Inspiration & Technique: Jean Smith

Something occurred to me: some of you have families, and taking pictures of your family is what you care about. Time for me to make this blog more relevant to your needs.

The business of being a "family moments" photographer is so full of phonies. It is not the kind of photography I am into - matter of taste - but this is a kind that answers a market demand, so a lot of people claim to be photographers for a thousand bucks a day. Most so called "professional" just own an pricey camera and an insurance...hopefully.  It's quite sad since it's very important for the customers who spend big bucks to capture meaninful parts of their lives. When doing that job, you must deliver because you have been hired and paid, so you have to be capable, with a good amount of well mastered techniques to leverage. 

Luckily, in the middle of that ocean of dodgy so called photographers, there are some true enthusiastic professionals such as Jean Smith. I swear I don't know her at all, I'm not advertising for anyone. I just came across her work and thought: "oh, this is some consistently good work in a field that usually don't attract the best". So I thought I'll use her stuff as an excuse to learn a little :)
I don't think her single person portraits meet the super high standards of someone like Jan Sholz (although he cheats a little by using pretty naked ladies) but she has some really good techniques when in comes to multi subject portraits; which is a pretty difficult thing to do. It leads to really nice family pictures. Let's see if we can extract some of those techniques:  I'll take a few shots and explain why and how you should get inspired by them. 

Have you thought of cropping lately?
Cropping brings you closer with the subject as it leads you towards details of the face, hands. But it's not only about distance: your brain will extrapolate the missing part, while emotion you try to convey will take over the picture as no disturbing elements will remain. Cropping simply creates intimacy. You cannot crop anything anytime, but it's fun to practice and easy to do post processing with the huge files nowadays cameras produce. See the other point below about depth of field, very relavant when cropping. 

Have you thought of leverage depth of field lately?
 Depth of field is the best way to make sure you lead the eye where you mean to. If everything is sharp, where are you supposed to look? It can make total sense to make everything sharp, but on such portraits, focusing at the right place and having the proper amount of sharp depth is important. See below, if the entire family was sharp, it'd be like "hum...that's weirdly cropped, why can't we see the whole family?" Because it's a portrait of the dog. You can project the family even though they are blurry, you get the idea of a family, without removing focus from the dog. 

On this second picture (this one is by me but I needed it for the sake of the example), I cropped and used a narrow depth of field to get just what I wanted: an intimate boy's portrait, within the context of his family.
Have you thought of paying attention to your focus point lately?
We have the cropping and the depth sorted, but where to focus on? Well sometimes it's about that one detail in context. Portrait of a baby and his/her parents? You could of course shoot them right in the middle of the frame, all sharp and smiling like they do it naturally, posing like a cosmetics commercial. Or you can do what's here: a tiny foot, extracted from a blurred family hug. Now that does look a bit more like something parents would do. Also it looks so much more intimate. 

Have you thought of over / underexposing lately?
In a picture, you very rarely have every element lit at the same level. So you have to make a call: what will look normal, what will be dark and what will be bright? I'm sure you've had those shots where the sky is blue and you subject is dark, or your subject is fine and the sky is white. Well, don't let the camera decide: go manual, and pick your mood.

On this first picture (my favorite from the batch), the essence of this new born is caught by his profile alone. The dad's posture tell everything that needs telling, and the round blue bright zone on the wall contrast with the baby's head. What does dark bring us here: it removed unnecessary details, it creates intensity, it is the first face to face, father and son, and it's deep shit.

And the opposite use of light here: let's flood the room with light to create a moment of heavenly happiness. Fundamentally that shot is properly exposed, but I bet you a camera in auto mode would think "wow! much light, very bright, must expose less". And you'd loose that dreamy mood. Tell the camera what you want, add 1 stop or 2 if you need. You can do a lot of different things with the same scene, just by changing exposure.

Have you thought of using context to tell a story lately?
What tells the story of a young couple starting a life together than being in your first kitchen? Nothing (...that I can think of right now). So use the room, rooms have lines, you can use lines to compose. Once you have a nicely composed image, place your subjects into context and tadaaaa! You have a story. 

I hope those tips and tricks will help you take better pictures of your loved ones. I'm not usually that corny so push it. Soon more pretty ladies and war photography to even things up.
RooaaaR! Outdated manliness !

Inspiration: deep dive into photographs by Alex Ayer

One of my colleagues, now aware of my obsession interest in photography, shared with me the site of a friend of his: Alex Ayer. What usually happens is such cases is that...well pictures are often not worth putting together a portfolio site. Sometimes the photographer appears to be quite delusional about his skill and talent. But hey ! This time I could not only make genuine positive comments, I even found a few gems to write about.

