26 Feb 2012

Introducing teenagers to the basics of composition and photography

This is about one of the ideas that come to the mind on saturday evening with a glass of wine in hand and a good conversation with your better half.
My wife is involved together with her school in a project called "Lodówka bez tajemnic" which can be translated into "Refrigerator without mysteries". The web page of the project can be found here. It's in Polish, but Google translator can help non-Polish readers quite well.
Anyway, part of the project is to photograph the teenagers participating in the project together with a refrigerator. When we started talking about the idea pretty soon we agreed that it would be good to let children make the photos by themselves with some introduction and guidance.  The idea was born.
But then the realization. We thought a workshop-like approach could work. The time was limited (2.5-3 hours), and we wanted to achieve some educational effect, next to the photos. And (some extra requirements from my wife) it would be great if a references could be made to the Dutch culture and art.
Having the limitations in mind I decided to divide the time into four blocks:
  1. Theoretical introduction to composition in photography,
  2. Discussion on how to create a composition with students and the refrigerator,
  3. Shooting session of the chosen composition (where each student had a chance to take the photos and experiment with the composition)
  4. Critique and selection of the best photos.
As one can see there is nothing about technicalities, like depth of field, shutter speed, ISO, "just" composition. Of course since composition is a huge topic, I limited it to the very basics: rule of thirds, leading lines, filling the frame, using patterns, using the frames. For rule of thirds I have built some context by showing the examples of the golden division in the architecture, astronomy and biology (remembering about the educational aspect of the workshop). Each rule I have illustrated with my own pictures. Purposedly I didn't choose to show too many bad examples (actually limited to 1 or 2 only).
Then I took some time to show how Rembrandt applied the composition rules on his two paintings: "The night watch" and "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp". At last I have shown some pictures of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Second part went surprisingly fast. Children decided quickly on three setups to test. Preparing a setup required some coaching. I was keeping to attend the students to watch the scene through the camera to see the limitations of the frame with respect to a naked eye. For some of them it was real discovery, by the way. Another aspect was to remind them to try different scenery, looking at the scene from the different angle, try totaly different setup.
We could do this since the fridge we use was just mobile fridge with a lot of fruits inside.
Then the shooting. They started by shooting in the standing position. After my suggestion to get lower, stand up on a chair they started to discover new possibilities.

The critique sesssion was something I was a little bit afraid of. The teenagers have a quite sensitive ego. On the other hand some of their photos deserved some critique and improvements. As a first precaution I have put all photos all together to make them a little bit anonymous. And made an agreement with the students that if we critique we do it constructively by indicating what could be improved having composition rules in mind.
And I must say, the session went surprisingly well. They listened to each other, took suggestions with attention and admitted possible improvements in their photos.

What did they learn? I think the rule of thirds and leading lines was the most easy to grasp and visible on the photos. Filling the frame and using the frames was a little bit faded. They practically didn't experiment with patterns. But it is understandable seeing the limited time.

Was it all with all successful? Well, I got some signs it was. I was running out of time and actually extended my time limit by 30 minutes - such a beginner's mistake. But some children called their parents asking them to pick them up later because they wanted to stay until the workshop is finished. According to the school staff it doesn't happen often.

Finally, some traditional "dos and dons"

  • Ensure the professional teacher is with you in the location all the time. Teaching is a serious issue and in case something goes wrong you have to use help of the professional. In most countries it is also required by law that there is a qualified personnel in a classroom all the time. So don't forget that. 
  • Dare to ask the teachers about your performance afterwards. They are professionals and their feedback on how well (or how bad) you were as a  "teacher"  is invaluable
  • Have initial setup to be photographed in mind. At least you know what might work best in advance. And you have limited amount of time so you need to steer the session every now and then.
  • Limit the group. I have worked with 7-8 children and I think it was an upper limit I would say.
  • Prepare a number of cameras. I had 1 DSLR and 3 compact cameras. So half of the group was shooting all the time while other half was posing. So everyone was busy.

  • Leave children doing nothing for a longer period of time. Initially I didn't pay enough attention to this aspect and suddenly a kind of chaotic atmosphere started to emerge. Thanks to the supervising teacher the situation got back quickly under control.

17 Feb 2012

Small tip for working with sharpening in Lightroom 3

Sharpening tool in Lightroom Develop mode is a sophisticated and powerful one. Sometimes however it is difficult to judge what the effects of the sliders would be. By using sharpening sliders while having Alt key (Option on Mac) pressed Lightroom will display a Black and White view showing the effect of the slider. Let me show an example:
The photo above is applied a Masking with quite big value (77). But what it means for the processing exactly? Well, when you press the Alt key and move the slider, the image turns into black and white, showing the mask. Black areas are the areas unaffected by the sharpening tool, while white shows the areas where the sharpening is applied:

Moving the slider to the left (decreasing the masking) adds the sharpening to more more elements of the image:

You can use Alt key with all sharpening sliders (Amount, Radius and Detail). To me using it with the Amount slider seems to be quite useful. Look at the detailed view with a specified amount of sharpening:
The same fragment with Alt pressed:
Using the black and white view instead of colour helps to reveal the details of the texture better and apply the right amount of sharpening.
I hope someone will find it useful.

11 Feb 2012

Shooting a multi-portrait session in tethered mode - the impressions

Today I was shooting another multi-portrait session of several dozens of children (from age 0.6 to 6-7).
The setup I used was quite similar to the one I used earlier and described here. For today's session I decided to introduce a new element: a laptop connected to the camera, so I was able shoot in so-called tethered mode.
This way of shooting is adviced by a lot recognized studio photographers. Obviously it gives one clear advantage, one can judge the quality of a picture taken much better than on camera LCD. But I found out that there more advantages. More on that later, now some technical stuff.

