Curves, lines and shadows – light up the table

My work is giving me some opportunities for food photography so I’ve been brushing up my skills on lighting and exposure.  I’m comfortable with straight-forward documentary types of food images showing off details of texture and color.  Styling however, making the food look appealing by placement and arrangements, is a skill I’ve just not developed a knack for yet.  Most of my efforts looks far too staged to be appealing.  Fortunately I have people around much better at that than me so even though I would really like to be the ‘artistic’ person I think I’m better off making sure the image looks right technically.

That being said, lighting and composition can lend drama to the simplest of subjects.  Edward Weston has a series of famously sensuous photographs of bell peppers, using light and shadow to show us aspects of the vegetable most people probably never notice.  I’ve heard some of the hardest subjects to photograph are the simple, everyday objects we see around us.  Sounds like a challenge.

What can be more simple than a bell pepper?  Smooth skin, rounded surface, deep color.  You have to wonder just when Weston was inspired to make this a subject.  Was he standing in a grocery store one day and suddenly saw produce in a different light?  Was he looking around for something to test new lights with and grabbed what was first in the refrigerator? I’m sure there’s a back story somewhere (anyone out there know?) but the result is what intrigues us.  That’s a bell pepper?

I’m thinking my workflow is probably just the reverse of Weston’s.  As much as I try to pre-visualize, it seems my better images come from trying something, making adjustments, then trying again.  With a healthy dose of Photoshop thrown in.  Still, after a bit I do start to see a little of what drew Weston to this.  It’s a great way to connect with a master.

Less light is sometimes better

Actually made some portraits late last week, business images to be used as needed for online and magazine articles.  Straightforward lighting and poses to result in a basic professional appearance.  It got me to thinking about non-traditional portraits, such as Weston’s famous bell peppers.  How would I make fruit look dramatic?

I’m starting with the most basic thing I saw at the store – kiwi.  It’s got a nice surface texture, pretty uniform color and a classic shape.  Importantly, it’s not shiny!

First, the standard portrait lighting:

Gives a little dimension to the rounded surface, a highlight here and there, with a lighter background to help the subject stand out in the image.  Not very exciting, though.

I moved the light around a bit but just wasn’t getting the contrast I wanted.  Since I don’t do much studio work I’ve never invested in the bevy of light modifiers available to broaden or narrow the lights.  Also, although I wanted drama I really didn’t know what I was looking for so playing around with light position and intensity was interesting but not goal-oriented.  So, instead of a lot of light, how about just the right amount.

Lightpainting consists of turning off the flash units and using a penlight and long exposure to essentially put light right where you want it.  The camera only “sees” the light you provide at the spot you put it.  Granted there’s lots of trial and error in a dark room but the results can be much different from manipulating strobes.  And it’s not just light on the subject that works – light elsewhere can be important as well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALiterally, you paint your image with light.  Subject, background, shapes, key lighting – anything you want to highlight as a way of making a dramatic presentation.  And once I see something like this, I realize it’s the look I was searching for.  Now I know one way to reach this composition.  Maybe I’ll tackle bell peppers soon….

Wait – are you seeing?

Saw a video article today about kids being given film cameras and asked to make some pictures. They were generally flabbergasted at the idea of having to wait in order to see the results. Not to mention the idea that there might be a limit to the number of pictures they could make at a time. It wasn’t an old-fashioned idea – it was medieval! Whole forms of torture could be developed around such a concept!

Digital photography has certainly promoted a liberating vibe about photography. Finally, no more wondering if you “got the shot” or being disappointed by poor exposure or running out of frames just when the action gets exciting. It’s all there, just shoot, look, shoot again. How could anyone possible make poor photographs anymore? I mean, there is the result, right in front of you. Fix it – now!

Yet a quick perusal of just about any photo website will reveal there remain lots of bad photographs out there. Even casting a wide artistic vision of what makes a good picture, there are still bad photographs out there. How can this be? Was not the promise of instant gratification and illuminations of the revealed image suppose to deliver us from the crass notion of waiting for quality? If an infinite number of monkeys, each with their own camera, snap an infinite number of selfies, wouldn’t one turn out perfect? Oddly, for that last one, we’re more concerned about the ownership of the image than whether it’s an image worth owning.

So what’s the problem? Patience – we’re running out.

Except for photojournalists, sports action and fashion photographers, what’s the rush to make pictures? If the intention is to capture the moment, emotional and visual, how will this be possible without being immersed in the moment? Paying attention to the content, context, interaction, surroundings, etc. is important to understand your own emotions about a composition. And without understanding how you feel is it really possible to capture that in an image so it will resonate with the viewer?

One of my instructors talked about loosening up the muscle memory of your shutter finger when first coming to a place for photography. “Go ahead,” he said, “take those documentary, I-was-here photos just to get them out of the way. Then you can start looking around to really see the images you should be making.” I’ve taken this advice many times and it rings true. I know because I’ve ignored it many times as well, and a comparison of the images resulting from each is telling. My better images come after ‘loosening up’ a bit, settling down to start really seeing, even before bringing the camera to my eye. But this takes time, and a sense of when enough time (and shutter pushing) is enough.

Sure, the advantage of the instantaneous digital preview can be wonderful in this exercise. But doesn’t it feel a bit like a crutch, being able to see what the camera has in it before you really see what’s in front of you? People look down at their camera wanting to know “did I get it?” when what they should be seeing is right in front of them. “Get it right in the camera” is a mantra I’ve heard, alluding to the idea that post-processing can only make beauty when there’s something to work with initially. How does that get in the camera? We put it there only after seeing it outside the camera. And that takes time.

Once it’s right in the camera, who cares how long before it shows up on a computer screen or paper?

Glorious grey…

Woke up this morning to see snow on the ground for the first time.  At least for a bit – the ground is too warm for snow to hang around and in an hour or so it was gone.  Still, a nice reminder to be prepared to start seeing the world in black and white.

Went out for a bit to get my monochrome-vision recharged.  Very helpful that the overcast was like a giant softbox for the sun to evenly illuminate everything on my stroll.  Gave myself a single lens challenge – just take one and compose everything with it.  To make it more interesting I took a film camera lens, the Zuiko 35-80mm f/2; manual everything.  Ok, ok, I know a zoom probably shouldn’t count as a single lens but I really didn’t know what to expect so I gave myself some latitude.  Besides, I love the sharpness of this lens and really enjoy showing off what it can do.

Good time of the year for textures of all kinds, and a Zone System challenge deciding how to allocate exposures to get the most detail with an interesting subject.  Adams used the Zone System to think about an image from composition to final print but I think he’d be good with digital display as the final showing for an image.

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Follow-up article on infrared

An article I wrote on my experimentation with color infrared has been published at the blog for my photography school.  It’s a continuation of a previous article they published about IR.  Take a look:

http://www.rmsp.com/blog/2014/11/06/false-color-infrared-digital-guest-article-mel-mann/