About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Updated Drakensberg Gallery

One of the things I seem appallingly bad at is updating the actual website. An early New Year's resolution is to finally catch up with this. The results so far can be viewed on the Drakensberg and Standard Bank Project galleries on the Limephoto Website. Hope you enjoy the images.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

COP17 - Making Events Interesting

Okay, so I am fortuitously placed to be a part of the United Nations Congress of Parties, Durban 2011 climate talks. By fortuitously placed I mean that I live in Durban and people are desperate for photographers. So this means I spent the weekend shooting one of the side events to the full on COP17 negotiations. No I didn't make it in as a photographer to the main sessions, but in a way I'm relieved. Instead I ended up being the official photog to the Standard Bank hosted IETA conference.

The thing about event photography is that most of the time you are shooting business suit clad men and women looking dour-faced at times, disinterested at others. The goal is to make the proceedings look lively, interesting and above all, good. Not an easy thing to do when the height of lighting sophistication from some venues is a panel of halogen down-lights. Of course I speak from the highly biased point of view of an events photographer, NOT A JOURNALIST!! The journalist's job is convey THEIR version, or interpretation of the truth as they see it. An event's photographer is a hired gun in much the same way as an advertorial photographer is. You are paid to cover the event for publicity purposes, and if that happens to be propaganda for the client, so be it (we can have an ethical debate on this at another point...the basic premise being that if you have issues with the organizing party, then don't shoot for them...duh). If you agree with the party, then by all means accept the gig and enjoy the talks.

To the task at hand and the horrible down-lighting. For the most part I find shooting available light is often the best way to get interesting shots, particularly when you are using a long telephoto lens. The problem comes with trying to get more than just the usual shadows and here the advantages of being the event photographer start to play a hand...or in this case two light stands, one umbrella and three flashes play a hand. In other words, because I have relative carte blanche I am able to set up auxiliary lighting, so long as it doesn't interfere with the proceedings themselves.

For the first day I used solely available light. So the images of Minister Manuel and the big shot meeting were all done on high ISO on my D700. Thing is, this was on purpose. As an event photographer you don't necessarily want to interrupt certain meetings with flash bursts going off continuously (a caveat to this follows in a moment), particularly on the first day of the shoot if there are multiple days.

The first two images show no flash at all, only pure ambient light shots on high ISO (1600 or 3200 on the D700, 640 on the D3x). The second day's shots were then augmented with flash light. Again the advantage of being the official event photog is that people get used to seeing you around. On day one where a stray flash burst will irritate the speakers, day 2 and beyond they become almost nonchalant towards the flash (although always chat to the session's chairperson before banging away with flash). I've also noticed that not being journalist actually gets participants to open up towards me as the photog. They seem almost less reticent to be photographed. Incidentally the third image shows one of the shots with a bare strobe coming from the opposit side of the room so that I could get some interesting short lighting effects on the speakers.

The basic setup for the large room was to have a strobe placed high and in the center of the room facing towards the speakers and softened by shooting through a shoot-through brolly. This flooded the room with soft light and could be used on it's own if desired. Then on opposite sides of the room I had two more straight strobes (i.e. no modifiers) pointed towards the speakers but slightly feathered inwards. Using the Phottix Stratos II and setting the three strobes into their own group each, I was able to choose one, two or all three flashes at any given time. A little bit of trial and error just prior to the session helped me calculate the flash outputs and the basic settings that I would be using.

You can see how the opposing flash was used in the above shot. This meant that I could easily create either a rim light or short lighting depending on my position vis-a-vis the flash and the speaker. Definitely more interesting than the standard bog ordinary shot of a talking head.

Another great way of creating interesting shots is to do panoramic sweep of the room. Thanks to Adobe's photomerge, which has gotten increasingly better with each of the Photoshop iterations, panoramics are really easy. No you don't need a special head. The shot here was done with a 16mm lens on the vertical axis in a relatively small boardroom. It's not fine art, but it works for the task in hand.

Lastly there is the ubiquitous group shot. Shudder. Another setup of a line of individuals facing the camera. Sometimes this is admittedly necessary, but other times people want to have something that's a little different. Do the standard shot, then get people to do something different. You don't necessarily have to get corporate jumping on the spot as if they are at a wedding lampooning for the photographer, but certainly get them to do something different. In this case I popped a single strobe behind a shoot-through brolly on the ground, lay down on my back and shot the group as if they were upside down (at least that's what it'll look like in the viewfinder). Instant smile as the photographer, who everyone now knows because you have been hanging around for a while, looks like an idiot on the floor (or num-nuts as Joe McNally calls himself).

