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.

Friday, March 30, 2012

How Do I Get My Photo’s To Look Like That

This piece could equally be labeled, “how do I get my images to look that sharp?”  I remember poring over images in photography magazines as a teenager and thinking that there must be something wrong with the equipment that I was using that the images I was producing weren’t as sharp or as crisp as those that I was seeing on those pages. This is a typical stage for most photographers to progress through. Our lens bag gets heavier and heavier as we buy more and more expensive optics to put on our cameras. At least in those days we couldn’t blame the sensor as the image quality was dependent on the lens and the film. Now we start to caste a suspicious eye towards our cameras, believing that the sensor must not be that great. The result is yet more money spent in the relentless quest to get our images looking like those in the magazines.

David du Chemin in his ebook, “  “ mentions how he wishes he could have gone back to a darkroom 20 years ago and advised the young David of the course he should take. I like the analogy. A younger me made a lot of mistakes based on false assumptions when it came to producing images that looked anything like those I was studiously scanning in the pages of Practical Photography (my friends jokingly referred to as ‘practical pornography’ in the less PC days of my youth as the cover was usually graced by the presence of a semi-clad feminine beauty), Outdoor Photography, PDN and Amateur Photographer. Like many others I nitpicked over the quality of my lenses, constantly feeling that they were inadequate for the purposes that I was putting them to. It’s taken me a decade and half to learn that I was starting from the wrong assumptions.

It’s not the gear! Yes there are lenses that are poor samples, but the vast majority of lenses are absolutely fine if used properly. If there is one thing you can do to make your images look more like those published in magazines, it’s to get the camera steady. This is the number one piece of advice I’ve learnt since I held my first SLR camera in my hands in the early 90’s. This doesn’t mean that you have to place the camera on a tripod for every shot, although using a tripod is good advice. It also doesn’t mean that your shutter speed has to be so blindingly that it’ll even freeze a photographer with caffeine jitters. It means doing your best to make sure that there is as little movement in the camera…unless you choose it to be so.
Here’s the other lesson that took me a while to grasp. There is no such thing as a technically perfect image. Every adjustment we make to a camera is going to change the way that the image ultimately looks. There is a difference between f4 and f2.8 and there is a difference between 1/60th of a second and 1/125th of a second. So what is a technically perfect image then? That taken at f4 or f2.8? It all comes down to the final image and the feel or aesthetic that it portrays.

So this takes me back to the previous paragraph; get the camera steady unless there is a reason not to have it steady. My event photography suddenly took off the moment I realized that blur and movement create a dynamic in the image that is lacking from those that show everything as pin sharp and static. Consider the opening image of this piece. The image is far from technically perfect, yet it is one of my favourite images of last year. There is blur and movement, but there is also sharpness where there needs to be sharpness.
To come back to getting your photos like those published in magazines. Clarity and sharpness are one of the most visible or noticeable aspects between our images as novices and those created by professionals and enthusiasts. Camera stability is central to this sharpness. Images that have bite tend to be those that are incredibly, mind-blowingly sharp. But incredible images aren’t always as technically perfect as this. Consider some of the top wildlife images of the last 15 or so years by the likes of Frans Lanting, Nick Nickols, Beverly Joubert, Flip Nicklen or …. Many of them are not ‘pin-sharp’, but the moment and the aesthetic overrides that concern. One of my favourite images by Frans Lanting is also the cover of his book, “Jungles”. It shows a red macaw flying at an angle beneath him in a diagonal direction across the frame. The shutter is dragged so that Lanting could pan with the bird in flight and flash burst has frozen the bird at the end of the exposure. There isn’t a single thing that is pin sharp in that image. If you look critically at it you will also notice that the bird’s eye is ever-so-slightly out of focus. Competitions and photography clubs would rack the image up as a nice try, but ultimately a missed shot. In reality the shot is astoundingly good. It’s beautiful. It does more than document the macaw flying over its natural habitat (the red against green being complementary colours allows the bird to positively burst from the page). It shows the essence of a macaw in the jungle, that flash of red and blur of wings in the dark green jungle canopy that is characteristic of the bright red bird.

