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Recent Blogs from Better Photography


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The Value of Reference Points

Long Reef, NSW.
Phase One XT 150MP with 32mm Rodagon lens, 1 minute @ f11, ISO 50

Reference points are ideas. And ideas are fundamental to photography. Over the years (decades) of interviewing photographers for Better Photography magazine, I'd ask two questions. The first was how much time they spent in promotion and advertising (it was more than 50% for successful photographers) and the second was, where do your ideas come from?

There's no single answer, of course. Gay Campbell called her ideas 'cosmic Fedexes' - ideas or dreams which she would carefully write down in a journal, waiting for another time. My iPhone has a bunch of apps on it with lots of different ideas. Or references points.

Reference Point 1: Christian Fletcher published a book 10 years ago and if memory serves me correctly (let's hope it was Christian's photo and not Tony Hewitt's), it was on the cover. But it matters not: the photo was of an old wharf or wharf posts in the middle of a beach with waves washing around it. The light was beautiful, composition strong. I filed it away in my memory banks.

Reference Point 2: Most afternoons, Kathie and I walk around Long Reef headland with the dogs. There's a point where the walk comes down to the beach and a ramp extends down to the sand. However, usually there's so much sand, the waves never reach the wharf, except with a high tide and a large swell. But every time I walked past the ramp, I'd think of that reference point.

Last week, after nearly 10 years of walking around the headland, the stars aligned and while there wasn't quite as much water around the ramp as I wanted (and even then, I had to wait for the set waves), I managed to shoot a few photos. Did they look like Christian's photo? Hell no! No point copying something that has already been beautifully done. Besides, it's a completely different location and no one looking at this photo would think of Christian's shot, but the reference point was there for me.

I have a little more thinking to do with this image - and three or four other frames. I'm not sure if the colour grading is completely resolved and I find myself still fiddling with the saturation and balance. I'll print a test and pin it up on the wall in my office, so when Christian Fletcher calls up to tell me how good life is in Western Australia, I can tune out to his monotone and concentrate on my photo!

When I go on photo tours, photographers often ask how it is that I usually know what to photograph, while they feel they are struggling to work it out? One of the answers is having a database of reference points that can act as a catalyst for your photography.

And building up that database takes time, so start now!

Harran Sheik from The New Tradition

Harran, Turkey, 2008
Phase One 645AF II, Phase One P45+ back, 28mm Mamiya lens
1/320 second @ f4.5, ISO 100, hand-held, no filter

Is this a portrait?

The photograph placed in the 2009 Head On Portrait Award, so someone must have thought so, even though we cannot see the subject’s face. But why does a portrait have to show a face?

If you follow the work of portrait masters, there are many examples of portraits that don’t show the subject’s face. My memory tells me there was even one by Yousuf Karsh where the subject isn’t in the photograph. Rather the image depicts a room where the subject lived.

There are some aspects of photography that won’t change in The New Tradition. Whether film or digital, whether landscape or portraiture, we’re all investigating new avenues and searching for what are personally new directions. 

This photograph does quite a few things that a standard portrait does not. For instance, it is taken with an ultra wide-angle lens. Typically, portraits are photographed with a mid telephoto (like an 85mm or 105mm equivalent), the argument being they subtly flatten a person’s face in a flattering way. However, a telephoto lens doesn’t include much of the surroundings and in this image, the environment is fundamental to the portrait.

Photographed in Harran, south eastern Turkey, the tiny town has been inhabited for over 2000 years and is even mentioned in the Bible. The ‘sheik’ with his back to the camera, is the owner of the residence, a ‘tourist trap’, showing off the beehive structures that characterise Harran’s architecture. Using a wide-angle lens, I was able to incorporate the architecture into the portrait.

Important for me was the sheik’s headdress and the shadow he cast on the doorway. The early morning sunrise created strong, directional light and as the sheik walked back into his dwelling, I followed with my camera. I shot half a dozen photographs very quickly, picking the one with the best compositional balance, to my eye at least.

In post-production, I wanted the texture and detail of the headdress to stand out and to make a statement. Using contrast and sharpening techniques, I hope you can almost feel the fabric in the original clothing. And while the surrounding colours are strong, they are ‘tertiary’ with lots of greys in the mix, creating a desaturated palette. During post-production, care was taken to ensure the shadow on the wall retained some prominence.

Need a good read? Like to learn something more about photography? Interested in new ideas? Why not purchase a copy of my book, The New Tradition, which is full of great tales and ideas. It has 100 photographs and accompanying stories guaranteed to enthrall you - and you can save $30 on the purchase price right now - use coupon code TNT30. Check out more on the www.betterphotography.com website

Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta

Italy, 2002. Canon EOS 1Ds, Canon 28-135mm lens @ 135mm
1/250 second @ f8, ISO 800, hand-held, no filter

When we arrived in Italy for a two-month holiday with our young family, there were two photographs that seemed to be everywhere we looked. One was a stand of trees in an undulating field near Montalcino, the other a small chapel sitting alone in a field on a hill, and they were on the covers of guidebooks and posters promoting travel within Italy.

Eventually I found them both, having asked every Italian I met if he or she could give me a clue (Google and Google Maps weren’t around to help me in 2002).

At the time, we were staying in Orvieto and it was around a 90-minute drive to Cappella di Vitaleta. I visited it three times, researching the best time of day and hoping for suitable light.

It never happened.

The weather simply wouldn’t co-operate, so I had to resort to a second-best exposure with poor illumination.

On my final trip, the wind was so strong I couldn’t set up my tripod outside the car, so I positioned the car on the road and sat in the back seat with the window down and waited. Every few minutes, the wind would drop, the car would stop shaking and I’d press the shutter button. I spent half an hour with a zoom lens exploring different compositions.

Most of the photos I had seen were of the chapel alone with the small cluster of trees around it, but in reality, just to the right was a large farm building. What I had imagined based on the photographs I had seen was a lone chapel in a vast field, but looking back on the photographs I had seen, I could understand how the framing and composition had fooled me (or perhaps, more correctly, how I had interpreted the scene).

My solution was to remove the farm building. The first time I processed the print was in 2002 using an early version of Photoshop. I used the clone tool to remove the farm building and adjusted the colours to be more inviting. The drab light had really only left me with varying tones of grey, but I could see the potential for colour in the trees below and the surrounding field.

This is one of the first images in which I explored The New Tradition. Not only could I process the file shortly after taking it (that night with a nice glass of red), I could transform my camera’s capture into something that better represented my thoughts and feelings about the location.

And some 10 years later, I reprocessed the file. This is not something I normally do because once an image is processed, I find it boring to revisit it. However, I needed a larger version of the file for a client and, looking at my original technique, felt I had to finesse it further. Yet another positive for The New Tradition.

Need a good read? Like to learn something more about photography? Interested in new ideas? Why not purchase a copy of my book, The New Tradition, which is full of great tales and ideas. It has 100 photographs and accompanying stories guaranteed to enthrall you - and you can save $30 on the purchase price right now - use coupon code TNT30. Check out more on the www.betterphotography.com website

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