Earlier this year, I was commissioned to shoot a documentary set for the International Lutheran Seamans’ Mission; an organisation that has stations around the world tending to the spiritual and more pedestrian needs of seafarers. I thought the brief was interesting – follow and document one of their mission leaders, on vessels of various sizes ranging from small wooden fishing boats to new 1000ft container ships – whilst interacting with the seafarers and looking for interesting vignettes. That will be the subject of a future On Assignment – the client has not yet published the annual report it was commissioned for.
In an ideal world, the art of seeing and composition should be independent of one’s surroundings, subjects or location. Or at very least, one should attempt it. Even though it’s almost always easier for us to previsualize compositions when we are in an unfamiliar or new environment – that which is different always stands out the most – it’s good practice to see what can be found closer to home. I like to give myself this challenge on a fairly regular basis to keep things fresh; after all, if you can find a new and compelling image in a very familiar situation, it’s all the more likely you’ll be able to make one when you’re on assignment or travelling.
If you think about it, there’s actually not a huge leap between product photography and still life; after all, they are pretty much the same thing technically. The only tangible differences I can see are of course the intention/ message: one is to sell a product, the other is a visually interesting use of light and texture; and product photography tends to be with controlled lighting, whereas the majority of still lifes I’ve seen tend to use found available light. (Come to think of it, there’s not that much difference between still life and architecture or urbanscapes either, other than scale and occasional inclusion of human elements.) In fact, traditional still life photography was almost always of food – there’s an interesting avenue to explore for my next culinary assignment; it’d certainly be very different to the styles currently in vogue.
Admittedly, it’s not something I’d consciously tried to shoot earlier. The main reason I’m now giving it a try is because I’m trying to further heighten my awareness of the quality of ambient light in order to improve both my available light photography (remember, light, subject, composition, idea) and of course the quality of my constructed light. This exercise has taken me down two paths: firstly, the use of film cameras forces me to get it right in camera, whether it’s observation or construction; I want to speed up my workflow even more by paring the amount of postprocessing work I have to do to the bare minimum and absolutely unavoidable. I’m also training my eyes to work as a meter; so far, not too bad – I’m within a stop most of the time, which is about as accurate as the meterless film Nikons can go anyway. (Some lenses give you half stops, shutter speeds are always whole stops; my ‘Blad gives me half stops on the lens.)
The second effort is focused on a study of the light used by the great painters of days gone by; they didn’t have the luxury of making their own in real life, so they had to be masters of observation, imagination and replication. In some ways, not having the technical constraints of execution probably made this easier; in others, it’s not easy to replicate realistic lighting entirely with paint! It of course goes without saying that the quality of light achieved by the Dutch masters, Da Vinci, the Italians hyperrealists like Canaletto et al was fantastic, if slightly impossible at times. Still, they conveyed mood perfectly with color and use of shadows. Though such light is seldom found in nature, we can create it now – and to some extent, make up the balance in postprocessing (the colour part, and dodging and burning for contrast, at any rate.)
The images in this set were mostly shot in the last couple of months with a variety of equipment, though there are a couple which date from earlier. I don’t think I’ve quite figured out what my style is for still lifes yet; I’m still in the imitation-experimentation phase, but feel quite drawn to darker imagery with strongly directional single light sources; I like to think of it as ‘tonal richness’. From a postprocessing point of view, it’s not easy to achieve because preserving the quarter tone contrast tends to result in oversaturated primary color channels, which you of course have to correct for individually, which results in hue shifts especially in non-primary colors. Once again, monitor gamut and calibration are critical in achieving the desired outcome.
*Spot the Magritte reference
On the film front, since I’ve decided to eschew color in favor of the tonal possibilities offered by black and white – not to mention full end-to-end control over the process – it’s more about lighting management and attempting to visualize the native tonal response of the film, which is both very different from digital and not much like my normal postprocessed output, either. It doesn’t help that there’s the intermediate conversion step post-digitization which further complicates one’s ability to clearly imagine what the end results will look like. I like to think I’m fairly capable with Photoshop and can quite easily previsualize my end results at the time of shooting with digital, but that extra step has thrown me out. I suppose it’s a matter of consistency, practice, and getting to know the characteristics of one or two film emulsions very well.
Enjoy the images. I’m off to shoot some more. MT
On an unrelated note, if anybody has been wondering about the lack of On Assignment posts of late, it’s because I both simply haven’t had time on some of the more demanding recent assignments, or the setups haven’t been that exciting; just seeing me hold a camera in a still pose is not really very instructive or insightful. I’ve got a couple of jobs in the planning stages for next year that should be more interesting…
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