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Camera Class by Harry Flashman


Portraits or Pictures?

Portrait of Twiggy by Cecil Beaton.

Anyone who is known to enjoy the pastime of photography will, one day, be asked to take somebody’s photo - and by that, they don’t mean a passport picture, they mean a portrait that can be hung on the wall as a veritable family heirloom.

There are enormous differences between pictures and portraits.  The two styles of resulting photographs are poles apart.  You see, ‘portraits’ comes from the word ‘portray’ and means to make a likeness of.  Portraiture is even described as the ‘art’ of making that likeness, and that is where the difference comes.

We have all got, or have seen, passport photographs.  These are the archetypal picture.  They show what your face looks like.  Nothing more, nothing less, and all against a blue background, with the sitter square on to the camera.

However, when you have a portrait taken, the photograph should do more than just show what your face looks like, but also give some inkling as to what you are like.  Sort of ‘value-added’ if you will.  I describe it as making a likeness of the ‘person’.  Somehow you have to get the personality into the picture, and that way you have a real portrait.

It is for this reason alone that you cannot walk into a suburban photo studio and get your “portrait” taken.  At best you will get an adequately lit picture of yourself.  You will not get a portrait.

For the photographer to understand the sitter takes time in getting to know the sitter.  Likes and dislikes, hobbies, anxieties, a wife or mother - a whole thumbnail sketch of the person, and then and only then, should the sitter get in front of the camera.

So let’s make you, the weekend photographer, into a portrait photographer.  To portray the person, you first need to know how the sitters perceive themselves.  People who consider themselves to be happy, spontaneous people should be photographed laughing, head back, open mouthed, smiling, tossing the hair around - you get the concept, I’m sure.  More studious people should be shown in that manner.  A book as a prop is a great idea to convey the mood and make the sitter feel relaxed.  Having already found out a little of the sitter’s likes and dislikes, you can also add some props, and have the subject begin to relate to them, like the book in the studious portrait.  This also helps them to relax.

I have mentioned before in this column that the first rule with all sitters is to get your subject to relax.  If your favorite lady is sitting rigidly staring at the camera as Thai people seem to do, I can guarantee that the end result will not be pleasing to either the sitter or the photographer.  When making a portrait of Thai people in particular, it is even more important to get them relaxed and happy, as they do tend to “stand to attention” with arms held straight at their sides, looking as if they are on army parade.

The pose to avoid at all costs is the subject straight on to the camera.  This is unfortunately the commonest pose - but it is the most un-glamorous pose, especially as far as women are concerned.  That is why it is used in passports!

Here’s what to do to get over this problem.  Start by sitting your lady in a chair, and then turn it 45 degrees away from the straight ahead position.  Now ask her to slowly turn her head and look at the end of your camera’s lens.  Look through your viewfinder - see?  It looks better already.  Now ask her to gently raise the shoulder closest to the camera and smile.  Guess what?  You are starting to get a portrait image.

That basic pose can be modified by turning to the left as well as to the right, shoulders up or down, open mouthed smile or shy grin.  Each shot will have a different look.  Try to get the subject relaxed by talking to them, cracking jokes or anything that will get them to relax.  From there you try to get the personality of the sitter to come through.

Have a go at portrait photography this weekend.

The Grandma Moses of photography

Grandma Moses can be a role model for ‘seniors’.  Died when she was 101, had 10 children and did hard farm work from the age of 12.  She was unfailingly positive in her attitude and thought like my own mother who always said, “Hard work never killed anybody.”

As Grandma Moses got older and found the physical demands of farm work too onerous, she took up embroidery to fill up her spare time.  At the age of seventy-six she gave up embroidery and began to paint, because of arthritis in her hands making needlepoint too difficult.  At an age where many people are ready to give up, this remarkable woman started a new ‘career’, and a very successful career that was, with many of her paintings hanging in art galleries throughout the world.

I draw the comparison between Grandma Moses and ‘senior’ photographers, because photography is a pursuit, and an art form, that can be very satisfying, and yet be within the physical capabilities of people when they get older.

Modern cameras have all but removed all obstacles in the way of anyone’s ability to take pictures - from small children through to today’s Grandma Moses!

