Aimlessly Pontificating on Photography

Rambling

Shooting a wedding.

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

I came across an interesting acronym the other day, FDLFSW (Friends Don’t Let Friends Shoot Weddings :)). Unfortunately, if any of us used to listen to good sense there would be no need for priests or lawyers (good riddance to both?). Well thank goodness for me good sense has to be the least used product on sale since the birth of humanity or I’d never have been able to afford my hobby.

Well I am, if nothing else, a man of my species, so when my good friends asked me to shoot Joan & Gerard’s wedding as a backup to her brothers, Mike and Andre it took me a very short while to say yes. They are no longer my friends.

Mr. & Mrs. DeFreitas

Nah, I’m just joking. It did teach me a valuable lesson though. Although I had accepted intellectually that weddings are challenging to photograph, it is different to actually do one and realise it for yourself. I did something right at least, I realised right at the beginning that it would be difficult and that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Key to doing an acceptable job in these situations is to understand your limitations. Without a keen understanding of what you can and cannot do you, are quite likely to make a mess of things. Getting a shot of an important moment, even if not technically skilled (poor choice of exposure, not properly sharp/focused) is better than missing the shot altogether. And while a technically inferior shot is permissible when you are a backup, it is completely unacceptable when you are the primary photographer.

If you take on a wedding and you don’t know what you are doing you are not merely risking losing a client or friend, you are spoiling the memories of what is likely to be one of the most important events in the lives of a number of people.

My favourite photo to date with the 31mm

Knowing all of the foregoing I still decided to confine myself to two lenses (no zoom; gasp!). The first is the Pentax 31mm Ltd which has been described by some as one of the best 35mm lenses ever. What I like best about this one is the absolute pin sharpness and resolution. It is a very fast lens too (f/1.8), and works well in a dimly lit cathedral. This lens is a favourite because it gives a “normal” field of view on a camera with an APS-C sized sensor (smaller than 35mm full frame). This means that it approximates the angle of view of normal vision.

One of my preferred images with the Vivitar.

The other lens I used is the Vivitar Series I 105mm Macro lens. A mouthful of a name for a lens that is far bigger than its name implies. There is very little formal information available online for this lens because it was last manufactured sometime in the 80s! You can find some specifications, if you are interested, here (Kiron made the lens for Vivitar). I got mine as part of the close out sale of a camera shop that had a set of them new in box and paid less than half of what they are going for now, used. It is also a relatively fast lens (f/2.4) but manual focus. And not just any manual focus either; the precise 6 turns infinity to close focus that you need for macro focusing.

Another “difficulty” is that Guyanese are generally very conservative, and change or the unusual is not welcome. Anyone who has looked at my photos realises that I tend not to like the normal viewpoints for most subjects. I had visions of some low to the ground shots of the bride entering the church and something from a high vantage point obscuring by distance everyone but the bride who would stand out in her gown (since the wedding was at Brickdam Cathedral, I am not sure where I would find this vantage point).

I also wanted to get some photos of the bride getting ready and confusion in the house, the groom stepping out of the car that brought him (car door open, interior obscured by shadow, groom’s foot about to touch pavement :), etc. In other words I had a lot of ideas. Unfortunately, reality conspired to knuckle me in the head and things moved quite a bit faster than I had anticipated. I was quite shocked that they wouldn’t stop the proceedings to allow me to get THE shot 🙂 And no matter how accommodating my wife and the bride, I doubt that either of them would have allowed me to start taking photos from the time the bride started brushing her teeth for the morning.

 

Wedding Music

I digressed a bit, but the point I was trying to make is that had I the opportunity and time to do what I wanted to do there is a good chance that the bride and groom would not have liked the result. So perhaps a good thing since the photos were not for me, but for the bride and groom.

The challenge of using the two prime lenses was mitigated by the location. The church allowed me to make quick changes in perspective, so if I needed to quickly get a closer view and had the 31mm lens on the camera, I could quickly move closer. And likewise, if I had the 105mm lens on and needed a wider view, I could quickly move back. This works only within limited parameters as the switch was between a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens, but was sufficient if I didn’t have time to switch between them.

At the doorway

The wedding reception after the ceremony was a different situation. No wide aisles and seating arranged in a grid. No space to easily move further away. Plus I got tired and lazy. Too much work to get a good composition with prime lenses, too much work to keep changing lenses. So I switched to a wide angle zoom; the Pentax DA*16-50mm. This is Pentax’s pro level wide zoom and as fast as a zoom gets (f/2.8, but very soft wide open).

 

Panning shot.

One of my favourite photos of the entire day was taken with this lens. A panning shot of the bride and groom making their entrance across the room. Someone asked me why I used a blurred shot. This one isn’t blurred, at least the bride and groom are sharp, but the background is blurred as I was panning the camera. I like these types of shots because they give a strong feeling of movement. This one came out better than I expected.

