Some photographic pointers 1

It’s with some trepidation that I set out on a series of posts discussing photography. Indeed, it is only the encouragement of two of my Twitter acquaintances, @margit11 and @TaraBradford, that emboldens me to do it at all. There are so many professional photographers on Twitter such as the amazing Andy Marshall who, if they happen across this blog, will probably barely contain their mirth. But I have one advantage over Andy and his professional colleagues that may be of benefit for my target audience of amateur snappers: with a bit of application anyone can produce images as good as mine. The same can’t be said for his. And so at least I’m not going to be giving counsel of perfection, and depressing everyone in the process as they quickly realise that they have no hope of following it.

There are very many ways in which I could approach my task of meeting @margit11’s brief of addressing “lots of topics! Which camera good for [people] to start out? How to take [pictures] of water? Angles for buildings? [Very] bright sunlight?..” I’ve decided against the classic didactic route of taking people through the basics of photographic technique in the abstract – articles on exposure, or on composition, or on lighting. If anyone wants that there are millions (literally) of books out there that they can read. Instead, I’m going to discuss in each post an image of my own, and describe some of the challenges and themes that were involved in taking and processing the image, and sometimes, as in this post, look at a couple of images of the same subject to illustrate different approaches. A lot of the discussion will be technical in the sense that it will be about technique, but always in the context of its practical application in the specific image or images under the spotlight. It won’t be difficult to understand, and any technical terms will be explained in, I hope, a simple and straightforward way.

First, some parameters. I’ll be talking exclusively about digital photography, and probably the posts will be as much about post-processing in image software as they will be about camera technique at the time the photograph is taken. Talking of software, although I won’t generally be dealing with a specific package nor providing step-by-step guidance, you might want to download the free GIMP package which gives you just about everything that Photoshop can provide, and which will certainly enable you to do anything that I might suggest, and heaps more beside. As for the type of camera, although I’ll not be assuming you have a high end digital SLR, I will be assuming that you’ve got a camera that allows you to take manual control of exposure when that’s necessary. If you have a totally automated camera with no manual override, well, there’s not much I can tell you except try and keep it pointed at the right subject! If your camera allows it, it’s better to set it to RAW rather than JPG (if that means nothing to you, don’t worry just now.) For things that don’t move, set your camera to aperture priority mode (and since I rarely take images of things that do move, my camera stays on aperture priority all the time, and all my posts will assume that unless I mention something else.) I’m assuming also some familiarity with the concepts of aperture (f8, f5.6 and all that) and shutter speed (1/250th, 1/125th, etc.)

So here goes! These two photographs were taken last June in France. They are of the very beautiful, but largely unknown, Château de Céré not far from Poitiers in the Centre-West of the country.

The most obvious thing about the conditions when these shots were taken is that it was sunny! Although that made it very pleasant for me, it made it very difficult for my camera. Our eyes are able to deal with vastly greater contrast between highlights and shadows than a digital camera can, and I wanted to capture both the details of the old stone walls where they were in shadow, and keep the beautiful vibrant blue of the sky. That’s not at all easy. In film cameras you can over-expose quite a bit before losing detail in the brightest parts of the image, but for digital over-exposure is deadly. As soon as the sensor reaches the limit of its capacity, then everything becomes pure and lifeless white. I’m sure you’ve probably all had the experience of taking a shot with a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds (just like this one!) only to find that when you print it out the clouds have disappeared into a featureless white sky. Or, the sky’s been lovely, but your friends’ faces, or the building you were photographing, have turned out pitch black.

The second thing to notice is that in the first shot quite a bit of the château is in full sunlight, whilst in the second only the roofs of the turrets are. In the jargon, this second image is said to be taken “against the light”. That makes the problem of the contrast between the sky and the shadows even more difficult to deal with. You can see that the blue of the sky in the second shot is not as vibrant, as “saturated”, as it is in the first, and the clouds are not as well defined. However, the second shot is probably more interesting photographically, whilst the first looks a bit like a picture postcard. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s probably cheaper and easier just to buy one! Even in the first image though, the sunlight is not coming from directly behind me, and so there is still some interplay between light and shade on the walls, and the turrets have a pleasing three-dimensional look about them. This is important in architectural shots. Never take a building with the sun at your back: the picture will be lifeless and boring. It’s better to come back a bit later, and noon is never a good time! These shots were taken at about 4pm (2pm by the sun) and would have been better if it had been nearer 6pm.

In order to deal with the problem of over-exposure, I deliberately under-exposed the second image by just over 1 stop (a stop being the difference between adjacent apertures – e.g. f8 to f5.6 – or shutter speeds e.g. 1/60th to 1/125th). That left the bits of the château that were in shadow (i.e. in this case just about all of it) very dark-looking indeed, and I’ve had to rescue them in my software package. One side effect of that has been to increase the saturation of the colours, making the grass a very vibrant green, but I think it still works quite well, and doesn’t look exaggerated. The technical side is a bit complicated. You have to use something called “masking” which enables you to select some parts of the image to work on (in this case the shadows) whilst leaving other parts (in this case the sky) untouched. Using software to brighten the shadow areas in this way will increase the digital “noise”, a kind of randomly coloured, speckled effect and so there is a limit to how much you can apply the technique without ruining the image.

Finally, a few comments about the different moods created by the two shots. The first, with much of the château in full sunlight, creates a warm and “safe” feel, enhanced by the grand driveway, the open shutters, and the splash of red flowers. The second emphasises the fortress element, and the dark, rather forbidding, nature of the towers. Without the driveway in view, the château seems to be in a wilder sort of environment, and this is emphasised by the framing of the dark foreground trees. The first image puts one in mind of relaxed aristocrats enjoying themselves: the second of imprisoned princesses.

Technical details. Top image: 18-70mm zoom at 27mm; f8; 1/640th; ISO 200. Bottom image: 18-70mm zoom at 34mm; f8; 1/250th; ISO 200 (exposure reduced by 1.08 stops in post-processing)

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3 thoughts on “Some photographic pointers 1

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Some photographic pointers 1 « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. I really love this! It’s extremely useful and very instructive for peoplelikeme who love taking photos, but are soemhow stuck in the “snapper” stage. I already learned a lot from this post and took some notes. What I’ve been totally unaware of so far was the “Post-production” side of things, I’ve never done it. So thank you Stephen for taking up the suggestion -I’m sure a lot of people will find this great blog both fun to read and very useful!

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