A picture, we say, is worth a thousand words. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but is that enough to tell a story? Sometimes it is. The kid, smile so big it takes over her face as she looks at the trophy, all tousled and pink with the effort of the competition just concluded; her parents in the background.
It is, however, a short story. Not that it’s bad. Cartier-Bresson made a habit of just those sorts of tales. The trick (he had it, and Eisenstadt had it and a whole lot of others have had and do have it) is telling a story with one photo. In those pictures we see a long moment. We imagine forward and back. This photo has story in it. The viewer reads what they will in the guy writing the letter on one end, and the guy sitting a bit apart on the far end, lighting a fag. Is he being considerate? Is he on the outs? Maybe it’s just giving the guy who wants to stretch out some room.
The viewer doesn’t know. It’s one moment in time. A snapshot, a mere slice of life.
We do have the means to make a more detailed story, not so much an O. Henry piece, as a Shalom Aleichem. No War and Peace but a bit more than a single page too. Journalism calls it a photo essay, and that’s a really good description. By stitching a few pictures together the viewer gets a bit more context.
Some of this applies to figuring out a gallery show... do you want to tell larger stories? More of it applies to showing things in portfolios/scrapbooks, and in online applications. If you are good at something, telling a story with it makes it look better. So you start with a “hook”, something to set the scene. It doesn’t have to be overt, like this - it can be something which is visually interesting, but contextually vague. The rest of the pictures will build context and it will be revealed to the viewer as either an epiphany, or so quietly they never realise they didn’t know what it was.
Which is fine. We want to draw them in, not hit them over the head.
Now comes the fun part. One can take the time to follow that butterfly egg as the caterpillar grows, or one can, “cheat”, and look for shortcuts. I did the latter. These two photos are of a different caterpillar from the one resting in the egg above. Which is fine, because I’ve been losing track of them, either they are being eaten, or finding places to hide. If I were going to be too much a purist, the essay is doomed.
It doesn't mean I was able to get all the shots on the same day. The young caterpillar is about three weeks younger than the one which came out of that egg. I did see it at that age, but the light stank. So I waited.
In the meanwhile I was looking at the other rue (I have three plants hosting the larval phases of Papilio cresphontes and finding older caterpillars.
When the light was good, I shot them. When the images were good, I edited them. I then set them aside in my mind (it’s a cluttered place, with half a dozen photo projects running about, about the same in rough ideas for workshops; a couple of workshops in production, and all the other minutiae of a less than organised life, but I digress) in the hope of getting enough to make a series.
Which is how I got the next one
If you look at the quality of the light you can see it's softer, and a little cooler than the smaller caterpillars. It doesn’t hurt the series. The audience doesn’t care about that sort of detail, so long as you are honest with them in how you handle the subject. They are willing to suspend some disbelief. Work with it..
This picture is great. It’s got a lot in it; if you know what to look for you can see that the “face” which is so evident, is a fake. The actual head (and legs) of the beast are tucked up into that massive set of camouflaged shoulders. If you don’t know what you are looking for - it’s still a pleasant picture. We are giving the viewer an entré to a world most of us can’t get to. Without the camera I can’t do it either.
Ok, you’ve set the scene, done some bridging. Now you need to start wrapping things up. This is the hard part... transitioning to the end.
Looking at the pictures I’ve got, I don’t know that I’m doing it right (and if this were a classic photo essay I’d be using a larger area, say a sheet the size of a newspaper,
and have differing sizes. I’m not that good at web-related publishing, so this is more linear than I’d prefer).
In this shot we have the chrysalis. This photo was taken before the caterpillars. It was the genesis of this entire photo essay. Without the chrysalis, the rest of the story falls apart. When I add the last photos, they won’t be connected to the rest without that small papery bit in the middle of this image.
I have two more photos - this one, the arrowhead, which is nice, and has some narrative flow with the last one, but it is dark, and has a very different quality of light. So I don’t know if it works.
