The WCPF travelling critique was our last evening, and as ever there is something to be got out of sitting down and critically discussing the works of other photographers, especially if we then extend that to our own work. Some photographers get too caught up in the notions of developing a style or shooting a particular way thinking that their body of work will evolve through consistency alone.
That is like braking going uphill, sometimes it is necessary, but it involves a great deal of wasted energy. It is understandable though when the idea that photographic style is a filter we apply to an image. No this is not an anti-Instagram rant, and if that sounds like something we use to combat the symptoms of hay fever then now is an opportunity to catch up by clicking here.
But Instagram is a good place to start. Kevin Systrom, who was a co-founder of Instagram and who did very nicely, thank you, when it was sold to Facebook, had the idea seeded for the app when a Professor in Italy introduced him to the Holga camera, a cheap everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do sort of camera that produces very retro looking pictures on 120 roll film. But that quirkiness actually forms the basis of the Holga’s modern-day appeal and yes, you can get filters to modify your everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do to do Holga-esque images, just make sure you are well braced when you do because the weight of the irony of that is going to hit your wallet pretty hard.
The fact is film had/has its own look. Each brand would have their own unique ways of capturing and processing the light. Just in slide film: Kodachrome went through several “looks” over its life; Fuji was noted for its blue tones; Agfa was something else again; ditto Scotch, the list goes on.
Then there are/were the options/limitations in printing. Papers, inks, chemicals, sizes, frames, viewing options and conditions all have an impact. What they cannot do, however, is cover for lousy composition. Poor lighting. Wrong exposure. Unengaged subject. Surely filters / looks / processes / post-production can lend atmosphere to an image but unless the style is “Never mind the quality feel the width” they are not going to do much for our artistic integrity.
What we are looking for is a quality of the imagination, showing our individuality by drawing with light (Greek: photo – light graphy from graphe making lines or as we would call it, drawing). Style in the literary sense is about how the tools of language, clauses, spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like are put together to make an impression on the reader. We use light and shadow, directionality, the tools of composition and a photosensitive surface capable of recording the fall of light and dark on a subject in the same way. We fashion a statement on a subject.
What other people are doing is a start, but it is only a start. Copying what others have done, making a re-interpretation of something that has gone before, making our own statement, is a great way to learn but it is a means to an end. However, it is not the reason we pick up the camera (at least before we disappear up our own dirt pipes like the voice over on any given perfume advert). Understanding the technicalities by replicating the image is a learning tool, not an end in itself.
That said there is a notion that we can move between taking snapshots to making photographs. In so doing we develop, through habit, a photographic style. Whether it is a conscious statement or not. Perhaps we keep making the same mistakes, is that a style? Broadly yes but it is the elimination of the incidental and replacing it with the deliberate that makes a difference. It is that interpretation that is the seedbed of the individual’s style. That is when we start bothering less about what everyone else is doing.
Defining our style is one thing. Refining it is something else. Technical skills matter, you have to be able to apply the rules before you can start breaking them successfully. Purpose is the key. And lots of lots of practice. Lots and lots and lots.
Longtime sufferers of this blog will know that the world is divided into two. The Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. I err towards the former, but that is a personal thing. The fact is we need skills in both, but that we are probably better at one than the other.
That said there is a lot of time effort and money to be spared in getting the thing you have in your head onto your computer file (that is what we are creating until the image is printed) in as close to finished form as we can in the place where most of the important elements and all the results of those irreparable decisions are made. The camera. Just don’t let it get in the way.
Having the camera and lighting skills gives us the option to manipulate what we see in the fashion we want it seen. Post-production then tidies up and polishes. That sequence is the one that lets our style evolve and show through. Is it the only way? I doubt it. Having the confidence in using the materials we have to hand to make our statement makes for a stronger more assured one. When the “rules” are broken it is to a deliberate effect. Style thus evolves through confidence.
Happy New Year as we enter the 2017 portion of the season. We kicked off with the first of two editing related sessions, next week we have a speaker talking about the Photoshop Plug In, Topaz. This week it was members to turn to sharpen, hue, pare, crop, colour, desaturate and or generally mangle, torture and deface – depending upon your individual tastes – a common set of five images. The proof of the pudding being in the consumption it is fair to say that though the number of source images was small, no two interpretations were the same.
At the risk of being thought to have imbibed too much of the new year spirit we are going to look at what it is we are actually presenting. Taking this right back to basics then no two images, once altered, are the same. They bare the imprint, however minute, of the person who altered them and the peculiarities of the tools that they were altered with. Also they are most definitely not, cannot be for reasons of time, geography and interpretation be the same as the photographer – s/he who pressed the shutter and was witness to what was captured. What is actually being photographed is another perspective again, because it is in a different place in time and space to the camera.
