Thursday, December 29, 2011

P22: positioning the sun

Hiding the sun in the frame, behind something large enough to obscure the sun ball but not enough to block the sun rays, is a technique I have been using frequently during the last few months.  I want the impact of the brightness of a sun low in the sky, but not the full glare of the unobstructed disk.  I have used a number of techniques to reduce the direct glare, fog and trees being the main ones.  The suggestion in the text is to use tree leaves, however, in late December that is not really an option for me any longer.  I have, however, used this in the past:

In each of these photographs prepared for "The Art of photography" I have used the sun to back light the leaves and make them glow.  This is not quite the effect looked for here, but is a useful use of direct sun to create dramatic effect in photographs.

More recently i have been using the sun as a point source of light in my transient light set.  In the first image I have very deliberately exposed for the foreground blowing out the sky.  However, with very little sky in the image this is not a major issue.

In the  next image I have placed the sun directly behind the large tree to the left of frame, providing a nice graduated fall off in the darkness of the sky as we move to the right of the frame.

For the next two I was beginning to explore the shadowing of the sun on a frozen reflective ground, the warmth of the sun being captured in the grassy field.  In both cases the sun is too central in the frame and so the rendition of the sky is not so strong as when I placed the sun in a corner of the frame.

An alternative approach to a centrally lit shot is to expose for the background, in which case the foreground is very dark and detail is lost in the shadows.  Whilst dramatic, this is not as satisfying an image.

Placing the sun to one side of the frame and then obscuring it in some way can produce dramatic effect, although one that can easily be overdone.  I do want to include an image of this nature in my submission for Assignment 3, but need to do so with great care.  The challenge is to balance the strong sun lit image with the softer misty shots.


  1. To capture the tonality of the sky it is important to diminish the impact of the sun by using a wide angle lens, obscuring the sun ball and placing the sun into the corner of the frame

X100 Low Light Tests

In my last blog entry I used my new Fujifilm X100 to shoot a series of photographs with strong silhouettes and reflections.  I also used the camera to extend my dawn light extended project.  In both of these cases the available light was quite strong and most of the photographs were made between ISO200 and 400, ISO200 being the lowest "normal" ISO setting for the camera.  As expected the image quality was good and noise non existent.

A good start, but fairly benign testing conditions. Last night I tried a few shots in far more testing conditions, shooting after sun set and in completely artificial street lighting.  My goal was to understand the image quality in low light and how well I could hand hold the camera in these conditions.  I set the ISO to Auto with a minimum shutter speed of 1/60s.  In these conditions the camera will set the ISO to the lowest possible level, but maintain a minimum shutter speed.  As the lens is a 35mm equivalent, 1/60s gives a good level of security to minimize hand shake.  The upper limit is set to ISO3200 at which point the camera will permit a shutter speed longer than 1/60s.  I commonly adopt a similar strategy on the 5D2 as I can trust the higher ISO image quality, floating the ISO permits concentration on composition, not technical issues.

My first example is a straightforward test of the noise at high ISO.  I shot the following in dusk light at f/5.6, ISO3200 and 1/10s, so at the extreme end of handheld capabilities.  As a reduced size JPG (with no processing), the image looks fine if a little flat due to the lighting.

However, what really impressed me was the following 100% enlargement.  Clearly this shows some noise, but very tolerable and well within the processing capabilities that Lightroom could provide for noise reduction.

Following are a sequence taken within 30 minutes of each other walking into the city, with differing low lighting.  All have been processed for colour with noise reduction applied as needed.

 f/5.6, 1/105s, ISO200

 f/2, 1/60s, ISO200

 f/2, 1/60s, ISO1600

 f/2, 1/60s, ISO1000

f/2, 1/60s, ISO800

From this exercise my confidence in the cameras capabilities is increasing, high ISO is relatively noise free and colour management is good.  The 35mm viewpoint is still growing on me, I have long enjoyed using a 35mm equivalent prime, I have a 30mm for my Samsung NX100 and a 35mm for my Canon 5D2.  Another aspect of the camera that has surprised me is the hand hold capability.  The camera has no image stabilization (something I think would have been an enhancement), however, the camera is very solid in the hand, plus the shooting poise of bringing the camera to the eye provides stability.  The lower weight versus the 5D2 also reduces camera shake, but is not so low.

