Let the Sun In

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It’s about time to continue my little series of practical tips – tips that can be used to enhance your photos. In the last instalment of this series I wrote about using a long exposure time on freehand to create a more energetic and somewhat abstract expression (Time Elongated – A Practical Tip). Today I want to talk about light.

Light is one of the most important factors that influence the quality of a photo. Light can make or destroy an otherwise excellent photo. In traditional photo literature and how-to-books we often learn that midday sunshine is bad. It creates harsh and unforgiven light with dark and ugly shadows. Certainly, that can sometimes be the case, but I disagree with the notion that it’s bad light in general. There is no such thing as bad light, only suitable or not suitable light for whatever you are trying to express. If you use the harsh light creatively, it can generate some wonderful photos.

Here is a way to turn that harsh midday light into a more subtle, soft and glowing illumination. Simply go inside and leave the door open behind you. The sunshine coming directly from above reflects on the ground and showers softly through the open door and into the room behind. Use the indirect light from the sun to create and almost unearthly setting for you photography.

The result does depend on the ground, though. If the outside of the door is covered with newly laid and black asphalt, the amount of reflections may be close to none. Then this tip doesn’t work. But with a lighter ground outside, it’s a delightful (excuse the pun) to illuminate persons or a still life in an interior setting.

This works particularly well in areas closer to equator, be it Mediterranean countries, the Caribbean, the Tropics or Subtropical areas where midday light is particularly harsh. Like in Cuba, from where I have just returned. The photo following this post is all illuminated by harsh midday sunshine coming through an open door to the left (and yes some light is streaming through the open window behind, but not illuminating anything facing the camera). It shows the celebration of quinceañera or a girl’s 15th birthday in Cuba.

Time Elongated – A Practical Tip

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This is a good tip to get a different picture than most of us typically get. It’s also one that shows that breaking «the rules» isn’t a bad idea – although this tip is often enough used to maybe not be regarded as really breaking the rules any more.

Nevertheless, by using a longer shutter speed when capturing movement you are able to convey that flowing feeling of the subject being in motion. The longer shutter speed captures the movement as a blurring, elongated and very dynamic form. It creates a more moody expression than if the movement was frozen by a short shutter speed. Usually the rule is to use a tripod when you are going for a longer shutter speed, because the hands will no longer be steady enough to keep the frame fixed. My suggestion as part of the tip, though, is actually to shoot handheld with the longer shutter speed. Not only will the movement itself come out in the frame as a flowing motion, but the surroundings will also be blurred and add to that dynamic expression as well as add intensity to the photo. An additional benefit is that you never really know what you get. Which I think is exciting on its own. Of course, it also means that you often won’t capture a photo of any value, but every so often something magical comes out of the experiment. It’s just a matter of keep shooting long enough.

So true the longer exposure. More often than not, many photographers choose to freeze the movement. This creates often dramatic, singular moments. By blurring people’s movement, you create a different kind of moment, one that seems stretched out and more abstract. The longer the shutter speed the more abstract the result will be. If you are after an abstract expression, the longer shutter speed, handheld, can also be used on static subjects.

I used the technique in the photo accompanying this post. This is taken in New York, in the Wall Street area. Around lunchtime, I had noticed the businessmen and -women rushing to and from their office and a nearby coffee or lunch place. They seem rushed and don’t seem to have time to notice their lives passing by so rapidly. This sense is what I wanted to convey in the photo, hence the long shutter speed and a handheld camera.

To use the technique you need to set your shutter speed at 1/15 or longer. The «best» shutter speed depends on what you are after as well as the speed of the moment and its angle to the camera. The faster the relative speed is, the faster a shutter speed you may want to choose – and the more abstract an expression you are after, the longer a shutter speed is needed. There is really no right and wrong. Use the preview on the camera to experiment and find what works for you and the subject. This tip might not work on the simplest of point-and-shoot cameras but most camera, whether point-and-shoot or DSLR’s, let you choose a specific shutter speed (and if not, you may be able to get around it by shifting or dialing what the program mode has selected). If possible, choose shutter priority mode on your camera and then the appropriate shutter speed. You may have to lower your ISO-setting, too, to be able to get a proper exposure with a slow shutter speed.

This is another instalment of a series of tips that can improve you photography. However, as stated when I started this series, there aren’t really any simple and easy tricks that will magically result in great photography. Nevertheless, there are techniques and small secrets of the trade that may be handy to know about to handle certain situations or just to increase your creative toolbox.

Closer to You

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One of the best tips for getting better photos – in my opinion – is to get closer. Real close. Particularly when photographing people, as in portraits, it can make such a difference, not so much because of the different perspective that a close-up position creates, but more for the interaction that happens between you and the subject you photograph. By getting close – literally in their faces – something extraordinary happens in the human exchange between the two of you. The person in the photo will have to relate to you, as you will have to relate to him or her. That often initially hesitant and tentative relationship that arises with such an encounter can transcend into some remarkable and captivating portraits.

