Taking someone’s photograph. Simple enough concept. A person, a camera, a photographer, a photograph. We might hope that the exposure is correct, the focusing correct and the person in the photograph recognisable if not by name at least as a person, as opposed to a smudge in a frame, a blur, a blot on the landscape. The technicalities don’t cover that, the story, the connection between viewer and subject. It could be the technically inept smudge, barely recognisable in some anonymous background, means the world to someone, because the person it is, or was, the world to them, or a substantial part of it. The casual observer cannot tell, for each of us, regardless of connection are pulled in or gloss over the representation of the person/s in the frame according to our own lives.
So much so passport photograph. Easy enough to gloss over the stare-into-the-lens, remove-all-distractions, flat-light-hard-lit likeness used for identification, though there are simple reasons for that style in an identification document. Its value is embedded in its function. It is a statement of who we are, where we are from, rather than an expression of it. Yet it is only an issue when we lose it or use it. The photograph on our photo-id is probably far more important to us than any other in the practical sense, but among the least regarded.
Take that self same fixed-stare, clean-background, no-distractions and Rembrandt light it. In reality we are adding, rather adjusting, the full-on photo booth glare for an unequal amount of light and shadow to construct a more pleasing aesthetic (More accurately, if not so informatively, we are subtracting light, but we will let that pass). By moving the light up and to one side we get a very different story. By doing so we immediately break the rules of passport photography, we render it bureaucratically void, but we make another, aesthetic, case for that image. The strength and appeal of that case is dependent upon the viewer, their literal and psychological perspectives.
Pull back a bit. Step backwards, zoom out which ever takes your fancy. Create a little space around your subject. Yes I know what Robert Capa said, and we are still looking at a plain background and the Rembrandt light because that is where we more or less started. What can you do with that space? Space doesn’t sound very productive, but handled in the right way adds to the overall balance. Essentially the way we use space in a frame is to give the subject a focus when not looking directly to the camera, so that there is enough space in the rest of the frame for the subject to look into. This helps form the question within the viewers mind as to what we cannot see what it is that takes the subjects attention. It is a well of curiosity and viewers will tend to look into the area the subject is looking into.
Space used in this way (usually asymmetrically) divides into two. The active space is the one described above. Negative space, apart from being the rest, and also being known as dead space, is what makes the subject stand out from the background but it needs to be handled carefully or it detracts from the overall image. As such this is all part of the rules of composition and the visual balance, which we last visited last two weeks ago.
Now comes the but …. Robert Capa was right. At least he was also right. Different crop, different picture, same image. Take a look at the pictures you took of Ashleigh, Becki and Keith last meeting (and thanks to you three for being such patient models). Some great one’s posted by club members but not a single one that couldn’t be made into one, two or three other pictures. Cropping in post is one way of doing it for sure, but changing your position, up, down, left, right, nearer, further gives you six variations of that first framing. Seven different pictures. Have a go in post. Just the cropping – at least at first, then maybe light and shadow – you will get two or three useable, different pictures out of the exercise. Then go find someone to photograph, natural lighting will do, but using those six variations to get seven pictures.
So, following the above, we have a Rembrandt lit square on image of someone in too much space. Time to move the model. Now there are posing guides and techniques – Gerry Painter did a very informative evening based on Lindsay Adler last season and Mark O’Grady and Rob Heslop did a studio lighting presentation back in November that showed a lot into a short time – aplenty on the web.
It is important to establish exactly why whoever you are taking the pictures for wants them taken. Business, fashion, blog, CV, anniversary, all have different requirements in formality and style. That really is question number one when taking portraiture – why am I taking this? Even when we are taking them on a club night for pleasure, the question is what story am I telling here? Mystery? Mirth? Sadness? Loss? Happy times? Want? Wanton? When Damien Lovegrove took a session a couple of seasons back, he was happy to show how a story colours our perception of the picture. That is what we allow others to see, no matter that their story is different.
