It’s all about the light. Not sure how many times I have written that here but it is but a small fraction of the times that I have read it everywhere else. It is also right and not quite all. It does assume that the thing you have taken the time and effort to point your camera at has a semblance of interest to someone else and that the tools of composition have been suitably employed or ignored-to-particular-effect to create something for the light to fall on, isolate, enhance and otherwise make your efforts worthy.
Our next session is light painting, which is always very well attended and makes the light more obvious by reducing the size, direction, angle, distance, shape and colour. These are the six things that we need to control in order to be in command of the result of the single most important element in making an image. Please making, because there is a point to be made that the camera takes the image we make. Viewed from there you can see why a little deeper understanding of light might be useful as we have identified it as the most important element.
OK so light without shadow is nothing and we could equally be talking about controlling shadow, in fact that is a useful starting point in itself. It is probably this fact that makes the number one accessory to buy when launching out on this path of painting with light to go with your bright and shiny new camera and lens combination is a five-in-one reflector, though there are pros and cons in using it which need to be mastered.
So there are a number of general rules that apply that are useful to carry around in your head, or written down in a note book – what do you mean you don’t carry a notebook? How are you going to keep a record of what works and what doesn’t; or things to try at a later date; or quick calculations of the effects of filters on shutter/aperture? – more importantly to use. So let’s use this blog to investigate the position of the light relative to the camera – just to give that notebook a nudge.
Think of a clock face with our camera at 6 and our subject in the centre where the hands (yes it’s analogue) meet. The light positioned anywhere between 10 and 2 o’clock is going to produce a silhouette and a light coming from behind the subject we would normally treat as a secondary light. We always have to add a source of light, called a fill light because it fills the shadow in, and that can be either a reflector or a flash or a continuous light source. This fill light usually comes from anywhere between 4 and 8 on our imaginary Rolex. Creatively a light coming from behind can help create a halo that separates our subject from a dark background but we always have to be careful to light the subject sufficiently. Spot metering can help give you an accurate reading (a separate light meter also has its uses and if we intend to do a lot of studio work or outdoor portraiture, then definitely worth putting on the equipment list, especially if working with flash).
When we position the light source(s) directly from the sides, 3 or 9 o’clock, we get a very dramatic effect characterised by extreme contrast. Unless there is a fill light/reflector on the other side of the subject, the camera will record the subject as being lit on one side with a dark shadow on the opposite. This can be good if you want to create a headshot with a hint of secrecy or ambiguity, less so if you want to convey glamour or a full engagement with the subject.
When shooting with light between 4 and 8 o’clock, I’ll come back to 6 o’clock – the camera position – in a moment, this means that the light is coming straight over your shoulders . This has a tendency to produce a flat light lacking significant shadow. Images with flat light often feel like they lack depth and never quite seem to be as we remember the scene being or intended. Basically light and shadow often require further manipulation using diffusers, scrims or in-fills.
The six o’clock position is where the camera is and light is at its flattest. That’s why so many on camera/inbuilt flash photographs look so unflattering. Either side of the camera, shadows are created, and shape/texture become more obvious. The width of the shadows increases as the direction of the light moves from the camera towards the side, which is why we see so many lighting set ups set between 4 and 5 o’clock or 7 and 8 – basically 45° to the camera. As a start or a go to you can’t really do better, especially if working out what is going to work best or working a number of angles.
And talking of angles, there are three basic ones between camera and subject, two of which are frequently ignored: that is low, eye level and high angles. By far the most photographs are taken from the eye level, which is fine but there are opportunities to mix things up a bit and which will alter the balance of light and shadow too. Easy opportunities not always taken.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Bring your cameras and tripods – 3D light painting
Life Begins at 40 ….. the Title was disingenuous in that our presentation last meeting was a delightfully in character tour of the 1940’s by Carol and Bob Burton.
Having celebrated the fact that we had our first AV show for a fairly long time last week we get a second. This, split into 14 parts, really did site how it needs to be done in order to keep an audience’s attention. Presented in period dress by the husband and wife team this bumped along at a pleasant pace, was informative and varied. It used a mixture of contemporary images as well as modern images taken by Bob and Carol at the in vogue 1940’s events around the country
As regular attendees of these sort of events, and photographers too, Bob and Carol manage to merge two interests. We all have our favourite things to do and the discipline of making an audio visual presentation – whether it sees the light of day in public or not – is a good way of improving our photographic skills. This is because it forces us to think in terms of sequence and logic and to look at the images in a more critical way. It also, if we set out to make an AV in the first instance, rather than make one of what we have, effects what we look for. It’s because we have a purpose and that purpose affects the way we look at things. We have a story in mind, not that that should blind us to serendipity when something else presents itself, and that we can use to discipline what we look for.