Like I said, it doesn't have to be high art, but if it's different, and if it's good, you will get a call back for future work!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Going Grey

An interesting aspect of fine art photography, or at least the acceptance of photography as fine art by the general public (in South Africa at the very least but I've heard this from photographers in the UK and Australia well) is that it must be in black and white rather than colour. Scott Kelby rather cynically comments that to be accepted as a great photographer you must produce some black and white images. Although I think this is rubbish, I also think that Kelby is absolutely right. The acceptance of colour photography as a fine art medium is still to occur in much of the photography buying world. David Ward says much the same thing in his book, 'The Inner Landscape' when he muses that serious colour landscape photography is still to be explored - an interesting comment considering the exceptional work by the likes of Charlie Waite and Joe Cornish who are also personal friends of Ward's (or so we are led to assume), not to mention Ward's own work. 

Ground breaking work was done for the United States by Alfred Stieglitz and the rest of the 'Photo Secessionists' and later 'Group F64' in elevating photography to the ranks of Fine Art. If one looks at the number of Fine Art photographers around the world, the predominant number of them that make their entire living from prints and fine art media are situated in North America. This may be an unqualified statement, but it thanks to early masters in the States that photographs have been recognised as objets d'arts. Here in South Africa, and I would argue much of the rest of the Western world, photographs are seen -by the public- as something that can be created by anyone, that skill and artistry are not necessary requirements. "That's a great photograph, you must have a fantastic camera", is a common enough double-edged 'compliment'.    

Still, it is in black and white photographs people seem to see 'real' art. Which is a shame, as the world is beautiful in colour as well. In South Africa at least I have been to exhibitions by significant photographers where it is only the black and white images that garner the attention of the public. David Goldblat is a good example. He worked in both colour and black and white, but his exhibitions and books seem to hold mostly his black and white images. Obie Oberholzer is one of the few fine art photographers in South Africa who seems to be recognised as a 'colour' photographer, and it mainly has to do with the way that his colours are so strikingly vivid. He works with colour as a black and white master would work with tone. Yet, the last exhibition of his that I saw was shortly before leaving Grahamstown (he was also off to new pastures) and his beautiful prints were going for...well a song compared to even mediocre photographers in the States (just take a look at the prices of prints on the plethora of photographer's websites to get an idea).  

Not that I want to decry black and white photography. Heinrich van den Berg's stunning images in his 'Shades of Nature' are oftentimes breathtaking. the rich detail and tones become all the more obvious for their presentation in monochrome. Standing in front of an original Ansel Adams is almost indescribable as you look at the richness in texture and tone that he was capable of married to compositions that weld your eyes to the frame.

But colour should have a place too. I love black and white, but struggle to see in it. These few images are examples where I have consciously tried to think in black and white. I'm not convinced I was successful. the irony is that given the chance I would bet that some commentators would say these are better than the colour work that I strive towards. Juries out I guess.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thanda Paused

November...and the world (or at least much of the Western world) starts to grind to a yule-tide induced lethargy. Businesses wind down - some earlier than others - and retail outlets gear up as the festive season is hailed in with the ring of the till-register. Cynicism aside it is a time to reflect on the year past. admittedly I might be doing this a touch early as I have just returned to the studio after another excellent week at Thanda Game Reserve with the African Impact Photography Volunteers/Students. This is also the last workshop of the year, hence the time to reflect.

Something that we should all reflect on as the new year approaches with a plethora of new toys emerging from the East (and Germany of course ;-) ): Do we really need a gazillion megapixels and the world's most advanced focusing engines in our cameras? Let's face it, if we are not getting the results we want from the camera, it's probably not the camera to blame. But I preach in vain I suspect (my itchy palms when the latest and greatest is presented to me is ample evidence of this). So it was refreshing this week to have one of my students work with her two cameras, a Canon 50D and an older 20D interchangeably. Looking at the images, which were good mind you, you could not tell which camera was used (and she shot equally with both). So what do we want from a camera? Be honest and you might find that rather than putting a mortgage up to buy the next best thing from Nikon, Canon or Sony the money might be better spent going somewhere to use your existing equipment. As an exercise price the lust items that you scan the ads for. then look and see what it would cost to go to that place you've been wanting to see for the past decade (Madagascar or the Galapagos perhaps). Telling isn't it (when you start talking pro gear you could probably afford to bring the family too)!

