by Harry Flashman
Low budget and black velvet
One item required by all pro photographers is a large roll of
black velvet. This initially ‘strange’ item has many uses,
including what I like to call “low budget special effects”
photography and is the subject this week.
When I say “low budget”, that is exactly what I mean. In my
personal library I have books that claim to do just this and
then go on for one chapter about the “low budget” equipment
required - like an enlarger, registration table with
registration pins, copy stand and photo floods and studio
strobes. If that is “low budget”, then I will walk backwards to
Bangkok with a lighted gas stove on my head!
However, it is possible to produce many special effects photos
without having to purchase expensive equipment, work with slides
only or have studio strobes. The first item you need is a roll
of black velvet, and you can source this at any tailor shop. Get
about three meters.
Black velvet really is a very important part of photography, and
in my studio, I used to keep several meters of the stuff. Why?
Because it is one of the easiest ways to introduce some very
different effects into your photographs.
The secrets behind the use of this material include the facts
that it is non-reflective, so it does not affect exposure values
when taking the shot and shadows do not register on it. Mind
you, fluff, dust and dirt does, so you have to keep it
Because it does not affect the image recorded by the camera,
this makes black velvet the ideal material to use as a
background when you wish to combine images, or do other special
Here are just a few ideas you can do with black velvet. Simple
double exposure becomes very easy with this material in the
background. Set your camera in the double exposure mode (or if
you have not got one, select “B” for time exposure). Position
the subject to one side of the picture and pop the flash to take
the shot. Now reposition the subject on the other side of the
picture and shoot again. You will have two perfect shots on a
perfectly black background. (For those using the “B” setting you
have to have the room dark and the camera on a tripod. Cover the
lens between taking the shots to stop extraneous light coming
into the camera too, but it is possible to get excellent double
exposures in this way.)
Another use for black velvet is in making pictures of light
trails. These can be very spectacular special effects pictures
and are very easy to make. Stick the black velvet on the ceiling
and suspend a torch from the center. With the camera facing
upwards and set on time exposure, twirl the torch and record its
movement for ten seconds or so. You have just made a totally
Photo montage is another simple effect you can produce, using
the black velvet as the background. Here you let your creative
self run riot. You can produce any picture you want, whether it
be yourself standing on top of the Statue of Liberty or three
elephants standing on a beach ball - you are in total control!
With this type of special effect you have to cut out the
elements you want from other pictures, be they prints or
magazine photos or whatever. Cut carefully and then run a black
felt-tip pen around the edges (See why? It will sit on black
velvet!) and you are ready to combine all your subjects.
Put your composition (photo montage) together and positioning
your camera above the montage, look carefully through the
viewfinder. This is how the shot will look, remember. Reposition
any items at this stage. Next important item is to keep the
camera back parallel with your background as this will keep all
the elements in focus. Now shoot!
If you find the direct flash gives you a reflection problem, you
can use household “floodlights”, one each side at 45 degrees to
the surface. You will get a “warm” colour cast, but since you
are producing “surreal” photographs, it does not really matter.
Have fun this weekend!
Looking at (and through) lenses
I met a young chap who has a keen interest in photography and had a lens
on his DSLR, the like of which I had never seen before. It was made of
brass and the focusing was done using a knurled knob which was the
pinion to a rack built underneath the lens body. It screamed the 1800’s
and Josef Petzval.
Josef who? Josef was the man who perfected a better lens in 1840,
allowing 16 times more light into the camera and exposure times dropped
from hours to around 4 to 5 minutes. Portraiture had arrived! The impact
of Petzval on photography is often forgotten, but his improvement to the
optical lens had actually much more of an effect than the slow
improvements in the sensitivity of the film plates of the day.
So, what lens should you have on the front of your camera? Answer - it
all depends what you want to do with the final images. If they were to
be used as enlargements the size of the proverbial barn doors, then I
would not recommend the use of a zoom, but suggest a prime lens and
medium format. However, if the idea was to end up with some happy snaps,
or pix that could be published in the sports pages of this newspaper,
then a zoom lens would be fine.
