Back to practising techniques, last meeting, something you can’t really ever do enough of and it was interesting the conversations I drifted between as members swapped ideas and techniques and generally talked photography. I know it’s a photography club, but members talking photography is a sign of engagement. It is an important part of our development as photographers, the practice and the discussion. It can be formal or informal, but it is always better if it is structured, if we are looking for an end result and practice makes perfect, after all.
The question then becomes what structure? There isn’t one set way of doing this sort of thing, which isn’t particularly useful, rather it doesn’t make starting particularly easy, not least because there are two points which one can start from and a myriad of options in between. These two points are obviously connected, as they are integral to the capturing of an image, but one is about mechanics and the other is about the image as we want want it, the craft of the art.
To set about resolving this we have to first decide what it is that we want to improve. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Photography. The easy answer is “everything” and whereas this might be true it can also be a dampener. The first step in this is to solve the mechanical v the craft dichotomy. Lets put this a slightly different way. We are talking the Camera Settings v Composition and lighting. OK so the former depends upon the latter and the latter really depends on what we are translating from minds eye to captured image.
Thus far, thus obvious. Actually no, its an all too common trap we have all fallen into at one time or another. Substituting the planning for the doing. Remember, what we are trying to do here is a quick fix that we can use as a starting point, not capture every detail of the wedding of the century. Step one is – always – get the camera out of the camera bag. Picking a particular aspect, depth of field, manual mode, off camera flash from the mechanical side and / or any one of the myriad of compositional and or lighting tools as a starting point, taking that shot, then varying it comes after, but not if your camera is sitting in it’s bag.
The learning, and some pleasant surprises along the way, come with the variation. There is another point too. We have a day out, it’s a good day to have a camera and we have made the best of it. That can mean 10, 100, 1,000 frames, but how many of them look the same, that is, were taken from the same angle, same height? With film we had to be a lot more choosy and as an exercise 36 sequential frames – no deletions – used on a subject or a location tells us a lot about our predominant style, habits (both good and bad). The challenge is to use this limited resource as a tool to force us to look, look harder, for the essence, for the compelling reason to take that picture.
Take the 36 shots into our editing programme and use it as a learning tool, what adjustments do we usually make? Can we automate these and improve our work flow? What should we be doing to get it right in the camera, the most effective improver of workflow? How many other ways are their to tell this story?
We started with a balance of two things, the mechanics v the composition. Of course the fact is the mechanics are just the means to the imaginative end, but they are critical means because they affect that imaginative end, they realise it or they don’t. They can be on or off camera, but ultimately it is all about the manipulation of light and subject and the possibilities open to us from small differences are huge. The key to success is to start with the end in mind but to look for those differences along the way. Digital photography in particular puts this a lot more firmly in your average club members grasp.
Club evenings with cameras are always popular and always a good opportunity to gain knowledge and practice the basics, or try something a little different. Last meeting was no exception as we undertook an evening of tabletop photography, for which the club is grateful for all those who put a lot of effort into making the evening a success.
Theses themed evenings aren’t just about the theme and or subject. They are a chance to get the most out of a controlled situation, specifically, at least for our purposes this week, the chance to work a subject. Now working the scene, or a variation of it, is a phrase that often bandied about.
Sooner rather than later you will come across Henri Cartier-Bresson and the idea of the decisive moment, and certainly in any scene that involves movement there is, or will be a combination of the elements in the frame for which their interplay makes the full story. Is it the same with table top/still life? Essentially yes, but the control in the frame is pretty much absolute and the truth in the frame may be entirely documentary or an arrangement of light on shape in some artistically pleasing manner. The chaos of everyday life is excluded in pursuit of control either way.
So what do we mean by working the scene? Cartier-Bresson didn’t just take one photograph of a scene, even if the first one was the one he ended up using. Nor anyone else. Closer, further away, left, right, up, down all realign the elements, the task is then to isolate the best image to work with.
With table top, though, there isn’t necessarily a lot of room to work with, nonetheless it is still worth the effort. Whether you change the camera angle or the arrangement of the items you are photographing you can still affect the same sort of ends. The end result, the one you show, is then more likely to be better at communicating with your audience because it is the end result of a process.
There is also a question, further prompted by the idea of the end result, of whether you can do this moving around in time. If your intent is to capture something that has to be constructed before you take a picture of the end result, why not photograph that construction? It could well be that the image that you end up keeping is one that shows all the elements but not the whole. That whole is then constructed in the mind of the viewer.
The whole point is that of collecting data deliberately. From this data we then make a story. Changing the angle/distance/perspective creates a pause and in that pause we can process the data we have collected. We can turn these to our own advantage with a little pre planning. Whilst framing the image we can be critical of what we are looking at, now that we have put a physical frame around it.
Put simply we start seeing when we stop looking. Look is the hook, the thing that caught our eye, the draw in. Seeing takes a lot more effort and experimentation, but seeing is the essence of photography. It also means that we can practice this, using table top, at home, through experimentation and starting with the tools of composition. Two to start with, I suggest are light and dark and lines.
Light and dark in its purest form, black-white (the Japanese Notan art form for instance) or at the least two complimentary colours. Contrast is what the eye, rather like the autofocus on our cameras, looks for, so as to make things clear. Use this as a key to where the light falls and with a little practice we can make powerful yet subtle ways that take the eyes of the viewer to where the photographer wants them.
