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SNAP SHOTS   by Harry Flashman


Update March 27, 2015

Believe it or not!

One of my friends sent me the following link thinking that I would be flabbergasted at the images captured by a smartphone. I was sorry that I had to report that the images were not demonstrating how advanced the smartphone was, as they were all “record” shots.
A “record” shot in photography parlance is one where the photographer does nothing other than trip the shutter. The image is one which is there in front of you - all you have to do is record the image for posterity.

If you go to the link, you will see that whilst they are all very pleasant images, there is no use of depth of field, for example. In other words, no input from the photographer. Forget the fact that these were taken by a smartphone, they could have been taken with a box Brownie or even a pinhole camera.

To get better images than the smartphone “record”, remember the ‘Rule of Thirds’ (place the main subject one third of the way in from either side and one third of the way up or down from the top or bottom of the picture). This is a tried and true rule of thumb and you can try it out so easily with digital photography. It may feel ‘wrong’ initially not having the subject slap bang in the middle of the frame, but try it and you will find you are getting better, more pleasing pictures.

While still on the subject of the overall image, don’t forget to take each shot two ways - in the landscape (horizontal) format and the second in the portrait (vertical) format. Again it sounds strange to shoot a landscape in the vertical format, but it gives the viewer a different emphasis, which can improve an otherwise ‘ordinary’ shot.

With most digitals having reasonably good zoom lenses these days, experiment with different zoom settings and distance from the subject. A ‘tele’ setting can give you a very different photograph from the ‘wide’ setting taken closer to the subject. This ability to experiment, at the time of shooting, is one of the biggest plusses for digital photography.

One of my standard tips is “Walk several meters closer”, and by doing this you will find that you can make the subject fill the frame (to even overflowing) and get rid of horrible distracting backgrounds.

You can also see the difference in the backgrounds between shooting at f2.8 as opposed to f16. The larger aperture (f2.8) gives a blurred background, which is exactly what the ‘portrait’ mode does. Many of the tricky settings are just automatic combining of different apertures/shutter speeds, and a general knowledge of first photographic principles will always help your photography too.

The position of the subject, relative to the sun (the celestial lighting technician) can make or break your photos. The amount of contrast in any scene can also baffle the digital sensors so they will try to balance out the contrasts which can spoil the effect you were trying to create. If your camera shows you those dinky little histograms, you can soon see if the light is biased in any particular direction.

What you have to do is try and balance bright or dim light. In low light conditions, try using your camera’s night shooting mode, or lower the ISO to 50 or 100 to get some detail in low light. Also look at trying to use a tripod.

In bright light, try your camera’s Beach or Sunshine mode, or go to manual mode and choose a fast shutter speed to control the amount of light that comes in.

Be careful if you place your subject in front of a bright window or they will become a silhouette. Try placing them off to the side of the window instead, or facing a natural light source.

For better photographs indoors, turn your flash off. Try to maximize the light by pulling back the curtains, opening doors and turning on the incandescent lights in the room. Sure, you will have slower shutter speeds and you may have to look at using the tripod, or even just holding the camera firmly on a table, but you will get more natural photographs.

Update March 21, 2015

Fun with Filters

“New” photographers tend to splurge on filters, happily screwing on the latest filter purchase, no matter whether the subject matter will be enhanced by the addition on the front of the lens.

Now, before discussing the different filters and what can be done with them, there is one step that should be done beforehand - and that is to standardize the diameter of your lenses. This is done with stepping rings, and in my case I selected 62 mm. This then means that my filter collection (62 mm) will screw onto any of my lenses. Being larger, it also means I am less likely to get a vignetting effect (losing the edges of the image), even with stacking two filters on together.

So here’s what I think you should have. The first one is called simply a Skylight 1A. This filter does make the sky a little deeper, but the main reason to have it is as a sacrificial piece of glass, so that your good, expensive lens does not get scratched. Skylight 1A’s are very cheap.

Soft romantic effects can be produced in many ways, and here are a few tried and true methods, and the first is super inexpensive as well. Just gently breathe on the Skylight 1A filter just before you take the shot. Your warm breath will impart a “mist” to produce a wonderfully misty portrait, or that early morning mist look for landscapes. Remember that the “misting” only lasts a few seconds, so make sure you have the camera pre-focussed and ready to shoot. If you have control over the aperture, try around f4 as well.

Another interesting result is by smearing Vaseline on the same Skylight 1A and seeing the different effects you get. Do not smear the Vaseline on the end of your lens. It is impossible to get off without washing in hot soapy water, something you can do with a filter, but not with your lens.
One of the nicest filter effects is what is called “center spot soft focus”. Now this just means the center is in focus and the edges are nicely soft and blurred. This effect is used by portrait and wedding photographers all over the world to produce that wonderful “romantic” photograph.

