It’s all about light: making mood and strong images in monochrome

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Rush hour

A couple of days ago, we looked at the inexact science of color and emotion: I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the mood and feeling of an image is influenced heavily by the dominant color palette, both in terms of the color of incident/reflected light and the color of the subject elements themselves. But how does this translate to black and white images? Obviously, it’s very possible to do since not every monochrome image feels the same. Even within the same sort of general lighting – say low key – it’s possible to produce variations in mood. How?

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Picking a tripod

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This article continues from a discourse of why a tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment.

There is a lot of obsession online over whether camera and lens A is better than camera and lens B – forgetting entirely that the creative vision and shot discipline of the photographer using the equipment is not just a great equaliser, but can very well turn the tables entirely. Tripods and heads are one of the very few areas in which this is not actually true – i.e. better equipment is better equipment and there are no equalisers – and are almost completely ignored. No amount of creativity or technique can make up for a poor tripod, but poor technique can certainly spoil a good tripod.

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Why the tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment

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Pentax 645Z with L bracket on Gitzo 1542T and Arca-Swiss P0.

Chances are, a tripod is actually one of the first bits of gear you got at the start of your photographic journey: they’re usually given away free with DSLR ‘kits’ as ‘value added’ freebies (you’re actually charged for them, of course). Like most people, you probably even carried it with you on every photographic excursion for a while, and then eventually got lazy or frustrated with it and gave up. At that point, you probably also wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a good tripod and head and a poor one. I’m fully guilty of this, of course. I even bought my tripod – a relatively cheap Velbon thing for all of about $60 that included a head, and was light and relatively small but tall enough to be reasonably ergonomic and not induce too much back pain – jackpot! Of course, I would later learn that the only thing that’s worse than no tripod at all is a bad tripod.

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A digital B&W epiphany

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With the previous article on HDR, the zone system and dynamic range as background, I can now explain exactly what my B&W discovery was: it’s mostly to do with the highlights, but only in certain areas. And to make things more confusing, creating a natural-looking – perhaps even filmic image – required me to take processing steps that were both highly counterintuitive, but also go against everything else I’ve done and used successfully in the past. Read on if you dare; I can’t promise enlightenment, but I can certainly try for insight.

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Demystifying HDR, the zone system, and dynamic range

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My eyes, my eyes! I had to work quite hard to make this as a) I don’t own any of those filter programs and b) I don’t do this kind of hyper toned, overlapping HDR. The actual, final version of this image is at the end of the article.

HDR/ High Dynamic Range photography is perhaps one of the greatest blessings and curses of the digital age of imaging. On one hand, we have retina-searing rubbish that’s put out by people who for some odd reason celebrate the unnaturalness of the images, encouraged by the companies who make the filters that make doing this kind of thing too easy – and on the other hand, there are a lot of HDR images out there that you probably wouldn’t have pegged as being anything other than natural. There is, of course, a way to do it right, and a way to do it wrong. I use HDR techniques in almost all of my images – I live in the tropics, remember, and noon contrast can exceed 16 stops from deep shadows to extreme highlights – we simply have no choice if you want to produce a natural-looking scene.

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The importance of shot discipline

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Miss it, and the moment is gone. Procession, Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

Repost: I’ve been referencing this particular early article so often in posts and emails that I think it’s high time we had a reminder. I’ve dusted it off, refreshed it a little. We’ll start by defining shot discipline. There are two main aspects: timing and technique.

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Going manual

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Three controls. Take control of the two that normally get delegated.

Following on from yesterday’s less is more article, I wanted to spend a bit more time about the implications of cutting your dependence on electronic nannies and going all manual – for both metering and focus. It’s actually nowhere near as intimidating as it sounds, and you’ll find that after getting over the initial hump, your photography will be both significantly more satisfying as well as compositionally stronger. You’ll get younger and lose weight, too*.

*Not guaranteed; results may vary from person to person. And you’ll have to walk a lot with heavy cameras to lose a significant amount of weight…

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Less is more: what does a camera really need?

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I’ve long been threatening to post a photograph of a toilet as an example of a minimalist everyday object made interesting – its basic form has been decomposed down to the bare minimums; ornamentation isn’t necessary, nor does it sell more toilets: less is more. Appropriately, this was also shot with a minimalist camera: an iPhone.

Here’s an interesting question: how many of you have given some thought to the bare minimum of what a photographic device needs to be used as an effective camera? The problem today is we’ve become far to accustomed to camera makers stuffing in additional software features in order to sell devices; none of which are useful, most of which don’t even work properly. Think back to when you last used one of the headline ‘new features’ of your last purchase – pano stitching, for instance; or 10fps tracking; or the ‘supergreen national park-like foliage mode’. Probably only once – shortly after unboxing it – and then never again. I’m willing to bet you can’t even remember which combination of button presses is required to activate it. But judging from current product offerings and advertising, the concept of selling a camera with less features in it is one that simply makes no sense…or does it?

