Making copying an art form
If you are interested in photography
(and I presume you must be if you are reading this column) then you probably
have bought a few photography books, and by now you have a favorite
You do have a favorite photographer,
don’t you? No? Well, you should! Everyone should have a photographer whose
work stimulates you to greater heights. For me, I have many whose work I
enjoy – Norman Parkinson, Helmut Newton and Jeff Dunas all rate high, but
one photographer who inspires me not only with his images, but also with his
words, is Larry Dale Gordon.
I have many photographic books in my
personal library including the irreplaceable “Shooting your way to a million
dollars” by Richard Sharabura, and others including Al Satterwhite and
Michael Busselle. However, Larry Dale Gordon has his own special magic.
Now when I say that your favorite
photographer’s work should inspire you, that does not mean that you should
rush out and slavishly copy their work. Don’t laugh, I have seen it done so
many times in camera club level photographers who have been most upset when
I mark them down for copying, rather than being creative.
When I say “inspire” I mean that you
look at the work and say to yourself, “How did he/she do that?” You should
look at the end result and work out how you can use that technique, to
produce your own shot. Half the fun in photography is working out “how to”
with the other half being the enjoyment of looking at the final image.
So why does Larry Dale Gordon inspire
me? There are many reasons. First off, he is a self trained photographer,
who believes that the way to learn is to do it. Let me quote you from one of
his books, “I learned photography through experience; by putting film
through the camera, peering through the lenses, trial and error, and
pondering every facet of light. It’s the only way. If you think there is
another way, or a faster way, write a book telling how and you will make
considerably more money than by being a photographer.” These are very wise
words. Cut them out and stick them on your bathroom mirror and read them
every day! In fact, a renowned Thai photographer, Tom Chuawiwat, used to
tell me that professional photography was the only job where the client paid
you to learn!
I’ve tried to see just what it is about
Larry Dale Gordon’s pictures that appeal so much to me and I’ve come up with
two basic concepts. Simplicity and Color.
Simplicity makes any photograph more
readily understandable. Your photos should also have a strong, dominant
color to attract the eye to the photo.
So look at the photo I have chosen
here. A sunset, which can be deduced by the orange color, and a couple
holding hands. This is a classic genre which can be duplicated by anyone
with a camera. So saying, all you have to do is nip down to Pattaya Beach
late afternoon with your couple, and if you want it to be “Thailand” then
incorporate an elephant or two. However, let’s not make slavish copies! But
instead, let’s look at how we can accomplish the effect of a monochromatic
picture and silhouette. This can actually be done any time of day, but to
make it easier for you, pick your favorite beach or riverside at a time when
the sun can be behind your subject – be that people or things. Now you need
a tricky filter, called a “tobacco” filter. On that bright sunny day, with
the light behind your subject(s) hold this brown/orange filter over the lens
and pop the shutter. Stick it on Auto if you will, the camera will do the
rest. Even experiment with different colors to get strangely wonderful or
weirdly dreadful results. In other words, you are using the same technique,
not producing copies.
The only point to really remember is to
get the light behind the subject. You will be able to get this “pseudo
sunset” look any time after three in the afternoon. Try it and amaze your
friends with a classic silhouette!
Stage photography made easy
Bumblefoot Thal who played at The Venue recently.
It would appear to me
that every second bar in Pattaya features a live band. These bands are not
only made up of musicians, but of people who are also very adept to playing
in the half dark or under rotating red and blue lighting. Correct? So how do
you capture the stage presence with your camera?
The difference between
stage photography and most other branches of photography is trying to get a
decent image using diabolical stage lighting. This is quite different from
that you normally experience. Stage lighting is generally tungsten based and
sharp (what we call “spectral” lighting). Spots for the performers and
floods for the background are the hallmarks of the usual stage lighting. The
use of spots in particular is used to highlight the principal performer or
action on stage.
To compound the
problems, the stage has activity on it. Mick Jagger will not stop for you to
focus while he is running frenetically from one side of the stage to the
other. You cannot quite ask someone in the middle of Othello’s death bed
scene to hold that pose and say “Cheese”. Sugar plum fairies can’t stand on
their points in toe shoes for best positions.
photographs manage to retain that “stagey” lighting feel to them, so that
instantly you look at the image you know it is of a performer on a stage
somewhere. Remember, that as a photographer you are recording events, people
and places as they happen. You are a mirror of the world!
