We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
Temporarily peripatetic, the last meeting was a photo-shoot at the Clifton Suspension Bridge and a photo-shoot with a twist. And maybe a shout. Allison had arranged a little surprise in the form of the Filton Orphans Scooter Club, the weather co-operated gloriously and Mark S. lost a lens hood. Did anyone happen to pick one up? Well attended (despite the horrors of trying to find a parking space in Clifton of a sunny summer’s evening – two wheels do have their advantages) it looked to be a happy and productive couple of hours. Club thanks to Allison and to everyone who made the event possible. Next Thursday we meet at the Charlotte Street Car Park in BATH; that’s Bath NOT Queen Charlotte Street in Bristol. 7:30, photo-walk. See you there.
So, I got to thinking (dangerous habit, don’t recommend it, certainly not without a crash helmet): as one who needs to improve, how can I take advantage of our temporarily homeless state? We have talked before about the role of structure (on the blog: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Photography) so maybe time I got my head in gear and choose an element to concentrate on at the Bath photo-walk.
So, no sooner than I decide on this noble quest than I come upon the first dilemma. Where to start? Taking the hobby a little more seriously and applying the ideas of critiquing one’s own work still leaves me with more than a few avenues to explore. Well, start with the glaringly obvious, even if that takes tea amounting to several pints in volume and two similar equipment failures in three days of the glad-I-am-doing-this-as-a-favour-not-as-a-business sort of thing, need to collide first. The equipment failures were both lights, and the second was more serious than the first because that shoot cannot be done again for various reasons.
The first was a simple blown bulb when I was showing a friend of mine – after lugging the table top stuff, camera and tripod on the motorbike a hundred miles to do so with the added bonus of a nail through the virtually new rear tyre and a non repairable puncture – the possibilities of recording the techniques he uses to build models. He might also sell them as they are taking up a fair bit of space. No worries, I packed a spare, like a good boy scout. No, I packed an empty box, like an idiot. Back to a one light strategy and a couple of other adjustments. Got the point across and made the point of taking my trusty compact camera just to prove you don’t need an expensive DSLR to do this. Result is he is now building a combined spray booth and light tent apparatus.
The second was taking some shots of another hobby group at a location I have been to once previously and which has a black floor and a black backdrop. Two (cheap and cheerful) flash guns on simple remote triggers to balance out the over head lights, which make the shadows quite heavy (even with a reflector) under the eyes so two guns make life a lot easier. Relatively straight forward. Eventually get the balance about right when one of the flash guns goes ffft. Change batteries from the third flash gun no result. Change to third flash gun which decides, after several previous occasions of faultless performance, that it doesn’t want to play with the triggers tonight (this was actually at 02:30 am, not my peak time for tolerance of uncooperative mechanicals). Hey ho. One light, get the light closer, reduced power point at the floor seems to do the trick but have to under expose to keep some of the detail (which is actually important detail for these shots). OK switch to RAW (yes I usually shoot JEPG). Check with chap who is doing the post processing which I don’t have time to get involved with. Not sure that his editing programme will handle the Sony version of RAW as it is a tried and trusted copy of a programme (i.e. somewhat old) and that is a problem I have encountered before. JPEG it is then, but contrast, brightness an curves seem to render things OK (I checked on a couple when I eventually got home).
So as a photographer we either point and shoot and get disappointed or we make adjustments more to our tastes (and possibly still remain dissatisfied, though probably less so). There is a lesson here for yours truly to absorb (along with stupendous amounts of tea). The basics are common (come on Ian you are not far off a conclusion here) so, concentrate on the true basics. How do we do that? Well ….. shoot manual? That is how I learned on an Exa Thagee my dad bought very second hand circa 1971 (with a 50mm and 135mm lens) using 80 ASA print and then 25 ASA slide film (ASA = ISO to the uninitiated). You could even do macro on it by loosening the retaining screws on the 135 and sliding the assembly out a little (do not try this on a modern lens or you will likely find yourself with a modern lens kit where your pride and joy used to be).
Manual mode forces the issue. You have to think of the composite elements of your photograph. You can go fully manual and switch the autofocus off, but I am not sure that helps other than in situations where the system is overwhelmed or, more usually, underwhelmed. Either way not whelmed. With manual mode your starting point can be exposing primarily for highlights, or mid-tones or shadows. Doing so is an invitation to think more intently about metering and explore the metering modes. These are the sort of things that mean you can become more consistent in the way you get your results. This then helps with the times when the conditions aren’t ideal or otherwise exceptional. You have a known and measure starting point from which to make your adjustments.
I normally shoot Aperture Priority because of the depth of field control it facilitates with relative little faffing about. I shoot AP almost exclusively, but now out of habit rather than conviction. So changing that is relatively easy, fundamental and a good learning opportunity. It also concentrates attention, if I am not mindful, on the camera body not the image. The image is what I am after, not the camera body, so we are back to square one pretty quickly if an actual picture element isn’t what I am trying to capture in manual mode. That for me is what separates someone on the way to becoming a photographer from someone with all the gear and no idea. You are attempting to achieve a “good” image, not a “good” camera. It’s the fan-boy thing (and let’s face it kit obsession is a very male trait) getting in the way of the job.
Another decision, another prodigious amount of tea, then. Well yes, but only because I like tea. After a couple of minutes going through the options the thing that grabs me strongest, actually the first thing I think of but give the rest a go in order to try and dismiss it, is contrast. Not just the difference of light and dark, but (possibly) of tones, textures, situations. What, exactly, I dare say I shall find out on the photo-walk, next Thursday. Charlotte Street Car Park, Bath. 7:30 pm. See you there.
IN THE NEWS (again)
The world of stock photography takes another turn with the launch of an app by Dreams Time that encourages people to share their “In the moment” images (3mb and above) according to this article in Amateur Photographer. It offers both further opportunity for new and existing entrants to the market but also accelerates the destruction of the existing market. Whether this is an act of “Creative Destruction” remains to be seen but it will almost certainly make getting a foot in the market that much more chaotic if not actually more difficult. Dreams Time claims 8 million users, so the supply side is taken care of but careful curation is still a service to the industry (and a revenue opportunity). Timely then, that the latest Photoshop Express development that brings RAW, among other things to the free version of the photo editing programme and is available for iOS and Android.