I am guilty myself though, having recently tucked into my savings and credit card to obtain a backup body (a used D700). I could have had a safari in Botswana for what I paid - and I think of this fact often. To me, the relief now when I go on a shoot that I have a fall-back is worth that though. Note, that the purchase was second hand and unlike the multitude that are waiting for Nikon's soon-we-hope-we-pray-to-be-released-D800 I bought something that is at the end of it's product cycle. It's a great camera and will continue to be so for years to come...I still wish I could go to Botswana though ;-).

So back to reflecting: the last year at Thanda has taken a photography project that was good in St Lucia to something fantastic at the reserve. We've had dozens of photographers join the project over the year, more than any year to date. We've even had returnees within the same year (hats off to Martijn and Cyndi who are currently staff). I have met incredible talent that is simply waiting for that moment to burst out and shine. Each month I'm in awe at some of the images that the students produce. Original, bold, technical and beautiful, professionals could take a leaf out of the many and varied books that these photographers create. They love photography. Wait, they LOVE photography. It is so easy to get caught up in billing, clients, pushing your name and images out there, that we can forget what brought us into this incredible pastime and vocation.

We've watched some amazing things happen on the reserve as well. Although I haven't been there for all of it, the students and volunteers have had incredible interactions with elephant, lion, rhino, cheetah, leopard, hyena and various other large mammals. The lion prides on Thanda (North and South) have kept the researchers scratching their heads at some of the strange behavior that they have recorded. Lions and wild dog have left the reserve and then subsequently returned. A caracal made the camp home for a day or two, geckos pooed untold tons of...stuff...onto pillow cases, and we all learned how to live without water (although I thankfully get to go home after a week).

It's been a wonderful year at Thanda. Although the year is yet to extinguish the candle (and work must continue), it's time for a pause at Thanda, at least for me. Next year, 9th of January the first workshop starts. If anybody out there is interested in joining, drop me a line. Thanks to yet another wonderful group that made me forget that what I do is actually work... (hehe).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Frisbee Fun

Last month my sister-in-law came up to Durban to take part in an ultimate frisbee competition along with a team from Cape Town called the 'Chillies'. She works for a non-profit organisation called 'Life X Change' ,  youth development program that takes adolescents off the street and tries to empower them so that they are able to change their lives for the better. Many of these young guys have been in detention, are addicted to some sort of substance, have been in gangs or any number of foul ups that can put someone into a spiral from which they can't climb out. The point of this is that the Chillies allowed two of these 'life exchangers' as well as my sister-in-law into the team for the National Competition which was held this year in sunny (or not as the case may be) Durban.

Which gave me a chance to practice my sports photography, and wow was I rusty. the last time I shot sports was for the build-up to the Beijing Olympics where I was assigned by Getty to cover the development aspect of the buildup by a large international mining company. The development aspect happened to be the development of soccer in the rural and township clubs. So I found myself photographing a lot of football for a while. As with any skill though, if you don't practice, you get rusty.

Enthusiasts who have never shot sport tend to think that modern cameras do all the work for the photographer. not so. Autofocus actually only has limited usefulness. Auto-exposure similarly can get things wrong a lot of the time, meaning that sports pros are often in manual mode and manual focus. Yes, AF is incredible nowadays, but it can actually be harder to autofocus than to manually follow-focus on a running player.

First off, metering: In the old days of film sports pros would spot meter off the one constant in the game - the grass. Setting the camera to manual they could then pretty much shoot as they liked and just keep an eye on the changing light-levels, adjusting occasionally to suit. If you ever go and watch a big sports game you'll notice that the old-hands sit in one place. They DON'T go charging up and down the field to follow the action. That's why they are able to happily meter off the grass and stick it in manual. In some ways things haven't changed. Now though we have the welcome addition of a histogram to check the exposure. A quick look at the histogram and we can be certain that the exposure is right when we are pointing in a certain direction down the field (it's harder to do this when we are on the sideline and in the middle of the field as we'll be swinging the lens in two different directions). So the gist of it is that manual metering is the most consistent, although aperture priority is the next fallback mode. Again, a beginner might think 'why not shutter priority?'. The problem with shutter priority is that if the light level changes and you are already at your maximum aperture (the widest aperture) the camera will still fire, but underexpose. In aperture priority at the maximum aperture the shutter speed just drops a stop when the light goes. This means the exposure is still good, but there may be a touch of blur on the movement, which isn't always a bad thing. 

Then there's focus. Here the best advice is the same thing that you do on the field in most team sports - 'mark your man'. Trying to follow the ball is nigh on impossible (sometimes it works, but only sometimes). Whether you choose to manual focus or autofocus, keeping the lens trained on one player is the best way to achieve accurate focus. The ball, or frisbee in this case, moves faster than we can keep up with, but not the players. It doesn't matter how fast a player runs, they are slower than the ball or frisbee and consequently a whole lot easier to follow. With practice it becomes possible to accurately manual focus, as was the case with all the images presented here (it's not that I don't have an autofocus camera, but that my lenses were either manual focus, the 400mm f3.5, or were rather slow in AF performance, the 80-200mm f2.8 EDIF).

