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Camera Class by Harry Flashman


Recording “The Event”

We have all attended some important “events” in our lives.  These range from births, marriages and deaths and everything in between.  Sometimes you may be asked to record these events for posterity.  So if you get lumbered with this responsibility, you have to keep one thing in mind - you have to return with the goods, come Hell or high water.  This is literally the professional photographer’s creed.

For everyone at the event, it is an important milestone in their lives, in some way or another, and so the event deserves to be recorded properly.  And guess what, you can’t do it with one shot - it will even stretch the capabilities of your memory card, unless you have a spare 16 GB on board.

So to make sure that you can get the event in its entirety, here are a few hints.  The secret is to start long before you get to the event venue and sit down and make yourself a list.  A checklist, in fact.  What you have to remember at all times, is just what is this event all about?  Let us assume that the party you are going to record is a birthday.  Here’s what you should be thinking about.

What do you need to show?  Firstly you have to show that it is a birthday, not just any old party.  Secondly you have to feature the person whose birthday it is.  Thirdly you have to show who came to celebrate the birthday and fourthly any significant gifts that were received.  Not even Henri Cartier-Bresson would be able to get all that lot into one “decisive moment” photograph!

It should go without saying that you have checked your camera, it does work, you do have a memory card with space and you do have spare batteries for the flash.  Here is the type of list I would draw up for myself if taking photographs for your child’s birthday –

1.       Shot of birthday child looking at a birthday card (close up - this gives the visual clue that it is a birthday)

2.       Birthday child opening present (close up - more clues)

3.       As above with parents and friends standing around (wide angle shot)

4.       Mother placing candles on birthday cake (classic clue)

5.       Father lighting candles

6.       Blowing out the candles (close up - an absolute “must”)

7.       General shots of people singing and clapping

8.       Happy time shots

Note that all these shots are designed to set the scene, show the participants and nominate the “star”.  There are varied shots, some close up, some group shots and together they make a package called “Bab’s Birthday”.

Probably one of the most important items to remember is my adage - “Walk several meters closer!”  When people are just small dots, you cannot pick out who they were, several months later.  Do not be afraid to walk in close - this one factor alone will result in much better pictures.  Remember too, that although you can make subjects look closer using a telephoto lens, the flash may not carry the distance.

For many of the shots, you will also have to be prepared, because when the action happens at an event, it can happen very quickly.  For example, blowing out the candles.  You can’t say, “Sorry, I wasn’t ready.  Can you do it again please?”  The name of the game is to know what you want to shoot, and be ready for it.

Now when you come to put them in the family album, you have a nice group of pictures which many years later will continue to say “Bab’s Birthday”.  And you made it happen photographically.  Well done!

So next time you are going to photograph an important event, buy a spare memory card and plan your shots, take them deliberately according to the plan and be amazed at how much better your results will be!

One final word of warning.  When you have become the ‘official’ photographer for any event, you cannot be the life and soul of the party until you have taken all the shots on your list.  You are being relied upon to come home with the goods.  You can’t do it with a belly full of beer!

How to photograph difficult subjects

I was speaking to a chap the other day, whose partner was an artist, and that reminded me just how difficult it is to do justice to a painting using the medium of photography.

If you are ever in an art gallery, even if you are allowed to photograph the paintings on the wall, the result is a ‘blown out’ center and dark edges.  This is the same whether you are using the weeny on-board flash or a hammer head flash that can light up the other side of the moon.

You will also have a problem with lenses, firstly to ensure there is no ‘pin cushion’ effect, and then getting a wide enough lens to get all the painting in, without having to go back 20 paces.  This is not an easy exercise.

Let’s deal with the lighting.  You need to get flat, featureless lighting, and that is why a flash is not the answer.  The ideal lighting is daylight, overcast and the painting placed so that it is at right angles to the direction of the light.  Unless you are photographing at mid day, this means that you have to hold the painting at around 45 degrees from the vertical.  Don’t drop it!  Mid day is also not a good idea, as you and the camera will obscure much of the light falling on the painting, and you are back again to uneven lighting.

Photographing during the day does mean you are not restricted by how far away you can get from the canvas and you do get better results with a ‘portrait’ lens (say around 135 mm focal length) as you will get less distortion at that focal length.

So to recap:

Don’t bother taking photographs of paintings in an art gallery, even if allowed.  Take the shots outside with flat light (open air shade is good) and keep the camera on the same plane as the light source and at 90 degrees to the canvas.

There you go - that was easy.

Another very difficult subject is wine.  (And you thought I was going to say ‘children’ - also very difficult.  If you do get asked to photograph somebody’s child invent a contagious disease.)

Back to wine: Restaurateurs know that it is good to have a photograph of the wine bottle in the menu, but nine times out of ten, the wine does not look good or enticing.  Red wines end up looking black and white wines end up looking green.  However, I can teach you in this column just how to get over this problem.

