Assignment 4 – Applying lighting techniques

This assignment comes at the end of a series of exercises that investigate the use of different lighting techniques. I’ve explored the colour and temperature of light in different weather conditions and through various times of the day; looking at both available light, natural and man-made, as well as photographic lighting.

To demonstrate some of the theory learned, this assignment requires 8 photographs that use different lighting techniques to bring out particular physical properties of the same object.

(Click on the pictures below for the full-sized version)

Shape

The shape of an object is an easier quality to understand. It is to do with the outline or edges of an object. The simplest way to use lighting to show the shape of a subject is to increase the contrast between it and it’s background or surroundings.

As we saw in the exercise on lighting angle, when the light was directly behind the subject, giving the greatest contrast, the outline was clearest. In fig.01, rather than using a bright background, I’ve kept the image low hey by using the last of the sun’s light to provide that back-lighting, showing the shape of the upper branches. The lower half of the trunk was below the height of the horizon and would have been lost against it (no contrast), so instead, I lit the bottom half of the tree with my flashgun and softbox.

Fig.01 Shape - using artificial light

Fig.01 Shape – using artificial light

In fig.02, I used diffused afternoon sunlight to provide back lighting of the subject, to show a the shape of the tree’s leaves. The clouds act as a diffuser to the sun’s light meaning that the contrast is not so great between the leaves and sky as it would be in full sunlight (see fig.08), which in turn allows detail to be kept in the subject rather than creating a silhouette.

Fig.02 Shape - using natural light

Fig.02 Shape – using natural light

Form

Form is another way of describing the volume of an object or how three-dimensional it looks. In fig.03, the diffused evening sun light lit the right side of the tree meaning that because the trunk is a hollow arc, the centre and right side would have been in shadow, and the form would not have been obvious.

The softbox to the left was positioned at a distance that gave just enough light on the left of the trunk to cause diffused reflection back to the camera from a small area of the trunk and leaves. Being lit from both sides, the centre is still dark, informing us that it is missing and the trunk isn’t a more usual cylindrical shape.

Fig.03 Form - artificial light

Fig.03 Form – artificial light

Later in the evening, with less ambient light, I moved the softbox to a position 60° from the camera (fig.04). Exposing for the sky to retain detail, I used the flash to light the trunk and part of inside of the tree through one of the holes near the base. The parts of the trunk closest to the light are recorded brightest while those further away are darker. Those out of direct sight of the flash are completely dark. This gradient of brightness shows us the form of an object.

The area inside the trunk that is lit again provides the viewer with information that this area of the trunk sits behind the more brightly lit area to the right, indicating its three-dimensional nature.

Fig.04 Form - artificial light

Fig.04 Form – artificial light

Texture

Texture is the quality of the surface detail. In fig.05, by positioning the light at 90° to the weathering of the bark, dark shadows were created in the weathered surface of the trunk.

Fig.05 Texture - artificial light

Fig.05 Texture – artificial light

The sun acts as a small, high contrast light source. Shooting the tree’s surface with the sun, camera and subject at similar angles to those in fig.05 (but rotated through 90°), a similar effect is created.

Fig. 06 Texture - natural light

Fig. 06 Texture – natural light

These pictures show that the bark is heavily textured, but because of the lighting, there is no detail in the dark areas of shadow caused by the high-contrast light sources. To show texture and increased detail, the surface could have been photographed with a lower-contrast light source (on a cloudy day or with a large softbox) to light all areas and angles of the surface more evenly. Or, the shadows could have been softened as we learned in an earlier exercise.

Colour

In fig.07, the colour of the leaves has been emphasised by moving the flash close to them. Again, to add interest to the shot the exposure levels were set for the clouds in the background that were lit by the sun that had set moments earlier.

Fig.07 Colour - artificial light

Fig.07 Colour – artificial light

In fig.08, rather than shoot with the light at a similar angle to the camera which is the more conventional method of reproducing colour (as seen in the lighting angle exercise), I photographed the leaves with the sun behind. The translucence of the leaves meaning that they have transmitted light through them showing off their colour.

Fig.08 Colour - natural light

Fig.08 Colour – natural light


Subject Choice

For this assignment, I didn’t want to be confined to a spare bedroom with a flashgun taking pictures of an ornament. I wanted to use a subject that I might be interested in shooting other than for this course. I also wanted to use both natural and photographic lighting as we’d studied both during the exercises.