This also takes us to the question of balance - what part of the story is more important. The egg is but a small thing, and opens the story. The weeks of growth, and then the weeks/months of slow transformation (which I don’t have a shot to show, if, and when, I do, that will get added) are quiet, and we can live without them). But the butterfly, that’s the part we think about. The part we, as people, think is important, so maybe I want to have more shots of the adult form than of the juvenile. All of this is something to consider when putting a story together. So I end it with the planview of the adult form, larger than the rest:
I’m fond of saying photography is all about controlling light. That’s only sort of true. It’s really about understanding light. Yes, flash units (and bounce cards, reflectors, scrims and all sorts of handy widgets) give you some control , and in the studio one can be in complete control, but most of us are shooting in natural, or at best mixed, lighting conditions.
For an example of that look at this self-portrait . I had six lights in that picture. Two 300w studio lights with umbrellas, one SB-800 w/diffusion dome, a Mecablitz slave (perched on the harpsichord, and lifting the bookshelves and guitars out of obscurity), the lamp above my shoulder and sunlight. It’s a very good portrait, though the shadows are harsh. I ought to have reversed the Mecablitz slave, and bounced off a card. If you look you can also see multiple shadows of the cranes on the mantle.
None of that, however, really takes away from the picture. One has to stop and look at the shadows to really see them. Without all that light being poured into the room the photo would have been crap.
That’s control. What about those times when we don’t have control? When we are dependant on what light there is? Those are the times we have to know how light behaves, and what cameras do with it.
As usual the way to do that is to take your camera and play with it. This is where the SLR is head and shoulders above most other (modern) cameras. The controls are right there. No need to use a menu to find the stop-ring, or the shutter speed. Those are the only controls we have for adjusting the light (forget the ISO dial/speed of your film. That’s not changing the amount of light, just the recording medium’s response to what it gets).
To get technical, any given photo can be expressed as an equation: Time (T) over Light (L) = K (which is a “correctly” exposed picture). If you increase the light, you have to decrease the time, and vice versa. This is the secret to the reciprocal functions of shutter speed/f-stop so many books mention (f/16 at 1/250th = f/8 at 1/500th, and f/22 at a/125th). In those examples the amount of light hasn’t changed and the tonal ranges of the image will be the same.
The picture won’t be the same, because there are subtle, and gross, effects which changing the light that way affects. That’s not really knowing what the light does.
To find out what the light does you have to play with a single subject, and then another one, and then another. Somewhere in there you will start to see the light as a thing, independent of what you are seeing with it. The next three pictures are a simple example of such a study the only changes are shutter speed
The first one is the darkest. The metal has lots of detail, even if it is dark enough to bleed; slightly, into the background, the rubber grip looks resiliant and the hot spot isn’t blown out. The background is so dark as to be practically nothing, apart from some vertical lines, and being slightly more brown than black it might be anything. The blue sky is reflected in the chrome.
The next one is brighter, and harder. The background is definitely brown, even if we can’t quite make it out. The housing has a stronger specular highlight. The curve is losing definition, and a hint of ray is coming off of it. The grip isn’t as black, and looks a bit worn, which makes the rust on the bolt head more obvious. There is still a hint of blue.
The third is even brighter. The background has resolved to a fence, the rust is positively orange and the speck on the metal grip is jumping out at us. The curved metal in on the tube is blown out, and the splash of light has washed out the details between that housing and the grip. The extra light as increased the contrast on the handgrip and it looks more in focus. There is no blue sky.
Each of those has a different mood, even though they are, at most, a minute apart. What the mood is depends on the viewer (we make things, the audience sees them, and what we meant isn’t always what they see). Perhaps the darker ones are early in the day, and the bright one is the hard light of noon. Maybe it looks to be the hard hot light of summer. In any case the details are in the way the light was used.
What do you need? That’s the real question. Everyone wants all sorts of things, but most of them can be done without.
The first question is, what are you doing? If you’re shooing portraits that 300mm f/2.8 isn’t going to do you much good. If you want to animals in the wild, it’s gonna come in real handy.
That said there are some things which are handy for everyone, irrespective of the sort of photography one is doing, and some of them are independent of what sort of camera (the SLR is sort of the touchstone, but any sort of camera can take good pictures. As with anything else you just have to work within the limit of the equipment, for example an SLR isn’t the best thing to take on a horse, a point and shoot, or compact (which goes for film cameras, or digital) is better, because they are smaller, lighter and less expensive) . If we ignore the things specific to the shooting you are doing, what do you need ?
