Technique

Why isn't everyone doing it?

The greatest photographs are simple. They have a clear message. Photography, like all art, is a medium of communication. But unlike many art forms there is an important technical component also. The most brilliantly conceived artistic idea can be spoiled by a distracting technical fault. Anything wrong with the image, technically or artistically, dilutes and weakens this message.

A strong image is near technical perfection, with no distractions from its theme, recognisable, typical, universal. Beyond that you are on your own - it becomes a personal thing. Some of the most powerful images may evoke a personal memory, so that they may not work for everyone. The key to unlock a memory or illuminate the mundane and familiar from a new perspective.

Modern automatic cameras have made the technical job easier. Where Ansel Adams had to adjust every setting, todays cameras will set the shutter and aperture and focus. Of course they may not set exposure and focus on the subject you intended, but they will get it 80% right 80% of the time. Unfortunately that means that whilst a completely unusable shot will be rare, so will be technical perfection. For that you must intervene manually. If you want to shoot like Ansel Adams you will still need to put in the same level of effort, which means painstaking. But you have one huge advantage with digital because whereas the photographers of the last century had to get it right first time you have the opportunity to look at the results instantly and have another shot.

The awful and slightly depressing truth is that many amateurs and enthusiasts spend many thousands of pounds on top class equipment, frequently manufactured for professionals, and yet they still produce nothing more than ordinary snapshots.

The most important two considerations are composition and light. Here are some pictures that exhibit the importance of balance and symmetry, or lack of it, shape, pattern and texture. Light is a tool of composition in its own right - shadows give a sense of three-dimensionality. The cues to the idea for depth, in addition to stereoscopic vision which is normally not available, are shadow and light reflection, perspective and on a sufficiently large scale, resolution and colour changes due to the atmosphere (distant objects appear more blue and usually less sharp), and focus (background and extreme foreground objects may appear blurred).

Selection of subject: A "good eye". Sometimes time is of the essence and good reactions are required, particularly in candid or action photography.

Composition - placing the horizon, rules - actually depends on the subject.

Motion blur is sometimes desirable.

Being able to repeatedly produce strong images depends on understanding and controlling all these factors.

Learning Technique

Like most forms of art there are two main components - the artistic judgement and flair and technique. In photography it is probably about 50:50, in some modern art there is almost no technique at all - we criticize this because "anybody could do it". With modern cameras it is also almost the case that "anybody could do it", but in reality there is more to it, just as the availability of word processors hasnņt really increased the number of good novellists - like putting more monkeys in front of typewriters. The technique can be learned or perfected through practice, but there are enough things to go wrong that, without care and experience, the vast majority of shots will be useless for one reason or another. The objective is to get to the point where the vast majority of shots will be technically near-perfect. That will free you to do your artistic work, instead of relying on compromise and the odd shot where, by luck, it all came together. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult, so here are the rules....

But first, a disclaimer - technical issues are a means to an end. All technical effort is wasted if the photo is artistically poor. Donņt fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with technical quality to the point where you donņt have time to take worthwhile photographs. Pursuit of technical excellence can seriously damage your creativity.

Ten golden rules:

Really, your job when taking the photo is to collect as much information about what is in the field of view of the lens as possible. With digital photography there is no need to worry about filters (except polarisers) and other special effects - that can all be added later. You can always throw information away in post-production, but information isnņt there in the image file you canņt get it back. So the technique boils down to avoiding the things that cause information to be lost. They are divided into ten categories:

The Art

To some people art implies something beyond technical challenge, or even beyond explanation. If we say that art cannot be analysed or rationalised at all then we are at the mercy of the pseuds. Nevertheless, a lot of art is about rule-breaking but in a controlled way. Like a well gathered in horse the flighty imagination must be marshalled to a degree. The most beautiful music relies on a slightly unexpected change of key or tempo to produce its effect, which implies that an expectation must exist in the first place - that there is a set of rules, a preexisting language on which to build. If you break the rules too much you will lose your audience and lose the ability to communicate with them. In any case, if you break the rules all the time your output will be indistinguishable from that of the novice!

What is Photography?

A two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world possibly changing with time. A simplification. A single image that captures the very essence of that moment. A human emotion crystalised in a single instant. That is why black and white photography can be so powerful - by taking away the colour the attention is drawn to texture and light values so that the recreation, the simulated perception is enhanced. Even a mundane scene can be made into an interesting photograph if it reveals something previously unnoticed - a texture, a repeating pattern, some common theme.

Perhaps we can arbitrarily divide the artistic discussion to subject selection and composition.

Overdoing it

The message in a photograph should be something like "look at this, isnņt it beautiful", or "looked at in this way, isnņt it strange" or some such comment on the subject. It should not be "look how clever I am" or "look how much gear Iņve got", or "hey, I bought a roll of infrared film". The technique should not intrude on the message but should be used to clarify and enhance it. It seems to be a hallmark of the enthusiastic semi-professional to excessively use tricks such as low camera angles, very wide-angle lenses, gradient filters. The amateur photography magazines are full of over-filtered skys, people peering into the camera with huge noses, fish-eye views of bulging architecture. It is understandable that people, having bought this equipment, want to use it, and I am sure they derive great enjoyment from doing so, and good luck to them.

