Basic Instructions

It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how many times one picks up a camera to shoot the potential to learn something new is always a pregnant possibility.

On Saturday I had an event to cover, a 12-hour day/night shift so naturally I checked all my equipment the day before and double-checked on Saturday that everything was there and working properly before I left: spare batteries, spare SD cards, all lenses as well as the camera itself.

In the past, when camera manuals were small books that came with the camera I always included it my kit bag. Why? Because if something can go wrong it will go wrong and it will always go wrong when you are working, so the book helps immeasurably with little quirks that sometimes happen – quirks that are interesting when you are at home and just playing, but stressful when someone is paying for your time. After doing this work for a few years one begins to think that there is nothing about the camera to learn, but a camera can always surprise you.

So I take my camera out of the bag, check that the dial is set to manual (I always shoot in manual) and then try to adjust the aperture, a flashing L appears in the information window and that’s it. The aperture changes in Aperture priority but nowhere else.

Things were happening and I needed to take pictures immediately so I worked around the problem for the entire event.

I thought at the time it was a software glitch, what else could it be my computer wire brain told me

It was the dedicated lock button. Three minutes at home the next day in a bright and quiet atmosphere was enough to solve the riddle.

My old 5D had the feature on the on/off switch, which often irritated me but I’ve never used the lock button on this camera, nor do I understand who or why one would. I think that, as I took the camera from the bag I inadvertently moved the sliding lock button half a centimeter, enough to cause the problem.

I now know what the flashing L means.

24-70mm, f2.8, 1/125sec, ISO 8,000

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Filming in the Streets

I have often wondered if one of the reasons old photographs are admired is due to the style of dress at the time, the shape of the cars or the other myriad things that tell us the picture was shot many decades ago.

When I learnt that the local TV station was filming scenes from a long running period serial near me I thought I would test this theory. The series is set in Berlin during the 1950’s and titled appropriately Kudamm 56.

As you can see, even a banal scene of actors standing around waiting for the filming to start has interesting style elements. Elements a photograph of the same scene with the actors dressed in modern clothes and todays shapeless cars would lack. In fact, when film staff, who were dressed casually modern, moved amongst the actors adjusting items of clothing and explaining additional roles, they (the staff) looked boringly dowdy in comparison.

Therefore my question is: am I right in thinking that it was the styles of the day that interest us (me)? Or do the many modern photographs that leave me cold, even though they are similar to hugely famous pictures from the past, have elements I’m not properly grasping, possibly because I am living in the period being photographed, or is it simply a case of nostalgia for a mythical, simpler time, which means maybe I should get over it and move on….

Way To Many of Me

Recently we were in Scotland for two weeks and it soon became abundantly clear that many of the interesting parts of the world are clearly suffering from too many of us tourists. Our guide on a five-day-tour was making his last trip and seeking greener pastures due to the overcrowding on many of Scotland’s roads, which he maintained had become extremely dangerous due the massive increase in self-drive holidays, and after experiencing some of the craziness in the Highlands and around Skye I had to admit he has a point.

Skye in particular is ruined, he said. A once beautiful fishing village has morphed into a tourist hot spot where the exhausted cashiers at the local mini mart can no longer service endless stream of customers.

Want to buy a nice piece of local fish for dinner, good luck with that.

Berlin also has mass tourism, but the city’s size helps to absorb most of the problems. Not so the picturesque small villages and mountain tops of Scotland, which are collapsing under the strain. I shot this picture from a window at Edinburgh airport. This photo is nothing less than remarkable when you think that on a Tuesday afternoon, a city with a population of 500,000 citizens can fill to capacity a car park this size.

It’s a clear indication that too many are trying to do the same thing in the same place.

Fuji X20, f5.6, 1/400sec, ISO 200

 

 

A Momentary Moment

On Saturday I was taking photos for the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin or the LCB for short. It was the annual Garden Party day held at their stately chalet at Wannsee. A day full of reading, music and good cheer that went off exceptionally well marred only by the occasional shower of rain. It was a wonderful day, but after a few hours of photographing literary luminaries, reading, chatting and sipping drinks in a beautiful garden setting my mind began to want a little more photographically.

