Compact challenge: Live from Sepang Circuit

I thought I’d give my students a bit of a challenge this time: during one of my recent workshops, we covered a bit of motorsport and documentary photography at the VW Scirocco Cup at the Sepang International Circuit. The assignment was to tell the story of race weekend in 10 images with a compact – with the exception of the moving cars, of course. Of course there was some serious equipment involved, but I’m a big fan of teaching with compact cameras for several reasons:

1. They force you to focus on composition only, and not rely on depth of field or perspective (most of the time) as a crutch;
2. The lag forces you to work on your anticipation skills; it’s impossible to capture a moment when you’re only beginning to react at the instant of the moment itself
3. Very limited dynamic range forces you to think about metering: on your subject, or the scene? What’s going to blow out, and does it matter?
4. Working the files afterwards is both a good test of your photoshop skills, as well as the opportunity to learn some new ones.

There are a number of the images which made it into the reader pool, but I thought I’d contribute a few of my own here. I think this might well become a recurring theme for future workshops…

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Forming up before the parade lap

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Well-used pitlane

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One that got away

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Game face

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Suiting up (II)

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On the grid

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Drive through

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Meanwhile, in the hospitality box…

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Spectator reflections

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On the podium*

*not the same race

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Press conference

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Taking a break after the race

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Obligatory unusual workshop group portrait

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Image review time

The observant of you will note that a) there are some key moments missing in the action, like the start and finish; b) there are no photos of moving cars; c) not all of the scenes appear to be from the same race. There’s a simple answer to all of those: race circuits are huge places to be, and pros do not aim to cover every part of the track at once, much less over a race that only lasts 10 laps.

We used the compacts to gather b-roll and documentary material around the main shooting sessions with the big guns; the start of the race and actual race itself were shot from Turn One at the end of the main straight, which tends to be where most of the action happens – both at the start of the race when everybody is jostling for position, as well as during the race when drivers use the long run to try and make up places under braking. At Sepang, Turn One is actually a right hairpin followed by a left chicane; the complex of corners means the cars both travel slowly and close to the barriers, which make it an ideal area for photography.

Note that we did have the requisite pit, paddock and circuit media passes for the event. Also, motorsports is a very dangerous environment to shoot in – plenty of fast moving objects, people rushing around, hot surfaces, spilled oil and various other hazards. Safety always comes before getting the shot – unless of course you’re a journalist on assignment :) MT

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August 2012 Competition: Compact Challenge Results!

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The point of August’s challenge was to remove several of the commonly-overused crutches for most photographers: depth of field, extreme perspectives, and producing useable images in low light thanks to modern killer sensors. Point and shoots are in a way, a devolution to a much simpler kind of photography that focuses almost solely on composition, exposure, and to a lesser extent, perspective. You simply don’t have the same toolkit as you would with a larger sensor. The upshot of this is that if you can consistently make an image that works with a compact, you can do it with something larger: it’s the composition that stands out as being strong, over everything else. Similarly, if you have no problems representing your subject in 8-9 stops of dynamic range, you should be able to do even better with 12, 13 or even 14. With that in mind, the contest was limited to small sensors only.

All in, we got 70 entries – I think there was a degree of saturation after the last challenge, or perhaps this one was uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory for many photographers. Nevertheless, a decent showing. Thank you also for those who submitted multiple entries. This means a total of US$350 received, with a first prize pool of $175 and one of my Photoshop Workflow DVDs to the winner and $70 to the honorable mention.

Without further ado, let’s move on to the finalists – in no particular order. For each shot, I’ll go through what works, what doesn’t, and how it could be improved.

Runar Nielsen – Small shoes (Fuji X10)

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Nice use of chiaroscuro and a strong single light source to give the subject both depth and texture; there’s good vertical balance to the image too. The technical qualities – tonality, exposure, sharpness – are also excellent. However, the weak point of the shot is empty space – I feel there’s a lot of blank foreground front-left that feels like it’s not really contributing to the shot. There’s also some color dissonance here – the shoes have a feel of something old, weathered and vintage; best represented by warm tones; this doesn’t jive with the cool tone of the background. One final possible improvement: a little highlight kicker on the back of the shoes to define the back edge against the background. A separate light would do it, or alternatively a strategic reflector. See my upcoming series on lighting…

Samsudin Mohd Ali – Looking down on the big boys looking up (Leica D-Lux 4)

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There’s a degree of consistent chaos to the subjects here that I like – nobody has their lenses aimed in quite the same direction, but yet the shot makes you wonder what it is they’re looking at. There’s nice tonality to this image; despite the obviously bright day (note shadows) and restrictions of small sensors, whites and blacks are managed well. What doesn’t work is the huge empty space in the sky. I would have either excluded most of the sky and focused on the people, perhaps holding the camera higher above my head to get a slightly top-down perspective, or try to include whatever it is they were photographing (if at all possible).