There are certain conventions attached to certain types of portraiture which is tied up with their use. Corporate head shots is the obvious one that springs to mind. They differ from actors head shots in some small ways. Then there is the whole baby/infant/toddler/child thing. For all those expectations, indeed to meet those expectations, it is still the contact with the subject that counts.
Rule, and I do mean rule, one. Talk to your subject. Do not talk at your subject. The point is the person in the picture, not the smart-arse button operator. For sure some people have a very strong opinion of how and what should be done on both sides of the camera, however, this whole interaction is a bargain. A bargain, in the most colloquial sense, is the receipt of something that represents more than the time, effort and most frequently hard cash that we have put into something. Effort takes time and time is money if you need that squared away. It is an agreement between two or more people based around give and take and when entered into proportionally can produce something more than either party bargained for – in a good way. Good rapport is at the centre of any successful portrait session.
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9th Feb 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Lyn James LRPS: “People and Places”.
Morag McDonald was our guest last meeting and she addressed a lot over a short time. Interesting history and a combination of the academic and the practical. There was a lot of talk after the meeting about cropping and composition so it was to the latter that we address ourselves in this post and will look at colour next week – which is also editing part ii so bring your laptops.
Composition, or getting the stuff you are looking at in the right place in the right proportion to tell our story most effectively is going to be part of any successful photograph. It is the grammar that supports the plot that tells the story that grips the reader. Rules are often talked about, but talked about as rules, “Authoritative, prescribed directions for conduct, especially ones of the regulation governing procedure …” are not at all helpful to the developing photographer. We need to learn to look for stories first then compose, rather than look for structure then find a story. Rules are designed, applied and enforced to reproduce a stable set of circumstances. We must do it this way in order to ape the greats and get an acceptable photograph. Logically, then, all photographs should look the same, should comply to a half dozen, or less, formats and nothing of any worth happened after Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was classically trained and used it to great artistic effect.
Tools, on the other hand, anything used as a means of performing an operation or achieving an end, are very useful. Cameras are tools. Lenses are tools. Flash guns and strobes are tools. Light modifiers are tools. Filters are tools. These are the ones we to tend to think of as tools because they come at a cost to our bank balances and credit ratings. They are the tools of capture. The most effective tools we have to tell our stories, on the other hand, are free, easily accessed and well known. They are the tools of composition.
The composition of an image has three parts to it. The focal element, the structure and the balance. We will look at each of these in turn, starting with the biggest culprit in dulling the impact of an image, the focal element. Without a focal element, or with too many focal elements, the eye goes on a hunting trip for something to focus on. The eye isn’t really the problem here it is the brain, of course, and our brains work on the principle of rapid summation of our environment and the ordering of threats in it. Basically that has not changed since we all lived in caves, in Africa and shared the name Ug. What’s the point? That is the first thing the brain looks at when it surveys a scene. What’s going on? It needs limited information to form an initial judgement which will be refined as other information adds to this judgment or detracts from it to the point it becomes redundant. We constantly reconcile what we see with what we think we know.
The sort of things our eyes will latch on to the focal elements that show high contrast, high saturation, sharpest focus, motion, faces and or figures. These in turn will be influenced by items such as leading lines, framing and geometry.
Structure is probably what we think of first (and that might be part of the problem) and certainly it’s where the idea of rules in composition is seated. We are talking about such items as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, pyramids and triangles, symmetry and filling the frame. They are all sound under the circumstances that tell the story best for that structure. Think of them as plot devices.
The rule of thirds has four points, known as eyes, of importance and the idea of these is to put something of importance at the intersection one of these points a third or two thirds across the frame and a third or two thirds down it. A second element can be place on one of the adjoining thirds to provide balance (diagonals seem to work best by adding depth in 3D in a 2D environment, but that might just be a personal preference). It has to be said that these points are not absolute (it’s a tool remember) and that objects placed in proximity work just as well or good enough depending on your aesthetic. Of course not everyone is a fan of it.
