Monday, May 18, 2009

How much photographic equipment do you need?

Part of our old Hasselblad system in its case

Many of us photographers get a little carried away with all the cool gadgets, equipment and cameras. We end up with lots of stuff – sometimes causing mild distress to our partners. Fortunately my wife is also a photographer although she takes a very practical approach to equipment. I’m definitely the Magpie in our family.

So I’ve ended up with truck loads of cameras and gadgets. And guaranteed when I open a photo magazine tomorrow I’ll see something else that ‘I need’. I’m sure that many of my readers will be nodding their heads wistfully at this stage. All sounds a bit familiar eh.

But sometimes all of this stuff can get in the way of good photography. I remember seeing a photographer in the street a while back with a backpack, a camera bag in each hand and a tripod, and two cameras dangling round his neck. The poor chap could hardly move, never mind capture the action on the street. He decided to go for a tripod shot and then spent 15 minutes struggling with various bits and pieces on his tripod and changing lenses – opening this bag and then that one, shifting things around. In the meantime several really interesting people walked by but he had his head down busy with his stuff. I stood there and shook my head in wonder. After 15 minutes of watching him fussing and not taking a single shot, I gave up and wandered off.

So what should you take with you on a photo-shoot. Well it very much depends on what you want to do. If you’ve got a big production ala Annie Liebowitz then you’ll need an articulated lorry. If you’re into flash and bringing your own light to the party like David Hobby or Joe McNally then a few bags of flashes and lighting paraphernalia are the norm. For photojournalists like James Nachtwey a camera and a 28-70 F2.8 will do nicely, or Steve McCurry – travelling light with his camera and three fixed lenses. Cartier Bresson famously took most of his images on his Leica with a standard lens.

The key questions to ask yourself are:
  • What type of image am I after?
  • What is the environment going to be like?
  • Will I have somewhere to leave my equipment safely or will I need to travel light and move fast?
  • What is going to cause me more hindrance than it is worth?
  • If I leave xyz behind will that kill my chances of getting a good shot?
Am I going to swamp eBay with all my stuff now? Nope. I’ll be keeping it just in case, ahem… but I do think very carefully whether I need to take something with me and I go through the questions above every time I pack my bags.

Here’s another tip for you. If you’re travelling and don’t want to risk lots of expensive equipment in the aircraft hold then you may want to investigate hiring stuff when you arrive on location. It can save a lot of headaches.

Till soon,
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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Beware of wide-angle distortion in portrait photography

The traditional wisdom is to shoot portraits on lenses ranging from 85mm to 120mm focal length when using a 35mm film or full frame DSLR camera. The reason is simple. You avoid distortion, and because of the slight compression produced by a telephoto lens the portrait tends to be more flattering.

However, in the world of photojournalism and reportage style photography wide-angle lenses are commonly used to give the viewer a feeling of being right in the middle of the action.

Nowadays in everything from weddings to corporate work, photographers reach for their wide-angle lenses and because we see so many images in magazines, books and online most people have grown accustomed to wide-angle distortion. It has become more acceptable to see celebrities, politicians and people featured in news stories looking slightly distorted.

I say more acceptable because we’ve gotten used to it. But at the same time I’d like to urge you to be cautious about how you use your wide-angle when it comes to photographing people.

I work with a business communications company and the company was in the news recently. A national UK newspaper wanted to run a story and they sent their own photographer to take a portrait of the Managing Director. This was a well respected, highly experienced photojournalist with many a story under his belt. He opted to shoot with a really wide-angle lens, capturing the MD in the foreground and his staff at their desks behind him. The newspaper ran the story and I’m sure that the readers just saw it as another typical news photograph.

However behind the scenes the staff of the company, family and friends all hated the picture. One of the directors commented that the MD looked like he’d been “photographed on the back of a spoon”. His face was distorted and anyone who knows him in the flesh would say that the image did not really look him, and it certainly was not very flattering.

Now if I had shot that portrait for the company’s annual report, do you think I would get another job with them? Of course not.

So the message of this blog is to use your wide-angle with care when photographing people. In certain circumstances you can get away with it. But overall if you want to take corporate portraits, or family portraits, wedding reportage etc do be careful about putting people’s faces close to the edge of the frame. That’s where wide-angle distortion tends to be worst.

