We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.
Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?
I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.
Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.
How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger)Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.
So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.
Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.
With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.
What’s the best camera? The one you have with you. That’s how the aphorism goes.
It’s a chore though, isn’t it? Lugging a camera around everywhere you go. And do you go clever or small? And then your chosen camera gets more wear, more bumps and scrapes and more chances to be underneath the shopping. So we carry a mobile phone, because you’re carrying it anyway and it has a camera built in.
Perhaps it comes back to that question: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Carrying a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, but it shows intent. Why else would you carry that thing around?
This is why I like small cameras – I can scratch my photographer itch without carrying a boat anchor or straining a pocket.
It can go too far though. I regularly carry more than one camera. Perhaps my worst recent offence was carrying two cameras when I took the dog for a walk. Not some adventurous hike – just a quick trip out to drain the dog around local paths. The only justification is that both cameras were tiny and I did use them both. Why two? One shot black and white and the other did colour.
So why am I making a fuss about this? I think it’s useful to actually carry a real camera. Not a mobile phone that can do a dozen other things, but a dedicated device that can do one job. Because if you consciously carry a machine for taking pictures, I believe it makes you think more about taking pictures. It’s that intent thing – I create the ability to take pictures, I don’t just wander into it or take pictures by accident. Carrying a camera becomes part of your deliberate practice.
Cameras can be like hammers though (and not just Zenits): when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Ideally you don’t just take pictures because you’ve carried this camera around all day so you might as well use it. This way lies boring. Or it would be if you showed other people. Since the marginal cost of digital photos is zero, why not just shoot what you see? You can then look at your pictures and ask yourself what you saw, and if you could have done it better. That’s how you improve. Just don’t inflict every variant of that crushed can you saw on your friends. Not unless you want this social distancing thing to last forever.
I like taking pictures of people engaged in activity, such as sports. So I like really good action photography. Recently I discovered a new (to me) source of action pics – Sainsbury’s.
Ok, not as such. I was leaving the store and noticed a pile of help yourself magazines at the exit. One had a great picture on the cover so I took it home. There was a new edition there this month too.
Now, I try not to endorse things (but if anyone wants to meet me at the crossroads at midnight to talk sponsorship…) and I’m not, but this is a great source of good action photography. It’s a lifestyle magazine called The Red Bulletin.
Just to be clear, I’d rather drink bleach than Red Bull and lifestyle always looked like a thing for needy people. But I like the pictures. (By the way, I didn’t steal their pictures – the ones in this post are mine. I also used these ones because I didn’t have any pictures of fast-moving supermarkets.)
So if there’s anyone out there who also gets a tingle from some good action photography, do see if you can get your eyes on a copy. And yes, of course they have a website. If you haven’t got a Sainsbury’s then I’m sure you have a browser and a search engine.
I expect that, as usual, I am late to the party and everyone in the world already knew about this. Indulge me – I don’t get out much these days.
Anyway, enough of that. C’mon Sainsbury’s, you know you want to sponsor a pork pie influencer…
Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?
Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.
We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.
The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.
And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.
Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.
The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.
Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.
But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.
There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.
So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.
Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.
Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.
Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.
So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.
Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.
I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.
I have wittered previously about editing your work and only showing your best stuff, but that doesn’t mean playing for likes.
If you try to take the same pictures as someone else, at best you will have an imitation. It’s valid to try and recreate a technique to learn something new, but copying a picture could be plagiarism at worst, or a marked lack of originality at best. It might feel safer to be like everyone else, but where’s the fun in that?
OK, that may be true for small values of fun. As we know, things which are different are criticised. The ability of social media to give an anonymous voice to the critical and sarcastic is a problem. Or it would be if you let it. If you don’t want the gratuitous attacks of a baying herd, don’t stand in front of one. That’s one option. The other is that if you ignore the crowd, you’ll be happier.
But how can you possibly ignore what people say about you or your work? Well, who are you taking pictures for?
If you are taking pictures for money, then the people who matter are your clients. So your work should be visible to current and future clients and there is no need for a method of leaving comments or feedback: if anyone wants to discuss a picture, bring money. Being paid is the only form of feedback you need.
But if you are taking pictures for pleasure, who’s pleasure is it? Do you need the approval of others? Do you need to show your pictures to the world, or to the people who matter to you?
Are we comparing likes or soap powders?
So I think you have two choices: keep your work to yourself and people who matter to you or show your work to the world but disable or ignore the feedback. Yes, I know, I’m both showing pictures and allowing feedback in this blog. But it’s small circulation – if I do start getting negative feedback I’ll see if I can disable the likes and comments. I can live without approval – I work in IT.
There is also a view, expressed best in the Filmosaur Manifesto, that you have no control over what people see in your pictures. So stop worrying that they misunderstand, because they are bound to.
Perhaps the best response to criticism is Elizabeth Gilbert’s – “if people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to go make their own fucking art.”