Once you have the knack of following an individual, then it's just a matter of practice getting the ball, puck, shuttle-cock or whatever other object that is being played with in the frame as well. This is the final 'rule' of good sports images. There are very few great shots that don't have the 'ball' in the frame. Without it, it's just a bunch of people frozen in time. Yes, some images are memorable without it, but that's due to another factor such as they players taking a swing at each other, or some other out of the ordinary moment.

Sport's photography, doesn't necessarily require a vast equipment outlay (an APS-C sensor camera - think Canon EOS 550D or Nikon D90 - with a 70-300mm lens is perfectly adequate for decent sports shots). Yes, a D3s or the new Canon 1Dx with a 400mm f2.8 would be lovely, but the reality is that few soccer moms or dads can afford an almost luxury vehicle worth of camera gear. Bumping the ISO up a tad and getting the composition and focus right and your shots can be as good as the double truck images in Sport's Illustrated. It's just a matter of practice (of which I clearly need some more of ;-) ).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tripping the light fantastic - a completely unprofessional review of the Phottix Stratos II

Review sites abound. I'm sure that a couple of google taps away and you can find an exhaustive review of the Phottix Stratos radio triggers. Not only that, but there are likely some detailed reviews that will point out the merits (or lack thereof) of these triggers vis-a-vis Pocket Wizards and the various other triggers on the market (I even read some of them ;-) ). Some techie out there has probably even gone so far as to measure the exact frequency that these triggers use. That doesn't matter a jot to me I'm afraid. What I cared about was whether these small and relatively cheap triggers would fit into my workflow without causing too many headaches.

The short answer is that I cannot believe I ever managed to work without them. They really are fantastic. So now for the long answer. A radio trigger is essentially a device that triggers your flashes wirelessly using radio waves. They've been around for a while with most of the lighting manufacturers now producing their own variants, such as Elichrom's 'Skyport' triggers. Currently the de facto king of the hill when it comes to flash triggering via radio receivers are the trusted, hardy, and extremely expensive Pocket Wizards (or PWs for short). A plethora of cheap Chinese manufactured variants have flooded the market in the costly wake of the American PW. Some are nasty, others are reasonable and a few are really good.

Read the Full Review

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Special Group - November Drakensberg Workshop and a comment on Dynamic Range

I live a charmed life to be able to meet and work with the photography students that I have the privilege to meet on a monthly basis. This month’s Drakensberg workshop cemented this once more as we travelled through to Royal Natal with the largest group to date. Of course, group dynamics have a large part to play and the November group of photographers (the very same individuals as the Thanda group that I worked with two weeks ago) have hit it off from the word go. A disparate group is certainly a good description, geographically, personality wise and occupationally, but they have seemed to get on as if they have all known each other since kindergarten. I love groups like that. It turns my work into play…to the point that I start to feel guilty that I’m actually being paid to do what I do…although that happens a lot to be honest. 

Talking photography: sitting atop the Witches viewpoint makes you realize the importance of your camera’s histogram. Modern digital cameras are exceptionally good at resolving detail right from the darkest shadows through the brightest highlights. DXO Mark reports that a number of the top, and even a good number of the entry-level cameras available today, are able to resolve tonal detail in up to ten stops of light. I have a habit, a bad one I realize, of falling back on the safe number of seven stops of dynamic range in a digitial SLR as was the case with DSLRs some three generations back (think the Nikon D200, Canon 20D, maybe even the 30D). These cameras were excellent, but pulling details from the shadows still brought out the worst in the sensor. It still does, it just happens that the worst happens to be exceptionally good.