So what should a senior photographer look for with today’s cameras?  The first thing to look for is light weight.  As you get older, the ability to manipulate heavy cameras goes, and some of the really good cameras are far too heavy.  Look for a point and shoot camera, or a ‘bridge’ camera that is light enough for you to handle.  Forget the Nikon F3 or a Canon EOS, both excellent cameras, but with weights of over one kg without a lens attached, these are far too heavy.

Before I forget (another ‘senior’ moment), another very important accessory for seniors doing photography is your reading glasses!  To be able to check your shots, the camera settings and the battery life left you will need your readers!  Hang them on a string around your neck!  You will thank me.

As our eyesight starts to fall off, the average senior soon thinks that photography is beyond them, as it is too difficult to get the subject in sharp focus.  Modern technology has come to your rescue.  Almost every new camera has “Auto-Focus”, usually called AF.  Looking at the subject and depressing the shutter button half way, the camera will look for you and focus for you and even let you know that focus has been reached, usually with a ‘beep’ and a green light.  Sure, there are some tricks to be learned as to how to get the AF work for you in all situations, but it isn’t too difficult.  Beep and green light technology.

To make it possible to get even better and sharper photos, the camera designers had you seniors in mind.  So your hands aren’t rock steady any more, don’t worry, there is a thing called “anti-shake” technology in today’s cameras.  The camera itself will settle all but the biggest tremors that being a senior will bring.  This feature is not something in every camera, but if you ask at the camera store, they will tell you which models have it.  They have fancy names like Optical Image Stabilization, but “anti shake” will do.

The next important feature in a camera for seniors is the ‘zoom’ capability.  Even the better compacts have built in zooming.  I would never expect an 80 year old to clamber over rocks to get a photo of a turtle digging a hole in the sand, but with a half decent zoom, that shot is possible from this side of the rocks, even from a wheelchair.  The famous photographer Ansel Adams once said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”  With a zoom lens that is easy.

The thoughts of ‘exposure’ settings and such can be daunting for seniors, but every camera today has its “P” setting.  A ‘program’ that works out the optimal exposure, both shutter speed and aperture.  You don’t even need to know what those words mean - the camera will do it all.  The senior photographer just has to work out what he or she wants to photograph and then its composition.

Photography is for all ages, especially seniors!

Sharpen your Auto-Focus skills

Super sharp pic by Australian photographer Peter Geran.

For many years I resisted Auto-Focus (AF) cameras.  I always felt that I could focus manually faster than the AF could, and what was even more important, I knew what were the important items in the frame - the electronic “magic eye” did not.

However, like so many things in life, I have had to change my thoughts on AF.  Quite frankly, today’s AF is better than me.  Now that I need glasses as well, I am unsure whether I have the focus ‘sweet spot’ correctly, whilst my AF does, with a comforting ‘beep’.

However, since almost all new cameras are AF, the following tips will try and ensure that you do get the sharp results that you think you’re going to get from the important AF feature.

There are unfortunately many situations where the magic AF eye just cannot work properly.  If there is no contrast in the scene, then the AF will not work.  If you are trying to focus in a “low light” situation then the AF will “hunt” constantly looking for a bright area.  When trying to shoot through glass or wire mesh the AF can become totally confused as well.  No, while AF is now almost 100 percent universal, it is still not 100 percent foolproof.

One of the reasons for this is quite simple.  The camera’s magic eye doesn’t know exactly what subject(s) you want to be in focus and picked the wrong one!  The focussing area for the AF system is a small circle or square in the middle of the viewfinder, so if you are taking a picture of two people two meters away, the camera may just focus on the trees in the far distance that it can see between your two subjects.  Those trees are two km away, so you get a shot with the background sharp and the two people in the foreground as soft fuzzy blobs.

What you have to do is use the “hold-focus” (sometimes called “focus lock”) facility in your camera.  To use this facility, compose the people the way you want them, but then turn the camera so that one person is now directly in the middle of the viewfinder, in the AF focus square.  Gently push the shutter release half way down and the AF will “fix” on the subject.  Generally you will get a “beep” or a green light in the viewfinder to let you know that the camera has fixed its focus.  It will now hold that focus until you either fully depress the shutter release, or you take your finger off the button.  So keeping your finger on the button, recompose the picture in the viewfinder and shoot.  The people are now in focus, and the background soft and fuzzy, instead of the other way round.