So this week’s potter will be around event photography, in a very broad sense. This is because what people determine as an “Event” covers a wide range of situations, numbers, ambience, lighting, venues and purpose. At the bigger events or at corporate ones then there may well be official photographers and videographers; at hobbyist and life style events the atmosphere may well be very different, more relaxed. Regardless the key to success is having an idea of what you want and the likelihood of getting that is dependent on knowing what is going to go on. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography. Not a cast iron guarantee, it won’t cover a skills deficit, that can only be addressed through, first and foremost, recognising the deficit, then determining to do something about it and finally doing something about it. Repeatedly. Having mentioned serendipity it’s well worth repeating that you make your own luck by being prepared for it.
Yes wedding photography comes under Event photography, but that will be covered on another evening of this year’s programme, so won’t be covered here (and we have visited it before). The sort of event that amateur photographers are likely to attend are less the corporate and art gallery affairs, more festivals, fetes and fun fairs, when we take the wider view. Bob and Carol use of a blend of contemporary and their own photography worked because they didn’t attempt to pass off their own as period. Their use of the modern was to augment the contemporary, but it paid off that they were prepared to go the extra mile to get the shots they need by varying the angles and cropping tight.
Outdoors it’s usually a case of matching your white balance symbol to the cloud cover or switching to auto white balance (AWB). Indoors it can be different. My own experience of the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), for instance, has been one of mixed lighting: 2400K tungsten mixed with 5500K daylight and for some reason never being quite consistent between two successive shots unless taken from the same position and facing in the same direction. That means that shooting in RAW is probably your best bet (unless doing Photojournalism for Reuters where, from this last week, only JPEG direct from camera will do) so that colour casts can be easily corrected. There is also more detail that is recoverable too. I also find that using auto ISO helps when the lighting isn’t even or when flash is banned or inappropriate.
Some people will, of course, never be persuaded that anything other than full manual is ever to be countenanced, but you have to be pretty quick and very confident of your camera controls to make that work effectively. Also it is pretty perverse having all that automation, paying sometimes very large sums for that automation, and not using it. The trick is not to let it dictate to you what you can and cannot shoot, but to know its limitations, practice with those limitations. There is a corollary to this that pays dividends and that is knowing what is there to shoot and under what conditions. A weather eye at outdoor events is a valuable piece of intelligence. Being prepared to shoot everything from dawn till dusk is greatly helped by having advanced knowledge of times and attractions. Then it is, as we mentioned above, a question of an eye for detail, an eye for shots developing, good reactions to shots that are there already, getting in tight on details, showing things in relation to others in broad panoramas and everything else in between – and, of course, try to tell a story.
Lenses are a matter of what you have not what would be ideal, then all lens choices are. Fast primes where wide apertures mean faster shutter speed are all very well – if you have a fast prime lens. Then it’s all very different if you are getting paid for it. Comes back to the old adages that the best camera gear in the world is what you have on you at the time and you can never have too many batteries and memory cards.
Perhaps the best lesson that Bob and Carol had to show on this topic was that you need to keep your wits about you and your eyes open to the unusual or the candid. These sort of things have many of the elements of street photography about them, to all intents and purposes shooting at themed events such as the 1940’s festivals are a version of street, the big difference being you are less likely to get people not wanting their photograph taken. After all if they have taken the effort to dress up, sometimes very elaborately, then they are going to be happy to show it off for a camera. Don’t take anything for granted, though, play nicely, be social, it pays dividends.
So, a lively and engaging presentation that was made seamless through the application of skills, knowledge and confidence of its deliverers who are passionate about their subject and who have honed that passion and those skills into a package that has a broad appeal. That sounds like a plan to me. Yes the appeal is not going to be universal, but if you try and please all of the people all of the time you end up pleasing no one.
N E X T W E E K
How to size and profile images for competitions. A practical evening.
