composition

Post production is all about the details

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo. © Neil Turner

Passenger on the top deck of a tourist bus passing through Waterloo.
© Neil Turner

I’ve read a lot about the ‘instagramisation’ of photography. I think that means taking slightly dull images, applying filters and presets to them and presenting them as bits of creativity. At the right time and in the right place those kinds of pictures have value and can make significant additions to creative campaigns and can go a long way towards making some elements of social media and social marketing more visually interesting. I’m not talking about that here – this blog post is all about choosing between making decisions about individual pictures or letting technology take over and ‘improve’ your work for you.

If you are on Facebook or any other social media that has targeted advertising you will probably get as many ‘suggestions’ as I do for people selling magical presets or add-ons to make my pictures instantly better. That’s great – or at least it would be if I wanted all of my images to exhibit a sameness with each other and with those of so many others. Trying to reduce professional post-production down to a series of mouse-clicks using algorithms and actions developed for others isn’t, in my opinion, a very good idea. I don’t want bland, over-processed or unreal pictures and I certainly don’t want to supply them to my clients.

For those of us who remember machine printing from our colour negatives where some pretty smart state-of-the-art machinery replaced judgements made by well trained and experienced operators it all looks pretty familiar. No matter how smart the technology gets, the highest quality and the best representations of our creative visions can only be realised when we pay attention to the details. All of them.

When I look at a single (RAW) image on my screen I make a lot of decisions pretty quickly. That is what an automated system would do too. I go through a sort of check list of options to make that picture into the best thing that it can be. Arguably, that’s exactly what an automated system would do too. The difference comes when I start to think about context:

  • What is the purpose of the picture?
  • Who is the client and who are the audience?
  • Which elements are most important?

The list of possible questions is long and you are probably getting my point by now. The same photograph needs different treatment for different purposes and that means handling the detailed decisions in different ways. How could an automated system have any idea whether correcting barrel distortion in a lens is necessary or even desirable? How would any machine know whether blown highlights in unimportant areas of the frame need to be sorted or whether they add to the atmosphere? The same goes for blocked shadows, underexposed faces, oversaturated colours and another long list of potentially vital elements. Let’s not even start to think about cropping at this point.

All of this is deeply reminiscent of hand printing black and white photographs in the darkrooms of the earlier parts of my career. Getting the contrast right and doing some dodging and burning were things that made all the difference between an average picture and a thing of beauty but the degree to which you ‘worked’ your photographs was dictated by where they would end up. Letterpress newspapers required very different prints to gallery walls.

It’s not just about how you handle the options for grading and optimising your pictures as you go through the process either. Output options vary and choosing between sRGB, Adobe RGB and the half dozen other options that are less commonly asked for isn’t something that you’d want to hand over to a machine. Sharpening comes in so many different forms these days and then what should you do about file sizes?

I have calculated that I make between thirty and forty decisions for every picture and another four or five for every batch of pictures that go directly towards how my photographs look when they arrive on the client’s screen and almost every one of those decisions has an effect on so many of the others. This stuff ain’t easy and it certainly isn’t as easy as those advertisements that pop up in my social media would have you believe.

The story behind a picture #1

Young England cross-country runners posing for a photograph in Winchester. © Neil Turner/TSL

Young England cross-country runners posing for a photograph in Winchester. © Neil Turner/TSL

Even after nearly thirty years shooting photographs I can almost always remember something about ‘being there’ on the job when I look back at the pictures. There’s also a story to be told about why a particular picture was shot, lit or composed in a certain way.

A while ago I was posting a “photography word of the day” on Twitter and one of the first was compromise. This photograph of two rising stars of cross country running is a classic example of compromising to get a decent shot.

When I arrived at the college where they were both studying neither of them had their kit with them to do an action shot. Luckily their England team tracksuits had arrived and so I had to manufacture an action portrait of them that left one important part out of the frame – their feet. Neither of them had suitable footwear to be photographed in action and so I had to find a way to shoot them without drawing attention to their lack of running shoes.

In front of the college was a large banked area of grass and playing fields. I realised quite quickly that I could get the best of the light (dusk was fast approaching), lose most of the buildings and hide their feet by getting down low and using one of the banked grass areas to fill the foreground as they ran towards the low angled sun whilst shooting on a long (ish) lens.

So that’s what I did. The two runners were amused by the lengths to which I was determined to go to get a decent shot. They had been photographed two days before but just wearing their street clothes and standing by the college sign and they had assumed that I’d do the same. They did about ten lots of the ten yard run that had them in the right place and I shot some of them horizontally and the others vertically to cover the possible shapes that the newspaper might use. I also shot it using a range of aperture and shutter speed combinations to get the depth of field right.

I did some static upper-body photographs as well as having them pose with their trophies (feet hidden) on the grass.

