Excitement in the spotlight

Excitement in the spotlight Damien DemolderExcitement in the spotlight

Just as there is gold at the end of a rainbow, so a beam of light in a shady zone will lead us to riches. Where sun shines in the darkness we have a spotlight, and spotlights are perfect for picking out a subject for us to see, to concentrate on and to photograph.

This scene is just the opening of a tunnel on a sunny day, and with a relatively high angled sun and the assistance of a reflective glass building, we had this double spotlight effect that created multiple shadows from each person that passed by. I had been concentrating on those shadows, and looking for people making interesting shapes to cast good shadows on the wall in front of themselves. Most people were lit from the side, so there was some light on their face but more on the side of their head. The effect on the wall was great, but the light on the people was much less interesting.

I was just coming to the conclusion that while there was some potential in the scene I was only getting half interesting pictures, and no matter how dramatic the shapes were I didn’t know what was needed to create a spark of excitement beyond the passive shadow experience.

And then this animated chap came along. Obviously excited about appearing in a picture that would end up on my website and in endless street photography talks, he went to town to engage with his friend in a dramatic manner and turned to face him to ensure whatever he was saying was being registered and sinking in.

Of course, as he turned his face towards his friend he also turned it into the light, and with that enthusiastic expression and that dynamic body position it was going to make a good shot. We have no idea what he is saying or why he looks like that, but we can all appreciate the energy he is putting in to getting his point across.

His friend is also nicely semi-silhouetted against the light grey background and he shows us enough that we can see his reaction and how much he is enjoying his friend’s antics. We need that element of communication and connection so that we can join in the fun and be a part of what is going on.

Had I given up when things weren’t quite coming together I wouldn’t have got this shot. I kept the camera up, however, and was still ready to shoot as I pondered what was needed – and as if by magic what was needed appeared before my eyes. Fortunately, I was ready and waiting to capture what luck was serving up at that moment.

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Excitement in the spotlight Damien Demolder

Colour balance for fluorescent lights – Under Southwark Bridge

8413845800_34b7ff6238_cColour balance • Exposure compensation • High ISO

Daylight is the ultimate light source and its almost infinite combinations of characteristics and properties make it an endlessly variable, changeable and exciting type of illumination. And consequently it is by far the more popular form of lighting for most photographers. Your camera is set up to deal with daylight by default and all your systems expect it unless you intervene with a different manual instruction.
Photographers are so used to using daylight that when the daylight fades cameras are put to bed to await sunrise the next day, or portable sunlight is loaded with batteries and slipped into the hotshoe – a flash gun.
When you put your camera away after sunset you miss the opportunity to enjoy the multitude of different coloured lights humans use to brighten their world during the night, and to capture the atmospheres those coloured lights can create.

Fluorescent strip lighting

I shot the picture shown here early on a January morning under Southwark Bridge in London. The sky was just coming alive, but under the bridge the world was lit only with artificial lighting – in this case fluorescent strip lights. We tend to avoid fluorescent lighting because it can be ugly and it often creates a sickly green cast, but it is important to appreciate that fluorescents come in many different colours, from white to yellow to red, as well as green. The light here was old and dirty, and its bulb emitted a deep yellow glow that felt strangely warm at that freezing blue hour.
What I wanted to capture at this scene was the haven of warmth that the light was creating in contrast with the dank, wet brickwork and the wrapped up people using the tunnel at that time.
The obvious shot from the direction I approached the scene was from the other side of the road – shooting square to the wall, with a people walking into the patch of light.

White balance

Fluorescent lighting with fluorescent white balanceI know most people would have used auto white balance, or even switched to fluorescent, without recognising that the colour of the light is an essential element in the atmosphere. I had the camera on the daylight setting, as I do for 90% of my pictures. The first image shown here was processed from raw with the fluorescent setting selected so you can see the colours that most people would come away with.
In this shot wanted to make the most of the symmetry of the structure, and with the light striking the subject at such an acute angle we only get an outline of the front of the body. It’s not a bad angle, and I quite like that lit rim of head, face and trousers, but to engage an audience I think we need a bit more than just that.

