Part 4

Assignment 4 – self assessment

Looking at the end result of my fourth assignment submission, I summarise in the following table some personal notes in relation with the course’s assessment criteria:

Assessment criteria Personal views
Demonstration of technical and visual skills In general I believe the final selection of photographs continue to demonstrate reasonable levels of competency in terms of framing and composition. This assignment led me to deepen my exploration of techniques and ways of visual presentation that I did not have a great deal of experience with, such as off camera flash illumination, and the modification of artificial light, both in shape and colour. While I am satisfied with the end results in terms of technique at the time of submission, I was left intrigued by some of the results I got (particularly in the picture of the shed door, which I was initially expecting to look a little less natural) and I can see myself revisiting some of the techniques used in future projects.
Quality of outcome I feel generally satisfied with the connection between the various photographs in terms of their theme. Although the end results are not entirely homogeneous in subject and sometimes diverge in  the quality of illumination, I am satisfied that they conform to the main idea of being ordinary, mundane objects that I have attempted to portray under a different light. One of my ideas with this project was to achieve the correct balance between the light falling on the main subjects and that of its surroundings. While in some cases the main flash also provided some degree of fill light for the background, for most pictures my approach could only be attained by increasing ISO, and this inevitably led to some pictures exhibiting relatively high noise levels, which are thankfully not particularly noticeable at the size of the submitted pictures, except perhaps for the second picture, when there is clearly some noise visible on the sky.
Demostration of creativity Leading to the look of the final pictures, I took a number of shots under several combinations of flash, artificial and ambient light, both as part of exercise 4.4 and in subsequent experiments (see for instance exposing for the highlights, combining natural and artificial light and flash in daylight). Ultimately, I believe whatever creativity can be attributed to the final shots comes from that experimenting, which was primarily aimed at finding a look that expressed what I wanted to achieve: giving a platform to the ordinary and the neglected. In this process, the initial ideas came from pictures and photographers mentioned in previous blog entries, but the final look is primarily derived from the empirical process of throwing my subjects under what I believe was a similar light – ignoring in many cases what the original lighting arrangements were – and then changing the conditions until achieving something which hopefully was sufficiently different to stand on its own. In some cases, this involved trying different angles for the flash, in others changing the colour of the flash to try to match that of the ambient light or the subjects.
Context Compared with previous assignments, the theoretical research in this case was particularly limited. I did some initial search work and looked at some of the names mentioned in the course guide, some of which partially influenced the final look of my pictures, but I actually ended up doing a lot of exploratory work with the camera itself, looking at issues such as under exposure, exposing for the highlights, the combination of natural and artificial light and the use of flash to complement available light, prior to deciding which of exercises 4.2 to 4.4 I wanted to explore further. Once I settled on 4.4, I did a bit more of theoretical research, primarily around the names included in an exhibition on flash photography held in the Photographer’s Gallery in London in the early 1980s, and then tried to adjust the techniques used in exercise 4.4 to the look I felt more comfortable with from the photographers I had looked up. In the end, however, I wanted this assignment to be a personal journey of discovery of light and what the camera could do, and this is reflected in the predominantly empirical approach I took to give context to the project.

 

Research notes – flash in daylight

In earlier post (see here and here), I took a series of shoots looking at the combination of natural and artificial light. The problem with natural and generally available artificial light is that it is not always possible to change its configuration. Some things can be done about it, with reflectors and other light modifiers, but major changes, like for instance to make natural light strike an object at a particular angle, are only possible at certain times of the day and for a limited period which can be just down to a few minutes or seconds depending on the season. These limitations could potentially be overcome by using our own artificial source of light, like a flash.

The following series was taken with a single external flash during daylight. The first shot was taken indoors, in a partially covered tunnel with one of the walls removed to allow daylight to come trough. The light falling on the shot was only natural and indirect (ie reflected from the adjoining surfaces, which were dark).

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1/60s at f5.6. ISO 400. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

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In the above, the flash was set in a slightly “feathered” position by moving the head slightly up (pointing towards the reilings rather than the pack of crisps). The flash head was covered with a home made snoot, made with black cardboard, to give more directionality to the light. The flash was set at about 4 meters from the subject. Schematics are shown to the right.

