We’ve done landscaping (an excellent evening by Stephen Spraggon, highly recommended if the comments of members after the session are anything to go by: and they are) and portrait lighting (members Gerry Spencer and Steve Dyer putting up an excellent show against recalitrant technology – again set members abuzz) since the last post (plus the Sun has made an appearance, at last, but rain still predominates) and that gives just a taste of the variety that there is to be had in the club programme. If members have a contribution they can make or a suggestion for the programme then please get in contact with Myk Garton, either at the meeting or via the club closed group Facebook page.
Interesting article on Petapixel this week, about the merits of relative sensor sizes (and other bourgeois concepts – see last post) where it matters to a professional. Pictures sold. Photographer Chris Corradino finally sold more of his micro 4/3 taken pictures than his full frame, rather underscoring the point made here countless times that when looking at a photograph no one can tell you what it was taken on. Even if they could, and maybe there are some people that can, or think they can, in the end it does not matter. The viewer isn’t the slightest bit interested in brand, sensor size or manufacturer (often not who you think), lens, weather sealing, menu options, filters or the colour of the photographers woolly hat (mine is black by the way). They are interested in, engaged by, the image. OK sometimes a few of the 2.6 billion estimated photographers (probably the hobbyists, pro’s and semi pro’s) on the planet might occasionally think “How did she do that?” but the answer is usually on YouTube, the web or in a book (old fashioned and distinctly analogue concept I know, but irreplaceable in my far from humble opinion).
Novelty aside, if megapixels, maximum apertures, brand name, cost of glass were more important than composition, the exposure triangle and actually pointing the camera at something remotely interesting in the first place, then you could simply buy your way to success. This is one area in life, though, where you can’t replace the (hopefully metaphorical) blood sweat and tears of learning a craft. For sure you can spend 20 hours or so getting a firm grasp of the rudimentaries and turn out some decent pictures if only more through accident than design, but, as the ever quotable Henri Cartier-Bresson pointed out: “Your first ten thousand photographs are your worst”. And he was talking in the days of film where the cost of your next frame was a consideration in pressing the shutter. Maybe it is now our first hundred thousand pictures that are our worst.
So what is the point of top end equipment? Essentially it is about flexibility and durability. Specialist requirements aside, such as tilt shift lenses and medium format cameras, it is about being able to go one stop further because you have to, it is about the ability of the equipment to take constant rough handling and still work; it’s about eliminating design and manufacturing flaws in optics which most of us either live with or don’t even know exist; it’s about built in redundancy whilst still being able to function. It is as much about confidence in the equipment working as anything else. What a professional pays for is not to worry about the kit working so that they get paid, not sued – and have a spare to hand anyway. And that is worth the premium as a professional photographer who gets a reputation for not delivering does not remain a professional photographer for long.
Then there is that old saw, “The best camera is the one you have with you”, which may be what the philosopher Daniel Dennett called a “Deepity”. A Deepity, according to Dennett, is something that sounds important and true but is really false and trivial. In this case the point is that which you have will freeze the moment in front of you before it disappears, that which you desire cannot. True but not very helpful. What it implies is more important though, and that is learn to use what you have to hand. The question is how does this handle the exposure triangle not what does this do?
Take the example of the camera most people have with them all the time these days. The one on the mobile phone. Yes they are subject to the same financial restrictions as making any other camera and once they were just an add on. Today they form part of the buying decision, certainly they are a big consideration in the makers marketing processes and therefore manufacturing decisions. Some professional and semi-professional photographers shoot on nothing else. There is even a hip term for it iphoneography, named after the Apple range, long held to mount the best cameras in a phone, but that is constantly under challenge from other manufacturers, such as Samsung. Huawei have gone so far as to link with Leica, who were part of the design team for their P9 and P10 cameras.
The basics stay the same as hinted at above, just altered a little. Get to know how your camera app (there are lots to choose from on both Android and iPhone) handles the exposure, ISO and aperture. The tools of composition don’t change. You are going to have to choose between digital zoom (reduces quality) and getting closer/further away by walking (reduces shoe leather). You can buy accessories to snap on your phone cover to act as wider angle or more telephoto (at a price) then you have to carry them and unless you are deliberately choosing the mobile phone as your camera of choice they are as likely to be elsewhere when you need them as to hand.
