Most of the time when photographers talk about layers in a photo, they speaking about postprocessing in Photoshop. In this post, I am talking about visual and narrative depth in an image. To make a photo visually appealing, you need to create a sense of depth both physically as well as narratively.
Given that most cameras do not have stereo vision and so by default shoot a two-dimensional image, creating a sense of depth has always been an issue for photographers. We are always struggling how to translate depth into only two dimensions. So we have to suggest at depth. We do this in a very simple way.
This valley is certainly dramatic and the side of the valley leading up to the edge of the frame does give it some depth. But look at the next image...
Here by positioning my buddy David on a ledge looking over the valley makes the immenseness of the valley is much more apparent.
Someone once told me, a photographer, not to take a photo of them but a video instead. This statement was not to be taken literally; it was more of a metaphor for how we look at people and form opinions. The idea is we all change. What she was trying to say was she is not the same person she was ten years back as she is today, don’t view her by her past. Take a video, because we all change. If someone was to form an opinion of who she is, view her for who she is today, not a static image of her from 10 years ago.
I like this idea and I have tried to live by it, but it is hard. We all do change, daily, if not moment by moment, in every way. I was reminded of this just yesterday when I was looking through my old Lightroom catalog. I was reviewing several old images from five or six years back. I noticed how over-processed they were. What was I thinking? In looking at theses old photos, I felt I was looking at old pictures of me from the 70’s, dressed in crazy bell bottoms and looking awkward. Continue reading →
I have been in Raglan, New Zealand for the past two weeks teaching several classes for the On Field Media Project. Our host is a Christian Conservation organization called, A Rocha(read my past post on A Rocha here.). A Rocha New Zealand’s main project is the restoration of the habitat of the many seabirds around a mountain called Karioi Maunga and it’s coastline. It is a fascinating project and one in the days to come I want to tell you more about.
Right now, I am on my way back home to the US and I count myself fortunate to be standing upright as the day after I arrived in New Zealand, my back gave out on me. I spent almost a week visiting physiotherapist and receiving acupuncture up and down my spine. I am much better now, though still not fully recovered. The training went very well. I’ll be reporting on it in another post. For now, I want to leave you with an image or two from around Raglan. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries on the earth. It is a shame I spent most of my time laying face down on a physiotherapist’s table. But at least I was able to visit this lovely little town and it’s surroundings.
Student and old college chum, George Neill, had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he added an X-T1 to his kit. Here is George on the left with both cameras next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.
One of the more frequent questions I get asked, is “What is the best camera I should buy if I am a beginner?” Honestly, these days there are so many choices, which can make it confusing and overwhelming. But the reality is it doesn’t have to be. I tell newbies to step back, take a breath and answer a quick question or two. Then I give them usually one, possibly two answers. They are almost always happy if they follow my advice.
I start off by asking one simple question: “What are you going to be photographing?” It might seem simple, but so many people get ahead of themselves. They see all their photographic potential well before they have developed any photographic prowess. “Are you going to be shooting a wedding anytime soon?” Most will not. I probe a bit more. “Is this camera for birthdays, family vacations or maybe a new baby?” If they are honest and that is all they want to photograph I usually have a good idea what camera I am going to suggest they use.
If all you are shooting is selfies, then a smartphone is the perfect camera for you.
But, if I get a real sense they want to up their photographic game, to desire to be creative in their new found interest, my answer will be different.
Let’s look at the birthdays and family vacations folks. Most of these – if left to their own devices – will run out and buy a new DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex, think Canon Rebel). They will probably get it with the 18-55mm kit lens and a few folks with cash to spare will purchase a telephoto with the kit. They leave on vacation with dreams of becoming the next Ansel Adams or Steve McCurry. Before they depart, they usually do a cursory look at the manual and then off they go.
If truth be told, they never take the camera off “P” or the little green “Auto” box. They rarely switch the lens from the 18-55 mm to the telephoto. The vast majority of the time they are using their new toy like an iPhone. So, I usually tell these people, to just use their iPhone. Most of the time, in most of the locations they will be shooting, the iPhone or any smartphone will give them just as good of photos as their DSLR. Not because the DSLR is incapable of making better pictures, but because the user is unwilling to use the camera to get even close to its potential.
There are many reasons for this and in teaching photography to loads of aspiring Ansel Adams on weekend classes I have found the main reason is simple. People are too confused or intimidated by the digital array on the back of their cameras. Too many buttons. Too many menu options. On top of that, they have no clue what an aperture is or what it does. They sometimes know that a shutter “flips” or “closes” but they are not real sure where it even is. When I explain what these two rather important elements of the photographic process do, they get excited. They see the potential. But once they figure out where the buttons on their Canon are or where the menu settings on their Nikon are, they seem even more frustrated. It is all just too overwhelming!
