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Wednesday, 08 July 2020


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Apologies for trivialising... but those first two images look like coronavirus on steroids.

[Maybe you haven't read the post yet? --Mike]

The second pole photo demonstrates the issue better not just because of the background, but because the changed shooting position places the pole in sunlight rather than shadow, further increasing the contrast between the pole and the dark trees.

On a more relevant note (compared with my previous comment) your examples remind me of H C-B's observation that you can change a photograph entirely by just moving your head a couple of inches. I always feel this is one of the reasons why prime lenses can help people develop their skills. They force you to frame by moving your viewpoint, rather than just zooming

It's funny you should mention that, because yesterday I was reading H.P. Robinson Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869), one of the earliest "manuals" of Pictorialism:

"Claude, Turner, and Rembrandt were alike in their management in one respect: they always forced the brilliance of their lights by the opposition of the strongest darks. When Claude and Turner represent the sun, they place near it their darkest dark."

This is from Chapter XXV, aptly named "Chiaroscuro—Detail or Definition", the whole thing being available freely from Google Books.

[I went through a period years ago when I did a lot of reading of old technical books and manuals. I learned when I was editing Photo Techniques that there's an awful lot of "reinventing the wheel" in photography—articles often devolved into disputations between experts who felt that they owned a certain idea because they had come up with it. Never mind that the same idea had been around in slightly different forms for a long time. I also wanted to get a feel for the history of technique and how it had evolved--what the trends were and what drove "progress." After a while I had had enough of that, but it was interesting for a while. The history of any area of expertise is always cast as a progression, but just as interesting is all the knowledge that is lost or simply not handed down or not disseminated widely enough for it to become "received wisdom." --Mike]

Ahh, the Düsseldorf slider where the photographer slides with their feet.

A valuable exercise, Mike, especially so now when, because of the pandemic, so many of us are working closer to home. My main subject these days is our 200-square-foot garden, which means I spend a lot of time trying to make new and hopefully more powerful and evocative images featuring the same material. I would also add that this is a diffrent exercise for those of us who shoot primarily black-and-white film--same idea, but diffrent variables.

Very true. Another exercise is to start paying attention to the corners of your photo, where your image ends- it will strengthen your overall compositions and help eliminate the need for constant cropping...

A trick/alternative, if you have a recent-ish Panasonic Lumix camera: set the viewfinder/display to monochrome. Then, it's nothing but tone. Sometimes, for me, the effect is "where'd my picture go?" as the object disappears into the background.

My first thought with the first telephone pole picture was "I've walked there," ... and I probably have.

I was quite amused by your statement,"But I know that most people will quit before two hours." But that is so true.

I have a simple way to prevent shooting fatigue. As a street photographer, I can deliberately look for a subject to shoot or I can wait for a shot to come along. As for the latter, I sometimes park myself in an inconspicuous corner and sip coffee and enjoy watching people. The best shots are taken when people don't take you seriously and when you use some crazy camera like a IIIf.

It's like fishing. Sometimes you catch some, other times you don't. But you still enjoy the solitude and watch the scenery.

That's a good exercise. Here are two more I recommend to beginners, whether they're using a camera or phone:

1. Look carefully at the subject and decide whether it's more suited to a vertical or horizontal orientation (e.g., "portrait" versus "landscape"). When using a camera, many snapshooters automatically photograph everything horizontally. They never think about turning the camera vertically. When using a phone, they automatically photograph everything vertically because that's how they look at their phones. (Kodak's solution in the 1960s was to invent the square Instamatic-126 format.)

2. When composing a picture, pay attention to the edges of the frame, not just the center. A typical beginner's mistake is to release the shutter as soon as the subject appears in the viewfinder or screen. It's like they're aiming a rifle. But photographs are made or broken at the edges. It's what we include and exclude that matters.

Those two hints are more important than trying to explain the Rule of Thirds or S-Curves or other compositional principles -- which aren't hard rules, anyway.

This is a very nice exercise...I never thought about it this way deliberately. But had I done this earlier I think many more of my photos would be more successful. Here I illustrate an example where the photo has not been very successful for this precise reason even though the subject matter is pretty strong: https://www.instagram.com/p/B41S9c2nK1Z/
But I also want to draw attention to another related point. Sometimes what doesn't work for color might work for black and white through the use of filters to control the contrast later, as I did in this particular case: https://www.instagram.com/p/B4dwZiQnbAm/ In this latter case, the color version does not set off the dancer well against a brightly lit sky and a somewhat darker bluish-green building. So I used a red filter (a virtual filter) to darken the sky and the background to change their contrast values. This is fairly easy these days in photoshop, but would it have worked with black and white film without the premeditated use of filters on camera?