And the best cure for worrying about opinion is the story about Arlene and Richard in the book that has the same title as the story – “what do you care what other people think?”.
Despite the death of printed media, National Geographic seems to have continued to circulate every month since 1888. It has always been a pioneer and a showcase for photography. I confess to only flicking through copies in waiting rooms though – it was always both out of reach and not a thing we did when I was going up.
There was always that hint of imperialism too, in a ‘look at the quaint natives’ sort of way. I could be totally wrong about that though. Like I say, I was never a regular reader. All that I can really remember about it was the great photography.
Then I found a best of book in a charity shop. It’s called Through the lens: National Geographic greatest photographs. And it probably does what it says on the cover.
First impression? That photography got technically better. Look at a landscape (yes – yawn) shot on slide film and compare it with the digital stuff, even on somewhere like DIY Photography. Modern photography has finer resolution, wider dynamic range and endless opportunities for post-shot manipulation. Look at a National Geographic page and you see slide film – saturated colours, blocked shadows, high contrast. Technically you are looking at pictures spanning more than a hundred years. Some of them would be thrown out of a local camera club competition for not being sharp. But then you look at the pictures and begin to understand that the content matters more than the quality.
Remember Steve McCurry’s picture of the Afghan girl? It was on the front cover in June ’85. Seventeen years later he found the woman again and took another picture of her, holding a print of the original shot. You could say it’s a straight ‘stand against that wall, hold this, look at me, click’. But the girl was remarkable for her eyes and the woman is veiled. It makes you want to know the story.
Perhaps that is the best side of National Geographic – pictures that provoke interest and stories that explain and understand. Rather than a prurient interest in ‘foreigners’ it’s about confirming that we are all the same. Really – if the entire population of the world was wiped out except the people of Peru, humans would still retain 85% of their genetic diversity. (Superior; Angela Saini). So there is no them, only us.
[Which hasn’t stopped an idiotic political party segregating people by their names.]
There’s also the joy of being nosy. We’re social animals, so we spend a lot of time watching each other. It’s why groups of teenagers can’t just have fun – they have to have noisy fun so that other people know they are having fun. A person I know loves darker evenings, as people put their lights on but don’t pull their curtains. She’s not interested in the people as such but loves seeing other people’s houses. And it’s why I think empty landscapes can be boring.
Anyway – if you can get hold of some back issues of National Geographic, see what you think. And do get over the sharpness thing.
Having converted a Panasonic camera to shoot infrared and built a little push-on hood to hold the special filter, I had second thoughts. Part of it was looking at the work of Pierre-Louis Ferrer on Petapixel and his own website. Obviously, I’m not that good, but I liked what he was doing.
I realised that I normally use mono film, so what was my reason for not putting the IR filter directly in front of the sensor? Besides, fitting the filter inside the camera did away with the fiddly lens hood.
I also had a close look at Ferrer’s work and I think he is using a luminosity mask to do split toning. He is applying a pale khaki tone to the highlights and possibly a touch of blue to the shadows.
So for my next trick I found a useful YouTube video on creating luminosity masks in Photoshop Elements (as I’m too cheap to spring for the full version, and it does all I could want). The basic idea is to create a mask that controls where an effect works, based on the brightness of the image. So you can do something like tone the highlights a delicate shade without changing the mid-tones or shadows.
On my first attempts I realised that the highlights in my IR images were totally blown out. Back to the camera and play with the settings. IR mono scenes are very high contrast and the camera was not holding the highlights. Since I actually want the shadows to go black, I set the camera to underexpose by one stop.
I had a chance to go out for a walk in sunshine (I felt like a battery-hen on day release), so I took the remodified camera. With a dog lead round one wrist I was very glad to not be fiddling with the filter.
So the update is that I’ve fiddled with and adjusted the camera and learned a new technique.
I’ve been playing around trying to repair a lovely old Weston light meter (of which more anon). I also have a variety of other old light meters, all of which read slightly differently. I do have one meter that I bought new, but it’s getting to be as old as its owner. So which one is to be the reference standard against which I can test and adjust the rest?
The simple answer would be to buy a new meter. But that’s expensive and, well, easy.
Then I had a stroke of clever. Commercial illumination meters are much cheaper than photographic light meters, but they read in Lux. A quick search online found that there is a Lux to EV conversion (Lux is two to the power of EV times 2.5 – don’t panic: clever people have done the sums already). So I splashed out on a Chinese-made luxmeter for under a tenner delivered.
Amazingly, the intercontinental postal system is up and running again. What I got was a chunky gadget about the size of a TV remote.
The meter can read from 0.1 to 200,000 Lux, which is about -4 to 16 EV. That’s a useful range. My little book of notes tells me that -4 is ‘night away from city lights or subject lit by half-moon’ and 16 is ‘subject in bright daylight on sand or snow’. EV 15 is where the sunny 16 rule applies. So basically this meter could cover everything I am likely to encounter.
