31 Jul 2013

Sometimes ideas just don't work. Or: good landscape photo starts with a good landscape

Every now and then I give a small photo assignments to myself, just to practice the technique or explore new areas of photography. One of my latest "challenges" was to photograph a lonely tree that would be good enough to be added to my portfolio. Why such theme? Well, it is a nice and can be used in practice, for instance to create a postcard.
Since I didn't have much time to do extensive preparations, I took a walk in my neighbourhood to find a candidate scene. It looked good enough to give it a try.
Few days later I organized a small session. The general scenery looked like on the photo below:
There were at least few problems with this photo: first of all the tree wasn't 'lonely'. Second, there is a lot of unnecessary noise in the background (like power lines). To make it more interesting I've first tried to incorporate more sky, making it more dramatic by using a polarizing filter.
Was it better? Not really. Now I have even less interesting picture than before. Last try was to go back to the first idea but take the photo from a bit lower angle of view:
Mhmm. Slightly better, but not something that I really wanted.
Then the moment of reflection came: It does not really matter what I would do, the scene I was trying to achieve was not the scene I envisioned: the tree was not 'lonely enough' to compose the picture.
So I packed my gear and went home. 
Disappointing, but one the other hand I took important lesson: good (great) landscape picture starts with the great landscape. 

9 Jul 2013

First communion session part 4: summary and lessons learned

 This is the last entry of the series of posts (part 1, part 2 and part 3) about my first organized photo session. In a couple of days I'll hand the printed album over to my "customers". So it is time to look back and take some final notes.
First of all it was a lot of fun. Not only for me, but also for the photographed family. It was also the assignment that learned me a lot of new things and gave insights on how to make it better in the future.

What to keep

  • The proposed timeline of the whole process was right (roughly 1 week from the session the photos were available on the Internet for review, 2 weeks from the session photos were chosen for the album, after 3 weeks the album layout was discussed and finalized, after 4 weeks the album was sent from the printing office). Note that I did the whole assignment in my free time. Full time photo professionals work (as they have to) much faster.
  • Communication with the photographed people. I think they appreciated it much and we could organize everything very efficient and in a good atmosphere. 
  • Planning and scouting the photo location in advance. I will be doing it in the future since it gives me more confidence. Besides knowing the location enables me to operate more professionally since I can concentrate on photographing and not on which scenery will emerge behind next corner.
  • Planning the session flow in advance.
  • Selection of the high quality printer and its materials. Solid, paper album made out of high quality paper just feels right. Blurb simply delivered good stuff.

What to improve (lessons learned)

  • Variation of scenes could be better. I have chosen 6 different locations and I thought it would be enough. But during post processing I realized that it would be better to have 2-3 more. On the other hand the session took roughly 1 hour, so we spent 10 minutes per scene on average, which  means that the tempo was quite high. Probably the session could e longer to capture more locations.
  • Watch depth of field (DOF). I have quite some shots where the DOF was not enough, so I didn't have all persons sharp in the picture. This is something to improve and keep in mind that adjusting the aperture is necessary.
  • Work more on posing. Give more direction. I had quite some shots where people look in very different directions, leading to photos that are not appealing. To improve it some more direction would be necessary from my side (just letting people know where I am and that I am about to take a photo). On the other hand a balance must be kept between posing and natural look. I don't have clear answer how to achieve it. Next time I will try to direct people a little bit more (well, in amusing and funny way).

  • Take more photos. It is slightly related to the previous bullet and is probably the only way of capturing the right moment when arranging the posing is not possible or practical. It works well with children that are active and very mobile.
  • Don't spend too much time on something that does not work. I has some scenes in my mind and I wanted to try them all. But not all of them were working. It is tempting to pursue own vision, but if it does not work, just skip it and move on. After all, photographed people are not professional models and are supposed to have fun and good time during the session. How to judge if the concept works? It is difficult to generalize, but for me it was enough to look regularly at the participants and see how they react on my proposals and how do they interact with me.
I am looking forward for the next assignment. Let's hope it will come soon.