I now have full confidence that this little throwback of a camera can deliver results in line with far larger DSLRs and be a serious part of my photographic tool kit.  In particular walking long distances without the weight of a full size DSLR is a great boon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

P21: silhouettes and reflections

At this time of year the sun is almost always low in the sky, making the creation of imagery including silouhettes, sun stars and reflections fairly straightforward.  In fact, I am finding it hard to create anything very much different from these effects. This is playing well into my Dawn/Transient light theme for assignment 3.

Another boost to my work and enthusiasm has been one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received, a Fujifilm Finepix X100.  This modern reinterpretation of the classic rangefinder has provided me with a small compact camera delivering excellent quality images.
The lens is a fast f/2 fixed focal length 23mm optic, delivering an image equivalent to 35mm on a full frame camera.  35mm is an excellent compromise offering a slightly wide angle view, working well with landscape, but also ideal for candid street work.  This camera will prove an excellent tool for Social Documentary.  In the mean time I have shot this project with the X100 to get a feel for the camera and see how it compares to my 5D2.

The project called for shots of a silhouetted landscape which included a strong reflection in the foreground.  The best location for this is the lake opposite to the Seehaus beer garden, although on my way I also shot a sequence over the river Isar.  I chose a late afternoon time when the sun would be dropping close to the horizon.  My first task was to shoot a number of sequences with +2, +1, 0, -1, and -2 eV exposure compensation.  I metered the scene without any special adjustment for the sun.  I have selected 3 of these sequences:
Looking at each sequence the best combination of light and dark appears to come from the exposure with -1eV compensation.  As the text suggests the darker the shot, the harder it is to make out the silhouette, however, these photographs have no post processing:

Adding some foreground light and adjusting the contrast has better balanced the image.  In the age of digital my approach to this kind of image would be to automatically bracket the image around an average exposure, reviewing both the shot and histogram immediately after capture.

Not content with these images I headed back to the park the following morning to further test the camera and also continue my Transient Light work.  I deliberately looked for images that combine silhouette with reflection, but this time without the help of a large lake.  My first image is pre-dawn, so no sun stars and the silhouette is used to add some depth to what would otherwise be a very bland image

Moving into a position to capture the rising sun as it shone behind single or multiple trees, I captured the following . I have very deliberately used the silhouette of the trees to add drama to the image:

I was also lucky to see ground fog once again, first time for at least 4 weeks.

In all of these shots I have taken advantage of the mist to create shadows in the trees.  The next photograph tries to extend the graphical element of the sun star into the tree shadows.  This is a possible addition to the keepers list for assignment 3.

 I also tried out the new camera with a few shots in the mode of assignment 3, but not in the context of this project:

All of these are pretty much as I would have expected from the 5D. I also shot a number of frames of subjects without any connection to the course, just looking at the cameras abilities.  This is a curious crow that thought I might be carrying some food.

Next I shot a couple of woodland scenes to check out the colour and detail capture.

Some buildings:

And finally detail of a bush covered in frost

The camera delivers super colour, although quite different from the Canon, the blues in particular have a richer look. The smaller sensor does mean that I have less scope to crop, so I have to be careful to get the composition right at the time of shooting. The lens is sharp and capable of the degree of detail I need, although I would not be using this camera for macro work. The fixed focal length changes the way I work, composition requires more thought and physical positioning.

Overall the camera is a joy to use and very intuitive, I could use it with confidence within minutes of picking it up.  The controls are obvious and tactile, Aperture is changed by rotating a device on the lens barrel, Speed with a surface mounted dial.  In all a 1950's camera containing 2011 technology!  

Back to the project - a good exercise, one that builds upon stylistic elements that I have been including in my imagery during the last few months.  Not a lot of new ground, but useful reinforcement.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Context and Narrative

A noticeable difference in my working practice since starting this course has been the need to contextualize my work and to provide a robust narrative to each photograph and to the set as a whole.  In the first year courses I found myself primarily concerned with the formal aspects of composition and managing image quality from capture through to print.  Whilst these skills are of great importance and still in need of further development, they are no longer enough to create a photograph that has meaning for me, let alone my audience.  Prior to studying photography as an art form, I would have said that composition and image quality were the be all and end all of what I wanted in a photograph.  Now I see the world very differently.

The big question when I take a photograph now is WHY, not WHAT, WHERE, or HOW.