The secret of retaining
that stage feel is in the lighting. Because it tends to be dark, the first
thing the average photographer will do is to bolt on his million megawatt
gerblinden flash gun with enough power to light up the far side of the moon.
While understandable, I do not endorse that approach to stage photography,
but more on that shortly.
Do you use a telephoto
lens? No. Because it gets you too far from the light falling on the
performers. Again it is the old adage of “walk several meters closer” for
this type of photography too. Use a standard lens and get close. If needs
be, find which row seat you need to be able to do this. All part of being
Now in the good old
‘film’ days, you got hold of some “fast” film. 800 ASA if you could, but 400
ASA will do. It was a good all-round film that does not give too “grainy” an
image, yet will allow for handholding the camera in the stage situation.
However, with today’s digital cameras, I have found you can run the camera
on a nominal 200 ASA, or 800 ASA at most. (Anything over this and the
digital image begins to break down.)
So, what about
lighting? Pro photographer’s tip – leave the flash in the bag, or turn it
off at the camera. Now I know it is dark, but you are trying to retain the
stage lighting effects. In other words, you are going to let the stage’s
lighting technician be the source of light for your photograph.
Now get a seat as close
to the action as you can, and then select a lens that can allow you to fill
the frame with the performers. Funnily enough, that will be, in most cases,
the ‘standard’ 50 mm lens. Shots that show an entire dark stage with two
tiny little people spot lit in front are not good stage shots. In fact they
are not good anything shots! If all you have is a fixed lens point and
shooter, get as close to the front of the stage as you can. You can still
get the scene stopping shot – you have just to get very close. OK?
There is also the
‘problem’ with white balance with digital cameras. The constantly changing
lights with stage performances means that the digital camera can get very
confused, but honestly that is not a problem. You will still get an image
that says “stage performance”, which is what you want.
Next time you are
getting shots of people on stages, try turning the flash off, and you will
see the end result is much better.
With the advent of the ‘anti-social media’ – just look at
the way nobody speaks to each other anymore as they two-thumb messages to
people they barely know, and then send pictures of the food they ate to
everyone they’ve never met. Suddenly, everyone is a food photographer.
restaurateurs may be great cooks, many are not great photographers. And if
your photo of pies looks unappetizing and in a strange shade of green, then
you will not have people knocking the doors down to try them.
Food photographers are
some of the highest paid pro shooters, because it is one of the more
difficult areas of photography. 20 years ago I could command $10,000 a day
photographing food. There are even people called ‘food stylists’ who prepare
the food to make it ‘look’ appetizing, as the taste does not matter in a
I was given the job to
photograph 10 ice cream cones for a restaurant chain. They wanted all 10 of
them standing up, all different flavors and looking attractive. This was not
a simple assignment.
First off, how do you
get 10 ice cream cones to stand upright with no obvious support? The answer
was wooden skewers through the back of the cone going into a block of
polystyrene covered with black velvet material.
Next you have to check
the lighting flash heads and focus, using polystyrene balls on top of the
cones, as ice cream melts too quickly. After you get all that set up
properly you have to be ready to scoop up the ice creams and place them on
the cones without any drips. You need three people to do this as ice cream
under studio lighting melts in under 30 seconds.
Having taken one shot,
if you are lucky everything will be fine. The reality is that you will need
to take the shot several times to get everything correct, all the cones
exactly parallel to each other, and no drips on the black velvet. That one
shot will take you one day, so you can see why food photography is so
Have you ever tried
photographing champagne in your restaurant? There’s never enough bubbles to
make it look sparkling. To get over this, drop some sugar into the glass.
Only a few grains are enough to give the almost still glass of champers that
“just opened” fizz look to it. For a catalogue shot you also have to bring
the light in from the back of the glass, as well as from the front. This
takes two flash heads, or at least one head and a reflector.