Tripod: Camera shake is the most common thing I see killing pictures. Mis-exposure is a problem, but it can be fixed. If the camera moves the effect is, more often than not fatal. Out of focus might be, mostly, salvageable, but accidental motion is pretty much all she wrote.
What does a tripod need? To be stable. The secret to that is, more than anything else, weight. The heavier it is, the better. This is, however, a problem in field-shooting. There are ways around the instability low weight causes. Wider legs (at the cost of height) help some. Additional weight (in the form of “rock bags), or other ways to increase the downward pressure; below the camera, will provide some more stability. This can be field expedient (some twine and a bag can be used to fake it, if one hasn’t bought some purpose made bit of gear).
Height: This is the part which causes the most instability. The more the pieces are extended the more “spring” and wobble, enters the picture. Extend the middle legs first, then the end pieces (most tripods have sleeved legs, in three parts), and then the center post.
It also needs to have a head adequate to the job. A level is nice, but not as essential as the manufacturers would have you think. Where it matters most is when the camera is at the edge (or past) the rated weight the head can handle. Positive locking of the head is critical (and I’ve yet to find a head which “locks” right where I want it to. They all tend to sag just a bit. Either frame a little wide, and crop, or expect to do a lot of minor bits of fiddling to get the exact image you want. Some heads are taller than others. Depending on your shooting style this might be good, or it might not. One thing to keep in mind is a taller head has a greater change in position when moving from portrait to landscape orientation.
Some, longer, lenses, have a ring which allows the tripod to connect to the lens. This collar makes it easy to switch position; if the camera body doesn’t get in the way (“Pro” dSLR’s tend to have vertical grips in the base [to make it more comfortable, and house the battery] which prevent using the mounting collars on most lenses).
I prefer, esp. in studio, a three axis head. It has more “sag” than a ball-head, but I can lock it in one axis at a time. If I unlock all axes then I can scan the area, and a pan the camera. A bit of practice and the camera can be held still with the hands, while none of the axes are locked. But Ball-heads are handy too. Two of my tripods have them, and I’m thinking of getting a low-rise pistol gripped ball head, for using on the medium tripod when using it for field work.
You can use a monopod, if you can use one. I am not comfortable with one, and it always feels I’m never stable on them. Based on how well they sell, it’s plain a lot of people don’t have this problem. All the rest (about extension, weight, and heads) still applies
Off-Camera Flash Photography is all about trapping light. Sometimes there isn’t enough light to get the picture. Flash fills the gap. Most modern cameras have a flash built in (not all. e.g. the Nikon professional series cameras). It’s not that useful. The light is very close to the axis of the lens which gives very strong contrasts.
Flash units which attach to the camera are different, not in type, but in effect. The first thing is, they are brighter. I have a Sunpak, which allows me to take photos from almost 100 feet away. The SB-800 (which is “dedicated” to the digital camera I use) is limited to 66 feet.
The second thing is off-camera flash can be adjusted. Most units have heads which can be angled. That cancels “red-eye”. It can reduce (or remove) hard line shadows behind the subject. Power output can be cut down, to overcome backlighting, without looking fake. Adding a diffusion dome, a “bounce card” and colored filters the light can be further controlled.
With a flash which has been “dedicated” to the camera there are even more possibilities. The SB-800 I have for my D2 has hardware built into it which lets it communicate with the camera to take a lot of the computing/guesswork out of using flash. Right after I got the camera I took a couple of photos at a conference. I shifted the point of focus a couple of feet. The flash/camera combination adjusted the amount of light the flash put out, to compensate for the difference in distance
If you use a lot of flash (event photography, such as weddings, are classic examples of needing flash) a bracket is a good idea. It gets the light even further from the axis of the lens. A good bracket will let you flip the flash around, so it’s still above the camera when shooting in portrait, which means the light has a more natural effect, because we expect to see light coming from above. It takes a cable to connect the flash unit to the hot shoe. Spend the money to get one which lets all the features of the flash function.