OK so in order to make the phone camera useable by a wider audience you might get some scene modes, like fireworks, portraits, indoors, HDR, slow shutter and so on. This is a, maybe I should say was a, big feature on compact cameras (still prefer mine to my phone, not least for the optical zoom). There is a trick to using these outside of the do-what-the-icon-says-to-take-pictures-of. Basically you need to experiment on controlled light conditions. You can then apply these camera settings as short cuts in the wild, so to speak. That’s before you get to the editing stage.
Editing on smartphones too often appears to be of the smear on variety (possibly because of the nature of the touch screen, more likely a love of the ready made), and is as subject to fashion as anything else. That is not to say that it cannot be used to add to the image overall, but it too often ends up looking like an amateur production pantomime dame made up in a hurry because he picked the kids up late from school. And there is the whole JPEG thing to yawn about. Yes you can shoot RAW on (some) smartphones and yes the same reasons exist to choose whichever you want according to your need. Same applies to this as to the pro-equipment remarks above, not least RAW cannot save a badly composed or otherwise uninteresting image.
Just because you have the latest and greatest smartest phone EVER, doesn’t mean that you are going to get an acceptable result simply by waving it at something vaguely interesting before going click. You are still going to have to work the scene, use different angles and shooting positions, get closer, get further away and so on. Consistently good images demand work as well as an eye for a picture and taking multiple images is no more expensive than on a stand-alone camera. Keep shooting until the moment is done, then and only then, move on.
N E X T M E E T I N G
ROC Round 3 Judging.
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. A bourgeois concept is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. He never once won a club competition round thinking like that. He did co-found the rather classy Magnum photo agency though, which he described as “…. A community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Well he would say that, I mean, not even a commended? Obviously a case of if you can’t join them beat them.
Our last session on the endlessly fascinating light painting and the impromptu follow up at Abbots Pool on Sunday techniques set me to thinking about this. Not particularly to bourgeois concepts, you understand, but how the technique generally requires stripping the camera electronics to the basics, especially when not combining any ambient light. Full manual set on a tripod and long exposures, at least we can sympathise with a William Fox-Talbot or a Roger Fenton, though we still have it a lot easier. Equipment is smaller and lighter, we can get, with digital at least, instant review and no messing about with chemicals – though that is a different kind of fun in itself.
We are still paying attention to the same basics then. Pre-focussing the lens in the general area of the soon to be action is more guess work than we are used to with auto-focus but we still have to maintain a level of sharpness. What we don’t want is our lenses hunting for a spot with sufficient contrast to lock on to. Most of the time it’s not going to find one in the dark. So, manual focus it is on two grounds. Most people at Abbots Pool seemed to be shooting towards the end at F10, yours truly, different as ever at F8 (actually from aquick excif check it was F8 all night), but that might be the difference in using an SLT camera as opposed to a DSLR. We want our images to retain the lines and patterns in what is technically known as an acceptable circle of confusion. Basically a zone of focus we register as “sharp”.
Shutter speed. Bulb is the order of the day with light painting, at least in the conditions we were shooting in at club and at Abbots Pool. If we are shooting traffic in town in order to capture the light trails then we are probably looking at somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds as a start point (again at F8, maybe F11) but that is just to find a base line. Similarly we would want to keep a constant aperture and most likely exposure time if we were painting a large object with a single light source (and that would be across frames).
The usual advice for a sharp picture is to use the reciprocal of the focal length, so a 50mm lens would suggest 1/50th of second minimum, a 210mm lens 1/250th. Theoretically at least. However this rule of thumb (tool) has been around a long time. Certainly on a full frame 35mm camera with no vibration reduction then it’s no bad way to go. However, should we lengthen the time by 1.5x or 1.6x to account for an APS-C lens? 2x for a Micro Four Thirds? And how much do we need with VR built in and turned on? Firstly that full frame thing is a bit of a false lead. As magnification increases the degree of movement needed to register as blur decreases. Magnification does not change with sensor size, the field (and depth) of view does (and low light capabilities and quality given the same number of photo-sites – or pixels as they are commonly called – and the relative numbers on the exposure triangle).Think of it as Width not depth, you won’t go far wrong. Practically, by the way, if it’s too big to see in the viewfinder, it aint gonna fit on the sensor. Secondly VR does allow us to lower shutter speed but how much depends upon the individual and the situation.
