Monochrome and lessons in depth of field as we split the room between practical and tutorial this last session and I must say it worked rather well. Both the choices of colour and the application of depth of field are creative decisions, they convey subtleties of look and feel, they speak as much to meaning as they do they do to composition.
Timely indeed as there has recently been evidence published that rather challenges the conventional wisdom of how we look at a photograph. Logically paintings, etchings drawings etc too, but this is a camera club so we will stick to talking about photographs. At the outset I have to say that this research doesn’t present a new way of perceiving how we look at images, how photographers perceive their images, but it does present evidence to support some photographers way of looking at their art. “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us” wrote Ralph Hattersley so maybe it isn’t such a stretch to suggest that meaning is our primary guide when we look at a photograph. Similarly Don McCullin feels that “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures,” and Wynn Bullock “When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.” Well you get the idea.
Of course we all spend a lot of time discussing whether it is “Visual salience based on semantically uninterpreted image features [that] plays the critical causal role in attentional guidance, with knowledge and meaning playing a secondary or modulatory role [or it is] … meaning [that] plays the dominant role in guiding human attention through scenes”. Not … but ….
Let’s think for a moment about the way we are lead to judge photographs when we start taking photography more seriously, especially when we start talking about conventions used in competitions.
Very basically we photograph to capture a relationship between and impact of objects, subject and space arranged within a frame to tell a story. When we looked at critiquing images last season we talked about the considering initial impact an image has on us before moving on to: considering the story it is telling us; the technical issues such as light, focus, foreign objects, crop, exposure, saturation; then considering the technical details like composition, colour and subject matter before using all these as evidence to come to a reasoned conclusion.
It isn’t the only way but its consistent application, when applied across a range of photographs makes it clear how to go about improving our own. It is a good habit to get into, if nothing else to make your efforts clear to yourself and to spot areas you can work on. It’s also worth keeping a record.
Not too much of a leap to say that we, as photographers, already think that we look for impact (meaning), first, then for the prominent features (salience), because emotion is what we are trying to stir in our audiences. For sure that is going to be variable, but if we put consideration into what and how we photograph then we can make then we have the makings of a story.
Then we have the many and varied tools of composition. We have discussed before why tools not rules, but basically it is do with the selection of techniques to emphasise the point of our story, rather than a must comply with. You can get one story per frame for the sake of impact. Split the audience’s attention between two focal points of equal weight and you risk halving the impact of the image. Restrict the impact and you restrict the meaning and we, according to this study, are suckers for meaning.
So composition is one way we can get meaning into our images. With human subjects we can also do much by our interaction between photographer and model and leave the camera out of the interaction as much as possible. This is our chance to explore character. Too many photographers let the camera come in between them and their subject. Time spent building that relationship, even with a model you know is time well spent. Use the camera as unobtrusively as possible, get them to focus on the brand label on the camera body rather than the unblinking eye of the lens, which can be intimidating. Candid photographs have their own power and their own techniques.
Someone, and I cannot remember who, once said that we should consider the background then put the subject in it. That makes sense when we want to cut out distractions. It also makes sense when we have a striking background and can reference our subjects within it. There is a difference between the background as backdrop and the background as distraction. Dramatic scenes, interesting lighting, like the light of early evening or early morning, add to the meaning by adding qualities of light or drama for us to place our subjects in an interesting part of the frame all. These things can be ways of adding meaning to our images as long as we practice, practice, practice and practice with a critical eye.
Last meeting was the territory of club member and treasurer Steve Hallam, talking through some of his digital history. Steve is an Olympus fan and has been for over ten years. Micro four thirds, the name come from the diameter of the sensor in inches, is the invention of Olympus and as Steve pointed out, the first system to be designed exclusively for digital from scratch. The first Olympus Steve owned had a 5 MP sensor , which when compacts these days can pack 20 Mega Pixels, sounds restrictive. In reality most people would be largely untroubled by 5MP sensors, the key being the quality of rendition not the size. More Mega Pixels give you more room to crop and still get a reasonable image. The ability to resolve reasonably accurate colours and the capacity to restrict noise at higher ISO’s are generally bigger factors in most peoples’ photography . The bigger numbers in terms of Mega Pixels are something driven more by perceived marketing needs (bigger must be better) than actual customer requirements.