I did use an actually blurred shot also. Once again because it imparted a feeling of movement and action to the scene. But the very fact that I was questioned for these choices make it clear how conservative Guyanese viewers are. Aesthetics are bright colours and sharp focus; things like creative composition and unusual angles are frowned upon.

I did assert my own sense of aesthetics to some extent with the processing of the images. Although they appear to be monochrome, they are actually significantly, but not completely de-saturated. The contrast is very soft (although the images are sharp, the sharpness isn’t emphasized) and the tones soft also.

I came away from this experience with one abiding vow. I won’t do anymore weddings. Plus I gained a whole new respect for people who do this for a living (at least the conscientious ones). If the bride or groom flubs a line during the ceremony, they get to do it over. If the photographer fails to take the right shot at the right time, no do overs + very annoyed client. Not an easy job. But looking back at the photos that I consider good, I can see how it can be very fulfilling.

Michael’s photos are here; and Andre’s are here. My full set is here.

P.S. If you want a complete set of applicable acronyms, have a look here. Quite an amusing article.

 


Editing a photograph.

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

NOTE: This is republished from a note I posted on Facebook on April 22, before I started this blog.

People are always asking me if I edit my photos. The answer is a qualified “no”.

To a photographer, editing a photograph means altering the image to either put something into it that was not there, or removing something that is in the scene, but unwanted.

Even then, it is a matter of degrees. Famous portrait photographer Ann Leibovitz (pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair) often produces composites.

She takes the photo of the person in front of a neutral background while her assistants look for and photograph suitable backgrounds. The portrait of the person is then placed on the background. There are opinions that while the result might be art, it is not a photograph. Opinions are divided.

The vast majority of my photographs are processed, but not edited. The images that are produced by my camera are in a special format called “RAW” or digital negatives.

Digital negatives, like negatives from a film camera, cannot be used as is. They have to be processed, like a photographer would have to process film from a film camera.

Serious photographers, in the film days, would have had their own darkrooms (and there are still a significant number of photographers who still use film and have darkrooms) and done their own processing and printing.

I use software to process my digital negatives (called “Lightroom” in a brilliant bit of naming by Adobe). The process is entirely analogous to the “washing” of film to produce negatives, and subsequent printing of the negatives.

A modern digital cameras, that you might carry around in your pocket is more like a Polaroid instant camera than a regular film camera. The processing of the image to produce something you can put online, on facebook or print is done within the camera. So you have a usable image milliseconds after releasing the shutter.

All the things that I might do in Adobe Lightroom or a film photographer might do in his darkroom are done for you, by the camera itself.

Because all the decisions as to how to process the image are done by the camera itself a lot of the flexibility is lost, but you get an image that can be used immediately. The convenience of having the usable image immediately, outweighs the processing flexibility of having the digital negative, for most people.

Even professional photographers, sports photographers or photo journalists, often prefer to have the finished photo straight out of the camera as deadlines have to be met, and the subtlest nuances of a scene are not of great import. Their need is to have a usable image as quickly as possible.

When I photograph a scene I will often take a significant number of photographs that have only the subtlest differences in composition and lighting. I then take all the images into my lightroom see which one(s) I think is best. If more than one I then process them to see which looks best as representative of what I want the photograph to say. And it is that final selection that I might print or put online.

Processing decisions I might make include adjusting the contrast, cropping the image, changing the white balance (if the camera got it wrong, or if for aesthetic reasons I prefer the image warmer or cooler), sharpening the image (this is a requirement for digital images because of the way the sensor captures the image) or converting colour to monotone.

I’ve seen negative reactions when I have tried to explain this to people in the past. But what I do is no different from what the average camera does automatically in order to produce a pleasing JPEG. The difference is that I make all the decisions myself for reasons of control, whereas most people prefer the speed of allowing their camera to make the decisions automatically for reasons of convenience.

I’ve had people look at a monotone image of mine (black and white) and commented favourably, then looked at a nicely saturated colour image and asked if I’ve “edited” the image. I’ve always wanted to ask if that person sees in black and white and how come I didn’t get the dreaded “edited” question when they saw that photo?

Most, or all of the processing that I might do in lightroom were (and still are) done by film photographers save that film processing is a lot more difficult, time consuming and expensive.

I do edit (by my own definition) my photographs from time to time. I have no easy way to check, but by recollection, of the fourteen or fifteen thousand images I’ve taken over the last four years I’ve edited less than five. The edits usually consisted of removing (cloning out) electrical wires from a scene.

Unedited

I’ve put two versions of a photo I took yesterday, below. The first one [to the right] is the original straight out of the camera without any additional processing by me. The top of the image is overexposed because I exposed it for the reflection in the water. You can see the result of the overexposure in the City Hall tower. It is very white and little detail of the windows or the wood can be seen (its “blown out” in the parlance). The white balance is also incorrect. This was after 4 p.m. so the light was very warm, golden afternoon sunlight. What is white in the image, should really be yellow.