The trick to using a wide-angle for a portrait is to keep your subject close to the centre of the frame, and also don’t press the lens right up against their nose. Play to the strengths of the wide- angle and let it do its work by showing the context around the person you’re photographing. After all that’s what wide-angles were designed to do – show everything in the scene while working reasonably close to your subject.

Unless of course you want to do a really wacky humorous image and your aim is to make it look like you photographed someone through a ‘door spy’ lens.

One of the greatest photojournalist portrait photographers in the world, Steve McCurry uses a few prime lenses, the widest is a 28mm and the longest is 105mm. Many of his famous portraits were shot on a standard 50mm lens (a 35mm gives you approximately the same focal length on a digital camera with a crop sensor). Others were taken on his 85mm and 105mm lenses.

As with all things photographic there are no absolute rules that we should slavishly follow. All I’m trying to say is beware and think about distortion. If you want to take a flattering, authentic portrait then the old conventional wisdom of not using a wide-angle holds true in most cases.

Also do not be afraid to put your subject in the middle of the frame. Many people harp on about the rule of thirds, which works a treat when you’ve got a scene and you want to control the viewer’s eye and get them to look at your focal point in the scene. But if you’re photographing a person and they are clearly the subject of photograph, then there’s a definite logic that says they have every reason to be in the middle of the frame. Don’t take my word for it. Just look at any master portrait photographer’s body of work.

Till soon,

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Do you speak light?

The prow of a fishing boat is caught in evening sunlight, as dark storm clouds approach. Note the warmth of the low sunlight, the contrast against the sky, the texture of the hull and the interesting shadows on the mast. This is a straight shot from the camera, without any enhancement in image manipulation software.

Light is the language of photography. To express yourself well and communicate you need to be able to speak with light.

Light determines what you see (and what you don’t see); the mood of an image; colour and tone. Light can be loud and brash or soft, gentle and soothing. It can wrap around something or cut across it as hard and sharp as a Samurai sword.

People have probably been writing about the qualities of light and how to use it in relation to photography from the moment the first print was made. Google “light in photography” and you will get millions of hits (well actually 68,800,000 hits to be entirely accurate).

In the past I’ve been complimented for explaining things clearly in plain language. So here goes on the subject of light…

Things to consider about lighting when you are about to make a photograph:

  • What do I want to communicate about my subject? Consider, personality, mood, clarity, what you want to emphasise?
  • What do you want to show and what do you want to hide?
  • Pick your view point with the light in mind. Can you control the light within your frame? Can you make it say what you want it to say about your subject?
  • How can you improve the light? By adding flash, using constant light sources, bouncing light, using reflectors, covering windows with a translucent material, using black cloth to absorb light, using Gobos and flags between the light source and subject, using gels, waiting for a different time of day etc

Here’s some layman’s science to help you understand light

The size of the light source and its distance to the subject affect how hard or soft it is and how deep the shadows will be. A larger light source like a softbox, large window, umbrella flash or bounced flash will produce a softer light. The smaller the light source the harder the light and stronger the shadows. Diffusion simply comes down to making a light source bigger in relation to the subject.

Light always hits your subject at an angle, whether it is straight from the front, at 90 degrees, behind, top, bottom or from many angles simultaneously. The angle of the light dramatically affects the look of the subject.

Light has colour, specifically it has a colour temperature, which means it can be warm, cool or neutral. The colour we see depends on the wavelength of the light reflected off the object we are looking at. Colour deeply affects our emotions. Warm colours seem to come forward while cold colours recede. Using colour of light in this way is a classic way to create a sense of depth and visual tension in an image.

The quality of the light will be affected by its intensity. For example the same flash reflected off a silver umbrella has a harsher quality than if it were reflected off a white umbrella surface.

So if you want to speak the language of light here’s a quick checklist you should run in your head:

  1. How intense does the light need to be?
  2. What is the best angle for the light?
  3. What colour/s do I want?
  4. What size light source?
  5. What can I do to control and enhance the light?

Just remember every element above needs to contribute to the emotion you are aiming to communicate. Think of light as the language you are using to describe your subject; quite literally to show the viewer what you want them to see – nothing more and nothing less.

Controlling light and getting it do what you want it to is a technical art. It is not easy. But with perseverance, determination, close observation and loads of experience you will begin to master it. After all my years as a photographer I am still learning the language of light every day and this journey will continue until I shoot my last frame.

As ever, I hope you find my blog helpful and your comments are always welcome.


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