound impact on the feel and connection of an image, as does the use of space.
These are all tools, and there are many more and they are there for learning and there for using even there for ignoring but the thing these three attitudes have in common is deliberation. Being deliberate about the way we frame and organise objects for impact on our viewers. The fact is that to photograph that thing in our minds eye we need to become fixed on the essence of the thing we are looking at and then become a problem solver, just like Ann’s bus problem, which gives a different prospective on Kappa’s assertion that if it’s not good enough it’s because we aren’t close enough (in this case to a window to prevent reflections and stray elbows).
These last two paragraphs may look like separate and only vaguely related points, but they are not. In order to visualise those concepts of line, shape and space we have to be looking for them. Ann’s two pictures from Angkor Wat, one of the temples and one of the crowd that had gathered to look at the temples, were taken from different angles but from the same spot. One is quite serene the other very crowded and busy. They each have a different tempo. The one has a diagonal line of the rising sun behind the black mass of the unlit temple, the transition between night and day. The other, a huddle following the natural curve of the shore line several rows deep feels much more energised. The lines of people become a shape of its own. To get the crowd picture Ann had to wait for the crowds to thin, to keep the impression of the press of humanity but also to make it something that the eye can relate to. Incidental or otherwise the fact is the contrast between the two photographs made for a tension that one without the other simply did not have. OK the crowd scene was never going to be anything other than a throw away line, but it told a truth that the sunrise picture did not.
Ann had us look and decide which versions we preferred on many of the images she presented between a colour version and a black and white. The black and whites seemed to take on more from the interaction of shapes and of course there was a fair split in preferences. Basically the advice in these digital days is shoot in colour and process suitable images to black and white. The choice is a lot easier if we start with the idea that what we have is a black and white photograph. The conventional technical wisdom is shoot in colour and process in black and white, but in order to bring these two things together it is useful to know what are the effects of choosing monochrome.
Black and white is a bit of a misnomer as what we are truly looking at is pretty much everything in between. Absolute black is one end of the theoretical scale and absolute white its opposite. We render the images through the tonal contrast that colour produces when converted to shades of grey. There are a lot more than 50. You can desaturate your colour image and adjust the contrast accordingly, you can play with colour channels (subtle rather than huge effects usually) or you can go through the camera’s black and white options, they pretty much all have them, but they will all be jpeg. Some may be DNG or TIFF files, but that is a function of your camera. There is the HER route, or the filter routes that you can apply through apps like Snap seed, photofunia, funny.pho.to/ etc etc. Above all monochrome tends to make more of shape and line by taking information out about colour, but as with everything else it is a matter of personal taste. Black and white will not overcome bad composition or lighting.
So, a lot to think about, Ann Cook, thank you for another interesting and stimulating evening.
Anne Cook made a welcome return to Reflex with another illuminating talk that was, let’s face it, fun. We can’t always locate the terms guest speaker and fun in the same sentence and whether we learn anything apart from the hardness of chairs that children are subjected to in modern day education (chairs, damn it, the cold hard floor was what we got, etc etc) is not necessarily a topic we need to travel to club to speculate on. The feedback from members was particularly effusive which is always a good sign.
Ann showed, amongst many other fine examples some images taken at carnival, which is particularly apposite to this time of year as we are coming to the end of the Somerset season. The last one on the Somerset circuit is at Wells this coming Friday (18th November 19:00 get there early). Having attended the Burnham-On-Sea round this year I can definitely affirm that it is something well worth making the time and effort, if you can get there.
So we are going to look at taking photo’s of street processions at night. The most obvious thing is that we are talking of photographing very high contrast scenes, that are moving, admittedly slowly, that can look distinctly two dimensional as brilliant point of light swim through a sea of black, which generally require high ISO’s to get reasonable shutter speeds and some interesting metering challenges.
There will be the large floats, some a part of a two three or four articulated trailers, but there will also be smaller floats, hand carts and individuals decked out in lights, there will be groups and there will be all sorts of other wheeled and ambulatory traffic. Variety is not short at these affairs and the lights are the main attraction.
The basic answers to these conundrums is to crop tight, centre weight or spot meter and expose to the right.
Cropping tight means we are likely to even out the overall exposure in a reasonable amount of the frames we capture. We will still get areas of high contrast and some of them will still have totally blown out areas of white and areas of inky blackness, but there are a significant number where we can limit the dynamic range some. This can put more emphasis on the mid-tones but whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of taste and of colour.
Metering these days is a lot smarter than it was five years ago. Leaving our camera on matrix / evaluative (basically our cameras approximation of the whole frame) isn’t necessarily a disaster, modern algorithms are pretty good at drawing conclusions that prove to be reasonably “accurate” (they are accurate but that has to be measured against our expectations) but we are talking an average balanced somewhere between the highest and the lowest value. Most cameras have the opportunity to switch between two other modes that increasingly ignore larger parts of the scene.
