Ongoing experiments in intentional camera movement as part of the learning journey

My daughter Jessica had asked for a camera to celebrate the arrival of her sister Sophie.  As she said; “Sisters are special.  Sisters can buy you ‘born gifts’.  I would like a camera.”  Being a soft touch, I complied and she’s making good use of a seemingly bombproof Nikon S33 – for example.

As she makes headway with that I’ve set myself the challenge of teaching her to shoot.  Moleskine/Milk have a neat promotion to offer a free photo book to Getty Contributors, and I thought I would use my free credit to create a “how to take photographs” book for Jessica.  In beginning the process of writing that book, I’ve been reminded of some of the reasons I shoot and – resonating with what I’ve taken from the inspirational David duChemin – have come to realise how much harder I could be pushing the envelope in terms of creative photography.

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Full moon and late autumn trees, 2 second exposure, spiraling movement

Intentional camera movement has stood out to me as part of that for a couple of reasons.

For starters, it offers benefits in terms of being an initially low pressure style of photography that can be practiced in brief moments, and is possible at night, without significant kit, whilst offering an infinity of new subjects within even a minute’s walk from the house.  I’m also enjoying the more poetic quest to shoot “how it feels” as outlined in this original post.  And I’m also seeing how intentional camera movement or ICM resonates with the core principal of my photographic style.

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Silver birch with mid-autumn leaves, 1.6 second exposure, jagged shake

More and more my literal photography is feeding my stock library at Getty Images.  There you’ll find those shots I consider well taken, technically sound images of scene or objects that I found interesting or thought might be salable.

The kind of photography I consider “mine”, and the kind of photography I’m trying to teach Jessica, is based on the idea of making the mundane appear fantastical.  So far that’s taken a couple of branches.

The first, and longest standing, is long exposure and light painting.  Shots like the following where by compressing time and adding light one can take a dull night scene and conjure something a little more magical, something one step left of reality.

 

The second path is one of shooting street portraits of strangers, usually with a dash of adding light from a reflector or strobe or more, with the aim of taking an average person from the street and elevating them to a Vogue style icon.

 

ICM seems to offer another path on that journey – expressing an element of fantasy from everyday scenes, like the trees above, or from leaves on a pavement/sidewalk.

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Mix of leaves on hedge and sidewalk in rain with reflected headlights, single second exposure, horizontal looping movement
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Streetlight on last leaves and white plastic bag caught in tree, 2 second exposure, held for a moment, then vertical drag and waving motion

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Apple tree at night, single second exposure, tight, rapid loops

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Slightly out of focus trees at sunset, 1/4 second exposure, slow vertical sweeping movement

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Autumn beach leaves in sunlight, 1/5 second exposure, fast vertical sweep

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Jessica’s first ICM shot, autumn trees in sunlight, 1/4 second exposure, 1/4 second exposure
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Cropping choices and their impact on depth of field

Listening to recent reviews and discussion around the Canon 5DS, 5DSR and the Leica Q you find some comment around in camera cropping options; features that let you set different crops or effective focal lengths in camera.  Likewise, there’s a note to some 5DS and 5DSR reviews that with so many pixels, one can crop in post and still have decent size files.  Of course, in all these cases you’re losing pixels and image size, and that’s the main focus of debate I encounter.

One nuance I don’t see mentioned so much is the difference in depth of field between a shot “cropped” with a camera feature or in post, versus a shot “cropped” by recomposing, moving nearer your subject.  My street portrait of Czech girl Jitka hopefully serves to illustrate the difference here.

Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

Above is the main shot from last year’s street encounter with Jitka.  As well as this shot, I took another closer cropped version stepping nearer her (see below).  Depth of field, obviously, is an equation with multiple facets – the width of aperture, the focal length of the lens, but also the distance from sensor to subject, and from subject to background.  Composing more tightly, a closer crop, by stepping near your subject changes an input in that equation – by getting you nearer your subject, it gives a shallower depth of field, as many people seek in a portrait.  It has a three dimensional impact on your composition.

Cropping with a camera feature or in post has only a two dimensional impact on your composition.  It doesn’t change your depth of field, or help to drop a background.  Here’s an example to illustrate.  The first image (left/top) is a Lightroom crop of the main image above.  The second image (right/bottom) is a separate image shot by stepping closer to Jitka – helping to drop the background further out of focus.

Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane (Simulated Crop)  Alternate Take - Jitka (Stranger #35/100), London Brick Lane

As ever it depends what you’re shooting and what effect you are seeking.  If you are shooting landscapes, seeking front to back sharpness, this nuance probably needn’t enter your considerations and the loss of file size is maybe the biggest trade off to consider.  For those shooting shallow depth of field portraits, I think it’s a valid footnote to the discussion about the advantages of these new features or pixel counts.