While still on wines,
if you try and shoot a bottle of red wine, it comes out thick dark maroon or
even black. Restaurateurs who have tried photographing their wines will
agree. So what does the pro shooter do? Well he has a couple of courses of
action. First is to dilute the red wine by about 50 percent and secondly
place a silver foil reflector on the back of the bottle. So what happens to
the half bottle of red that was removed to dilute the wine? The photographer
has it with lunch.
This is one area where
there are more fraudulent practices than any other. Cold food can be made to
look hot by sprinkling chips of dry ice to give “steam” coming off the dish.
Not palatable, but it looks OK. Cooking oil gets brushed on slices of the
cold meat so that they look moist and succulent.
That is just for
starters. In the commercial photography studio, the dedicated food
photographer would erect a “light tent” of white polystyrene and bounce
electronic flash inside. Brightness is necessary to stop the food looking
grey and dull. Lighting is just so important. If you do not have bright
sparkly light then potatoes will look grey, and even the china plates look
drab and dirty.
And for the chap with
the green pies, stop taking the photos under fluorescent light. Take your
pies outside and shoot them under sunlight. They will then look as good as
they should taste!
I know it is illegal to
adulterate food for photographs – but I’m not going to tell.
DOF made easy
The son of an old friend is doing a photography
course at a university overseas, and has come up against DOF,
the contraction for Depth Of Field.
What’s DOF? Quite simply, it is Depth Of Field, and mastery
of DOF really is the second rule of photography in my opinion. Before you
ask, the first rule is to walk several meters closer to the subject and fill
The Depth Of
Field in any picture can often make or break the entire photograph, but
knowing how to manipulate the depth of field improves your photography
The term DOF
refers to an optical one and depends solely on the lens being used and the
aperture selected. Altering the shutter speed, does not change the Depth of
Field really refers to the zone of “sharpness” (or being in acceptable
focus) from foreground items to background items in any photograph. This is
different from what the eye sees, as the eye can instantly focus on near and
far objects, giving the impression that everything in your field of vision
is in sharp focus. The camera, however, gives you a slice of time.
concept to remember is “1/3rd forwards and 2/3rds back.” Again this is a law
of optical physics, but means that the DOF, from foreground to background in
your photograph can be measured, and from the focus point in the photo,
extends towards you by one third and extends away from the focus point by
For those of
you with SLR’s, especially the older manual focus SLR’s, you will even find
a series of marks on the focusing ring of the lens to indicate the Depth of
Field that is possible with that lens.
Take a look
at this week’s photograph, and look at the background. It has been made into
a soft blur. How did I change this DOF sharpness? Answer, with a flick of
You see, for
each focal length of lens, the DOF possible is altered by the Aperture. The
rule here is simple – the higher the Aperture number, the greater the DOF
and the lower the Aperture number, the shorter the DOF. In simple terms, for
any given lens, you get greater front to back sharpness with f22 and
you get very short front to back sharpness at f4.
using a 24 mm focal length lens focused on an object 2 meters away – if you
select f22, the DOF runs from just over 0.5 meter to 5 meters (4.5
meters total), but if you select f11 it only runs from 1 m to 4 m (3
m total) and if you choose f5.6 the Depth of Field is only from 1.5 m
to 3 m (1.5 m total).
On the other
hand, using a longer 135 mm focal length lens focused at the same point 2
meters away, you get the following Depths of Field – at f22 it runs
from 1.9 m to 2.2 m (0.3 m) and at f5.6 it is 1.95 m to 2.1 m (a
total of 0.15 m).
all these initially confusing, numbers gives you now complete mastery of DOF
in any of your photographs. Simply put another way – the higher the Aperture
number, the greater the DOF; the smaller the Aperture number the smaller the
DOF; plus the longer the lens, the shorter the DOF, the shorter the lens,
the longer the DOF (just remember the ‘opposites’ – the longer gives
Now to apply
this formula – when shooting a landscape for example, where you want great
detail from the foreground, right the way through to the mountains five
kilometers away, then use a short lens (24 mm is ideal) set at f22
and focused on a point about 2 km away.
On the other
hand, when shooting a portrait where you only want to have the eyes and
mouth in sharp focus you would use a longer lens (and here the 135 is ideal)
and a smaller Aperture number of around f5.6 to f4 and focus
directly on the eyes to give that ultra short Depth of Field required.
optical laws hold good for all cameras, even digital.