With the last two assignments, I have undertaken difficult stories born in terrible catastrophe, trying to show through my photographs how Munich has moved from the dark into the light.  Taking the photographs was only an element of the activity, equally important was to research the history and then work out how to weave a story in the photographs.  The subject matter was risky, a Brit living in Germany commenting on Munich's Nazi past must do so with respect for both the victims, but also the descendants of the perpetrators who are equally as innocent.  A key outcome of this experience was that choosing a photograph for display had as much to do with the viewer as it did with the subject.  In both assignments I shot well over 1,000 frames and had in the region of 50 good photographs.  Reducing them to the 12 needed was very hard, far harder than taking them in the first place.  This gets to the WHY of photography, why I take the photographs is one thing, why I chose this shot versus another to display and why I place them in this order can determine whether a viewer accepts my images or simply passes them by.

Looking back I can say that Context dealt with why I took the photographs and selected this subject, Narrative determined why I selected the 12 I did and the order that I then placed them in.  As I work on assignment 3 I am finding that this awakening of awareness of the importance of Narrative and Context is making progress very difficult.  When I started this project the goal was simply to study the changing light of dawn and its interaction with the humid air of Autumn.  As the photographs developed, I found that I was building a sequence of images, from the bleak whiteness of pre-dawn mist into the light enfused golden glow of dawn and finally into the blue of early morning.  This developed into a sequence of 54 photographs, published as a book.  The narrative is simple, it is the awakening of the day and the study of light arriving in a new day.  Context is provided by shooting all photographs in one small quarter of a city park, a demonstration of the beauty that can be found in a small area of a vast city.

However, the assignment calls for 8 differing photographs with a linking theme.  I can do that, but this seems to be an exercise in illustration, losing the subject contact that continuity in the images could bring to my work.  I feel I have the versatility to show a broad span of lighting conditions, but every time I look at the photographs together they do not work as a set, context exists, but narrative is killed.  Perhaps that is the nature of this assignment, however, my head is somewhere else, I want each assignment to be a photo essay, not a series of technical challenges.  This will need more development over the next 3 weeks before the deadline for submission arrives.

An unexpected outcome of my increasing awareness of the critical importance of Context and Narrative is a changing feeling about the equipment I use.  Over the last 3 years I have been adding a progressively expensive array of lenses to my kit, mostly fast primes, seeking to optimize image quality in any given situation.  In the last 8 weeks I have almost only used an f/4 24-105mm zoom, a damn good lens, but far from the best.  However, what I trade in quality, I get back in versatility, enabling me to better capture my inner vision of the photograph, worrying less about aperture, speed, and quality, more about does the photograph contain the message I want to  deliver. Interesting..

Oh, and prior to submitting my last assignment I read the following:

Basics Creative Photography 02: Context and Narrative

This helped me to develop many of the thoughts I have expressed here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

P20: sun stars and diffraction

Heading deeply into photographic cliche, this project asks for a study of sun stars and the affect of differing aperture on the sun stars.  Sun stars have there place in the photographic lexicon, just not quite sure where in mine.  Unlike other projects I did not set out specifically one day to study sun stars, but did have this in mind as I worked on the images for the Transient Light project.  As my goal was to shoot early in the morning and study the way in which the sun slowly changes the lighting as it rises above the horizon and then above the tree/building line, there were plenty of occasions when sun stars could be captured.

On the whole I try to avoid sun stars, not simply for aesthetic reasons, but also because they are generally accompanied by a lot of artifacts created by the bright light of the sun reflecting within the elements of the lens.  Even the highest quality properly coated elements will generate some flare when directly imaging the sun.  The first pair of photographs illustrates this issue quite well:

The first image is f/4, the second f/22, the limits of the 24-105mm zoom I am currently using.  The Sun is almost central to the frame and generating a strong halo as well as all sorts of other artifacts.  The second shot shows much greater "light noise" probably a reminder that I need to clean this lens.  When I started on the early morning shots I removed the UV filter from the lens as I knew this would create problems with flare.  However, what these two shots also clearly show is the affect of aperture on the sun star.  The very much narrower f/22 has generated a much more precisely defined star and one that fills a good proportion of the frame.

The next sequence takes a slightly different view, with the sun shining through some trees rather then being imaged directly.  Here I have taken the aperture through 4 stops, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22.

With each shot the star progressively expands in size and tightens in shape.  I presume the sun star is an artifact of light diffraction as it passes the sharp blades of the aperture, the smaller the hole subtended the larger the effect.

