Friday, April 3, 2009

White balance and live view

This image was taken on an assignment for an airline in-flight magazine. They were doing a feature article on restaurants in the far north Queensland town of Port Douglas so I spent a couple of nights wandering around some beautiful restaurants photographing the food and chefs.

Now as regular readers of this blog know I mostly work with natural light - at least as far as I can. Although I do have a lighting kit, for this type of editorial assignment I try to stay natural as much as humanly possible.

Which means that I come across all sorts of weird and wonderful lighting displays and their equivalent white balance. Now white balance is a very subjective thing really. What may look like a perfect white napkin to one person might look to cold to another. So there is no right or wrong to a white balance for this type of work unless you need to get an accurate colour in one particular item.

But you can't necessarily rely on the camera to give you something you like. So I always shoot RAW under artificial light (well I shoot RAW all the time but if you are a Jpeg shooter I would definitely recommend you shoot RAW in these sorts of situations). That way I can import the pictures into my RAW processor afterwards and get the white balance I like.

The one problem was that sometimes you would get the picture into the computer and notice that you had clipped some of the colour channels - which you could tell by looking at the histogram. To get around this you could just lower your exposure at the time of shooting to keep all the channels within the histogram but then you might get a darker picture than expected. So the best would be to take the photograph with the right (for you) white balance and optimise your exposure from there. Any time you can fix things at the scene saves you time in front of the computer.

Most dSLRs have a Kelvin white balance (marked by a little K in the LCD). You could go in and set your Kelvin to a certain colour temperature and Bob's your uncle. The only problem with this is unless you have an intimate knowledge of Kelvin and colour temperatures you have no idea where to set this.

Well Live View is the answer. When you put your camera into Live View and set your White Balance to the Kelvin colour temperature setting, as you change the colour temperature the appearance of the picture will change. So you can make your picture cooler (bluer) or warmer (more orange) on the fly as you look at the picture on the LCD and judge for yourself whether the white balance looks OK. It couldn't be easier.

Of course I would still recommend you shoot RAW so you can make any fine detail changes afterwards but this really is a great way to get a much better initial image out of the camera in situations where you're under artificial lighting. In many cases it could save you a lot of time fiddling around with colour balance on the computer.

So the next time you're shooting under artificial light and your White Balance presets just aren't doing it for you try putting the camera into Live View and set your White Balance to the Kelvin colour temperature setting. Then fiddle away to your heart's content until you see something you like and feel confident that you're shooting at the 'right' white balance.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Travel to remote places

One of the rules of selling travel stock photography is that the more people that travel to a destination the better a chance you have of licensing a picture.

This is a rule that I frequently ignore, to my financial peril, but by doing so I manage to get to some pretty weird and wonderful places and see some incredible things.

Now this might not look so amazing - a stained glass window with a religious motif. Big deal. This is where a little bit of background knowledge can help you capture images that go beyond just superficial snapshots.

This photograph was taken in the Basillica of Our Lady of Peace in the tiny town of Yamassoukro in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa. In an impoverished third world nation, in the middle of absolutely bloody nowhere, we were driving along a tiny dirt track through the middle of the jungle. All of a sudden the dirt turned to asphalt and off in the distance we could see a dome of this giant building.

Built by President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the construction of the Basillica basically doubled his country's national debt! The Catholic church gave permission for it to be built on the condition that it not be bigger than the Basillica of Saint Peter. So he built it slightly lower and then whacked a great big golden cross on top so that it ended up being taller.

The Pope visited for the consecration and by all accounts the President was pretty happy with himself. So happy in fact that he decided to stick himself in the Stained Glass - right next to Jesus himself! That's him as one of the Biblical Magi kneeling down and making an offering to Jesus. Just goes to show that if you're in charge you can do whatever you want!

The point of this long-winded tale? Well, although I've licensed pictures of Cote d'Ivoire over the years I don't think anybody's been interested in pictures of El Presidente as a Magi. Pictures of obscure places don't sell half as well as places that a lot of people go to.

But if you do feel the need to get off the beaten path then it's a really good idea to thoroughly research your subject before you go. Know what you want to photograph, but more importantly why. Know the stories behind the images. Even if you don't intend to sell, publish or do anything with them, just showing them to your friends and family will make your slideshows so much more interesting when you've got a great story to go along with them. A little bit of forethought will ensure that you don't skip over photographing a seemingly insignificant detail.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Paying for photos

Let's face it. As a photo this is pretty damn ordinary. Wrong time of day, subject's face is half in shadow juxtaposed against a pure white stupa which is nearly blown out. But there are sometimes when you just see something that is so out of this world that you have to take a photo. Even if you know it's not going to be a masterpiece and even if it costs you money.

If you look at this Sadhu's left hand he is holding it out for some baksheesh - some Nepali rupees to cross his palm for a photo.

One thing that has really increased in the last few years is people, particularly in developing countries, asking for money for you to take their photo. So what do you do?

Of course there are no hard and fast rules but this is what I try to do. Firstly I tip my hat to those entrepreneurs who go to famous sites every day and offer to pose for the camera in traditional clothes. Sari-clad women in front of the Taj Mahal, Maasai at the entrance to Ngorongoro Crater and of course Sadhus in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. In countries with no unemployment benefits and little chance for work I think this is a great idea and I pay these people with no hesitation whatsoever. I think they deserve money just for coming up with a great idea. If I thought I could make a living standing around wearing a singlet, cork hat and thongs I'd be there in a flash.

