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.
Well apologies for late posting but having terrible trouble with rural broadband. We were back to table top photography, always a favourite and a good one to hone your photographic skills on. We will also look at the last of week 2’s Q and A about DSLR v CSC/Mirror-less systems.
Table Top. Does what it says on the tin. Take something you can place on a table, make it interesting, light it photograph it. What is difficult in that? In truth it is one of those thing that is both straight forward but not necessarily that easy to get just right. But it is fun and it is relatively easy to set up and it can be as cheap as you want to make it. It is also an exercise in the basics of photography and as such is something well worth spending a rainy day, or part thereof.
Of course it is as involved and difficult as you want to make it, and some people do, but as with everything else with this craft, if you don’t get the basics right the rest is of little consequence. Or maybe you can pass it off as abstract art, depends upon your contacts. In the professional arena it is known as product photography, for all the reasons you would expect. It’s photography. Taken of clients products. Glad we got that out of the way early. The thing with that is that, whereas your product might be metallic, shiny, glass, matt, brightly coloured, black etc etc the clients expectations are going to be unique. Even when they want something like ….. they want something different. Otherwise it might fall to a competitors advantage. Energizer Bunny anyone? Yes you have seen him/her/it somewhere before ….
The basic set up into which you place your object is a flat surface, a light, a backdrop, usually plain, usually white, and a camera. The first addition to this is a reflector. Arguably you could swap light source for reflector and using existing light in this. Indeed I would put a reflector in the essentials. A useable five in one To get the ISO down to around the 100/200 mark I would suggest the next thing you acquire is a tripod. Then maybe a second light source. Some flags for putting more control into shadows, a light tent etc etc. Possibly more than any other area of photography this one opens itself up to DIY alternatives, or, if you are being hip as opposed to waiting for a replacement for one, hacks.
This is the area of photography where you have most control of the light, that is total control of the light, but as I have said before any videographer will tell you that the easiest thing about light is the theory of it. However, the control of the light is a good start when learning about how to put the light together with a subject to make a photograph. In the wild, as it were, we are more and more dependent upon what others or nature provide us with. This does not mean that it cannot be manipulated but it certainly gets more involved. Playing with reflections, bokeh and perspective is just basic fun. Certainly you will very soon come up against minimum focus, depth of field and other macro problems, all of which can be solved, all of which teach us something. Coming from the novice perspective we certainly learn to fill the frame.
OK the last of week 2’s Q&A, this time about CSC (Mirror-less) V DSLR. Undoubtedly a lot of nonsense has been talked about this. The alleged quality differences these days are pretty much that, alleged otherwise not proven in terms of general use, though certainly there are differences and certainly both have there advocates, but the reality is they are growing closer together for the everyday amateur and professional alike. Thing may be different at the nano-level but whether they are mission critical is another story entirely. Size, weight, battery life and access to lens ranges, are all “issues” largely of fan boys and people with other brands to sell, though each brand certainly has its own story.
The question is more nuanced than the badge on the front though. Perhaps the biggest selling point of a CSC/SLT Mirror-less camera is the fact that when you look through the viewfinder what you see is exactly what you get. This point alone (though it doesn’t stop people chimping I have noticed) I think is a, maybe the, major advantage for the amateur over the DSLR. It should, however, be noted that I am speaking here from the point of view of a stills photographer. The videographer has a different set of demands of a camera and may come to the same conclusion on either side of the argument, but for different reasons. Another part of this dynamic is the age of the camera you are comparing. In 2016 the differences seem to have shrunk, somewhat. In 2014, and into 2015, the dynamic range and the point at which noise intrudes definitely fell to the DSLR’s advantage. Then came the Sony A7 series and the big advances of the MK 2 versions of them the Alpha 6000 and 6300, and this week 6500; the Nikon D500; Fuji XT Mk2, even Hasselblad, they are coming thick and fast now. Some people seem to think that mirror-less is the future. They might be right but there is certainly life in the DSLR yet.
Ultimately it’s down to what you feel most comfortable with, of course.