Even the simplest DSLRs can get very confusing with their digital displays and hidden menus.
But here is something fascinating. When I show them these same concepts, aperture, shutter, etc.. on my Fujifilm X-camera, something clicks, sometimes literally. It’s true. It’s like a light comes on when I show my Ansel Adams the aperture ring and click through the f-stops. I tell him when you turn it one way the lens opening gets smaller, turn it the other way and it gets bigger. When I show him, the shutter speed dial and he sees the list of numbers relating to the shutter speeds he somehow grasps it. I have come to believe we humans will always relate quicker and easier to the physical world of analogue than to a virtual digital one.
Here are the analogue dials on a Fujifilm X-T1.
Another big point for choosing a Fuji X-System camera is the EVF or Electronic View Finder. This as opposed to the Canon, Nikon or virtually any other DSLR’s OVF or Optical View Finder. The DSLR’s OVF is like looking through a window. You see the same thing you would see if you took your eyes away from the camera. The only real addition is adding some digital information in number form at the bottom or side of the frame. However, in a Fuji, you have something entirely different, an EVF. The EVF gives the photographer immediate feedback and a real-time representation of the photograph you are about to take. With the EVF, you see the exposure, the depth of field (that is the effect the aperture has on the depth of focus.) Plus you have other information laid on top of the view if you choose. Things like a histogram that gives you a graphic overview of your exposure. You can see if any part of your image will be blown out or underexposed. You can add a green level line that shows you something like a horizon line in an airplane – granted; the latter can often be found on DSLRs, too. The Fuji can add a “Rule of Thirds” grid to help the new photographer learn better composition and of course, it shows you the same settings you find in the DSLR’s OVF like shutter speed and aperture information as well as what mode you are shooting. If you’re shooting in a specific crop mode, like square, the EVF will show you that square crop. With a DSLR, you have to imagine your square crop. And the beauty is, if you shoot raw, you can still revert to the original 2:3 aspect ratio later on. Same deal with the Film Simulations. You want to know what a particular scene would look like in Black and White? Just set one of the Black and White simulations and the EVF will update accordingly. And as long as you’re shooting Raw or Raw + JPEG, you still have the original color data in your file.
An EVF will give you the same data a DSLR view finder will give you with one important difference. The EVF gives you a real-time depth of field preview.
Some people might say, that a DSLR can provide an electronic view using the live view on the back of the camera. Three issues with this argument. First is when you hold out your bulky DSLR away from your face to use live view you drastically destabilize the camera. You go from anchoring the camera like a tripod against your face/eye with your two hands (three points of connection with your camera) to only two floating in the air. The second point, whereas the DSLR live view screen does give you a video image and can give you an idea of exposure; it doesn’t give you a real-time representation of your depth of field. There is a convoluted way to do this using live view1 But it is not seamless like an EVF. There really isn’t any comparison between the two. And lastly, have you ever tried looking at a camera LCD in the blaring sun? You don’t see much, do you? The EVF, especially on the Fujifilm X-T1 with its optional ‘long eyecup’ is much better protected from incoming sunlight and will, therefore, give you a much more realistic preview.
Of course, there are people out there that can handle digital buttons and menus and don’t mind waiting to see what they shoot until after they shoot it. I am sure there are plenty of them. But, what I have come to believe, in no uncertain terms, is that the average beginner will understand the concepts of photography quicker and will have a better understanding how his or her camera works using a camera like the Fuji X-System.
This is why if I see that Ansel or Steve need only to take a quick passing photo I suggest they use their smartphone and for the most part they will be very happy with their results. But if I sense even a hint of a desire to be creative I propose that they buy a Fuji X-System camera. I either tell them to get the X-E2 or the newer X-T10. These two cameras will give them the creative latitude they need and the analogue controls to help ground them in their new found hobby.
I can already here you sceptics crying foul! “But,” you say, “You are a Fuji X-Photographer! Of course, you will say Fuji is the best!” This is a bit of red herring, seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant. I am an X-Photographer precisely because I believe in what I just wrote (and more). I don’t believe in what I wrote because I am an X-Photographer.
So if you are an aspiring photographer who hates fighting with dials and switches, and you are having trouble getting your head around the basics of photography, I suggest in all honesty, you consider your next camera to be a Fujifilm X-System.
