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.
Snowed in and called off we will have a week’s wait for member Gerry Painter’s evening. Something to look forward to. So this week, through the rattle of ice rain on the living room window, which rather underlines the soundness of the decision to call things off, we are going to talk about connecting with our images.
When looking for something to photograph, chance, as we have often reiterated in this blog, falls to the prepared. There is, however, a difference between what fine art photographer Cig Harvey calls “Target Practice” and telling a story, and a personal story, rather than the story of someone else. Now you don’t have to go to quite the same limits as she went to, only shooting in one room for a year, but taking responsibility for everything in the frame and avoiding the “Yeah buts’”. That is, doing it, rather along the lines we talked of in the last blog, because we are not all full time artists.
Photography is a channel to put our thoughts in. Cig Harvey again. This is a particular form of photography, the fine art angle, but don’t we do this consciously or subconsciously, anyway? This, at least in part, is improvement as a continuous process, because the stories never stop, we just switch them off at some point. We are all taking a little moment in history and slicing away at the baggage that surrounds it and showing a truth. Or maybe just taking drunken snaps on the camera phone during an after work drinks session. Maybe something in between, but for those of us who take our art even a little more seriously, there is the recognition of something achieved, with a little something to take forward to the next frame. Basically, “Yes, and …”
Fine art most of us would think beyond us, but we have all taken that sort of image at some time or other, even if by accident. Indeed the definition of what fine art might be in photography isn’t even settled definitively. It is, on one level, peoples’ bread and butter. But not all fine art photographers are fine art artists making a living. Most, I suspect, are on the amateur level – which doesn’t make them averse to making money from their photography, just means it’s not a regular source of income. Essentially “Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer”, which tells us next to nothing because it doesn’t include much and really doesn’t exclude anything apart from the implication that if you are not an “Artist” you cannot be a fine art photographer.
That Wikipedia definition does try and make such a deliniation, but even so the misses the potential irony (neigh sarcasm) behind Picasso’s statement that “I have discovered photography. Now I can kill myself. I have nothing else to learn”, but does give room to John Steinbeck’s comment on Robert Capa “… That the camera need not be a cold mechanical device. Like the pen, it is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of mind and heart…” The whole “Is photography art?”debate is endless and, frankly, sterile. It will never be conclusively settled and is as much about fashion as it about metaphysical discussions of meaning and being. Maybe it’s all what the Journalist Fyfe Robertson labelled Phart, but I think that rather misses the point.
Exclusivity certainly plays a part in the discussion. Certainly it is not all of it. Vision, idea, technique, a body if work all have their place and frequently find their way into this blog and our Thursday evenings and hopefully seep into our practice. As illustrated last week this doesn’t have to be a long practice but mulling it over, working the idea into a concept, finding the materials it needs, getting everything together then executing the shot can be the fruit of days, weeks, months, years. Doesn’t make it any better or worse to look at, but the effect on the photographer as the centre of this whirl does make it something more than the recording of a play of light on a subject.
Above all it is an attitude, a desire and a great deal of persistence that makes an artist, regardless of medium. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, especially when practising, and it doesn’t have to be to please anyone else but ourselves, but I suppose most of us take photographs to show others. Over time though we develop our own photographic fingerprint, but standing in the same place Ansel Adams stood and point our camera at the same vista as Ansel Adams pointed his at at the same time of day as Ansel Adams did at the same time of year as Ansel Adams did does not mean we get the same picture that Ansel Adams got, much less make us Ansel Adams. All we do get is the same thing every other photographer got doing the same, at best a downscale Ansel Adams look a like picture. It is instructive to do what the masters of the medium did and do, but is of little value if we cannot make those images we make our own. Afterall access to the original completed file or negative means we can run copies faithful to the original ad infinitum.
Which is one of the arguments that some people propose to strip photography of the idea that it might be art. Art is an artefact, it is made, it is up to us to make up our own minds what we consider art or otherwise.
It must be Autumn because last meeting we did a light painting session courtesy of Myk Garton and guest light painter Tony Cullen – many thanks guys. Every time we do this there is something new and I will admit that it is one of my favourite things to do photographically. Attendance was high which proves its popularity with other club members too. This was the introductory evening and we will be doing some more advanced techniques on December 1st. Of course light painting isn’t necessarily seasonal, but the ever shortening days this side of the Winter Solstice means that available light is at a premium. The “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (that man Keats again) means a lot more than landscapers getting a lie in. The light, generally, has a quality of its own because of the relatively low angle of the sun to the horizon. Problem is there isn’t a lot of it.