But hey, we are on bulb (shutter stays open as long as the shutter mechanism is activated), so all that doesn’t matter. And if we are on bulb then we are on a tripod or the camera is stabilised by some other means like a bean bag or a wall etc. The bulb by the way comes from the history of photography as it was a rubber bulb shaped object used to fire the trigger. As long as it was depressed (squeezed) the shutter mechanism remained open. Sound familiar? There is some question as to whether the VR should be turned off on tripod, I have never had to and I have VR on both my camera body and my main lens. Other people have and it has made a difference. Test it and find out for your camera. Then move on.
Shooting RAW or JPEG is a personal choice, get those things above right then it doesn’t matter. If you want or need to do a lot of playing around with colour channels, contrast etc then RAW is better. Otherwise do not fret. Fretting about RAW or JPEG is probably a bourgeois concept. Arguing about it rather than taking pictures is definitely a bourgeois concept. Move on.
Composition still counts. When in doubt about the area that is going to be used to complete the picture go wide and crop in post. You can take things out, you can’t put things in that you haven’t got a record for. Generally with the sort of light painting we were doing then going wide was not a bad strategy.
Post production is certainly a matter of personal taste. It can be fun to play around with effects and balances but, by and large, we don’t want it to look over processed. Unless we do. That’s why it’s a matter of personal taste. Printing your results though means that we are going to want as much colour space as we can get to reproduce the tones and subtleties of colour. sRGB is best for monitors, so we need to make allowances for this.
It doesn’t have to be complex, it gets better with practice and it is fun. Get out there and try some.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Speaker – Welcome to my outdoor office – Stephen Spraggon
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
Given the travails that we went through to get last meeting off the ground, loosing not one but two judges at very short notice, then Bristol traffic conspiring to wedge the prints in an immovable traffic jam on the other side of town, just when things looked like they might be going right leads one to wonder just what the universe was telling us. Absolute sterling work from the Competition Secretary, Mark O’Grady, frustrated by circumstance. Big thanks from all of us Mark, for going above and beyond. Then – and British readers of this blog will want to make sure that they are resolutely braced before taking this bit in – the tea urn went missing. Still we got somewhere in the end.
So, why does a club have competitions? There are, of course as many reasons for that as there are club members. Recognition, acclamation, ideas, feedback, discussion something to fill a hole in the calendar, are just a few of the headlines you could write a whole blog and more on each. No, don’t panic, I am not going to. When children draw they don’t have a concept of consequences, is this good or is this bad? Right colours? Does it look like it should? and so on. What they produce is intensely personal and very honest. As we grow older we learn notions of correctness and benefit and we unlearn the naiveté that made making pictures fun. Even of the abstract we come to demand technical proficiency. We corral our imagination.
In time we improve or abandon the pursuit according to circumstances and according to what we want. We buy a camera because we want to record a special occasion, a holiday or maybe our own children or children we are close to, a few of us because we are curious about pictures and want to get better at making them. Now- a-days, rather than buy a camera specifically we are much more likely to turn to our phones. The pictures we want to make are generally those we can create without the many hours and mess involved in painting, never mind the fine motor skills, which some turn into is photography art debates (Yes move on). Cameras and pictures are so much a part of society these days that picture making is pretty much second nature.
Most of those pictures being taken at this very moment are dull, boring, technically flawed and mean something only to the person who will forget they took it by tomorrow. They are constructed for different purposes. We decide to get better at this sort of thing and, suddenly, (nearly) everyone else’s pictures look better than ours. That can be a spur or it can put us off. Access to the ways of doing things is a lot easier now than it was, there are blogs and video channels aplenty as well as the more traditional routes through books and courses galore that blend all these. That, however, can make matters confusing rather than easier. So we know about the tools of odds, of thirds, of lead lines and negative space, symmetry, foreground interest and the effect of focal length, and the importance of balance and we know all about the exposure triangle. In fact we can know a lot about a lot and can still make pictures that lack impact.
The problem, at least in part, is that we have all these tools and rules but they are tools and rules of thumb. Certainly they exaggerate elements of the arrangement of the objects in the frame and hold others back but we keep coming up against the idea of technically proficient but subject deficient – and other people’s photographs still look better than ours. It is self doubt that becomes, once one has learned the basics, the biggest drag on learning. Sometimes we cannot see for looking. Sure, we need a mind open to development, open to seeing other people’s work, looking at other pictures in that picture but the frame of mind has to be positive and the habit has to be always looking for the picture – even when you can’t carry a camera. The habit is the thing that enables everything else, the letting go of the half-expectation of finding something to photograph and replacing it with the opportunities to see something to photograph.