Now to use this filter. If you have an SLR (single lens reflex) camera or a digital, you actually look through the lens when you are focussing and what you see is what you get (the WYSIWYG principle, mentioned many times in this column). Set your lens on the largest aperture you can (around f5.6 or f4 is fine). Focus on your subject, keeping the face in the center of the screen. Now bring up your magic soft focus filter and place it over the lens and what do you see? The face is in focus and the edges are all blurred! Try some different f stops as well (it makes the center spot larger or smaller) and record the details in your trusty notebook!

You can also use these filters with any compact point and shoot camera, but it is a little more hit and miss, as there’s no WYSIWYG with compacts. What you have to do is position the center of the filter over the lens and, while keeping it there, bring the camera up to your eye, compose the shot and then shoot. Takes some fiddling and manual dexterity and take a few shots as you are really flying blind.

The next one is the polarizer. I have mentioned polarizers before, but the difference between polarized sunlit shots and unpolarized is incredible. The depth of color when you polarize is fantastic. As you rotate the polarizing filter, the reflections on any shiny surface, be that grass, trees, water or whatever, just disappear, leaving the undiluted bold color.
There are many more filters, colored effects, graduated effects, star cross and more. Filter photography is fun.

And yes, I know that your favorite post-production Photo-Shop or whatever can give you electronic filter effects, but it isn’t as much fun as looking through the viewfinder, deciding on the effect wanted and the filter to do it, and knowing what you are going to get. WYSIWYG again!

Update March 14, 2015

You Butterfly!

Drone aerial shot.

I was reminded about helicopters this week when I overheard a young lady saying accusingly to her male partner, “You not butterfly, you helicopter!” To which the quick-witted young man replied, “And you international airport!”

However, in the life of the pro shooter, you sometimes have to face your greatest fears to get the shot that the art director wants. For me that was any height greater than that experienced by standing on a chair. Needing the fee, I took the job.

The brief was simple. I had to shoot a vacant allotment where a hotel and resort was (hopefully) going to be built. The client had the ground and an architect’s model of the proposed resort. My job was to end up with an aerial shot showing the hotel in position, relative to all the other buildings, as if it had been there for some years. Just another example of why you should not believe everything you see.

Technically, shots like these are very difficult, as you have so many factors which have to be taken into consideration, lighting being just one of them. It is a situation that requires a notebook and pen, just as much as a camera.

Working on the principle that we would need some nice warm lighting and good shadow definition, it was decided we would do the aerial shot at 3 p.m. and a helicopter (with doors removed) was booked for 3 p.m. for one hour. Helicopters are not cheap to hire, and since the photographer is paying, I took the one hour minimum.

With all camera gear on board we reviewed the site from the air. I had to decide from what height we needed to do the shooting, and 600 feet seemed the best. We then circled the vacant allotment until the best viewpoint was reached, as we also had to show the beach and some Pacific Ocean, to show the locality of the proposed resort. At the same time we noted the focal length of the lens I would use and did a couple of test Polaroids to settle on the exposure details. The camera, by the way, was a Hasselblad as we had to shoot in medium format, which with its removable backs allowed for Polaroid test exposures.

Then came the first of the problems. It was a windy day and the pilot could not hold the position to allow me to shoot from inside the helicopter and I was going to have to go outside of my little cocoon of safety to get the shot.

This meant wearing a harness with a rope attached and getting out of the helicopter and standing on the landing struts while leaning into the wind and don’t drop the camera! For someone dizzy at one meter above ground level, this was a fearsome task. And did mean I had to trust the photographer’s assistant implicitly.

In around 10 minutes of being buffeted outside the helicopter, I had shot several rolls of film and I was pulled back in and we headed for the airport.

After processing the transparencies, the next part of the job was to shoot the architect’s model in the studio. This meant replicating the lighting direction and the warmth of the light. It also meant shooting from a height in the studio that was the equivalent of 600 feet in the helicopter. This was done by reading the architect’s plans and working out 600 feet relative to the height of the proposed building and then using that formula with the height of the architect’s model. There is several hours involved in just doing that and then more hours in setting up the lights and the camera position.

The following day we began shooting Polaroids, looking at the relativity to the helicopter shots. These were the days long before Photoshop and everything had to be in the correct scale before we would send background and resort model shots to the retouchers.

Only after everything was right did we shoot the transparencies of the architect’s model. In total three days of intense shooting. I earned my money with that shoot.
These days? They just send up a drone. Another nail in the art coffin!