So much is true, essential in that we are talking the laws of physics, but nonetheless not particularly of great importance when it comes to our taking photographs. Except in two circumstances. One is in the circumstance of where we are using the image as the basis of a piece of art – The conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words (Freedictionary.com) – a pleasing representation of something we have seen, framed, captured and post processed in the hope of making something that the viewer can form an emotional attachment to. The other is a claim that what we are showing is the truth (as opposed to a truth) – Conformity to fact or actuality (Freedictionary.com). The first is an opinion the second is an assertion, for unless present we have no way of knowing just how truthful a claim that is.
So what? Well in the former, I agree with you, so what? Not being a collector of fine art, or otherwise, prints. Apart from the fact that a lot can be learned by looking critically at other peoples work, it is a personal matter as well as something that is subject to fads and fashions and more or less informed opinions. That is not to say that certain commonalities cannot be agreed in what we accept as pleasing to the eye.
It is said that “The Camera never lies” (Robert Louis Stevenson), which Caesar Romero contradicted, “It lies every day”. Stevenson was making a point about the difference between fine art and photography though I prefer David Bailey‘s assertion that ” It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. (In “Face,” London, Dec 1984). The fact remains that certain physical limitations endure and it takes a certain skill to get round it.
Does it matter, then, if we alter images? Of course not and yes, absolutely! As ever context is all. The camera is neutral. Whatever is in front of it it will render a more or less recognisable facsimile of, depending on our mastery of focus and the exposure triangle. Our job, behind the camera, is to let this story making tool tell a story. If we are claiming that the story we are telling is a true one, then absolutely it matters if and what we enhance/remove. This is especially the case in photojournalism where the reputation of the publication using an image can be severely tainted by the manipulation of a photograph to tell an enhanced story.
So there is, in some areas, a tension between truth and beauty. That is before we come back to matters of taste but there is still a question of whether it matters if an image is a photograph or a graphic design? Again, of course not and absolutely! It counts in the matter of work flow, especially when editing. We have, many times, referred to the opposing camps of Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. In truth we probably aspire to the former but fall back on the latter, but there is a reason why the Camera-ista has a point and it is linked to a number of themes we have looked at over the past couple of years.
First off is the argument about artist/artisan. Frankly I find this to be an empty one. If you take something and make something else of it then you have created art. Art may not be the end which you had in mind, for instance if you took wood to make a chair I am guessing that you would rather sit on it than look at it, but there will be a reaction to the way that it has been put together and thought about, its design, that will include an overall effect. This overall effect is where the art concept lives. It is not all of it, but it is an integral part of it.
Secondly, fine motor skills and the ability to pick up a pencil or a brush and create a representation of a person or thing is the same as picking up any other tool and making the same. The camera is a tool. Mastery of the tool leads to mastery over the final result. It does nothing to add soul to the final result, but it is a gate keeper to others interacting with that same soul. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax, Olympus, Hasalblad, Phase One and the rest, immaterial. Light and the laws of physics work the same way for them all. Post processing may be able to put things in but it can only bring out soul if soul is there to be found in the first place. Post processing, and by far the most commonly found is the Photoshop/Creative Cloud family but I mean post processing in general, is just another tool. You can be good bad or indifferent in using it.
So get out, photograph, think about what you photograph, look at others photograph, learn the ways of light, bring it home, polish it, present it and go again. Sounds like some sort of hobby to me.
Happy New Year.
Anne Cook made a welcome return to Reflex with another illuminating talk that was, let’s face it, fun. We can’t always locate the terms guest speaker and fun in the same sentence and whether we learn anything apart from the hardness of chairs that children are subjected to in modern day education (chairs, damn it, the cold hard floor was what we got, etc etc) is not necessarily a topic we need to travel to club to speculate on. The feedback from members was particularly effusive which is always a good sign.
Ann showed, amongst many other fine examples some images taken at carnival, which is particularly apposite to this time of year as we are coming to the end of the Somerset season. The last one on the Somerset circuit is at Wells this coming Friday (18th November 19:00 get there early). Having attended the Burnham-On-Sea round this year I can definitely affirm that it is something well worth making the time and effort, if you can get there.
So we are going to look at taking photo’s of street processions at night. The most obvious thing is that we are talking of photographing very high contrast scenes, that are moving, admittedly slowly, that can look distinctly two dimensional as brilliant point of light swim through a sea of black, which generally require high ISO’s to get reasonable shutter speeds and some interesting metering challenges.
