Exercise 4.1 – the problem of reflected-light metering

This exercise demonstrates a well-known issue with reflected-light metering, the problem of calibrating to medium-grey if the scene does not average out. The exercise is useful because it caused me to demonstrate the effect, rather than just read about it and accept it.

All images were taken with a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Pentax K-1. Sensitivity is set to ISO3200. All images are JPEGs, imported into Lightroom and extracted as screen-grabs complete with the histogram. The panel below the histogram is irrelevant except that if confirms that no post-processing adjustments have been made.

The subject in each case is a calibration target with white, mid-grey and black panels.

The first set of images are taken in programme automatic mode.

Auto control

In the first image we see all three tones correctly and the histogram has three corresponding spikes.

In the black panel, the camera has tried harder to resolve the weave detail, which explains the broader ‘spike’ and may explain why it is displaced slightly to the left. For the mid-grey and white panels, the spikes are almost identical. Subjectively viewing the image itself shows that each panel has been rendered as the same overall shade of mid-grey.

The second set of images were taken in manual mode. I set the exposure to render the mid-grey panel as ‘correct’ with a zero meter bias. The identical aperture and shutter speed were used for the black and white panels.

The tones are rendered accurately and the histogram spikes correspond tolerably well with those of the control image at the top of this posting.

Magnum Contact Sheets

Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ is a coffee table book, not just because it looks good on the coffee table but, at 524 pages of 150gsm art paper, it weighs roughly the same. According to the copyright page, the 2014 book is the compact edition.

The premise is simple, iconic images from Magnum photographers are presented with commentary (either from the photographer or Kristen Lubben, the editor) and the contact sheets from which they are extracted, complete with the editor’s chinagraph markings. The result is an insight into how photographers work on location and how they, or their editors, approach the task of selection and editing.

The book starts in pre-Magnum days, with HCB’s image of street kids playing among wrecked masonry in Seville 1933. Almost uniquely among the featured photographers, HCB did not like revealing his contacts. Indeed, it seems that he cut out his usable negatives into separates and would discard those he did not like. He is quoted thus, ‘A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and it is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings’ (Lubben 2014, 18)

However, most contributors had views similar to David Hurn (quoted on p159), “The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. … Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s is one of the best teaching methods”

That appears to be the raison d’être for this book. Later (p162) Hurn tells us, “Looking at other peoples’ contact sheets allows one to understand their method of working and their thinking processes. When I first came to Magnum, I learned an enormous amount by perusing shelves of books of contacts from Henri Carier Breton, Marc Riboud, Réne Burri, Elliott Erwitt, etc. … What was a revelation to me was that I could see a similar working pattern in virtually all the photographers I admired. Little sequences which show the photographer seemingly stalking the image”

The book includes some classics of reportage. On p50 we learn how most of Robert Capa’s D-Day negatives were destroyed by a darkroom error, and on the following page we see the nine which survive. Pages 208-215 covers Gilles Peress’ images from Bloody Sunday together with a sketch and part of his statement to the Widgery and Saville enquiries.

There is also a leavening of lighter material, such a Martine Franck’s Buddhist monks of 1996 (p403) and Elliott Erwitt’s 2000 ‘Bulldogs’ (p457)

I bought this book as part of my research for EYV Assignment 3 (The decisive moment) for which it was useful (I liked Peter Hurn’s comment about stalking the image). I regard it as essential reading for any topic relating to reportage or documentary work.

Reference

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Assignment 3 – submission and reflection

It is with a certain amount of relief that I have finally completed Assignment 3 and got it safely into the post before the deadline. Here are the photographs and the assignment notes.

EYV ass 3 Decisive Moment analysis

The final task is to reflect and check my work against the assessment criteria.

Technical and visual skills

I am happy with the materials and techniques I used. My visual awareness was assisted by inside knowledge of what the competitors were doing, which enabled me to anticipate developing situations. I am satisfied with the design and composition of each image.

Quality of outcome

In concept and discernment, I was able to apply specialist knowledge as a sailor, as well as technical knowledge as a photographer. I have a clear understanding of what I want each image to say; it is for the viewer to judge whether I have succeeded.

