Oct 31, 2013

Details Matter. Watch and Wait

Something I often find myself telling my students, especially early on in their picture making is to look for the decent details in a scenario, and then be sure to make them part of the picture. It is often in the details that an image slides neatly away from the mundane and towards something more profound. (And by profound, I don't necessarily mean deep and contemplative).

But it is also in the details that an image can be lost. If we are to believe the Americans (and look where that landed them, hence the caution) details can be likened to debt. There is good detail and bad detail, as there might be good debt and bad debt. Good debt or good detail is progressive, contributory and additive. Bad debt or bad detail is regressive, distracting and subtractive.

As in all photographs, it is about seeing and making others see. Its about moments used to say something in some way. Sometimes those moments are there for the picking given the immobile detail presented to you by your scene. Other times they are fleeting and it is more about fast paced anticipation and less about slow and lingering contemplation. Perhaps I should write a little more on this at some stage... .

I think photographers are often 'detail aware', but unfortunately this also means that they tend to fixate on their given subject and turn a 'blind eye' to the detail.Who hasn't taken a picture only to find after the moment that there is a distracting branch/post/piece of grass etc sticking out of their subjects ear/head/body? Years ago, if you will indulge me, I snapped a shot of a kid reacting to an mechanical shark that moved, blinked and bared its teeth - the shark that is not the kid! Sadly, in the background there was some sort of pot plant that was surely out of place in the hall let alone my picture. The resultant image was an unconvincingly intrigued child looking on as the shark appeared to chew grass!

As already alluded to, this is not only about "decisive moments" a la Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is that but it is also where I tend to have a bit of fun (or at least look for opportunities to do so).

The image below was taken at a local pub. The setting was innocent enough and as a (South) African journalist I am pre programmed to consider representation and race at all times. So it was great to have racially diverse subjects sitting right there. Composing the image I couldn't help noticing a dawdle of elderly people fussing in the doorway of a shop across the road. As is often the case with the elderly there is all sorts of strange dilemmas that need to be addressed on a moment by moment basis. So I just watched and waited. There was no suddenness to the situation - no voila at all. I love the dichotomy of young versus old captured in the image and I am dying to imagine what people might think they could be saying to each other? I have a similar shot sans the group in the background, but it just seems a little less without the cameo going on in the background.

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm at 33mm. ISO 100, f/10 @1/90th. External flash, remotely fired and de-powered to 1/4

Oct 15, 2013

Photographing Monks at Midday

Last week I was urgently contacted by South Africa's Mail&Guardian newspaper to supply some images for an article they were running. It seemed like they were in a bit of a pickle as they were casting a big net by wanting a bunch of images, ten to fifteen they were asking, for a single article. Nobody, much less a leading weekly newspaper has space like that on offer, but besides, I was a little tied up marking some student portfolios so I declined.

The next day my phone rang and they said they were desperately needing images as an advert had been pulled. I decided to dump the day and gallop off to fill space for the national. This is not a post about wasting an entire day and evening supplying images that bore no resemblance to the published written article, but it is a post about trying to make things work in less than ideal circumstances.

 A long held mantra of mine, if you can call it that, is that a good photographer should be able to conceptualize and execute a decent usable image no matter the circumstances and limitations of the situation. Not having "the right lens" and "the light was bad" are two default excuses for bad images that my students seem to never grow tired of offering.

So it was that I had half a day to source and schedule a string of photo shoots as per the scantest of briefs that photojournalists always seem to receive. One of the shoots was at a Monastery with the alarmingly rural name of Mariya uMama weThemba Monastry and Guesthouse. Due to scheduling and deadlines I managed to arrange to meet the brothers, at about 14.30 when they would be happy to don their habits too. Knowing full well the light was going to be bad I at least consoled my self with the knowledge that they would be wearing nice rustic brown robes the same as in the days of old and that this would surely be graphically pleasing.

Under a burning, bright, cloudless, African sky I arrived for the shoot ... only to see the brothers wearing their white robes. It must have been brown robe wash day!

Anyway, as most photographers know white in bright light does not lend itself to simple exposures. The obvious thing was to take them indoors but the brief demanded "location and vista". I took them indoors anyway as there was a great window looking down into the valley. I bit of off camera fill flash took care of balancing and matching the outdoor light. Despite this, I was only successful in keeping detail in the valley, but lost it in the sky.

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm at 23mm. ISO 100. f/8@1/60th. External remote fired bounce flash at half power.

Working along the same principle I asked the two brothers to chat under the deep shade of a tree and hid the off camera flash behind the tree's trunk. Under powering the flash by about 1/2 meant I was able to maintain detail in the back as well as foreground.

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm at 18mm. ISO 100. f/9@1/45th. External remote fired flash at half power.

In the next photo I wanted them walking through the gardens and couldn't avoid the fact that they would be in bright mid-day sun. I under exposed by 2 stops so as to maintain detail in their robes, knowing that I'd maintain and deepen the blue sky but would maybe lose detail in the shadows. A little post production meant that I had a little to work with and could fractionally burn in some detail in each Brother's habit.

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm at 18mm. ISO 100. f/16@1/60th.

The final image just had to be taken. White robes and white peach blossom in a gorgeous garden. I took an aerial (ad)vantage by scrambling past the resident beehives and into the koppie/rock hillock. This time unfortunately I just didn't manage to under expose enough, only 1 stop, and you will see that some detail is lost and the sky is not quite as rich.

Canon EOS 7D. Tamron SP70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC. ISO 100. f/8@1/60th.

So although not perfect, some usable shots at least came out of the 50mins spent with the brothers. And it goes without saying (as I so often seem to end up saying) a little pre planning, even if it is a list of four or five spots to begin working from goes a long way, especially when it comes to pandering to silly deadlines.
(Thanks to Brothers Timothy and Julian for allowing me their time and their hospitality whilst roaming the monastery gardens)