Local (very) professional Alistair Campbell was our guest speaker last meeting before the Xmas Social and a very engaging one at that. A videographer and photographer, Alistair presented a structured but loose format evening with plenty of Q and A and plenty of engagement from club members.
The takeways from this evening were, in no particular order: understand but don’t obsess about things like camera settings (the light, unless totally artificial isn’t going to be the same if we go back and shoot again, or even, sometimes from a different angle); travel light and get to know your gear; find your background first, then put your subject in it; and the talent that comes before any other is the one we can all develop – putting in the hard work.
One of the things that Alistair put forward was the idea of a personal project. That might sound a bit like a busman’s holiday for a professional photographer but it allows Alistair to do what he wishes with the photographs. For hire there is a certain amount of tooing and froing when working with clients, the results have to be satisfactory to them for them to pay up and also place repeat business (the cheapest sort of business to get). They get a say.
A project is a good way to concentrate on skills and styles, maybe favourites maybe new. They are something that can be allocated a specific time or something that we pick up and put down. And about anything.
When a subject has been hit upon, then comes the technical bits. We may be learning new techniques but it is very unlikely that the entire project is new to us. At the very simplest level, it is still all about ISO, shutter speed, aperture (or controlling light) and composition.
What it does is give us a chance to look at getting as much right in camera as possible, another of Alistair’s themes. This saves time in post, of course, but in this context teaches us something about using our equipment to the best advantage. If the equipment is new or unfamiliar it is a great chance to learn how to get the best out of it.
Start with the end in mind, something we have visited before. The purpose that this infers, doing the things we enjoy deliberately, enables us to put some markers down as we progress, points that become important when we review what we have achieved. It doesn’t matter what the end looks like – documentary, images over time a multitude of possible outcomes are viable – as long as we know what it looks like.
Intent is one thing, actually doing something can often be quite another. This is why keeping the outcomes limited but definitive is important, so that we can visit and revisit the project frequently. Under this same heading if the thing we are photographing happens on a regular basis then we have more of a chance of being able to connect with it, photograph it.
It also makes sense that a subject with some variation to it makes for more opportunities. This means there will be different if related challenges involved. It could mean applying a lot of patience in getting the effect we are after, maybe several visits. That doesn’t mean other opportunities should be overlooked, but keeping focused on an outcome means we are more likely to engage our problem-solving skills.
And if photography, taken seriously, regardless of skill level, is anything, it is a system of problem-solving exercises linked together in pursuit of a goal. With a nice picture at the end of it.
With the Christmas festivities nearly upon us there are plenty of opportunities for Christmas Light Bokeh, portraits of the family (assuming you can get them to co-operate!) pets dressed as Santa, shop window decorations, festive light trails, the list goes on and on, with just a simple tweak – theming these opportunities and, of course, taking them – we can sharpen the tools we have and take on some new ones.
So, the logic goes as follows. Tools build things. We control the light and the composition to build our photographs. Skills take practice. We all need practice regardless of the level of mastery we think we are at. The personal project gives us the head-space and the focus we need to practice the skills that sharpen the tools that build better photographs we make.
What you sitting there for? Get on with it!
Finally, following the review in the previous post and, hopefully, a few more goes and more understanding of some of the reasons that our photographs look like they do. This last exercise is an important one to do regularly and the personal project is an excellent vehicle.
As with the running theme in these mini-tutorials, the essence of things is to keep it short and simple. Aim to get things as best as they can be in camera. This teaches you a lot about the capabilities of your camera and how to get the best out of it without thinking (too much) about the things that can be achieved, often, more than one way.
This leaves you free to concentrate on the second half of the equation, the composition. Having secured control of the light arranging things in the frame is the thing that, in almost all photographs we are likely to take that will make or break.
Make one of these your personal project over a day or two with your camera and (very importantly) review. The more you do this review thing deliberately, the quicker and more effective it becomes.
Last week we talked about the concept of visual weight, the idea that objects in a frame, depending on their position, colour or mass, draw the eye around an image and that we photographers can take advantage of this.
So this week we are going to take the opportunity to look at some other tools of composition and the opportunities they give us to reveal just a little bit more. These tools evolve around seven basic ideas, in no particular order: line, shape, form, texture, pattern colour and space. These were more and less in the background of what we discussed last week and in a past post about Gestalt Principles.
First up is the tool of odds. Impanumerophobics aside (persons with a fear of odd numbers) the human brain has an affinity with odd numbers. Were I to speculate why it would be to say that odd numbers make it easier for the brain to determine a middle.
If we can determine a middle then we are as far as we can be from right or wrong, more likely a manifestation of the heard instinct and the fact that predators stalk the fringes for the young, sick and old who will make for a lower energy expenditure in the hunt.
Or maybe not.
