So, the blog has been in hiatus for a while, hopefully back now regularly, if slightly longer between posts. This post leads on from the last two sessions about still life, the practical and club member Simon Caplan’s excellent presentation.
Dorothea Lange made her camera “… A tool for learning to see without a camera”. It allows us to mine the extraordinary from the mundane, the exceptional from the ordinary. Looking and seeing are, very definitely, two different things. We often look but, frequently, we don’t see, or we see different things.
Photography, at least beyond the spray and pray, is about looking for the details that make a difference to how the viewer would otherwise perceive a scene and stop instead of passing the moment by. Moment, here, doesn’t just mean that Cartier Bresson split second where the true identity of something bursts through the cloak of mundanity, but also the weight of a thing, and its’ purpose, its’ importance in the re-telling of that fraction in time.
This process Ansell Adams called “Visualisation”. It is the interpretation of a story otherwise lost in the hubbub of our world. It is based within the practice of looking for the connections between the elements in the frame of our viewfinder. It is either something to be pondered or seized upon depending on the environment it exists in, but it is something tellingly special.
Control, then, is an issue and it would follow that the best we can ever do photographically is exhibit the maximum amount of control. If, however, that were universally true then there would only be one form of, one style of, photograph. It may be contextually true and it is certainly true of the still life, but it does not extend to all photography, because the purposes of making one photograph or another, even from the same subject, are different.
Discernment, the ability to judge, is far more important to photography, to art, than control. There are three elements to any picture. Light, subject and composition. Still life gives us maximum control of these three elements, but that control without the capacity to discern won’t give the basically inanimate objects that are the subject in any still life any meaning.
Meaning comes from the way we weave these three elements together.
So, in essence, still life is the art of arrangement. OK, it could be argued that all of photography is the art of arrangement to some greater or lesser degree, but still life is all about arrangment from conception to execution. There is no element of chance, all components are subject to total control.
There are other incarnations than the straightforward still life art shot. Product photography and sub-genres like food photography share the same DNA. Fashion, especially in the studio, ditto. Of course there are exceptions, such as the deliberate introduction of movement either by camera or subject, though the potential for control still remains (even if those examples aren’t very still!).
Simplicity is also a key feature. Too many items, more than one subject, weakens the overall image. The tools of composition still apply, indeed this is a great opportunity to learn about leading lines, the power of odd numbers, symmetry, texture, radial patterns, subject isolation, repetition, etc. etc. because we create them. Still life is a blank canvas.
Light is everything in photography. That does not mean that lighting setups for still life photography have to be complicated. The options are either daylight, the most natural, or artificial, the most flexible. Daylight will probably involve the use of reflectors and diffusers to direct and soften the light, but this doesn’t have to be expensive.
Artificial light, strobes, constant lights, etc will need the same care but we can also introduce the notion of multipoint lighting. The basic idea remains the same – control of light and shadow as a compositional tool. Learning to use hard light and soft light according to the look that we want is the place to start. What we are doing though is as much controlling the shadow as the light (and here).
Still life has a long history in art and photography, it is relatively easy to set up and cheap to do if we use what we have to hand. It is also subtle and quite absorbing, time can go very quickly when we really get into getting the best out of the arrangement of a few simple objects. It is also a good tutor and practice for using light in other situations and really one we can all improve our photography through.
Thanks to Simon Caplan again for an interesting and absorbing evening. I have replicated his list of still life photographers taken from the club’s members Facebook Page here:
Harold Ross – www.haroldrossfineart.com
Tineke Stoffels – www.tinekestoffels.eu
Diana Amelina – http://en.35photo.pro/eruven
Michael Lamotte –https://michael9dbc.myportfolio.com/from-the-source
Mandy Barker– http://mandy-barker.com
Also check out these:-
Kevin Best – http://bestshots.com.au
Barry Rosenthal – http://barryrosenthal.com
Joan Kocak – https://www.joankocakphotography.com/
Inna Karpova – http://innakarpova.com
Sergei Sogokon – https://sogokon.wordpress.com/gallery/
Bas Meeuws – www.basmeeuws.com
You know you can make a great landscape even better by having something animate in it. Like wildlife. Our latest speaker, Roy Jacobson CPAGB, showed us that patience, knowledge and persistence certainly pay off when you put the fauna in the flora. And aeroplanes too, though they are better in the sky. In both cases fortune favours the prepared.