I live a mile from a country park that began as a medieval deer park and is home to several ancient, pollarded oaks that are ‘many centuries old’. One in particular (I used a picture of the tree in my second assignment) has a prominent position overlooking the city at the junction of several paths and has always fascinated me. The trunk has split and twisted over the years and is now only a fragile arc of pockmarked, weathered wood. When spring arrives each year, I’m surprised (and relieved) to see that it is still healthy enough to grow leaves. It seemed an ideal subject and although it may be around for any more centuries, I wanted to photograph it as it was now. Just in case. I suggested the subject to my tutor who liked the idea, suggesting I look at the work three other photographers who have studied trees.

Because the tree is a couple of miles into the park (all up hill), each trip to photograph it, especially carrying tripod, lenses and lighting gear, became an expedition. I began setting the alarm for 4am to get up and check the sky, hoping for the magical light that dawn can provide. More often than not, I went back to bed disappointed. I also visited a couple of times late in the day and while it is a beautiful place to be, it can frustrating to give a couple of hours of my day up waiting for light that doesn’t actually materialise. I made almost 150 pictures across 6 separate visits.

Another difficulty caused by my subject choice was the the practicalities of a using small (90cm) reflector, smaller softbox (60cm) and a standard flash gun to light such a large subject. As a result, I used the flash only to light small areas of the tree or to provide a small amount of fill-in.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I’m happy that the images fulfil the brief and that I have used a variety of lighting to bring out the qualities of shape, form, texture and colour. I’ve used direct flash as the main light source, as a fill-in to supplement natural light, and daylight that is both direct sunlight and diffused by cloud. I have resisted my usual temptation to apply post-processing. Additional contrast could have been added to show texture for example, but I’ve allowed the lighting alone to provide this information to the viewer.

Quality of outcome

I’m pleased with the set overall and a couple of pictures particularly. However, while the subject is the same tree in each picture, I would have preferred the set to look more cohesive. Because of the requirement for a range of lighting techniques and my self-imposed desire to use both natural and artificial lighting, the set doesn’t sit together as well as I’d have liked. I didn’t give this as much thought as I should have in advance of taking the pictures, concentrating instead (again) on ‘ticking the boxes’.

I did want a degree of contrast in the set to show the relative permanence of the tree and the delicacy and evanescence of the leaves. This theme would have been better explored in spring or autumn and without the other limitations imposed by the brief.

On street photography blogger Eric Kim’s Facebook page, he lists (he likes lists) 103 lessons that he has learned. It feels like his 57th lesson has applied to me during this assignment. I found the editing of the images difficult for this assignment, repeatedly replacing those selected, particularly for the texture images.

Lesson 57. Spend 99% of your time editing your photos (choosing your best images) and only 1% of your time post processing them.

Demonstration of creativity

The choice of subject in the first place showed some creativity in my approach and rather than simply shooting into the sunset to show shape for example, I’ve tried other lighting techniques. I’ve also selected parts of the tree that showed the various properties that I was looking to emphasis, rather than middle-distance views of the whole tree at different times of the day. I experimented with shooting only the shadow of the tree and using its shape out of focus at the edge of the frame to show shape, but wasn’t satisfied enough with them to make the final cut.

Context

I read about several photographers whose work had studied trees and found many, varied interpretations. My favourites included:

  • Simon Norfolk’s study of the oak trees at Blenheim. This was the closest of these works to my original intent. The large lighting set-up that he had obviously used (and smoke machine!) was way beyond anything that I could create with my limited equipment. His set has that cohesion that I was looking for, and he has managed to bring out the shape, form, texture and colour of the trees in each shot, despite shooting from a similar distance each time and in similar ambient lighting conditions.
  • Martin Stravars has a similar rigour to his ‘portraits of trees’, resulting in a set that of photographs that look very similar to each other. His use of long-exposure, infra-red and heavy processing makes for striking images and does an excellent job of showing texture and the shape of the trunks and branches.
  • A set that really stuck with me was Korean photographer Myoung Ho Lee’s technique of isolating the tree from its surroundings by hanging large backdrops behind them, again really emphasising shape. It is a fascinating method of isolating a subject while at the same time, showing its original surroundings; somehow separating the two but in the same frame.

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Further reflection

Comparing these pictures to others that I’ve taken of the tree in the past, it’s satisfying to see that my creativity and technical abilities have improved as a result of this course directly and the wider experience I’ve gained by looking at other work and considering other methods. The course has brought me a long way so far, but as I’ve written a couple of times, the next section on narrative is one that I’m very much looking forward to.