For so long full frame, as Steve pointed out a tag rather than a technical term of any enlightening feature. The 35mm (actually 36 mm but that is a spurious accuracy) was of course the film size in most SLR’s and has carried over to the digital age as the most common “professional” size. I will come back to the need for the inverted comma’s shortly. In the film age, especially from the late 60’s onwards, 35mm was pretty much everywhere. Unless you were doing advertising or studio work then the frame size went up to 6 x 4.5, 4 x 5, 10 x 8 and so on. Hasselblads used 120 roll film (6 x 7 cm). Just like the Box Brownie. Only there was a bit of difference price wise. Also, it has to be said, there is a slight difference in quality too.
The reason for the inverted commas around professional above is that there is no such thing as a camera by which one becomes a professional by being in possession of. There is plenty to be said for the idea of a larger sensor – and some people bang on endlessly about it – but, as been said before in this blog, unless it is predicated on an actual photographic need then there is no reason why a professional has to shoot with a 35mm sensor. Damien Lovegrove doesn’t, as he explained when he visited us back in July 2014, he uses APS-C (among other formats I am sure). Any argument based on the logic of sensor size would have that a 6 x 4.5 medium sensor format has to better than a 35mm and so on. The question always has to be “At what”?
Lugging a D800 across Antarctica to photograph polar bears in the wild may seem like hard work, it is, after all a sizeable chunk of Bakelite in its own right. Adding in the heavy duty lenses adds even more bulk and that’s before you realise the nearest wild polar bear is 12,500 miles to the north (it pays to do your research). You had better have a really, really good reason for packing it in the first place. Well that would be weather sealing, shock-proofing, reliability given that it’s 2,500 miles to the nearest camera shop to replace that broken lens (assuming both that you are going North and turning left(ish) and Punta Arenas has a camera shop, otherwise it’s 3,700 miles in a completely different direction to Auckland). You may require very large blow ups at a high dots per inch count, there are any number of reasons you need a full frame camera, but , logically, not one of them is because you are a professional. Steve pointed out the main advantage of the Micro 4/3rds format is the capacity to build smaller, lighter cameras.
Smaller lighter cameras with smaller sensors, yet we still think of lenses in 35mm equivalent terms and that does make things easier for comparison reasons, but allows for some confusion. When we talk of crop sensors we are talking about the size of sensors relative to 35mm and as most sensors are smaller than this then we are seeing a smaller image given the same focal length of lens.
A confusion creeps in with the idea of “magnification” which a lot of people assume to be a telephoto effect because a 100 mm lens on a 35mm camera shows the same as a 150 mm lens on an APS-C or a 200 mm lens on a micro 4/3rds and the logic goes (off at a tangent but it’s easy to see why) a 200 mm pulls in the image twice as much as a 100 mm lens. Well when you double the focal length on the same size sensor it does, the mistake is to not factor in the change in the size of the sensor. If an image is made with the same lens, but a smaller sensor, it shows a smaller area. Enlarge both your 35 mm and you crop sensor images to, say, 10 x 8 inch print and the degree of enlargement, the magnification if you will, will be greater for the smaller sensor than for a larger one. Hence you might get an inkling of why more Mega Pixels on this year’s sensor than last sounds attractive – you can make larger prints without a loss in quality. Well sort of, as, after a point, those extra pixels start to get in each other’s way.
So, our thanks to Steve for bringing up some interesting topics and for sharing his images with us. Much appreciated.
N E X T W E E K
NOT AT THE CLUB. Light trails, meet at the fountains on the centre. Bring cameras and tripods we are going to be taking some light trails. 7.30 commencement.
Slightly late for St Patrick, last Thursday had a distinctly emerald tinge to it, as the club celebrated the Apostle of Ireland with a photographic evening. We were joined by local model Kelly Wolf Rogers and various club members were dressed in (at least) forty shades of green. There were balloons too. And cake. Thanks to everyone involved in getting this event together, it was a good humoured and very enjoyable one. We don’t set so much store against Saints days in the modern era (not least because, strictly speaking, it is a denominational affair) but they were and are a way of setting out the seasons. St Valentine’s day is where the bleakness of winter starts to be broken by wild primroses, crocuses and aubretia (those small, usually purple, flowers that grow in clumps I am reasonably informed, however, to me Hell is a Garden Centre so I would probably have accepted that it was a form of fungal infection just as readily). Saint David’s day is a bit early for our idea of spring but there is plenty going on. Paddy’s day and you may start to see the first of the bluebells in the far south west, but by St George’s day spring is resolutely marching north across the country at a steady walking pace. Warmer, if not entirely dry, weather entices the less hardy outdoors.