The first item to remember is to turn off your flash, because to photograph liquids in bottles front lighting is no good - it takes what we call back lighting, so that the light passes through the bottle on the way to the camera.

If you have an off-camera flash, this is the time to use it.  With your DSLR you can view all your photographs, and check that the flash burst is actually going through the red wine in particular.  I have seen us pour half the wine out (into drinking glasses - which were used later of course) and top up with water, to get the correct color of the wine.  Naughty, I know, but it is the end result that matters.

So what do you do if you haven’t got an off-camera flash?  Well, it is still possible to get a good photograph.  What you have to do is get the light source behind the wine.  Window light can work well here and set the camera exposure details for the front of the bottle.  In this way, the back light ends up two to three stops brighter than the front light and will penetrate the wine in the bottle.  Be ready to pour out some red wine again if it is still too dark!

If needs be, you can put some foil on the back of the glass to reflect some front light back through the wine.

Glasses of wine work exactly like the bottles, though you can usually penetrate the wine in the glass without dilution.

So to recap:

Backlight all wine, and be prepared to dilute if the color is still too dark.

Easter Weddings - unless you are the groom - don’t go!

Anybody who owns a reasonable camera will be asked, at some stage, to photograph a friend’s wedding.  To avoid the major pitfalls, find a dying maiden aunt that you have to visit that weekend.  You have been warned.  If that has not been enough of a warning, keep reading.

One very experienced wedding photographer even went so far as to call the craft, “Hours of controlled patience, punctuated by moments of sheer terror and intense bursts of creativity.”  However, to make it less of a terror, here are some guides to photographing someone else’s ‘big day’.  And it is because it is someone’s big day that it becomes so important to get it right.  Wedding photographers talk about the three P’s - preparation, photography and presentation.  My idea of wedding photography and the three P’s are pain, persecution and panic.

Get up, you’re ruining that hire dress!

However, looking at the accepted “preparation”.  This is very important and will make your job so much easier.  This would include going to the church, temple, registry office or whatever before the great day to see just what you can use as backgrounds, and where you can position the happy couple, and their parents, and their bridesmaids, and their friends, and the neighborhood dogs and everything else that seems to be in wedding photographs.  Just by doing this, you at least will know ‘where’ you can take some photographs.

Preparation also covers talking to the couple and finding out just what they expect to be taken.  As pointed out at the beginning, when you take on photographing a wedding, you are taking on a huge responsibility.

Also part of the preparation is to make sure your cameras are functioning properly, so test them before the big day.  Note too, that I said ‘cameras’ because there is nothing more soul destroying than having a camera fail during an event such as this.  Preferably, the second camera will be the same as the first, so that your lenses will be interchangeable.  Yes, lenses!  You will need a wide angle (say 28 mm), a standard 50 mm and a short telephoto (say 135 mm).  The wide angle is needed for the group shots and the standard for couples and the tele for “head hunting”, looking for those great candid shots.

Now comes the actual “Photography” itself.  You have already written down all the shots that the couple want, make a list so you can cross them off your list as you go.  One series of shots should be taken at the bride’s residence, and this includes the bridesmaids.  Many of these will be indoor shots, so do take your flash and bounce the light off the ceiling to soften the effect of the flash burst.  Make sure you have new batteries, and a spare memory card!

Now you have to scoot to the church or wherever the actual ceremony will be, so you can get the bride outside, ready to walk down the aisle with her father, or whomever is giving the bride away.

With those shots out of the way, now you can go and get the ceremony and I do not recommend that you use the flash for these photographs.  For some religions, this is a solemn time and flash bursts are very intrusive.

Cross off the rest of the shots as you cover them - the signing of the register, emerging arm in arm, confetti or rice and then the formal shots of the wedding groups.

After all this, everyone is dying for a beer and head for the reception.  However, Mr. or Mrs. Photographer, you must wait a little while yet.  There is the ceremony of cutting the cake to be done yet, and photographs of the guests enjoying themselves (other than you).

Having crossed every shot off the list, make for the drinks department.  You’ve earned it.  After all, you have probably taken around 200 shots by now!

The final ‘P’ is presentation.  Photograph albums are inexpensive, so put the best shots from each series into a couple of albums and present them to the couple as your gift.  And as your final job, make the mental resolve to never photograph another wedding as long as you live!

Taking the camera swimming

With the floods that we have had recently, there is probably more than one camera that went swimming, and is now (hopefully) the subject of an insurance claim.  However, there is truly another world beneath the surface.

A few years back, one of our avid underwater explorers wrote and suggested I should write on this subject.  What he did not know, being a weekend flipper and snorkel type as he was, is that I get nervous if the water reaches my knees.  Many years ago I struck a bargain with sharks, those denizens of the deep with the amazing dentition.  The deal was that I would not swim in their bath water, if they would refrain from swimming in mine.  I have been true to my word, and they have also, with no dorsal fins seen anywhere near my bath tub.  So because of my fear, my knowledge of underwater photography is restricted to shooting through the portholes of swimming pools!