This appears to be the last assignment focussed technical skills with which I’m fairly comfortable, and has us concentrate more on content in future. That said, the use of flash in a ‘studio’ setting was something new to me and learned much from the exercises covering these techniques.

I still enjoy writing this blog and especially looking back through old posts to see my progress and changing attitudes.

I’m now reading more varied sources on photography, visiting every exhibition I have the opportunity to and creating a valuable collection of photobooks. The course has led me to several photographers whose work is inspirational and aspirational and who I tell people about at every opportunity.

Finally, I still need to make more use of the OCA network. I have almost no interaction with fellow students or with tutors as I’ve struggled to find time between the exercises and other research. Whenever I have, and particularly at study visits, it has been valuable.

References

Gibson, D (2014) The street photographer’s manual. London; Thames and Hudson

Hunter, F et al. (2012) Light – Science and magic. An introduction to photographic lighting. Oxford; Elsevier Inc.

Bradgate Park website [online] Available from: http://bradgatepark.org/ [Accessed: 28 July 2014]

Kim, E (2014) Facebook [online] Available from : https://www.facebook.com/erickimphotography/posts/10151695315447717 [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Institute (unknown) Feature: Blenheim Oaks // Simon Norfolk [online] Available from: http://www.instituteartist.com/feature-Blenheim-Oaks-Simon-Norfolk [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Lens Culture (unknown) Tree. Photographs by Myoung Ho Lee [online] Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/myoung-ho-lee-tree [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Stavars, M (unknown) Portraits of trees [online] Available from: http://www.martinstavars.com/gallery/portraits_of_trees [Accessed: 29 July 2014]

Exercise – Focal Lengths with Different Viewpoints

I took the following as the second part in our investigation into focal lengths and perspective. On the same walk as the previous exercise, I took more pictures within Bradgate Park, this time of the ruins of Bradgate Manor and of one of the ancient oaks. On each occasion, I took a picture from some distance away using my 200mm lens. I then walked directly towards the subject taking more pictures along the way, but keeping the subject the same size within the frame.

I used the AF focus points in my viewfinder to give an approximate guide to the amount of the frame that the tree I was using for the subject was filling.

Compared to the example in the coursenotes and on page 100 of The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman (one of the books in our reading list), my example is not entirely effective in showing the effect. The first picture, shot at 200mm, has the effect of compressing the scene – the hill, war memorial and trees to the left of the frame appear to be close behind the subject tree and wall. It feels remote and impersonal.

In the second picture, shot at 17mm and obviously from much closer, we have a much wider field of view once more. We can see much more of the park and get a feeling for how much further away the other features are. The tree remains a similar size, but we get to see much more of its surroundings. Had this been a picture with a more interesting subject, it would have been more intimate or personal when we’re standing so close to the subject. We get a better feeling for it’s place in its surroundings.

I tried the same thing on the manor house. Again, the same effect occurs – the trees appear to be right behind the house on the 200mm picture, but once we’re up close, that separation becomes obvious. These didn’t really work as I’d not paid attention to the dip in the ground between me and the subject. This means that the resulting pictures are not really comparable as they are from different heights as well as distances.

While this proved to be another interesting exercise, once again, the resulting photographs are garbage. I did take a couple of shots on the same walk that I was happier with. What I need to learn next is how to follow the brief while producing pictures that are interesting at the same time.

Manor

Exercise – Focal Lengths for cameras with variable focal lengths

And so we’re on to focal lengths. I’ll come back to the Sequence of Composition exercise next weekend.

The purpose of this exercise was to understand the effect of changing a lens from one focal length to another, which on the face of it, may sound pretty straight forward. However, when combined with the next exercise, it shows the difference between changing perspective and angle of view.

The four pictures above are of Bradgate Park in Leicestershire from across Cropston Reservoir. The boathouse, which seems pointless apart from the vary rare occasions that the reservoir is full, is in the same position in each frame – I used the same AF focus point to line up the view. The camera was on a tripod and not moved during the exercise. What changes is the focal length. I started with my widest 17mm then zoomed to 40mm, swapped lenses and went from 70 to 200mm. Each view is effectively a crop of the previous. Nothing about the scene changes nor the relationship between the component parts, we just see less of the whole or more detail in selected element.