When hiking and trying to take flower pictures I am aware of the background. Using the tripod I get set up then either have a friend shadow the background or set the ten second timer and do it myself. It helps make the wildflower in the wild “pop”, no clutter behind it. Clutter being distracting, bright bokeh spots.

Hmm. No?

Take your telephone pole shot, for instance. The light did not change, but your camera changed its reaction, based upon a scene analysis. Some of us argue that is the wrong thing to do.

This is a bit about dynamic range. One reason the camera is changing its response has to do with trying to put tonal values within a number range it thinks is in its dynamic range.

You say this is "seeing," but no it's not. It's a matter of learning how your camera responds to different scene information, not light.

[The pictures here are just illustrations. They don't matter. You could do this exercise while only looking through the viewfinder and not making exposures at all. --Mike]

Thank you. Excellent elementary exercise! Good to mention this 2-hour 'rule': learning is indeed also a matter of discipline.

When I was still working part of my job was to help non-photographers better handle a camera. To help them organize their thinking I gave them four steps to follow.
The four steps are Identify, Isolate, Compose and Expose.
First step is to ask yourself "what am I trying to do with this picture? What is the actual subject?".
The second is to use tools like framing, focal length, lighting and aperture to get everything out of the frame that doesn't advance the photograph.
The third step is to take the compositional elements you have and as John Cleese recommended with flowers "arrange them nicely in a vase".
And finally push the button.
You just did a grand job of outlining step two.

Funny you post this now--I just watched Sam Abell's 2015 lecture from B+H (after much balking due to its length) where he talked specifically about 'microcomposition'. His main point throughout was that he composed from back to front and then made his small movements to make sure the arrange was right.

The entire lecture is a masterclass and well worth sitting through, but the bit I found most exciting and I think most lines up with this post as a wonderful illustration is at 59 minutes:

The modern way to isolate subjects is to shoot at f1.2.

No movement or thought required.

It occurred to me recently how using 'slow' lenses forces you to think about the background.

Have 'fast' lenses become a crutch for some people?

Have you seen The Photographer's Playbook? It's essentially a collection of ideas like this, from a couple hundred of the best working photographers around. Really a remarkable book.

It is a good exercise, because it goes to the heart of how you organize a frame to tell the story you want to tell. That is a learned skill. Just like edge control. We can and should be mindful of all this while shooting , but if we’ve practiced the technique’alone’ it becomes easier to incorporate into our shooting.
For what it’s worth , I thought the pole was a particularly good illustration of the technique.
Even the finest Musicians play scales , it is a very big mistake to think we are above practice or ‘exercises’
Just look at Jim Richardson’s work . Another that comes to mind is Sam Abel’s rodeo masterpiece.
And what better time has there been to devote a couple of hours to seeing more expressively.

To photograph is simple. You buy a camera and point it at your subject. Then you press the button. "We do the rest, said Kodak"
But you have to be at exactly the right place and press the button at exactly the right moment. That is not easy.

How timely, Duke Pearon's "The Phantom" came up in rotation in my play list. Its album cover is an example of low tonal contrast: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00022LJNS

[I like Duke Pearson. He flies under the radar for most fans but his music can be very enjoyable. ...Speaking, though, as someone who has not heard all of his music by any means. --Mike]

also a good variation on this is to do it as a lighting exercise - separate a subject and background which don't contrast much by adding or subtracting a bit of light from one direction or another

My method is to squint; very much like using a DoF preview. The finer details of things tend to recede, bringing my attention to the tonal contrast. Funny enough, in this age of face coverings, I have been walking around without glasses—they can’t fog-up if they’re not getting blasted with my breath—and this also diminishes the fine details. So I guess I’m doing this exercise whether I want to or not.

I enjoy revisiting the basics. To those for which this exercise is new, you're one of today's lucky 10,000!


FWIW, this along with edge hygiene are the main compositional reasons I toss photos in the edit. I try to see this in the moment, but don't always succeed. I think a lot of people's photography would be improved significantly if they only paid attention to their foreground-background relationship.

This exercise also helps you think more deeply about your subject, since you now have to deliberately place it in a way that brings it out.

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