Photography

Exposure Compensation

One of the most important settings on your camera is one you may not even know you had. Unless you're shooting in full manual all the time (check you out Mr Fancy-Pants!) you have probably had shots ruined that would have been great, if only you had known about Exposure Compensation.

Let's start with your camera, It's your loyal servant, your faithful friend. Unfortunately in spite of all the electronics inside, your beloved camera is very stupid. It's not really your poor camera's fault though, it's just doing what it was designed to do by the smart men in white coats over at Nikon/Canon/Fuji etc HQ.

I don't have a photo of a dog in the snow, but a cat on a light sheet is the same in principle

I don't have a photo of a dog in the snow, but a cat on a light sheet is the same in principle

You see, if you strip away all the bells and whistles, your camera is basically just a light meter in a sealed box. Light meters are great, photography wouldn't be anywhere without them, the problem is that (without wanting to anthropomorphise them too much) they get confused and panic very easily.
Let's say for example that you're playing in the snow with your dog, who is a dark-ish brown colour. To your eye the scene looks great so you pull out your camera and take a photo to show your parents on Facebook later, you get home and, damnit! The snow is an awful grey colour and the dog might as well be a black blob in the middle, you can't even tell what colour he is, it's just awful.
Here's what happened in that split second: Your camera's light meter analysed the scene and noticed that the snow was very bright and tried to compensate by lowering the exposure in response, rendering the snow as an average value instead of a bright one. This bumping of the overall exposure meant that everything else in frame gots darker too, so not only is the snow that horrible grey, your dog is practically in silhouette.
Don't blame the camera, in addition to being an inanimate object it is also not psychic, it didn't know what you intended and just went along with what it would normally do. You have a tool to directly tell the camera what you intend without having to go into full manual mode and get lost in twiddling dials.

As long as your camera is sufficiently advanced enough you should have either a button or dial with this symbol on it:

This is the Exposure Compensation symbol, a square divided in half diagonally, one half black with a white plus and the other black with a white plus. Press the button and turn the related control dial and you are able to communicate exactly what adjustments you want the camera to make when it does its calculations. As an aside, if you're shooting your camera's own RAW file you can easily tweak this later in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom (within reasonable limits, usually +/- 3eV at the cost of some increased noise in the shadows).

Rerun the snowy scenario with this in mind: You notice that the snow on the ground is reflecting a lot of light so you tweak your exposure compensation up by one whole stop (+1eV), communicating to the camera that yes; it's a bright scene, please don't panic; and yes you would like the photo to look bright too. You take the photo. Bingo! The white snow is a nice bright shade and Fido looks the same colour as when you see him, and his coat is full of detail. A photo worthy of gracing your Facebook!

This works the other way as well. If you're trying to take a photo of something dark, or at night, your camera will panic and try and brighten everything. Lights in the photo turn into glaring white blobs while everything else is usually noisy or blurred because your camera just can't shoot with a high enough shutter speed to beat the camera wobble in the dark. It's trying to exposure your night scene as though it were daytime, absent a tripod, it's not going to succeed.

I dialled in about -1 2/3eV here in order to keep the scene relatively balanced. As you can see, the shop windows are still very bright, but the texture on the paving is retained.

I dialled in about -1 2/3eV here in order to keep the scene relatively balanced. As you can see, the shop windows are still very bright, but the texture on the paving is retained.

Relax. Just adjust your exposure compensation downward. The photo will be darker as a result (it's night-time, it's dark, that's ok) but at least your camera isn't straining to do the impossible.
Of course, you could turn the flash on but that brings its own host of issues (more on that in another blog post).
This isn't just for the night-time though, anything dark will have the same effect on your camera. Try and take a photo of a black jumper or a PS4 and you'll run into the same problem, dial that compensation down.

 

The State of Street Photography

Street photography has a long and storied history, sitting as it does at the intersection of journalism and art. My interest was drawn to it by the figure that has inspired many budding street shooters, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Probably the most broadly influential street photographer in the medium's history, Cartier-Bresson was an advocate of stealth and discretion. He would famously use only small Leica cameras painted black to avoid drawing attention to himself.
Other street photographers use different methods and equipment but the intention usually remained constant: to discretely find and catch people off-guard, wherein the oft-discussed 'decisive moment' makes itself known.

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The ethical considerations of the medium are one of its most controversial aspects.
Defenders of the form often fall into arguing that people have no right to expectation of privacy in a public place, and that street photography is legal. The fault with this reasoning is that just because something is legal doesn't make it particularly ethical. As my friend Phoebe put it: “Legality is pretty much the minimum of human behaviour. That's right at the baseline.” No-one wants to feel harrassed or as though a shifty-looking stranger is surveilling them on the street. In fact, a year or two ago I stumbled upon a photographer sharing his street work on Facebook, all seemingly distant photos taken voyeuristically from a car with a cheap camera. Needless to say, the response to the anonymous photographer's attempt to be creative was not positive.

With the explosion of online photo-sharing and the creeping growth of sites encouraging people to photograph strangers to shame them for their behaviour (remember Women Who Eat On Tubes?) or to objectify and demean them, public sentiment against street photography seems to be slipping even further into the negative. Although voyeurism and shaming are nothing to do with street photography itself, benign street photographers have by-and-large been embarrassingly unsuccessful in preventing the predators from claiming the justification of 'art' for themselves.