Jesse Estes – Send off (Canon Powershot SD550)

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I think what struck me about this image was that it had the feel of a Salgado in color. It has that particular textural look and feel created by mostly backlit subjects, dodging and burning and some atmospheric haze; I think the subject didn’t do any harm either. There may be a little too much of this, though; the deep shadow areas never really hit black. What I don’t know is whether it works better horizontally or vertically – I feel perhaps including some more of the window and  the foreground woman might feel more balanced, especially if there was a little dark space left around the edge to form a natural frame to the image. There’s also a part of me that just can’t help wondering what it would look like as a B&W, though the tonal palette here does give the scene life.

Larry Gebhardt – Light at the courthouse (Panasonic LX5)

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This image is a good example of one of the strengths of small sensor cameras: the ability to create abstraction through combining very compressed perspectives with high depth of field. This is rarely possible at close distances with a larger sensor, because the apertures required become unfeasible. Nice tones, nice metering, and a clear subject which is well-isolated by natural frames. What isn’t so strong here is balance: the whole right side and top-right corner is empty and dark, and lacks the texture of the left side. I would crop this one to end just before the shadow starts on the right for a much stronger composition.

Robert Symonds – untitled (Canon S95)

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I don’t know for sure what this subject is (I presume it’s a vintage hood ornament) but I do know that I like the fluidity and texture of it, and the way it contrasts against the blue and white; once again, the technical aspects of the image are perfect, but what’s missing is balance. It feels as though there’s too much white in the bottom half, though if you start playing around with crops, you find that any less looks top-heavy. The solution is rotation. The subject here is a bit like a snow-covered mountain against the sky; you need to have an ‘up’ side and a ‘down’ side to the slope – without it, the mind is a bit confused because it can’t place a sense of scale to the object. So, the conclusion here is a bit of rotation of the camera anticlockwise, and a little more subject on the right – bingo.

Carlos Paturzo – untitled (Canon G10)

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Compression of perspectives is used here to good effect also. This image is all about texture; the ripples in the water are well-defined and sharp, yet abstract enough to be impressionistic. I think if the water was calmer, I would go with inverting the image to make the reflection appear as reality instead; however, this is the best orientation given the current subject. The problem area for me is the top right corner – which is a bit of a shame, because this is where  most of the subject definition happens. There’s a huge hotspot on the hull of the boat, which means losing some of the texture of the reflections in the hull; I find this visually very distracting. The only solution would have been to underexpose some more and bring it up again in postprocessing, at the expense of some shadow noise – which I can already see creeping into the foreground.

Andrew Marerro – Bridge (Apple iPhone 4S)

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Though the image doesn’t really give any landmark cues as to where it was shot, it screams ‘old New York’ to me – I think it’s the strong lighting and B&W treatment. Only the modern cars in the foreground give away the time period. I would have said the right side looks empty, but the shadow itself is the subject, and that portion of the frame still feels balanced. The only place where it doesn’t is at the top left and right corners. With strongly geometric subjects like this one, it’s important to take care that there are no obviously imbalanced areas – look at the white gap top left and top right where the verticals meet the horizontal trusses Also, the curve that runs across the top edge of the fame make it feel as though the horizontal alignment of the shot is off – even though it isn’t. The solution would be to dodge the curved portion at the right and left, to visually separate that part of the subject from the main, symmetric subject and have it serve as a natural frame. Otherwise, this is a well-executed shot that could probably only be improved by say a horse and carriage team in the right-hand foreground. :)

Boris Giltburg – Saker Falcon (Canon G12)

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Wildlife and compacts don’t go together. Most of the time, the lenses are either not long enough, not bright enough, or image quality is just downright horrible. Even though I’m guessing this was a tame bird, it probably wasn’t an easy shot to pull off; the strength of this image is in the fact that I look through the photo and see the subject – it’s almost like a posed portrait of a person rather than a bird. One thing you have to be very, very careful with is metering – natural feathers etc reflect light to the extreme, and can often be two or more stops brighter than you’d expect. In this case, I’d say take a leaf out of Majoli’s book and meter for the highlights; let the shadows fall wherever they may. I can’t say I’m a fan of the toning, either – I think it’d be a stronger shot with either accurate color, or pure B&W.

Robert Yong Lee – Solstice #11 (Apple iPhone 4S)

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Last month’s winner has produced another one of those painterly images that appeals to me – here comes the personal bias – it’s well-balanced, mostly well-exposed, and makes a subject of texture itself. What I don’t like about it is how dominant the dark window and window box are; they take visual prominence over the shadow of the tree. This is as processing issue: shadow recovery and a little more contrast about the center would improve this image by several notches. Note that there are no blown highlights, so there’s still a bit more dynamic range that could have been brought into play at the time of capture.

Fritz Niemann – Blue night (Canon S100)

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Last but not least, Fritz’s image is one that captures the energy of the scene. This was a technically difficult shot for two reasons: firstly, compacts blown the blue channel very quickly (note the piece of plastic with the huge hotspot) and secondly, it was probably very dark – I’m guessing there’s a reason why it appears that almost nothing in the scene was static, even things that should probably be fixed. These are both the strong and weak points of the image: the hue shift due to the blue channel overexposure produces an interesting, otherworldly atmosphere, but also hot spots that are hugely distracting because they draw the eye in and keep it there. Images with movement should have a visual anchor – a static point – somewhere in the frame to cue the mind that there’s life here, not camera shake. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear visual anchor here anywhere.