The Golden Ratio is everywhere we look it seems. It also explains why all those classical Greco-Roman statues are beholding grapes at odd angles. The Rule of Thirds is often referred to as a simplified Golden Ratio, but when it comes to classical composition the Golden Ratio is king. It is found commonly in nature and can be expressed through the Fibonacci Sequence. Now whether it is there and we impose it or we find it because it is there is always open (this link explores in detail). It is also a tricky blighter to get right and its mere presence is no guarantee of the perfect image – plenty of images to be found that are technically proficient but subject deficient. There is no denying that it is fascinating and when it works it works, but remember to the viewer it is an explanation of why this image works not the point of it.
Pyramid Composition, aka triangle composition, is really a matter of converging lines. Converging lines are more usually associated with wide angle lenses because they are more obvious in those perspectives and indeed, we spend time in post “correcting” them. Really we are imposing order on physics because we want our vertical lines vertical not curved (unless shooting with a fisheye lens of course) nor angled at anything but the perpendicular. As we are talking composition we are talking about deliberately converging lines not incidental ones. Leading lines are the most frequently encountered pyramidal tool in the advice given. They converge on a point, our eyes naturally follow that conversion so we need to make certain that our focal point sits at the point of conversion. If the lines within that pyramid follow its boundary lines then the effects are reinforced. It’s a matter of our next tool, symmetry.
Symmetry is repetition of a pattern on both sides of an axis. We associate it with power and beauty. It is explained in Gestalt psychology but we have already touched upon this when we talked about the brains need for patterns and conforming details. Basically our brains crave patterns and if we can find them and use them to concentrate the viewers imagination in the frame we present them then we are on the way, given a sufficiently compelling subject, to making a successful photograph.
Last but not least of our little selection of tools and before we go to our third element, balance, we are back with the oft quoted (here at least) Frank Capa: If our photograph isn’t good enough it’s because we are not close enough. We are moving beyond Capa’s original intent here, which was about connection with your subject. Basically, fill the frame. Essentially you use a single element, like the details in a face, to take up the whole frame. A face is a good example because it has a high degree of symmetry to it and so fits in a frame quite balanced along the central vertical axis. Doesn’t have to be a face, of course, but it should be minimal in the number of subjects In the frame, that is, one image in the frame.
Is there any order to these? No. These are just a very few of the design principles, tools, we can use. we need to learn to decide what tool we are going to use in order to get the result we want. Advice for the beginner would be to start by ensuring you fill the frame and try the rule of thirds. When you have mastered these tools then expand your tool kit, deliberately, by which I mean we go out to deliberately shoot x number of frames in a session based on tool y. Take notes.
So the third element of this composition monster is a thing called visual balance. Basically everything you capture in a frame has an effect a weight in relation to the rest of the frame and the other things in it. Things that can affect the visual weight of an object in a frame include relative sizes, shape, number, high contrast, saturation, brightness, faces, figures etc. They need to be played off so everything seems to part of the whole and those things have a harmony to them. There are a Of course disharmony has a place too, but let’s get the basics right before we start to get cocky.
So, this composition thing in a nutshell: One clear element arranged within a structure to make a point in a scene that is balanced. Simples. Maybe …..
Club member Ian Coombs talked to us on the matter of audio visual presentations, following on from Hanham Photographic Club’s visit last November when they presented us with some examples. This, however, was more how to.
An AV A/V or Audio Visual presentation does what it says on the tin. It uses sound and vision to get a point across. Or several points. Or, if done badly, no points at all. It can be a way of presenting photographs of course and the audio part of the equation is optional in this case. In many ways using audio and getting it right can be the most difficult part of the presentation, especially for Newts (New To Its’, the same creatures as that famous drinking benchmark – nothing if not educational this blog). Too loud, too quiet, inappropriate tempo for the transitions, too monotone (for voice over’s) or too hyper can render speech unfitting, music tastes vary widely. Then there is the death by PowerPoint TM syndrome, where the audience offers its own not always silent prayer for deliverance from, well, you.