The lens works very differently to the eye. When we look at a scene without a camera, we have close to 180 degree peripheral vision. Wikipedia says:

The approximate field of view of an individual human eye is 95° away from the nose, 75° downward, 60° toward the nose, and 60° upward, allowing humans to have an almost 180-degree forward-facing horizontal field of view.

We are aware of objects alongside us, particularly if they are moving. But we only clearly see a very small area of the scene in front of us. Our eyes give us a wide view of the scene and we’ll choose what interests us or what we need to look at and pay attention to and we ‘zoom in’.

The 17mm only gives 93 degrees of horizontal view, but captures much my view of the park. The 200mm only shows 10 degrees and effectively captures an area I might be ‘looking at’.

The picture below is another shot at 200mm but cropped in a more interesting way with the War Memorial visible on the hill.

200mm Portait

Two more snaps taken a little later in the day as the sun began to set, show the effect again, this time using a 40mm and then 200mm lens.

40mm200mm

Exercise – Fitting the Frame to the Subject

The introduction is over, we’ve ‘become familiar with (y)our camera’ and it’s time to ‘begin working on the more interesting parts of photography’ starting with four distinct parts studying composition. Each of those parts is made up of various projects which will begin to appear in the menu on the right of the screen as I work through them. This first exercise, ‘Fitting the Frame to the Subject’ encourages us to experiment with how much space a subject takes up in the frame of the viewfinder.

We are encouraged to  keep notes of subjects and settings that we can call upon for exercises such as this one. I’m lucky enough to ride through a deer park each day on my way to, and home from work. I realise that it is one of the best commutes possible and enjoy the seasons changing, day by day. I feel the first chill of autumn and warmth of spring. I feel the rain on my skin and the wind in my face. I never sit in traffic or someone else’s smell. It is a beautiful place and full of photographic opportunities. There are many ancient oaks, the remains of a manor house that was birthplace and home of Lady Jane Grey, the 9 day queen and herds of red and fallow deer. A number of the trees in the park are wonderfully positioned and extremely photogenic. If you follow this blog, you’ll get to know a few of them I expect.

So for this exercise, I thought that one of these trees might make a good subject and so I nipped back after work. I also decided to use my Fuji x100 with its fixed, 35mm equivalent lens. I figured that this would get to the point of the exercise, rather than allowing my to stand in one spot and zoom in and out. Also, although it a digital compact, it has a proper viewfinder which again I felt this exercise needed.

Our instruction was to take 4 pictures:

OCA 1

ISO 800, 23mm, f6.4, 1/340s

The first was to show the entire subject in the viewfinder. We were told to ‘photograph it as you normally would – without taking too much time with the composition’. Well, excuse me! The way I normally would, would be to consider the composition. The instruction felt a little contrived and I had to ‘unlearn’ everything I had in the last few years, put the subject slap-bang in the middle of the frame and fire away. This pictures was taken as I walked from the main path through the park towards the tree with little consideration for the background. I’d usually look to isolate it a little.

ISO 200, 23mm, f2, 1/800s

ISO 200, 23mm, f2, 1/800s

Next up, we had to fill as much of the frame as possible with the subject, but without letting it stray beyond the edges. If the camera needed to be tilted to fit the subject more closely, then we were to do so. I don’t like this tilted shot at all. Horizons should be horizontal right? This pictures doesn’t really work in the context of the exercise either. There is still too much of the background showing and competing with the subject for our attention.

ISO 800, 23mm, f2, 1/800s

ISO 800, 23mm, f2, 1/800s

I do like the third picture. This time, we had to be close enough that no edge was visible and the frame was entirely filled with the subject. I was looking directly up at the underside of the canopy of leaves and looking back, wish that I’d moved around the tree to get a more pleasing view of the twisted branches.

OCA 4

ISO 200, 23mm, f2, 1/1000s

The fourth and final picture was to show the subject in its surroundings and it was to take up a quarter or less of the frame. This is my favourite image of the set. We can see the tree , the ruin in the background and even what the weather was like – I got wet on the way back to the car. You may also have noticed that I left my camera at f2 for the last 3 pictures – not ideal.

While a couple of the pictures are satisfactory, I decided that the tree as a subject was not really what the exercise was looking for and so repeated the series on my way home.

OCA 2 1

ISO 1000, 23mm, f2, 1/60s

Again, the first image in the series breaks all of my usual good habits. The subject is in the centre of the picture and there is too much of the uninteresting foreground. It’s like looking at someone else’s picture of my van!