In a sense this is a ‘how-to’ with a caveat. It also follows on from last month’s editorial (Finding Flow). Sharpness, or lack thereof, in an image is the number one let down to its effectiveness. Improving one’s images starts at this basic lesson. Get the camera steady. Understanding what the aperture is doing follows closely thereafter as the aperture is intimately linked with the perceived sharpness of an image. In many ways this follows on from the elements approach to photography that I have written about before. Sharpness is another one of the elements in the frame that we need to consider when creating our images. Do we want it critically sharp (usually the answer should be yes), or do we want to convey something else about the subject that blurred movement or even softness would convey more effectively. We need to make critical decisions as to what our images need to come out looking like, what they portray, to be able to get our photos looking more like those we pore over in photography magazines. Sharpness is a good start, and the most visible one at that. Thereafter we need to create images with intent.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Blindness of Familiarity – March Drakensberg Workshop.

After another fantastic weekend in the Drakensberg with a dynamic and energetic group of photographers I’m left feeling amazed that what I do is still called work. Waking up this morning I wandered down to the Witsieshoek lodge to write this piece and wait for the others, and I saw the sun rising between two layers of cloud in the distance. Because of the cloud and the atmosphere the red orb seemed twice as large as one ordinarily sees. The Amphitheatre, standing almost aloof was facing the rising sun, seemed almost ethereal…maybe Tolkinesque, in its blue morning haze. This is work? Being a photographer has its downsides. There’s the almost incessant travel away from a young family (I am continuously amazed at how my eldest daughter seems to take my disappearances in her stride, almost as a way of life) and of course the drudgery of key-wording. But when you are faced with the splendor of the mountain and the chance to meet so many amazing people… Like I say, is this really work?

Martijn van Schaik, a member of African Impact was a guest with us last year March. His request this year as a staff member on the trip was that everything be as close to last year’s trip as possible – for his anniversary of the Berg. It was. I’ve added last year’s photo of the group looking out from the viewponi above the Witches to this year’s photo. It seems almost as if the images could have been taken a few minutes apart rather than the 12 months that do separate them. To say that the weather was similar would be an understatement. It was hauntingly the same, even adding the cloud wrapping round us as we made our way off the ladder and onto the escarpment.

As a landscape photographer it is often easy to fall into the trap of over-previsualising the imagery we strive to create. I definitely fall foul of this, and I find that it becomes harder when I return to a place often. Pre-visualisation, as I often mention, is the attempt to see the final image in the mind’s eye before we press the shutter. It is the technical previsualisation of the scene that guides us as to how to expose for the image. What should the aperture be, how will I handle the shutter speed etc. Each of these technical decisions has an impact on the look of the final image. It’s the aesthetic previsualisation where we can start to become lazy. Because I know the route so well that we take the photographers on I often fall into the trap of looking for predetermined images. This is a problem as it means that I am inadvertently closing myself off to new images, for the spur of the moment. I would love to point to an image from this trip that is a good example of having just broken the norm, but I can’t. The realization was while looking at the photographers work last night before dinner. As is usual we each present a few of the images from the weekend. The quality of the work was very high, such that a number of the images were the sort that one feels the inner photo gremlin grumbling, ‘wish I taken that’. Then there were two of Martijn’s images that made me sit up and go, “wow, why didn’t I see that” (he does admit that the cloud shot was pre-meditated, but the point is that fresh eyes look differently at the scene). I didn’t even notice the horses on the ridge line as we walked from the top of the Tugela Falls back to the ladder. I didn’t notice because I was pre-occupied with other images that I had already captured, or that I was still thinking about.