So, provide our own. This is as close outdoors as we get to the degree of control of light in a studio. The big difference is we make benefit of the dark. The contrast levels are extreme, but that is a virtue not a vice. The canvas is light on dark but in a more high contrast way than we see in daylight, where we could argue that the opposite is true (wrong as everything we see is via reflected light, but since when did wrong prevent an argument?). Strobists use flash guns to recreate the flood of light which they can control the direction and beam, with a white balance of its own. When drawing on the black canvas, with torches, coloured lights or even fire, the colour balance doesn’t tend to be a big consideration, at least in the sense of it being something that needs correcting. Painting a scene in light as opposed to drawing a scene with light presents different technical challenges, but can be done with the same kit and a bit of patience. I say a bit, oftentimes a lot of patience.
In fact there are a number of different ways to think of light painting, and where we start, the way in which we are thinking of the images we want to capture, determines the outcome more than anything else. Yes this may come under the heading of “Well, duh” but any technique has strengths and weaknesses according to the situation. Selection is the key. The first decision is are we lighting the subject or creating an effect? Our desired look will determine the way we use the lights and the sort of lights we use. Again, we may say “Duh”, but it’s surprising how hard we can make the job by not prepping for a final outcome in the first place. We might be combining both, after all. What about spontaneity and experimentation, we say? Much better to have an idea to execute and vary than to just turn up having watched several hours of YouTube videos with a load of kit and a vague idea. We may be technically proficient but that is no good if we are subject deficient – the difference between a body with a camera and a photographer.
The point to start, where when who and how because that is going to dictate what we can and cannot do. Use a familiar or scout a location in the day light. Decide what the subjects are likely to be and what kit we are going to take with us. If unfamiliar with orbs, zoom bursts, camera rotations, double exposures and the like the answer is “Should have been at club”. That aside, the first thing is, if not in total darkness or very near, determine what the level of ambient light is. This determines the time we have to paint in. If it isn’t a factor then fine, open the shutter for as long as it will go or as long as needed, then set the camera pre-focused and to manual – this meeting was about familiarising people with their equipment in those modes in order to capture those sort of effects.
If we want a basic explanation of light painting it is that it is long exposure photography. In the dark. The meter is useless without some level of ambient light and the length of exposure is dependent upon what we want to paint in and what we are painting with, that is to say, in the practical sense, it is going to be the product of experimentation. The light gathering capabilities of the sensor are going to be tested, select the lowest ISO to help keep the noise to a minimum (remember boost the signal, boost the noise and that is what you do when we up the ISO). We are going to need a tripod and, a personal preference, a remote shutter release.
Light trails, using moving lights – the most popular seems to be vehicle trails which, let’s face it, aren’t too difficult to come by in a city of 400,000 people – are also simple to set up and to execute. 8 to 10 seconds, ISO 100, F8 on a well lit street, as a starting point towards getting a reasonably exposed photograph overall and, as long as the vehicles are moving even relatively slowly, then some interesting effects can be captured. Vary the angles, either by setting the camera up more obliquely to the traffic than at a right angle, or find a bend or a roundabout to get some swoosh into the picture. Zooming whilst the shutter is open also does interesting things to the trails often setting them off at angles we wouldn’t expect and rotating the camera through 90 degrees during the exposure, as long as we keep the axis constant, can do interesting things to lights in the background (as alluded to above).
I know that is a cliché but nonetheless I am going to repeat it. There are so many variations that we truly are only limited by the imagination and for once, it doesn’t have to be at any great expense. Yes we can spend an inordinate amount of money on these techniques but actually experimenting with the basics will yield some fine and interesting results. I, for one, am really looking forward to part two of our light painting sessions.
Mark Simmons was our speaker last meeting, a Bristol based photographer since 1985 Mark took us through some of the opportunities and causes he has been involved in over the last 30 years. He mainly concentrated on black and white work, though showed us some colour work of his too and posed some open ended questions, namely What makes a good photograph? and What comes next?
If I were to sum up Mark’s choices in photography in one word it would be “Eclectic“. Personal, political, spiritual, progressive, street, arts. He represents his world through the medium of the lens and monetarises it. It’s the way he makes his living. He talked about film and digital and whereas he is quite nostalgic for the former he works in the latter, though not exclusively. Black and white was really the choice when he started. Developing colour films has always been more involved, costly and time consuming than black and white and though perfectly feasible these factors meant that black and white was the only choice for those starting out developing their own images and those on a tight budget.