So what should you do in the other situations when the AF is in trouble?  When all else fails, turn it off and focus manually!  Sometimes, in the poor light it is possible to shine a torch on the subject, get the AF fixed on the subject and then turn off your torch and go from there.  But this is only when you cannot turn the AF off!

Another focussing problem is when photographing a moving subject.  When say, for example, you are attempting to shoot a subject coming rapidly towards you, the AF is unable to “keep up” with the constantly moving target.  The answer here is to manually focus at the point where you want to get the photograph and then wait for the subject to reach that point.  As it gets level with the predetermined point, trip the shutter and you have it.  A sharply focussed action photograph.

Another super tip from the photographic studios of the glamour photographers - when making a portrait shot, focus on the eyes, nowhere else.  Very, very carefully focus on the eyelid margins and you will have a super shot, no matter how shallow your depth of field may be.

Finally, remember that AF is merely an electronic ‘aid’, you have to make sure it is helping you get better pictures.  Look carefully at what the pre-view screen is showing you.

Old photo-gear can be worth more than you think

Like most photographers, you will start to get a collection of old photo gear.  Some of it surplus to requirements, some of it broken and not worth repairing or too difficult to get repaired in this country, and much has become redundant because you have changed camera systems (film to digital for example), or even changed formats (6x6 to 35 mm for example).

For myself, after using Nikon for donkey’s years, I purchased a Panasonic Lumix Digital DMC-FZ50.  It took a year of deliberation (some might call it ‘hesitation’ or just plain ‘dithering’) before I made the fateful decision to a) go digital and b) go Lumix, after more than 20 years of using Nikon.

Of course, some of you will ask why didn’t I stay with Nikon, with its full range of digital SLRs?  Good question, but easily answered.  The upper level Nikons are now very expensive, and whilst I had some excellent Nikon manual focus prime lenses, they were not going to be all that compatible with the new Nikon digital auto-focus systems.  And have you seen how heavy the Nikons are these days?

That also brings in one of the salient reasons in the purchase of the Lumix - the fantastic 35-420 Leica zoom lens that comes with the Panasonic Lumix, coupled with the electronic anti-shake technology so you can hand hold, even at 420 mm.  With digitals these days, I believe that you are best served with electronics from an electronic company, with lenses from an optical company.  The Lumix definitely fits that.

Having made the irrevocable decision, I looked at my now defunct Nikon 35 mm film system.  I had two cameras, a much loved FM2N, and an FA.  The FM2N was the typical journalist’s workhorse with more rolls of film through it than I’ve had hot dinners, whilst the FA was the back up.  Only thing was the FA was no longer working, having some kind of internal problem, by which the mirror was locked in the “up” mode.

The lenses were a 24 mm wide angle, old and growing its second crop of fungus (the first was cleaned off about five years ago), a 50 mm ‘standard’ lens and a 135 mm ‘portrait’ lens.  I also had a spacer for macro work, which was also very old, but was the good one that still allowed the auto exposure function to work.

Quite frankly, as far as I was concerned, these items were now surplus and it was going to be very unlikely that I would use any of it again (although I would still take the FM2N out of its bag and lovingly stroke it every so often).

It was at that stage that a good friend of mine suggested I sell the surplus items, and said that he had excellent results selling items on eBay in the UK.  He was returning to the UK himself and offered to sell them, and I thought, “Why not?  I’m getting nothing for them sitting in the old camera bag.”

He had been back a couple of weeks when I got the following email:

                Watchers             Bids        THB

FA           14           7              1,400

FM2N    39           13           3,250

Spacers                16           5              1,100

24 mm  40           23           5,400

50 mm  55           13           3,400

135 mm                17           5              1,700

That little lot came to over 20,000 baht, which certainly made purchase of the Lumix a breeze (duty-free price).

What made the exercise even more astounding, was the number of ‘watchers’ who had been looking as the bids went in on eBay.  14 looking at a broken FA and someone who paid almost 1,500 baht for it.  The lenses all went for very good money, though I would have thought the 135 mm would have been more desirable than the 50 mm, but the 24 mm did attract the highest bid, as I thought it would.

The moral to this tale, is to look at the old camera gear, broken or otherwise and clear out the cupboard and sell it on eBay.  You will get more than you ever imagined, but it certainly helped having a friend who was a regular eBay user and stationed in the UK.