Friday, March 13, 2009

Show the interaction

Ok firstly a warning. Today's post is just an excuse to post a whole heap of pictures!

One thing I really wanted to show with my coverage of the snow festival is the way in which visitors interact with the sculptures. Not just the way they interact, but how they were affected by it.

I used various focal length lenses to get different effects so just wanted to talk about a few pictures and the thought process behind them.

For this first image the first thing I noticed was the way the shadows were falling across the snow, almost pointing towards the statues, just as the woman in the photo is. So I turned my flash off so as not to wash the shadows out.

I used a wide-angle lens to fit as many people in because I wanted to show not only how many people visit, but how hard it is to get a picture without any other people in the frame!

And in terms of the white balance, even though the statues are lit by spotlights and look a kind of orangey colour to the camera, I brought them back to white just to give the feeling of snow. Also I think that the cooler colour temperature makes the overall scene look colder than it would if it was more orange.

The image above was taken in a part of Odori Park which was really well lit but other parts of the park were in near complete darkness, towered over by these giant lit-up statues.

So for this image I wanted to convey that darkness so I used my flash to light up just the little part in front of my camera and let the rest fade to black. I've used the orange gel over my flash to keep in balance with the lighting on the statues.

I had been photographing these little girls photographing the giant castle when I noticed this old lady trudging along, totally oblivious to the excitement and joy around her. Immediately I saw an opportunity to portray a different and contrasting set of reactions to the festival. One - the young girl, maybe her first time here, thrilled at the spectacle. Two - an old lady rugged up against the cold, not even paying attention to the statues but just hurrying on her way home to the warmth.

Walking farther down the park I came across a crowd of people watching an aerial ski display (is there anything they don't have at the snow festival?)

In this instance I decided to use a telephoto lens to concentrate on the faces of the people. The only problem with the telephoto is it brings the background in nice and close. No point having an office block as a background, or even just plain black sky. If it's photos of the snow festival you want you need a snow castle background. So I moved around until I found a position where there were people in the foreground and a castle in the background.

The I looked through the viewfinder and just waited until both the man and his girlfriend were both looking in the same direction and looked interested. I left the white balance quite warm here to give a feeling of warmth between the couple. If I had turned the background castle snowy white the photo would have had quite a cold feeling not quite in tune with the feelings of the couple. Remember that the colour of an image has a great impact on the emotion it conveys.

Of course Japan being Japan they couldn't just build ginormous statues of snow and be satisfied. As we've seen they have to put rock bands and aerial skiiers in front of them. Or better yet put a kaleidoscopic light show on them!

That's what happened here. Again I reached for the wide-angle lens to show how the statues are in the heart of the city, as well as show how many people come to see it. I used a tiny amount of fill flash to prevent the foreground father and children from being completely silhouetted but everybody else in the frame pretty much is.

For my white balance I left it on daylight to show the deep pink colours that were illuminating the snow.

And my final shot was one I had to wait for for quite a while. I had a vision in my head of photographing the statues with a telephoto lens (to emphasise the hugeness) and having a person standing at the front of the statue.

In practicality it was quite difficult for a couple of reasons. Firstly to use the telephoto lens you need to be quite a long way away. The statues are reasonably close together so for many of them I just couldn't get far enough away to use a telephoto lens, and when I could there was too much stuff (usually people) in the way.

That's why I was wrapped with this statue which had a big, wide area in front of it where I could get quite far away and still have a clear view to the statue.

So I set my camera up on the tripod and waited. And waited and waited. I don't know what it was but hundreds of people just refused to go near the statue! They were all standing back to photograph the whole thing but nobody actually walked up for a closer look. I was about to give up after about 10 minutes when I noticed a little girl walking towards the statues, and more importantly towards the camera. Crossing my fingers, holding my breath and sure enough she walked right where I wanted her to. And she had a great pink down coat and a flu mask as well.

Sometimes the gods do smile on us poor ol' travel photographers. And that was the final image I took at the Odori Park area. Next week it's down to Susukino for the ice sculptures - including ones containing real fish and crabs!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Remember this - telephoto lenses make things big!

A pleasant surprise on this trip was the outdoor concerts being held underneath the giant statues. Well it was pleasant for those of us who went along to see it, but it looked bloody uncomfortable for those trying to play instruments in the freezing temperatures. I could hardly get my hands back in my gloves quick enough after pushing the shutter button, I dread to think what it was like trying to play a barre chord on an electric guitar!

The first concert I came across was a nice little quartet playing jazzy numbers underneath a big Olympics statue. My first impulse was to grab the wide-angle lens and fit everything in but after looking at the image on the LCD I realised it wasn't doing it for me. Everything was just too small. Yes the musicians were small underneath the statues, but the statues themselves didn't look as giant as they were in real life. I mean these things are huge but the wide-angle just makes them look big.

So I walked backwards away from the stage. That's right. When you use the telephoto lens you need to walk away from your subject to get it all in. The other trick with telephoto lenses in crowded places is that because you're walking farther away from the action (in this case the stage) you're going to be behind a whole bunch of people. And unless you're 7 foot tall you're going to be looking at the back of a bunch of heads!

So as I was walking away from the stage I kept on looking behind me for breaks in the crowd, and in front of me for anywhere where I could stand to get a bit of height. I didn't manage to find any mounds, steps or anything like that but I did notice something about the crowds. The number of people watching would swell just as the nearby traffic lights turned green, and then when the traffic lights turned red again the numbers would drop away as people moved on to the next event.

So I found a good angle and just sat and waited until the crowds thinned out and I could shoot between the heads. And this is what I got.

