The WCPF travelling critique was our last evening, and as ever there is something to be got out of sitting down and critically discussing the works of other photographers, especially if we then extend that to our own work. Some photographers get too caught up in the notions of developing a style or shooting a particular way thinking that their body of work will evolve through consistency alone.
That is like braking going uphill, sometimes it is necessary, but it involves a great deal of wasted energy. It is understandable though when the idea that photographic style is a filter we apply to an image. No this is not an anti-Instagram rant, and if that sounds like something we use to combat the symptoms of hay fever then now is an opportunity to catch up by clicking here.
But Instagram is a good place to start. Kevin Systrom, who was a co-founder of Instagram and who did very nicely, thank you, when it was sold to Facebook, had the idea seeded for the app when a Professor in Italy introduced him to the Holga camera, a cheap everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do sort of camera that produces very retro looking pictures on 120 roll film. But that quirkiness actually forms the basis of the Holga’s modern-day appeal and yes, you can get filters to modify your everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do to do Holga-esque images, just make sure you are well braced when you do because the weight of the irony of that is going to hit your wallet pretty hard.
The fact is film had/has its own look. Each brand would have their own unique ways of capturing and processing the light. Just in slide film: Kodachrome went through several “looks” over its life; Fuji was noted for its blue tones; Agfa was something else again; ditto Scotch, the list goes on.
Then there are/were the options/limitations in printing. Papers, inks, chemicals, sizes, frames, viewing options and conditions all have an impact. What they cannot do, however, is cover for lousy composition. Poor lighting. Wrong exposure. Unengaged subject. Surely filters / looks / processes / post-production can lend atmosphere to an image but unless the style is “Never mind the quality feel the width” they are not going to do much for our artistic integrity.
What we are looking for is a quality of the imagination, showing our individuality by drawing with light (Greek: photo – light graphy from graphe making lines or as we would call it, drawing). Style in the literary sense is about how the tools of language, clauses, spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like are put together to make an impression on the reader. We use light and shadow, directionality, the tools of composition and a photosensitive surface capable of recording the fall of light and dark on a subject in the same way. We fashion a statement on a subject.
What other people are doing is a start, but it is only a start. Copying what others have done, making a re-interpretation of something that has gone before, making our own statement, is a great way to learn but it is a means to an end. However, it is not the reason we pick up the camera (at least before we disappear up our own dirt pipes like the voice over on any given perfume advert). Understanding the technicalities by replicating the image is a learning tool, not an end in itself.
That said there is a notion that we can move between taking snapshots to making photographs. In so doing we develop, through habit, a photographic style. Whether it is a conscious statement or not. Perhaps we keep making the same mistakes, is that a style? Broadly yes but it is the elimination of the incidental and replacing it with the deliberate that makes a difference. It is that interpretation that is the seedbed of the individual’s style. That is when we start bothering less about what everyone else is doing.
Defining our style is one thing. Refining it is something else. Technical skills matter, you have to be able to apply the rules before you can start breaking them successfully. Purpose is the key. And lots of lots of practice. Lots and lots and lots.
Longtime sufferers of this blog will know that the world is divided into two. The Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. I err towards the former, but that is a personal thing. The fact is we need skills in both, but that we are probably better at one than the other.
That said there is a lot of time effort and money to be spared in getting the thing you have in your head onto your computer file (that is what we are creating until the image is printed) in as close to finished form as we can in the place where most of the important elements and all the results of those irreparable decisions are made. The camera. Just don’t let it get in the way.
Having the camera and lighting skills gives us the option to manipulate what we see in the fashion we want it seen. Post-production then tidies up and polishes. That sequence is the one that lets our style evolve and show through. Is it the only way? I doubt it. Having the confidence in using the materials we have to hand to make our statement makes for a stronger more assured one. When the “rules” are broken it is to a deliberate effect. Style thus evolves through confidence.