In the resulting picture, the flash light is a bit overpowering and there is almost no background light from the ambient. This creases quite a dramatic shot which focuses attention strongly on a subject that under regular daylight would look mundane and would normally be ignored.

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1/180s at f8. ISO 200. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

project-9The next shot was taken on broad daylight wiht no artificial light involved other than from the flash. The flash was put on a stand and placed about 1 to 2 meters away from the plastic cup. No modifier was used, but the head was pointing slightly upwards so that it would not illuminate much of the ground. The schematics are shown on the right.

On this occassion, the flash light and the ambient light were more or less balaced, with the ambient light primarily setting up the road and the reflection of the building above (it just stopped raining a few minutes before) while the flash provided the ilumination of the plastic cup, which stands up in contrast with the dark grey of the road surface. There is less drama in here when compared with the initial shot: there are no long shadows and the highlights are more subtle, but there is still a high level of contrast and separation between the subject and its background.

 

Research notes – combining artificial and natural light

Following from the idea of underexposing from my previous entry, I decided to take a series of shots under natural light (both on overcast and sunny days), as well as combining natural and artificial light. Some of these shots are shown and discussed below.

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1/60s at f5.6. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The first shot was taken indoors, in a corridor which is lit with a combination of artificial and natural light (from openings in the ceiling). There is a very subtle colour cast on this shot which I find quite attractive. The top end of the light strip has a bluish tone coming from the natural light, which is partially diffused through glass panels, which may further cool its tonality, whereas the bottom half of the strip has a slightly warmer tone, coming from the less intense artificial lamps, with incandescent bulbs, fixed to the ceiling. I initially had though about converting this picture into black and white, to emphasize the shapes and the contrast of the light, but I decided against it in the end because the subtle colour hues of the light would be lost with this.

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1/2000s at f5.6. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The next shot was taken outdoors with only natural light. It was sunny, and consequently, the light had a slight golden colour cast. Exposure was set not to blow the highlights, creating a nice, soft graduation from dark to light gray (the light was coming from under some arches, hence the shadows on the left). While I like the overall look of the picture, it does lack the hue variation of the previous one due to the single light source.

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1/30s at f5.6. ISO 3200. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The last shot in the series combines again both natural and artificial light, but this time there is a combination of direct and reflected / diffused light. There is also a clear distinction between the sections of the frame which are illuminated by the different sources, so that there is almost no spill or mixture like in the first shot. With each light source having its distinct colour temperature, the result is a picture of parts that cannot be separated but complement each other and allow the view to wonder from one segment to the next and back. I find it quite pleasant to look, if it was not for the slightly irritating bit of dull highlight at the bottom (water reflection at the corner of the wall), which could be corrected in post-processing, but I am showing here for completeness.

Research notes – exposing for the highlights

Looking at the idea of what the camera sees versus what we see, I came up with the idea of doing a series of pictures well underexposed to only show highlight values. Sometimes our vision is too centered in what we have ahead and we forget that there are things on the side that are often overlooked, but the camera will always see that. The expectation is that by underexposing, those extraneous highlights will be made more apparent, showing us something abstract, which sometimes would be harmonious and other times would be disturbing. Here are some examples of this that I have taken:

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Barbican Centre, London. 1/60s f5.6 ISO 500 18.5mm (equiv to 28mm in full frame)

The shot above, which was approximately 3 stops underexposed, is one of what I would call “disturbing” shots, as it has quite a lot of bright extraneous lights, some of which are close to the border of the frame, and the lights themselves show very little sympathy in shape or colour. But is perhaps the fact that there is still details in the shadows and dark areas that make this picture even less harmonious. In post-processing I underexposed the picture even more while boosting the white point. The resulting picture is shown below:

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Barbican Centre, London. -5 exposure adjustment +60 white point adjustment in Lightroom

The picture still looks all over the place, but it is easier to see, more harmonious, now that the colour and shadow details have been greatly reduced to black.

Following from the experiment above, and equipped with a camera with electronic view finder, I then took a series of pictures from normal exposure and then progressively underexposed until shadow details were rendered mostly in black. All the pictures were taken with a 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm in full frame) set at an aperture of f5.6 and base ISO of 200, with the only difference between them being the shutter speed. The series is shown below:

As the shutter becomes faster, the shadows growth deeper and only scattered highlight remains, until those start to become subdued as well, almost disappearing by shot 6. The scene is transformed from an ordinary indoors shot into something more abstract, something else which is about form and colour. In these shots, like in the previous Barbican Centre one, the light has different colour characteristics, but the latter effort combines both natural light (from the light wells to the upper left) and artificial light, and this is something I would like to experiment with next.