I've have quite a few nice comments on my post about Henry Cartier Bresson, and I realize readers / learners want more deep dives on quality shots.

First the rickshaw shot: so many good things coming together here. The symetry here is amazing:
  • the two rickshaws, identical with drivers looking at each other
  • the central building at the back, in a similar blue
  • even the blurry bikers are symmetrically distributed !
The rules of third here also applies: the horizon line, the rickshaws, all are distributed on third lines. The pavement edge and the tree line reinforce that too. Color wise, it's all coming together great too, no disturbing element at all. Finally, the depth induces by the sharp / blurry / sharp layers makes it all very lively. Great shot.

This next one is a classic case of using a good base line / composition, mixed with the right moment. The baseline for this shot consists of:
  • Using the lens wide open for narrow depth of field (= blurred background), extracting the subject from his environment
  • Horizon is almost on the top third line, not in the middle, for balanced composition
  • The fence is fading away in the blur following a diagonal line. It gives perspective to the shot.

Then it comes together perfectly when that old man walks behind: 
  • He occupies the "empty" part of the frame
  • He looks at the boy, reinforcing the focus on him
  • Even though he isn't far, he remains blurry because of the wide open lens, not taking focus away from the boy
A good example that sometimes, you nearly have the perfect shot but also take a bit of luck.

I love this one for it's tones: the blue building with the grey sky and roads are terrific. A dark blue sky wouldn't be as nice. Even the cars match the scene. Then, this picture is like a beautiful face: it's almost symmetric, but it's not. The old ladies, the rock and the antenna are not fully aligned, yet they are. The buildings look the same, yet they are not the same. Asymmetrical elements in a symmetric composition. The very large depth of field makes everything sharp, which is important because the subject here is the street as much as the ladies on the foreground. 

This is more classic composition, based on alignment. The most important here is the sense of direction: the monk, the tiles and the shade are all perfectly aligned. Not seing faces takes your attention away from them as human beings, and make you look at this shot like an architectural image. It's simple, efficient, but you need to be aware to catch an image like this.

This last one is to show that good composition can lead to a nice image even if not much is happening. In that case, this is a pure composition lesson in one shot. The grey steps' edges are aligned with the yellow line heading away to the top left corner. You need to be aware that that alignement along is very powerful on that shot. The wavy yellow wall across the shot plays two roles: it creates a separation between the yellow and grey areas, and provides a completely different diagonal: curvy VS straight, and perpendicular to the other one above described.
Finally, the decoration on the wall being curvy too, they prevent the image from being just harsh lines. Notice also that the top edge of that wall follow exactly the edge of the frame. The work on proportions here is excellent. 

I hope this gives you fuel for the brain, and leads you to taking better pictures !

Portfolio revamp !

I just went for a totally new look for my site, using 4ormat as many of you. I can only recommend them it makes it extremely easy to get something really nice looking.

Also I am now selling check it out.

Lessons form the Henry Cartier Bresson exhibit in Paris.

What better idea on a cold and rainy Saturday to revisit a classic like Henri Cartier-Bresson? Plus the night spent trying to dry out the caves of Le Petit Littré (the best bar in Paris) left me with quite the hangover, so a long walk can only do me good.

Why is Henri Cartier-Bresson's work essential to study for anyone who truly wants to learn photography? Well, unlike some talentless and rapy photographers (you know who I mean), Cartier-Bresson's work is a great exemple of technique well mastered mixed with creativity. If  you analyse his shots beyond the initial feeling, you realize that there is a lot of decision making being them. He started  building a shot from an idea, an set of fix variables he was going to use for composition, and was then waiting / hoping that the subject would come together at the right place and time, to in the end produce an image both spontaneous and sophisticated.

Lesson 1: learn and train. 

Photography leads to an illusion, the illusion that the camera makes the picture. Which is about as dumb as saying that the brush makes the painting. As a consequence, most beginners assume that photographic technique is about mastering a camera. But photographic technique is about composition, playing with lines, volumes, surfaces, tones and shades. Indeed, the camera is merely a tool.
The painting comparison is crucial: always keep in mind that you have a paper rectangle, and on that rectangle you will project shapes, tones and even a 3rd dimension via depth of field. But, unlike a painting, you will splash the frame all in one go! So you really have to think about it before you hit the shutter.

Lesson 2 : make sure your equipment doesn't get in the way.