The second image results from my processing [below right]. I’ve applied a -1ev gradient (graduated darkening, more darkening at the top, less darkening towards the middle), raised the black clipping point (made the deepest shadows pure black rather than just shadowed, very subtle) and some slight sharpening. This processing was done in less than a minute and the result more closely matches what I saw through the lens.

Although the white balance is inaccurate (the camera made the wrong choice), for aesthetic reasons I’ve not corrected it.

Edited

I’ve also edited the image. I cloned out the electrical wire at the top right.
I take photographs for strictly aesthetic reasons, I am not an archivist and not overly concerned with accuracy. What I want to achieve when I take a photograph is to convey the impact that the scene made on me. Usually, in order to convey that impact it is necessary to compose and/or process the image in creative ways.


So Far.

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

I’ve been at the 365 thing for 6 months now (just a few days shy) and it has been both hard and easy, disappointing and fulfilling. One thing it has not been: boring.

I’ll try not to be too tedious today, but having completely impulsively decided to take at least one picture a day for the year on the first January, I am now stuck doing this for at least six months more.

The First

I supposed that I had some vague and ephemeral idea that I would try to take good pictures everyday. Though surely not. It certainly hasn’t worked out that way, in any event. As you can see (to the right) things didn’t start off with a bang.

It was a scene I liked, with the backyard and snow through the sliding doors and the soft and dreary light in my aunt’s kitchen. But this gives an idea of where I was in terms of what I was seeing at the beginning of the project. Nothing much.

So it was hard at first, partially because there was a challenge finding something to photograph in dreary suburban Scarborough in the heart of winter, but also because I was (and still am) working on seeing when I look.

Returning to Guyana made things a bit easier at first. I had my own transportation and could get around to places whenever I wanted. But it also gave me a much wider range of subjects.

Urban Hurry

The suddenly easier hunting probably set me back developing that “eye” to spot the scenes that I would like to photograph. Because they were all around me, for a while it was less of a challenge.

On the other hand, what had been forced to develop in Canada stood me in good stead and I think the overall quality of my compositions went up noticeably after my return. So did the number of “good” images I was taking.

Like all good things, however, the easy run has been slowly tapering off. I have had to get back to being very determined and directed in my search for a shot.

Why is it worth all this headache? Because in six months so far every aspect of my photography has improved tremendously. From ease in composing, to control of my gear, to the ability to “see” a good shot. I’ve even gotten better at being in the right place, at the right time.

Right Place, Right Time.


Opportunity.

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

Den Amstel Quarrel

 

This is partially a follow up, or maybe follow on, to my post “the camera that took the photo“.

There are a lot of photographers taking pictures these days. And there are a lot of good pictures to be seen. If you are just taking photographs to please yourself, then read no further. If you want to do something more, well why don’t you let an expert like me provide some guidance. After all, one person actually bought a photo from me once 🙂 And if that doesn’t qualify me as an expert, I don’t know what will.

Joking aside, you need certain things to take a good photograph. A good camera helps, a good eye (or two) is useful, practice is essential and a critical, but sometimes overlooked component, opportunity.

Venetian Shadow

A significant component of opportunity is the ability not just to look, but actually to see. I am not trying to be obscure or obtuse. I will elaborate. One of the questions I’ve been asked, by literally . . . one person is; “how did you spot that?” This was asked with regard to my take on a fairly routine scene (not the image above).

The answer is, I make a strong effort to see what I am looking at. My friend Michael in a recent post on his blog suggested that to gain inspiration you should change your environment a bit and see things with fresh eyes. I agree entirely, but that is not the only way I find something to photograph.

A significant part of my process is to simply look around me to see things that others may notice in passing but never glance twice at, simply because the world moves at such a speedy pace. I try to keep my eyes fresh even if I am in an environment that I see every day.

My approach then, is a contemplative one. To go somewhere different is to see a scene with fresh eyes, but I believe that the biggest gasp you will ever get from a viewer is to show them in a new light something that they have been looking at every day, but not really seeing.

The image posted at the top of this post is a classic example of the approach Micheal suggested. Going somewhere different, even if it is familiar, and looking around with fresh eyes. It is also an example of being in the right place at the right time, luck in other words (look closely at the window of the abandoned building). But Venetian Shadow (above) is the real example of what I am talking about.

Initially, it is a lot of work, this whole looking and seeing at the same time. At the beginning of the year when I started my picture a day project I was faced with an apparent dearth of subjects (suburban Scarborough in winter). It forced me to look and see in order not to break my project so early on. When I returned home two months into the year that practice stood me in good stead as it seemed I was spoiled for subjects. I was seeing interesting scenes everywhere I looked.

Within a couple of months that stopped and I had to start making an effort again to see what I was looking at. No bad thing really, but certainly challenging. The point of all of this is that with practice you can become skilled, with talent you can occasionally produce good images, but unless you see what you look at, you will never consistently produce good images. Each aspect of good photography is integral to the subject as a whole. Do one less well than the others and the whole will suffer.

Afternoon Light