You can check out how to use live -view to preview depth of field HERE↩
Damien Lovegrove is a treasure trove of both photographic and business knowledge. With years of photographic commercial and wedding work under his belt, this knowledge is all field tested by real life. I feel fortunate that he took an hour out of his busy schedule to share some of this insight with us. To say Damien is easy to talk with would be an understatement. He is flowing with wisdom, ideas, encouragement and more.
Damien is considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential contemporary photographers. These days he is best known for creating portraits that make women look amazing. Damien is known for his lighting style picture composition. If you don’t believe me check out his website, Lovegrove Photography and you will soon be convinced.
He is also a fellow Fujifilm X-Photographer and ambassador. He has shot exclusively with Fuji cameras since May 2012.
Damien shoots around 1,000 frames a week. He says if he doesn’t shoot that much in a week he starts to feel like he is going backwards. Yet, I never got the impression in this conversation that he is driven to the point where he runs over everyone in his way. Generous with his knowledge and experience, he speaks with me about creating what he calls that “big picture equation” that helps a photographer stay afloat financially. We also spoke about developing a style that is uniquely yours and how critical this is to your work. We cover how to take a dream and turn it into a reality and so much, much more.
This is a good example of Rembrandt-style lighting and photographing on the “short” side of the face.
Piet is holding the small Cactus flash attached to the SMDV 70cm Speedbox.
The setup. The SMDV Speedbox is off to the subject’s right and high. The subject is turned slightly into the light giving the photographer his shadow or short side of his face.
In the prior post, I made a big deal about how we used the SMDV Speedbox when photographing sadhus in Varanasi. We had so much interest I wanted to expound on the use of the softbox and talk about one man, the Faqir Baba.
First off for you non-Urdu/Hindi speakers, the word faqir (/fəˈkɪər/) literally means “poor”. It is generally a poor Muslim (sometimes a Hindu) man who wanders and lives off of donations, aka alms. In Kashmir, where I lived for years, you’d run into Suji Faqirs all the time. The term Baba is idiomatic for simply any wise old man. So together, Faqir Baba becomes more of a title, than a name, but that’s how it rolls in India – titles often become names or nicknames. For now, I’ll refer to him as simply Babaji. Ji being an honorific, so “Mr. Wise Old Man”. Ok, enough with the language lesson.
Babaji looking into the light.
The light set up. This time, the light isn’t as far off the to the left.
On our second day in Varanasi, aka Banaras, the holiest city in India… for Hindus we met Babaji. Why would there be a Faqir wandering around Banaras? Actually, a little-known fact outside of Varanasi is that this Hindu city is made up of 30% Muslims. So even though the city is known as a Hindu city it has a huge Muslim population. It should be no surprise that we should run into this kind old man, Babaji.
Remember, this was a photo workshop. We had three students that signed on to learn how to take better photos and expected their leaders, Piet Van den Eynde and I, to deliver the knowledge as well as the opportunity. Once we saw this man’s face we knew we had to photograph him. This is where it gets sticky and if you listened to the previous podcast you know our thoughts on paying models. In short, if we take them away from what they are doing – take time away from their “job” then it seems only fair to remunerate their efforts.
We set a price using a local boy from our hotel to help out and off we traveled in search of the perfect location to photograph Babaji.
No flash. Just available light. The background is burned in Lightroom.
At this point, I think I need to make it clear, that I have always, ALWAYS considered myself an available light photographer. Piet does as well, in fact, he is always quoting Joe McNally saying, he will photograph with whatever light might be available. Cheeky, but true for him. I think my definition is closer to: an available light photographer is a photographer who is scared to death of flash! If truth be known, that has been me for years or at least until I began running workshops with Piet four years ago.
When we first started these workshops, or Photo Treks as we call them, Piet would bring his Lastolite Trifold umbrella and a Speedlight. As time progressed Piet’s lights got bigger and more powerful: Cactus, Godox and now the huge 600-watt seconds Jinbei. The little umbrella was not sufficient any longer. Once we started using the Jinbei, spillover of the big spread of powerful light was just too much for the little guy. This year, Piet brought with him a couple of the most ingenious softboxes I have every worked with – the SMDV Speedbox. The Speedbox is aptly named as after the initial setup, it takes literally seconds to put up or take down. Check out the video below.
This was shot with the light off to the left of Babaji.
Shot even wider with a 16mm. Same light setup. But by shooting this wide you can now see the light fall-off on the edges of the frame.
Back to the portrait shoot of Babaji. We had scoped out a location the day before and were excited to have it as a backdrop. But, like so often in India, things changed at the last minute. We arrived with cameras, lightboxes, photographers and, of course, Babaji only to be told in no uncertain terms we had to leave. We explained to them we had permission from the building owners (in fact we did). They didn’t care, they were the residents, they had final say, “move on!” So after that, our little crew of photographers started walking through the alleyways and streets of old Varanasi looking for other interesting backdrops, with Babaji shuffling behind us.
