Two evenings to get into this weeks blog, member Andro Andrejevic took us on journey through his development as a photographer over the last couple of years and a welcome return for the Wriggly Road Show, for a fascinating hands on meeting.
As well as the club, Andro also belongs to the Dream Team photographers collective, and cited both as playing a roll in his continuing development. The value of having a team and fellow photographers to bounce ideas off (as well as light) has a value and effect of it’s own.
Certainly it was good to see that on the evening of the Wriggly Roadshow club members were interacting not only with the animals (and not just as subjects of a photograph) but with each other. Again, and talking to some of the other members who told me as much, the interaction of ideas and experience proved a strong point of the evening.
But there is one question that arises when we are all taking pictures of the same subject, how do we make ours stand out? This is a question that has broader implications. Somebody decided, on a pretty arbitrary basis I suspect, that the world has 2.6 billion photographers in it based on the number of smart phone users. Now that is a loose definition of “Photographer” extended to anyone with a camera. I would argue for a narrower one.
A photographer is someone with a device, we will call it a camera, with a notion of what they want the image they are creating to look like. Deliberation rather than intent is the difference. Otherwise we are just a person with a camera. A skill set beyond pointing and shooting is required to be a photographer – and that is what we want to be.
There are still a lot of photographers, though. Put several of us together in front of a common subject and the differences are likely to be quite small. There isn’t a point where a certificate is issued declaring us a compentant photographer. There isn’t a set number of likes on Instagram, Facebook or Flickr that qualifies us thus.
And it is not about the kit we use. Another difference comes from coverting another lens, body, light modifier, whatever and making the most of what we have. Yes there are advantages to that but poor composition doesn’t look any better through Canon L glass than it does through a pinhole punched in tin foil and placed on a camera body cap (with a hole drilled in it).
But given similar skill levels, how do we make a difference?
Assuming we all know to take the photo from the subject’s eye level, avoid distracting backgrounds, get close to the subject so as to fill the frame with it, place the subject off centre and so on aren’t we going to get very similar if not identical images? Yes we are.
Therefore, we need to look for other ways to get that moment. Monochrome? Square crop? Composite? These are, for the most part, post production methods but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make part of the decision making process prior to pressing the shutter. Intent, vision, is a big part of making an image.
As individuals with a photogrpahic bent we are drawn to different things in a scene. We frame it, make part of it the focus of the scene, something that, at some level is unique to us, the time, the place and the subject. This uniqueness, this vision is something, that, as creators, we use as the soul, the spirit, that drew is to the scene in the first place.
To use this as a development tool we need to grow our creativity and creativity grows when we are forced to come up with solutions in the face of very limited resources. Such as shooting – people, animals, buildings, nature, shapes, colours, shadows, you name it – as part of a group.
The group is essentially working the same scene. In attempting to make it different, unique, ours, we have to work the angles, make that scarce, fleeting opportunity ours. If we are looking for one thing it’s the quality of light. Photography is all about the light.
Photography is also about doing and doing is the basis of improving, technically and artistically. More important is doing with a purpose. Get out and take some more pictures – it’s what we bought the camera for after all.
And as we are in a photographic club looking at other peoples work isn’t exactly difficult, but we live in a very visual world and to keep critically looking at the many images that are pushed at us daily requires a small but significant shift from being passive viewers to active, critical ones – I like this because …. that works because …. I would change ….
Revisiting our own work and trying a different crop, a vignette, monochrome, harder contrast, soft blur or any other variation is a variation of this, but gives us a better understanding of how we ourselves work and how we might change.
And last if not exactly least we need to take a few chances, even of they mostly turn out to be “Mistakes” because doing the above means that these mistakes are actually learning opportunities, if we let them be and continuous learning is the best way to develop as a photographer.
The Wriggly Road Show slithered, scuttled and strutted into town and a fascinating and interactive show it was. Snakes, lizards, crabs, albino rats and hedgehogs formed the cast and many thousands of frames were burned in a very enjoyable practical evening.
