Thursday, May 8, 2008

When film trumps digital

Don't worry - this isn't going to be some technical pixel-peeping diatribe about why film is better than digital blah, blah, blah. As I've said many a time I think it's different horses for different courses.

Digital is easily as good a quality as film these days and I think that debate ended a while ago.
No I want to talk about emotion - which should be at the heart of any good photograph.

But in this case I mean the emotion of the photographer. In these days of instant gratification where you can look at a giant LCD on the back of your camera screen, ooh and aah over your bell shaped histogram and either slap yourself on the back or try it again, don't you think there's something missing? That incredible feeling of nervousness and anticipation.

When you shot things on film, particularly experimental stuff, you had no idea what you had captured until you got the film from the lab. You would pick your stuff up and then race home in the car, quickly scan for the sheet of slides you wanted and slap them on the lightbox. Your heart pounded as you switched the light on and reached for the loupe. And there it was - the image you hoped like anything you managed to capture. The image that you really wanted to take. It didn't matter if anything on the rest of the roll was total crap. That one image made up for everything.

I kinda miss those days. Don't get me wrong. When you're on a job and the correct exposure is critical then digital really saves your butt in a lot of situations. But I do still kinda miss that knot in the stomach nervousness and sense of anticipation you used to get looking at your developed film for the first time.

The shot above is a perfect example. It was taken inside the caves of Chillagoe, in western far north Queensland. I had Fuji Velvia film in the camera and set it on a tripod. It was pitch dark inside and the only lights I could see were the torch lights flickering around. So I put the camera on its Bulb setting and left the shutter open for about 30 seconds. I then proceeded to paint the walls of the cave with my torch, taking wild uneducated guesses as to where I needed to shine and for how long.

I took about 5 shots all up and they all turned out more or less but this is the shot that left me gasping. This is the one that makes all the nervous waiting worthwhile. I wonder if I would have had the same sense of relief and thankfulness if I'd been able to see straight away whether it had worked or not?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Lining things up

I'm a sucker for bright colours - especially blues and greens. So when I saw this pot plant sitting on a bright white balcony with aqua waters and a bright blue sky. Well who am I to deny my inner photographic yearnings?

Before you simply snap away there are a few things you have to think about when there are multiple elements in an image. Your aim is to have all the elements balance - and to do that you often have to wait a little bit or move around a bit.

What elements you say? There's just a pot plant, balcony and sky. What could be easier? But a closer inspection reveals a few things you need to be aware of.

The first thing that I noticed was the two wires going through the sky just above the plant. They're washing lines! Do you take them out or leave them in? Ethics aside (this isn't pure news photojournalism) I left them in because they say something about the situation.

Then there was the boat in the background. Do you wait until it's gone or take the photo while it's in there. Either which way would work but in this particular case I actually waited until the boat came into the viewfinder and didn't press the shutter until it was on the left hand side of the frame heading out. This is a diving destination (Moalboal on the island of Cebu in the Philippines) so having a dive boat in there added a bit of interest I felt.

The next thing is the people. Again you have a choice to put them in or leave them out. How do you do that you ask? Order them out of the water if you don't want them in the photo? :) Tempting but not quite. You hide them behind things. You move yourself up and down left and right until they're hidden behind the pillars of the balcony.

If you decide to keep them in, as I have here, then again you do the photographer's two-step. You move up and down, left and right until all three people are separated from the balcony and in their own little space. The worst thing you can do is have a half-and half. A person with half their body cut off by the balcony. You either want complete separation or completely hidden.

And that's the difference between a quick snap and a carefully thought out picture. Look at everything that's in your composition and decide if you want it in there or not. If you decide you don't then you either have to wait until the thing is gone (boat out of the frame or people out of the water) or hide them behind something.

If you decide to leave them in then you have to move left and right until there is a clear separation between them and any objects around them.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Let the subject shine through the noise

Even though I am a definite convert to the things David Hobby is doing with off-camera small flashes over at Strobist I have to admit to being a lover of natural light.

Which is all well and good if you've actually got some light! But what do you do after the sun goes down? Get the tripod out and experiment with two minute long exposures?

Sure that's always great fun but one of the most fantastic things about digital is that you can shoot at night! The camera can see things our own eyes almost can't. This photo was taken in the little town of Mapoon up near the very northern tip of Australia on Cape York. It was taken at a little after 7pm and it was literally pitch dark. I could hardly see my hands in front of my face.

So I put the camera on 3200 ISO and started snapping away. Even then I was getting barely handholdable shutter speeds, but I managed to retain the atmosphere of being on a crocodile infested river in a very small boat late at night.

We were working with the Mapoon Turtle Rescue Project and heading out to tag and mark nests, as well as fix any that had been damaged by wild pigs and dogs. The look of anticipation on Sue's face far outweighs any blurring issues due to hand shake or movement. For me the issue of noisy high ISO pictures becomes irrelevant when you get a picture like this. At this size can you see any noise anyway?

Sometimes we need to step back from all the technical hoo-haa and talk of what ISO settings you can actually use and just take photographs. Let the subject speak for itself and outshine all the technical concerns. If you pay too much attention to what people say you can or can't do you'll miss some great moments.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

You won't catch me smiling buddy

I'm definitely a people person. I love sticking my nose ( or in my case a camera lens) into other people's lives and capturing an image that hopefully encapsulates their culture on film.

As I've mentioned before I find that the best way to do this is to have some kind of rapport with people. To spend a little time with them trying to communicate.

One of the tools I use is a little photo album with pictures of my parents, my house, my wife and kids. Pictures of the scenery around where I live. I find that opening up this little book helps people relate to me. Even if we don't speak the same language (which is usually the case) we can often spend a really fun little while looking at my life.

After the ice has been broken then it's usually easy to get the camera out and get lots of happy, smiling people. But that isn't always the case. Some people are just wary of the camera. I always try to be respectful of people's customs and never photograph anyone who obviously doesn't want me to. I figure there's always another 10 people down the road ready to ham it up for me, and no photo is worth hurting someone's feelings for.

And then there was this little bloke. As I walked past his house in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal he could see me coming up the path. He would pop down out of sight, then back up and down and up...and so on the game went as I got closer and closer. Then he just stood there watching me. I pointed to the camera in a gesture of 'can I take your photo?' and had no reaction. I took that as an 'well do what you gotta, I don't care' and snapped one frame.

I tried acting the fool, smiling, anything to get him to grin but he was steadfast in his determination not to be suckered in. As it is I find this photograph a more truthful representation of our interaction. Had he smiled it wouldn't have been a photo of the moment we spent together, but rather an inaccurate one of him posing for the camera. This is how I remember him and this was his face as I continued to walk on up the trail. This is one of my favourite portraits simply for what it says.