 

Late in the afternoon I was taking a break and talking to the writer Milenko Goranovič when a beam of light speared into the room as the day faded, transforming an otherwise dully lit space into a visually exciting Hopper-like environment. Milenko, who I have photographed before took directions without dissent, thereby enabling me to get a couple of very nice images in the short envelope of time before a door was closed blocking out the light. You might say a modern version of the decisive moment, where I took advantage of a lighting opportunity and posed someone nearby for no other reason than that a creative moment existed momentarily.

 

24-70mm, f2.8, 1/30sec ISO400.

meeting expectations

Berlin’s Night of Music takes place on the longest day of the year, and that was yesterday; consequently, we are now on the slow slide into winter. That’s not really a bad thing as I like the winter months. It’s also the signal to begin the marathon of festivals and events that make the summer months interesting.

Like we have done for the previous two years, I – along with a group of intrepid artists from the Brücke Kunst – took up our positions on the crossover bridge at Berlin’s oldest harbor near Jannowitz Brücke. We do this to engage with people, both young and old in the process of painting, modeling, etching rubbing, playing an unplayable instrument and posing for an almost instant photographic portrait, all for a bit of loose change.

It may sound odd but we are getting repeat business, especially for the portraits. One family has gone from one child to three over the period and they have sat for a portrait with each new addition, becoming old friends, although I was assured that there would be no extra child in next year’s picture.

The two young ladies in today’s image are sisters from Melbourne, Australia who are travelling Europe and only in Berlin for a couple of days.

And if you were to ask ‘Why do I find this picture interesting? Because it looks like any standard tourist snap shot” then I would reply, “Where are the flash marks, why aren’t the highlights (faces) blown out by the flash, and isn’t the light nicely balanced to bring out the blue in the night sky?” It’s a movie version of what a snapshot should look like.

It looks like a travel snapshot because it’s designed to look like one.

In post some grain was added, a vignette filter to darken the top and warmed the image up a little, but other than that it’s straight out of the camera.

The soft even lighting on the young women is not the product of skillful lighting on my part, but modern technology in the form of a ring flash that cost just over €100. that I was using as a key light in portraits for the first time yesterday.

I think it is important to consider what a photograph will be used for, which in this case is memories of Berlin, and that’s why it is the way it is.

50mm, f5.6, 1/180sec, ISO320, Yongnuo Ring Flash at ½ power

Quiet Moments

At heart I am a bit of a minimalist, and I do love a good photorealistic painting, which is why the late Jeffrey Smart has been one of my favorite painters ever since I first saw his work in Sydney back in 2003.

So it would come as no surprise that I look for similar-style scenes to photograph. It’s the precise positioning of every element in a Jeffrey Smart painting that I find most engaging. Unfortunately, the very mechanical nature of the photographic medium under normal circumstances prohibits such fine placing of the elements at least for someone of my Photoshop skill level.

Photography does have the decisive moment, but that’s more about capturing a fleeting moment, a slice of time as it flashes by. What appeals to me in this picture is its contemplative restfulness. We can see that this isn’t a fleeting instance of action but a period of quiet stillness, made visually enjoyable by what we know as the appeal of vertical lines, disappearing perspectives and frames within frames. But without what Kandinsky explained as the tension within the frame, a tension that’s supplied by the almost perfect positioning of the people, it would be a dull lifeless image.

If it was a painting it would be ­­possible to correct the problems of left leaning, but in a photograph, despite the wonders of PS, when you correct that problem, other dimensions change, so more work is required.

The end result would be different, more constrained image, and not a picture I like.

 

FujifilmX20, f5.6, 1/250sec, ISO200

Framed

Another thing I like to do when photographing events like writers festivals is to include the audience in the picture while maintaining the viewers concentration on the principle author on the stage, which in this case is Samanta Schweblin, who is both centered within the frame and in the brightest part of the picture­.

Naturally I have headshots of her and the other authors, such shots are mandatory and everybody does them because they’re expected by the organisers for the web etc.

However, although these oddly framed shots are rarely used on festival internet pages, they do often appear much­ later in printed matter or online articles and the reason for this is something I find very interesting. Although such pictures appear to have been shot by an amateur they are in fact a part of the professionals toolbox. The deliberate “amateurish” framing of the shot makes the picture appear more spontaneous or truthful than its tightly framed brethren, a “this is how it really was on the day”-type of photo that adds visual engagement and points of reference to an article or review.

However, you do sometimes get some odd looks from people who wonder if you know what you are doing.

50mm, f4, 1/80sec, ISO12,800 (in these situations I always have the ISO set to auto)