Friday, November 14, 2008

When reality gets in the way

When you're planning your holiday you tend to get lots of glossy brochures with stunning images of your potential destination. And they all purport to show reality. The reality of the place when the photographer visited.

What they don't tell you is that the photographer had to be there at the right time of day, at the right time of year, when the weather gods were smiling on them and the stars were all aligned.

Living in a destination means that you can pick and choose when you photograph something. But for the majority of us the reality is a lot different. We often only have a week or two in a country and only a night or two in any particular town. That means that you often show up somewhere and it looks nothing like the brochures.

This is Wat Si Chum in the Thai city of Sukhothai. I pedalled my little rental bicycle for miles in the blistering heat only to find this. It was all hidden behind scaffolding. The joys of restoration. What can you do? Travel photographer Susan McCartney in her fantastic book on travel photography talks about going on assignment to Europe for a client and finding every major monument behind scaffolding! Ouch.

When I first rode up I was bitterly disappointed. I got up close to see if I could get a photograph in nice and close but the scaffolding almost completely hid the statue. I took a couple of shots but they didn't really work.

So I left rather dejectedly, but as I was riding away I turned around. And this is the sight that I saw. With a telephoto lens compressing the perspective the giant face of the statue looks so serene behind what looks like the bars of a prison! I'm sure this will never make the brochure but it shows reality in a photographically interesting way. Sure reality gets in the way sometimes but reality can be just as interesting as the fantasy. And don't forget to buy a postcard on your way out the door. :)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Home Studio

I don't have a studio. In fact, truth be known, I've never actually been in a studio except for a couple of fleeting visits to friends' work places.

Yet there are times in travel photography when you need the controlled conditions of a studio. This image of Japanese New Year's food -called Osechi - is the perfect example.

I needed to show the beautiful cuisine laid out in the boxes but just photographing it on the street wasn't an option.

So I used a home studio - literally a home! My in-laws' place. This was the food for that night's dinner. Because I don't carry studio flashes with me I needed to find a nice soft light. Taking a leaf out of the painter's handbook I used a lovely north facing window to camera right. This provides lovely side lighting which highlights the texture on the lobster. The shadows are a little dark on the other side of the boxes and I could have used a reflector to lighten them up a bit but decided to leave it as it was.

The boxes are sitting on a wooden table which I felt was a bit plain for the glamorous display so I got a nice piece of coloured cloth (which the boxes came wrapped in) and put it underneath. Then I set the camera up on a tripod with a 28-70mm zoom and organised the boxes until I liked the composition.

If you don't have a north facing window and you only have direct sunlight streaming through a window then you can always put a big white sheet over the window, which will soften the light and make it less directional. If you don't have a reflector then a piece of crumpled up foil or a sheet of white paper will often do the trick.

Many of us don't have any desire to work in the studio but a little thought can mean that those times where you want to photograph something in a studio-like environment you can jury rig something in your hotel room. It's also a great technique to use when you want to advertise something on eBay! And if you want to get really technical head here to see how Strobist does it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

To change or not to change

This photo is a great example of the slippery slope photographers can sometimes find themselves on. The digital darkroom makes things really easy. We can add things, take things out. Put a smile on Aunt Sally's frowning face! You name it and if you've got the skill you can do it.

Many of us wouldn't even think about doing something like that and still call it a photograph. For all documentary work there's an unwritten code of ethics which prohibits us from adding stuff that wasn't there when we pushed the shutter.

But what about colour. This photo of a giraffe was taken very early in the morning in the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya. It's a nice enough silhouette but it sure would look a lot more spectacular with a bright orange sky behind. A quick slide of the white balance slider in a raw converter or a bit of fiddling in Photoshop and we could have a fantastically orange sky.

I have a friend who is a great Photoshop artist and proponent of digital manipulation. I remember one conversation where he tried to convince me that I should get in and enhance some of my travel images to make them really saleable. Now I really admire what he does but I honestly don't consider it photography. It's art but not photography as far as I'm concerned. And I'd rather be a photographer.