There will be the large floats, some a part of a two three or four articulated trailers, but there will also be smaller floats, hand carts and individuals decked out in lights, there will be groups and there will be all sorts of other wheeled and ambulatory traffic. Variety is not short at these affairs and the lights are the main attraction.
The basic answers to these conundrums is to crop tight, centre weight or spot meter and expose to the right.
Cropping tight means we are likely to even out the overall exposure in a reasonable amount of the frames we capture. We will still get areas of high contrast and some of them will still have totally blown out areas of white and areas of inky blackness, but there are a significant number where we can limit the dynamic range some. This can put more emphasis on the mid-tones but whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of taste and of colour.
Metering these days is a lot smarter than it was five years ago. Leaving our camera on matrix / evaluative (basically our cameras approximation of the whole frame) isn’t necessarily a disaster, modern algorithms are pretty good at drawing conclusions that prove to be reasonably “accurate” (they are accurate but that has to be measured against our expectations) but we are talking an average balanced somewhere between the highest and the lowest value. Most cameras have the opportunity to switch between two other modes that increasingly ignore larger parts of the scene.
This gives us more information about a smaller part of the scene that we have judged to be more important. How do we know that? Well we’ve pointed our camera at it and taken notice of what effect this has had on our suggested exposure triangle settings. This is either because the scales in our view finder for shutter/aperture or under or over exposure are indicating a problem or the scene in our EVF is too dark or too light. What the camera has done is taken all the zones programmed into it and set these against where we are focused to give the reading a final weighting. There are other considerations but these change form manufacturer to manufacturer and can incur consideration such as colour, highlights and so on – Nikon use a comparison data base of shots of similar light/shade characteristics. This is common to Evaluative and centre weighted modes.
More so than fancy names for “Taking-the-whole-frame-into-consideration”, centre weighted does what it says on the tin. It takes the information in the centre of the frame into account either severely downgrading or completely ignoring the information on the outside of the frame. It doesn’t, by and large take notice of the focal point, instead just giving it a general, centre balanced reading. By restricting the area taken into consideration, prominence is given to the area more likely to include the crux of the image. Good when the boarders contain light that is in strong contrast to the main subject and might otherwise have undue influence on the final decision.
Spot takes the central are only, around 2% of the frame, around the focus point. Everything else is ignored. Photographing wildlife or Super-moons (or just the plain old ordinary moon which in the carnival context is a lot more apposite) benefit from this. Taking the moon in particular, the difference is a blown out image using the evaluative or centre weighted options because the light reflected from the moon is many, many times stronger than that which might be bouncing around the rest of the atmosphere. The argument in the wildlife example stems from a similar situation, say in the question of a bird in flight where it will be darker than the sky it is set in, or for the variations between fur and the cover it is in or breaking from. A characters face in comparative dark to the lights of a float with, potentially, tens of light bulbs throwing a shadow, yields a similar situation. Our meter might read the scene but in ways only remotely related to the way we see it.
Exposing to the right in itself gives no clear clue as to what exactly it is we are talking about. It relates to the histogram (posh name for graph) that we find somewhere in our camera’s menus and which we can turn on so that it appears in our camera’s live view and or view finder (depending on make and model). Pretty much every camera has the facility including some, but certainly not all, compacts and is also referred to as ETTR, even in polite company. The way the histogram is set out the shadows are on the left and the highlights are to the right. We don’t want spikes at the extremes of the scale because that tells us we are producing images that are heavily under or over exposed. Fine, but only to a degree, if we are shooting high key or low key portraits or similar.
What we want, in an ideal world is for there to be a fairly even shaped curve in between the two extremes of the histogram. That gives us an image that is evenly exposed. Of course this depends on the lighting of the scene and in extremes we know that shadows are more recoverable than burnt out highlights (if it is truly burnt out there is no useable information there to recover). Therefore we expose deliberately for the highlights in the picture and recover the shadows in post using whatever editing programme we have access to.
Of course it is a matter of personal preference, some people are dead set against the idea of ETTR, personally I find it useful, especially when someone else is controlling the lighting. In the studio we have more options and it entirely depends upon the sort of image we want to craft. The argument evolves around the number of tones on show in the image. If we are shooting a 12 bit RAW image we have 4096 tones available across the range. Each f-stop in our range (remember our meters render an average for the scene) accounts for twice as many tones as the previous one as our f-number increases. The brightest part of the range in the image accounts for half of the available tones, the next stop about half of that again and so on. The whole calculation takes place within the dynamic range of the camera sensor and that again is dependent upon make and model.
What happens is that by exposing to the right stretches out the details to the left and the more that happens the less smooth the transition between the dark tones, and we risk compromising the quality of the picture. That is why we need to look at taking pictures of the carnival floats in the context of the other two considerations we talked about above because the more we operate towards the centre of the cameras dynamic abilities the more leeway we have to accommodate the extremes of light and dark.