Research Notes – Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt series of photographs taken with car headlights, as published in 1945 in a Picture Post article entitled “The Magic Lantern of a Car’s Headlights” (1), come quite close to the brash, direct light aesthetics of press photography flash; with a light that is both intense but narrow in its scope and reach. In this short series, Brandt shows us not only what we would normally expect to see and note while driving (e.g. road signspedestrians crossing), but also both the unexpected (such as the couple cuddling by the curb) or the ignored (the road itselfa churchyard normally invisible at night). The headlight is indiscriminate on what it targets but also illuminating on what it shows, and the photographer takes great care in recording it all with reasonable care for composition. Brandt could not control the intensity or direction of the headlights, and some of the subjects (like the pedestrian crossing) are only partially illuminated; but this is beside the point, as the pictures try to illustrate a point of view (that of the driver or his front passenger) rather than to make justice to the “subjects”. In my opinion, these pictures are more about the light, and that is perhaps the main subject.

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(1) The Magic Lantern Of A Car’s Headlights (1945) Picture Post (March)

Research notes – Flash photography

The following comments are inspired by the book “Floods of Light: Flash Photography 1851-1981”, published by the Photographers’ Gallery in London as the accompanying catalogue to an exhibition hosted by the Gallery between December 1982 and January 1983 (1)

The book traces the origins and evolution of flash photography from the early experiments with electric sparks and chemical compounds in the mid to late 19th century, to the development of synchronised flash bulbs and the electronic strobes in the first half of the 20th century. The book covers both technical as well as aesthetic aspects of flash photography, both of which are of particular interest to myself in the context of exercise 4.4 and assignment 4. The short duration of flash, a feature that was there from its inception, enabled the freezing of movement and eventually allowed us to see things that would elude the naked eye. In that respect, the photographs of Harold Edgerton and Gjon Mili using electronic strobes manage to encapsulate both a technical narrative of movement, broken down in its various components, and a certain aesthetical harmony of shapes that have in many instances an abstract quality to it (see for instance drum majorette by Edgerton (here) or the hands of Russian conductor by Mili (here)).

In addition to freezing movement, flash also enabled photography where it was previously not possible or practical to do so: underground and in the darkness of the night. Because portable flashes, usually comprising an electronically controlled bulb in their modern incarnations, are small but intense sources of light, they generate a harsh illumination of limited range, resulting in high dynamic range, limited peripheral illumination. This gave flash photography a distinct look that many have characterised as unnatural but that nonetheless had a clear aesthetic impact that made its home primarily among the press photographers of the 1930s and 1940s (and even to this date), but also in the work of social photographers such as Lewis Hine (see here, for example) or Diane Arbus (like here), and more recently in Bruce Gilden large-scale face portraits (as in here). This style of flash photography, direct and unsoftened, as opposed to the more nuanced strobist and studio work that seeks to emulate the lighting in paintings from the old masters (the so-called “Rembrandt” lighting, as shown here), or the almost imperceptible light of daylight fill flash (like in Lee Friedlander’s “Kyoto” – here) has come under criticism for being intrusive and revealing too much. The critic and curator Gerry Badger, in his afterword to the aforementioned book, went as far as denouncing the flash as “…the most aggressive of photographic techniques, utilised by some of the most aggressive and hard-headed photographers. It is, one is glad to say, a somewhat un-English method. perhaps preferred more in the States than on these shores” (2). While indeed direct flash can have a revealing effect where light falls, to me its limited range together with the fact that the photographer is in total control of light direction and exposure balance means that flash is also, and could primarily be, an instrument of obfuscation, confusion and deceit. The book presents the use of flash as a moral problem for the photographer, with the power to shine a light over what was previously unseen, but obviates the question of choice in this dilemma: the photographer always gets to choose what we will see and what remains hidden and, more than under any other lighting condition, this is greatly facilitated by narrow, harsh beam of the flash.

