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.

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!