We find the balance comforting, and in truth a single frame will possibly hold no more than five items comfortably and certainly three in a frame is commonly found, or groups of three or five. An exercise in looking for them, as is an exercise in looking for any of these tools, is a good exercise in looking with a purpose and that is one of the keys to making a strong image. It as much about exclusion as inclusion.
Diagonals are also a powerful composition tools and are often bracketed in with triangles as occurrences that build “Dynamic tension” sometimes known as visual tension. All these tools are methods to create a focal point or points in a frame.
The diagonals and the triangles can either be actual or implied, The key is to move our point of view until we get those visual clues in line and the frame balances out the way we want. This can mean font and back (zooming with our feet) up and down and even a bit of Dutching, maybe a combination of these.
Re-framing is a good habit to nurture. “Working the Angles”, to give it another name, a.k.a. “Working the Scene” gives us more options. We see the world from a relatively fixed position.
This is the “mistake” most photographers make, not altering that position, or at least leaving it at that. The image remains the photographers view of the object, it tells us a lot about the photographer’s view but maybe there is more to be made of the point of view of the subject and/or the subjects environment.
The stronger visual stories are those that have a strong point of focus, where our eye as the viewer first falls and where it is lead to next. This is the dynamic bit of that dynamic tension we were talking about earlier. The movement of the eye across the frame, purposefully driven by what the photographer has chosen to show and what to exclude.
More tools of composition to help you practice seeing are the subject of the main blog this week. There is no level of skill that these do not apply to, but there is considerable skill in knowing when to break those guidelines and in doing so make a different but still effective image.
Neither is this the case of being born with a talent, though the right talent is a boon to have. A lot of people pass over the fact that working hard on something is a talent in itself, and certainly it is the core skill in developing in any field.
We tend to forget that we are surrounded by objects in our everyday lives that we can make into mini photo projects. Watch the following video and choose three ideas to replicate and improve on over a week or weekend. You don’t have to spend hours on one, in fact limiting your time can force you into decisions, which can tell you a lot when reviewed. Video link is here.
New season and a full programme to look forward to. We started with an evening of member’s summer photographs and I can honestly say I was delighted that this year that was from half the people in the room. There was a broad variety and a decent standard of photography, meaning that we all had the opportunity to take something new away, from location, angle, technique but above all, lighting. After all light is everything when we are talking about photography.
Looking at other people’s images is a great way to develop our own when we look beyond the initial reaction to what we like, and what we would change about angle, subject, editing – and then go out and try it. it’s called looking critically and it is something that we can all learn to do, but if we don’t apply it it’s just called looking at pictures. Pleasant enough but not what a photographer does. It is what delineates a photographer from a bloke-with-a-camera (or a woman-with-a-camera though the kit-bores I have met have been male universally).
We have a full programme again this year – our thanks to the hard working Programme Team, there is a lot, lot more that goes into it than meets the eye. Next week we are taking a look at food photography (part 1 of 2), and the evening will be split between a tutorial session and a practical after break, or for those who want to get stuck in then the option to start with the practical is there. For those of you who want to get a start then head over to this B&H video on YouTube which covers a lot.
Now that isn’t to say that you are going to walk away an expert, but it does give you a way into something that is easy to practice basic techniques to which you can apply any number of hacks, mods and tricks to get that image you have in your mind’s eye. Like everything else it is down to practice, practice, practice with that critical eye we mentioned above. An important qualification here. Critical does not mean trashing, your own or anyone else’s work. To work it must be open and honest, it is about the image not the photographer and certainly not about the critic’s ego nor the kit the photographer used to take the image.
Psychologists have evolved a thing called the 10 second rule. Negatives are easier for us to process (assuming the best preparing for the worst is as good a description of a balance, but maybe that is just me). Use the sandwich approach. Good-Improve-Good. Each good point we keep in our mind for 10 seconds because our brains seem wired to give more weight to negativity (Rick Hansen memorably uses the analogy “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”). The 10 second rule balances out this negativity to some degree. The improve section goes along the lines: “The next time I make this photograph I will …”. We can then look for similarities between images and go out and try our remedies and/or new things. That is where a notebook comes in handy.
Taking and making notes is a good development tactic. This can be about the process, the set up, the lighting, the equipment, techniques, general observations and or reminders or even random thoughts generated as a consequence of taking or thinking about a photograph. Artists sketch books are a centuries old idea and they work, whether you consider yourself an artist or not. Photographers are no exception to this. Monographs and sketch books are always a good source of inspiration.
As ever there is the idea of the photographic project. Food is one of course and that is where we will start in the club. Each week of the club calendar is a little project in its own right if we care to make it so. The club, through its Flickr and Facebook accounts is a place where we can get some of the feedback that helps with our development, just post and ask for feedback. Constructive feedback, such as we talked about above, is the fuel for development in any field, photography is no exception.
So, in preparation, we can start reviewing what we have done in our own collections of close up photography, including table top sessions at the club and start thinking about composition in a situation where we control all the elements including the light.
And as we said at the top of this piece, it’s all about light.