Demonstration of creativity

The weak point of my response to the assignment. I have stayed very much within my comfort zone.

Context

I believe that my research shows reflection and critical thinking about the concept of ‘the decisive moment’. I found good reason to dispute its popular significance, but I also dispute the idea that it is either irrelevant or a cliché. I have formed my own view that it is an important but slippery concept and, ultimately, has a circular definition..

Assignment 3 – random further thoughts (and a decisive moment of my own)

In a previous posting, I concluded that the ‘decisive moment’ is a tautology; it is the moment that the photographer decides the timing and composition is right to press the shutter button. It is not the moment that is decisive, but the photographer.

I also discussed ‘spray and pray’ and concluded that it was a way of deferring that decision until post-processing. Except in fast-moving situations, I considered it a lazy way to work. It is therefore slightly worrying to see how much I used burst-fire in each of my three possible sets for Assignment 3 (regatta, white water or pub gig). In my defence, most bursts were of only 2 or 3 images, rather than a full ‘machine-gun’ treatment.

With a deadline looming, it is time to decide which set to move forward with as my assignment. I have decided to work with the regatta for several reasons. It is the subject matter that I am most comfortable with; as a racing sailor myself, I was able to anticipate developing situations better than with the other two sets. It is also the set that has the greatest variety in situations and subject matter.

The next stage is to select the final images. There is good guidance in the literature.

Michael Freeman (2010,156) in a chapter titled “Interactive composition” gives a case study and describes the process of exploring a scene to find the best composition and timing. Although the image finally selected in that case was the last shot (no.37) he notes that this is by no means always the case.

The Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben (ed) 2014) is a fascinating read – and will be the subject of a review – which highlights iconic images and presents them together with the contact sheet and sometimes the photographer’s notes. This gives a good insight into the process of editing, although I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the editor’s choice.

I hope to live up to a comment by HCB, “Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share” (Cartier Bresson, quoted in Lubben 2014, 18)

References

Freeman, M. (2010) The Photographer’s Mind Lewes:Ilex

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Decisive moments at a pub gig

As a change from water-based activities, I photographed a performance by a local veteran-rock band in a public bar. This brought its own set of challenges, some of which are illustrated by this image. The challenges fall into three main types.

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Space: The venue is not designed for performances, so the band is crammed into a small space at one end. The two musicians in the back row (drummer and bass guitar) are obscured by the front row. The bar itself was crowded, so I had limited freedom to move around (I eventually found three vantage points I could move between without annoying too many of the audience) It is also necessary to consider the visual clutter of music stands, mikes and speakers.

Lighting: There is no ‘stage lighting’ and the general pub lighting is rather dim and designed for visibility rather than effect. The singer/lead guitarist stands below and slightly behind a ceiling light, there is bright light on a white painted alcove at the rear left and, for the early part of the evening, there is light from a window. All three sources have different colour temperatures. I dealt with this partly by avoiding the alcove and window where possible and partly by tone control and partial desaturation in Lightroom. The camera is a Pentax K-1, mostly used at ISO25600 which I regard as magic in comparison with the low-light ‘performance’ of my previous cameras.

Subject: It was necessary to watch the performers carefully to pick my decisive moments. Although they tend to stand in one place, there is a lot of body movement. Facial expressions change rapidly, and a singer can make some rather grotesque expressions. Also, for some reason, musicians tend to shut their eyes while performing.

In this set of images, I have isolated each performer in a sort of environmental portrait. Exposures were between 1/15s and 1/50s at apertures between f/2.8 and f/5.6. The most difficult capture was the drummer as I had to wait for the front-row performers to move out of the way and give me a clear shot. In attempting to find a typical pose, I had to observe and analyse each man’s movements to decide what constitutes a ‘typical pose’, then to anticipate and shoot it.

Of course, the whole point of a band is that the musicians are performing together. The final set of images in this posting each show two or more band members and, in my opinion, convey the atmosphere of the evening.