In short, the danger is that the technique starts to take over, and the artistic message is lost. We may even need to break the technical rules or make them subservient to the artistic effect.

Of course with digital photography comes a whole new slew of special effects and gimmicks, all applied with the click of a button. This has resulted in ever more outrageous weirdness, from the inevitable overuse of the unsharp mask to all manner of kaleidoscopic colour transformations and filter effects, and tricks such as the now notorious page-curl effect, and depictions of bizarre fantasy worlds. An Andy Warhol cartoon can be produced with a few clicks, as can the brooding sky and the surreal superposition of multiple exposures and all manner of false colour weirdness.

A good eye

Talented photographers become skilled at identifying promising subjects because they spend a considerable amount of time looking at photographs and visualising scenes as photographs. It may not be necessary to physically look through the camera viewfinder because it will eventually become automatic to see things as the camera sees them. Until that time, you can use the viewfinder as a powerful compositional tool, using the frame to see the subject as it will appear in the final image. Note how the colours, patterns and shape work together in an abstract way, as well as in the context of the subject matter. Your imagination and creativity lie at the core of the whole process, and without them the most meticulous attention to and expenditure in pursuit of technical perfection will be wasted.

There is no great secret about composition, and even the taker of holiday snapshots unconciously compose their pictures, but either through natural talent or learning the experienced photographer has an eye for composition and can instantly arrange the elements of the picture into a pleasing and harmonious pattern. This can be achieved through:

Changing viewpoint horizontally - moving from side to side

Changing viewpoint vertically - e.g. crouching down, using a stepladder

Changing the perspective by moving closer or further away (may require zooming or lens change to adjust focal length)

Altering the lighting by positioning lights, using flash, waiting for the natural lighting to change or choosing time of shooting - e.g. for landscapes a low sun usually gives better results than noon sun.

Altering the arrangement of subject - e.g. arrange still life, removing or tidying distracting objects, break off an unsightly twig.

Framing the subject by adjusting the direction of the camera and coverage (zooming or moving closer or further away).

That pretty much covers all the possibilities. It sounds simple enough, but in reality they combine to make what can be an overwhelming number of possibilities. It can be confusing to have to deal with multiple dimensions of control, especially when changing one thing upsets all the others.

There are a number of "rules" of composition that should also be taken into account, such as keeping the horizon level, avoiding dead-centre positioning of subject, positioning of horizon. Given that it is so inherently difficult, how is it that some professional photographers are able to achieve outstanding results with no formal training? The answer is that the ground rules of composition are not an arbitrary set of conventions but are derived from study of what makes a pleasing picture. So the ability to judge a picture is largely innate, it is the ability to create a good picture which, even with a natural gift, must be learned, either by trial, error and experience. You can accelerate this process by taking the shortcut of learning a few rules. Once you have learned the language of composition you can start to bend those rules to express your personal vision. But by using the pre-existing language of good composition your pictures will be able to instantly communicate their message to your audience.

In a future article we will explore some of the rules and tricks of the trade of composition.

Strong photographs have a distinct message. We have talked about how technical errors or distracting elements in a picture dilute its message. This presupposes that the picture has a message in the first place! Without a message a picture looks bland and unintersting in the same way as a person who takes up the microphone but canņt think of anything to say. This is what happens when the holiday snapshooter turns the camera away from portraits of family and friends and swivels around to photograph "the view". We end up with a picture which may be an accurate record of the scene but which is nothing more. To make a picture interesting there must be a message and that usually entails a subject which can be a foreground object, or something dominant in the far or middle distance, or it may simply be the presence of an abstract pattern or shape. Or the subject may be the even greater abstraction of an overall emotional feel. A picture of an abandonned rusting refrigerator may simply be unnattractive, but the same object in an otherwise unspoilt landscape may make a point and elevate the picture into a powerful statement. The most powerful images are able to recreate in the viewer the very essence of the experience of the photographer or the inhabitants of the scene depicted, and this is the magic of art as a whole. If a photograph can achieve this then it is truly on a par with any other medium of fine art.

Using colour

Black and White - can use with digital - isolate texture and form - colour can be a distraction

Aspect ratio - not applicable to 2.5x2.5 120

Horizon position

Abstract shapes and patterns

Perspective - converging lines, buildings, paths, leading into picture

Lighting

Scale

Atmosphere

Framing- e.g. tree branches, doorways, etc.