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Start with the end in mind: visualizing your shots

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Lighting candles at Christmas outside Stefansdom, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Most of the time, we shoot first and then figure out what to do with the images later. That’s the wrong way of doing things. A healthy portion of famous photojournalism work was premeditated: not in the sense of the scenes being staged, but the photographers had some idea of what they were looking for, what might happen, and if it did, how they wanted to capture it. The final composition was most probably unplanned and spontaneous, relying on the photographer’s experience and training to deliver the precisely ‘right’ combination of elements in the scene.

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Market thespian, Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D200, 12-24/4

Even street photography works best with some degree of forethought: you might not know what’s going to come into your frame, but you do have to be conscious of light direction, possible backdrops or natural frames, and of course the flow of people. It isn’t planned, but a lot of the time I see locations with interesting urban geometries and abstractions, then wait around for something interesting to happen or for a person to be in precisely the right location to complete the shot. Often, most of these scenes would be acceptable but slightly boring without the human element – however, short of hiring a model, all you can do is wait and be prepared for somebody to turn up at the right place and time – and for that, you have to be both able to see what the difference would be, and ready to capture that instant.

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Vintage Lemania chronograph for a book on military watches. Double page spread, text in white to go on the black column at right – planned and shot as such. Nikon D200, 105/2.8 VR Micro

On the other side of the spectrum, almost all commercial work is planned, right down to the smallest of details. There are blank spaces left in compositions that look awkward on their own, but are there because of intended text placements or cropping to fit strange aspect ratio spaces. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the conceptual side of things – often most clients know what they want, but are unable to communicate it to the photographer because describing visual things requires a wholly different an unfamiliar language to somebody working in say, hamburger sales. The trick here then becomes trying to understand the end use of the image, its intended goal, and how you translate that into a photograph – in a sense, we photographer have become more than just executors – we have to think actively about human psychology to some extent, too.

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I bet you feel like a grilled snack on a skewer right now. And that’s the end goal. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

Fortunately, this is usually pretty simple: the end goal of commercial photography is almost always to sell more product. Which means that if you look at the image and it doesn’t stir some desire in you – whether it’s to go out and buy something or make you feel hungry – then the photograph has failed its objective.

I’m digressing here. What I really want to talk about is how the previsualization process works. I’ve already said a little bit about how I go about street photography – find the location and light, and then wait for the people or the action – but it’s different for every subject. Although photojournalism is pretty close in technique and execution to street photography, there’s one huge difference: you have to capture the story in a frame or a few frames, not just find an interesting random slice of life that may or may not be significant in a greater societal context. This means you have to identify what key elements you want in the frame beforehand – what you need to tell the story, in effect – and then go out and actively look for them. Throw the unpredictability of lighting and action into the mix, and you can see why it’s such a difficult job. You can also see why most photojournalists favor wide angle lenses; they allow the primary subject to be easily made prominent, and then context to be easily included in the frame as background – but not dominating the subject.

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Construction works on evacuation break. Ricoh GR-Digital III

In fact, wildlife, sport and photojournalism use similar processes. This is because you have no control of the subjects, but need to include key elements in order for the image to work.

Architecture is actually fairly simple: the architect usually wants to showcase a particular design detail or feature of a building, which means all you need to do is visualize how to present it in several ways – either with human-scale context, with environmental context, or in a more abstract, purer design-focuesd form. The remainder of the planning goes into figuring out what time of the day produces the most favorable light, and which vantage point and perspective you need to use. (I’ve got an upcoming On Assignment feature on an architectural shoot in Singapore, within a few days, actually.) In fact, the most unpredictable thing is the weather: there’s no way you can control it, and a few days of rain can completely kill your schedule.

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Rain would have killed this job. Leica X1

Food, watches and other commercial object-things work in a very similar manner to architecture, with one key difference: you can control the light. And you can plan the light to give the object certain characteristics, and in turn create controlled emotions in the viewer – remember the earlier article on color and emotion – it applies equally to light, too, since color equals light equals image. Most commercial shoots have controlled compositions, too – for the reasons mentioned above – most of the time, there’s an intended final use. And frequently, the client knows exactly where the text is going to go, or what other layout features the image has to work around.

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Master Ultra Thin 1833 limited edition. Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro.

Finally, there’s portraiture. I’ve left this one to last because it’s really a mix of everything; you can choose your background like street photography; elect to include or exclude contextual elements like photojournalism; pick the best and most flattering features of your subject like architecture; and finally, control the lighting like for food and watches. But yet there’s an uncertain element in the form of your subject; no matter how well you know a person, 99.99% of people will act differently in front of a camera, and that makes capturing a natural expression hugely challenging. Often I’ll find I shoot or pretend to shoot lots of frames at the start of a portrait session, but the ones that I submit in the end (and the client prefers) are the unplanned candids grab shots that happen during the informal downtime. In fact, doing this has almost become a habit with me – I should see if I can figure out how to drop the pretense in the future and just go straight to the informal bit.

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The beefeater. Nikon D90, 18-200VR

The upshot of all of this is one simple thing: no surprises. You get what you are expecting, and you can safely say a) job done, work delivered and b) the preplanning frees up your mind to focus on the other parts of execution, like lighting and fine tuning composition. All in all, producing a stronger image. MT

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