Tricks of the Trade

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halloween witch

I’ve been doing a bit of non-photography reading around process lately and not surprisingly some of what I have read can apply to photography. In my research on process improvement, I came upon a quote that said: “Don’t waste time learning the “tricks of the trade”. Instead learn the trade.” This is a great piece of advice for photographers no matter where you are on the path to learning photography.

When I first picked up a camera with the intent to learn photography, I studied the exposure triangle and used manual mode for the longest time. It was only when I fully understood  how aperture, shutter speed and ISO were related that I moved to using Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation. These days new photographers start out on Program or Automatic Mode or even Aperture Mode and they come to fully understand exposure only later. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, I do see the advantages of starting out learning the trade as it were, rather than the tricks of the trade. Light is the raw material with which photographers use to make photographs. If you understand its properties and how to manipulate it at a fundamental level using your camera, you will make more meaningful photographs much more quickly. That’s the paradox of taking time to do the hard work to learn this craft. Sometimes the longer route is actually the shortest way to get there. Here are some other suggestions that might be useful for you.

Buying New Gear
Temptation lurks ever present for us photographers as camera manufacturers continually upgrade gear in an attempt to dominate the market. The fact is you don’t need to buy new gear to make good photographs. If you like to create HDR images, you were perfectly able to create your images before they added that feature on to the latest cameras. The more technology takes away from our thought and hands on process, the more distant we are from this being a craft in the truest sense of the word. Leica might be one manufacturer who understand this. In a recent announcement Leica will create a new camera with just three settings: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And no LCD screen at the back. You don’t need to buy this camera though to buy into the notion of less technical distraction and more mindful presence when making photographs; just go out and make pictures with what you have.

Using Presets and Actions
Presets and actions can be a great way to learn post-processing techniques. I am just not convinced that they are a good place to start and they are certainly not a good place to stop in terms of learning this craft. Photoshop actions can be challenging to learn and to create on your own but instead of spending money on buying them from other photographers, spend money on a Lightroom or Photoshop course. You will learn about the power of Lightroom and Photoshop beyond just presets and actions and it will help you work more effectively with the software. If you do have presets and actions, take a closer look at them and try to figure out how they work. Explore what will happen if you change the position of the sliders or if you turn off one of the layers. There is no substitute for a eureka moment when it comes to learning.

Learn to Evaluate Your Work
This is one I struggle with myself because it is human nature to be our own worst critic. All the great photographers I have become acquainted with through their work and writings have an acute sense of what is a good image. It is not something they outsource to others to decide and certainly not on social media. We need to learn how to evaluate our own work, to be able to look at a set of images and decide which are the strongest ones to include in a story, series or portfolio. We must be able to articulate why we choose one image over another for inclusion. Certainly we can get input from others especially as we learn the editing process but do not be tempted to rely on the opinions of others to know and understand the value of your work.

Building Your Portfolio
Group workshops are a great way to meet other photographers who share your interests. Many photographers also use them as a way to add to their portfolios and from an economic point of view it makes sense. Someone makes all the arrangements for you, hires models, shows you how to light and might even set it up for you. It is an excellent way to learn but in my opinion, it is not the way to add to your portfolio. I’ve seen similar images made at the same time by different photographers. They show up on their websites and are submitted to magazines and competitions and it is difficult to take that work seriously because it doesn’t feel real. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a tour, look for interesting things to photograph close to home or head out on the road on your own. Here’s a series from my friend Eric Kruszewski who spent 14 days traveling across America. It was a change from living and traveling abroad traveling to 26 countries over five years. Today Eric is an editorial photographer whose work is represented by National Geographic Creative. He didn’t get there through any tricks but by being one of the hardest working photographers I know.

At the Bangkok Photo School, we are committed to teaching the trade. Our November class is now full but you can add your name to the wait list here. If you’d like to know when new classes are announced, sign up for our newsletter. You can also email us with your enquiries or suggestions.

Flash Way, Way Off Camera – by Jack Kurtz

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People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt's funeral.
People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt’s funeral. This photo was made with available light.

