May 27, 2006

Making an image Part I

Filed under: Technical posts — Tony Bridge @ 4:53 pm

Kia ora tatou:

A number of you sent in comments pointing out how you like looking at the images I make with one or two suggestions that I talk about how I go about doing so.
Blush. Gulp. Well OK.
Assuming that, I will put up a few of my own and talk about what went on in my head. If that enlightens, wonderful. If I get recommendations of how to contact a suitable psychologist, so be it.

As a number of you know, I like to photograph the street at night, to walk around shooting what comes to me or reflects what my picture-making concerns happen to be at the time.
I did a body of work (what a pompous description) on the Christchurch streets about 4 years ago for my PSNZ fellowship. Actually I did it for me- the fellow thing came to me only later. I was fascinated by a number of things;

  • How close I could get to the action without affecting it ( a variation on Heisenberg’s Law)
  • The effect on film of artificial lighting and the idea of recording what the eye sees before the brain filters it
  • Life as it happened
  • Social mores and interactions

I beavered away at it for about a year, until one night, I shot an image of some women on a Girls’-Night-Out. As I pressed the shutter, I knew that series was done. I rattled off the film and sent it in for processing. It sometimes happens that way. I remember David Hurn telling us that it was important to know when a project was over.
The issues I had worked with were settled to my own satisfaction. However unlikely it might appear in the finished image, it is impossible not to affect the image in some way. Heisenberg was right. Observation of an event changes both observer and observed.
And then I walked away.

But I kept going back. I was still drawn by the colours, the noise (music, traffic, voices) and the way in which Christchurch, a staid Jekyll by day, turns into an amoral Hyde by night. I became interested in how my digital cameras would see the scene.
And then I started looking in the shop windows. I noticed the mannequins looking out the windows, and the way in which the reflections enabled me to look simultaneously into and out of the scene. I began to imagine that they might be alive, constrained witnesses to the arcane ritual of the street, thinking their own thoughts, participants without a voice.
And the layers of light that spattered them, sometimes leading my eye away, sometimes adding extra chapters to a surreal story. A kind of metaphor for Life and all its apparently disparate threads.

To this image then.

Fast forward to one Friday night, around 10 pm. These 2 girls were in the window of J. Ballantyne & Co., a wonderfully blue-rinse shop in central Christchurch. I made the image almost subconsciously, along with about 20 variations. It was only when I was later editing it that began to nudge me. The supplicant positions of the mannequins somehow suggest a ritual or conversation.
What it is about I have no idea. But there is room in it for me to invent all sorts of stories, all manner of possibilities.
Its open-endedness makes me keep coming back to it.

Oh yes, the gory details:
Canon EOS 1Ds Mk II, 16-35/2.8 lens, RAW, ISO @ 1600, WB set to Daylight (I leave it there all the time since I shoot RAW and I want to see things as they are), Program mode (‘Cause I want to make photographs, not fiddle around with my controls).

Ka kite ano


May 21, 2006

The Art of Seeing Part IV-practising your scales

Filed under: Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 12:48 pm

Warning: yet another heavy-duty Post!!

Kia ora tatou:

A lot of years ago, my mother decided it would be good for me to learn the piano. So she sent me along to Mrs. X, a woman of (it seemed to me at the time) fearsomely advanced years. For a year or so we suffered each other. She would snarl at me, and I would wonder if she was on holiday from Dachau.
Each week I would (reluctantly) show up to demonstrate my (remarkable) lack of progress; each week she would admonish me for my bad hand position by giving me a clip over the knuckles with a brass-edged ruler. Then she would send me home to practice my scales, which I always avoided wherever possible. There was inevitably something much more important to do.
My sister, who was learning from her as well, practised assiduously each night. Curiously enough she got very good at playing the piano. And I did not. Playing Chopsticks was about my lot. After a year or so, my mother decided I should cut my losses and move onto show jumping…

You may be wondering about the point of this post. Well, read on.