I’m sure after reading all of these critiques, you’re probably thinking that none of the images made the cut; far from it. The finalists were all of a very high standard, but we’re all perfectionists, otherwise we wouldn’t be here reading this, right? In the grand scheme of things, these are excellent images. The suggestions are there to make them outstanding.

It’s now time to decide the winner. Cue drumroll. First prize goes to Jesse Estes with Send Off; you win $175 and a mingthein.com Photoshop Workflow DVD. The honorable mention goes to Andrew Marerro, with Bridge – your prize is $70. I’ll be sending both of you email in a short while to sort out your prizes. Congratulations to both of the winners!

In the meantime, we’ll be taking a break from competitions for this month – to be honest, I’m too busy to take care of the administration – but what you can do is please leave as message at the end of this post with suggestions for themes or topics for the next one – don’t worry, we’ll be back with another round soon. Thanks again everybody for taking part! MT

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August 2012 Competition announcement: Compact Challenge

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Under construction. Ricoh CX4

Due to the fantastic response to the last competition – over 120 entries – I’ve decided to run another one for August 2012. The theme will be: Compact Challenge.

What this means is that all images must be taken with a small-sensor, non-interchangeable lens camera; I’ll permit anything up to a Sony RX100, but the Canon G1x, Fuji X100/ XPro, Leica X1/X2, Sigma DP1/2, Sony NEX, Samsung NX, Nikon 1, M4/3 cameras and other CSCs with interchangeable lenses are not allowed.

The challenge? To capture the most amazing image with your compact; there’s no theme. Entries will be judged on the usual photographic criteria (composition, lighting, timing, technical quality) with one additional twist: bonus points for the ability to transcend the limitations of the camera, i.e. create a composition so strong or angle so unique that on first glance, it wasn’t obviously shot with a compact. By that token, filters, special effects, apps etc are not allowed either – though regular Photoshop processing is fine. The shot should be about the composition and execution, not postprocessing.

The entry fee remains just US$5, payable via paypal to mingthein2(at)gmail.com. As with the previous competition, the more entries we get, the bigger the prize pot: 70% of this will be paid out in prize money – 50% to the winner, and 20% to an honourable mention.

The basic principles:
– It will be 100% merit based. I will be judging.
– There will be a cash award for the winner and runner up!
– The prizes will be supported by a small entry fee of US$5 – the more people who enter, the bigger the award pot becomes. So share it with your friends!
– You will learn something: the final 10 images will be given a detailed critique on the site.
– Unlike just about every other competition out there, I won’t keep the rights to your images; all you need to agree to is allow me to publish the image here if you win, or if you make the final 10.
– There are no restrictions on equipment or date the picture was shot.
– You do of course need to have shot the photo, and own the rights to the image.
– Images must be in the theme of the competition.
– No restrictions on entries for amateurs/ professionals; I’m only looking at the quality of your image.
– Color or black and white are equally acceptable.

This is designed to be a competition by photographers, for photographers.

Closing date: Midnight GMT, 31 August, 2012.

How to enter:
- Each participant is allowed to enter one image per $5 entry fee, multiple entires are permitted.
– Images must be in jpeg format, 1500 pixels wide on the long side. Please do not send in full size images!
– Name your images with your name – “firstname lastname.jpg” is perfect
– Watermarks are fine but must not obscure the subject (obviously)!
– Send an email with “August 2012″ [space] plus your name in the subject line to mingthein2(at)gmail.com. The body of the email should contain your paypal address (payment is required for participation), name, your image and its title.
– Send your entry fee of US$5 via Paypal gift to mingthein2@gmail.com
– I will confirm receipt of both to the email address the image came from.
– Judging will take place in the first week of September, with results to come thereafter.
– Multiple entries are permitted, but each entry must have a separate entry fee.

The fine print:
– First place takes 50% of the total entry fees received.
– The runner up takes 20% of the total entry fees received.
– The balance of 30% will go towards running and supporting this site.
– You must own the rights to the image submitted.
– Rights for all images submitted remain property of the photographer, but in order to be eligible to win, the photographer must grant mingthein.com the rights to publish the image either as part of the results announcement or critique.
– No time limit to when the images may have been taken.
– The judges’ decision is final.
– EXIF data must be left intact so the camera type used can be verified – cameras with interchangeable lenses, SLRs and large sensor compacts (APS-C and above, fixed lens or not) are not permitted. We reserve the right to reject entries if they do not comply with the requirements.
– Photoshop allowed, but digital editing is limited to adjustments to color/ contrast/ dodge & burn/ sharpening/ minor retouching including spot removal etc. Changes of substantial portions of the image in order to alter the overall impression of the photograph are not allowed, and if detected are subject to disqualification.
– Your email address and other personal data will remain confidential and not be shared with any third party.

- Entries are welcome from any country, it’s an international competition!

Remember: the prize grows directly proportional to number of entries, so share this with your other photography friends and on Facebook!

Good luck, and may the best image win! Looking forward to seeing all of your entries – let’s see if we can break 200 this time! MT

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