A different angle with leading lines

I switched to the other side of the road, returned the camera to daylight, and tried to guess the difference in illumination value between the faces passing me by and the background. I set –1.3EV of exposure compensation so skin tones would be the right brightness and to control the camera’s desire to render the detail of the background. As the subjects were moving I wanted a shutter speed that would avoid a lot of blur, and I needed a depth of field that would allow me to guess and pre-set the focus, but balanced with a nice soft rendering of the background. I closed the 25mm f/1.4 lens to f/2 which, with the exposure compensation and an ISO setting of 3200, gave me a shutter speed of 1/200sec – enough to freeze most of the movement but without creating a completely static-looking image.
And then I just waited for someone interesting to come by.

Colour combinations

In the final image it is the warmth of the light that delivers the atmosphere. The deep yellows scream out ‘artificial lighting’ so we know immediately we are underground or working at night. I love the rich reds of the brickwork that is pleasing and comfortable without taking away the sense of the dereliction of the filthy water-soaked walls.
I was lucky with the greens, browns and blues of the two guys in the scene, and their poses that seem to echo their status relative to each other – the more confident becoming the dominant figure by his looking into the lens in a semi-challenging manner.

Panasonic Lumix G5 with Leica DG Summilus 25mm / F1.4 ASPH  – ISO 3200 f/2 and 1/200sec

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Making the most of fluorescent lighting

Fluorescent lighting with fluorescent white balance

 

Photographing light – when the subject isn’t an object

Light, No Light

When we talk about pictures we are taking, have taken or are going to take, most often we do so in terms of what that picture is of. We talk about that amazing giraffe, or the beautiful river winding through the landscape, the smiling child or the delicate flower. We rarely describe a picture by explaining the way the light was at that moment. And yet light is the most important element of any photograph, so perhaps that is what we should be talking about and when we go shooting that’s what we should be actively seeking out.
I shot this picture because I liked the way the morning sun was reflecting from the side of a modern office building in London, creating these coloured stripes on the pavement. It was the stripes and their colour that made me stop, and they inspired me to take the picture. The stripes aren’t an object, but they are the subject of the picture.

An added element

These pretty coloured bands are enough on their own to make a picture – an abstract set of lines bending from one side of the frame to the other – but I wanted to add some human life to the scene for scale and extra interest. I noticed that as people entered or left the lit patch they cast their shadow across the stripes, making a shape perpendicular to the flow of the scene, and creating a number of intersections that drew the eye.
I waited for the right person, with the right shape, to walk into the right place in the scene, and was reasonably quickly rewarded by this girl strolling into the area that cast her shadow between the green stripes, over the more brightly lit and colourless zone. Her shadow fits perfectly, and as her head’s shadow entered the frame her feet, with the catch-lights on her shoes, were preparing to make their way out. Everything came together in a cocktail of luck, anticipation, planning and patience.

Exposing for the more important tones

Stripes levels. Damien DemolderTo make the most of the colours of the light I had to take control of the camera’s exposure system. To the camera this is a dark scene that needs lightening. To my brain it was a scene in which the lightest areas needed to be a more moderate brightness so that the colours wouldn’t bleach out. I had to make a dramatic adjustment with the camera’s exposure compensation feature, turning the brightness down to -1.7EV. I have black in the scene, and there are light tones that are close to white. Although the picture looks very dark there are actually few real blacks and the histogram shows tones right up to 252.

It is a picture of light, and the exposure has to take that into account. Your camera is designed to take pictures of cats, humans, trees and buildings, so when you want it to just shoot light you need to take full control and tell it very clearly how to do it. Your brain is much bigger than your camera’s so don’t allow your camera to take charge of the situation.

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Samsung NX20 with the 30mm lens.

 

Stripes black display. Damien Demolder

This frame shows the areas of the image that are completely black

Green reflected light, by Damien Demolder

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Smoking in the sunshine – reading the exposure

Man smoking in the sun, Fujifilm X-Pro1This is one of those everyday scenes – man steps out for a cigarette and loses himself in thought. (Or stares blankly ahead with his mind completely switched off, perhaps.) It’s a situation that’s played out thousands of times a day in towns and cities all over the world, but this one made me stop to take a picture for two simple reasons – the curve of the part of the building the man is standing under, and the sun streaking up the street and showing off that curve so well.

I was lucky here. I didn’t have to wait for someone to come and occupy the right place in the scene, as he was already standing there waiting for the right person to see the potential. I love that curve and the way the side-on light defines its roundness and the texture of the material it is made from. What works so well is that it is set against the shaded area, and thus it stands out and makes its statement nice and clearly.