That can be where club competitions come in. Yes we want to test our metal against others, but we also need feedback. No we don’t always agree with the judge, but we need to be able to say why. Yes the judging is subjective, yes its structure does mean certain types of photography may not fare as well, but it is a structured feedback on pictures that are anonimised and it is something that you can work with if you choose. The more experienced judges should come with a wider perspective anyway and whereas they will have their likes and dislikes – some of them strong – the perspective they are showing is a start.
If we can get into the habit of the feedforward loop we will do ourselves an enormous favour. Feedforward is when we take the experience of a previous occasion and use it to improve (control) a future event. Learning from the future ” Images of adaptive future behaviour, hitherto not mastered” (Wikipedia) or in our case getting the picture we see in our head as a Jpeg by design not accident, is something we can only do as design.
Next session is a 10 by 10 (or there abouts) where members talk about their own images, what they got from them, what they would do differently (among other things). Open to all members, bring some along and join in, especially our newer members, as we are all interested in photography and this is a good opportunity to share it.
Taking someone’s photograph. Simple enough concept. A person, a camera, a photographer, a photograph. We might hope that the exposure is correct, the focusing correct and the person in the photograph recognisable if not by name at least as a person, as opposed to a smudge in a frame, a blur, a blot on the landscape. The technicalities don’t cover that, the story, the connection between viewer and subject. It could be the technically inept smudge, barely recognisable in some anonymous background, means the world to someone, because the person it is, or was, the world to them, or a substantial part of it. The casual observer cannot tell, for each of us, regardless of connection are pulled in or gloss over the representation of the person/s in the frame according to our own lives.
So much so passport photograph. Easy enough to gloss over the stare-into-the-lens, remove-all-distractions, flat-light-hard-lit likeness used for identification, though there are simple reasons for that style in an identification document. Its value is embedded in its function. It is a statement of who we are, where we are from, rather than an expression of it. Yet it is only an issue when we lose it or use it. The photograph on our photo-id is probably far more important to us than any other in the practical sense, but among the least regarded.
Take that self same fixed-stare, clean-background, no-distractions and Rembrandt light it. In reality we are adding, rather adjusting, the full-on photo booth glare for an unequal amount of light and shadow to construct a more pleasing aesthetic (More accurately, if not so informatively, we are subtracting light, but we will let that pass). By moving the light up and to one side we get a very different story. By doing so we immediately break the rules of passport photography, we render it bureaucratically void, but we make another, aesthetic, case for that image. The strength and appeal of that case is dependent upon the viewer, their literal and psychological perspectives.
Pull back a bit. Step backwards, zoom out which ever takes your fancy. Create a little space around your subject. Yes I know what Robert Capa said, and we are still looking at a plain background and the Rembrandt light because that is where we more or less started. What can you do with that space? Space doesn’t sound very productive, but handled in the right way adds to the overall balance. Essentially the way we use space in a frame is to give the subject a focus when not looking directly to the camera, so that there is enough space in the rest of the frame for the subject to look into. This helps form the question within the viewers mind as to what we cannot see what it is that takes the subjects attention. It is a well of curiosity and viewers will tend to look into the area the subject is looking into.
Space used in this way (usually asymmetrically) divides into two. The active space is the one described above. Negative space, apart from being the rest, and also being known as dead space, is what makes the subject stand out from the background but it needs to be handled carefully or it detracts from the overall image. As such this is all part of the rules of composition and the visual balance, which we last visited last two weeks ago.
Now comes the but …. Robert Capa was right. At least he was also right. Different crop, different picture, same image. Take a look at the pictures you took of Ashleigh, Becki and Keith last meeting (and thanks to you three for being such patient models). Some great one’s posted by club members but not a single one that couldn’t be made into one, two or three other pictures. Cropping in post is one way of doing it for sure, but changing your position, up, down, left, right, nearer, further gives you six variations of that first framing. Seven different pictures. Have a go in post. Just the cropping – at least at first, then maybe light and shadow – you will get two or three useable, different pictures out of the exercise. Then go find someone to photograph, natural lighting will do, but using those six variations to get seven pictures.
So, following the above, we have a Rembrandt lit square on image of someone in too much space. Time to move the model. Now there are posing guides and techniques – Gerry Painter did a very informative evening based on Lindsay Adler last season and Mark O’Grady and Rob Heslop did a studio lighting presentation back in November that showed a lot into a short time – aplenty on the web.