The brief asked for comparison between a wide and normal lens, I did not do that, but did look at the effect generated by a different camera, this time an APS-C mirrorless compact.  Focal length is pretty much the same as the 24mm above (16mm on a 1.5x crop).  Shot directly into the sun on a clear blue sky at f/8, the sun star is distinctly different in shape and form, no where near as satisfying a shape as the Canon lens used earlier.  Executing an effective sun star is more than simply framing, focal length, and exposure, the very nature of the construction of the lens will impact the quality of the photograph.

OK, so I can do sun stars, big deal - it is how they are used for effect that interests me, and counter to the suggestion that these need to be created on a clear day, a hint of fog dramatically improves the effect.  The shot below was captured just after dawn at f/11, an attempt to combine the explosion of morning with the mist and reflection in the water.  Here the sun star is very evident, but muted, softened by the mist.  I very much prefer this softer approach to the harsh crisp sun stars of the earlier photos. This shot is a strong candidate for my Transient Light Assignment 3.

Taking it a step further, the following shot goes to a further abstraction of the sun burst effect, with the suns rays illuminating the shadow around a tree.  In this case I think we are looking at the actual effect of the sun, not an artifact of lens design.

The last word, though, needs to go to the sun, and the fact that a sun star is an artifact used for dramatic effect, I find the orb of the sun far more satisfying than the star burst.  Here the sinking sun is diffusing through low cloud into an almost perfect sphere, radiating a fiery red warmth.  Another candidate for my transient light set and one that uses no trickery (well it will one Photoshop removes the cranes).

Strange exercise and difficult to place the learning into the context of the own practice.  Next stop silhouettes, hang on a minute, just done that.  These projects are weird.

Key Learning:

  1. Do not use sun stars in my photography, unless very subtly applied
  2. Clean my bloody lenses once in a while

Assignment 2: Tutor Feedback

The most important element of the feedback was the sense that Alan had understood the point of the set, the message of rebirth and a new sense of what it is to be German, set against the evils of the past.  He thought all of the images, with a single exception were well composed and technically competent.  Overall another successful assignment and I am well pleased with the feedback.

The image that did not meet the standard of the other is the following:

This is interesting to me as it points to my weaknesses.  I thought this was one of the best images in the set, I like the tension brought by the figures surrounding the empty space, no one engaging with the camera, it looks tense. However, it does not communicate the sense of comfort within the space for which the photograph was selected.  The children playing suggest rebirth, however, they do look rather odd.  I am replacing that image with the following:

This is a much cleaner image, containing a series of highly organized elements, yet broken up by the casual presence of yet more bicycles.  The people add movement and their comfortable postures add to the idea that the Munich Synagogue is now a part of the city, not a threatening reminder of past evil.

This was by far the most challenging set of photographs I have worked on, both technically and intellectually.  I am very please at my tutors feedback and also positive encouragement from other people who have seen the work.

Alan suggested that I spend some time reading Image Makers Image Takers: by Anne-Celine Jaeger.  Now sitting on my shelf of unread books, this is another reminder of a need to contextualize my work against that of others.

DPP Results and Reading

Good news and bad.  I passed DPP with a decent grade, 71%, technically a 1st, but a grade that hid some issues.  Looking at the individual marks:

  • Skills 16/20
  • Knowledge 16/20
  • Invention 15/20
  • Communication 12/20
  • Judgement (as demonstrated in Learning Logs) 12/20
The first 3 marks are very encouraging, however, the final two 12's are not where I want to be, and I need to consider how to improve my performance in those areas.  The comment from the examiner points to the problem:
"You can progress by continuing to deepen your understanding of the culture and history of photography; in order for you to locate your work within it and aid the discovery of developmental pathways"
I have been aware for some time, that whilst I am deeply engaged in the conceptual development and execution of assignments, I am not spending enough time looking around me at what other photographers are doing and why they are doing it.  I subscribe to BJP and Aperture, but am still immediately drawn to the technical side of the content.  I also have shelves full of photography books awaiting a critical appraisal and write up in my blog.  The outcome is that I am growing technically and am very satisfied with my own capabilities, however, I am not contextualizing what I am doing

Turning back to the examiners feedback, I think I am getting to grips with communication in my work, the last two assignments have been much stronger from a narrative standpoint.  I have consciously developed more robust written content in my assignment submissions and within the photography have very specifically tried to communicate rather than simply illustrate.  There is more to do, and in particular assignment 3 will challenge me with its more abstract content.