2 Jul 2013

First communion session part 3: Post-processing and printing preparation

This is third article about photographing of first communion. In previous posts I wrote about different aspects of preparation and actual shooting.
In this part I will share some thoughts about my approach to post processing and I'll show some techniques that I have used.

Make the candidate photos available for selection as soon as possible

I have shared the photos with my client very soon after the session. Purposely. The idea was to let the family enjoy the photos and to start making a final selection at the moment when the session is still fresh in the memory of participants. And it payed off. I got a number of good questions about some photos that I initially skipped from the selection. They were technically not very good, but were liked by the participants. 
It is worth noting how the photos were shared. I have used my account on 500px for this purpose. I just created a set, uploaded the photos, protected the set with a password and shared with the client. 

Having short time for processing of the photos forced me to make some tradeoffs during image post-processing. There is simply no time for advanced processing. And at this moment I learned how important is to get photos "right in the camera". The less cropping, retouching, exposure compensation required, the less time is spent behind the computer's monitor.

Communicate about expected number of pictures to be selected

From the beginning I have specified the number of pictures I would like to have in the final paper album. I have chosen initially this number to be 1/5 of the published photos. It was a good compromise between a final price and the content of the album. Another purpose of the limitation was of a more psychological nature. I wanted the family to choose the best photos. Since the number was limited, they was forced to think and choose the really best photos. 
To be honest I am not sure if it is the right approach when dealing with a real customer, but in this case it worked.
Later on I got a request to add some more photos, since they liked them a lot. Of course, I agreed.

Think about album's composition. Let review it.

At the end there will be a paper version of an album, and it would be nice if the album is built as a book telling a story. So the composition is as important as when taking a single photo. In this case the story is relatively simple: preparation for the ceremony, sceneries in church with a communion reception as a climax, then a number of family portraits after the ceremony.
I have shared my thoughts and initial versions of the album with my wife, who has a very good eye for compositions consisting of more pictures. It helped me a lot to make right choices of the images on the album pages.

Plan a review meeting with the customer

When album was ready in a digital form, I made an appointment with mother of the girl to show her the work and the final proposal. We identified some mistakes in the selection of the photos (just wrong numbers of the photos), agreed to add two pages to the album with two important photos, finalized the agreement on the actual price. I think that it was important for both parties: for her to increase confidence, for me to confirm that the job was done right.

Technicalities. Tools used. Techniques applied

For album creation I have used Adobe Lightroom 5.0, Nik Software suite, onOne Software 7.5 (and Photoshop). My choice was driven by the fact that Lightroom is my photo collection organizer of choice. Nik Software I have used primarily for its RAW presharpener tool (which is in my opinion way better than Lightroom's sharpen tool) and Viveza tool which allows for selective applying simple image adjustments (color cast, exposure, contrast) to the parts of the image. I have used onOne software to improve the portraits photos with their Perfect Portrait tool. This tool performs a really nice job in whitening the eyes and mouth and has a very nice algorithm to correct the skin tone.
Every now and then I used some presets of Color Efex Pro 4 (Nik) and Perfect Effects Pro 4 (onOne) to quickly achieve cool effects offered by the presets implemented by those applications.
Using the plugins I have noticed that it is more comfortable to work with them via Photoshop than directly in Lightroom. So I opened the image to be edited in Photoshop, then I applied tools that I wanted to use and finally saved the modified .PSD file. I found it more comfortable because of fact that Nik and onOne integrates with Photoshop by using layers (each tool application adds a new layer). Which gives extra possibilities since I can apply layer masks, layer effects and all other goodies of Photoshop.

Finally the book. I decided to use Blurb for printing, because of their good quality and integration with Lightroom. I found however the possibilities of book editing in Lightroom (even in version 5.0) somewhat limited: positioning of texts on the page is quite limited, it is not possible (at least to my best knowledge) to create frames in the Book module of Lightroom. I had to use external applications to provide a frame to a photo. It delayed the whole production process for sure. Let's hope it will get better in future versions of Lightroom.

In the last part of this cycle I will describe some learnings I have taken from the whole process.