I recently photographed the first day of funeral rites for Apiwan Wiriyachai, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Thai parliament. It’s always a good idea when you’re using a small flash to get the flash off the camera. Properly done off camera flash makes the light more interesting and more natural. That’s pretty much impossible with the small popup flashes that are on top of most cameras these days or when you’re working in a media pack.

Apiwan’s funeral was a big media event. There were probably 30 photographers gathered around the body photographing as people paid their respects. Most of them were using flash, almost all of them either the small popup flashes built into their cameras or large accessory flashes but all of them, every single one of them, had the flash on the camera.* Most had the flash pointed straight ahead but a few were “bouncing” their flashes off the ceiling. I was working exclusively with available light.

The room was lit by fluorescent tubes and combining fluorescent and flash creates all sorts of color balance issues. I’ve found it’s much easier to edit and do color correction if there’s only one light source in  the photo. The base exposure at ISO800 was around f1.8 at between 1/60th and 1/250th (depending on whether people were looking up or down) and Apiwan was covered in a shiny white shawl so I was comfortable working with available light.

A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer's camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.
A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer’s camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.

As I was working I could see that I was going to have a lot of unusable frames. Other photographers’ flashes were going off with machine gun like rapidity.

A couple of times the flash was just discrete enough that I could piggy back off of it.

The other photographer's flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn't completely overpower the photo.
The other photographer’s flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn’t completely overpower the photo. I burned down Apiwan’s white uniform a little in Lightroom.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.

It’s impossible to predict at the moment that you’re making pictures what effect other people’s flashes will have on your photos. There are a lot of variables.

With the exception of a couple of motion blur photos I made, I was working at f1.8 to f2.2, wide open, or close to it, all day. It doesn’t take as much flash to expose at f1.8 as it does f8. If the photographer whose flash I was piggy backing off was shooting at wider apertures (and putting out less flash) I ended up with an interesting picture. If he (they were all male) was working at f11 or blasting away with the flash, I ended up with a blown out frame.

Available light, I didn't capture any other flashes in this frame.
Available light, I didn’t capture any other flashes in this frame.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer's flash.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer’s flash. There is no detail in the white and any attempts to burn it down just turns it an ugly gray.

I could see the flashes going off around me and I knew from experience that I was going to have a difficult time editing. It’s impossible to predict when another photographer’s flash is going to help you and when it’s going to wreck your photo. I made a lot more frames than I normally would have because I was I trying to work around the photographers’ flashes.


* There’s a protocol when you’re working in a media scrum like this. Normally, a professional photographer would get the flash off the camera and either put it on a light stand or hold it out at arm’s length (or ask a nearby civilian to hold it for you). But you don’t have those options when you’re in a scrum. If I hold a flash in my hand and then stick my hand out to get the flash off camera I’m going to end up blocking another photographer’s view. The idea in a scrum is to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t block other photographers.

Slow It Down – by Jack Kurtz

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People pray in front of Wat That Thong in Ekkamai on Visakha. I used a slow shutter speed so the people in the procession would be blurred and hoped that the people praying would be still (and sharp).
People pray in front of Wat That Thong in Ekkamai on Visakha. I used a slow shutter speed so the people in the procession would be blurred and hoped that the people praying would be still (and sharp). It pretty much worked out the way I had hoped. Exposure ½ second at f9, ISO800. If I had a chance to redo it, I would drop the ISO to 400 and f-stop to f6.7 (one stop wider than f9).

I like to work at the extreme end of exposure settings. That means working with the lens wide open, which for me means f1.2, f1.4, maybe f2 or with a slow shutter speed, 1/60th of a second or slower. I work with shallow f-stops all the time – it’s very seldom that I work at an aperture smaller than f4.

A quick check of the EXIF data in my archive showed that my most used f-stop is f2.8 (19095 exposures) and that of the 150,000 photos in my Bangkok archive 61,880 were made at between f2.8 and f1.2, which seems like a pretty big percentage of photos made at wide open, or close to wide open, f-stops.