It wasn’t too long until we came around a corner and found a ledge or shelf protruding out from a green wall in desperate need of paint (always a good sign) and a blue door. Perfect! We politely invited Babji to have a seat on the ledge in front of the door. Then we quickly popped open the SMDV Speedbox. Now, it should be stated here the available light in this location wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I was a little skeptical about using extra lighting (see the previous post) I only mention this here because we had two choices of off-camera lighting – the Smaller Cactus flash or the larger Jinbei. We went with the Cactus RF60 because a more powerful Jinbei would have been too much. All we wanted to do was add drama or texture to the image, not drown out all the available light.
Using the Cactus we had to shoot in manual mode. The best way to do this is to set your shutter speed to its sync speed, for the X-Pro2, it was 1/250th, for the X-T1 it is 1/180th. Then you adjust your aperture for the appropriate background exposure. Now add the flash to the equation and adjust the power of the flash from the remote trigger. Pretty simple in theory.
As a rule of thumb, you can lower the shutter speed to increase ambient light. You can also open or close the aperture, but then you should also adjust the shutter speed accordingly in order to keep the same ambient exposure. To adjust the amount of flash exposure you can do one or two things. You can adjust the power of the flash or you can simply move the flash closer or farther away from the subject. The last tactic is tricky as you have to consider something called the inverse square law. Let’s not get into that here. Here is a tip: if you stop down your exposure from the “correct” or “balanced” exposure to a tad underexposed you will add drama to the image when you add the flash. You can clearly see that effect in a few of the images.
Once we got the exposure the way liked, we adjusted the direction of light for the shadows we wanted. Basically, we sculpted the light by moving the softbox around. Piet and I both like photographing our subjects from the “short side” of a flash-lit face. It always seems to give more drama to the look. What I mean when I say the “short side” of the face is, photographing from the shadowed part of the face. That meant putting the SMDV Speedboxoff to the right or left of Babaji and having him look just off the light at times. What you get with this type of lighting is a look as if they stepped right off an oil painting from a Renaissance master.
One other important thing that we did is add a grid to the Speedbox. The grid sometimes called “egg crate” directs the light even more than the softbox does. By adding the grid you eliminate light spill around your subject and you contain the light to a very small confined space. This brings you more control of your background. You can add an extra light to the background to give texture to it. We never did this, probably because we were too self-conscious about time with any given subject. None of this happened quickly. These extra steps take time, so all the better if you can set up and take down your softbox quickly.
Faqir Baba, Varanasi, India
Honestly, that is about it. The hardest part of this process was taking the time to let everyone in the group shoot. I gotta say, Babaji was very patient and a super compliant model.
So all-in-all winners on this trip were the SMDV Speedbox and Babaji. You can find both the 70cm and the 110cm (we used it with the Jinbei and a Bowens mount) at 1212world.com. Both the 70cm and the 110cm have the ability to use a grid (to be purchased separately). If there is a downside to using the Speedbox it would have to be the price. These are not cheap. But as the age old adage goes, “you get what you pay for”. There really isn’t much out there to compare with the Speedbox. I have used umbrella type softboxes. They are easy to set up, but they are heavy and the flash unit has to be inside the box. That means having to tear apart the box completely each time you put it up or take it down. But even more of an issue with having your flash unit inside the box is if your flash remote is optical you are in trouble. It just won’t work. With the Speedbox, you have speed and accessibility to the flash.
These are amazing softboxes with beautiful results. Don’t take my word for it. The proof is in the pudding or in this case, the photographs.
Piet, (foreground) and Rene (camera to his face) and the SMDV Speedbox Professional 70cm and a Cactus RF60 in the alleyway of Varanasi, India.
Every year after our workshop in India, Piet Van den Eynde and I spend an hour or so talking about this years new Fujifilm gear. Because we do it in the field it sometimes becomes difficult to find a good location to record these discussions. It is India after all, things are noisy. One year we even made a tent out of blankets and recorded the show under it. Not to worry, this years was a breeze. Piet and I only had to deal with noisy bellhops and stray dogs, all of this served as a background to an amazing hour of looking at the latest gear from Fujifilm. For this episode we invited camera geek and photographer Rene Debar, host of the Fuji Xtras blog to help us with our yearly overview and to discuss the new Fujifilm X-Pro2.
In this episode we also spoke about the difference between the detail you get with using off camera flash verses available light. I said I would post an example of one image shot with both flash and available light. Here they are:
The set up.