The main issue I was faced with here was that of exposure. The hard contrast between the lightest areas and the deep shadow at the top of the frame meant I had to concentrate for a second to read what was going on. The most important area is nearly always going to be the person’s face, but here we have the consideration of the almost-white concrete of the curve too. I didn’t want that to burn out, but I also wanted to show that it is nearly white. The camera would look at all that shadow and open itself up to allow more light in, but I guessed that the power of those highlights might just balance things out. I would normally have exposure compensation set to -0.3EV, but on this occasion I reckoned the multi-pattern metering would sort things out on its own.

I wanted a shallow depth of field and so opened the lens to f/2 – as wide as it would go, and the shutter set itself to 1/4000sec.

The man is set in to the left-hand third of the frame and I allowed the curve to sweep close to that left edge and then come gliding back in again. Shifting my position I slotted the smoker inside the curve, in a way to contain him, and then filled the rest of the shot with the funky white-on-black graphics on the glass.

The upright format suited the breadth of the action, and allows the pavement at the base and the deep infinite shadow at the top to demonstrate depth. And that emphasised depth forces the curve and the man to pounce out of the picture in to viewers’ eyes.

Exposure has to be a conscious decision and, especially when working in sunny conditions like this, can’t be left to the camera to work out for you. You have to read the scene and determine what the camera will see and what it will do. Then you choose to over ride it, or let it get on with it. The most important thing though, is that you thought it through and made that choice yourself. Then the picture can be yours, and not belong to the camera.

 

Fujifilm X-Pro1, 35mm f/2 lens at f/2. 1/4000sec @ ISO 200

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Using exposure compensation – Walking into the light
Walking towards the light, Millenium Bridge, London
 

Man walking into a streak of light early in the morning.

Here’s a simple but effective way of making a small subject stand out from the background. Early in the morning, or actually any time that the sun is low in the sky, we get great shafts of light that streak between buildings to carve streets in two. Usually, if we allow the camera to do its own thing, these powerful beams of light will appear white and burnt out in the frame, but if you measure and expose for the beam instead of the scene in general, you can use them to great effect.

In this instance I was looking for a way to pick out a single person in this very busy part of London. Often I will do this by using a very shallow depth of field, or by getting close with a wideangle lens. On this morning though the sun was acting as a spotlight on a stage, so all I had to do was use it.

The camera was set to evaluative metering, which obviously was reading for the whole scene. With no interference from me the exposure chosen worked well for the scene but left the area where the sun was falling as a burnt-out white line. Obviously this wasn’t making an interesting picture, or illustrating what I could see with my eyes. The excitement of the scene was that the sun could pick anyone out who walked through its rays – and that is what I wanted to catch.

I was using a manual focus lens at the time, so set the focus point for the paving right where the sun was shining. I guessed that I would need exposure compensation of about three stops (-2EV) so I set this and took a trial shot. It looked about right. I could have set spot metering and measured that way, but I would have had to have walked over to the spot to fill the spot zone, and a guess, with the chance to make corrections, seemed a better and quicker option.

Once I was happy that the exposure and focus were good, I framed the shot and waited for the right person to come along. This is a popular route for runners, school children and to workers travelling to the office. I didn’t really know what sort of person was going to make the best shot, but I knew that when that person came along it would hit me. I didn’t have to wait long for this chap to pass by and make the scene complete. The face, the pose of the arms and legs and the outfit all work to tell us the story of the moment.

Samsung NX100, with Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens in Nikon fit via a Samsung to Nikkor adapter. 1/500sec @ f/5.6, ISO 100.

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Walking towards the light, Millenium Bridge, London
Man walking into a streak of light early in the morning.
People walking near The Millenium Bridge, London
Without user intervention your camera will record the scene this way.
Simple compositions – shapes and tones

simple-compositionsThere is a difference between obvious subjects and those we have to search for. Obvious subjects might be a dramatic sunset, a lit fountain at night, the Eiffel Tower at anytime of the year or a zebra driving a jeep down the high street – these are things you couldn’t resist taking a picture of. Less obvious subjects only appear when you take time to be observant and have your eyes open to patterns, shapes and tones. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain exactly what it is you are photographing, but you can see there is a picture there all the same. And often it is only when you have the time to sit and study the picture after you have taken it that you begin to understand what it was that you saw in the first place.

The great thing about the less obvious picture is that fewer people see them, and so fewer people take them – so you picture will stand out as being different. 

This picture was taken on an overcast day on a ship far out at sea. Walking the decks with my camera in my hand the obvious thing to do was to look outwards to see what was out at sea. But as the answer was ‘nothing’, the only thing to do was to photograph the ship itself. 