On my own ‘work’ camera, I have a 35-410 Leica lens, which would also be
good to use for sports photography, where close access to the action is
not possible. However, the danger of long zooms is laziness! Instead of
walking in close to take a shot, the photographer stays where he or she
is, and lets the lens do the walking! One should also remember that the
lens is the arbiter of the final image, not the camera.
Here are some different photographic situations and lens suggestions.
When going for blue skies, the best lens to use to increase the blue
color of the sky is the widest angle lens you have in the bag. To
photograph your newly commissioned “genuine” Sunflowers by Van Gogh use
the telephoto long lens and stand back. And when photographing rampaging
lions I would use the longest lens in the world. A close up lens to
photograph its dental work would not be my idea of fun.
You can select the correct lens for the job in hand, but unfortunately,
that does not mean your finished photograph will have all the sparkle
and sharpness you might want. There is another factor to be taken into
account when selecting the lenses for your bag - and that is quality.
In actual fact, photo lenses are excellent examples of the old dictum -
you get what you pay for! For example, I picked up the kit lens that
came with a Nikon D50 a couple of years ago. It was so light it almost
floated away in my hand! I then compared it with any of the Nikon prime
lenses in my bag, and there was the world of difference. There was also
a world of difference in the end results.
It was not the camera body, it was purely the lens. The light plastic
lenses in the locally made kit lens are not as good as the heavy optical
glass lenses in the expensive prime lenses from the same manufacturer.
To be able to produce a kit lens at the price, something has to be
sacrificed. Optics are just acceptable and resolution, autofocus
accuracy, color fidelity and contrast are all just good enough. They
take acceptable photographs, and that is it.
A photography article I once read covered where they were testing the
new Olympus Zuiko 150 mm f2 lens (300 mm film equivalent). It was a
compact 160 mm in length and was heavy because it contained a lot of
glass and mechanicals. The author had never seen a zoom lens of
comparable focal length that was as good. Sadly, it would only fit an
Olympus or a Panasonic/Leica. And it cost over 100,000 baht (then)!
Just as you can’t buy a Mercedes with Toyota money, you won’t buy the
best lens in a bargain basement kit lens special.
Photographing Songkran and staying dry?
I do not like Songkran. If it were one day it would be fun, but days of
being soaked, is not. However, there is no getting away from the fact
that Songkran is a festival you should photograph - even if it is only
once! I will also admit that the first time I experienced this annual
water throwing event, I too thought it was fun. Remember that the Thais
talk about “playing” Songkran.
By the way, despite what you may be told, this is not a uniquely ‘Thai’
festival, but one that is celebrated in many countries in SE Asia, so if
you want to flee go further than the immediate neighboring countries!
Since great volumes of water will be thrown (despite the fact that
Thailand is always in the throes of a drought) this does offer some
great photo opportunities, but unfortunately also presents some great
opportunities to permanently damage your expensive camera gear.
As a visual spectacle it is definitely worth recording for posterity,
but this should not be done at the expense of your camera equipment. As
mentioned, this is a water festival, and cameras and thrown water (and
powder and ice) do not mix. (For that matter, water throwing and alcohol
do not mix either, which is just one of the reasons for the horrendous
There are several ways around this problem. The first is to go all out
and buy a Nikonos underwater camera at the cost of many thousands of
baht. These are wonderful underwater cameras, but for this instance -
totally impractical, unless you want to stand at the side of the road in
a full wet-suit!
The second way is to purchase a fancy plastic underwater housing for
your own camera. Now these can range in price, depending on complexity.
Built like a perspex box to house your camera, you can operate all the
adjustments from the outside. These are not cheap either, but the
cheapest in the range is literally a plastic bag with a waterproof
opening and a clear plastic section for the lens. You open it up and
literally drop your camera inside it and seal the bag. These can be
purchased from major photographic outlets and I did spot one in a
photo-shop for B. 750.
A third way is a waterproof disposable (yes, they do make them). Good
for about three meters, so perfectly suitable for splashing water. If
you can’t get one of those, then even the ordinary cheap disposables are
a better option than getting your good camera gear doused. I must admit
to having dropped one of these overboard one day and the boatman jumped
in and rescued it. It survived the dip and the final pictures were fine.
But I do not recommend this!
