Friday, September 12, 2008

Photo Project

Here's a bit of light heartedness to take you through the weekend. When you travel, try keeping your eye out for a single subject that you can photograph. It can be anything you like but photograph them wherever you go.

When I'm in Japan I always make a point of photographing vending machines! Japan is the land of vending machines and it's amazing the things you can find for sale. It might not be fine art but it'll be a quirky reminder of your trip. The one on the left sells giant bags of rice.

Here's one for stamps.

And one for instant cameras.

And lastly one for hot food. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A sense of size 2

One thing I sometimes find difficult about showing you all the difference between shooting a scene with a wide-angle vs a telephoto lens is that often I know exactly the effect I want so I only shoot it one way.

So you'll be happy to know that as I was browsing through my pics looking for today's post I came across some pictures that illustrated it perfectly.

The first shot here is the wide-angle version. You can tell it's a wide-angle by the way the vending machines in the right hand side of the picture are kind of leaning over. Also the car in the background looks pretty small. And that's a really important point to keep in mind.

Things away from the camera look small. So even though you can tell that the bear on top of the building is pretty big, and there is a person and a car in the frame to give it a frame of reference, there's no real impact. All that space in the foreground gives more of an impression of space (in this case the space of the carpark) than it does the size of the statues. And the person is so far away from the camera that they are just too small in relation to anything else to be even noticeable. So what happens when we swap to the telephoto lens?

Now the person is much bigger in the frame so they become a vital element in showing the size of something. And look how much bigger the bear and fish appear to be because they're so much larger in the frame. Also, like the sand dune yesterday, by chopping off the bear at the waist it's left to your imagination how big the whole thing really is.

Now because this one is a telephoto I couldn't shoot it from where I was standing with the wide-angle shot above. If I had stayed where I was I would have only got the vending machine in. So I had to run back (very quickly before the man walked out of the frame) until I could see the top of the bear as well as the bottom of the man's feet all in the frame.

I ended up running back about 100 metres to get it all in. So remember that when you want something to look really big get the telephoto lens out. The longer the better. And to use it to its best effect you're most likely going to have to walk back to get away from your subject in order to get it all in.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A sense of size

For the most part landscape photography involves photographing stunning vistas under beautiful light with no sign of human intervention whatsoever.

Travel photography is slightly different in that often having people in the picture is the aim. Especially when you want to show your audience the size of something.

No matter whether an object is big or small, when it's printed on a 6" x 4" print it'll look pretty small. A really great way to show people the size of something is to put something instantly recognisable in the picture.

For travel photography often the most convenient 'recognisable' thing is a person. We're all roughly the same height, give a foot or two, and when we see a person in a picture we know straight away how big or small something is.

Take this picture of Dune 45 at beautiful Sossusvlei in Namibia, southern Africa. Now these dunes are up to 300 metres high. Just enormous. And I did a lot of pictures just showing the dunes by themselves but as I was driving out of the park one night I noticed that there were still a few people coming down from the top of the dune.

Now in this particular case, because I wanted to make the dune look big the first thing I did was reach for the telephoto lens. Remember that the wide-angle makes things look wide and spacious and the telephoto makes things look big. So I reached for my telephoto.

The next thing to do was to frame the photo so that the camel tree was in the bottom of the picture. By showing a pretty recognisable plant in the picture you give it a geographic sense of location. Acacias are pretty synonymous with Africa. I also chose to cut off the top of the dune at the top of the frame.

When you don't include the whole object in the picture it invites the viewer to imagine what lies outside the borders. Doing that makes people think that something is really big - which in this case it really is but it helps to heighten that feeling. If I had showed the whole dune you would know where it ended and it wouldn't look as impressive.

The only thing left to do was wait until the people moved down into the frame. I waited until the bottom person was about halfway between the top of the tree and the top of the picture and snapped.

And that's how you show people how big something is in one of your photos. The only other option is to blow the picture up to life size and I don't think my house is big enough!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

White Sky Dreaming

If only the world was sunny every day. We'd have lovely blue skies in all our photos and the world would be great. But often we get grey, overcast days.

Sometimes they have a bit of blue in the sky which looks nice to the eye, but when you take a photograph the little bit of blue or light grey turns out pure white. Nothing there. Zip, zilch, nada. Hands up if you have some of these photos in your collection. We all do, don't sweat it.

Because it's cloudy there's no sun hitting the ground and your camera can't handle the contrast difference between the very bright sky and the very dark ground.

If you expose for the sky, everything on the ground will go black. Not a good look. So you expose for the ground (which is usually where the subject of your photo is) and the sky goes pure white.

Gone are the clouds, any trace of blue or detail whatsoever. The picture above isn't the perfect example of that but it was as close as I could find so bear with me!