Go and enjoy.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Kev Spiers and Rich Price on their return to Iceland.
Colin Wall CPAG addressed us last meeting as the “Opportunistic Photographer” donating his fee to the Sight Savers Charity, as is his practice. Colin’s philosophy sits well with the club motto, “To us it’s not the camera but the picture that counts” (you knew that though, didn’t you?) and whereas there are many long conversations to be had around the topic, Colin preferred that his pictures prove the point and we gained some valuable insights to that line of thinking on the way. Although we may not be interested with what an image was made or indeed how it was made (though replicating looks and subjects and techniques is a great way to learn) there is still a fascination versus need thing going on the customer side of the counter. I don’t know of many photographers who can’t retroactively justify buying new-to-them kit. There is a need there that has to be fulfilled sooner or later.
Explaining to the significant other is a whole different aspect, of course. They may not, poor souls, understand the need. I find window shopping in camera shops quite easy when stony broke, find it quite easy to be price sensitive when the price tag feels like a lot. The most dangerous time to lurk around the nearest camera shop, I find, is when I can nearly afford it.
The how it was made thing Colin extended to post production. Certainly he feels that there is a division growing one we have related to before here on many occasions, as the Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas versus Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. The photography magazines do seem to be getting fuller of obvious post production work and there are some that, whilst being quite stunning in their appearance do make me wonder whether the original has got lost in the production. Not that I wouldn’t mind better post production skills, certainly I find it absorbing, but sometimes I wonder if some people use RAW so they have to fiddle. At what stage does a photograph become a digital photogram? Cue everyone’s pet hate rants.
So how do you know when you’ve over processed? Well that is a leading question because one photographer’s meat is another photographer’s poison. The analogy works with tofu too, so vegetarians need not feel left out. I have had a competition judge tell me that an effect (sepia) was “slapped on” for no reason, but then ignorance is bliss, his and his alone, I uncharitably thought at the time, and also tell me that the background should have been blurred, on a tree that was about half a mile away across a body of water. Well no and maybe. The second could only have been done post process (I didn’t have the tools then anyway). So, yes it does have its uses but ultimately the success of a photograph is that first impression, the thing that draws you in. That is a matter of taste and tastes change over time. That doesn’t stop anyone, and I am not suggesting that it should.
Colin told us that attention to the basics of composition pays dividends. Yes it’s an old saw, but one that directly relates to the impact subjects have within the frame. When we frame an image we exclude as much as we include. We have to do the exclusion thing in order to achieve the inclusion thing. It relates directly to the impact that we create in that image. This is where the “I’ll fix that in post” thing comes in. A Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-ista will tell you to move around, varying your angles through moving the subject left and right, up and down and in and out. Then when you have the best and if you can’t remove distracting objects from view, you go to post. Often it has merit, sometimes it is a case of fixing it in editing software. Looking for and framing shapes, textures and details are the things you do camera-in-hand. Strong diagonals and repetitive details, colour or black and white can be considerations too. The details take you beyond the merely documentary, or if being rude about it, point and shoot. He also mentioned something about policing the frame for distracting detail. Specifically he told us to beware bright spots, the colour red, faces and text as they can distract from the main subject. Even those people who wonder in and out of shot when shooting in crowds can be avoided by waiting, as even the largest crowds, as long as they are moving will have gaps appear in them. It can be a lot quicker than painstakingly airbrushing people out of your shot. Doesn’t count in Wedding Photography though. The crowd is rather the point ….
Ye-Acolytes-Of-Photoshop (True Believers Branch) will quite sensibly answer this with one word. Workflow. Workflow is the organisation of materials in such a way so as to transition efficiently and effectively from one sub-process to another in order to get a job done with minimum resources consistent with maximum impact. It starts in camera as the closer to the desired result the raw material is the less processing it needs. If you are processing a large number of photographs then you need to get this right, especially, but not exclusively, if you are being paid for it, you are effectively diluting your hourly rate, a thing called opportunity cost – that which you have lost by undertaking this choice. Taking this a step forward: for every hour you spend getting something wrong costs you three hours – the hour you spent getting it wrong; the hour you spend putting it right and the hour you lost when you could have been doing something more productive instead. So £18 rapidly drops below minimum wage.
So our thanks to Colin for a thought provoking evening and one given in a good cause. We look forward to seeing you again.
T O N I G H T ‘S M E E T I N G
Light Trails – the goodly number of us who attended the light trails session on the centre get to show and discuss our results. As long as you bring those pictures with you! Or its going to be a long evening ….