It is important to establish exactly why whoever you are taking the pictures for wants them taken. Business, fashion, blog, CV, anniversary, all have different requirements in formality and style. That really is question number one when taking portraiture – why am I taking this? Even when we are taking them on a club night for pleasure, the question is what story am I telling here? Mystery? Mirth? Sadness? Loss? Happy times? Want? Wanton? When Damien Lovegrove took a session a couple of seasons back, he was happy to show how a story colours our perception of the picture. That is what we allow others to see, no matter that their story is different.
There are certain conventions attached to certain types of portraiture which is tied up with their use. Corporate head shots is the obvious one that springs to mind. They differ from actors head shots in some small ways. Then there is the whole baby/infant/toddler/child thing. For all those expectations, indeed to meet those expectations, it is still the contact with the subject that counts.
Rule, and I do mean rule, one. Talk to your subject. Do not talk at your subject. The point is the person in the picture, not the smart-arse button operator. For sure some people have a very strong opinion of how and what should be done on both sides of the camera, however, this whole interaction is a bargain. A bargain, in the most colloquial sense, is the receipt of something that represents more than the time, effort and most frequently hard cash that we have put into something. Effort takes time and time is money if you need that squared away. It is an agreement between two or more people based around give and take and when entered into proportionally can produce something more than either party bargained for – in a good way. Good rapport is at the centre of any successful portrait session.
N E X T M E E T I N G
9th Feb 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Lyn James LRPS: “People and Places”.
Here’s something or nothing. Did you realise that we, as photographers, take images in additive (Red, Green, Blue or RGB) and print in subtractive (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black or CMYK, the K stands for Key) colours? Explains, partially, why we have printer profiles I suppose, but as the last session was about editing and the previous was about composition and we have talked about colour space before, which impacts on what we will be talking about here, it seems proper that we talk about colour in a little more depth.
It matters way beyond photography though. In a much quoted survey, “92.6 percent said that they put most importance on visual factors when purchasing products. Only 5.6 percent said that the physical feel via the sense of touch was most important. Hearing and smell each drew 0.9 percent.
When asked to approximate the importance of color (sic) when buying products, 84.7 percent of the total respondents think that color (sic) accounts for more than half among the various factors important for choosing products”.
Source: Secretariat of the Seoul International Color Expo 2004
“92% Believe color (sic) presents an image of impressive quality
90% Feel color (sic) can assist in attracting new customers
90% Believe customers remember presentations and documents better when color (sic) is used
83% Believe color (sic) makes them appear more successful
81% Think color (sic) gives them a competitive edge
76% Believe that the use of color (sic) makes their business appear larger to clients”
Source: Conducted by Xerox Corporation and International Communications Research from February 19, 2003 to March 7, 2003, margin of error of +/- 3.1%.
Colour perceptions and the way that colour works is vastly important, yet most photographers, even the ones who know about the colour wheel and might even know some colour theory, don’t always use it to the maximum advantage probably because we take the environment that we are capturing as outside of our control. Studio work excepted, where control is, can be, total. It will help us to be aware of why colour and shape attract us in the first place and a little understanding of colour theory, including the psychological and emotional effects of colour, can be made to go a long way.
Using colours effectively can have a big impact. we can use it to draw the eye, tell a story or change the mood. HDR often suffers from being what I call beige, that is the colours are muted and squashed together in spectrum which certainly gives them a look, but not necessarily a pleasant one. Shooting in RAW really helps here because if you desaturate to black and white and get a very grey image then it is telling you something. Altering the sliders for individual colours has an effect, even in black and white, and can help balance things more to your taste. Why RAW? Because RAW gives you more. More data to affect the final outcome. JPEG isn’t terminal here it is just limiting.
Whilst we are on the subject of sliders, saturation is more often than not the guilty party. Saturation is the intensity of a colour. Value, which is related is the brightness or darkness of a colour, gives you the same saturation but it effects the visibility of that colour on screen. Between them you can get a range of shades. Highly saturated colours are very shouty. A whole image made up of saturated colours can be overwhelming unless very skilfully applied.