Filters: If you’re using a digital camera, you don’t need as many as you will if you’re shooting color film. Color film requires fewer filters than Black and White film. For digital (esp. if you shoot RAW) color correcting filters, such as 81/82 A/B (which no portrait photographer would ever leave home without) can be done after the fact. This is actually a good thing, because it’s one less pair of surfaces to hold dust, and one less element to steal, and distort, light. But some things one wants to do are best done, or only possible, by changing the light before it comes to the sensor.
Don’t skimp on the filters. If you get a cheap filter, it will affect every photo you take with it on the camera.
First, I am a firm advocate of a plain glass filter in front of a digital camera, and a UV-1/Skylight (the latter has a slight warming cast). This is an issue about which photographers are in heated (almost religious) disagreement. It’s a place dirt can collect. It’s another element to cause distortion.
I think a $25-$75 filter is a lot cheaper than my $250-$1,500 lens. The no-filter crowd will say... “The lens caps will protect the lens when not in use, and what good is a piece of glass if a rock is coming?” Both are (IMO) wrong. The first fails to take the ability of the lens cap to collect dust. It assumes the photographer will never bump the lens. Never get a fingerprint, never touch it with anything. The coatings on the lens are thin. They are degraded every time they get cleaned.
The second, is wrong on its face. Yes, a baseball coming straight at the lens will break it. But I’ve seen a chipped golf ball bounce of a filter, and leave the lens alone.
What filters do you need?
Polarizing. It’s dark, takes about two stops of light. It lets you reduce reflections, and increases saturation. It’s not a panacea but it’s a really handy tool.
Neutral density. These let you take away light, in those times when there is just too much. The classic example is flowing water. It needs slow shutter speeds (not more than a 60th, and that from distance. Up close, or to get a really smooth effect, it can require speeds down around a ¼ second. Only problem is moving water is full of light.
Enter the ND filter. They come in various strengths, from a ¼ stop to 3 stops, and you can stack them. The best (IMO) are gradient (which is to say they go from zero-effect to full-effect, as you move them. It takes a special adapter, but it’s worth it. Why gradient? Because you may have subjects which have too much range to capture. The classic is skyscapes. The land is too dark, or the sky blows out. Slide the midline of the filter to the line of demarcation, and the range can be balanced.
As a last note on filters, if you want to shoot B&W, the filters which work on B&W film will work, in the same way, on the image. The image will have a cast before editing, but the rules which affect light are the same, and when desaturated the effects are just as if you were working with B&W film. Something to consider.
Honestly, those are the essentials. Lenses, light meters, reflectors, etc. are nice. But the need for them goes back to the question, “what are you shooting”, and everything becomes contingent on that. But the first step to improving photos is those three things.
Last spring I had a butterfly on my grapes.
I didn't recall seeing any caterpillars on the grapes and the species it seemed to be is fond of sycamore/willow, neither of which is represented anywhere near the half-barrel in which the chrysalis was spotted.
So I did some research and the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is fond of citrus, and rue.
It happens I have rue planted in the half barrels I grow grapes in (it keeps cats from treating the planters as litter boxes. Think of rue as the anti-catnip). A little more research and I discovered what I expected: the larva I'd seen, last year about this time, on the rue; which looked like a freshly shat birdsplat, is what they look like when young.
The background plant in this image
The pattern of the wings, is that of cresphontes. I had the “Giant Swallowtail” emerging on my grapes.
This picturehas some of the same oddities of the emergent butterfly. Both of them were cases where the time in which the subject could be captured was limited. The butterfly was only there for about twenty minutes. The grapes were only in that gradation of ripeness for a couple of days.
But the chrysalis, and the grape bunch, were pregnant with opportunity. When the grapes set, I made a note. When I found the chrysalis I did the same. For the chrysalis it was to get some shots in when the light was right, and the background would be attractive. So, every morning, when I was tending the plants, pulling weeds, watering the moss, I’d note the angle (and color) of the light.
Then I got the tripod and set the lens (200mm f4 Micro-Nikkor, with a Vivitar 50mm 1:1 Macro teleconverter) and went out to get some pictures. Lo, and behold, the butterfly had just emerged while I was inside.