Things don’t have to be complicated, in fact complication is best avoided, as ever the rule to rule the rules is Keep It Short and Simple. That also applies to the software. It is easy to end up with high end expensive programmes that go largely unused and certainly unstretched, especially by a YouTube or Vimeo video of the family day at the beach comprising of transitions (Tip: pick one, stick to it) between photos of the day. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, you just don’t need to sell your internal organs on the black market to fund it. There is plenty of freeware to be had that is up to the job (and a fair bit more) as we have previously discussed (link above). Some of it is pretty powerful too.
There is, of course, more to AV than ice cream and deck chairs to the tune of “I do Like to be beside the seaside” and whereas we are essentially talking about any sequence of images (still and/or video) with an accompanying sound track there is a huge amount of variation. It can be constructed to present a set of themed images where the sound track enhances the experience through setting the mood. It can be an interpretation of music or a written piece where the images fit the theme rather than the other way round. The whole point is that it is a lot more than just pictures to music.
The music does many things, if it’s got right it can having amazing effects. It amplifies, soothes, lifts, calms, sometimes in the length of a single piece. But it has to be appropriate to the rest of the presentation. Voiceovers, similarly, are difficult to get right. Put a microphone in someone’s face and you can bet that naturalistic, free flowing conversationalist will, more often than not, be reduced to a series of ums and errs in a flat tone. It happens because we switch a lot of processing power to reproducing the right sounds and, unless you’ve practised it a lot, it is very difficult to sound natural. That doesn’t rule out a text only solution.
The key, as ever, is to have a good idea of what the finished article looked like. Yes you can change your mind but you need to be consistent. Consistent in theme, in transitions, in volume, in control of background noise, or the overall look and feel will be at odds. It’s really about meeting the audiences expectations, and they will expect a beginning, a middle and an end. That doesn’t limit your imagination, but the audience is expecting a story. Whether that story ends with a call to action or the delivery of a conclusion the whole piece needs to be rounded and complete.
That said there is no reason that you cannot use the same ideas in building a dynamic photo album. You can put it on your cloud storage or on a DVD, keep it on your laptop. This is probably the first thing that people do when venturing into A/V’s (leaving the work related atrocities aside). Certainly it has become a staple in the wedding trade, at least as an option. Whatever your motive it is a good way to think about your photography in a different way. Give it a go.
We now have a new way of entering club competitions that doesn’t involve the Dropbox method, though Dropbox does remain active. Members are guided to http://www.photoentry.uk. You will need a link which you can get from Steve Hallam. Contact him through the club social media or at a meeting. Using Photoentry does simplify the job and it comes with useful messages about the suitability of your entry reference size (which I believe it adjusts for) and colour space (though it does error message sRGB IEC61966-2-1 for not being sRGB IEC61966-2.1, though that is of no real moment). You also get to zoom into your entry to check it’s the right one (yes I did, no it wasn’t and it would have stuck out a mile when projected so I am liking it already!). Deadline for the next round of the ROC is 14th April.
N E X T M E E T I N G
7th April. The WCPF Travelling Critique.
Last meeting we welcomed the return visit of our WCPF confederates from Hanham Photographic Society and we thank them for their input into the evening. It is always good to see the work of other enthusiasts to compare and contrast to our own so that we may generate some new ideas, sometimes new angles on our own photography of the same subjects. We have also had a reasonable response to the survey that Gerry put together for us on Survey Monkey which has yielded some clarity around the likes and dislikes of our more active members, I am told and that will be discussed and integrated into future planning by the Committee. Thank you all those who took the time to participate.