That’s with all of my lenses, which includes teleconverters. Eliminate the 5642 photos made with lenses slower than my 200mm f2.8 and the percentage of shallow f-stop photos gets bigger. (Note that I am not that much of an obsessive compulsive. Lightroom makes it very easy to  keep track of your pictures by all sorts of esoteric metrics including aperture and shutter speed.)

I also like to work at slower shutter speeds, to introduce motion blur. The usual way to do this is to “pan” with you subject so the subject is sharp but the rest of the photo is blurred.

Giddy up. A photo from a rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada. A slow shutter speed combined with some flash and a little panning made this picture work. I made this on film so I don't have the exact exposure recorded.
Giddy up. A photo from a rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada. A slow shutter speed combined with some flash and a little panning made this picture work. I made this on film so I don’t have the exact exposure recorded.

I don’t use slow shutter speeds exclusively for panning though. I also use slow shutter speeds to isolate the subjects in my photos, in the same way I use shallow f stops. In the photo at the top, for example, I wanted the people praying to stand out as the others walked in the procession around them.

A monk walks with his fellow monks in a procession around Wat That Thong on Visakha.
A monk walks with his fellow monks in a procession around Wat That Thong on Visakha. Exposure ¼ of a second at f7.1 and ISO800.

The hardest part about working at slow shutter speeds is controlling camera blur. The rule of thumb is that you should use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of your focal length to prevent camera blur (i.e. a 200mm lens would require 1/200th of a second, a 50mm lens 1/60th of second and so on). When you start working at really slow shutter speeds, below 1/15th of a second, camera blur becomes an issue, even with a wide angle lens. One way to fix this is to use a tripod. When I know I’m going to be working at slow shutter speeds I carry a little Manfrotto pocket tripod but I very seldom carry a full size tripod when I’m photographing a public event. Using a tripod at Wat That Thong on Visakha would have been practically impossible. It was simply too crowded.

There are other ways you can control camera blur. Rest the camera against something solid, like a wall or a beer bottle or hold your breath while squeezing the shutter button.

A picture made in a bar in Havana, Cuba. I rested my camera, in this case a Contax G2 film camera, on top of a bottle of beer and used the beer as an impromptu tripod. Ektachrome 100VS slide film (ISO100), exposure unrecorded.
A picture made in a bar in Havana, Cuba. I rested my camera, in this case a Contax G2 film camera, on top of a bottle of beer and used the bottle as an impromptu tripod. Ektachrome 100VS slide film (ISO100), exposure unrecorded.

Lately, I’ve been using the Image Stabilization built into my camera body to help with slow shutter speed photos. It’s not perfect, but it helps me get acceptably sharp photos at slow shutter speeds.

Some camera manufacturers build the IS into the body, some build it into the lenses. Which is better? In lens IS is theoretically better because the image stabilization can be fine tuned to the lens. It also makes lenses a lot more expensive. The Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L series zoom without Image Stabilization is about $1,500 US, the same lens with Image Stabilization is a breathtaking $2,500. Image Stabilization built into the body means you have IS with all of your lenses, not just the really expensive ones, so I fall into the IS in the body camp.

The best thing to do is experiment with your camera and how you use it. One of the joys of working digitally is that you can review your work as you go, so you can experiment all day long. Experiments that don’t work out aren’t failures, they’re learning experiences.

Essential Reading for Photographers

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Years ago I received a piece of advice from my mentor that at first, made me laugh but I can tell you today that it was a very good suggestion.

I was told to read my camera manual.

When we first acquire our cameras, the last thing we want to do is still down and read 120 pages of technical jargon especially if we have been photographing for a while and we think we are quite competent. There is however a very good reason for reading your manual.

In photography, time is measured in fractions of a second and once the moment has passed seldom do we get another chance to make the picture that flashed before our eyes. We need to understand our equipment to intuitively respond to the situation and adjust our camera settings without a second thought. There is no time to dig deep into the camera’s menu to change one item that could make the difference between a good picture and no picture at all. Here are a few things I learned to use after reading my camera manual.