Iteration one:
Tethered mode in Lightroom is not supported for Nikon D80. So in the first approach I have installed an "intermediate" application called Camera Control from DYIPhotoBits. It's free and it recognizes my Nikon D80, so the rest was easy: I configured the destination directory of Camera Control as a directory to be monitored by Ligthroom (In Lightroom choose File->Auto Import->Auto Import Settings... and then File->Enable Auto Import to start monitoring).
Then connect the camera via USB to the laptop (don't forget to set the USB port in your camera to the PTP mode). From now on, whenever a picture is taken, it gets saved by Camera Control, recognized by Lightroom and imported to the Lightroom catalog. There is one drawback of this approach: the latency time between shooting and getting a picture in Lightroom. So it was working, but is was not smooth (in my case it took 10-11 seconds from the shot to the file available in Lightroom for preview. Go to iteration 2

Iteration two:
The Camera Control Pro from Nikon is the application that was tested as second. For Nikon 80 version 2.0 didn't work, so after installation the immediate update to 2.8 was required. Luckily the trial version works for 30 days, so I could use it for the session. The application performance was a way better comparing to the solution from iteration one (the time from shutter release to having image available on the laptop was 2-3 sec). So this was chosen as a solution for the session

Advantages of tethered mode
Indeed, looking at a photo on a 15'' screen enables much better quality control than LCD. But there is more, much more. It gives you a possibility to interact nicely with the customer (in this case parents of the photographed children). And that is win-win situation: in my case parents could easily pick up the photos they liked, I could listen to their comments and learn what they actually like. Plus, I was able to take notes about extra wishes (like required number of prints) just in place.

Learnings and practical tips:

  1. Tethered mode is a way to go for studio sessions. I am fully convinced.
  2. Remember to secure the USB cable, especially in presence of small children. They really don't care about your stuff. So I fastened 30-40 cm of the cable to the floor with gaffer tape, so the chance of suddenly pulling it from the laptop (or dropping the laptop on the groud) by accidental stumble was minimized
  3. I was using 5m long USB cable which was enough and gave enough flexibility. 

6 Feb 2012

When a photo gets its story (or why sharing is great)

Previously I was writing about my shooting in the winter evening. I have learned something during the session, enjoyed it, despite it was very cold that night. There were some photos I liked, so I published them on Google+. Today suddenly this photo session got a new dimension: someone actually liked one of my photos. I got the notification that +Nightscapes has chosen one of my shoots as part of 6th February daily roundup.
I was (and still I am) excited about it. The notice from +Christopher Prins made my day. I know that it sounds simple (trivial?) but to me it really matters. Knowing that there is someone who wants to look at what I photographed  gives me this extra boost to learn, practice, go outside. Internet is great, Google+ is great, people using it are great.

4 Feb 2012

Experiences with night (and winter) photography

Since winter came finally to The Netherlands and it rather doesn't stay long here, I'd like to take each opportunity to take some winter pictures. This week due to the other assignments I hadn't time to shoot during the day. So the idea was to try something new - night photography. I'll not be writing about the obvious, like: use tripod, take longer exposure times etc. Instead, I'll show a process of getting to the final pictures with some learning moments.
First photo was taken in the city in a park. As one can see, no much color there, so in post processing I added a bit saturation to the greens and oranges to emphasize the tree which is reflected in the water a little bit. Another trick here is a vignette to let the tree come more to the foreground.
Another remark: as one can see the sky is white here. Well, in the real life it is not the case. Nowadays because of using sodium light for the street lighting the sky gets orange-ish color looking pretty ugly (at least almost) if you ask me. In this case simple white balance correction over the whole image solved the issue.
Then another scenery, from last Friday. The snow was fresh, it was cold, there was almost full moon, so probably good conditions to take some pictures. I took two lenses: Tokina 11-16 and Nikons 18-200 with me. Then I started shooting with the Nikon lens:
Original idea was to get a lonely tree in the picture and let the snow be good emphasized. The result is, well, not as I wanted. Then I have noticed a nice cloud formation above the tree. Another lens (switched to wide-angle Tokina), another effect:
Since the photo has been taken at the outskirts of the city, the light pollution effect was much less and I didn't  have to correct it. In contrary, here it worked in my advantage, creating an interesting gradient from dark blue to orange.
Then some learning moments: 
1. Forget the auto-focus (at least it didn't work in my Nikon D80). Manually focusing on something specific is also problematic, because you don't see much through the viewfinder. Then focus on infinity and you should be fine in such situation. But: in which direction should I turn my focus ring? Which brings me to the next point.
2. Know important aspects of your engine. When it's dark you need just to know how to setup basic parameters without having to look too much. In my case I used my smartphone to enlight the lens and choose proper focusing distance. But when you do it at -12 degrees it is not fun. 
3. Take a light source with you. In my case a smartphone was enough

Then another sceneries. This time I wanted to capture the moon:
 Here again the clouds help to make the picture a bit more interesting. And I liked the composition with the power lines (this is something I cannot deny - I like them). Another picture with power line:
Light is coming from a street lantern.
Finally, some shots from the city, at a channel. 
I started with quite wide-angle scene but then I decided to narrow it to emphasize the ship more.
 Last picture I liked because of the mixed colors created by various lights.
 Some last remarks:
After shooting in the snow think about your engine aftercare. Snow is nice, but snow is just water. So unfold your tripod at home, let it dry for couple of hours. The same for lenses and body. Take it out of your bag, put on a desk, let dry. Let your bag open as well and let moisture evaporate.