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.
Change of venue to a walk around the docks in pleasant company, always interesting thing to photograph going on as it is now a social centre for the city. It being evening and ending after dark rather suggested that we take a look at night photography, both with and without a tripod.
On the face of it, night photography is defined by two of the absolute essentials of photography. Firstly contrast, you have to go and find it. It will either be very low, which can make things muddy and ill defined or very high, which can call into question shadow and or highlight detail, losing it mainly. Then there is the whole light thing, rather the relative lack of it and the effect that has on the exposure triangle, camera shake and sensor noise.
Situation is also key. This post is going to look at the urban setting as that is where we were, which sets a very different array of questions than say, photographing the milky way in the Brecon Beacons. Urban settings have more immediate and multiple hazards, multiple opportunities too. That is not to say that you should go prancing around the countryside with anything but due care, it is a far more dangerous place than townies think.
Whereas there is a joy in wondering around looking for photo-opportunities you are far more likely to find them if you know what you are looking for (planned serendipity). Let’s start with the golden hour. The Golden Hour isn’t exactly an hour, it is short hand for, in photographic terms, a quality of light that is a function of the relationship between the angle of the sun to the earth. During that time the colour temperature of the light is around 3500 Kelvin because of the greater depth of the atmosphere it has to travel through.
Now you say, being on the ball, that makes the light bluer than the standard daylight of around 5500 Kelvin and you would be right. That soft quality of light that makes for good portraits as well as land, urban and seascapes (we will ignore sun rise for the purposes of this piece but the golden hour is that which starts around dawn) is a product of the low angle of the sun to the horizon which scatters the blue wavelengths relative to the red/yellow wavelengths which, psychologically, look warmer to us. Think instant no cost tanning. That low angle means long shadows too that are also softer than you will experience later in the day.
The time it is available is limited so there is a time pressure (though no excuse for bad technique, of course). It’s all in the preparation (a point worth repeating). Cloud cover will need to be monitored and factored in too. Knowing when today’s golden hours are, or tomorrows etc, depends upon your planning window, is fairly easy to calculate. I feel almost obliged to mention The Photographers Ephemeris at this point. It also worth persisting throughout the hour because of the speed the light changes is so rapid. ISO’s are likely to be higher and/or apertures wider and the White Balance, which will try to correct to daylight if left on auto, should be set to cloudy to preserve the warmth in the light.
Not that the setting of the sun should stop you, the urban landscape presents a myriad of possibilities, some of these we have spent some time on club outings photographing. The first thing to remember is a piece of advice from Scott Kelby and that is the last thing you do is put the camera on the tripod. Make up your mind what you are photographing, “Working the scene” to determine the most productive angles. Then fix the static element around that rather than restricting yourself the other way round. Handheld is also an option, depending on vibration reduction/how steady your hand/availability of something solid to brace yourself against or set the camera. Another tip I have found very useful is, when holding everything steady as you can, is to shoot a sequence using the motor drive that is built into virtually every camera these days. Five will get you one steady shot more often than not, though there are, of course, limits to what you can achieve. Wide angle are a lot easier to get results with this way than telephoto lenses which, with exceptions, need a tripod.
The lights in the urban environment are both static and mobile. The very wide and the very narrow are both good for picking image subjects. Cityscape panoramas provide, usually, both static and mobile elements. Shop windows, street lights vehicle light trails. Getting high up, windows, multi storey car parks with a view, bridges and alike offer vantage points. Shop windows make for a great free soft box for street portraits. Neon light always sticks out and often uses reds and yellows which are particularly striking and blues can be arresting set on a dark background. Reflections in windows or water are worth paying attention too. The light sources in the scene really are the first thing you should weigh up These are, light trails aside, entirely static. Waiting for something or someone to come along and add interest to it is really quite logical.
Exposure is always going to be tricky at night as we discussed above, because of the high dynamic range that you will be dealing with. This is one situation where it really does make more sense to shoot in RAW than in JPEG (or, if you want your cake and eat it, both) unless your camera is using a version of HDR with a high ISO and a black frame to reduce the noise, which will be a built in function and therefore not one where you have the data format option, necessarily. Noise reduction in camera will slow down the write to card times by approximately the same length of time as the exposure so if you are going longer than a second or so and/or shooting sequences with long exposures it probably makes sense to turn it off and do your noise reduction in post.