Perhaps the key to photographing animals, both wild and domesticated, lies in reconnaissance, having knowledge either direct or through an expert at hand. The latter was definitely the case in our session, given the exotic nature of the animals Wriggly Road Show brought with them. The welfare of the animals (and the photographers) is paramount and what may appear to be innocuous behaviour to the untrained eye could be stressful for the animal. There is a balance to be struck and if we believe the maxim that if your photograph isn’t good enough it’s because you are not close enough (Robert Capa) then there is an indicator to be had about choice of lens. However, that is a function of the environment that the animal is in and the size of the animal itself, as much as anything else.
Photographing domestic pets successfully is a different proposition to photographing large animals on a farm, is different from taking pictures of animals on safari (that’s the photographer being on safari rather than an alligator with a DSLR). Any way that you want to cut it animals are most likely going to be more work than your average subject. Cats and dogs may be the most frequently photographed animals (and certainly they take up a fair amount of space on Flickr, about 2.8m and 2.1m respectively) but they are also creatures with their own minds and curiosity.
I was shooting either in Handheld Twilight mode (Multi-frame at ISO 6400, wide fixed aperture, variable shutter speed) or aperture priority and auto ISO, plus some with fill in flash from the camera. Direct flash is rarely a good option, risking as it does red eye, and being generally unflattering, but needs must. I do not pretend I know what I was doing but the decisions were actually driven by the conditions.
Two positions were well lit, the others were more reliant on the ambient light. The animals were fairly static, none of them particularly quick even when mobile (having been fed), so moderately slow shutter speeds and moderate apertures with high ISO’s (1000 – 6400) did the job mainly with longer focal lengths. No chances to pan whilst shooting, no need to. From the look of most of the results I got I think I was concentrating more on the camera than the subject for some of them. That is sure sign of being short on practice. On the other hand it does not pay to be stingy on the number of frames that we commit to in pursuit of the shot we want.
Metering, especially the insects, where I was using fill in flash, was quite tricky and I found I was dialling in quite a bit of compensation. Fur is always interesting to get a reasonable meter reading from, tending to be either darker or lighter than the average for the environment the animal is being photographed. Spot or centre weighted metering, when metering from the camera, is probably preferred in these sorts of situations, but if shooting against backdrops it pays to be aware of how they will appear in the shot. Getting right at the point of taking the shot saves time in post production.
Focusing again depends on our subject, more specifically the speed it is moving across the frame, but also whether you are up close or standing back. Single shot, by and large is good enough close up because focus won’t shift that much and the shutter won’t fire till focus locks. A dog bouncing through the long grass is probably a candidate for Continuous AF and we live with the out of focus shots to get to the one or two for which the focus is bang on.
None of which will counter poor composition. The eyes have it, just as with people portraits. Viewers will seek the eyes first. We take our clues from the perceived expressions and the eyes are the windows of the soul, after all. Knowing the animal, having a rapport with it, are not necessarily the same things. Your pet snake will act differently to your pet dog, though both will have ways of attracting and directing their attention. It is also important not to stress the animal. The usual tools of composition can be applied, just getting there involves subjects who may be less predictable than a landscaper or a portrait photographer, or the yet-to-make-up-their-mind-ographer might be used to.
Here we can just scratch the surface, the tools we develop as we gain experience are mostly relevant, but as ever an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory (kilogram and kilo translations also apply) and the Wriggly Road Show certainly provided us with that.
We were entertained by the members who went on the club run to the Lake District back in May, this week, and certainly, they got a lot of the same views, but they weren’t the same shots. This goes to show the worth of “working the angle” even when you are in wide open spaces populated only by hordes of tourists in large busses on narrow roads. Apparently, our Esteemed Chair indulged his passengers with novel language lessons when these pantechnicons and sundry other road users broke the unwritten etiquette of British roads. An enhanced learning experience all round then.