This gives us more information about a smaller part of the scene that we have judged to be more important. How do we know that? Well we’ve pointed our camera at it and taken notice of what effect this has had on our suggested exposure triangle settings. This is either because the scales in our view finder for shutter/aperture or under or over exposure are indicating a problem or the scene in our EVF is too dark or too light. What the camera has done is taken all the zones programmed into it and set these against where we are focused to give the reading a final weighting. There are other considerations but these change form manufacturer to manufacturer and can incur consideration such as colour, highlights and so on – Nikon use a comparison data base of shots of similar light/shade characteristics. This is common to Evaluative and centre weighted modes.
More so than fancy names for “Taking-the-whole-frame-into-consideration”, centre weighted does what it says on the tin. It takes the information in the centre of the frame into account either severely downgrading or completely ignoring the information on the outside of the frame. It doesn’t, by and large take notice of the focal point, instead just giving it a general, centre balanced reading. By restricting the area taken into consideration, prominence is given to the area more likely to include the crux of the image. Good when the boarders contain light that is in strong contrast to the main subject and might otherwise have undue influence on the final decision.
Spot takes the central are only, around 2% of the frame, around the focus point. Everything else is ignored. Photographing wildlife or Super-moons (or just the plain old ordinary moon which in the carnival context is a lot more apposite) benefit from this. Taking the moon in particular, the difference is a blown out image using the evaluative or centre weighted options because the light reflected from the moon is many, many times stronger than that which might be bouncing around the rest of the atmosphere. The argument in the wildlife example stems from a similar situation, say in the question of a bird in flight where it will be darker than the sky it is set in, or for the variations between fur and the cover it is in or breaking from. A characters face in comparative dark to the lights of a float with, potentially, tens of light bulbs throwing a shadow, yields a similar situation. Our meter might read the scene but in ways only remotely related to the way we see it.
Exposing to the right in itself gives no clear clue as to what exactly it is we are talking about. It relates to the histogram (posh name for graph) that we find somewhere in our camera’s menus and which we can turn on so that it appears in our camera’s live view and or view finder (depending on make and model). Pretty much every camera has the facility including some, but certainly not all, compacts and is also referred to as ETTR, even in polite company. The way the histogram is set out the shadows are on the left and the highlights are to the right. We don’t want spikes at the extremes of the scale because that tells us we are producing images that are heavily under or over exposed. Fine, but only to a degree, if we are shooting high key or low key portraits or similar.
What we want, in an ideal world is for there to be a fairly even shaped curve in between the two extremes of the histogram. That gives us an image that is evenly exposed. Of course this depends on the lighting of the scene and in extremes we know that shadows are more recoverable than burnt out highlights (if it is truly burnt out there is no useable information there to recover). Therefore we expose deliberately for the highlights in the picture and recover the shadows in post using whatever editing programme we have access to.
Of course it is a matter of personal preference, some people are dead set against the idea of ETTR, personally I find it useful, especially when someone else is controlling the lighting. In the studio we have more options and it entirely depends upon the sort of image we want to craft. The argument evolves around the number of tones on show in the image. If we are shooting a 12 bit RAW image we have 4096 tones available across the range. Each f-stop in our range (remember our meters render an average for the scene) accounts for twice as many tones as the previous one as our f-number increases. The brightest part of the range in the image accounts for half of the available tones, the next stop about half of that again and so on. The whole calculation takes place within the dynamic range of the camera sensor and that again is dependent upon make and model.
What happens is that by exposing to the right stretches out the details to the left and the more that happens the less smooth the transition between the dark tones, and we risk compromising the quality of the picture. That is why we need to look at taking pictures of the carnival floats in the context of the other two considerations we talked about above because the more we operate towards the centre of the cameras dynamic abilities the more leeway we have to accommodate the extremes of light and dark.
Go and enjoy.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Kev Spiers and Rich Price on their return to Iceland.
Ann Cook FRPS was our speaker Thursday last and her reflections of over two decades as an accredited photographer at the Glastonbury Festival, entitled “Granny goes to Glastonbury”. Ann has a fine sense of humour as well as a sharp eye for the photogenic and both were exhibited to a good degree in what was an enjoyable evening. You can always tell when a speaker hits the spot with her audience with the buzz thereafter and thereafter there was quite a buzz.
Ann talked of what she regards an anthropological endeavour using what social scientists would call a longitudinal study, that is the study of human beings’ similarity to and differences from other animals that repeats observations over time, in this case 23 years. She is undecided about the 24th as she feels that there has been a disconnect between what it was and what it has become, a price, if you will, of its success. Or maybe when the Glastonbury Festival became Glasto. Whatever the decision, Ann has amassed a very interesting collection and just as importantly she has a tale to tell. If that sounds like ground we have touched on before then you would be right, but it is ground that, this week, we are going to look into a little deeper, highlighting some of the themes that Ann put across.