Now it is a no cost extra, ignored by many amateurs and often regarded as niche or specialist, with its own publications such as Adore Noire and even its own dedicated Leica camera line, the Monochrom Typ 246 range finder with a 50mm f1.2. Less complex in the sensor design it gives sharper results and less problems with artefacts (apparently). What is more one pixel on its monochrome sensor is doing the job of four (two greens one red one blue) on a colour sensor, so detail is more effectively rendered. It’s a snip at £4,500, but hey, it’s a Leica and you get a free Lightroom license with it. Whether this constitutes a bargain is contestable and it does rather reinforce the exclusive, arty view of black and white, even if it delivers a claimed 100% more detail than a colour sensor. This is a shame as black and white has its own aesthetics, its own strengths and it does get overlooked. For many of us I suspect it goes something like this….
“That would look better in black and white”. We’ve all said it. We’ve all done it. Sometimes we were right. Sometimes it was the fundamental composition that was wrong. Nothing to be done with that, apart from applying the delete button. If the fundamentals don’t work, no matter how much we wish them to, it’s a loss. I am not advocating not learning from our losses, that would be a chronic waste of time, but we don’t learn much from failing to rescue the not worth preserving to the status of still-should-have-pressed-the-delete-key-and-saved-x-hours, or, more succinctly, reviving the dead to the status of the un-dead. What that constitutes in reality is a matter of personal taste and judgement.
“That would look better in black and white”, or, if we are in posh company, or trying to sound like we know what we are talking about, monochrome,we have probably already taken the picture before the thought strikes. There is a solution, which I will come back to later, which at first is obvious, but which can make the most of both worlds and can make us look at things anew. First, however, it’s time to visit some things we already know, or at least know about. Is there a difference? I would say emphatically yes and the difference is knowing about something is being able to theorise that in these set of circumstances this will happen and owning that knowledge by using it with purpose and confidence. Learning is about the transition between one and the other and it’s not always obvious when we arrive at the latter.
Black and white is different from colour in the obvious and not so obvious. The obvious of course is the reduction in the colours we are presented with. More properly we are talking about the difference between grey scale and the gamut of colour our monitors generate – most likely sRGB. The black and the white represents extremes between which we have the grey scale. Absolute black and absolute white are theoretical points, but the question of how black is black and white is white need not concern us here. Our brains interpret these things and we get on with life. We are told that black and white makes us concentrate on subject, form, shape, tonality and texture. This is, of course, because colour has a range of psychological effects on the human brain. Physiologically we use the cones in the eye to see colours and rods black and white. Rods and cones are photoreceptors, like the pixels on a camera sensor, and take their names from their distinctive shapes. The rods and cones generate signals which the brain transforms into images to which it attaches meaning. The primary colours, in particular exercise a strong emotional effect on us, more so than the secondary colours.
Deprive the brain of these clues and it continues to search for meaning in patterns, which promotes the importance of subject through form, shape tonality and texture. We still connect but in a different way. If we are lucky the elements of form, shape, tonality and texture have already made their link if only subconsciously. Then, we might safely arrive sooner at the delayed conclusion “That would look better in black and white”.
Better yet is to start from the position of black and white, the technique I was referring to earlier, that is to say the camera is set to black and white deliberately at the point of capture. This is where a CSC really comes into its own with a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) viewfinder/screen as some, if not many DSLR’s render as black and white only after the event as an editing choice (in which case save it until you get home and do it on the computer). If shooting RAW and Jpeg with the JPEG set to black and white as default we don’t, on a CSC at least, loose the colour option as RAW files are rendered in colour by default. What we can learn is to see those forms, shapes tonalities and textures as a critical starting point not a lifeline to the already drowned.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
Something worth your consideration if you ever want to take a picture in the street again is something called the Freedom of Panorama and it is under threat (sort of). You might also want to sign the petition at the bottom of the article .Freedom of Panorama. In the interests of balance I would also say is that this is at the consultation stage, hasn’t been presented to the European Parliament for any legislative action (yet) but it still needs consideration and this is your chance to make opposition felt before it has the chance to gain any momentum. I would also point out that Mr Wales has a vested interest in such a possibility being put in place and this is an opinion piece in the Guardian, not a piece of investigative journalism. So for a bit of balance I would also read this from Full Facts (and still sign it).
N E X T M E E T I N G – Important information.
Our season at the school has drawn to a close. Please check the events clandar on the club website for details of meetings over the summer.
Last meeting Mark Stone , in a well attended meeting, took us through some editing options he uses on Light Room and Photoshop. Mark is a big fan of black and white, not to the exclusion of colour, but he has a strong affinity to the ascetic and opportunities that black and white presents, so it is this that we will investigate a little further this week.