Technical stuff: Canon EOS1D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8L IS lens. ISO 320, 1/1000th of a second at f6.7

Zooming with your…

©Neil Turner/Bupa 10,000. May 2015. A Police rider accompanies a detachments of Guards as they march back their barracks.

©Neil Turner/Bupa 10,000. May 2015.
A Police rider accompanies a detachments of Guards as they march back their barracks.

I was on a job the other day, standing next to a very young photographer in a ‘press pen’. He glanced over at the gear I was using and mentioned how much he would love to own the 135mm f2L lens that I had on one of my cameras. He said that he had never really got the hang of “zooming with his feet” in the way that so many of the photographers he admired had advised. He had also had it drummed into him by one of his tutors at college and it had left him wondering if he was doing something wrong.

Zooming with your feet is a great concept and it is one of the catchphrases in contemporary photography that appears to be beyond question. But is it? Is it actually as much a cliche as a universal truth?

There we were on a job where we couldn’t have zoomed with our feet even if either of us had the skills to do so. We couldn’t go forward – there was a metal barrier in the way. We couldn’t go backwards because there were other photographers and a couple of TV crews behind us – and behind them was another barrier. We had a tiny amount of sideways movement if we could change places with each other but, apart from that, we were in a very fixed position.

The event we were shooting was a fixed distance from us and so it was possible to get the right prime lens on the camera and then to shoot the job.

What my young photographer friend didn’t know was that I had my 70-200 lens in my bag but that I had some real concerns about its performance earlier in the day which is why I had grabbed the 135 and decided to use that.

As we had plenty of time to spare I explained my choice of lens and explained that a lot of press work means that zooming with your feet is somewhere between difficult and impossible and that to get the most from a fixed position a set of zoom lenses is actually the right choice. I went on to admit that I would be doing a fair bit of zooming on the job myself, except that it would be in the post-production – zooming with the crop tool is what I decided to call it.

And that’s what I did. The resolution of modern DSLRs is such that you can get a high quality Jpeg from 50% of the actual frame and the quality of the best lenses easily allows you do that and maybe more. Starting off with a lens wider than you probably need and then refining your crop in post-production was very common in the days of darkrooms and prints but when we were shooting 35mm colour transparencies or with the early low-megapixel digitals it became important to get the crop right in-camera. We have come full circle and some judicious cropping makes sense once more.

Shooting with prime lenses is something that I have discussed more than once before and it is something that I find myself doing more and more on jobs where I’m the only photographer or where I have enough freedom to go with the universal truth/cliche (delete where applicable) and actually zoom with my feet. The rest of the time it is zooms and now that I am using two distinct sets of lenses for different types of jobs I’ve decided to invest in some new gear – and I’ll be blogging about that very soon.

Three important things

Many, many years ago I started to post technique examples and opinions on my website. By 2002 I had about fifty articles on the site and over the last couple of years I have been recycling many of them because I still thank that they are worth reading. None of it is unique wisdom and much of it can be found in the form of YouTube videos by other people. I like to think that I was marginally ahead of the curve back then at least. Here is one of my favourites…

There are many things that help make a great photograph – a good photographer, the right equipment and luck can all play a part but there are three things that, in different proportions, are absolutely essential.

  1. Light: Possibly the most important element to making an ordinary photograph into a good one.
  2. Composition: Getting all the right elements in the right places.
  3. Subject Matter: It’s true that what you are photographing can very easily make the difference between good, very good and great pictures.

Light: You not only need the right quantity of light, but the right quality and direction of the light are vital too.

  • Too much light can be just as much of a problem as too little. A picture that relies on shallow a depth of field for it’s impact will be hard to achieve if there is too much light to work with wide open lens. Of course if there is too little light to freeze the action when that’s vital to the picture, that’s also a problem.
  • Many pictures rely on hard shadows and extreme contrast for their effect and others need even and soft light to make the photograph work.
  • What direction the light is coming from in relation to the subject matter is important. Strong backlight will be perfect for some subjects and ninety degree side light will do it for others.

Composition. Whatever else is going on in the picture, this is the element of the total package over which you have the most control.

  • What lens you use is an absolutely critical decision to take in terms of the composition. What you can see through the viewfinder is utterly controlled by this decision.
  • Where you position yourself in relation to the subject is another crucial decision.
  • Confusion is the greatest enemy of clarity! How successful you are in keeping extraneous details out of the photograph has an enormous bearing on the final result.

Subject Matter: All great photographs tell their own story, and that’s just as true for a product shot of ball bearings as it is for Pulitzer prize winning documentary images.

  • If what you are photographing tells it’s own story, then you need to strip the content down so that the story isn’t confused.
  • Some things aren’t that interesting, so you need to add content. Telling the story sometimes requires the photographer to set the context.
  • Photographs don’t always need to be great art. Sometimes subject matter is all, and nothing else matters. If there is only one picture of a vital news event and it’s out of focus and taken from video it may well qualify as a great picture.