Wildlife photography isn’t all about safaris in Namibia (I wouldn’t turn one down if anyone is offering a free one), it can be found much closer to home, like in your garden or local park. The key is to start small, get to know your kit really, really well, and know, I mean really know, your location and the sort of wildlife it attracts and when it attracts it.
Whereas there is definitely a case for having a 600mm telephoto in your bag when photographing shy or skittish animals, your back and your wallet will not thank you for it after lugging it around for the day. And that’s before we even consider the stuffed ant eater or who owns the copyright when the wildlife presses the shutter release. Start with the kit you have, was Roy’s advice and find somewhere local.
We have, of course, the benefit of Slimbridge under an hour away, if birds are your chosen subject, and it is set out for walking and observation. Roy suggested picking a spot and sticking with it, rather than wandering around and looking for something to happen. When it does happen it tends to happen quickly and be over just as quick: feeding, fighting, preening, breeding, taking to wing, coming into land or some other photo opportunity.
Much, as has been said already, is down to being prepared. As movement is going to be a big factor in most of the (airborne) shots then a fast shutter speed is going to be necessary, starting at around 1/1000th. To facilitate this it is probably best to select shutter priority/auto ISO and let the camera pick the aperture. Focal length is probably going to be long, metering and focus turned to spot (though that is questionable if you are composing on the thirds) continuous autofocus (depending on age and speed of your system), motor drive as we used to call it on as we are going to be shooting in bursts.
We might also use a monopod or tripod and if we have saved our pennies or do a lot of this sort of photography, maybe use a gimbal on the tripod. The problem quickly becomes how much gear do we want to lug around? How much can we practically use even, or especially, in an urban environment? Well, the happy medium is our own to find and is going to be dictated by subject, location and environment.
Birds aren’t the only option, of course. There are larger animals in most urban areas. Locally we have many different parks in which foxes can be seen with a little patience. There are two deer herds (Fallow and Red) at Ashton Court, the Red, in particular, are used to people being around, as are the grey squirrels around Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill if you get bored with shooting the Peregrine Falcons down by the River. There are plenty of pigeons and gulls to practice on whilst you wait. There are also some quite rare species of bird to be found (depending on the time of year) at the Arnos Vale cemetery as well as bats and foxes and badgers.
Now aeroplanes in flight that is a completely different matter. Actually only completely different from the earth-bound subjects as far as the mechanics go. Generally, aircraft are far more predictable than wild-life, especially at air displays (Weston Air Day this Saturday and Sunday by the way) through knowledge of the behaviour of each still sets the photographer in better stead.
The basics are exactly the same, fast shutter speed, single point meter and (possibly) focus. Don’t be afraid to boost the ISO and shoot Raw as we are probably going to see a fair whack of dynamic range within the frame, especially if the aircraft is dark and the sky bright.
In the stands at air shows, you will often see a forest of tripods and monopods. There are issues with doing this. The Mono/tripod will cut down on the flexibility that we have to move and pan. There can also be safety issues, especially when shooting around other ‘Togs using similar set-ups in relatively tight spaces. Better tuck your arms into your chest, deep breath and brace, takes more practice but it gives us more manoeuvrability and there is less gear to carry.
Air displays have a defined centre and also defined edges. If we know where these are (in front of where the crowds are thickest, basically) then we have the chance to hit peak action (centre) but at the edges is where the aircraft will turn in. Here we can get some great shots that aren’t aircraft flying straight and level.
Table top and/or product photography is an extension of the hobby for amateurs and for some professionals a staple and stable income. It has many branches and specialities. You can throw as much money and kit at it as any other branch of photography but as with any other form if the light isn’t right it’s not worth a dam. In common with other forms of what I shall broadly call “Studio” photography, which I will discuss a little further shortly, it is one where the control of the light is total.