Flash has it’s uses, but not if you are trying to be discrete. Nonetheless, meter for the highlights, shoot camera RAW, accept that post production is almost inevitable in these things. Dark images are not necessarily a bad thing, you are shooting at night after all, but the mood after dark is always different. The mood of some people is also rather different so make sure you play it safe. The tripod is a good idea, of course, especially if you are looking at longer exposures, when it becomes an essential, either because of the generally low light levels or because you want to include some blur in your subjects – also useful if you are putting in some zoom blur too – or you are looking to put some light trails in, as discussed above. And we haven’t even broached the subject of light painting.
All in all a great way to extend your photographic day and pretty much what e shall be doing at WSM this Thursday, with the added incentive of it being bike night. See you there.
Some discussion last session, the sharing of the light trails outing, about what is and what is not a keeper. Should be easy yes? Well most of the reasons to reject an image are fairly obvious: incorrect exposure, out of focus, poor framing or all three. Except what one sees as fodder for the recycle bin another sees promise. I suspect it was ever so, from the first daubs on a cave wall there were, no doubt, discussions on what one could plainly see and another, just as plainly, could not.
As we are all aware the cost of taking another frame with a digital camera is very marginal, which both helps and hinders. It helps in that reframing a shot in refining the outcome isn’t then much of a cost consideration. Effective when it is done deliberately. Spray and pray, though it can get results, doesn’t get consistent results. Establishing whether you should have taken that shot in the first place is a bigger consideration if you are serious about improving your photography overall and that only when you take your own advice – and I don’t mean by taking the same photograph as everyone else. That is a goal that can only be achieved through persistence, the ability to be objective about an image and to repeat the exercise from a different angle. If you don’t do something different you will only get the same result. Yes it’s basic logic but it is also something that takes each of us a time to learn. This is, at least in part, because what we are learning (or failing to) changes. We deal with a shifting medium, light, that we have varying degrees of control over, from zero to total. Lighting, as many a cinema photographer or serious videographer will tell you, is often easier in theory than in practise.
OK so the lighting when you are on the city centre taking six to eight second exposures (sometimes longer) of moving lights you have no influence on doesn’t make for a great deal of control. What it does leave you in charge of, aperture, ISO, focal length and which way and from where you point the camera, gives you scope for sufficient variation to make a different photograph every time. It is also trial and error and to differentiate that from spray and pray you have to change one of these things. The environment might also help. For instance, the bus lane going south ends in a traffic island. I saw the potential for two things in this. One was an s-bend formation in the lights as the buses made their way towards Redcliffe, the other was a boomerang effect as some of the buses use the same roundabout to do a 180 and start the return journey.
As it turned out these were the two closest shots to keepers I got all night. Other members certainly got better. I didn’t get them first time and I couldn’t guarantee to be able to exactly replicate them the next time I am light trailing down there (it sort of gets under your skin as does most forms of light painting I find). I would dearly like to lose the lamp post sitting on the thirds of one of those shots and I am not 100% convinced, given the nature and spread of the light in the boomerang shot where there is quite a bit of diffusion, that I can convincingly edit in post. The obvious answer is to avoid it by getting in front of it and using a wider angle lens or crossing the street and shooting from the opposite pavement. They will, however, be very different pictures, because the perspective will be different. Notice I haven’t said better or worse, just different.
Getting the clutter out of the way helps us to focus on the subject. Shooting without the clutter in the frame in the first place saves us time. Don’t, as a default, shoot first and fix later, because you will end up making the same mistakes a habit, a stylistic tic. Such decisions, say shooting a wedding at a constant aperture to yield a continuity of style, is fine when deliberate, distinctive and adding value for the viewer. Otherwise it just keeps the recycle bin full, or sits there in the unloved space that could be better used of your hard disk.
Poor light, endemic to light painting, is a tough test for any auto focusing system and that shot can just pass you by in a faint whirr of a never focusing lens. Certainly low light focusing has come on in leaps and bounds, especially if you are in a position to splash the cash. The actual cause – which is also why a clear blue sky can be difficult to focus on – is the lack of contrast, because contrast is what your autofocus system needs, more accurately the boundary between two objects of different luminance. That said the camera you have is the camera you’ve got is the camera you are using and regardless of model actively and fully using the auto-focusing capabilities and manual focussing are useful skills to have in the armoury. Panning can also be a useful skill, but one that needs practice, and like many other photographic techniques has a simple base but comes with some useful variations, and gets better with practice. The trick is to know what you want in the finished product and to plan and execute accordingly. That in itself cuts down on the number of shots binned, is not to say avoid experimentation, which would be self defeating. Madness, as defined by Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
The whole essence of light trails is capturing movement on a still image. Light trails are vibrant, high contrast, busy blurs, they have a rhythm and a tempo not associated with say, a corporate style headshot, a formal portrait or, I hope, obviously, their antithesis, a still life. There is a single theme that links the whole gamut of photographs you can take, indeed every photography ever taken and that will be ever taken. Composition. If you want to make and take more keepers you need to practise your composition. You don’t have to wait to happen across a dramatic scene to do so, indeed it could be argued that that is the moment you most need your composition skills, you practice with anything to hand. The key is to move, just as I should have moved taking the boomerang picture. Maybe then I would have made a keeper, not a binner.