So now let’s get down to some serious photo techniques to get that magic
Songkran shot. Since you are trying to capture the movement of the
water, a slow shutter speed will help. Hand-held you are probably not
going to get down below 1/30th, but you could try some at 1/15th; it’s
not impossible, especially if you are using a wide-angle lens.
However, since you are trying to get far enough away to keep the camera
dry, you may be forced to use the longer lenses which means you cannot
hand-hold at even 1/30th. The answer here is to find a good vantage
point, some distance from the action, and use a tripod.
If you are going down this route, then the best vantage point is a high
one. First floor balconies get you high enough to escape the water, but
not too high that you cannot get into the activity with a 150 mm lens or
longer. Since you will be using a tripod, I would even set the shutter
speed slower than 1/30th, and a few ‘experimental’ shots at 1/8th or
even ¼ of a second are worth trying. Remember that some ‘blurring’
denotes motion in the final photograph, and at Songkran there is plenty
Finally, you can always cheat by photographing through the windscreen of
the car, as I did last year! “Choke dee bee mai! May your camera stay
How to sell over the internet
Pattaya seems to be filled with super sales personnel. Every second person,
and especially the ladies, has a scheme to export Thai artifacts to the
thirsting throngs back in their home countries. After all, such things as
Thai silk, locally produced cutlery, incense holders and costume jewelry are
plentiful and much cheaper than “back home” and why not make a little money
on the side as a small-time supplier?
And in addition, and in fact probably surpassing those numbers, are the
people selling items on eBay. One of my friends was incredible at
‘e-selling’, and said that one reason he was so successful at it, was the
fact that he took good photos of any items that he wanted to sell.
Without wishing to get into the intricacies of exporting, the one area where
many of these small ventures fall down, is in the production of a
‘catalogue’. And you do need one, or otherwise the person at the other end
of your mouse has no idea what the item actually looks like! Try describing
Burmese embroidered wall hangings, and see what I mean!
Realizing this, many have picked up the trusty family camera, placed the
items on the table, and belted off endless shots. The end result is a
mindless collection of unexciting goods, lying on a table top. Is this
enough to interest a would be purchaser? Unhappily not.
You see, you have to inject “visual appeal” into these snaps. You have to
show the importer what these things actually look like. You have to indicate
form, size and color. Those blurry, almost monochromatic shots just don’t
cut it, I’m afraid. Catalogue shots have to be good. This is why pro
photographers command a minimum of $1,000 a day doing catalogue photography!
Here is how to get some passable images by yourself. The first thing to buy
is a large sheet of white thick paper or thin card (spend some time at
Silpaban), which you gently bend into a right angled curve. Stick the top to
a wall and move a table underneath and stick the bottom to that. You now
have a seamless “nothing” background on which to place your stock items. No
distractions in the shot - just your individual items for sale. Place the
first item on your seamless background.
Next is the lighting. Flash is good, especially if you have an “off camera”
flash head, but even if you have not, all is not lost. Shooting downwards at
an angle of about 45 degrees, you want to bounce the flash burst towards the
back wall of the white curved background. If you have a flash head that can
be angled, then it is simple, but otherwise, place a piece of card under the
camera’s flash head to stop the “spray” of light going directly on the
product which then directs the main burst towards the back wall. What you
are doing is to produce a small shadow line along the bottom of your items,
all of which gives them shape and form.
The “looking downwards” at 45 degrees is actually very important too. This
duplicates the angle you naturally use when looking at most small items, so
you see a cutlery item, for example, how you expect to see it. No strange
perspectives. If it looks like a fork, then you’ll attract more people to
buy the fork.
If needs be, you can show the size of items by incorporating known smaller
items in the shot. Coins, reading glasses, a set of keys, an egg cup can all
show comparative size. Just remember to make the item for sale the “hero”
and not the egg cup! In other words, make the size reference item the
secondary item in the shot!
In general, try to use secondary items that have some relationship to the
feature item. A knife and spoon would naturally go with an egg cup, for
example, and to make a really good shot, you would soft boil an egg, place
it in the egg cup, slice the top off and place that slightly to the side.
See how a little thought can take a boring catalogue shot and make it so