Studio came to English from the Latin via Italian word for application (also eagerness). It is the application part that is of particular interest to this piece. In essence we are applying the Exposure Triangle to a subject, usually fairly limited in size, but that depends on how big your table is I suppose, to a single (usually) object or limited number of objects against a plain background (again, usually). The studio is a place set aside for the production of the final piece. It doesn’t have to be permanent and the glory of table top is that it can be made to order from things either already in our photographic collection or household items ready to hand. It can be from the size of a match box to the size of a hangar and anywhere in between. It can be very absorbing as small changes in the lighting can have quite profound effects in the overall image captured and the absolute concentration on detail it requires can be quite revealing.
The common elements of the table top studio are a table top, a background, preferably plain, at least one light (though two and three light set ups are common) and something to photograph. Basic refinements then come in the shape of diffusers and reflectors and again these can be made from things readily to hand. I am taking the camera as read in this equipment list on the grounds that this is a camera club blog and the camera is rather implied. Also the vexed question of which camera is best skirted. The answer, as ever, is the one you have.
Most compacts will focus pretty close, for systems with interchangeable lenses you have macro specialist lenses (true macro gives a reproduction scale of at least 1:1), then you have macro filters, reversing rings, extension tubes and bellows that allow you to get closer than the native capacity of your lens. Fixed (Prime) lenses are generally easier to use – especially with reversing rings, but zooms are by no means ruled out. The shorter the focal length the closer to the subject the lens can be, for instance my 24mm on an APSC sensor has a minimum focusing distance of 180 mm which comes down to about 10 mm with a 13 mm extension tube. My 50 mm and the 340 mm minimum focus comes down to around 25 mm for the same fitting. Depth of field is also shallow.
You might want to shoot with a plain backdrop but one that is seamless, and gives no hint of depth to the background. It’s known as an infinity curve, infinity cove or cyclorama and is formed by taking your back drop and curling it under what you are shooting. That can be something as simple as a piece of A4. Somewhere along the journey from table top to full blown studio the infinity curve becomes an infinity cove, the curve covers right angles without showing any angles, but that is a distinction that need not bother us (the cove comes from the shape, not the size). The physics remain the same, only the scale (and expense) varies. Beware, though, that Amazon own the patent to the set up (as discussed last May here), though I doubt that adds up to much under UK law, but that hasn’t been tested. And then we come to the light tent, aka the light box. Essentially it is a 360 degree diffusion box. Lights are mounted externally and the subject internally. They soften the light (of course) and can be used to reduce specularity and also have an infinity curve effect. They are straightforward and can be bought quite cheaply (and not cheaply at all), made very cheaply, or somewhere in between.
As hobbyists the table top presents us with the opportunity to practise basic and not-so-basic lighting skills in our own home. It is also a way of keeping skills sharp or refining existing ones and it presents challenges of its own. Therein lies a further utility, it helps keep things fresh through subtle challenges and in ways that are transferable to other styles. Starting out it is best, as always, to keep things simple and start with one light plus something to use as reflectors, such as paper, cards and mirrors. It is amazing how much you can get done with a single light source, be that flash or continuous (such as a table lamp) and it is also really productive to find out what effects you can pull off using black reflectors as well as white or silver (or any other colour if it comes to that).
But colour isn’t the only thing that makes for a decent table top shot. Texture is important too. This comes back to what was mentioned above about finding images in detail. If, by keeping our attention to a single or relatively few objects devoid of clutter, we can make for some interesting images, then we can transfer those skills into the messier world outside of the simple table top and look for the angles, textures and details that make for more interesting shots. The possibilities for still life/tabletop/product photography are almost boundless. It is fun, as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be and it builds transferable skills. So a big thanks to everyone who contributed to this evening, from the shots on the FB page I think a lot of us found it very productive.
N E X T M E E T I N G
An evening with club member and treasurer Steve Hallam.
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.