An evening out last meeting where a goodly number of brave souls battled the elements and congregated on the Tramway Centre for a spot of light trailing. Actually it wasn’t that inclement, but it sounds more epic if there are elements to battle. Also skateboards, bicycles, motor vehicles, the occasional well oiled passer-by and the odd curious body wondering why so many people were taking pictures of buses. Buses, it appears, aren’t usually that popular even for the people riding them, so their prompted inquisitiveness was understandable, but each to their own.
As we have already done a brief tour of light painting and light trails recently so we will take a little tour around some other items of interest. Probably the most immediate impact to photographers is the future of Yahoo, particularly Flikr, which Yahoo acquired in 2005. Aside from the bile that periodic changes to its format from a percentage of entrenched users generates (the fate of all user platforms, which will lose users if they are not seen to evolve, it’s pretty much no win). Rumours have been around that Yahoo might be looking to dispose of the E-Mail, Search, Photo, that for which the general population probably know them best, their core business. They used to be King of the Hill in the web sector, but are seen to be in trouble, at least in the terms of the market. The way that they value this core (core is not the same as profitable) business means that it is worth virtually nothing. To the shareholders.
To the 112 million free-lunchers, give or take, who use Flikr, that virtually nothing is a whole lot more. It is primarily for free, but for free still needs paying for. The Pro, paid for version, doesn’t, it appears, generate sufficient income for that. So Yahoo sell off some royalty free (creative commons)images on its servers, as well as some other users images as creative wall art, which upset some people and not others. The creative commons pictures don’t get royalties. Huffington Post, when it was sold by its founders Huffington and Lerer to AOL, attracted some controversy as it had, in part, been grown by the traffic attracted by the unpaid bloggers who used its platform. There was an unsuccessful class action by some of them against Huffington and Lerer for a share of the proceeds. The bloggers lost their action broadly on the basis that no payment had ever been promised. The bloggers did it for exposure, one assumes, as they were free to cross post. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
One person’s fair use is still another person’s theft. Groupon finds itself on the end of a law suit under local copyright laws in Illinois on the grounds that they regularly raid Instagram for photos to use in their publicity misrepresenting the people who posted them. Misrepresentation takes many forms and the rights and wrongs of the Groupon case will be settled in a court of law. Others are not so serious. A small, local competition was recently won by a striking image which was duly praised and published by the company running it. But the photo was badly Photoshopped and the company running it was a local incarnation of a rather large one. A rather large camera company. Nikon. It went viral and much hilarity ensued. Canon Canada is even running its own version. All very embarrassing but it will blow over and I doubt it will affect either Nikon’s or Canon’s sales one jot. The individuals involved were duly chastised but, given the nature of modern communications, internationally, which might strike you as being a little disproportionate. This is the world we live in.
As Canadian photographers are granted the first copy right as authors of their own images, the thorny issue of other people’s property and the reproduction rights therein have been back in the news. The issue was a snap taken and entered into a competition run by Thompson Holidays, a £2,000 holiday being the prize. A horse photobombed a father and son in the winning entry. The owner of the horse wanted a cut of the prize, after all, the horse was their property (animals count as property) and was on private land and had not given permission for it to be included in the photograph. Not sure how that would pan out, it not being a cash prize. The photograph, as I understand, was taken from a public right of way and that is a salient fact as there is the idea of a right of panorama, which includes the idea that that which is on view from public land does not require prior permission to be photographed (as long as no offence is committed in order to take it).
Photo-releases are a part of the necessary process of commercial photography. They are not the exclusive domain of the professional photographer. Any photo that is paid for, whether it was taken with that purpose in mid or not, should have the basis of its copy right subject to written confirmation, even those taken in public, as far as is reasonably practicable. It can save a lot of grief later on.