I used to be a voracious street photographer. I'd roam around town for hours trying to find something interesting happening, eagerly hunting down that decisive moment. When I got the chance to go to New York for a day a few years ago I dove in head-first and spent the day hunting around for things to photograph. In such a rich ground it felt like there was something happening everywhere I looked. Unfortunately it feels as though those days have slipped into the past. More and more when I'm out on the street with a camera, for each shot I manage to take I can feel myself 'miss' ten others. The growing anxiety at potentially causing upset, potentially being thought a creep or pervert causes me to hesitate, and in that hesitation the opportunity passes by. I've lost my nerve, and I'm not sure I'll ever get it back.

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History of Photography - Part 1

"How was the first photo ever taken? What's the magic behind it?"

The first photograph that still survives until the present day is widely accepted to be Nicéphore Niépce's “View From The Window at Le Gras” (above), which was taken in either 1826 or 1827. Nicéphore's called this invention the “Heliographic process” presumably because the only light source with enough muscle to make a mark was the Sun.
It was a rather clumsy process by any standard, metal plates were coated with a chemical known as “Bitumen of Judea” and then placed in a light-tight box with a lens. As the light fell onto the plate the chemical responded to the light by hardening depending on how intense the arriving light was. After washing the plate with lavender oil the non-hardened material came away and only the hardened area remained. After this prints were made in the typical fashion for an engraving, application of ink to the plate and then pressure against paper.

Forget taking photographs of anyone using this method though, the bitumen was so insensitive that the estimates for the exposure length of View From The Window at Le Gras are at least eight hours, possibly several days, even the best models can only hold a pose for so long! Niépce collaborated with Louis Daguerre (who'll become very important) on a more sensitive process but while their efforts yielded some fruit, the new process still took several hours to make an exposure. Still no good for people.

After Niépce's death in 1833 Daguerre forged on alone, focussing on replacing the Bitumen process with a new process using silver halide emulsions. Daguerre was wildly successful and his new “Daguerreotype” process drastically cut exposure times from hours to mere minutes, allowing the first successful capture of a human in a photograph in 1838. This momentous occurrence happened while Daguerre was taking a photograph of a Paris street out of his window, the traffic on the street was moving much too quickly to have any effect on the photographic plates but one man having his shoes shined was stationary long enough to appear, and history was made (Click to enlarge the image on the left and see if you can spot him).

After further developments the required exposure time was reduced further and portrait photography was possible for the first time. Daguerreotypes were far from perfect (they showed a positive image on a piece of metal and copies could only be made by taking a photograph of the finished article) but they mark an important milestone in early photography.

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Towards the end of the 19th century chemists and photographers developed methods to apply light sensitive emulsions to thin plastic films. These emulsions contained microscopic particles of silver halide suspended in a gelatin, allowing still greater sensitivity, the ease of use of film and the ability to print as many copies of a photograph as you like made photography considerably more accessible. The quest for increased sensitivity without loss of quality has been a driving force behind the development photographic technology since the beginning and continues now. Film photo prints work in a different way to both Niépce and Daguerre's processes.

When light touches hits the film surface it excites the silver halide which is subsequently turned into metallic silver during the chemical wizardry of the development process. This silver metal blocks light from passing through and appears black on the photo negative. To get a print a light is shone through the negative (and through an enlarger) onto a piece of paper treated with yet more of those ever-so-useful silver halides. The black portions of the negative prevent the light from passing through and therefore the black parts of the image are rendered on the print as the white of the paper. This process can be manipulated by blocking or applying more light to change contrast and tone allowing developers to produce amazing images like this one.

Is Portrait Photography Still Relevant?

Everyone has a camera these days” is something we hear often in this business, usually from fellow photographers frustrated with their friends and relatives. Camera ownership is an almost ubiquitous feature of our modern lives, and they're here to stay. Consumer cameras have been available in some form or another since the Kodak Brownie, but the flood of mobile phones containing integrated cameras has caused an explosion in photographic enthusiasm amongst people who wouldn't consider themselves photographers. All five of the most popular cameras used to take photos for Flickr are mobile phone cameras, and this lead is only increasing.


The reasons for this are manifold and have been discussed at length for years: Everyone carries a phone nowadays and so everyone also carries with them a compact camera; the film that was so expensive, difficult to use is no longer necessary; pictures taken with mobile phones can be shared immediately via Twitter, Instagram, or other social networks. Surely the proliferation of amateur photography spells doom for the professional? Actually, though much diminished from its heyday, I believe that professional portrait photography is still relevant in the modern world.

 

Permanence

Although it may seem contradictory while we are taking more photos than ever, the market for photo prints is in sharp decline, tumbling 20% between 2013 and 2015. This reluctance to print photos for display and preservation rather than viewing on a screen can cause problems. I don't know about you, but whereas my parents still have almost all the printed photos they took over their lifetimes, a lot of the photos they took during the dawn of digital photography are lost. Stored on memory cards that are no longer readable, or on computer hard-drives that have since ceased to function and been thrown away.
Surely the solution is just to print more photos, right? Well, not really. Phone camera photos are (relatively) small, so despite what you might read online, they don't necessarily bear the brunt of printing very well. For example, a photo from Instagram will only print at around 2 ½” (smaller than a credit card) without severe degradation of quality.

The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.
— Ansel Adams

 


 

Quality

Speaking of quality, professional portrait photography charges ahead in what can be achieved. The professional photographer community stakes its reputation on the ability to consistently produce high quality photographs. A talented professional photographer can shape light to create dynamism and use techniques to maximise sharpness and detail. Prints from professional cameras (and skilled photographers!) can be wall-sized with outstanding clarity and quality. A bit ambitious? Well, perhaps, but nothing beats a camera in the hands of a professional when it comes to quality. When you employ a professional for your portraits, you're not just hiring a fancy camera but also the benefit of thousands upon thousands of hours spent honing and perfecting the craft.