OCA 2 2

ISO 1250, 23mm, f2, 1/60s

I prefer this shot much more. Again, I tilted the camera to fill as much of the viewfinder as I could with the van. I maybe cheated a bit as the van itself reflects some of its surroundings, so even though it is tightly shot, we know that those trees behind the van are also behind me as I took the picture. But, unlike the second image of the first series, it forces the viewer to look at the subject – there is nothing else to hold our attention.

OCA 2 3

ISO 1250, 23mm, f2, 1/60s

Filling the viewfinder with the subject again, but getting even closer than before. In the first set the viewer could still tell that it was an oak tree, it was during the day and it wasn’t winter as there were leaves on the branches. This picture tells us much less about the subject. We’d guess it was a vehicle (assisted by the sticker) but little else.

OCA 2 4

ISO 1250, 23mm, f2, 1/60s

Finally, the subject in context once more. This image tells us much more than any of the 3 preceding it. We know now that it’s in a car park in a wood and that it’s probably autumn. We can have a decent guess abut which direction the van might leave in too.

From a practical point of view, I learned that it is a good idea to print the instructions for the exercise and take them with me when taking the pictures or at least make notes. I should not rely on my memory of what was asked. The fact that my subjects only take up 1/4 of the frame is more by luck than judgement.

This was an enjoyable exercise. Once I’ve printed the images and experimented with other crops, I’ll post them up. I’ve not read what is to come, but I’m sure we’ll be encouraged to do more of this (varying our viewpoint). I have certainly learned that by making changes to the amount of the frame that the subject fills, we can encourage the viewer to dwell on whatever it is that we want them to look at. Or, we can show the subject in context and tell more of a story.

I’m enjoying this!

Exercise – Focal Length and Angle of View

The initial exercises of the course set out to get one used to the camera and its operation. The first of these is to do with the lens and particularly the effect of focal length on field of view.

I am lucky enough to have a selection of lenses, both prime (fixed) and zoom and can cover a range from 17mm to 200mm. My camera is full frame, meaning a 36x24mm sensor (the same size as the exposed area of 35mm film) as opposed to a crop sensor. In turn, this means that the focal length marked on the lens is the actual value. A crop sensor camera uses a smaller sensor and so only the central area of the equivalent full-frame image that effectively zooms the image by 1.6x, cropping the edges.

Anyway, I stopped off on my ride home from work to take these pictures of a local landmark. Old John is a folly, built in the late 1700s and a well known landmark in Leicestershire. I am almost embarrassed to include photos of such a tourist attraction in my coursework. Anyway, after lugging my camera and lenses to this spot, it took the very average pictures you see here. To keep the same view each time, and without using a tripod, I used the left hand focus point and focused at the base of the tree in the hedgerow to the left of the frame.

Standing in the same spot, I took pictures at 17, 40, 50 and 200mm. The reason for the 2 at the similar focal lengths of 40 and 50mm was to explore the idea of the ‘standard’ length. Digital cameras magnify the view through the viewfinder slightly, so the exercise in the notes that described fitting your standard lens and using one eye to look at the scene and the other through the camera is something I’ll try on a film camera at a later date.

Old John Set Up

The next step was to print the pictures and return to the same spot, working out how far away the picture had to be to match the scene. I did this on my way home from work, again on my bike. Problem was that it threw it down on my way to work and my printed pictures were soaked and became one damp mass. I peeled them apart and began holding them up to compare to the scene.

The image shot at 17mm had to be held closer than it was possible to focus, 2 inches or less. I had to wrap the paper around my face to duplicate the scene at the same size. When I took the paper away from my face, a couple walking their dog were looking my way in a pitying manner.

40mm needed to be held around 8-9 inches from my eyes. The shape of the gate, particularly the gate posts being close to the edge of the page, allowed me to match the scene easily.

50mm was about 4 inches further away and a much more comfortable viewing distance.

As I was on my own, with floppy sheets of A4, I struggled to get the 200mm print at the correct distance. I ended up hanging it in a thorn bush around 3m away.

This was an interesting exercise and taught me a couple of things, although more about the course than the camera. The main learning point was to simplify the logistics of my exercises, otherwise the course may take the rest of my life. Carting around the camera and lenses on a bike was daft. The idea was that it would fit into my lifestyle and save me making an extra trip. It did that, but also gave me back-ache.

The second point is to take better pictures for the exercises. Those attached are rubbish. They achieved the point of the exercise, but I’m a Photography Degree student who should be doing better than this!