Black and white photography happened first of course. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s heliograph taken at his estate in 1826-27 gives a barely legible but still discernable image of a stand of trees, fixed in bitumen (Daguerre used copper plate, Fox-Talbot was the first to fix an image on paper), but since the invention of colour – which had a long gestation period – it has gradually receded to niche and specialist markets. To its fans and I am certainly one, it is too often overlooked (guilty), or most people who occasionally venture that way look upon as a fix for images that didn’t work but still have something but you are not sure what (“Taking the fifth” on that one, well shoot in colour and edit to black and white is my excuse). Incidentally that is a two way street. There is no doubt that there is a skill to looking at an image as a black and white one from the off.
Some people might think that there is a certain nostalgia attached to monochrome that is a bit off-putting and reeks of chemicals and cardigans and people (men mainly) sucking on their dentures and complaining that things aren’t like they used to be. Certainly they are not. It’s called progress. The darkroom and its arcane ways have fallen from popular use. Photography as a whole, with the digital revolution, has become far more democratic and personally I think that a good thing. This, however, is the science and we are talking here about the art. If, on the other hand, you have used a dark room over some time, then there is a pretty good chance that you keep a warm place in your heart for those processes, for the choices of paper and the effects they have on the final image (for the uninitiated it evolves mainly, but not entirely, around the question of how black is black) for the magic of the image appearing on the paper. Black and white was far cheaper and a lot less complex than colour. Not many people go back though, at least not exclusively. Digital can be just as good.
As I said, this about the art (you’ll remember that argument from last week), the perceptions, that the image creates in the viewer. In black and white contrast is king, but across a spectrum shaded in grey. Subtlety is the greater part of it. That is not to say that extremes don’t have a part to play, it is part of the process of selection that forms the backbone of the monochrome discipline – and yes that is something which can be about post production, but as with everything else, it can’t all be about post production; the initial pre-shutter decisions are still hugely important. Black and white is about texture, forms and contrast above all. When these are the most important things in an image then black and white is the medium of choice, but it remains a subjective choice. Primarily these elements become important because when you remove colour from a photograph these elements are what lead the eye.
Texture, the consistency of a surface in a photograph defined by its irregularities, provides us with basic information that we can use to comprehend what that object is or made of. It can be more important than what that actual object is especially in abstract. Form, the three dimensional representation of an object (shape is 2D), especially in the absence of colour, is probably the biggest clue we get to what we are looking at and contrast, of course, is important in all forms of photography. Black and white concentrates the eye on the intensity and differential qualities in light to a higher degree than in colour (colour, of course being the most striking and the most absent of the elements of design in monochrome).
So it helps to concentrate on lines, shadows and shapes, not ignore the basic rules of composition (master them before you break them), plan ahead and practice, practice practice! There are advantages to shooting in colour (you can always revert to it) and there are advantages in using a RAW format – as per the above plus there is more scope for capturing tones across a range of light and dark in the same frame. There is no particular reason why you shouldn’t use JPEG should you so wish, but, as always, you have lesser latitude to edit with. It also helps to know the effects of colour filters on the image, which can easily be applied post production, or by simply fixing one to the front of your lens.
We have another round of the ROC in the new year, so why not use that as a chance to get some feedback on your black and white photography? Better yet, black and white is December’s Flickr competition topic.
CONGRATULATIONS to our esteemed chair on his MBE collected Thursday last awarded for his work with youth via the Air Training Corps. Well done and well earned Maurice.
Time is running out but there are still places on the WOODLAND shoot. See Myk.
December 11th – The second round of this year’s Reflex Open Competition (ROC) will be judged tonight.
December 18th – Christmas social evening. To quote Mark S (again):
” Thursday 18th December is our Christmas Social. We’re planning on doing an American Supper style evening which means we’d like you to bring some food & drink. So that you don’t all bring in a pack of Scotch Eggs we’ve created a list that will be on the sign in desk each week up until the 18th. If you’d like to take a look at what is on the list just peek at the PDF attached to this post.
8TH January 2015“What Christmas Means to me” & Mounting Prints
See everyone’s images from our Christmas Challenge of “What Christmas Means to me” followed by a demonstration on how to mount your photographs.
I bet your wondering what this “What Christmas means to me” thing is as you’ve possibly never even heard it mentioned at the club before. Well now I’ve had it explained to me with a handy infographic I can explain it all to you. Well actually no I’m not instead you can follow this link and read all about it as that’s exactly the same way I found out what it was!
15th January 2015: Club Battle, Bristol Photographic Society (Away).