My next job then was to build a Lux to EV converter. Now Lux is a logarithmic or exponential scale. We should all be familiar with exponential curves by now but what it means is that while EV 1 is only 5 Lux, EV 13 is 10,240 Lux. The meter handles this fine by switching scales but I was going to need to build a little conversion table on a card. My ideal would be a circular table like you get on an old light meter so that you can dial-up the reading and the ISO and see all the exposure combinations. The straight table to convert Lux to EV at 100 ISO is easy, as is the table that gives the options at different ISO – see lower below. The circular calculator took longer. I had to work out how many layers of disk I needed and what was on each layer. One of the scales also had to progress around the disk in the opposite direction to the others.
After a few attempts I got it right. I took a reading with the luxmeter and converted it to a shutter speed and aperture. I took a reading with my best meter, the Sekonic, at the same place and ISO. And they matched. Result! My Sonic meter is accurate, I have a tool to test the others with and I have a new digital light meter. Go me!
I will get hold of some plastic sheet and see if I can make a better version of my wheel calculator. In the meantime it’s actually easier to print a small card with the Lux to EV conversion on one side and some common starter values for each EV and ISO on the other.
The advantage of using a card is that you can also add a rangefinder to it.
PS I did build a better version of the paper wheel.
Percussive learning in a world of automation is what it says in the subtitle to this blog. What that means is me making mistakes. My old boss used to say “if you think you’re good, you’re not comparing yourself with the right people”. In my case, I think the right people have me well outnumbered. It’s been very humbling to find that stuff I have just learned is well-known to everyone else. So this blog is not instructional – I have no secrets to impart. Where I witter about something technical, try it yourself before assuming I’m right.
But one thing I have learned is that it’s ok to make mistakes. And if you accept that you will make them and that being wrong doesn’t mean you’re stupid, then you get to learn. Learning means thinking about your mistake and working out why you didn’t get what you wanted. Or maybe looking at a picture and asking yourself why you are less than delighted. What would have made it better? Then think about how to do more of that.
This means reflection. It means saying honestly to yourself “I wish this was more…” and then working out what more means. If the definition of madness is repeating something and expecting a different outcome, then reflection is the road to sanity. The aim of reflection is to not repeat the same mistakes. Many of them will be similar, but what you are hoping for is to break things differently each time. Or if not break things, then to hone in on that thing in the picture you want to do more of.
I’d like to introduce you here to another idea – that of reducing variability. Anyone involved in manufacturing will know this inside-out (see above for me being outnumbered). Every process has a natural level of variation. What the manufacturing people strive to do is understand what this natual level is and then reduce it as far as possible. Then, if the output moves outside the expected range, you know that something is wrong.
What I have learned in photography is that my methods need to be precise, so that I can understand why something went wrong or be able to repeat something that went right. Mostly this means consistent exposure and development. I always use a light meter for example. Then, by looking at my results, I learn to understand and use the light meter better. I have been a bit of a tart for different developers in the past but I’m over it now. When I started out I developed just about everything in Aculux. These days it’s Rodinal for its keeping qualities. Like the metering, I always use a thermometer to get my chemicals to the right temperature and I use the same method of development and agitation every time (unless I am deliberately using stand development). So the results are that the negatives should be correctly exposed and consistently developed. Any variations that show up were either a deliberate choice or a mistake.
Anyway – that’s the theory: reduce variability so that it’s easier to understand what happened when the unexpected occurs. And then keep trying new things to see what happens. Break things with deliberate care.
Not the cleaning product; the lighting one. But you knew that.
I’ve written before about my use of flash, but I’ve never written about yours. What made me think about it was an article on Emulsive, plus Em’s own opinions on the unhelpful arses who tend to answer questions on social media.
So here you go: flash 101. That said, this is not about how to light a scene with flash; this is about connecting a flashgun to your camera and getting the exposure about right. You can then learn how to use flash lighting by trying stuff out.
We’re talking here about electronic flash. There may still be the odd bulb or Magicube around, but they must be rarer than free beer. Electronic flash – let’s just call it flash – is a very brief and intense pulse of light. Packing even the small amount of energy from a battery into a very short pulse means that the flash can be very bright – the candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright, as they didn’t say in Blade Runner.