Sometimes the advice against cropping with a camera setting or in Photoshop is overwhelmed by “purists” who simply object on ethical grounds.  That’s a shame, as it disguises some of the tangible effects these decisions have on our images.  I’m a pragmatist, I don’t care how I get the end image.  Often that’s best done in camera, and hopefully this quick examination highlights one of the situations where that’s definitely the case!

Light Unleashed – Creating hard shadows with bare LED’s

I currently light paint with a couple of high power LED’s – one to light objects in the scene, a military spec Lenser LED, and one more modest, unbranded unit to draw lines in the scene when shooting images like these;

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A couple of months back I managed to drop the second of the two in a Slovenian river, leading to its near death.  Whilst frantically unscrewing and shaking it in an attempt to bring it back to full life, I discovered the entire lens element could be removed, leaving a strangely naked LED unit exposed to a full 180 degrees sweep of reality.

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Wonderfully compact, and now working perfectly again, the tiny LED is capable of producing a quite bizarre world of light – at once vast and smooth, yet titanium hard.  The full 180 degree area of effect is more like a cloud of light than a beam per se – used at night outdoors it offers an incredibly even pool of light in all directions, falling away over some 40 feet or so.  As an example, here’s how the beams look on a wall – first the original through the lens element, and then the bare LED;

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What you can’t see in the second image is the huge misty expanse of light sweeping endlessly away, effortlessly smooth.  It appears a deceptively soft light, yet – as one would expect from such a tiny light source (3mm x 3mm perhaps), it is in fact insanely hard.  The shadows it creates are edged as if cut from black card with a craft knife.  What’s more, as it’s so very, very tiny, and so very, very wide it still creates these hard shadows even when placed point blank to whatever obstacle you choose to use to throw them.  Here’s a quick example – the first shot with the LED held above the (iPhone) camera, then second held lower, below the foliage, and thus throwing up a dense thicket of shadowy leaves and stalks onto the white wall.  All that’s changed is the position of the light – 3-4 feet lower in the second.

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Being able to place it so close allows you to fill a whole garden – even a large one – with a hard, shadowy tangle of leaves and thorns, even if given just a foot or so of bramble to cast from, or turn normal banisters into a vast foreboding wall of prison-dark bars, or a shimmering net of energy by shining through a glass door.

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I’m still working out quite what to use this learning for in terms of “portfolio images”.  For the moment, I’m just happy to have discovered the possibility and to be exploring it.  Walking around a house or garden, LED held low and open creates some wildly spooky shadows.  Also – it’s a good reminder of the difference between “even” light and “soft” light; all too easy to mistake a superficially similar until one puts a model in them.  Hopefully those of you who haven’t discovered this already will find the idea – I don’t think it’s practical enough to call it a “tip” yet – interesting and will enjoy exploring it.  If you do, I’d love to see the images that come from it!

Have an amazing weekend all!

10,000 Mistakes – “Play” in learning photography

A couple of years ago, I was struck by a neat Zen quote; “The difference between a master and a novice is 10,000 mistakes.”  It was around about the time I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, sketching the general requirement for one to invest 10,000 hours in mastering a cognitive skill, and so it particularly struck.

As a result I shot a few left of field experimental shots, for example; spraying water in front of a street lamp and blossom during a long exposure, stacking filters to make a 19 stop ND (for a ~500,000 multiplier to exposure times) and shooting images of our cat’s backlit fur with a £5 extension tube on a 50mm 1.8.  All good fun, and a great way to embed lessons about light, exposure and photography in general.

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In shooting these, however, I was always looking for a shot to add to the portfolio.  Little by little, I realise, that experimental has fallen away.  I’ve recently started listening to the awesome Martin Bailey Photography podcast, and stumbled across this interview with David duChemin about his ebook The Visual Imagination.  You can check it out here – it’s fantastic, like all of Martin’s podcasts, and like every interview I’ve listened to with the relentlessly inspiring David duChemin.

They explore the idea of play in practice.  Taking shots to practice, to learn, to enjoy, to play – without any express intention to catch any lasting portfolio shots.  The notion resonated with what I used to do, but have increasingly formalised, so I thought I’d head out to play around with a flash and some subjects on my doorstep – using a bareflash and streetlight on some early summer blossom, a big white shoot through umbrella on a pole over some dense cow’s parsley and then flashing a scene with a nylon sheet over a clothes horse, before swooping my 24mm TS-E off the tripod and down towards a bare white LED buried in bright green leaves (or messing around with focus/shift mid-exposure).

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Whilst I’m not about to add any of the shots to my portfolio overnight, it was incredible fun and massively overdelivered in terms of learnings.  I’d 100% recommend checking out the podcast, have downloaded the ebook (superbly priced like all Craft & Vision products) and look forward to shooting practice sessions with greater freedom, without the burden of expectation and coming to know the tools, craft and possibilities of photography all the better for it.

Hope you’re well and having an incredible week so far.