I’ve said it before in this post, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Petapixel reports that wedding photographers are not on the list of suppliers worthy of being fed according to Brides Magazine. Written by a Wedding Planner, apparently Wedding Planners are on the list of worthies. Now there is a surprise. This appears to be predicated on an idea of how long a supplier attends, and seems to me to be a good way to limit the attention you get from the people who create the record of your day. It is no longer the case that the photographer is expected to turn up at the church, take a few photos, go to the reception and ditto, before leaving for the next appointment.
N E X T M E E T I NG
R.O.C. creative round judging.
Apologies for the non showing of the last round of the ROC but I am having technical difficulties which are proving rather entrenched. There are also lasting problems with posting to the club’s Facebook Page via the blog. Ah well, such is life. Last meeting was all about light painting and our thanks go to Myk Garton and Tony Cullen [EDIT not Cooney as originally published] for their efforts and Megan Gearing for being the model once again. Definitely a fun night.
Essentially light painting takes advantage of the camera’s ability to take long exposures, it’s relatively limited dynamic range, a dark background and some bright lights either as illumination on a subject or as a subject themselves. It is not an expensive thing to set up and you can get some striking results relatively easily. Equipment is a tripod or place to secure your camera preferably capable of being set to fully manual (Bulb) and, optionally, a remote shutter release, a light source and some darkness. You have a variety of options what you do with the light, depending upon what the source is, from outlining everyday objects with light using a single LED all the way up to multiple exposure big item, multiple flash set ups, cityscapes and landscapes. It is one of those things that really does apply to pretty much any subject.
Light Painting is all about the what copious amounts of dark do to light, colour and contrast when exposed on a digital processor or film. Given the amount of trial and error it really does play to the cost advantages of digital and even then there are time savings to be had through simple things like turning off your camera’s long exposure noise reduction until the final shot, (which will halve the exposure processing time) or working out exposure with the 6 stop rule. This is based on a fairly simple piece of mathematics and lies within the exposure triangle. If you set your camera’s ISO to 6400 whilst you get the shot composed and exposure sorted, then, using the metering in seconds recorded in the test shots, reset to ISO 100 and expose in minutes, e.g. a 10 second ISO 6400 shot is a 10 minutes at ISO 100, a 4 second exposure at 6400 is a 4 minute exposure at 100 ISO etc. ISO 100 is six stops slower than ISO 6400, hence the name, and it works for the identical aperture setting.
I would turn the long exposure noise control back on when all the groundwork has been done (and leave it on as default) because it works to a quite significant advantage in the quality of the final image. That said different sensors have different sensitivities and you may well get 5 or 10 second exposures without significant noise intrusion, and that is best at low ISO’s, though I don’t know of any digital sensors to match The Kono! Donau’s film speed of ISO 6 (marketed as ideal for light painters) from Lomo (though at £27 for three rolls I am in no hurry to find out). It’s a relatively simple thing to check out where your camera starts to produce intrusive noise using test exposures at minimum ISO and worth knowing for your camera. I have seen the figure of a 30db Signal to Noise Ratio as being “acceptable” to “professionals” – frankly I have no idea, though DXO measure these sort of things. What is acceptable is subjective and individual. Go and find out for your camera.
Of course photography is Greek for painting with light, but, as defined above light painting makes more of the dark. Light painting scenes have, by design, higher contrast than will be found in most photographs and will also, most likely, require some post production to fix light leaks or darken weakly lit areas. The fact that we are dealing with opposite ends of the histogram actually helps as getting rid of distracting background detail can often be achieved with a simple adjustment of the contrast slider. Yes that is a broad generalisation because every frame is different, but with the single frame light painting the reduced colour palette and high contrast actually don’t often require much fiddling around.
Not that some people are content to leave it at that. The techniques can usefully be extended from drawing with a light against a very dark background, through illuminating an object or objects via a single light source, to full blown composites of hundreds of frames of sometimes very large objects. All can come under the light painting banner, and can, I suspect be labelled on a scale from interesting to obsessive, depending on where you stand (and what equipment you have access to), but there is another relatively cheap and easy-with-the-right-techniques that you can access. Light trails. In a lot of ways we have already talked about this earlier in this post, when we talked about single lights, but you have many options in making those. And don’t forget star trails, vehicle lights, trains, boats and planes – it doesn’t have to be you in charge of the lights, though that helps in organising the outcomes. Light painting is a fine way of capturing some vibrant images, give it a try.
N e x t M e e t i n g
Returning our visit earlier in the season we welcome Hanham Photographic Society.