Getting shots like the image of the photographers on the Witches (above) then revolves around trusting the histogram. Forget about the image in the LCD screen. Chimping only makes sense if you are doing it effectively, and doing it effectively means using the full RGB histogram. In the case of this image the histogram was spread right across the range from the very darkest shadow, where is wasn’t clipping, through to the brightest highlight, where it very definitely was clipping (the sun will pretty much always clip, and if it doesn’t it means you have an extremely underexposed shot that is rendering everything except the sun in pitch black). Yes, a tonal blend would be a great way to get maximum dynamic range right from the very darkest shadows through the highlights around the sun. Sometimes we don’t have time to do this though. Sometimes a quick single frame is all that we can, or want, to do. Trust the histogram. Processing the image in Capture NX2 (Photoshop would have been as easy), I brightened the darks and shadows portion of the image while masking off the bright sky. The same thing was then done in reverse by darkening the sky portion and masking off the now not so shadowy foreground. There are still the same number of stops of light that have been recorded by the camera, but the image has a greater perceived dynamic range. The miraculous thing is that when zooming in to 100% in the shadows, there is little to no noise (and what small noise there is can easily be cleaned up). The trick here is to shoot at the base ISO of the camera. Anything higher and the noise in the shadows in amplified in the analogue to digital conversion within the camera. Neat that cameras have gotten so good! We just need to learn how to effectively use them. 

Another wonderful weekend in the Berg. Sitting at Witsieshoek after 3 days where the weather gods smiled and gave us perfection, a sense of supreme satisfaction creeps in. Now it’s back to the studio, clients, processing, keywording (aaargh) and marketing. There are downsides to being a freelance photographer and instructor, but the good outweighs the bad a hundred to one!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Portraiture Assignment – using available light

I recently had the pleasure to photograph the lead oboist of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra in short portrait shoot at the Playhouse Company building in Durban’s CBD. As usual I came prepared with absolutely everything…6 small hotshoe strobes, brollies, softboxes stands and an army of lenses…all crammed into a duffel and two camera backpacks. I like to be prepared I guess. So I sweated my way into the foyer and soon met up with Alison Lowell, the oboist (you can see her site on www.alisonlowell.com). We wound our way through the labyrinthine backstage area to the theatre for the first shot…where we were promptly chased off from.

The first shots were fairly simple headshots against against one of the black velvet backdrop curtains behind stage. A white umbrella used as a reflector for the main and a zoomed flash-head for the hair light (Alison has lovely red hair which I wanted to emphasize in the colour images). I also put a reflector up on her lap to fill any hard shadows and soften the face somewhat.

 Then we got a little more interesting. The Playhouse building has these incredible ornate doors facing onto the side street. Light was pouring through these, despite the fact that the side-street angled away from the sun itself (essentially the light was being reflected from the concrete fa├žade of the building next door. I wanted to selectively light Alison with the framework of the doors behind her. To do this I underexposed the doors so that we got black frames with light. I then placed a flash in a white umbrella reflected back to her on camera left. This gave nice defined lighting on her right hand side, but cast a strong shadow on her left. This was moody but a bit too dark, so a kicker in the form of a strobe from camera right with a rogue flash-bender formed into a snoot filled her face nicely.

As I mention above, I came fully prepared with a mountain of gear (wish I'd had an assistant to lug the stuff about), but my favourite images came, not from the shots that used flash, but from the natural light images that we finished up with.

We had various other setups using stairs, chairs and other backgrounds. the location that was brimming with promise in the end was a sort of conservancy like space above the main foyer. Window light flooded this large area. the light itself was then bounced around thanks to a wall of mirrors on either end and light toned walls opposite the actual window. The light coming in through the large windows was beautiful. I couldn't pay for better light!

So the final few images were shots completely sans flash. The first image was a simple one using the window light with Alison up close to the window itself. This is a pretty cliched technique...because it works so well. Thanks to the inverse square rule the light falls off incredibly quickly, meaning that if the face is properly exposed, the back of the head is already about two to three stops darker. Move away from the window and the effect is less obvious, as seen in the final image below.

The images were done for next years KZN Philharmonic Orchestra brochure. Alison, an American by birth, will be performing with them for the foreseeable future. Her site can be visited by clicking on the link (http://www.alisonlowell.com).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Let's talk about...

Well that's what the wildlife seemed to be talking about this last week. The final drive of the week was one of the most interesting I have been on in a long time. We had the opportunity to watch two Spotted Hyenas mating as well as a lion and lioness doing the same (while the lion's brother looked on). Still, not all wildlife photography is of such a nature...and sometimes simple portraits will suffice.

The last week was the biggest group to date with 10 photographers joining the workshop. The pace was frenetic  for all, but I managed to collapse only one student with a migraine (sorry Kerry). 10 photographers draws a lot of intensity when it comes to group sessions, and this months group were fantastic. There was a great repartee that seemed to develop between the group as we went out on shoots and bandied over crit sessions. Yes, the weather gremlin was still in force. I swear that African Impact are going to ban me soon as I always without fail seem to bring the grey skies. As I write this the sun is shining, but last week it was anything but.


Overall a wonderful with a really a great group of photogs. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of this month.