If your camera prevents you from turning your ideas into the expected result, it means that you either need to read the manual, or that it's too bloody complicated. In order to learn photography, you need a spot metered aperture priority camera. Nothing else.  In case you wonder, a cheap Nikon FE2 is for exemple exactly that camera.
Of course most of you will run away from analog because it's pricey to use and constraining, which is a very valid reason why to. So if you buy a digital camera, set it on A (aperture priority) and spot metering. Once you've set the ISO to the level of light you have, you will now only focus on those 4 things:
  1. Framing 
  2. Focus point, to determine where there sharp part should be (it's really your artistic call)
  3. Aperture to determine how much depth you want to be sharp
  4. Exposure, or what part of the image should get what level of light
And all of this should probably happen within seconds if you know what you're doing. You now see why it takes as much practice as painting. Cameras do well exposed and sharp pictures, that's all. However they don't compose for you, and they make arbitrary decisions when it comes to where to focus, depth and light. 

Also I recommend you start with black and white, you are removing the color variable from the equation, and since it's pretty hard to control what colors will be in a scene, it'll make the learning process way easier.

Lesson 3 : trigger luck

Even Cartier-Bresson had to hope for luck while shooting. He said it himself, he picked elements of decors that allowed interesting composition (he was obsessed by the golden number rule, which I admit works well), then hoped for people to come together nicely within that pre-composition. If most of his shots seem so spontaneous, yet so well composed, that's because he identified an opportunity for composition, then hoped for the best.

Lesson 4 : you are only as good as your worse picture

In the above mentioned exhibit, there was 400 photos. Not all where masterpieces, so let's say he shot 250 master pieces, including those that weren't at the exhibit. It means that in 50+ years of photography, he's produced 250 exceptional shots, and he was doing this all full time.
Given the fact that you the dedicated amateur will shoot 10, 50, a hundred times less than Cartier-Bresson? Your portfolio, the display window of our best work, should be maximum 25-50 shots, depending on how diversified you are.
Once you've selected you very best shots -and really you should be splitting hair, struggling to remove one more- you know have your personal standard. You should then aim at producing images that are better that this selection. If you new best work is not as good, you need to keep practicing and mostly, questioning.

That is essentially how you do good photography. Techniques has to become instincts, that will flow thru your camera without you having to think about it. Now that is much easier said than done, and that is without taking into account the talent factor.

Also, it does require illustrating a bit, so let's do that with Cartier-Bresson's work. When looking at his work, keep in mind 2 rules he was using.

  • The rule of third, a classic statement that elements of a picture should be aligned on thirds of a image.
  • the golden number rule, a strange rule that is supposed to lead to harmonious distribution of elements in an image.
Golden number rule
Rule of thirds

This picture illustrates that a photograph is a 3D scene projected on a 2D surface. A wall can become a triangle, a shadow can become a shape. Notice how the shade and the darker part of the left wall make a single shape, although not being at all of the same nature. Here the work on lines is great. Look at how composition on this shot is just a matter of shades and wall edges. Look at how it is displayed  according to third and the golden number rule at the same time, creating harmony.

This masterpiece is an other great example. he uses a part of the shelve, has its front side parallel to the image plan in order to use the boards edges to split the image according to the golden rule. Exposure is perfect, the bright and darker areas show great details, it's not too contrasted and the dynamic range of film does great here. In addition to composition, his subject if perfectly treated: the emotion doesn't require a full face, posture and body language are enough. A mix of academic composition and true moment.

Boom ! Look at how great that shit looks ! Seriously. Here again, the golden rule is key in the composition, as well as the rule of thirds. Nothing is centered, lines are uses perfectly, from the wall details to the fence. Subject are looking away from each other, following the guiding lines and giving you the impression of intense street life beyond the limits of the picture.

Titties ! We all like them. Here again, golden rule, not being parallel to the picture plan to add perspective and dynamism, lines playing a key role, even the floor one on the right. It's like there is a cross road from all lines, in the bottom right section, and everything expands for there. The bike is in a very specific place: just between the boobs. You are forced to look there, no matter what, for the boob or the bike. 

Pure genious here. Architectural elements are so perfectly used for composition, exposure is perfect: the inside of the room is exposed proper while the outside comes out super bright (spot metering on the two boy at the front). Small aperture to have sharpness all across the image too. Then the people, those two girls back to back, the man's pause, the dog, the kids' expressions. A true moment of photographic grace when perfect technique meet the perfect moment. 

I hope more and more new photographers would focus on those things, instead of buying stuff. Get inspired, think, be critical, work the basics until they become reflexes then go full creative. Keep shooting tons, and for sure you will pull a few great pictures like that. A good thing about photography, unlike painting, is that we all have a chance to produce a masterpiece.