As fresh travelers photographers are definitely more open to image suggestions. They see things with a new eye. They see things like a child would occasionally, with wonder. When we grow up we become jaded and cynical and stop looking at the world with the questioning gaze of the youth. In the same way that we stop looking at the world on our way to work, we stop looking for new things when we return to a scene regularly. This is ironic as looking at things in new ways is something that I, and many other photographers strive to do. So I leant a valuable lesson. Although I am relatively happy with some of the images that I created, there isn’t anything particularly new about them. I’ll be putting more energy in future into doing as preach…looking at the world like a ten year-old, or a traveler in a new land. Hopefully I start seeing again. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Updated Workshops

In lieu of a full blog post (I am currently on leave meeting my new niece Saskia), here's a quick update on upcoming workshops. You can see the current workshop list by clicking though to the website on the tab at the top of this blog or by hitting this link. I have also been updating the Nikon/Canon camera page on the website. The page isn't complete as of writing this blogpost, but it at least lists the more recent announcements. I'll be posting in more depth when I get back from this weekend's Drakensberg workshop with African Impact.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

March Thanda Workshop and a tip on group photos

So the Cyclone Irene blew in and blew out and caused a few hiccups along it's progress down the east coast of  South Africa. In the end it was a bit of a non-event for many people who were expecting storms along the lines of those felt during Demoina in 1984. In the province 5 people lost their lives...almost all of them while trying to cross swollen rivers. But, for most people it was one big rain storm that lashed the coast with buckets of water. So it meant that the usually dry Thanda Game Reserve was somewhat wetter when I arrived on Monday morning.

The African sun did it's work though, and by Tuesday morning game drives were out in full force once more, seeking out some slightly damp mammalian subjects. Due to the all the rain, slightings were down considering that there was water everywhere (which is great for the reserve, but ironically they still need more, despite almost 170ml falling in less than a day). The latest addition to the reserve, a large male lion brought from Shamwari Game Reserve no doubt has had a rough month what with the weather and the sudden change in scenery.

One of the things that I regularly do is capture a group photograph of the workshop photographers (usually without me in it, but sometimes with). The hardest thing about this is trying to come up with a new idea each time. Here's the process for this one: We were out on King's Land for a sunset shoot, for which sun decided not to keep it's appointment. Still, the light was interesting and the clouds looked pretty cool (as can be seen from the panoramic shot of our new guide Simo standing on the edge of one of the water tanks at Twin Drum on King's Land). Once everybody was finished with their shots I quickly got them all onto the lip of one of the water tanks via the game viewer, which I promptly removed from the shot while they all yelled at me how narrow the edge of the dam was. I had set up two strobes, an SB600 and SB800 each cable-tied to a tripod and facing in at about 45 degrees. I wasn't really going for intricate lighting. all I wanted was relatively full lighting to overpower the ambient - which I got. So ambient was underexposed by about 1.5 stops, maybe 2, while the flashes were set to 1/2 manual and triggered via CLS (and the pop-up flash of my D700). I kept the aperture pretty wide at f5.6 and set ISO to 400 (didn't want to tax the small flashes as they were set away a little from the group themselves as I wanted the light to have a longer fall-off.

Group shots need to be more interesting than the usual, 'stand and say cheese' shot that seems obligatory. Another group shot had us doing the usual painting with light which I love. Problem was that the moon was so bright that it practically made the sky turn into daylight with any particularly long exposures. I duffed this shot as I usually take my time to paint, but this time rushed it as I didn't want the moon to blow out too much (I also dropped the aperture to f11 at 100ISO in an attempt to keep the ambient dark while still allowing enough open aperture to effectively paint - not my finest work but it still looks pretty cool). Using the surroundings like this is one way to make a group shot stand out. Getting the lighting a little more interesting than looking straight into the sun (as the old film canister boxes used to recommend, paraphrased, "set the camera to f16 at 1/125 second with the sun behind you"). It doesn't have to be complex, just different.  Using the frame of a door is a great way to use the surroundings (see this post or this post). Getting in low is another useful to change the viewpoint  from the ordinary (see this post). You can also get them to do something silly (such as in this post) or jump up in the air (such as here). Whatever you do keep a sense of fun in the shot and it's bound to succeed. Anything to steer away from the usual standing in a line shot that anybody with a cellphone camera can achieve. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Finding Flow

One of the interesting things about digital photography is hoe technical it is. It’s a misnomer to think that digital photography has made the picture taking process easier. Far from it in fact. When the average family photographer was shooting on film, it was likely that the images would go from camera to lab to family album or picture frame without much of an interlude between. Now however, the image goes from camera to computer, through a couple of software hoops, out onto the net and only then maybe into a picture frame. But this is just the life of the image. The creation of the image has, for the average photographer, also gotten more complicated.

