Last weekend I was shooting pictures of the lights and buildings in Montreal’s Chinatown at night. A group of young people saw my camera and tripod and asked me to take their pictures.
It’s been a while since I’ve done much people photography in anything other than fairly conventional lighting. And all I had was the pop-up flash on my Nikon D300, and the tripod. No external flash and no reflectors, etc. When trying a new technique or one you haven’t used in a while, it often takes a bit of experimenting to get it right.
At first I just shot the group with the pop-up flash and a normal flash setting. They arranged themselves in a pose, and I was mainly concerned about how the lighting would look. The result was OK, but the background was very dark, and the light on the kids was harsh. It had a snapshot look.
I immediately realized that if I wanted to soften the light on them and bring in more details from the background, I would need to try something else — like a slow-sync flash setting.
A regular flash shot uses a fast shutter speed just long enough to allow the flash to completely light the subject. Slow sync, on the other hand, fires the flash, but the shutter stays open in order to properly expose the background and other areas that aren’t lit by the flash. It’s like two exposures in one — a quick exposure with the flash, and a longer exposure for the background similar to what you’d get if you just took a long exposure without the flash.
The problem was that I didn’t know just how long the exposure would take. And the kids, after seeing the flash go off, assumed the picture was finished, and they moved away. The result was a strange, but interesting ghosting effect.
In the result above, the boy in the front has stayed relatively still. The flash records the features of the others sharply, but then as they move or leave, there is a blurring and ghosting effect as the slow shutter continues exposing for a few seconds without the flash.
So I tried again.
Here they held still for longer, but still didn’t quite wait for the camera to finish exposing after the flash went off. I was communicating with them in a mix of English and French, and realized I had to be more clear that not only should they not move, but they should hold the pose until I indicated the shot was finished. I tried again with the whole group.
They tried to stay still for this one, but to get a group of nine excited young people to stay absolutely still for several seconds just wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard they tried. So I tried again with just three of the boys, again emphasizing that they had to remain absolutely still.
I liked the result of this one the best of the series, even though some of the ghosting ones had an interesting effect. The slow sync brought out the lighting of the background and softened the light on the kids. There’s still some ghosting of people moving by, but they are in the background and so less distracting.
It gives me more to experiment with next time. In hindsight, I should have taken more time and tried a few different apertures and shutter speeds to vary the ratio of the exposure time with and without the flash. I’d also like to try it with an external flash and perhaps a reflector. Finally, I should have spent more time choosing the right background, and working with the kids to get the best poses.
In a photography group on Flickr, I recently asked participants to name their photography gurus.
To me a guru is more than just someone whose work you admire and try to emulate. It’s also someone who’s a teacher. We don’t necessarily try to imitate the styles of our gurus, but we learn from their ideas and techniques as we develop our own styles.
In my first attempt to answer my own question, I named three photographers whose work I admire for very different reasons. Each though, has published numerous books and articles explaining their techniques – often in an entertaining manner.
Joe McNally – Joe is an expert on using portable strobes on location, and often works with multiple flashes, linking them wirelessly through the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS). Even if you’re not a Nikonian, you’ll learn a lot from his highly readable books like The Hot Shoe Diaries and When the Shutter Clicks. I highly recommend a DVD he appears in A Hands-on Guide to Creative Lighting. His work appears in some of the best magazines, like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.
Bryan Peterson – Bryan runs the online Perfect Picture School of Photography, and he’s authored a number of photography books. I really like the way he focuses on creativity and technique, and dispels the idea that expensive gear is the key to successful photography. He has a very clear and accessible way of explaining things, and his books are richly illustrated with his photos. Some I’ve read are: Understanding Exposure, Understanding Close-up Photography, and Beyond Portraiture: Creative People Photography. Excellent books for beginners, but also lots for more experienced photographers.
Scott Kelby – Scott is the guru for post production using software like Photoshop and Lightroom. He too provides online training. As he is a photographer, his books are geared to photographers. He has a goofy sense of humour that isn’t for everyone, but he has a great way of explaining things.
I soon realized that all three of them were American. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but as a Canadian who enjoys landscape photography, I thought I’d better add three Canadian landscape photographers who have also written numerous articles and books I’ve found helpful as I’ve developed my technique:
Darwin Wiggett darwinwiggett.wordpress.com/ – based in Alberta.
Daryl Benson www.darylbenson.com/ – another Albertan.
Dale Wilson www.dalewilsonphotography.com/ – from Nova Scotia.
Others answered with names of photographers they admire, who aren’t necessarily teachers. Check out the discussion:
Often I show a group of photos to different people, and I’m always struck that there is rarely a consensus on which is the best photo. Different people are drawn to different things — a photo that speaks to one person seems to leave another person flat.
Sometimes I’ve had to pick a photo — my own or someone else’s — for a publication or some other purpose and I canvass opinions. Some people agree on one photo, while others feel strongly that other photos are better.
The quality of a photo depends a lot on the use you intend to make of it. A picture to hang on a wall will be judged by very different criteria from a picture to be used for editorial purposes (e.g. in a newspaper), or shown in a gallery. A portrait of a person may be stylish and edgy, or conventional and Conservative, and the appropriate picture depends on the person and how it will be used.
To me, there are three elements that must be present for a picture to be good. They may be present in different amounts, but they must all be there:
- The photo must be technically good
- It should be presented in a creative and interesting way
- The photographer should have access to interesting subject matter
I’ll comment more on each of these elements in later posts, but for now, here are a few examples of what I mean.
Many pictures are technically very good, but the subject matter isn’t interesting. But good subject matter can be ruined if the picture isn’t technically good. The elements of a technically good photo include the right exposure — not too dark or two light; and the right depth of field and focus. You normally want your subject to be in sharp focus, but whether or not you want a sharp or soft background depends on the subject matter and your creative choices. Good technique involves understanding and using light and shadows for the best effect. You also need the right balance of aperture and shutter speed to control depth of field (the area in focus) and the movement of the subject (blurred or frozen sharp).
Thousands of photographers photograph the same subjects day after day, but a creative approach is needed to make a photograph stand out from the pack. Usually this involves choosing an interesting angle, framing the shot appropriately, and ideally including or excluding various elements for added effect. Ideally, a photographer uses technique in a creative way, for example using light and shadows to create a special effect, or freezing or blurring motion to emphasize movement or highlight the subject. Creativity is probably the most important element of a good photo.
Access to subject:
A person who lives in the area of an interesting natural feature is going to have a huge advantage over someone just passing through on a short visit, all other things being equal. The local person will know the best time of day to photograph that subject, and the best angles. They can return over and over under different weather and light conditions or different seasons to get the shot just right.
Likewise, a person who has access to unique subject matter because of where they live or work has an advantage. It’s always best to write about what you know, and the same applies to photography. Subject matter you are familiar with is going to be easier to present in photos than strange subject matter. This is not to suggest you need to live in an exotic place to get great pictures — often there is exciting subject matter in your own home or backyard if you are creative enough to find it.
I’ll comment more on these points in a later post.