Kev and Rich talking about landscape photography was our last meeting, two of the clubs finest and most experienced landscapers. We all take landscapes, it is hard not to, apart from the obvious fact we live in them to a greater or lesser extent, but to get them just right requires planning, determination and patience. And practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.
What comes first though? You have to spot the picture. Not everyone sees the subject of a photograph in the tangle of the environment it inhabits. Certainly two photographers can look at the same thing, pick out the same subject and one will think the shot worth taking, the other not. Both are right, at least for them. There can be a lot of stuff going on and as with other forms of photography the first strategy is to tell one story in one picture. This means looking, critically, at what is in front of you. Yes, as often as not a landscape is taken with a wide angle as a telephoto lens, lens choice is not the point, it should be consequent to a decision about how to frame a picture you have in mind. You use whatever you think is necessary, but the absolute basis of landscape as any other form of photography is the composition. You have a frame made by the physical interaction of object, light, glass and sensor size. You control distance, angle, subject focus, depth of field, about the subject itself. You vary these elements to compose your image in the frame and ….. click.
Well, if only it were that simple and of course it is, but it is a lot more than about the mechanics. We are not after the best shutter sound, most satisfying zoom look and feel nor any of the other myriad electro-mechanical marvels that go into making a retrievable image. We are after the essence, the soul of what we have observed in the landscape. We want to ensnare what the poet John Keates observed simply because “A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.” It is the sweet dreams, health and quiet breathing that we are trying to capture. Indeed if there is a poem for landscape photographers then Endymion is it. Maybe all photographers.
Waxing lyrical aside, that which we can control in landscape photography is a good deal less than we can control in studio photography. Get up well before dawn, drive to the appointed place safe in the knowledge that the several weather forecasts we have consulted the day before assure us that it will be excellent weather. Trudge for half an hour in the dark: set up camera and tripod; find out that the weather forecasters got it wrong; employ colourful epithets around the possible uses of weather forecasters who can’t; pack up go home; come back tomorrow. Or at sunset. Or buy yourself a 720 nanometer infra red filter and make a day of it (or any other IR filter depending on the number of batteries you have with you and the length of the chapters of the book you are reading when taking 30 minute plus exposures with 900nm filters). Still, as Mr Keats put it: “That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;/They always must be with us …“. Or maybe not abandon the day? Maybe you should go and look for particular details of interest in themselves, who don’t need the context of the vista to make a story? It won’t be that story, but it will be a story, if only a different one. You could even do your own mini photo-marathon. Always pays to have a foul weather alternative at the very least.
If this is the case it really shouldn’t be by chance. The successful landscape expedition is always going to be at mercy of the weather. So are the unsuccessful ones, but the difference between the two is planning. You may not get what you thought you were going to get but you can get something and this is far more likely to happen if there is a plan in place and, as I always say, if you haven’t got a plan B you haven’t got a plan. As for luck, as we have visited and revisited in this blog, originally from a presentation by Kev and Rich on their first Iceland trip, you make your own.
That doesn’t mean that spontaneity should be crushed in pursuit of the single frame, though at least one speaker we have had over the last year said he tended to relentlessly pursue the single image he has in mind, then pack up and go home. Whereas I admire such tenacity I have to say, where’s the fun in that? There is a middle path here that certainly will yield results. Looking without seeing is the difference between the lay person and the artist, the bloke-with-a-camera from the photographer (regardless of gender). It isn’t about being a professional. A professional gets paid for it. Not all of it, but some of it, enough of it and they make a living, but certainly the some of it good enough, or suitable enough to get published. Composing in the mind’s eye then varying those things we talked about controlling above, and post processing as and if necessary.
The basic rules is the same for landscape composition as it is for everything else we want to take a good photograph of. Reduce the contents of your frame to the absolute minimum. Then reduce it again. What? With a wide angle lens and a huge landscape in front of us? Yes. A single focal point for the eye to rest on. Then the other details in the frame unfold as our eyes are lead from one point to another. The less the competing details the larger the impact. It’s why we fill the frame. All that varying the angle? To avoid the middle and make more use of the space in the frame. Then there are the lead lines, diagonals, to play with perspectives and backgrounds and borders to police for distracting extraneous detail. Above all, have fun.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Week 7 – 13th Oct 2016 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Margaret Collis “Photography For Fun”
Robert Harvey BA (Hons) ARPS EFIAP treated us to Landscapes for all Seasons on the Feast of St Patrick. Starting with a straw poll as to which was the clubs favourite season for landscapes, apparently it is always Autumn, Robert took us through a wide variety of seasonal landscapes, features and how he captured them in a richly illustrated, wide ranging evening.