Now non-landscapers can have rather jaundiced views of those who revel in long walks to nowhere in particular and back carrying kit they end up not using and still not get the shot because the light was “wrong”, but that is to miss the point. Landscape as a discipline brings with it challenges and techniques, not all of them specific to this category of photography, broad as it is and possibly viewed as a subcategory of Nature. There are some car parks with very fine views, after all, and if we can’t actually see any tarmac in the picture …… we get the same view as the previous 100,000 motorists who preceded us. It is, however, our version of it and that, for most amateurs is what counts. It’s our version of Kilroy was here.
Picking not only the vista but having a focal point in it, making the picture about something, is a big step as opposed to ooh-pretty-point-shoot. “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment ” according to Ansel Adams. Planning is the key, not only to getting the photograph we want from what is in front of us but in creating further opportunities for us to take. Our aim is to make a picture of one thing in relation to its setting without letting the setting overpower the picture we are looking to frame. That can be done hours/days/weeks/months/years before we leave home, or on-site and in the moment. But taking a short time to really look makes a difference.
In that short time, what we are looking for is composition. There are as many “Rules” of composition as you want. Except rules is a bit misleading as a term. Think of them as tools. The Tools of Composition. Essentially these are ways of guiding the eye to the subject in ways that suggest meaning to the viewer. The question is how we use them together. Quality is better than quantity, you need to be deliberate and you need to be able to work fast and with the light. It is all about the light, regardless of what style of photography you are partaking in. OK photography means, roughly, painting with light, so it’s hardly a surprise.
The best light is at dawn and dusk as far as landscapers are concerned. Low angle soft light in the warm end of the spectrum coming from or moving towards the blues of twilight. The best shooting light is commonly held to be roughly half an hour either side of those two events. That leaves the rest of the day for other things – which probably explains the notion that landscaping is a solitary sort of pursuit. Certainly, it doesn’t necessarily easily fall in with the plans of others.
There are other costs to landscape as you get more into it. A good tripod for one, the reason being minimum ISO’s and small apertures tend to be the order of the day. Marry that with low light levels and we need to be accommodating exposures that are too long to hand hold without showing considerable signs of camera shake. Lenses tend towards a wide/super-wide and medium telephoto – and everything in between and either side depending upon the depth of your pockets and your penchant for collecting expensive pieces of kit. Then there are the filters. At least a circular polarizer. Then there are hard and soft graduated filters for equalising out the light in the sky to that falling on the ground. Investing in a quality set of filters is not cheap, but pays dividends in the quality and clarity of what you are getting. You are, after all, adding glass in front of glass and that will have an effect on quality. And don’t forget a waterproof, solid, comfortable bag to keep all that expensive kit in.
As usual, it isn’t about the kit. As Mike Browne has been known to opine, nobody says to Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey “You must have a really good oven” when enjoying their world-class cuisine. Good photography is the product of practice, knowledge, practice, planning, practice, willingness to learn, practice, a critical eye, practice, hard work and practice. There is also technique, practice, willingness to pushing our limits, practice, getting to know our cameras, lenses and other kit inside out, practice, and practice, but you get the general idea.
It was an entertaining evening, for sure, and we thank our fellow members for their time effort and willingness to share.
Off to Weston we went, aka “Super-Mud”, last meeting and though the skies were lowering the turnout was pretty good and a good time was had by everyone I talked to. What more can you ask for? Well it was Weston Bike Night, organised by the Royal British Legion Riders Branch, and runs every Thursday from May to September. So I hopped on my motorbike and made my quid (£1) donation to the RBL to park on the Marine Parade Lawn and wandered round with my camera, before meeting up with the rest of the club on the beach by the Grand Pier. They had, it turned out, been taking pictures of a convict making his way up the beach, with the express purpose of compositing them into a single photo in post production (Photoshop, Gimp). If you look back through this year’s competition galleries you will get the idea of who and what sort of thing. The sun also made a show right at the end of the day and we were presented with a salmon pink sunset against the grey of the clouds as a finale. Not too shabby.