Exposure Metering Modes
Cameras today are very good at assessing all the light within a scene and achieving a good exposure so people are comfortable with choosing the evaluative or matrix metering mode and never exploring the other options. From previous posts on visual design, we know light is one of the most important elements of visual design. When we know how to control the way the camera reads light, we gain new approaches to making better pictures. Below is an example where I used spot metering to add a three-dimensional feeling to this stall in the Thai fishing village of Mahachai.

mahachai fishing village thailand

Function (Fn) Buttons
If you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you probably have at least one or even two function buttons. The Fn button is a button the user customizes to allow faster access to a predetermined menu option. Think of it like a short cut on a computer keyboard. Since I often like to photograph at night and in low light environments, I always set one function button to spot metering. It allows me quickly change between matrix and spot metering and I can do it without even taking my eye away from the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have a separate ISO button, you can program the second function button to change your ISO. If you need more ideas of what to program, your manual will have other options.

Custom Settings
If you have attended our classes or private workshops, you know we love to pan with our cameras. In a chaotic city like Bangkok, panning allows us to isolate our subject matter and simplify the scene. Did you know you could program the settings needed to pan using the custom settings of your camera? The custom settings (C1, C2 on Canons or U1, U2 on Nikons) are like the Fn button but instead you can program a group of settings you frequently use instead of just one setting like exposure metering. You aren’t limited to just one option either as many cameras have two or three possible custom settings so you can program setting changes that would normally take too long to do otherwise.

Back Button Focus
For the longest time, I used my shutter button to focus that was until I learned about back button focus. Normally we focus our cameras by pressing halfway down on the shutter button and then we press down fully when we take the picture. By using the back button to focus, we relieve the shutter button from focus duty and instead assign that task to another button. Not everyone likes to use the back button and it took me a while to get used to using it because memory muscle had firmly implanted the shutter button as my focus button. Why would you want to use the back button to focus? By separating the auto focus activation from the shutter release, you won’t need to refocus each time you release your shutter. You can be much more effective with your focus because if something moving enters your frame while you are making your picture, your focus remains locked.

Final Tips
These are just a few things I learned to do on my camera by reading my manual. No one really wants to read the entire camera manual and I certainly did not. What I did do is keep my manual handy and read short sections when I had a few spare minutes. I also downloaded my manual to my iPhone so that I could reference it whenever I needed it.

If metering modes, back button focus and panning have your head spinning, join us at our next Beginners Class starting in at the end of this month and we will explain it all to you and show you how to set up your camera. Oh and bring your camera manuals please!

The Elements of Visual Design – Texture

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So far in this series on visual design we have discussed four elements to use in composing photographs: tone, colour, line and shape. Light is the common ingredient that allows us to see each of these elements in a scene and as photographers we owe everything to it.  Not surprisingly it is also important in being able to recognize the next building block, texture.  Probably the least used of all the elements of visual design, texture can be described as either the coarseness or softness of a surface or something that resembles the feel of woven fabric.

Successful visual design in photography depends on seeing with new eyes and often that begins with removing the labels we normally use. This is true of shape, which we discussed last week, and also with texture. In the picture below, all sense of what the original subject matter is eliminated. This was a bed of yellow grass in a local park. It could have been photographed exactly the way it appeared however by using intentional camera movement and multiple exposures, the picture now gives the viewer a completely different feeling of texture.

texture in an image using multiple exposure and intentional camera movement

There are other techniques to create texture in your pictures. Let’s say you are at a beach where you see water and rocks. By using a longer exposure (more exposure to light), you can create a feeling of roughness and smoothness by including both the rocks and the water within the same frame. This kind of exposure will even out any distractions so that the eye can concentrate on two main forms that successfully create two different textures.

How you choose to light something can also create texture in a picture. The tonal contrast between areas of light and shade will give you a feeling of roughness and smoothness. You may have noticed that when you use the Lightroom sliders to change the contrast in a picture, you achieve a more textured feeling.

Texture is not as an intuitive a visual design element as line and colour because we have to work much more to see and use it in our photographs. It takes experimentation and practice but once you are more familiar with texture, you will find it easier to incorporate it as a compositional element to make stronger photographs.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Perspective