Lines are, possibly, less subtle but no less powerful for that. We are largely familiar with the concept of leading lines whether we are conscious of their effect or not. Anyone who has seen white lines on tarmac will have been affected by it. Anyone who has ever followed a path will have been effected by it. By getting close, looking for the key detail, we better frame the thing that attracted us in the first place.
There are of course a myriad of other compositional tools we can use, we can practice. Composition is just a way of seeing in one sense. In a more useful sense it is a deliberate way of seeing. We need to practice with deliberation. Stuck for something to do? Then pick one of these compositional tools and use it to go shoot. The table top environment allows us to experiment in these cases by arranging the elements in our frame to our own ends. In other environments we have to look for the chances to capture these things on a more random basis, but in doing so we have to abandon looking for seeing.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Annual General Meeting.
Apologies one and all for the previous absence of this post, it was written and competed 11th May but for some reason butterfingers here didn’t press the right button and it has sat on WordPress as a draft – and I’ve only just noticed? Doh! Whereas I am certain that you felt less-than-deprived I really wanted to share a great evening with those who couldn’t make it, and thank those who made it possible so I am publishing it now. This weeks will follow in due course. Ian G.
May 11, 2014 @ 12:33
The table top/macro photography evening returned last Thursday and, as ever, was well attended. There were a variety of stations and a good number of things to try. From an unscientific example a goodly percentage of people learned something new. The club showed its strength by playing to the wide range of experience within it. Thanks to everybody who made this possible as from Dan E’s Lego via Eddie H’s Dalek through Gerry’s flora (and personal thanks from me for the use of the lights and soft box) to Eddie D’s dog Ella and much more we weren’t short of materials to photograph. Thanks are also due to Ian C and Hanneke and anyone I have inadvertently omitted.
Luckily most – and if anyone is asking ALL – of our photographs were taken against a BLACK background. Why is this important? Well if they were taken against a white background we could be owing Jeff Bezos some serious dosh because a patent has been issued in the USA covering the taking of photographs against a white background. No, it’s not April 1st. If you take a photograph against a white background using a studio set up you owe could Amazon royalties (in the USA), patent US 8676045 B1, issued 18th March 2014 which grants intellectual rights to Amazon Technologies Inc on the taking of photographs against a white background, specifically:
a background comprising a white cyclorama; a front light source positioned in a longitudinal axis intersecting the background, the longitudinal axis further being substantially perpendicular to a surface of the white cyclorama; an image capture position located between the background and the front light source in the longitudinal axis, the image capture position comprising at least one image capture device equipped with an eighty-five millimeter lens, the at least one image capture device further configured with an ISO setting of about three hundred twenty and an f-stop value of about 5.6… (US 86,76,045 B1)
As techdirt has so precisely pointed out, this ground breaking technological event essentially is comprised of four distinct actions:
1. Turn back lights on.
2. Turn front lights on.
3. Position thing on platform.
4. Take picture.
Abuse of the patent process? If patents are for novel and innovative inventions then this really does look abusive of the system. However, because the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has decided to be a sweet shop for those with expensive lawyers (again, see the smart-phone case referred to below) this is the law, at least in the USA. If you are doing any of these things with a camera against a white backdrop you owe Amazon money for the use of their intellectual property and it’s enforceable in the US civil courts but – good news – not internationally (yet) because of agreements on intellectual property rights still have to be registered internationally for protection in other juristrictions, and can be horrendously expensive. Amazon have deep pockets.
Other good news is that it would be unlikely in the UK, given the HTC v Apple Inc. patent case on the slide-to-unlock for locking/unlocking a phone or app that was judged insufficiently innovative. That probably lasted in the Judges mind all the way to when he swiped open the catches on his expensive briefcase to get to his sarnies. A Bart Simpson “Oh, yeah”, moment if ever there was one followed by a horrendously expensive “Doh!” from Apple a couple of weeks later. Unlikely, however is not impossible and you really do not want to be the poor soul on the end of a High Court Writ.
In a way this patent issue has a direct route back to William Fox Talbot and his photograph of the oriel window in the South Gallery of his home, Laycock Abbey, in 1835 from which he developed Talbotypes a.k.a. Calotypes. They required over an hour’s exposure time. He required good light and a steady position from which to take image which remained an absolute essential of taking a photograph for many decades after. Fox Talbot put a lot of time, effort and money into the development of the process and along with his partner Nicolaas Henneman made a sort of business out of it in Reading. The prompt for Fox Talbot applying for the patent to his invention was the arrival of the Daguerreotype, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839 using a different process and though the Calotype became the norm the Daguerreotype has enjoyed a long if minority history. Fox Talbot’s patent was issued in September 1840 but Daguerre’s invention was given free to the world in all but one country – the UK, where his agent had it patented.
The point here is both Daguerre and Fox Talbot made something novel. Yes they used and experimented with others chemical discoveries and observations but they made their own and for a clearly discernible purpose using their own resources outside of the world of the Patent Lawyer. They changed the world. I can’t for the life of me see what Amazon intend on doing with this patent apart from annoy every serious amateur and professional photographer within the patent’s jurisdiction, or as they would know them “Potential customers” across a whole range of products, indeed their entire range of products. Unless, as ‘Dodge & Burn’ posted on the Techdirt comments section, they make it a term and condition of their suppliers that the white background product photograph has to be taken according to the Amazon Patent, or has been taken according to the Amazon Patent therefore they demand a royalty for it. Quite possibly another way to exploit its monopoly position. Could be made to work world wide too if they insist that all images are pre-screened through their US based HQ. Only if they are as devious as me, I suppose.