Symmetry

Pattern

Reflection

Close-up

Telephoto

Wide-angle

Motion

Light

Character

Atmosphere

Observations

Lenses only start to get astronomically expensive as you move to extreme focal lengths (long telephotos and super-wide), or to very large apertures. You are probably limited by the 35mm film, unless you use very fine grain film. Within a limited range, an SLR has few advantages over a compact. Good quality zoom AF lenses now are probably as good as fixed lenses of the 70s and 80s, but they are big and bulky on the camera. AF is fine, but sometimes gets in the way if you want to be creative - best for action/sports, if thatņs youņre interest. And its one more thing to go wrong. Modern SLRņs are bigger and heavier than my Olympus kit. Unless the body is very cheap or fragile, it isnņt going to affect much bar metering. With the latitude of modern film, this probably isnņt such and issue. Except for action sequences, who needs motor-drive? Why have it built-in? Digital darkroom rules. Digital cameras are some way from 35mm quality, and film offers superior archiving. In 5-10 years it will be a different story. Why bother with APS?

Chemical Darkroom

20 minutes to make a colour print test strip? I don't think so.

Thereņs no point in buying expensive bodies and lenses until you get your basic technique right. Focus carefully (even with auto).

The tripod is about as important as the body, if not more so. And use it! If you donņt use a tripod, learn to hold the camera steady or use 1/(2 x focalLength).

The Lomo Phenomenon

Now hereņs a strange thing. I go to the Victoria and Albert museum in London with the family. The kids love the V&A because they have "back packs". You get a small rucksack with half a dozen puzzles and activities for the children involving the exhibits in the museum. Entry is free, you borrow the backpack for free, and the kids love it. Donņt tell anyone.

This time, after doing the back pack, we go to the "Snap Happy Days" event. This is an interactive exhibit with Polaroid photography, photo booths and lots of coloured pens to "deface" the photographs for artistic effect. Everything is free. I am afraid I rather sneakily took a set of "straight" shots in the photo booth for my pending passport application. And so on to the 35 mil. You get a roll of film and, if you havenņt brought your own camera, you can borrow a Lomo Kompakt Automat. I left my Canon EOS behind because I wanted to use the same basic camera as everyone else. Okay, the real reason; I didnņt think to bring it. Always take your camera - I know, I know.

So they load up a Lomo Kompakt Automat with a 24 exposure roll of Agfa 35 mm. film and hand it to me pointing out the manual focus setting (three click-stop zones and no focusing aid whatsoever), and leave the aperture/shutter on auto. They had run out of flash units so I was advised to try to keep the camera steady. Itņs okay, I like working with available light (ooh, Iņm such a pro).

I am no stranger to unaided manual focus. I pack an old Rollei 35 LED in my briefcase. Itņs pretty handy if you want to do a bit of street photography or candid. Autofocus is pretty useless when youņre shooting from the hip, because you donņt line the subject up on the autofocus hot-spot. So you just set it 1/125 and f11 and focus at about 10 ft. and hope for the best.

The shutter on this camera stays open until it has enough light, in other words the metering works at very low light levels. Most compact cameras today would refuse to take the shot and blink or beep at you. Possibly it meters off the film, I donņt know. Anyway, in the low light levels in the museum you need to keep the shutter open a long time, so I found myself spending a lot of time looking for objects to rest the camera on. In any case it beats that washed out foreground flash look - I think Iņd sooner have the camera shake blur.

It turns out that blur and saturated colours are the watchword with Lomo photography, which has become a sort of pseudo-underground arty photography movement. It looks suspiciously like astroturf marketing (fake grass roots in case you didnņt know). Lomo is a Russian optical manufacturer who make microscopes and artillery sights but also have a sideline in cheap cameras. In eastern europe, when westerners were buying sophisticated Japanese compacts, they had to make do with very basic cameras like these. Then a group of Austrian students started using the camera, and in 1992 formed the Lomographic Society, and cut a deal with the Lomo company to exclusively distribute the cameras outside Russia, which must have seemed pretty attractive to the company since they probably had negligible sales outside Russia.

Through a combination of accident and brilliant marketing the students managed to start a whole artistic movement in which the very weaknesses of the Lomo camera became the focus (or rather the lack of it). The old-fashioned soviet-era design satisfied the 90ņs appetite for retro-chic. The metering seems to have a tendency to slightly underexpose, perhaps due to reciprocity effects on long exposures. This has been translated into an ability to produce "super-saturated" colours, which are usually credited to the lens for some reason. The hit-and-miss focussing produces "exciting blurry effects". The long exposures in low light results in much motion blur, where a modern compact would probably refuse to open the shutter at all. The quite severe vignetting is perceived as an artistic effect in its own right. There is a generation of casual photographers who have only ever used fully automatic cameras which have all but eliminated these effects. To these people it must feel as though they have made an exciting artistic breakthrough, as they peel away the labņs "Quality Control" stickers from their first set of prints.

The Lomo lens is okay. It is glass. So at least it should be better than those disposable cameras. But it suffers from pretty severe vignetting, suggesting that the coverage is less than adequate, or possibly a problem in the camera body design. Frankly it is not difficult to make a small medium wide-angle fixed focal length lens that works at small apertures. Itņs the long focal length or the 50mm f2 that need all that glass. Even so, in my opinion, the Rollei lens easily outperforms the Lomo. I am afraid the Lomo enthusiastsņ verdict about the "uperb lens" doesnņt hold up.