Table top and/or product photography is an extension of the hobby for amateurs and for some professionals a staple and stable income. It has many branches and specialities. You can throw as much money and kit at it as any other branch of photography but as with any other form if the light isn’t right it’s not worth a dam. In common with other forms of what I shall broadly call “Studio” photography, which I will discuss a little further shortly, it is one where the control of the light is total.
Studio came to English from the Latin via Italian word for application (also eagerness). It is the application part that is of particular interest to this piece. In essence we are applying the Exposure Triangle to a subject, usually fairly limited in size, but that depends on how big your table is I suppose, to a single (usually) object or limited number of objects against a plain background (again, usually). The studio is a place set aside for the production of the final piece. It doesn’t have to be permanent and the glory of table top is that it can be made to order from things either already in our photographic collection or household items ready to hand. It can be from the size of a match box to the size of a hangar and anywhere in between. It can be very absorbing as small changes in the lighting can have quite profound effects in the overall image captured and the absolute concentration on detail it requires can be quite revealing.
The common elements of the table top studio are a table top, a background, preferably plain, at least one light (though two and three light set ups are common) and something to photograph. Basic refinements then come in the shape of diffusers and reflectors and again these can be made from things readily to hand. I am taking the camera as read in this equipment list on the grounds that this is a camera club blog and the camera is rather implied. Also the vexed question of which camera is best skirted. The answer, as ever, is the one you have.
Most compacts will focus pretty close, for systems with interchangeable lenses you have macro specialist lenses (true macro gives a reproduction scale of at least 1:1), then you have macro filters, reversing rings, extension tubes and bellows that allow you to get closer than the native capacity of your lens. Fixed (Prime) lenses are generally easier to use – especially with reversing rings, but zooms are by no means ruled out. The shorter the focal length the closer to the subject the lens can be, for instance my 24mm on an APSC sensor has a minimum focusing distance of 180 mm which comes down to about 10 mm with a 13 mm extension tube. My 50 mm and the 340 mm minimum focus comes down to around 25 mm for the same fitting. Depth of field is also shallow.
You might want to shoot with a plain backdrop but one that is seamless, and gives no hint of depth to the background. It’s known as an infinity curve, infinity cove or cyclorama and is formed by taking your back drop and curling it under what you are shooting. That can be something as simple as a piece of A4. Somewhere along the journey from table top to full blown studio the infinity curve becomes an infinity cove, the curve covers right angles without showing any angles, but that is a distinction that need not bother us (the cove comes from the shape, not the size). The physics remain the same, only the scale (and expense) varies. Beware, though, that Amazon own the patent to the set up (as discussed last May here), though I doubt that adds up to much under UK law, but that hasn’t been tested. And then we come to the light tent, aka the light box. Essentially it is a 360 degree diffusion box. Lights are mounted externally and the subject internally. They soften the light (of course) and can be used to reduce specularity and also have an infinity curve effect. They are straightforward and can be bought quite cheaply (and not cheaply at all), made very cheaply, or somewhere in between.
As hobbyists the table top presents us with the opportunity to practise basic and not-so-basic lighting skills in our own home. It is also a way of keeping skills sharp or refining existing ones and it presents challenges of its own. Therein lies a further utility, it helps keep things fresh through subtle challenges and in ways that are transferable to other styles. Starting out it is best, as always, to keep things simple and start with one light plus something to use as reflectors, such as paper, cards and mirrors. It is amazing how much you can get done with a single light source, be that flash or continuous (such as a table lamp) and it is also really productive to find out what effects you can pull off using black reflectors as well as white or silver (or any other colour if it comes to that).
But colour isn’t the only thing that makes for a decent table top shot. Texture is important too. This comes back to what was mentioned above about finding images in detail. If, by keeping our attention to a single or relatively few objects devoid of clutter, we can make for some interesting images, then we can transfer those skills into the messier world outside of the simple table top and look for the angles, textures and details that make for more interesting shots. The possibilities for still life/tabletop/product photography are almost boundless. It is fun, as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be and it builds transferable skills. So a big thanks to everyone who contributed to this evening, from the shots on the FB page I think a lot of us found it very productive.
N E X T M E E T I N G
An evening with club member and treasurer Steve Hallam.