The grapes were less dramatic, but the same sort of thing. As they grew I watched them. As they started to ripen I started paying more attention. I rotated the barrel, it’s a handy thing to have them on casters, so they can be moved; sometimes it’s because the thing you want to shoot isn’t convenient to places the tripod can go, sometimes; as in this case, it lets you get the subject to the place the light is the right quality.
In each case the time spent shooting was about 25 minutes. However the time spent getting the shot, for each of them, added up to several hours each.
Art costs money
(I’m not even getting into the question of, “What is art?”, that’s up there with Pilate and “What is Truth?”, not really answerable. At some level art is what someone makes, for the sake of making it, which someone else is wiling to buy. Which leaves out all sorts of things made to purpose (furniture, Bauer Bowls, etc.) which are pretty, and meritorious, and artistic and end up as Art... it’s insoluble, and not relevant to this).
Art from dead artists is worth more. It sucks (as someone who works to make a living as an artist), but the lack of new works makes the extant one’s more valuable. Supply, meet Demand
But why does it cost so much, esp. with something like a photograph.? A painter, a sculptor, they get some credit because most of us can’t paint, or sculpt (music is a different beast. It is either ephemeral [no one will ever know what it sounded like to hear Chopin at the piano, Bach at the Organ, or Palestrina leading the choir], or it benefits from economies of scale. Pay the artist 1 Dollar from the sale of 50,000 records, and she’s not doing too badly: concommitantly, if an artist can get 1,000 fans, they can usually make a living).
Which is well and good, if you can afford to make something in the sorts of quantities where $1 profits add up to a living wage. But that’s the rub isn’t it? What’s an affordable margin? How much is your time worth?
I sell prints from $35, to about $500 (that’s a large print, mounted/framed/shipped). What’s my investment? First, the sunk costs. Camera (which used to be not such a big deal. My F3 is as good now as it ever was, my D2 is pushing obsolete, and I really ought to replace it), lenses, flash, tripods, studio lights, softboxes, reflectors, cove-boxes, bellows, extention tubes, filters, computer (because I do digital) software, monitors, calibration device. Printer is optional... I have one, which is a sunk cost. Ink becomes something of an issue. It costs 90 bucks to fill the printer. Once loaded the cartridge has to be used in 6 months, or the ink dries enough to make ugly marks in the middle of the print.
All that has to be amortised. It’s part of every photo you sell. It’s not that big a part... if you are selling lots of pictures, but buying a new camera is going to set me back somewhere between $5,000 (for the camera I want) and 3,000 (for the least camera which will do what I need). Some things (computers, cameras, and sofware) will need to be replaced, or updated. If you forget that, you are cheating yourself
Then there’s talent. You are selling art (in my case photos) because you can make it. Your pots, paintings, photos, what have you, are something you do, and others don’t (can someone else capture something like this? Yes, but this one is mine. That’s worth something).
None of that, however, is the real issue. The real issue is time.
The flickr account I’m keeping images on has about 450 pictures in it. What does that represent in terms of time? Assuming a consistent workflow, and an average of 20 minutes per photo, with an added five minutes to load them to flickr (which is being a bit conservative, all around), and we get 11,250 minutes = 187.5 hours = 4.7 forty hour weeks.
That’s just the work on those 450 pictures; after they were selected to be edited. It’s not the time culling the wheat from the chaff. It’s not the time downloading the images from camera to computer. It’s not the time spent shooting (which includes the time assembling the camera bag, and getting to the subject, and then the return trip home). It’s not the time pushing your photos onto prospective fans.
That’s just five weeks of a full-time job editing those pictures.
Yes, one can fit that in, around a regular job. One can find that time in the nooks and crannies of an otherwise busy life. But that’s labor, probably of love, but it’s labor.
With art, not so much. I took almost 500 photos the day that hummingbird was kind enough to stick his tongue out for the camera. All but a few are crap. I got lucky, there are about a dozen worth showing off, and about five worth trying to sell.
Six hours of shooting. Forty minutes of downloading. A couple of hours of sifting. 20 minutes of editing.
One picture. A mounted print sells for about $150 bucks
So I’m asking for about 20 bucks an hour. It’s not really so much, when I lay it out like that. When all the things I have to cover are factored in, it’s actually pretty cheap.