Two away days to cover as last weeks scheduled blog got displaced. Hopefully back on track now. An unexpected opportunity to tour a Tannery courtesy of member Nick Hale replaced our scheduled Millennium Square trip the week before last and a trip to Blaise Hamlet last week both threw up some tricky light conditions, namely the lack of it and flat light with low contrast. The Thomas Ware & Sons Tannery was formed 175 years ago. The process and buildings are fantastic material and I look forward to seeing members images after the summer’s road trips. Thanks Nick, that was a fascinating evening and all the members were suitably impressed, I thought. Blaise Hamlet was built to house the workers who serviced the John Nash designed main house of the Blaise Castle Estate when they retired. John Harford bought the estate land in 1795 for £13,000 (a bargain £1.2m in today’s coin, using the Retail Price Index, but the average wage in 1795 was circa £20 per anum, in 2014 £25,000 – Source EH.Net ) The castle itself was a folly built as part of the evolving grand design of the estate.
The sun was hidden by a uniform blanket of rain-threatening cloud for both events, which was a pity, as the plentiful sky lights and doorways held the promise of some photogenic lighting in the tannery and the warm coloured stone of the main house and the intertwining of nature and construction to be found at the Blaise cottages (cue debate on the use of buildings to reinforce social order) offer a lot of subtleties that contrasting light brings to the fore. So, if photography is about light, and it is all about light physically, what do we do in the absence or limitation of it? The obvious answer to this is to provide our own, but this is not always feasible, so this week we are going to look at shooting in low light situations, what can and what cannot be reasonably achieved and the costs of doing so in terms of quality. We shall be looking more closely at ISO, the more mysterious member of the Exposure Triangle.
The options on camera are, basically, open the aperture, select a lower shutter speed, or select a higher ISO. The other useful option is to use additional, artificial lighting, either constant light or flash/strobe. A tripod can help with longer exposures. The two other options that spring to mind are focus on details rather than panoramas or switch to black and white, but these are variations, though very useful ones (yes photography is about details and exclusion but we are talking about large buildings here remember and in general at the moment, not in particular). Then there is the pack-up-go-home option and its local variant, pack-up-go-home-come-back-another-day. But where’s the challenge in that and where the learning opportunities? Are you a photographer or a Sherpa?
ISO stands for the International Standards Organisation, doesn’t just apply to cameras, it does exactly what it says on the tin, publish standards for a huge variety of items, systems and products. One of them covered film “speed” or the way that film reacted to light, more specifically, the sensitivity of the crystals in the emulsion applied to the transparent film base react to light. The most widely used standard was the American Standards Association (ASA now known as ANSI, the American National Standards Institute) and that was eventually adopted by the ISO (DIN or the Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. was used by Agfa among others and had a different numbering system) ISO was carried over to digital processors by the manufacturers, the familiar making sense when introducing a new way of doing something.
Of the three parts of the exposure triangle ISO is the one that acts directly on the sensor. The other two parts, aperture and shutter speed work by throttling the amount of light before it reaches the sensor. ISO directly plugs into the sensor to alter its sensitivity to the amount of light reaching it with its own particular characteristics. With aperture it is depth of field and with shutter speed it is motion blur. ISO can boost it. It can also cut it to a point. There is a constant where the sensor will provide the best quality image, usually around 100 ISO and a group of ISO numbers where very little difference is made by the sensor manipulating the light received, but gradually, as with faster film emulsions, there comes a point where the image will begin to noticeably deteriorate with the incursion of noise. Noise is a product of the signal moving around the sensor, and is a function of all electrical circuits. How much signal (desired data) there is and how much poor data there is in relation to it. As poor light produces more poor data (noise), and the chip amplifies that data to produce the image, the quality starts to deteriorate as artefacts generated by the process become more apparent. All sensors will have a certain amount of noise present at any ISO, it’s part of the mechanics of the sensor. The amount of noise as a proportion of the overall signal determines the reproductive quality of the image. When the light is good and the ISO is set at or close to the speed of the chip then the signal is strong and the noise is low but gradually this inverts the more boost is applied. When you amplify the signal you amplify the noise in the circuit, when the signal to noise ratio is good this doesn’t matter much, but noise will increase as you boost the signal and it will be an increasing amount of what is going on. Hence, well, noise at high ISO’s.
On the part of the photographer getting to know your cameras useable limitations – and it is a judgement thing rather than a given absolute – we have to judge how much noise we are prepared to put up with in an image. There are ways of limiting its effects in post production, also in camera with some models, but the pay-off is a softening of the image. Also do not forget the idea of an optimal viewing distance, as a rule of thumb 1.5 – 2 times the length of the diagonal of the viewing area (works for tv’s too) AND the minimum pixels per inch – calculated by dividing 3438 by the viewing distance). So that is pretty much it, without getting over my head in technical details. ISO and noise.
Tonight – Millennium Square. Meet under the big shiny ball at 19:00 hours (7 PM).