Update March 7, 2015

Ten tips for better pix

Photography is a continuous learning process. Even at the professional level, photographers are experimenting with new processes, new techniques and even shared knowledge to improve their images. To become a pro usually means that the photographer has spent some time as an “apprentice” to a well established pro shooter. However, you can get there on your own, with the help of books (something I wrote about a few weeks ago).
Now, despite the advent of technologies such as auto-exposure, auto focus and ‘instant’ review of shots, the practice of photography remains the same. Follow the ‘rules’ and you will find your ratio of good images to bad images will improve.
Over the years, I have been asked many times to give out the “secrets” you learn in the professional photography arena. I have written the basic ones here, just keep reading. I should add that all these tips come from real life experiences.
Tip number 1. Incredibly basic, but it is simply to read your camera’s manual. Read the manual again. In the case of digital cameras, read the manual again. You cannot do it too often. With digitals, you can see the effect immediately. When all else fails - read the manual again. The answer is all in there.
Tip number 2. Always carry one more memory stick or card than you think you’ll need when on holidays. The shot of a lifetime will appear and you will have already filled your card. When you are digital, you haven’t got the time to sit there going ‘review-delete-review-delete’ with your digital SLR.
Tip number 3. Frequently check the exposure controls on your camera, that they really are set on Auto, or Shutter priority, the ISO rating you want or what your standard settings are. It is very easy to knock the controls and settings when taking the camera in and out of the bag, or even when it has been hanging round your neck.
Tip number 4. When you get back home, download the images into one electronic folder clearly marked with information such as “Loy Krathong 2014” for example. Once again, very basic, but very necessary when you are looking for one particular image. And by the way, download into a back-up folder as well.
Tip number 5. When going on holidays with your camera, take spare batteries with you - always. No matter how new the batteries, if there is a failure while you are trekking in Mongolia, or just lazing on the beaches in Koh Samet you will not be able to get the correct replacement. Remember also that your camera may use more than one type of battery, another trap for young players. Keep spares of both kinds. And just taking the charger with you does not help when you are in the middle of a desert somewhere.
Tip number 6. I mentioned this next one a few months ago. Always check that the camera neck strap is indeed tight and secure on both ends. If one end lets go, the camera will hit the ground before you have time enough to catch it. Cameras do not bounce well, if at all.
Tip number 7. Never keep your camera in the glove box of your car. The temperatures that can be reached in the cubby hole reach as high as 50 plus degrees Celsius in our blazing summers. The newer “plastic” bodied cameras and camera backs can actually warp with the high temperature.
Tip number 8. Always put spare memory sticks or cards back in their plastic containers, and keep them in the camera bag. I even suggest you tie them in place, so they don’t get lost. When you need it in a hurry, it has to be accessible. It will happen, believe me.
Tip number 9. When shooting children or animals for doting parents/owners, get down to the subject’s level. You’ll get a better shot! Remember bacon fat for cats and a box of matches for dogs!
Tip 10. Remember the Rule of Thirds. Place the subject one third in from one side and one third down from the top edge for photos that appeal.
Now that was simple, wasn’t it. Now go and apply them.

Update March 1, 2015

Getting on stage

The impetus for this week’s column came from the rock concert during the Burapha Bike Week. This was the real deal in rock music, with our local musicians playing with a current international (Guns ‘n Roses) guitarist (but not Slash, I am sorry to say).
Now stage photography can be quite a specialized art form, with many stage acts having their own photographers who tour the world with them, just to get those iconic shots of the stars performing on stage. However, you can do just the same though on a smaller scale.
For instance, Likay or similar Thai productions are good sources for stage subjects.
As opposed to portraits, with on-stage photography, you are not in control of the model in any way at all. You also have some very difficult composition and lighting problems to contend with. You cannot quite ask someone in the middle of Caesar’s death bed scene to hold that pose and say “Cheese”. Mick Jagger will also not stop for you to focus while running frenetically from one side of the stage to the other.
The lighting, too, 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.
Successful “stage” photographs have managed 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 flash gun with enough power to light up the far side of the moon. While understandable, that is not the way.
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 as possible. If needs be, find which row seat you need to be able to do this. All part of being prepared.
Now in the good old ‘film’ days, you got hold of some “fast” film. 800 ASA if you could, but 400 ASA would do. However, with today’s digital cameras, you can safely dial in 800 ASA or even more. If the image breaks a bit, don’t worry, it just adds to the “stage” feel.
So, what about lighting? 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 photographs.
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 no real ‘problem’ with white balance with digital cameras. You will still get an image that says “stage performance”, which is what you want, never mind the colors.
Next time you are getting shots of people on stages, turn the flash off, and you will see the end result is much better.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Believe it or not!

Fun with Filters

You Butterfly!

Ten tips for better pix

Getting on stage