The idea that certain colours complement each other is as old as the ideas of colour and art go and nature cottoned on the signal properties of colour long before humanity came along. What follows is a jaunt around the colour wheel from a solo trip to several in company. The simplest colour harmony is one where a single colour predominates. Monochrome. Best for single subjects and striking effects, How photographic in principle can you get? It can be a wash of sepia or a cyanotype, the striking light of the rising or setting sun, or a single colour like a red, a pink, a green a yellow or any other colour that works. The next circuit is one in the company of near neighbours, analogous harmonies. These are the colours that are adjacent to each other on the wheel, the ones either side of the primary colour we are looking at. It tends to create feelings of comfort in the viewer, no jarring opposites to clash with our senses. Any landscaper or natural photographer will tell you it is most often found in nature.
Things start to get a little bit more complicated with the triadic. Think of a clock with hour, minute and second hands permanently at a 120 degree separation, so pointing, for instance at 12 4 and 8 on the dial or 1,5 and 9, 2,6 and 10 etc. It can be quite difficult to pull off but it is very striking. The one we have all probably heard of is the complementary, opposite sides of the colour wheel through the full 360 degrees (well, logically 180 degrees as you have then covered everything in the full circle but that might be being picky). They really are the two colours that go best with each other but rarely, very rarely, do they work when in equal amounts. There needs to be an imbalance, probably in favour of the less strident of the two colours (green, if red and green, blue if yellow and blue for instance) because the other way round throws the whole scene out of balance because of where the eye is drawn.
So why leave it there, why not complicate it by using split complimentary colours? Well why not. Similar to the basic complimentary, what it does is split the range of one end of the opposites between two analogous colours, it’s an hour earlier than the triadic on our imaginary colour watch, so 12 is complimented by colours at 5 and 7 o’clock (red by blue and green for example) 1 by 6 and 8, 2 by 7 and 9. But, I know, that is not complicated enough for you, well, sir, madam, out the back and for very special customers only, we have the tetrad. Now this comes in two flavours. The rectangle and the square. Basically four corners arranged around the wheel or two sets of complimentary colours. Again the application should be in favour of the weaker colours or you will get a mess. And if that doesn’t produce something close enough to a dog’s dinner then you can try the adjacent tetrad, same principle but the complementaries are immediately next to each other on the wheel. Multi colour schemes are extremely difficult to control but might be found in the built environment. For those you have to trust your eye or make it the story of the image.
So, in your studio, light tent, bokeh creations or in the wild, but MOST particularly in post production, don’t over-do the saturation; use high contrast values to get the viewing eye’s attention; use colour harmonies (there others in addition to the ones we have looked at) to maximise impact.
One very good resource you want to look at if you want to take this forward is the remarkably informative and flexible Adobe colour (OK Color) wheel.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Portrait Evening: Photographing a couple of models with studio lights and backdrops.
Morag McDonald was our guest last meeting and she addressed a lot over a short time. Interesting history and a combination of the academic and the practical. There was a lot of talk after the meeting about cropping and composition so it was to the latter that we address ourselves in this post and will look at colour next week – which is also editing part ii so bring your laptops.
Composition, or getting the stuff you are looking at in the right place in the right proportion to tell our story most effectively is going to be part of any successful photograph. It is the grammar that supports the plot that tells the story that grips the reader. Rules are often talked about, but talked about as rules, “Authoritative, prescribed directions for conduct, especially ones of the regulation governing procedure …” are not at all helpful to the developing photographer. We need to learn to look for stories first then compose, rather than look for structure then find a story. Rules are designed, applied and enforced to reproduce a stable set of circumstances. We must do it this way in order to ape the greats and get an acceptable photograph. Logically, then, all photographs should look the same, should comply to a half dozen, or less, formats and nothing of any worth happened after Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was classically trained and used it to great artistic effect.
Tools, on the other hand, anything used as a means of performing an operation or achieving an end, are very useful. Cameras are tools. Lenses are tools. Flash guns and strobes are tools. Light modifiers are tools. Filters are tools. These are the ones we to tend to think of as tools because they come at a cost to our bank balances and credit ratings. They are the tools of capture. The most effective tools we have to tell our stories, on the other hand, are free, easily accessed and well known. They are the tools of composition.
The composition of an image has three parts to it. The focal element, the structure and the balance. We will look at each of these in turn, starting with the biggest culprit in dulling the impact of an image, the focal element. Without a focal element, or with too many focal elements, the eye goes on a hunting trip for something to focus on. The eye isn’t really the problem here it is the brain, of course, and our brains work on the principle of rapid summation of our environment and the ordering of threats in it. Basically that has not changed since we all lived in caves, in Africa and shared the name Ug. What’s the point? That is the first thing the brain looks at when it surveys a scene. What’s going on? It needs limited information to form an initial judgement which will be refined as other information adds to this judgment or detracts from it to the point it becomes redundant. We constantly reconcile what we see with what we think we know.