John Cuff of Lee Filters was our speaker last meeting and our thanks to him for an entertaining and informative evening. Handmade Lee Filters are definitely at the higher end of the market but the money goes into precision raw materials and quality control. Now part of Panavision, probably best known to most of us as a credit for the lens makers on the closing credits of oh so many movies, Lee have been making filters for over 30 years. So this week I thought I would take the hint and we would look at camera sensors. No, only kidding, filters. Definitely filters.
Filters are essentially light modifiers, in that only certain wavelengths are allowed to meet the sensor or all wavelengths through darkening. We will come back to this shortly. Those of us long in the tooth who learned the basics of photography from film (not that you have to be that long in the tooth to have done that) will remember the 80A 80B and 80C or 3200K, 3400K and 3800K to daylight (5500K) colour correction filters. Then we had the 81 warming, 82 cooling and 85 tungsten to daylight series filters. Film, it should be remembered is a one off colour deal. There is no Auto White Balance on a film camera. There is a certain amount of dynamic range, but the colour balance is fixed. Colour filters with black and white effect how the greys are rendered, by and large. If you want to see the effect Google Picassa has a coloured filter on black and white option and it is free.
So, looking at the filters from the perspective of digital we are not looking at the colour balancing, that is done by the AWB or manual balance as we have already indicated. No need to pick the right coloured glass to screw on to your lens, you can dial in correction or you can let the camera do the work. Essentially we use the filters in a slightly more subtle way. Yes neutral density filters, polarisers and alike pre exist digital, but we are looking at the effects on digital and as light from the sun predates it by about 4.5 billion years and we have to take it as read, we are looking at the uses we can put these light manipulations to.
So let’s start with the Neutral Density filter, aka the ND, aka Stoppers. Simply put their job is reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Essentially we are manipulating the light before we start to process it through the camera via the Exposure Triangle. The uses of such a filter include effecting the depth of field when shooting with limited options of shutter speed, ISO and or aperture. Mainly it seems to be used for the slowing down of time to alter the relationship of something in continuous movement across or within a still frame. The much seen effect of milky flowing water or cloudscape comes from applying this sort of filter, it really is quite versatile when you have got your head around it. Graduated versions of the ND allow darkening parts of the frame that are very bright, such as sky lines, whilst allowing for the correct exposure of other section of the frame. With graduated filters the rate at which they darken, how hard the line is between unfiltered and filtered, varies and John showed us how sensor size has an effect on that and why Lee now have four designs to get the most out of the effect without making things too obvious.
The polariser is a popular filter with landscapers, but not exclusive to them, as they can increase colour saturation and decrease non metallic reflections. They are also significant because their effects, by and large, cannot be replicated in post. Their use also requires some forethought and getting the most out of them is a function of familiarity and practice. As with everything else that we use to modify the light its use and impact is best regulated to specific, desired effects. They work best when perpendicular to the sun and a popular way to work it out is known as the rule of thumb where you form a right angle with your thumb and index finger and point your thumb in the direction of the sun. The direction your index finger is pointing is optimal for the polarising effects, that is to say don’t have the sun directly in front or behind you. Of course the roles of index finger and thumb can be reversed but the principle remains the same.
Filters, then are about control. They can be used in subtle ways to control light variations in different parts of the an image or used to give a whole image effect. There are also effect filters to consider, such as those that give four or eight rays to a point of light (not currently made by Lee, I feel I should point out), or which render other distortions or patterns in an image. These can be replicated in post, of course, and these days their popularity seems to have waned. When Cokin first introduced their system filters into the UK nearly 40 years ago, the principle (only) medium was chemical/film based and it wasn’t unusual for a “Serious” photographer to be seen porting around half a dozen or more filters. Cokin changed the game with its system which was square when all the others on the market were round and its catalogue was famously 100 pages thick with examples of the filters in use and quite a work of art. They certainly shook the market up.
So our thanks to John Cuff and Lee filters for a very informative and enjoyable evening. Better start saving.
Member Adrian Cooke took us through some of his favourite landscape pictures last meeting and his presentation was well received by the members. We are now regularly fielding 40+ at each meeting and that has something, a lot, actually, to do with the programme. In the words of Butler and Yeats, “A good thing”. Active members mean a healthy club.