It is often said, not least by me, that in photography, painting with light, the light is everything. So far so obvious. What we are really saying is that the contrast in any given light situation is everything, as the same subject in different lighting gets a different reaction from its viewer. We are not just talking of low light here, where we have options within the exposure triangle, and in the way the camera works in other ways, but, when the weather is as it was on Weston’s beach and the contrast is low, the temptation is to save it for another day, but we can be missing opportunities. Contrast is what determines how “flat” the light in your image looks. Possibly, most logically, we can see this in monochrome images, but it most definitely applies to colour ones too.
Essentially, contrast comes in two flavours. Thinking of the black and white image and we can imagine the more obvious of these expressed as a tonal range, which we have touched on before. The tonal range is that between (theoretical) absolute black to (theoretical) absolute white which we would affect in post production editing programmes through levels and curves. The second flavour is colour contrast which is about the predominance of a colour in relation to the colours around it.
When we are producing black and white photographs we are really talking producing images constructed of the shades of grey (no tittering at the back). Soft images record little range in those shades, it is all middle and very little of the absolute ends, whereas hard looks stark because we have a band of hard blacks and a band of hard whites and very little in the middle. This is not the same as low key (mostly darker shades of grey surrounded by blacks) and high key images (mostly lighter shades of grey surrounded by whites). The emotional tone that low key images give out tends towards the sombre whereas high keys have a lighter mood, but tonal contrast isn’t just limited to black and white.
Colour, as we have explored before, tends to overwhelm tone when provoking emotion in a viewer, but good tone is a major element in the construction of a colour image too. Because there is more variation in colour, more information to play with, then the possible outcomes are multiplied accordingly. Broadly the more saturated a colour is in relation to the others in the image and relative to its position on the colour wheel. The degree of saturation is also important to colour contrast and that can be affected by exposure (try bracketing a couple of shots by two thirds of a shot and look at them in comparison, warmth, feel/mood can be subtly or not so subtly effected.
Meanwhile, back on the beach at Super-Mud, we are faced with some impressive cloudscapes that are throttling the contrast out of our seascapes, aided and abetted by a distant haze shrouding the South Wales coast. Looking on the (not too) bright side we are not trying to photograph either a black cat in a coal hole or a polar bear in the Arctic). Those both represent zero contrast situations. Give up go home, assuming you survive contact with said cat and/or polar bear. As we are in neither we can do something about our rather dull scene (other than retreat to the pub). All the rules of composition still apply but we are not bereft of options. The exposure triangle was mentioned above and in pushing two of the elements in that, aperture and shutter speed, we could just make a keeper.
Exposure Value Compensation it’s called and it’s that button that allows you to adjust the average that your meter is measuring up or down, usually by up to two or three stops, depending upon what camera you are using. It does not matter whether you are in Shutter or Aperture Priority or shooting in manual (though this is a bit of overkill bearing in mind you already have control of aperture, shutter and ISO in manual mode, but it is possible to employ as another way of under or over exposing from the average). First meter as normal then apply +0.3 ev on the scale. Try again up to a stop, or in the extreme, up to 2 stops or more, basically adding dark. In manual you will possibly be moving in half stop intervals depending on the age of the lens, but most modern ones seem to move in thirds. The same basics apply. Shoot in RAW for the best post production options. What you will do here is affect the colour contrast. Yes the whole image will look progressively darker, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the Mini group trip to Weston, where there was a vivid orange sunset, this actually strengthened the composition by allowing the sky and certain reflections to be the focal points against an increasing rich, dark background. Essentially for this technique you are looking to set the narrowest practicable aperture matched with the highest shutter speed you can get a workable image in the light conditions.
Try it next week when we visit Portishead Marina. Dock Gates, 7 pm. See you there.