The book also included a series of plates, probably of pictures that were displayed in the exhibition. In addition to some already mentioned above from Egerston, Friedlander, Arbus, Hines and Mili, I found particularly compelling some of the night shots from Brassai (for example his Big Albert’s gang shot here) and Bert Hardy (his Barcelona prostitutes shot here). When I first looked at these shots, it was not immediately apparent to me that flash was used, and this is what perhaps attracted me to them in the first place. They are not subtletly illuminated, but then one is used to night shots being naturally high dynamic, high contrast photographs, because street lamps are also relatively small sources of light just like electronic flash and generate a similar outcome. These were also taken on negative film, which is generally more forgiving of harsh highlights than digital sensors (or colour / B&W reversal films for that matter), and consequently, do no look as harsh and as in the face as one would normally expect to see in direct flash shots these days. To me the most important feature of these shots is the use of artificial light (flash combined with street lights) in such as way that focuses the attention of the viewer in a very effective manner, and shows essentially nothing more than what the photographer desires us too see, an effect that is particularly clear in Brassai’s gang shot. Beyond that, the light itself has an aura of wickedness that befits the subjects (seedy characters) well and adds to the atmosphere. It would be difficult to imagine these shots having the same effect had them been taken during broad daylight.

In a similar vein, the indoor pictures by Joseph Byron and later Lisette Model also grabbed my attention. Byron was particularly good at placing flash light in such way that reduced its intensity while at the same time creating enough light to envolve its subjects with a distinct atmosphere that in some cases did not feel natural but was nonetheless still pleasant, soothing. I particularly like d his lighting in “Handball” (see here), which also manages to freeze the motion of the ball in mid-air to complement the framing of the four polayers harmoneusly. The photographs of Model, and in particular her shot of the couple chatting in Sammy’s bar (see here) manage to remain intimate and candid in spite of the obvious intervention of direct flash. The light here is arranged skilfully to create shadows in the right places to separate the subject from the pherifery, even though the photographer has clearly set the exposure to allow ambient light to provide context (unlike the previously mentioned shots by Brassai and Hardy). A similarly pleasant effect is also attained by Larry Fink in “Birthday Party” (see here) and “Praying Mantis” (here), which were taken in daylight, likely both of them outdoors, but used flash to fill in the subjects in subtly, adding just enough light to make them stand out while minimising the visual impact of harsh shadows.

The last photograph from the book that I particularly enjoyed was Gasho Yamamura “Of Vegetation” (part of a series. Shot seen is this one). Like Model’s before, Yamamura alllows enough exposure to include the background but clearly delineates his subjects with the harsh but effective light of the flash, thus creating a stricking image that is slightly surreal and has the viewer’s gaze constantly moving from foreground to background.

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(1)  Rupert (editor) Martin, 1982. Floods of light: Flash photography, 1851-1981 : 10 December 1982-29 January 1983. Edition. Photographers Gallery.

(2) Ibid, p 78

Research notes – Robert Brook’s “Less Light”

Robert Brook is a British photographer. In his series “Less Light”, which can be seen in here, Mr. Brook presents a series of subjects illuminated by various artificial light sources. The series is classified by subject or theme (for example, you have “pathways” and “walls and fences”). The photographs share similar aesthetics: they are devoid of persons or animals, usually shot straight on and, contrary to what the tile of the series would have implied, well illuminated.

I found the series mostly enjoyable. Some of the photographs include a number of street lights that come together to create interesting patterns, compounded by the stars of light and the flares coming from the top of each lamppost (eg see here). I like the simplicity and the calming order of these shoots. In others, the source of the artificial light is not directly present, but its different temperature help transform the landscape by shifting its colour in a way that would not be possible during daylight, as in his picture of the entrance to the industrial area in the “en route” theme, or his riverside theme pictures, like this one.

The series, nonetheless, had a number of pictures that had, perhaps, too much light for what I would normally expect to see in a night shoot; and were either veering towards HDR (like this one) or included some additional lighting aid introduced by the photographer (like this one, where the perfectly illuminated forefront is in an area where I would not expect to see any artificial light sources). It is not possible to know, of course, how these effects were achieved, and the photographer does not seem to reveal it on its website, but it does instill in me both a sense of doubt about the veracity of what I am seeing, as well as an urge to try to see if this effect could be somehow replicated in real life without using extra illumination from the photographer.