For anyone wanting to book for the next workshop which takes place between the 14th and the 19th of November, please get hold of me asap. Numbers are starting to come in and we are wanting to keep it to a maximum of 6 for November.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breathing in the Berg

At the end of last week I had a rather dim moment. I left my laptop on the Thanda bus, so waved goodbye to the wonderful guests that I had in the berg over the weekend...and my laptop and the last blog post that I was supposed to put up. So imagine this is actually being read last Monday :-)

This morning I wandered out to the ridge overlooking the Mahai Valley to gaze at my beguiling mistress. The distant whisper of Mahai Falls drifted over the stubby grass. It is sometimes good to put the camera down so that we can fall in love again with the wonder that impels us to pick up the camera and make a canvas of the world. Will our images mean anything in the future? Do they mean anything now? We can look at areas of natural splendour in the world and often a photographer’s images have been instrumental in protecting that small space. Zack Arias’ eloquent and moving video about that questions what it is he does as a photographer came to me as a I picked out details in the near distance of Dooley Waters. Will my images move people to protect the mountain that mesmerizes me so. I’m just a photographer. One of a million who is trying to make a living with a camera in my hand. Will these images do anything for anyone apart from myself. Are they just an attempt to fill a ceasely draining bank account, or can they do more for the mountain and its future. 

With these thoughts of the mortality of imagery in my head ;-) I can now reflect on this last weekend’s Drakensberg photography workshop with African Impact. Not everyone makes it to the summit sadly, as was the case this last weekend. However, I am continually amazed at how everyone walks away having created beautiful, often breathtaking imagery. For the few photographers who opted not to go to the summit yesterday, they were treated to the fantastic experience of a full 20 minutes up close to a feeding bearded vulture. Witsieshoek Resort are in the process of a developing a Vulture’s restaurant of the flanks of the hill that looks out towards Phudhatijaba. Jeremiah, responsible for tending to the restaurant is quite protective of his ‘clients’. There are four recognizable individuals that frequent the restaurant, but it is still not necessarily a regular occurance for visitors to see the birds, let alone spend as much time as the photographers did with them.


As I mention in the opening paragraphs, it is sometimes good to put down the camera. Standing above Witches with the photographers that went to the top of the Amphitheatre, watching the sun rise through the distant haze, I noticed that there was a point that the clatter of cameras fell silent. Silence enveloped the small peak that we were standing on. It was as if the mountain were holding its breath. Something made everyone stop focusing on the machine and instead stare into the glowing sky. The mountain’s hold was momentary, but it was there all the same. The Drakensberg left its mark I suspect. Maybe the images won’t necessarily mean anything in the long term. But the memories will.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Murky Days - September Thanda Wildlife workshop

The weather gremlin was back last week, and with a vengeance! A whole week in Thanda and the sun showed its wonderful face for seemingly a grand total of 5 minutes. Nevertheless, lenses and cameras were out and working hard (Romeo's sounded like a machine gun with an uninterrupted supply of ammunition ;-) ).

For me, when the weather is truly horrible, i.e. lacking in interesting regardless of the time of day, providing nothing but a bland uniform grey light, that's the time to try and get in close and concentrate on the animal's portrai, or a texture in the skin...so long as it's close. Usually the strong constrasty light of a cloudless sky can play havoc with deep shadows obliterating eyes and burning out the highlights to nuclear levels. The soft lighting of a murky sky means that the photographer can work with textures without actually losing the shadows into an inky pit of darkness.

as ever, work with what is given and you can produce great images. Some of which last week's photography students at the Thanda Photography workshop were able to do. We had 9 students, the largest group for the Thanda workshop to date. This comes with pros and cons of course. 9 people have 9 different requirements in terms of what is most important to them to photograph, let alone learn. BUT, and this is a big one, 9 different photographs also bring 9 different unique sets of skills and experience to a group, meaning that if the group works together they can learn that much more from each other!

Photography workshops are not just about learning from the workshop leader. Sure, they might know a thing or two about photography, but as a Monty Cooper -a mentor of mine - pointed out years ago, photography is not just about the technical side of photography, which he criticized me as being too caught up in at the time. What do you see when you take the photograph? Concentrate on the small things (he suggested I actually use programme mode occasionally - students of mine will know that I'm allergic to this mode ;-) - so that I concentrate on the details of the composition rather than the details of the exposure - admittedly I didn't really listen to the programme part, but I did about the details).