The picture is about the subject, not the photographer. Well it should be, sometimes I am not entirely sure as there comes a point when this gets forgotten, when the name attached to a photograph automatically lends it a credibility that otherwise might be lacking. Everyone takes poor frames once in a while, indeed probably most of the time, well no probably about it, just some people are better at not letting the poor ones see the light of day. You have to get through a lot of shots to get “The Shot” or as I like to call it: “The Principle of Frogs and Princes”. Sounds much better than “Glasto” anyway. So lesson one: The picture is in there somewhere, find it.
We have flogged composition pretty much to death over the last couple of months, but the rules of composition still apply. There are not just one set for portraits, though there are common rules, the differences between the corporate PR mug shot and the fine art portrait are quite profound based on perceptions of end use, just as the similarities are grounded in the same principles of connection and composition. All the portraits that Ann showed had a connection. Again there were two sorts of connection on show: The performer with their performance and the festival goers with the photographer. Again these are based on perceptions of difference. The performer may be performing with you but they do this by connecting with something elemental in themselves that they share with us the audience. It isn’t just visual, Ann commented several times on the quality of the voices, the Bassey’s, Williams’s, Winehouses’s, the Tony Bennett’s verses the rest. That individuality is pronounced and is what got the performers on stage in the first place, dare I say it, the X-factor. That factor is in everyone, sometimes it is because they are charismatic, sometimes because they seem “Odd”, sometimes it is forced upon them by circumstance (like the Glastonbury Mud, for instance), often it is an incongruity, I would call it the poetry. Ann’s pictures of festival goers reflected their own poetry. Lesson 2: Photograph the connection.
In Round 4 of the ROC judge Tony Byram was most insistent on the value of “Boarder Patrol” (what’s going on at the edge of the frame) and Ann certainly had her own answers to this. On stage of course there is very little choice and metering, to which we shall return, is difficult. Ann pointed out that you have to be aware of opportunities for backgrounds, as they tend to be clashing and messy and full of cables, generators and detritus and in the case of the performers, not necessarily a great deal of cooperation. She described the dilemma with the festival goers as slightly different. The choice of backgrounds is somewhat limited to the tents, skips, toilets, screens erected around the site. The dilemma comes in the shape of do you go looking for interesting characters to photograph and seize upon the nearest (hopefully close enough that you don’t lose your subject through navigation error or boredom) or as the Press who cover the Magistrates Courts call it, “Stalking”, or do you find your background and wait for your subject to come within range, or as the Press who cover the Criminal Courts call it “Sniping”.
Part of that is going to be kit related. As far as artists are concerned you are going to be shooting in low light most of the time and you are going to be shooting at very high ISO’s. Therefore the wider you go and (generally) the bigger the sensor in your camera (noise related issues tend to be lesser with larger sensors) and depth of field is going to be minimal compatible to the lens you are shooting with. Potentially expensive, for sure, the ideal being wide aperture and high ISO on a big (full frame) sensor. You are going to have to crop tight and post process. The festival goers question is really a matter of personal choice, both, in this case, are functions of your preparedness, the more prepared you are, the luckier you get. Again be prepared to crop tight either in or out of the camera. Lesson 3: “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted” N. Bonaparte.
Of course there is the question of who wants to be photographed. As part of the ticket purchase most people don’t realise that in the terms and conditions for Glastonbury they agree to also include distribution rights to photographs of them. Read the small print. Always read the small print. Ann could only recount two occasions in 23 years where people had said no, part of the festival spirit, I suppose. All in all a good thing, but Ann also related that that could well be part the way she goes about asking. She is not festooned in lenses, nor aggressive and possibly not being male has its advantages. So does age. And the accreditation as an event photographer. And experience. Photographing children? Always, ALWAYS get the parents/responsible adults permission first. Especially in these paranoid times. Don’t be pushy, always smile and do take no for an answer. Lesson 4: Play Nicely, it pays dividends.
Finally there are the technicalities. We have partially touched on these already, but especially in the matter of photographing performers on stage in poor light you give yourself, Ann reckons, two opportunities to come away with useable shots. The first is to meter for the face, as at Glastonbury in particular there is always a spotlight on the singers face at least, and secondly shoot in RAW to give yourself the most opportunities to make or recover an image in post processing. If you know what you are after, know your equipment then you have a good idea of what you will get. Lesson 5: Photograph. Criticise. Apply. Repeat.
So ended Ann’s excellent overview of “The Evolution of an anthropological, longitudinal study of the Genus Festival Go-er in their interpersonal and tribal settings within the 1,000 acres of the village of Pilton, Somerset, England and the application of lessons for photographers” – there is a reason she calls it “Granny goes to Glastonbury” after all. The current update of this study contains five conclusions: 1. Find the Picture. 2. Photograph the connection. 3. Be prepared. 4. Play nicely. 5. Practice, practice ,practice.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
Reminder: _ May’s Flickr competition GREEN!