Although the camera basics are fairly well established, let’s call this the science, for taking landscapes, as ever the art has more to it than just pointing and shooting (for which f11 and focus two steps – 5 feet – in front of your 18-50mm kit lens set at 18mm. Gets everything in focus from 2’6″ (0.75m) up to infinity; works from 6 feet (well 5′ 9″) with a 24mm lens on a full frame. See the 30 July 15 blog post for an explanation of hyperfocal distance) of knowing your subject, knowing the conventions, knowing the sort of things that only practice really ever teaches. The art of knowing lies in critical observation and informed practice, often known as reflective practice, and Robert has 25 years photographic experience as well as a background as a natural scientist to draw on.
That doesn’t mean the rest of us should pack up and go home, but it does contain a general principle we can all adhere to. When we take the camera out we do so with a purpose. That isn’t to say we should squeeze all the fun out of it, that we can only take the camera out of the bag to conduct our photography with serious academic intent. We need to recognise that any photograph is the sum of the decisions the photographer has made about his/her relative position to a subject in a given environment. More of this in a minute.
Landscape photographs do have their own conventions and competitions have their own conventions and rules. Certainly the do no harm principle we talked about in the last post on natural photography, is an ethical place to start. Though as with nature photographs this idea can be both selectively and subjectively applied. But it does go deeper than that to the core idea of what a photograph actually is for, what it represents. We’ve touched on this recently with David Jones’ evening and the notions of authenticity. It is a question of what we are claiming to represent. If it is within a genre where the integrity of the image as a documentary record is sacrosanct, say photojournalism, then it is pretty straight forward. If it is more representative then it matters less. If it’s Snapchat then an altogether different, informal set of rules apply.
That may be the underlying code that dictates the what, the why, the where, the then of what gets captured but the how is, as we have touched on above, a process guided by the decisions we make. So, we’ve set the camera to manual or aperture priority and we have raised to the camera to the eye because something has captured our attention. Broad vista? Enter the rule of thirds. Most cameras, including compacts, have an optional thirds grid you can put on live view or through the (E)VF. Even if yours hasn’t it’s not too difficult to imagine one over the scene. The trick is then to align a feature on one of the lines, or at the junctions of the lines. If it’s patterns that have caught your eye then it will be a question of cropping in as tight as you can so the detail is very clear and a lot of the context available in a wider view will not be available.
You can still use the rule of thirds in a detail crop, indeed it can be very advantageous to the overall effect as there is less relative information to go by (not a bad thing). In the broader landscape you are looking to put the sky one third or two thirds of the way down in the picture. In the detail shot it will be the main feature (focus point). In both cases you really need to make the point of focus obvious using natural or man-made features, lead lines and so on. The broad tendency is for detail shots to be more abstract, the key to both is to be as close to the subject, as cropped in, as is possible and necessary to give the image punch. If you can’t frame it change position, shapes and features make the photograph, there absence just makes for an empty space that just happens to have something in it.
In essence that is it, seems simple, doesn’t it? Well it is and it isn’t. It is because that is what you do with the Bakelite lump you attach the expensive glass to. Three useful things to add: learn to use the histogram if your camera has one (or use your eyes, they tell you the same thing but the histogram measures the fall of light on the sensor and makes it obvious about spikes on the extreme left -shadows- and right – highlights); Expose for the sky/highlights (details in shadow are easier to recover in post production than highlights); Shoot in RAW (linked to the previous point). That doesn’t mean that JPEG is evil or wrong but where there is a high dynamic range in your image RAW will leave you with more information to manipulate. JPEG makes certain decisions about what data is used as a baseline and preserves/eliminates it on that basis. What is left is less data to manipulate.
It isn’t quite so simple because you cannot compensate for a lack of knowledge about where to be and when on a consistent basis just with luck. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography. Club members Kev Speirs and Rich Price gave us a good grounding in this a couple of years back based on their 2013 trip to Iceland – which is where they are as I write this having returned to further their experience, Iceland, that is, not 2013, no not the frozen food chain either). The performance booster we are looking for is a planned serendipity. We’ve been here before so I shan’t dwell. Robert is an environmental scientist as well as a photographer and photography for him is more than a hobby, it is a business in more than one sense.