So bad colourless drab weather can still be good for photography. Well any weather can be good for photography. It might even push you to try something new indoors, as evinced by the 'last supper' group shot at the start of the post (thanks to Peter and Yossi for the idea).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Constructing the Image

Ansel Adams commented that you don't take a picture, you create an image. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Novice photographers often 'take pictures', pointing the camera at something that they deem worthy of photographing and capturing a moment in time, often without any preconceived artistry or aesthetic intent. Adams was pointing out that the advanced photographer, an artist essentially, crafts the image through technical and aesthetic ideas that together create an image that is already in the photographers head. This is often termed as 'pre-visualisation', and it's an essential part of good photographic technique.

In the advertising and design world 'pre-visualization' is often spoken of as story-boarding. Create the story, and then shoot for that storyboard. Stills photographers should take a leaf from this book. This is particularly the case when shooting to a brief. However, nature photographers can also learn how to create an image with intent. Good examples can be seen in David Noton's and David Ward's work.

Previsualisation often means that multiple images are required to create the composition that the photographer has in mind. Common multiple image photographs are high dynamic range images and stitched panoramics. One can take the concept further though. Star-trail photography is a case in point. Another example is to introduce elements to a scene that are difficult to combine in a single exposure.

The last is a case in point for a current project that I am working on for a company in Johannesburg (Aluview) that does a lot of work with hotels around the country. The brief includes images of the hotels and their bathrooms for a glossy brochure/company profile. To this end I have had to create architectural images of the hotels themselves, sometimes in lighting conditions that don't gel with my pre-visualized notion of the image. Enter the multiple image capture.

In the two images of the hotels, the Turbine in Knysna and the West Cliff in Joburg, multiple images were captured for the vehicle light trails, sky, shadows and lit signage. In the bathroom example (D'Oreal, Emperor's Palace) a number of images were required to not only get the lighting right, but to achieve this without hot-spot reflections in the glass, or a reflection of the photographer himself (and the temporary assistant who had to crawl next to the toilet under the basin in order to be in the room to switch off lights - via unscrewing the light bulb - while not being in the image itself...thanks Kath!). The jist of this post then is to experiment with multiple image capture in order to introduce new elements into the scene. To do this effectively remember that you have to imagine then final result of the image before you even trip the shutter.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Not Quite Right but Great!

Sometimes you don’t exactly get what you expected, or rather hoped for, as a landscape photographer. Sometimes the light isn’t quite right, or there is something that obstructs what you feel would make the ultimate composition. Perhaps the clouds aren’t in the right place, or the right shape. Maybe there’s rain instead of sunshine, or even that there’s simply too much sun and not enough cloud. Or maybe you go up the Drakensberg expecting grand vistas and there aren’t because it’s simply that time of year when the haze gets so thick you can barely see to the bottom of the mountain.

This month’s Drakensberg photography workshop was a little like that. Rather than the usual clouds and rain that seem to coincide like clockwork with our workshops, there were no clouds, plenty of harsh sunshine and a whole lot of murky haze. But, you can work with this. This is still the Drakensberg. The photographers handled this with aplomb I thought. When the sun was too strong, use a fellow photographer as a makeshift gobo or sunscreen. When the light was in the wrong place, look for the inner landscapes…beautiful close-ups that show of the mountains as much as the grand vistas do. When the haze is like pea-soup, go abstract and look at the amazing lines that appear instead of the finer details of the valleys below. 

Too many photographers put the camera away when the light isn’t quite right. I’m guilty of this myself at times. After a weekend of ‘not-quite right light’, while looking at the images a crit session, Bash, one of the photographers summed it up nicely, :”I wish I had taken more shots”. When life gives you lemon’s - figure out how to light em properly. Group them together for a great still life, get in close for a macro, and then when you are finished make some lemonade. 
So, despite lighting that wasn’t right, and situations that weren’t perfect, the Berg was awesome as usual, with some stunning images produced by the photographers. A great bunch that I had the pleasure to spend some time with.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Mantid Season

I love summer. Not for the heat, or trips to the beach or anything conventional. No, summer is the time for increased insect activity. Some people at this point would shake their heads while muttering "weird" under their breath. Ah, but for the macro photographer at large this is the time to delve into the plants and look for the little wildlife.

Here are two recent mini safaris that I've had searching for possibly my favourite 'subject' - Mantids. The first was actually a request to photograph a Flower-eyed Mantid in the garden of an apartment block on Durban's Berea. The second was a chance find in our garden.