So I have chosen to leave this picture as it is for personal reasons. When you're creating art for yourself though there's no particular reason to do this. You can play to your heart's content and I would definitely encourage you to do so. It's a new, fun part of what we do. But should you call your final product a photo? Most magazines call it a Photo Illustration if there's been any manipulation done and I think this is a great alternative.

If you've done some fancy work in the darkroom to create your masterpiece then be proud of that. Don't try to pass it off as something you actually saw but call it a Photo Illustration and stand up and be proud of the new skills you've achieved in the digital darkroom.

Now in keeping with yesterday's post let's reverse engineer this picture. Firstly let's think about the focal length of the lens. Do the clouds look big and close or small and far away? Big and close which means that it was a telephoto lens. What focal length? Doesn't matter. It was a telephoto, that's enough information.

How about aperture? Do those clouds look blurry or clear? They're not really either. They're not pin-sharp but they're not so blurry that you can't tell the shape of them. That tells you that it was a middle-of-the-road aperture - say around f5.6 or so. Which in itself gives you a bit of a hint of the lens used. In such a low light situation you want to open up the aperture as much as possible. So why didn't I open up to f2.8? Because when I took this photo I only had a standard zoom on me and it's maximum aperture was f5.6!

How about shutter speed then? Well that giraffe is pretty still so that tells you that it's a fast enough shutter speed to stop any movement - both of the giraffe and camera shake. So that tells you that it was probably reasonably fast. Either that or the camera was on some kind of a support and the giraffe was a statue! :)

Another thing you can guess at is where I took the exposure from. A silhouette is caused when the exposure lock has been taken from a really bright part of the frame, causing everything not so bright to go black. So looking at this picture you can see that I've taken an exposure reading from somewhere in that bright, not very orange sky.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hung up on the numbers

One thing I notice about a lot of beginning photographers is that they tend to get hung up on the numbers. When they start using cameras which allow them to set apertures and shutter speeds they tend to let those parameters dictate their photographic lives.

One of the most common questions I get asked when out in the field is ' should I shoot this at f5.6 or f8' or something along those lines.

Other students tell me how they like to look at all the technical data printed next to photos in books and in galleries. As if knowing whether a photographer used a one second exposure or a two second exposure is going to help you take a better photo.

I say that it's much better to look at photos without that information printed and work it out for yourself. The actual aperture or shutter speed used is irrelevant, it's what the numbers represent that's important.

Take this photo above. It was taken at the Gokyo Lakes in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in Nepal. A simply stunning part of the world. Just before I headed up there the autofocus on my camera died and I was shooting everything manual focus praying like hell that everything else was working! But I digress.

A quick scan of this picture will tell you a lot about photography. The first thing you can ascertain is the focal length of the lens. Do the mountains in the background look a long way away or do they look really close to the rock in the foreground? Reasonably far away but not really tiny. That immediately tell you it was taken with a medium wide-angle lens. What focal length exactly? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that you recognise it was a medium wide-angle lens and if you want to get that same spacious effect you have to put the wide-angle on and experiment.

Next you can tell the aperture pretty quickly. Is everything in focus or is only the rock in the foreground in focus? The whole frame is pretty much in focus. That immediately tells you that I used a small aperture. Exactly what aperture did I use? You already know my answer to that.

What about the shutter speed? Well is anything in this picture moving? How do you tell? Have a look and see if anything is blurred from movement? Those rocks and mountains haven't moved in a few million years so shutter speed is basically irrelevant. Set your aperture and let the camera do the rest.

What else can you tell about this picture? If you have a look at the sky you can see an unnatural darkening near the top of the picture. That's caused by using a polarising filter, which also increases the contrast between the sky and the white mountains.

So just by looking at pictures you can pretty much figure out how the photographer took it and go out and practice the same thing yourself. Five seconds look at this picture and we figured out that I used a wide-angle lens, a small aperture and a polarising filter.

Exactly how wide a wide-angle, what focal length lens and what angle I had my polarising filter on is for you to get out and experiment and find out. The best photographic education you can get is by looking at the pictures you admire and reverse engineering them. Once you figure out how to do that you'll never need that technical mumbo-jumbo in your captions again.