Three elements that go together to make great pictures. Sometimes light takes the lead and other times the composition is the most important. It doesn’t matter if one element is dominant, but photographs where all three are well balanced and well done then the image is guaranteed to be a winner.

There is, however, one extra element that you can’t legislate for. Magic. Like many things in photography, you know it when you see it but you cannot measure it or define it. Well composed and lit pictures that have great subject matter are (relatively) easy to come by, but once in a while they have magic too.

Space makes you think – part 2

©Neil Turner, March 2013. Family enjoying an early spring afternoon near Fisherman's Walk in Bournemouth, Dorset.

©Neil Turner, March 2013. Family enjoying an early spring afternoon near Fisherman’s Walk in Bournemouth, Dorset.

A very long time ago when I was studying photography at the Medway College of Design I was surrounded by like-minded and equally obsessive photography students who all wanted to unlock the many ‘secrets’ of great photography so that we could all some-day be someone. We were only a very short distance along the journey (it was the first term of the first year) when we were set a project to shoot an object against a background where the object would be very small and still have great composition and make sense. It was a lesson that I will always remember for two reasons:

  • The first is that I loved it and actually shot four or five entirely different pictures – ranging from a damp and golden autumnal leaf on a grey path to a red balloon against a bright blue sky.
  • The second reason is that during a group critique someone (and I have no memory who) said “space makes you think”.

Space makes you think has stuck with me to this day and as a short and snappy phrase it appears in my thinking and in my discussions on a very regular basis. From the day I learned that lesson and then learned to leave space in my compositions for mastheads, strap line, type and headlines I have always looked for pictures with space. Cropping images really tightly is a great way to shoot some subjects and I remember another phrase from my student days which sums that up too “if an element doesn’t add to the composition then it detracts from it”. That’s also true and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why photography is so enthralling, confusing, infuriating and rewarding. Two ‘rules’ that appear to directly contradict one another that form the basis of one of those secrets that we as students of the art/science/profession spend our lives trying to grasp and the interpret in our own ways.

Rules are there to be obeyed most of the time and broken often enough to make sure that we remain creative in our thinking. That was true back at Medway College, it still is and I hope it always will be.

* Those other “obsessives” included Jez Coulson, David Chancellor, Bill Green, Richard Gosler, Mike Cooper, John Baxter, Richard Ansett and Andy Eaves who, I am delighted to tell you, are all still as obsessed as they were! There were 28 photographers in our year and I’m sure more than those listed above are still plying the trade.

From journalism to design and all spaces in between

No matter what you talk about in life there seems to be a scale: left to right, top to bottom, right to wrong. I can now add a new one….journalism to design. These are the two ends of the scale that I exist in as a photographer. At one extreme my work is pure journalism and at the other it’s little more than eye candy.

©Neil Turner. London, June 2009

The pressures that I feel when I’m out working come from both directions, and both sets of pressures come from the newspaper. My instincts are clearly those of a news photographer, but more and more I find that my work is required, judged and edited by designers. This makes me nervous because they wouldn’t ever consider meddling with the written journalism and I sometimes find my pictures being selected on the basis of how well they add to the graphical feel of the page.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for this attitude to pictures in lifestyle magazines, but the success of those magazines has meant that attitude spilling over into newspapers. Daily and weekly papers have always been dominated by the written word and photographs have always had to struggle for their place as an integral part of the journalism. I am fairly convinced that no significant newspaper has ever had a photographer as it’s editor, so it isn’t surprising that words dominate.

The constant changes in “who does what” inside newspapers has lead to the appointment of more and more designers who seem to have become very influential, not only in a design sense but in a more general editorial way too. Photographers are being sidelined by yet another group of workers.

Going back to my left to right argument, there are pages within a newspaper that are predominantly news and there are pages that are rightly about lifestyle. I have no problem with this except where the emphasis becomes blurred and decisions about photographs are made because they make the page look good on pages where the journalistic content should be king. Editorial photography is a far wider field than news photography and I want to be able to shoot in a wide range of styles to suit the whole spectrum, but more and more of my colleagues here in London are feeling the pressure to shoot in a softer, more feature based style all of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I think that great photography is great photography no matter why the pictures were taken and no matter where they are intended to go…but…the hijacking of news pages by people with anything other than journalism in their thoughts has to be resisted.

I strongly believe in giving designers and layout artists greater flexibility so I hope that everyone will realise that I want to meet “the enemy” halfway and not just sit sniping on the sidelines. I just get very depressed when I hear designers and layout people talking about photographs, good photographs as so much “window dressing”. The answer? Appoint more picture literate people to senior positions on newspapers, treat news photography with due respect and never allow photography to become just another element of design