The stories that we can project onto an image is a powerful hook for a photograph, often before other ascetic attractions. We were entertained with image spreading across decades and something we don’t see in the club very often, AV shows. In fact these were the first AV’s, certainly in the last couple of years that I have been at the club. So this week we are going to take a potter around the topic of Audio Visual Presentations.
Primarily they do what it says on the tin, using sound and pictures, usually stills when made by photographers I guess, but often with movie elements mixed in to make a self contained presentation around a topic or theme. They can be made cheaply using software that is either not very expensive or even free, though, as with all things audio and visual you can spend up to an enormous fortune on “Essentials” and gewgaws. None of course are arbiters of quality, the biggest input, as with any IT system, is located between the keyboard and the chair. If you are serious about such things, of course, by which I mean semi/professional then custom and bespoke hardware can be bought in or built and professional market software have a pay off. For the curious existing hardware and free software are available. This piece is aimed at the curiosity end of the market.
Movie Maker (aka LIVE Movie Maker) comes packaged with Windows. At least it did before Windows 10, it is now part of the Windows Essentials Package (basically legacy programmes from previous versions of windows) and if you haven’t downloaded it into your Windows 10 then you can get it direct from Microsoft. It’s free. It is also an old version as, for some reason it didn’t make Windows 10 in updated form. So far so Microsoft. Apple’s Final Cut does the same in Apples’ own way though it is not the only option. We can also use PowerPoint, for those of us with the Microsoft Office suite, in a variety of creative ways, or Google’s free photo editing suite Picassa (https://picasa.google.co.uk/), and, of course, Photoshop (though this video is done over a PowerPoint presentation).
For recording your commentary, if you don’t already have a programme or app on your computer, and there is one in Windows, you could do a lot worse than Audacity (free) or Free Record Edit. You could also usefully employ an external microphone (quality does make a difference here, but go with what you have before splashing out). If you are going to use music, assuming it’s not your own for which there is plenty of freeware out there for you to choose from, use royalty free music offerings (those with creative commons licensing).
As with most things planning makes for a better result. The process can be as complicated as you want to make it but, as ever, KISS – Keep It Short and Simple – rules the rules. There should be a clear beginning middle and end and one item should follow on logically from the previous. Whether you match the visuals to the audio or the audio to the visuals is a judgement you have to make, but if you don’t know where you are going you are likely to find yourself somewhere else. That is to say if you don’t know the point you want to make then you are likely to end up with a bit of mess. Or a lot of one.
So, when planning for audiovisual you have to remember that there are different priorities than planning just the image alone. The soundtrack is probably the most difficult element to get right, not so much the choice of jingle jangling music in the background which can be very distracting, but the deadpan voice of the narrator is an absolute joy. Not. This can kill any interest very quickly. A little adaptation goes a long way. The ability to put some emotion into the sentences is worth its weight in gold. Difference in tone, timbre, and occasionally speed gives the presentation of some interest. It is a fine line between nearly and good enough, but the effect on the viewer is far greater than might otherwise be thought. Going over the top does no favours either. The breathlessly enthusiastic can equally kill a presentation just as fast. Basically you need to get the sound right as well as the visuals.
Professional AV’s like those used in marketing and sales, can and do use proprietary hardware and software, and that is a sky’s the limit playground for your wallet. The rules, though, stay the same. Of primary importance is to decide who your audience is and the second is to use the medium to talk to them, not at them. The materials you present have to be appropriate, they have to be made available at the right time and often, they have to be able to be played across multiple platforms. This can be where the Web comes in useful with sites like YouTube, Vimeo and so on, where the question of Windows/Mac/Linux viewed on Lap top, PC, Mac, I-Phone Android etc don’t come into play because someone else has already taken care of that. This is good for wide distribution, though controlling access can be problematic. Neither is the cost/bother of burning CD/DVD’s, printing covers and loading into boxes a factor. On the other hand there is a lot you can do with a little, so why not give it a go?
Our thanks again to Hanham Photographic Society for an entertaining evening. Next meeting, Life Begins at 40 ……