This old “fakir baba” was photographed with available light. Zoom in by clicking the photo to see the detail. But compare it to the next photo shot with the Cactus off camera.
The above image is with available light. Nice, right? But if you zoom in by clicking on the image you will see the detail, not bad, unless you compare it to the image shot with the Cactus flash. This difference is striking!
The same fakir as the first image, but this time photographed with a Cactus RF60 off to the left. Zoom in for more detail and see the sharpness and clarity. By the way, both photos made with the Fuji X-Pro2.
Check out the 100% crops to view the difference in sharpness:
UPDATE: I am a little concerned that the focus might be off on the “no flash” comparison shot. I used it because that was the only frame I had shot at the same distance AND focal length to compare and the to images. So, to be fair I adding another comparison. The only difference is the “no flash” or “without flash” image is shot closer to the subject. Both are still 1:1 and this time SOOC. But you can clearly see the flash image is sharper.
1:1 flash comparison.
Piet with the camera to his face Raju our helper holding the Cactus with the SMDV Speedbox Professional 28-inch (70cm) attached.
The results of the above lighting. BTW we put a CTO filter on the flash to warm the light’s color.
Even the little Nissin i40 performed well on the X-T1 within it’s parameters.
Of course much of the show is dedicated to discussing the new Fujifilm X-Pro2. An amazing camera, but not without a few quirks.
In India, just down the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal is a small village called Kacchpuri. A village filled with the poorest of the poor trying to squeeze out a daily living in a myriad of ways. Many of the villagers sell used saris. They go around the area buying old worn-out ones. They mend them, wash them and sell them to people who can’t afford new ones. The whole village seems to be involved in the process. We visited the Dhobi Ghaat where dhobies wash the used saris. A dhobi (male) or dhobin (female) takes the old saris and boils them, scrubs them and then rinses them in, of all places, the Yamuna river.
Scrubbing old saris clean.
A child draws in the sand of the Yamuna as the dhobies rinse the old saris in the background.
A camel in the background hauls off sand for concrete, while dhobies wash in the foreground.
Of course, as the villagers live on the river, the children play in and around the river as well. From flying kites to drawing in the sand, the Yamuna is home to these people.
Children play on the banks of the Yamuna flying kites.
Kite flying can be a competition. Where glass string is used to cut the other team’s kite string.
Another part of the village makes bullwhips. They string scraps of leather together to make a whip and then sell them wholesale to a middleman who sell them to shopkeepers who in turn sell them to tourists.
Weaving bullwhips to sell to tourists.
Cleaning fenugreek for the meal later.
Like so many places in India, these people are poor, they have almost nothing, yet when you look at their faces you see smiles and joy. I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite preachers, “It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.” – Charles Spurgeon
The Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, Malaysia all lit up for Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year in Penang
My wife and I have been back in Malaysia 10 days now. In that time we have been working frantically on our new visa to allow us to reside here. Without going into details – let’s just say it is complicated. Our visit has coincided with Chinese New Year. Since arriving the shops and public offices have been close for Chinese New Year. It was the worst possible time to come to work on something like a visa. Especially when you have a small window to work in. I leave Sunday to host a 10 day workshop in India. But the upside is with the offices all closed it has given me ample opportunity to get back into the city and photograph this amazing place. Oh how I have missed Penang.
I hope you enjoy some of these images.
A Buddha in the upper floor of the pagoda at the Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.
I found this arched doorway on the first level of the pagoda at Kek Lok Si to be a true blend of Malay (read Muslim) and Chinese architecture.
The same group of arches, but facing a different direction and thus with a different backdrop. Not as symmetrical but more colorful.
Chinese lanterns at Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang.
More Chinese lanterns. These were hanging at Kek Lok Si, in Penang.
Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.
Kuan Yin Teng Temple or Temple of Mercy in Georgetown, Penang.
A view back over the city from Kuan Yin Teng Temple at sunrise.
A temple volunteer picks up the older josh sticks. He needs to leave room for the hundreds more that will be left by the worshipers to come. Early morning at Kuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭).
A worshiper at the Kuan Yin Teng (廣福宮/觀音亭) raises his josh stick in prayer.
Lanterns in a Taoist temple near Tanjung Bungah, Penang, Malaysia.
Meet Mr Lim. A retired factory worker who now volunteers at the temple to stay busy.
One of the fun events of Chinese New Year are the Lion Dances that happen all over the city. A troop of dancers and musicians dance to give a prosperity blessing to shopkeepers in return for Aung Pow or a offering or gift.
Albert, the Chee Cheong Fun hawker, sneaks a peak at the man behind the lion mask.