Let’s forget about technical photographers who were concerned with things like the zone system for metering, the scheimflug effect for focusing and other such technicalities. For most people shooting on a 35mm camera system, a modicum of exposure knowledge and judicious bracketing were enough. Digital changed that. For a start, more people now want to be able to take better pictures. The wonder of the LCD screen is the biggest culprit for this in my opinion. The plethora of photographic workshops that now exist is evidence of the desire to be better that is felt by just about everybody. In the 90s you didn’t really consider going on a workshop if all you shot with was a point and shoot camera. Today, I regularly get emails from people shooting on point and shoot cameras enquiring about photography workshops. The irony is that digital promises to be easier than film, but people then get hung up on the technical side of digital.

I for one am guilty of being a technophile. A number of very good photographic friends have pointed out, not unkindly, that my images are always extraordinarily technical in their nature. It’s said as a compliment, but increasingly I wonder if this is perhaps a bad thing. Getting lost in the technical side of the camera can lead to losing sight of the some of the unique properties of the photographic medium. I’m not alone in this guilt. Just about every photographer who has moaned about the low-light abilities of a camera is in the same boat. We moan about a camera that only shoots cleanly to 800 ISO or even 1600 ISO. Come on! Think about it. Ten years ago if we were shooting on film, 400 ISO was pretty much the maximum you could go on 35mm transparency before grain became a central feature of the image. Think about all those images you might have seen in photography books and magazines that were so grainy it looked like they had been printed on a layer of sand. Did we chuck them out as duds. No, we purposely stuffed our FM2s and OM4s (or if you were starting out a K1000) with Kodak Tri-X (3200 ISO) which made created images that looked more like lithographs made of ground pepper (I rather enjoyed pushing Ilford Delta to 800ASA which married a lovely filmic grain with reasonable detail).

I am even more guilty of this when it comes to composition. Like a great many technical photographers I have an affinity with the pre-visualist style of photography that sees photography as another arm of the traditional print arts. Students of mine will know of the hysterical rant that I sometimes enter into when discussing post-visualisation which is more concerned with the unique properties of the photographic medium, in particular the ability to capture an unmediated slice of time from its inexorable march onward. The ‘snapshot’ became synonymous with this school of thought. My problem with it lies not in the style of photography itself, but in the way that young college students get it drilled into them by lecturers. The result is an army of visually talented but technically unskilled photographers who think they are the next Gary Winograd by shooting a roll of film on a Holga. Utter rubbish.

But…there is something to be said of the freedom that comes with letting go of the technical. Freestyle photography if you will. Only, it’s extraordinarily difficult for someone who has learned to be technically refined to ‘let go’. In a way it’s easier for someone who is trying to learn photography. Happy accidents occur regularly. Oddly they start to disappear the better the photographer becomes. The more controlled the photographer, the more disastrous the accidents.

One of the best books I have ever read (I believe it is now available as an app for ipad) is Jim Brandenburg’s ‘Chased By The Light’. His 90 day photographic project, odyssey actually, had him shoot only one frame a day. No others were allowed, not even to ensure the correct exposure. His images are technically flawless (most of them at any rate), but evince something of that captured moment, that is so often lacking from technical images. He is one of the living masters and knows his craft better than most. For him the technical is probably no longer even a concern. Composition and craft are like breathing. So he is now able to concentrate on the moment, of the flow around him, and forget about the technicalities. Or so the images suggest.

The point of all this is really that we should, just for one day perhaps, forget about trying to get everything right in a photograph. We fuss about the details, which is a good thing, but we often lose sight of the beauty around us. Maybe letting go and playing is a good idea. Try that camera phone maybe. Or be like the crazy college student and have a go with the Holga. I personally am eying out some film in the fridge that is long past its expiry date, but would still work absolutely fine in my old FE2. Funny thing is I trusted the meter on the old camera more than I do on my modern DSLR (the joys of an LCD screen to chimp). Maybe finding flow is in not being able to control everything, because in a way that’s exactly what digital has given us. Complete control.