 

Decisive moments in white water

A camera club outing to Lee Valley White Water Park gave me an opportunity for another sport/action set. On the day, the only activity scheduled was white-water rafting as team-building for a large accountancy firm. Because the water channel and weirs are artificial, there are set-piece dramatic opportunities, although viewpoints are some distance from the water and there is a lot of background and foreground clutter.

Images in this set were made with a Pentax K-1 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Most of the images were shot between f/2.8 and f/4 to use shallow depth-of-field to concentrate on the subject and reduce the clutter.

I started with the preparation and briefing area, which is surrounded by a first floor terrace, giving almost all-round viewing access. The principal problems are that there are just too many elements and that the predominant colour scheme is red, which does not fit with the predominant blue of events on the water.

This set illustrates some of the problems to be avoided. Visual clutter is noted above, best dealt with in most cases by tight framing. In places , the crews are instructed to hold their paddles vertical, which gives boring shapes, not as dynamic as when they are actively paddling. Where two rafts are close together, there is confusion of shapes. Water splashing, despite being the whole point of the activity can also obscure the boats and crews.

This sequence, shot in burst-fire mode, shows a boat passing through a weir section. The ‘decisive moments’ are shortly before the plunge, with expressions of anticipation and anxiety on the faces, or as the boat emerges from the spray. However, at the end, the crew are more randomly arranged which is often not photogenic. In the two middle images I feel that the white water hides too many important elements. On examination of the whole day’s contacts it appears that the bow of the boat is particularly important.

Here, I am exploring the effect of focal length to give some variety. Broadly, there are three ‘scales’ of zoom which seem to work: (a) filling the frame with a single boat, (b) framing very tightly to concentrate on the faces of some crew members or (c) showing a complementary but blurred ‘wider picture’ background. If I select this theme for my eventual assignment, then I will use a variety of framing.

Small changes between images can make a difference. In the second image the boat is oriented pointing directly to camera, which shows the helmsman/instructor to advantage. Also in the second image, the starboard front crew member has started to actively paddle and has a more determined expression.

The activity carries managed risks. In this case, a boat had nearly overturned and has spilt most of its crew. The sequence shows them in the water near the boat, and then being swept away downstream. The large image is the best compositionally as the boat forms a strong diagonal and appears to ‘enclose’ the people in the water. In the later images, they are more disconnected.

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This image illustrates the difference between ‘peak of the action’ and ‘decisive moment’. The helmsman has been catapulted clear of the boat and is at maximum height. However, the crew have not noticed, so there is no reaction, and the airborne figure’s face is turned away from camera.

_IMG0435

This is my favourite image of the day and is a real ‘decisive moment’ as all of the composition elements have come together well. The boat is emerging from a splash  with several faces visible and reacting. The paddles make a good arrangement and the helmsman is upright, attentive and clearly in control.

I believe this venue shows promise for Assignment 3 but I do not have enough variety of images. If I am to use it, I will need to revisit when there is white-water kayaking scheduled and combine the two activities into a single series.

Canon A-1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Canon A-1 is the camera that I spent most of the 1980s coveting, but £600+ was a lot of money when it was introduced in 1978. Good old eBay!

The A-1 was one of Canon’s A-series ‘enthusiast’ cameras, smaller and lighter than the professional F-series. It was one of the first fully-electronic cameras, the first SLR (by some years) to offer an electronic programme metering mode, and the first to offer all four of the ‘PASM’ modes that we expect in a modern camera. All of the important controls are on the top-plate which is daunting at first but becomes intuitive with use.

Exposure mode is selected by a switch, then the shutter speed or aperture are changed using a front control wheel, in the same way that we are used to with a modern DSLR.

Metering goes up to a surprisingly high 12800ASA, which would have been pretty-much unusual for its time; 3-stop uprated HP5 or Tri-X only requires 3200ASA (and metering is accurate at that level in a dimly-lit pub gig.

Coupled with the razor-sharp FD lenses, this has become my go-to camera when I get the urge to shoot some 35mm. I have used it for June in my 12 months, 12 cameras project.