Adrian shoots a lot of landscape photography, he has a lot of it on his door step, nonetheless the fact that he showed us a wide variation of images of the same landscapes just goes to prove that no two images are ever the same, even when the subject is identical (Maybe). Adrian showed some scanned slide film images among the purely digital images and the colours were quite different in comparison. Now there are a whole lot of technical issues in scanning slides to digital, and the image sensor may not have the same dynamic range as the (negative) film, and just how much information you can get on film as opposed to a modern sensor, the way that each respective medium records light, standardisation of results, and a swathe of other pros and cons constantly rumble around like a number of other technical questions that seem to get in the way of people making pictures. None of those, and all of them, are my point. It is refreshing to sit back and rediscover some of the features that many people now can’t appreciate because they have never been exposed to the processes nor the outcomes. Sometimes I suspect that the memory of those images is superior to their physical reality. One day I will go for a rummage in the attic to find out. These technicalities were hurdles and barriers to entry, the number of photographs taken was exponentially smaller, but the role of mastery has not changed. Just the size, number and relative cost of the spanners it takes to make even a poor image.
Not that Adrian’s images suffered in the quality category, familiarity and technique were in evidence aplenty. Perhaps the most consistent point to come across was the importance of the focal point. There are a number of ways to promote the (usually single) focal point. With landscapes it is generally held that greater depth of field is desirable but, nonetheless the question still remains what is the focal point and where in the frame am I going to put it. Yep we are back to the thirds, fifths, sevenths and “Golden ratio” , so I will move on. The f-stop isn’t the only way of highlighting the focal point. Careful use of, or observation of, contrast and shapes will also do it, as, of course making it the largest thing in the picture (OK, obvious, but worth mentioning). It also helps with not providing too many points for the eye to rest on, and thereby confusing things, and that is less likely to happen if there are fewer places to fill them with.
The eyes journey around the image is important. The photographer creates that journey and the elements within it make up the story. As was stated at the judging of the last round of the ROC, for a photograph to really make an impact it really should be telling one story and one story only. As Adrian implied, these images don’t just happen they are created. Another feature of Adrian’s photographs were the role that lines play in the journey we make around each image through the use of horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines in making patterns to give impressions of depth and scale or leading to the focal point.
Timing is also important. Adrian related how he tended to shoot towards sunset, though there were a good few early mornings represented in his presentation. This is the period of the “Golden Hour“, where the light has a different quality to that of the rest of the day and for which The Photographers Ephemaris is a great tool. Almost by implication this brings in the idea of longer exposures, which have effects of their own, pretty much demand the use of a tripod, for lower ISO settings tend to give better results with less noise but increase the problems surrounding camera shake. Almost counter intuitively this allows for the capture in motion, especially of water and clouds. Adrian discussed using ND filters to cut down the light and ND grads to help even out the exposure (back to dynamic range again – the range of lighting that a sensor or film can represent. Of course it helps when you don’t confuse your Infra Red Filter for your big stopper ND filter as I did on Sunday (apologies to Dan Ellis who I leant it to) but then there is something there about labelling things. Or in this case not loosing your filters. Maybe I should take note. Also Dan discussed the use of a polarising filter (and when to use one) and certainly this can have a quite dramatic effect on skies and cut down on reflections when the light comes in from the side. And of course not just limited to landscape.
Adrian’s presentation provided a thoughtful and thought provoking refresher on landscape photography, and the club thanks him for his time and effort. Next meeting we have a speaker, who will talk about editing and take us through the process using some pictures from the club. Marko Nurminem has worked at the “Very high end” in editing images, including for previous speaker Damien Lovegrove. See the link RCC EVENTS Feb_05_15 Marko Nurminen_No_Images for more information.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
A reminder from Dan Ellis about the Ask The Club session. Get your questions in by 12th February, either via FB or the forms you can get from the table where the register is kept on club nights.