For a travel photographer white skies are a killer. Blue skies are perfect but even if they're not blue they need to be interesting. Dark brooding skies are so much better than white skies. In conditions like these I usually tend to shoot things that don't have any sky in them. That means the wide-angle goes back in the camera bag and I concentrate on close-ups and macro shots, long telephoto shots with no sky - that sort of thing.

But there's another way you can get around white skies and that's to use your flash. The above shot was taken with natural light. I say it's not a perfect example of the white sky phenomenon because I actually made the picture quite dark to try and retain some detail in the sky. As a result you can see the ground is way too dark. But you can still see there's parts of the sky that are white with no detail. So I tried using the flash on top of my camera.

And this is what happens. The part of the picture that is lit by the flash is controlled completely independently of the part of the picture that the flash doesn't reach.

What that means is - the flash is only lighting up the eagle sign. It has no effect on the background whatsoever. The exposure on the background is controlled by your shutter speed. The faster your shutter speed the darker the background, the slower your shutter speed the brighter the background.

This gives you an amazing amount of control over two planes of light at the same time. Brightening and darkening my background has no effect whatsoever on the eagle sign. The eagle sign is only lit by the flash. So that means that you can brighten or darken the eagle sign and the background independently.

So what I've done here is fire the flash to lighten the sign. Then I've given myself a faster shutter speed to darken the background. I'm not that happy with the shot because the dark mountains behind the sign are too dark for my liking but in terms of bringing back the detail in the overcast sky it's done the trick.

So here's how to do it. There are two ways depending on what kind of a camera you have.

The first way can be used for those of you with both SLRs and point-and-shoots and is the easiest. You have a button on your camera that looks like this +/- . It's called the exposure compensation button and you can either move it to the plus side or the minus side. As you go towards plus (usually by spinning a little dial somewhere) the picture gets brighter, head towards the minus and it gets darker. Check your manual on how to do it on your particular camera and have a play with this feature without using the flash and you'll see your pic getting brighter and darker.

Here's the thing. That button only affects the background, not the flash. As soon as you put your flash up (or stick it on if you've got an external one) the flash exposure part is all automatic. So when you have a bit of a play with this button with the flash up you'll see the background get either brighter or darker while the main subject will stay exactly the same. How cool is that?

The other way to do it is to put your camera into Manual Exposure mode. Take a reading off the main subject of your picture and remember your aperture and shutter speed, then set your camera on those settings in manual mode. So let's say for argument you've got 1/60 second at f5.6. Set those parameters in manual mode. When you've done that you just adjust your shutter speed and leave the aperture where it is and the sky will change but not the flash-lit part. If you dropped your shutter speed to 1/30 second the sky would be even whiter! Not good. But by increasing your shutter speed to 1/125 second or 1/250 second you will give yourself a darker sky with all the detail you need.

For those of you with external flashes with high speed sync you can actually increase your shutter speed to as high as 1/8000 second or something silly like that giving you a pitch black background and making it look like the picture was taken at night!

Usually something between totally white and totally black looks the best. :)

So the next time you're out and about on a grey old day and your skies are turning totally white, try using your flash and see if you can darken your skies to give yourself a nicer look.

Monday, September 8, 2008

What to photograph - choose your subjects wisely.

A comment I often hear about beautiful photographs, particularly travel pics, is that the places themselves are so beautiful that anybody could take a nice picture of it.

While this point of view certainly has a valid point - some places are so beautiful they almost photograph themselves - it totally ignores the vital part the photographer plays in choosing their subject.

A truly great photographer can take an inspiring photograph whether in downtown nowhere or somewhere exotic, but their ability to place themselves in the right place at the right time to get a truly exceptional image is what sets them apart from a happy snapper.

It's the work and effort involved in finding something interesting to photograph, and then actually getting out there and doing it that goes unseen.

Sure the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is stunning but I guarantee that if you go there at the wrong time of year you'll be disappointed with your pictures. Go there during the dry season when haze covers the world and you won't see any mountains. Go there during the monsoon and you won't be able to get in to find the tigers at Chitwan National Park. Visit at a time of year when there aren't any festivals happening (I know, pretty hard to do in Nepal) and you won't get any festival photos. Don't get out of your hotel before 10 and you'll never get any shots of the morning markets. You get the picture.

The ability to know what you want to photograph, to research that subject and understand from what angle you want to capture it, and then to go out and do it is a very underestimated skill in travel photography.

Yes some places are so beautiful that chances are if you went there you could come away with some nice pictures, but to consistently get great images of stunning subjects in beautiful light you have to work hard before you go.

Serendipity can be a wonderful thing but if you rely on just good luck alone you will constantly be disappointed with what you didn't see. Take the time to really think about what you want to photograph. You won't be able to photograph everything but if you make yourself a list before you go and then work out when and where you want to go you'll increase the number of fantastic photos that you come back with.