If anything, such an exchange is maybe the best example of the photographic dialectics I was writing about in an earlier post this week. There is no way that the outside – the person that you photograph – and the inside – yourself – can avoid interacting. At least not when you move in close enough. The result, photographically, is something that goes beyond what each of you could have produced yourselves. True dialectics in other words.

I am not saying that everything has to be photographed close up. However, it’s a good place to start when for instance your intention is to show the personality of the person you are photographing. On the street for instance, sometimes the photographer stand back and observe the scene from a distance and capture life as it unfolds in front of him or her. But, sometimes the photographer encounter a person on the street that touches him or her in a maybe intangible or unconscious way. Then it’s time to move in.

And when I say move in, I mean exactly that. Go beyond the comfort zone of both, when a moment of indecisiveness occurs between the two of you, a flickering moment when neither of you feel comfortable nor feel sure of each other’s response. It’s a very fragile moment, that you as a photographer, can benefit highly from. For me it’s also a moment where both of you are equal to the situation. When you photograph someone from a distance without their knowledge, you have an advantage, but when you move in beyond the comfort zone of both, you feel equally uncertain about the created situation. For you as a photographer it has the increased benefit of you becoming more alert.

I often tend to start photographing a person only one – 1 – meter or yard away from their face. That is very close, if you haven’t tried yet! Most people feel uncomfortable about being photographed this close. However, it gives me as a photographer a chance to create an immediate response and interaction. It also forces me to face my own fears, which I think is necessary particularly if I am shooting on the street. From that first chock encounter I can then move out and shoot more environmental portraits or scenes where the person is only part of it. But I have established a relationship – albeit a somewhat bizarre and delicate relationship – that will still be with us.

Have you tried to go close – real close? I would strongly recommend it. It means facing your own fears and move beyond your comfort zone. However, once you have tried, there is no turning back (although it never becomes easy and customary).

Flash Away the Shadows

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This post is a new instalment for me. I have decided as of today I will – on and off – provide you with simple tips here on this blog, tips that can improve your photography. Of course there aren’t really any simple and easy tricks that will magically result in great photography. Nevertheless, there are techniques and small secrets of the trade that may be handy to know about to handle certain situations or just to increase your creative toolbox. This is a little bit of an experiment for me, so please let me know what you think of it.

I will start this instalment with showing a helpful way of using either the camera’s built in flash or an external flash mounted on the camera. The thing with either types of flashes is that they provide a very harsh and usually very unattractive light. In addition, the light is completely flat since it radiates along the camera’s axis, thus not modulating the forms of the subject at all. Actually, the way most people use the flash on the camera is not particularly favourable. You know, it’s indoor, it’s dark, and to help capture a picture you turn on the flash. The result is usually – and in all honesty – awful, for instance with the people in the foreground burned out completely by the flash light with white faces and every thing else going pitch black. In situations like that, I would rather crank up the ISO and forget all about the flash – or use a flash method I will get back to in a later post.

Today I will show a way of using the flash when most people don’t think it’s necessary to use a flash. The little flash on the camera can really come in handy when the sun is shining from a clear blue sky. Not that you need more light, but maybe you have noticed the dark shadows the sun often creates – particular around midday? Like a hat shading the face or just the eye sockets growing dark in their own shadows.

If you, in a situation like this, use just a little pop of the flash, it will provide enough light into those shaded areas and bring out enough information to make them more than just black holes in the photo. At the same time it will not be noticeable in areas lit directly by the sun. There are different ways to accomplish this. On a point-and-shoot camera, you will usually look for a setting that’s either called slow sync or fill-in-flash. Just turn it on and let the camera do the rest. It can’t be more simple than that. Of course, you have no control over the amount of light the flash emits, but the result is usually very pleasant.

On some cameras, particularly on more advanced ones, and certainly on most external flashes, you can decided for yourself how much the flash should light up the shadows. You can dial the amount of flash light up and down usually in increments of 1/3 exposure values (E.V.) up to +3 E.V. or down to -3 E.V. The trick is not to make the flash too apparent, only to add light in the shadows and not in the areas that are already lit by the sunlight. I usually go for something between -2 E.V. or -3 E.V. Set the camera on program mode or aperture-priority mode and let it handle the rest. If you have a green or fully automatic mode, make sure you don’t use this since it will overrun what you are trying to accomplish. I also recommend not using shutter speed-priority mode to make sure you don’t accidentally use too fast a shutter speed, faster than the camera can synchronize the shutter with the flash.

One more thing: Remember that the flash doesn’t have a range of more than a couple of yards or meters. Anything beyond that will not be affected by the flash.

That’s it. I don’t always use this method in harsh sunshine – it depends on what I want to achieve. Sometimes I want the shadows to grow dark. Furthermore, with editing programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop you can easily lighten the shadows in post-production, but the result is quite different from using fill-in-flash at the time of capture. With the latter, you bring out more colours and saturation in the shadows. In addition, when photographing people, the little extra flash creates an attractive sparkle in their eyes (just look at the picture above and you will see two white spots in both eyes. It’s the reflections of the flash) .