We are not short, in other words, of photo opportunities provided by nature, from the very small to the grand vista. Let’s start with the very small. I am using the term close up rather than macro in deference to the technical definitions of such that hold macro to start at an image reproduction ratio of 1:1, that is life size. A third term you often come across is micro photography and they are pretty much interchangeable in any camera company marketing department. A few, if obvious, facts bare illuminating as our plot unfolds. Every lens has a minimum focusing distance. The longer the lens the, generally, further away from the camera that will be. Short focal length lenses focus closer. Depth of field is shallower/deeper the more telephoto/wide angle you go. Smaller than about f16, apertures start to soften out the image because of light diffraction.
So, speaking in close up terms, there are ways of getting more out of your lenses than the manufacturer designed for and each have their pros and cons. You can also ally these with certain software tricks, such as focus stacking, so as to cheat more out of your equipment. Certainly this is an instance of where a tripod is an absolute necessity (at least until you can slowly zoom in video on 4k – 8mb per frame – , or Sony’s rumoured 8k DSLT – 33mb per frame) , but that doesn’t mean that you have to bring the outdoors indoors to achieve it. Neither do you have to go to extremes, these things can be found around the house, e.g. a pot plant, fruit, etc. but also “in situ” as it were. Why, essentially, do we need to do this when we are shooting close up? After all we usually only have space for one thing to be in focus, indeed, often to fit in the frame. The first problem that we usually have to contend with is depth of field. The D.o.F. on a 50mm lens set at f8, focusing on an object 25cms (10 inches) away is less than a centimetre (about 4/10ths of an inch in imperial) on a 1.5x crop sensor. It would be less on a full frame sensor. Autofocus may not cope, so be prepared to go to manual.
Nature, it has been observed, is wild and inclusive, whereas art is about choice and exclusion. In the discussion, very broad as it was, on the last blog, on the section about wide angle lenses, it was stated that they are commonly associated with getting all the view in shot, whereas it is an invitation to get in close. To marry these two observations we need to think in terms of why what we have in the viewfinder is there and also to investigate other angles too. Don’t forget to press the shutter though. So what has this to do with close up photography? More than it would at first appear. In both instances a small detail in a larger context is the situation for our image’s story. By deciding we want a close up of that insect, that petal, those leaves etc we are making very definite decisions about excluding other detail from this story. Coming back to the detail idea, what is obvious in close up photography, applies, just not necessarily as obviously, to landscapes, portraits and so on. We have been told by more than one judge at the competition rounds (next round at the next meeting, f.y.i.) that there is room in any frame for a single story. When we are using wide angle lenses to capture an image the edges of the view become more important than is the case with telephoto’s.
The reason, of course is that there are more chances to cover more objects and those objects could be distracting to the eye. This is also something you can get in the close up, extraneous detail you overlook because you get target fixated. That target in close up photography is the in focus area. We end up concentrating so hard on that we miss what is glaringly obvious in post production. That detail we miss will almost certainly be a little off centre, (or centre of attention). The same happens with wide angle lenses, the wider the angle the more of a problem. Attention can be distracted quite unintentionally so you need to be aware more of what is on the outside of the frame.
Lighting for close up outdoors is also less of an issue and a different set of problems. Whereas the “ideal” light for landscape falls within the Golden Hour, and some landscapers won’t photograph in anything else, a lot of opportunities exist throughout the day – and you don’t always have the opportunity of going back at a more fortuitous hour (and can’t control the weather if you do). Judicious use of reflectors or auxiliary lights, flashes etc (though not the one on the camera as it will fall within the shadow of the lens and will unlikely be reducible to useful strength if it doesn’t) can certainly help in ways that are inconceivable for the bigger picture. If you want to wait for the golden hour, the details in the landscape, even down to the very small ones still offer opportunities.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S:
Next meeting is the Reflex Open Competition. RCC_notice_Ian