Now doesn't that statue look huge! That's pretty much how it appeared to the naked eye - just this giant snow judo competitor towering over this small singer on stage.

But to give the impression of size I had to use the telephoto lens. In this case it was a smidge over 200mm and I'm about 50 metres away from the stage.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Down to the action

As you probably noticed from yesterday's photo looking down along Odori Park, the Snow Festival stretches over a few city blocks. Twelve to be exact, with different sculptures and events on each block.

At the very foot of TV tower was my first stop - the skate rink. One of the wonders of digital photography is the ability to change your ISO on the fly depending on the light levels.

As soon as I got down here I needed a faster shutter speed to stop the skaters and so that required a faster ISO. In this case I got away with ISO 400 which gave me a shutter speed of 1/15 second. Not particularly fast you might say, but plenty for stumbling skaters.

That and a bit of flash. When you use a flash with a slow shutter speed you get a really interesting effect. The slow shutter speed gives you movement blur while the flash freezes movement. Many flashes have what's called second curtain sync. What this means is that the flash fires at the end of the exposure, rather than at the start which is standard.

So what happens is you push the shutter and the camera takes the photo (and the subject is blurred) and then just before the shutter closes again the flash goes off freezing the moving person. So you get a lovely combination of blur and frozen movement. By having the flash fire at the end of the exposure you ensure that the blur happens behind the clear, frozen part meaning that it's clear and easy to see. If you fire the flash at the start of the exposure your clear, frozen person gets covered over by blurry person making it very hard to see.

The other technique here is very technical - orange cellophane. The lights I was shooting under were a kind of halogen type which record an orangey colour in the camera. By putting a bit of orange cellophane over the flash you ensure that the flash fires at a similar colour temperature and doesn't look too out of place. If you don't gel the flash you get a big, ugly white light on the person and it just looks really weird.

The other point to look out for is the tree with the lights on it. The lights were flashing on and off and running through different sequences. It was really important to try and take a shot when the tree was well lit, hoping that that coincided with somebody photogenic coming in to the frame who moved at just the right speed to give a nice effect with the slow sync flash.

Who said documentary photography is just pointing and shooting?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Journey through an evening

As I mentioned last week my trip to Japan was pretty much all fun and frivolity. But there was some work going on - well to be exact there was about one night! The second last night of the snow festival - and the first night that hadn't been a total blizzard.

So I thought it might be fun to see what's involved in planning a night of photography in a foreign city trying to capture as much of a festival as possible.

The first shot that I knew I absolutely must have was this one. This is the view looking down Odori Park in Sapporo from the viewing deck of the TV Tower. This is the most photographed view in the whole of Sapporo - and getting an image of it with all the snow sculptures is compulsory. Go home without this one and you get fired straight away!

Now I've been up here many times before and the routine is always the same. Get to the prime position about half an hour before sunset (in this case about half past four in the afternoon), set up your tripod and shoot every few minutes as the light changes.

It takes a bit of gumption to set up a camera on a tripod in the prime viewing space for the whole city but usually when I go there it's not so crowded that I get in the way too much. Not this time! It was packed. I couldn't move for people but they were all so polite that nobody ever got angry with me or told me to shove it.

And for my part I would raise my camera out of the way so people could get past me to take a shot and then put the tripod back down when I wanted to get a shot. It's all about co-operation and most people only want to grab a quick snap with the mobile phone before moving on. Smiling a lot helps too. :)

The funny thing about photographing in Japan is I'm always surrounded by amateurs who have equipment that is so much newer and more expensive than mine that I'm almost ashamed to call myself professional!

In terms of technique there's a couple of things to look out for here. The first thing with night photography is that if your camera's on a tripod you don't need a high ISO. The shutter speed is pretty much irrelevant because the camera is sturdily held in position. So I tend to leave my ISO at 100 and drag the shutter speed - you can see the tell tale signs of the trails of car lights. You need to watch the traffic and open the shutter when you see the cars moving towards and away from you if you want this effect.

So you've got a slow shutter speed and your tripod means that you shouldn't get any blur there but there may be another culprit giving you less than sharp pictures. With SLR cameras there is a mirror inside that lets you see the image through your viewfinder. When you hit the shutter button the mirror slaps up and out of the way so the light can hit the sensor.

That mirror slap can actually cause the camera to vibrate causing picture blur at slower shutter speeds. So to get around that many cameras have a function called Mirror Lock-Up. And it does exactly that. You press the shutter button (or in most cases the cable release) once and the mirror locks up but you still haven't taken the photo - you've just moved the mirror out of the way. The trick is then to wait a couple of seconds (until the vibrating mirror has stopped moving) and then press the shutter button again to take the photo.

By doing this you can eliminate a lot of blurry pictures which are caused by this little devil inside your camera. The only problem with the mirror lock-up function is that it's often buried deep in some Menu Option somewhere only Einstein can find. So if your camera has an option to save certain settings as Custom Settings or Personal Settings or some such name then this is a good place to save that function so you can find it again easily.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Monday's link

Feel like learning something new? A new way of doing something in Photoshop maybe. Perhaps a great way to catalogue your images, or maybe learn how to use that button on the back of your new digital camera. Well have I got a link for you.

This site is called Photoworkshop and it has all these incredible articles and interviews on there, but even more amazing is the links it has to various instructional sites run by major photographic companies such as Adobe, Sandisk, Canon and iView. The Adobe tutorials alone will have you sitting in front of your computer screen for days on end muttering Wow continuously!

Being a Canon shooter I spend ages in the Canon Digital Learning Centre. Check out Art Wolfe's instructional TV shows. And I thought my job was pretty good!