So, our thanks to Robert Harvey for a an interesting and well rounded evening.
N E X T M E E T I N G.
Judging ROC Round 3.
Apologies for the non showing of the last round of the ROC but I am having technical difficulties which are proving rather entrenched. There are also lasting problems with posting to the club’s Facebook Page via the blog. Ah well, such is life. Last meeting was all about light painting and our thanks go to Myk Garton and Tony Cullen [EDIT not Cooney as originally published] for their efforts and Megan Gearing for being the model once again. Definitely a fun night.
Essentially light painting takes advantage of the camera’s ability to take long exposures, it’s relatively limited dynamic range, a dark background and some bright lights either as illumination on a subject or as a subject themselves. It is not an expensive thing to set up and you can get some striking results relatively easily. Equipment is a tripod or place to secure your camera preferably capable of being set to fully manual (Bulb) and, optionally, a remote shutter release, a light source and some darkness. You have a variety of options what you do with the light, depending upon what the source is, from outlining everyday objects with light using a single LED all the way up to multiple exposure big item, multiple flash set ups, cityscapes and landscapes. It is one of those things that really does apply to pretty much any subject.
Light Painting is all about the what copious amounts of dark do to light, colour and contrast when exposed on a digital processor or film. Given the amount of trial and error it really does play to the cost advantages of digital and even then there are time savings to be had through simple things like turning off your camera’s long exposure noise reduction until the final shot, (which will halve the exposure processing time) or working out exposure with the 6 stop rule. This is based on a fairly simple piece of mathematics and lies within the exposure triangle. If you set your camera’s ISO to 6400 whilst you get the shot composed and exposure sorted, then, using the metering in seconds recorded in the test shots, reset to ISO 100 and expose in minutes, e.g. a 10 second ISO 6400 shot is a 10 minutes at ISO 100, a 4 second exposure at 6400 is a 4 minute exposure at 100 ISO etc. ISO 100 is six stops slower than ISO 6400, hence the name, and it works for the identical aperture setting.
I would turn the long exposure noise control back on when all the groundwork has been done (and leave it on as default) because it works to a quite significant advantage in the quality of the final image. That said different sensors have different sensitivities and you may well get 5 or 10 second exposures without significant noise intrusion, and that is best at low ISO’s, though I don’t know of any digital sensors to match The Kono! Donau’s film speed of ISO 6 (marketed as ideal for light painters) from Lomo (though at £27 for three rolls I am in no hurry to find out). It’s a relatively simple thing to check out where your camera starts to produce intrusive noise using test exposures at minimum ISO and worth knowing for your camera. I have seen the figure of a 30db Signal to Noise Ratio as being “acceptable” to “professionals” – frankly I have no idea, though DXO measure these sort of things. What is acceptable is subjective and individual. Go and find out for your camera.
Of course photography is Greek for painting with light, but, as defined above light painting makes more of the dark. Light painting scenes have, by design, higher contrast than will be found in most photographs and will also, most likely, require some post production to fix light leaks or darken weakly lit areas. The fact that we are dealing with opposite ends of the histogram actually helps as getting rid of distracting background detail can often be achieved with a simple adjustment of the contrast slider. Yes that is a broad generalisation because every frame is different, but with the single frame light painting the reduced colour palette and high contrast actually don’t often require much fiddling around.
Not that some people are content to leave it at that. The techniques can usefully be extended from drawing with a light against a very dark background, through illuminating an object or objects via a single light source, to full blown composites of hundreds of frames of sometimes very large objects. All can come under the light painting banner, and can, I suspect be labelled on a scale from interesting to obsessive, depending on where you stand (and what equipment you have access to), but there is another relatively cheap and easy-with-the-right-techniques that you can access. Light trails. In a lot of ways we have already talked about this earlier in this post, when we talked about single lights, but you have many options in making those. And don’t forget star trails, vehicle lights, trains, boats and planes – it doesn’t have to be you in charge of the lights, though that helps in organising the outcomes. Light painting is a fine way of capturing some vibrant images, give it a try.
N e x t M e e t i n g
Returning our visit earlier in the season we welcome Hanham Photographic Society.