I've mentioned before that a good way to approach macro photography of insects is to approach it as if you were thinking of doing a portrait shoot in a studio. Due to the low-light nature of macro photography in the wild it is usually essential that artificial light has to be used. In both instances I used a similar setup of a flash in a softbox (home-made) and a second flash unmodified. Although I was using Nikon's Creative Lighting System (CLS), it was purely for triggering purposes as I worked out the flash exposure manually. The softbox light was used as the key light while the second smaller flash was toned down somewhat and used as fill for the leaf and rim light for the Mantid. Bumping up the ISO a touch enabled a little bit of light to filter in from the background so that it wasn't pure black. Even so, considering the shadows and late afternoon light of the second mantid, it's still pretty dark. 

It's probably noticeable the difference in depth of field between the two insects as well. The first has considerably more as the pink Flower-eyed  Mantid itself was far larger than the second nymph (I'm not sure of the exact species). As a rough estimate once one gets to life-size magnification the depth of field is almost equivalent to the aperture in fractions of a millimeter (so f16 = 0.16mm DoF).  

If a black background isn't desired it's easy enough to manoeuvre such that there is a background behind the insect that is close enough that the flash's output can light it. Shooting through a leaf also lights up the leaf, creating a great background glow. 

If I have to shoose essential equipment, two flashguns would be it. although a single flashgun mounted in a softbox can create wonderful wrap-like lighting, two flashes open up a world of macro lighting possibilities. You can get more information on lighting setups for macro from my tutorial on the website

Monday, August 29, 2011

Keep it Moving - Thanda Photography Workshop

I’ve just finished another Thanda photographic workshop with a great bunch of photographers from the African Impact volunteer programme. For once the weather was perfect (readers of this blog will know that I seem to have a weather gremlin that tests my thesis of ‘bad weather makes for good images’). This month was instead the month of close encounters. A couple of fantastic up-close encounters left the photographers of this month's Thanda Photographic workshop with some incredible images. A close encounter with two of Thanda's elephants had a number of us grinning from ear-to-ear, albeit with hearts still drumming in our ears (when an elephant is so close that the lens hits it's minimum focusing distance you know you are close). 

Still, despite close encounters it can get difficult to produce images that are different to the 'same old' that you see produced every single day. Somehow as a photographer you still have to do  more than simply get closer. One of the ways in which to separate images from the crowd of ordinary wildlife imagery is to add a sense of movement. Photography is medium of time, although we tend to forget about this element of the image making process. In fact, photography is all about light and time. The shutter speed is usually so fast that the element of time isn’t that obvious, despite the fact that the fast shutter freezes a moment in time. With the ever-increasing low light abilities of digital cameras photographers have been able to use fast shutter speeds even when the light levels are very low. This means that the evocative use of long (ish) exposures seems to be relegated to professional photographers.

This doesn't have to be the case. Creating images with movement doesn't have to be that difficult. Again, modern technology such as in lens vibration reduction (or image stabilization for Canon cameras) makes it even easier to pan with a moving subject so that smooth ‘flow lines’ are visible while keeping the subject close to tack sharp (there is always going to be some loss of critical sharpness, but because of the movement this doesn't matter as much anymore). Panning basically means to move the camera so that the subject stays in the same point of the frame as it moves. The difficult part is to not pan faster or slower than the moving subject. An exposure that doesn't freeze the movement is going to show blur in the areas that were static in the frame (bushes, ground, background) and which were moving in a different direction to the actual pan (legs, arms etc.). Elements of the frame or subject that are moving at the same pace as the pan come out relatively sharp (the head and body of the subject). The longer the exposure the more blur there is and the less chance that there is a sharp area in the frame. The shorter the exposure the less sense of movement there is, but the more chance that the subject is sharp.

In the image of the elephant eye I concentrated on keeping the eye as steady as possible while moving the camera in time with the elephant's head swaying ponderously from side to side. The result is an image that is 'sharp, but not', creating a sense of drama. Although I don't think the giraffe shot is necessarily successful it does demonstrate that the sense of movement can change the overall feeling of an image. The image of the Marabou Stork flying was taken earlier this year and again gives that sense of speed and movement that would be lacking in an image without the blur. Additionally, the bird shot would be criticized as being too far from the action without the blur. Personally, i feel it works at this size (bird in relation to space) because of the blur. Working with slower shutter speeds is more difficult than with fast shutter speeds, but the effort pays off in the long run with genuinely unique imagery. If you simply through glossy coffee-table books by the big gun wildlife photographers one will notice numerous blurred movement images that technically would be slated by camera club enthusiasts and competition judges, but which are spoken about by the authors with pride. Give it a try, slow things down a touch. 

Thanks to a wonderful group of photographers this month. I loved your company and am looking forward to meeting some more of you in the Berg in a few week's time. Keep checking as well to see if I can post the call of the Greater Geared Photographer (Maioribus Apparatus pictor)