This leaves the issue of Judgement and how I develop my learning log.  Part of the challenge I face are typically long working weeks, 50-60 hours of demanding mental work that does not leave a great deal of energy on the weekends other than a growing enthusiasm to relax with a few beers or a bottle of wine.  Typical middle aged trap, too little time to think, just get on with life and dull the pain.  OK, melodramatic, but it is a real challenge to avoid falling into.  When I started the course I read nothing but history and philosophy of photography for 2 years.  Perhaps this was too obsessive and now I am essentially saturated with the subject.  Equally, Sontag or Barthes make poor bedtime reading.

So, what to do.  First of all I need to become more aware of the cultural heritage of photography through the work of the giants of the medium, looking backwards, not just forwards.  I have Godwin, Rowell, Porter,, Stieglitz, and many others sitting on my shelves gathering dust.  Over Christmas I am resolved to review at least 2 major photographers each week and write a brief commentary on what they mean to me - then keep that going into the new year.  When I started the course this was going to be a big part of my working practice, I have let it slip.

The second element must be to look at photography around me, how it is used, where, when, what impact.  I do not see much printed press, living abroad I do not get the Sunday glossies, however, there is a huge amount of interesting work on the internet. Perhaps what I need to do is maintain a weekly diary entry about photographs and photographers that interest me.

Why blog this?  I internalize too much, I think about photography all the time, but rarely write about it.  I need to spend more time communicating my reaction to other peoples work, not simply commentate on my own work.  Writing this entry is a beginning on that path.  Time will tell, I am a fundamentally lazy person, but am very determined to get the most out of this course that I can.

Monday, December 19, 2011

P19: choosing the moment

Exactly one month since I last posted any updates on Projects, at this rate I will have completed assignment 5 before finishing the preparatory projects.  My understanding of Landscape photography is simply advancing faster than the projects, however, as I work towards assignment 3 I am keeping an eye on the more formal learning needs of the course and using many of the concepts described.  I simply have not put my thoughts to paper.

This assignment is a very good example.  For the past 3 months I have spent 60 minutes at least twice a week shooting as the light changes in the early dawn light.  My goal is very specifically to capture the way that the light changes with the sunrise and how the weather interacts with the light.  A key element of this is "choosing the moment", i.e. waiting for that precise moment in time when a flood of light illuminates the mist.  Frequently this special light lasts for no more than 5 minutes, the rising sun changing the angles and the heat of the sun evaporating the fog.  For this project I could have chosen any number of different shoots, however, I wanted to discuss something more recent and a photographic problem that I am not sure I can solve satisfactorily.

Once again I am at the Eisbach, but this time there is no mist and the trees have finally shed their last remaining leaves.  The loss of the leaves has revealed the fact that we are not in a country field bounded by woodland but in a city center park surrounded by buildings.  This now offers a new compositional option for the horizontal shots I have been taking of the Eisbach.  I can now layer the path, stream, grass, and now a line of imposing buildings.  The question is whether this is interesting enough and also what is the best light for the shot.

Following is a sequence of 10 photographs taken between 8:10am and 9:00am.  Sunrise was at 8:00am, but it is not until around 30 minutes after that that the sun starts to clip the roofs of the buildings.  The question I pose myself is when in this sequence is the light the best for what I am trying to create.  I am not using a tripod and so the earlier low light images are not great, and I am moving around to optimize my view, so the composition varies a little.  In the context of the project the subject is the buildings in the background, however, I am really interested in how the whole scene is lit

The scene changes dramatically as the sun rises, a flat bleak world is progressively replaced by bright vibrant colours.  The optimal point is probably shot #4 with the man walking along the riverbank.  Only the buildings are illuminated, creating a sense of warmth when compared to the flatness of the foreground.  However, if I was looking for a shot to extol the virtues of this place, I would probably select the final shot with its strong blues and reds.  Truthfully, I am not fond of either, my favorite is the first shot, the washed out pre-dawn colours sit well with my current aesthetic preferences.  I am finding that my taste in imagery is either extreme low or extreme high contrast.

My recent photographic practice means that I repeat this project over and over again, slowly building up a portfolio of dawn images that might be useful for assignment 3.

Key Learning:

  1. Capturing successful dawn light change requires patience and speed, but most of all repeated attempts, this cannot be done in a single day
  2. My personal taste in images is trending towards a lack of shadow