Ships, especially old ones like the QE2, are beautiful to look at. They have wonderful smooth curves and endless lines of rivets, panels, handrails and planking. In the low contrast light of the clouded sky the shapes of the ship were revealed in lightly graduated tones, as moderate shadow slipped into moderate highlight and all the details were carefully preserved. 

Exposing a white scene

Shooting a white subject on a white day can create some exposure difficulties. If you let the camera make all the exposure choices you’ll end up with an image that is just too dark and dull. The camera’s meter will only see a very bright scene and will recommend buttoning down the aperture to ensure things don’t appear too bright. The camera doesn’t know of course that you want the subject to appear bright – it is white after all, so you have to take a little control to add brightness. On this occasion I only had to shift the exposure by about 1/2EV. Using the exposure compensation mode I dialled in +1/2EV – but you can as easily do this in manual exposure mode and open the aperture to over expose by ½ a stop. 

Uprights

A scene like this, which relies on its simplicity, requires that you allow the viewer to appreciate the shapes and tones unhindered by distractions. Firstly make sure that are no annoying, eye grabbing, objects in the scene – a cigarette end, a bit of litter or a person for example. Next, make sure you are not creating any visual distractions, such as sloping horizons, converging verticals and lines that are simply not level. You can’t just point and shoot; there needs to be a few moments devoted to ensuring the camera is straight and level. This doesn’t take much effort, but it will make the difference between a pleasing shot and one that does not convey your message.  

After effects – software manipulation

The key to the success of this image is its simplicity, soft contrast, neutral muted colours and smooth tonality. So long as the white balance – I shot this on the ‘daylight’ setting – was about right in-camera there shouldn’t be too much you’ll need to do to the picture in software. I opened this frame and looked for a while, itching to do something to it. I tried a few things and messed about a bit before I realised that what I really needed to do was to leave it alone. So, I did. 

Pentax K10D, smc Pentax DA-70mm f/2.4 limited edition lens at f/2.4 and 1/2000sec, ISO 400. 

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simple-compositions

The shot looks very nice in black and white too

The shot looks very nice in black and white too

Low angles – Crane Fly

Crane FlyThis is a fairly simple idea for making macro or close-up shots more interesting and more unusual. I know I have spent ages in the past trying to get close to bugs and insects to show just how ‘macro’ I can get. In the end though I often created pictures that were only interesting from the point of view of being close to a small object – rather than pictures that are visually stimulating in their own right.

For this shot I didn’t get as close as I could, but concentrated instead on getting a nice picture. Using this low angle I was able to create a brilliant blue background using the sky. It also makes the shot striking in the first instance because we are not used to seeing Daddy Long Legs from this angle. Looking up at the subject in this way the viewer gets the impression that the insect is a giant – its a bit War of the Worlds.

On this occasion I set the camera to aperture priority mode and was able to shoot away without needing any exposure compensation. If the sky had been any brighter or darker I may well have needed to adjust the exposure by half a stop or so. Shooting with ISO 400 might not be best for ultimate picture quality, but it allowed me to combine a small aperture, for extensive depth of field, with the short shutter speed I needed to combat the effect of the wind blowing the flowers around.

On balance it’s better to accept some image noise to create a sharp image. Had I shot at ISO 100, for example, I would have been forced to use a shutter speed of 1/125sec – which would not have been short enough to freeze the movement of the subject. The shot didn’t need any post capture work, other than to add the touch of Unsharp Mask that all digital files require.

The camera I used was a compact with a flip-out articulated screen so it was easy for me to shot from this low angle and still see what I was going to get. I have shot the same sort of thing with other models as well though, without the flexibility of this type of screen – you just have to rely on guess-work and shoot a few more pictures to get the result you are looking for.

Shot with an Olympus Camedia C7070WZ – exposure 1/500sec at f/11. ISO 400 with the zoom set to the equivalent of 55mm.

Kauser Angle FinderIf you use a DSLR, or a film SLR, and don’t have a flip-out vari-angle screen like the C7070WZ has you could use an angle finder like the one shown here. This makes it easier to see through the lens when in awkward positions. Many camera manufacturers have their own units, but this one, sold through Kauser International, is designed to fit many different cameras via adapters.

To see more of my pictures visit my galleries at www.damiendemolder.com

To see more of my pictures
visit my photo galleries site
at www.damiendemolder.com

Crane Fly. Damien Demolder