Friday, July 25, 2008

Making far apart objects look close - telephoto lens

One objective of travel photography is to take an image that is instantly recognisable geographically. You want people to know where it is without having to read the caption. That's easy to do if you photograph the icons straight up, but you can also do it by photographing other things and placing the icons somewhere unobtrusively in the composition.

In Japanese they call this concept having a 'lead actor' and a 'supporting actor'. The trick is to make sure that your supporting actor is prominent in the picture without overpowering your main subject.

Take the photo above. Our lead actor here is the brightly lit neon statue of the flowers. Taken during the Illumination festival in the middle of January in Sapporo. Just having the statue itself would be a nice photo but having the tourist icon of the TV Tower in the background makes it a travel photo.

The only problem is that TV Tower is about half a kilometre down the road. If I had photographed the statue with a wide-angle lens the tower would be a tiny dot way off on the horizon. So, even though I was standing right next to the statue initially, I actually turned my back to it and walked a long way away and put a telephoto lens on the camera.

As soon as I did this the background tower was brought in nice and close to give me my supporting actor. Now if I had photographed this wide open at f2.8 the background would have been a big blur so I needed to close my aperture all the way down to f16 or so to make sure that my supporting actor tower was clear enough to be recognisable.

The other important thing about this image is the time of day. Yes you read right - 4:14 in the afternoon. And it's already dark. That's what happens when you're so close to Siberia! But more importantly I want you to notice the lovely blue colour in the sky. Most night photography happens before the sky turns completely black. If I had waited another half an hour or so to photograph this the black tower wouldn't have been visible against the pure black sky and all you would be able to see would be the digital number display.

If I had taken it half an hour earlier it would still have been too bright and the lights on the statue wouldn't have been turned on yet. Again, another one of those times when you need to do some research to find out when the sun goes down, when it gets dark and what time they turn the statues on. If you can't find out in advance then it's just a matter of turning up roughly when you think is right and waiting.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You never know what you're gonna get

I was out camping with my wife one weekend at a place called Undara, about four hours or so west of Cairns.

Leaving my wife to sleep I got up to see what was happening at sunrise. It was raining lightly, overcast and grey. In short it didn't look like I was going to get anything special.

But I really liked the looks of this tree and the way it look silhouetted against the sky. So I set up my camera on my tripod in front of the tree and just sat there and waited.

They say that landscape photography is a slow, deliberate process. And for the most part it definitely can be. It takes time to think about your composition and set everything up and then just to wait for mother nature to do her thing.

Anyway after about ten minutes the previously invisible sun decided to pop out from behind a cloud and when it did - what a show! The whole sky lit up like it was on fire. The only problem was this light only lasted for about two seconds. During those two seconds the crow flew into the tree - it wasn't there originally. I managed to get off exactly two frames. The first one shows the crow flying into the tree, and then this one.

And as soon as I had pressed the shutter it was all over. In the blink of an eye. And that's when landscape photography can be a very fast process. You need to know your camera intimately to capture that instantly changing light. The waiting takes time but when you get the chance at a great picture you'd better make sure you're really quick or you'll miss it.

But if you gave me a choice between spending eight hours in front of a computer creating great light, or eight hours sitting in the outdoors waiting for it...well there's no competition really. I'll take the waiting any day of the week.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Leave the viewer guessing

Of course there's nothing inherently wrong with strong sunlight. It brings out the shadows and in some cases that's exactly what you want.

In the photo above the shadows help give the impression that the columns go on for a very long way. Of course you have the perspective of the actual columns themselves going off into the distance but the two foreground column shadows show that they seem to stretch behind the photographer as well.

Often the secret of a good composition is to leave the viewer guessing at what is outside the frame, as opposed to showing them everything. In this particular case you can see that the columns stretch for quite a long way foreward but you don't know how far because it's so dark at the end of the tunnel. Likewise the bottom left hand corner shows you that there are other posts next to the photographer but how far do they stretch behind? Do they even stretch behind at all or is the photographer (that would be me!) at the entrance to this tunnel?

By not giving anything away you make the picture more intriguing and thus more compelling. So before you stick everything into your composition try leaving things out and let the viewer use their imagination.

Just as an aside, does anybody have a clue what this is? I'll tell you where it is. It's in a little town called Wakkanai which is the northern most point in Japan - so close to Russia you can just about see it off the shore. And that's all the clues you get. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Contrast in the rainforest

Hi there everybody, well I'm feeling all refreshed after 10 days holiday with my family. I pre-wrote a lot of the blog stuff for you all but have missed a couple of days due to sheer laziness (!) and doing my taxes yesterday. Oh what fun that is. :) So to make up for lost time here's 3 pics for the price of one.

I've spoken about this before - contrast in the rainforest and how it can kill your photographs. And when I've done that I've always shown the final result, a lovely picture taken in non-contrasty light. But I realised that this didn't exactly show you why a sunny day can be a killer.

So the other day when I was up in the rainforest I thought I would take some shots to show you what I mean. It was one of those days where it was sunny, but there were a lot of clouds about. To get the best photographs you had to wait until the sun had gone behind the clouds. Here's the first pic.

Now as you can see there are bright patches of sunlight all around the base of the tree. What I've done here is to expose the darker parts of the picture (the rainforest in shadow) properly, which then causes any really bright areas of sunligt to be really bright and burnt out.

Those areas where the sun is hitting have no information whatsoever. The histogram is all the way to the right. Your eye naturally tends to look at the brightest part of the picture first so the first thing that your audience will look at is those bright ugly spots beneath the tree.

So why don't you expose for the highlights you say? Well this is a photo doing just that. As you can see there's plenty of detail in those sunlit areas but the rest of the picture is a dark, muddy colour.

Yes you could bring it up in Photoshop but dark areas of a picture that you lighten are inherently noisier. Not only that but your eye still goes straight to the bright areas of the picture, ignoring the rest of the frame.

What to do? Sit, wait and enjoy your time in the peace and quiet. I sat and waited for about thirty minutes or so just enjoying the quiet. If I had been in a hurry I probably would have focused my camera on smaller things all in shadow but as it was I was in a relaxed kind of mood so I just sat and waited until the sun went behind a cloud.
And this is the result. Not necessarily the photo of the year but there are no big ugly spots of light hitting the ground and your eye goes straight to the gorgeous buttress roots of this rainforest tree.

So next time you head for a forest, rain or otherwise, aim to be there when it's overcast and you can avoid the contrast problems that can kill your pictures.