The sort of things our eyes will latch on to the focal elements that show high contrast, high saturation, sharpest focus, motion, faces and or figures. These in turn will be influenced by items such as leading lines, framing and geometry.
Structure is probably what we think of first (and that might be part of the problem) and certainly it’s where the idea of rules in composition is seated. We are talking about such items as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, pyramids and triangles, symmetry and filling the frame. They are all sound under the circumstances that tell the story best for that structure. Think of them as plot devices.
The rule of thirds has four points, known as eyes, of importance and the idea of these is to put something of importance at the intersection one of these points a third or two thirds across the frame and a third or two thirds down it. A second element can be place on one of the adjoining thirds to provide balance (diagonals seem to work best by adding depth in 3D in a 2D environment, but that might just be a personal preference). It has to be said that these points are not absolute (it’s a tool remember) and that objects placed in proximity work just as well or good enough depending on your aesthetic. Of course not everyone is a fan of it.
The Golden Ratio is everywhere we look it seems. It also explains why all those classical Greco-Roman statues are beholding grapes at odd angles. The Rule of Thirds is often referred to as a simplified Golden Ratio, but when it comes to classical composition the Golden Ratio is king. It is found commonly in nature and can be expressed through the Fibonacci Sequence. Now whether it is there and we impose it or we find it because it is there is always open (this link explores in detail). It is also a tricky blighter to get right and its mere presence is no guarantee of the perfect image – plenty of images to be found that are technically proficient but subject deficient. There is no denying that it is fascinating and when it works it works, but remember to the viewer it is an explanation of why this image works not the point of it.
Pyramid Composition, aka triangle composition, is really a matter of converging lines. Converging lines are more usually associated with wide angle lenses because they are more obvious in those perspectives and indeed, we spend time in post “correcting” them. Really we are imposing order on physics because we want our vertical lines vertical not curved (unless shooting with a fisheye lens of course) nor angled at anything but the perpendicular. As we are talking composition we are talking about deliberately converging lines not incidental ones. Leading lines are the most frequently encountered pyramidal tool in the advice given. They converge on a point, our eyes naturally follow that conversion so we need to make certain that our focal point sits at the point of conversion. If the lines within that pyramid follow its boundary lines then the effects are reinforced. It’s a matter of our next tool, symmetry.
Symmetry is repetition of a pattern on both sides of an axis. We associate it with power and beauty. It is explained in Gestalt psychology but we have already touched upon this when we talked about the brains need for patterns and conforming details. Basically our brains crave patterns and if we can find them and use them to concentrate the viewers imagination in the frame we present them then we are on the way, given a sufficiently compelling subject, to making a successful photograph.
Last but not least of our little selection of tools and before we go to our third element, balance, we are back with the oft quoted (here at least) Frank Capa: If our photograph isn’t good enough it’s because we are not close enough. We are moving beyond Capa’s original intent here, which was about connection with your subject. Basically, fill the frame. Essentially you use a single element, like the details in a face, to take up the whole frame. A face is a good example because it has a high degree of symmetry to it and so fits in a frame quite balanced along the central vertical axis. Doesn’t have to be a face, of course, but it should be minimal in the number of subjects In the frame, that is, one image in the frame.
Is there any order to these? No. These are just a very few of the design principles, tools, we can use. we need to learn to decide what tool we are going to use in order to get the result we want. Advice for the beginner would be to start by ensuring you fill the frame and try the rule of thirds. When you have mastered these tools then expand your tool kit, deliberately, by which I mean we go out to deliberately shoot x number of frames in a session based on tool y. Take notes.
So the third element of this composition monster is a thing called visual balance. Basically everything you capture in a frame has an effect a weight in relation to the rest of the frame and the other things in it. Things that can affect the visual weight of an object in a frame include relative sizes, shape, number, high contrast, saturation, brightness, faces, figures etc. They need to be played off so everything seems to part of the whole and those things have a harmony to them. There are a Of course disharmony has a place too, but let’s get the basics right before we start to get cocky.
So, this composition thing in a nutshell: One clear element arranged within a structure to make a point in a scene that is balanced. Simples. Maybe …..