In situations other than this I avoid paying. With money that is. For me travel portrait photography has always been about interaction. I really do love the chance to get to know people, even if it is only fleetingly and superficially. I find that by taking the time to break down barriers and perhaps show a little bit about yourself, as well as find a little bit about them, it really does cut down on the number of times people ask for payment for a picture.

As I've mentioned before I carry a little photo album with pictures of friends, family and where I live which I unashamedly get out at every opportunity! I want to be seen as somebody more than a white guy with a big camera.

Of course that's for adults. Often with kids they're so giggly that you can't make conversation anyway. Digital has made people photography a lot easier though because you can show them the LCD screen straight away and that really helps to break the ice. For me permission is really important so if I can get my subjects to co-operate and enjoy a photo session by showing them the result then that is fantastic. If they still want something (which they often do!) I carry little trinkets like clip-on koalas, balloons and ball pens which go down a treat and, I hope, don't encourage begging or tooth decay!

And when neither the photo album or the LCD work? I simply don't take the photo. For every one person who doesn't want their photo taken I can find a hundred others just around the corner who would thrill at the chance. I've always thought that being allowed to photograph someone is an honour, not a right. So I'm never upset at being rejected. Hell I feel uncomfortable enough in front of the camera to understand their feelings perfectly.

So in a nutshell I pay those who make a living posing for pictures. For regular folks I try to break down the barriers so that payment is never something that I'm asked for. And if I am I just smile, give them a laugh and keep on walking.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No video? No worries!

How's this for speedy? This photo was taken yesterday morning and here it is today for your viewing pleasure! haha I must be getting faster in my middle age.

Anyway I have this son. This 5 year old, scooter, skateboard and bike-crazy son who likes nothing better on a weekend morning than to go down to the skateboard park and let rip for a few hours.

His little brother is bored stupid but that's another story. Anyway the skateboard park is a well known tourist attraction down on the Esplanade foreshore. As I mentioned before I have spent quite a bit of time recently building up my Cairns photography stock collection but I realised that even though I've been there nearly every weekend for the past 2 years I'd never photographed this place.

So I took my camera down and realised that the laws of travel photography apply just as much in your home town. Firstly when you go somewhere there's never enough people there to convey a feeling of what a popular place it is! Secondly sitting around and waiting for somebody interesting to do something takes a lot of time, and may never actually happen. And thirdly even if somebody does do something cool it might not be at the right time or in the right place. So in order to overcome the three Murphy's Laws of travel photography I cajoled said muchkin into helping his poor ol' Dad out. And I didn't need to promise him any chocolate either!

Firstly I knew I wanted to photograph with an extreme wide-angle lens. There were blue skies above (which I'm a real sucker for) and I wanted to show the expanse of the place. Remember that the telephoto shortens the distance between objects so the bowl would look narrower than it is really is.

So I got myself into the right position where I knew Mirai (my son) could drop into the bowl on a side angle to me with the sun shining right on him. Helps bring out the gorgeous reds in his shirt and the blue in the sky. Once I had the camera set up I told him to go for it and away he went. Bang, bang, bang, bang. There are actually another five or so shots in the series but I just chose the ones that didn't overlap.

To be totally honest when I shot this I had no idea of having my son multiply at all. I just wanted to catch a peak moment of action. Usually when you hope to combine images it's best to have the camera on manual to prevent changes in exposure between shots but in this case it flukily worked out in my usual mode of Aperture Priority.

Anyway I didn't think twice about this until I came home and stuck the pictures into Adobe Bridge and had a look at them. Lined up side by side I could immediately see the possibilities of making a 'video'.

The base image is Mirai on the far left hand side just as he drops into the bowl. For the other images I took a basic rectangular crop around Mirai and just dragged and dropped them over the base picture. One thing I quickly realised is that because it was so sunny, I had to make sure that the crops included his shadow as well. Taking a larger than needed crop which included the edges of the bowl also meant it was easier to line up the pictures so that they all matched. Then a bit of judicious use of the eraser tool and layer masks and I suddenly had multiple versions of my son!

Of course he was more impressed by playing with the layers in Photoshop, turning them on and off to make himself appear and disappear. And then he asked where the sound was. Oh well, it's a poor man's video but still a lot of fun.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Monday's link

I'm really excited about today's link. In fact I can't believe I haven't written about this wonderful photographer before. I first came across one of his books in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala - or more properly McLeod Ganj. This small hillside village is home to many Tibetan refugees and the seat of the Tibetan Government-In-Exile.

My wife and I were in a tiny bookstore when we came across a large hardcover book with an amazingly beautiful landscape shot of what looked like the surface of the moon taken in the early hours of pre-dawn. The title of the book was simply 'Tibet' and in it were some of the most amazing documentary travel images I have ever seen in my life.

The photographer's name is Kazuyoshi Nomachi. As you can tell he's certainly not Australian. With readers from 45 countries on this blog I figured I should give a bit more space to non-Western photographers so I'm starting with my favourite. Coincidentally he happens to be Japanese.

You can find his site here and I would thoroughly recommend you go on over and have a look. If you decide to buy one of his books I would highly recommend Pilgrimage. It contains a lot of his work from Africa, Tibet and Saudi Arabia. This is the work of an extremely talented photographer who spends a lot of time getting to know his subjects and comes away with images that most of us can only dream about.