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.

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