I actually did a camera test many years ago on the ferociously expensive Nikonos cameras.  It was easy to clean - you just directed the garden hose at it, and all the sand washed off (after I had bravely put it under the surface and photographed the model’s feet).

However, with the advent of cheap underwater cameras these days (even disposable ones), you do not have to invest in a Nikonos to try getting a few shots beneath the surface.

Now comes the technical stuff.  Not only can you not breathe sea water, what has to be remembered is that water (especially sea water), is 700 times more dense and 2000 times less transparent than air.  Even though it may look crystal clear down there with the dugongs, it is not.  It has been suggested to me that if you are using natural light (that is from the sun above the waves) then do not go lower than seven meters below the surface.  That is five meters deeper than I am high - that definitely precludes my trying it.

For these reasons, underwater photographers will use wide angle lenses, so that they have to be close to the subject, so there is then less water between the camera and the item being photographed.  If it is a large fish with teeth, you need to be a knee tremblingly three meters from it, to get a good shot.  Far too close for me!  Those that claim to know (and I do know a couple of underwater photographers who so far have neither been eaten or drowned) say that a focal length lens of between 28 mm and 15 mm (almost a ‘fish eye’) would be appropriate for 35 mm cameras.

Another tip given to me by the wet-suit and water-wings brigade is to take the meter reading on the surface and open up the aperture one f stop for every three meters depth.

Again when using sunlight, the best time of day is the exact opposite from the above the surface shooter.  Forget early morning and late afternoon, as the sun’s rays get reflected away from the surface of the water.  The best time is when the sun is directly overhead and the light penetrates the water more easily.

You may have also noticed that underwater shots can have strange colors.  This is because the light becomes diffused as it travels through the water, and the different colors, which have different wavelengths, become absorbed at different rates (or depths).  Red is the first to go and yellow is the last.  The predominant color is then usually bluish or greenish, which explains why underwater shots have that color cast.  You can counteract this by manipulation in the computer with your electronic paint brush.

However, whatever the technicalities, if you just want to try something different one weekend, buy one of the inexpensive throw-away waterproof cameras, stay just under the surface and see what you get.  You will probably be delighted with the results.  But if you are considering SCUBA diving with a spear gun in one hand and a camera in the other, you will need much more specialized equipment!  Glug, glug.

Project 52

Having recently made a small study, I came to the conclusion that the one item in everyone’s possession which is not giving value for money, is the camera.  I’m talking about digitals here, as film belongs to the dark ages these days.

This week’s column is actually not a discourse on the two camera (photography) types - film and digital.  I believe everyone now understands the reasons why the world left film behind.  For new photographers who never used film, just understand that digital gives you the advantage of ‘instant’ review, something that film could never do.  The best that film could do was a one hour wait at the photo-processors.

However, digital cameras are not cheap, and a DSLR can easily see you spending 20,000 baht and upwards.  For that sort of money, you should be seeing some sort of return in satisfaction.

There is just so much more you can do with a DSLR than just taking photos of children, friends and family.  You should be able to get some fun from the investment too.

The way to get that fun is to make a project for yourself, and one that can be carried through involves taking a photograph of something each week for a complete year.  Hence my calling it Project 52.

For example, you could even do a self-portrait each week for one year.  Use your imagination and creativity so that you do not end up with 52 shots of your face.  There’s plenty of other bits of you to try.  A fun idea would be make 52 sections of yourself, and then paste the different shots on to one sheet which would make a final art work that Picasso would have been proud of.

Too squeamish for 52 shots of yourself?  Well, how about 52 shots of your local area or suburb?  The plan is to show all the different items that can be found in one community.  There will also be different weather in that year - wet and dry to start with.  There is also night and day, sunset and sunrise.  High viewpoint, low viewpoint.  You can see where I am going here.  By using your creative senses, you can give yourself many hours of concepts and ideas and then shoot them each weekend.

Project 52 can also be carried out by older members of the family, and by children.  Whilst personally I think a DSLR is better suited for this type of project, there is no real reason why a digital compact could not be used.

If 52 is just too much to take on, then what about Project 26?  Each shot represents one letter of the alphabet.  Sure, A for Apple is easy, but Q for ? is a little more difficult.  Again, the creative approach will see you looking for queues, or even “quickly” (work out how to show that).  You could even make it that the subject matter in each of the 26 shots, looks like the letter.  A stepladder looks like an A.  So a double hook, for example, looks like an S, whilst a single hook looks like a J.  The top of a bottle is an O.  An open pair of scissors is a V.

You won’t find all the items in one weekend, but by the following weekend you’ll have worked out what you are looking to photograph.

If Project 26 is still too onerous for you, how about Project 12?  There are 12 months of the year, think about how you can show the difference between them.  Hot, wet, cold - there’s three of them - and then it gets harder from there.  But the whole concept is to get you thinking, and then using your expensive investment.

Sit down this weekend and work out which project you would like to try, then start working on the concept, and then finally start shooting.  Best of luck.