Your camera has a connection or method for triggering the flash just at the point the shutter is fully open. Most cameras have a ‘shoe’ bracket that the flash clips into, called a hot shoe because it has an electric contact in it to trigger the flash. Older cameras have a variety of fittings. Without the contact (a cold shoe) or without the shoe, you need to find a little round socket that a flash cable can plug into. Some older flashguns will take a cable connection, some even have a cable fitted, or you can find adapters that take a cable feed into a hotshoe fitting. If you need to find the cable port on your camera, it looks like a miniature version of an old coaxial TV socket. It can be set flush in the camera body or be on the side of the lens like a short stub of pipe. If it is labelled or there are several, use the one marked X or PC. If it’s on the lens, there may be a pointer with X, V and M symbols. Set this to X. Some old Russian cameras have a setting around the shutter speed dial for M or X. Again, set it to X. The X setting fires the flash when the shutter is fully open. The other settings are for flashbulbs. If your camera has a hotshoe and none of this other nonsense, it’s already set up to use flash.
In reading order: cold shoe; hot shoe; cable socket on lens; flash setting on lens; cable sockets in body; flash setting on shutter speed dial. The last one also shows an X on the speed dial, which is the fastest capable speed for flash, in this case 1/30.
A word about putting old film-era flashguns onto digital cameras: care. I’ve heard that some old flashguns can send voltage back down to the connection that triggered them. I hear tell that this can damage some modern digital cameras. If you are worried, buy a cheapo Chinese radio trigger to fire the flash with.
So, now what?
Rule 0 – get your hands on at least one flashgun. Ignore the ones that are dedicated to a particular camera. Even ignore the ones that are automatic or have sensors, although they are handy. Old manual flashguns are unloved and cheap. Get some.
Rule 1 – you control the exposure of the flash using the lens aperture. The flash pulse is much shorter than even your fastest shutter speed, so the shutter speed can’t reduce the amount of flash light. In fact you may need a slow shutter speed. Both curtains of a focal plane shutter have to be out of the way, and sometimes this only happens at speeds slower than 1/125 or even 1/60. Check on your shutter speed dial for a speed that’s a different colour or a setting marked X. You should only use this speed or slower.
Rule 2 – the flashgun has a way of telling you what aperture to use. Some flashguns have a distance vs aperture calculator on the back. Or you can try to find the Guide Number (GN) in the manual or online. The GN will be a distance and an ISO, so something like 12 metres (100 ISO) would be typical. If you were shooting at 100 ISO, focus on your subject and read-off the distance. Divide your GN by your subject distance (in the same units) and that’s your aperture. So if my subject was at 3m, with this flashgun I should use 12/3 = f4 as the aperture. At 400 ISO I could close-down by two stops, so f8.
Rule 3 – surfaces. Flashlight bounces and fills like a torch beam. If you are shooting indoors, you might get smoother and rounder light by bouncing the flash off a wall or ceiling rather than pointing it directly at the subject. This is where you really need an automatic or sensor flashgun, as they can sense the right amount of light rather than trying to use the GN. Be aware that flash bounced off a green wall will light the subject in green.
Rule 4 – triggers. These are little sensors that (usually) clip to the hotshoe fitting of a flashgun. They sense the brief pulse of a flash going off and trigger the flashgun they are attached to. They can do this fast enough that your camera sees both flashes. This is great for any old flashguns you can find (rule 0) – put a trigger cell on them, maybe some coloured cellophane over the light and put them round the back or side of your subject. Or in the next room to shine through the door. Or inside a car or house you are shooting from the outside. Now you get to play with your light balance. To start with, unless you are after an effect, make sure the GN and subject/ backdrop distance for your slave flashes needs a wider aperture than your main flash. Then they will throw less light. Some flashguns will let you reduce their output. Or you can tape a tissue over the light. If you don’t want to set the triggers off with a flash on the camera, fire one of them with a radio trigger or a long cable. A trigger cell also lets you fire separate flashguns from a simple point and shoot. Tape a bit of tissue over the camera flash if you need to tone it down.
Rule 5 – fill-in. It’s possible to balance the light from a flash with the daylight on your subject so that the flash fills-in the shadows. Measure your subject distance, refer to your GN and set the aperture one stop smaller/ darker to underexpose the flash. Then adjust the shutter speed to expose the scene correctly as though the flash was absent. If the shutter speed you need is faster than you can use for flash, you need more flash power or to get closer. Cameras with the shutter in the lens can usually work with flash at any shutter speed, so are good at fill-in lighting. Get this right and it looks like you have used a reflector to fill the shadows (without needing an extra pair of arms). You could also underexpose the background for drama. Or put a blue filter on the lens and a yellow one on the flash to make the background go day-for-night blue.
Rule 6 – play. Flash freezes motion, so follow a moving subject with the shutter held open on B then trigger a flash just before you lift your finger. Try multiple flashes for a strobe effect. Try a flash from one side through an orange filter and one from the other side through blue, to get that modern orange and teal look. Put a flash on the end of a selfie stick, fire it with a trigger and you have instant side-lighting. Get a chum to point a flashgun at the back of a subject at night and fire it with a radio trigger to get backlighting. Put the camera on a tripod at night, lock the shutter open and walk around your subject firing a flash at it. Have fun.