Somewhere in The Art of Seeing Part III, I talked about Closing the Gap and the importance of scene analysis. I suggested ACE as an acronym to help you develop a methodology for approaching a photograph. This is a system that can produce a more systematic structure to the decision-making involved in every photograph. It is easier to do with landscape photography (although that requires as acute a sense of time and place as any other form of photography) than perhaps sports or documentary photography, both of which require split-second decisions. So this is a good place to develop the habit. Practice it enough and it will become second nature. As any martial artist will tell you, it takes at least 300 repetitions of a kata (a kind of ritualised pattern containing a variety of specific techniques and combinations) before it begins to reach the subconscious and become second nature.

As Bruce Lee once said:” if you think, you are dead.”
Nobody is suggesting that you should use your trusty 350D for hand-to-hand combat, but the principle is the same. The more you practise, the more instinctual everything will become. And great photographers are always practising. The more you do it, the better you will get. If you can discipline yourself to make at least 10 images every day, you will be amazed at how quickly you progress. If you play a musical instrument (I play a really mean car stereo), you know what I am talking about. If you ever took piano lessons and remember doing scales (a form of torture for me) then you understand. Photography is no different.

Q. What is the way to Carnegie Hall?
A. Practice, John, practice.

Now it is time to talk about the vexing question of composition, or design of a photograph. Remember that we have only two decisions to make in photography: where to stand, and when to push the button (David Hurn/Magnum). Essentially composition is about structure, and a natural follow-on from scene analysis. To start gripping onto this, it is important to remember what you are looking at:

A series of lines, patterns, forms, structures, etc. reflected onto a ground glass.

Take your eye slightly away from the viewfinder and defocus a little and you will see what I mean. By doing so you are able to become a little more objective and look dispassionately at what it is you are photographing. This is important if you are to develop a sense of design.

I can hear voices saying: but what about those people who seem to have a natural sense of design? True, but I wouldn’t mind betting it is something they have been doing since childhood, and a good sense of design comes from constant practice. If you spend every day looking at how things are designed and the design elements in what is in front of you because you love it and that is what you do, then of course you will become design-oriented.

Practice, John, practice.

I can hear one or two of you saying: so when is he going to tell us a few secrets of how to be better at composition? What about a few rules?

I wouldn’t be that disrespectful. And you are in the wrong place.
There are any number of books that will give you “the rules”. Better still; go to your local camera club. You will find plenty of people with firmly held views on where subject matter should be placed in a photograph…

What I can suggest is that you take images you like and analyse them. If you don’t think much of your own, then find ones you like by ‘Big Names’ and analyse them.
If you have taken the hint and got yourself a visual diary, then you may be wondering what to do with it. Here is a suggestion.

At the top of this post is my Homage to Alfred and Georgia photograph (taken incidentally in the Wairarapa!). At the top is the original.
Next down you will see where I have drawn (rather badly) over the top of it in PhotoShop. Hint: it’s a lot easier with a pen. I have broken it down into its composite primary shapes. The sky and hills form one significant rectangle. The grass and the fence down form a smaller but still significant rectangle. Because the sky was so dominant, I gave it greater weighting. It also contains less information, so it needs more space to compete.
Over the top of that is the rectangle formed by the pergola-thingy. As you will see, I have allowed it a little less than 50% of the horizontal picture space to give the eye a bit of a chance to hop round to the left.
The final significant shapes are the two downward-pointing triangles formed by the skulls. Although they occupy a small part of the picture space, they are dominant because they are well to the front of the photograph.
True, there are a lot of smaller secondary elements, which are important as well, but it is the arrangement of the primary elements that is of greatest significance.

Did I consciously think of all this at the time?

No, not really.

Because I practise my scales.

The point here is that post-analysis is a bit like practising your scales. Take your images, print them out, stick them in your visual diary, then do the analysis exercise I suggested above.

You may be amazed at how quickly this informs the way you apporioach a photograph out in the field.

Ka kite ano

The Art of Seeing part III-Closing the gap

Filed under: Thinking about Photography and Art — Tony Bridge @ 12:20 pm

Warning: another heavy-duty Post!!

Kia ora tatou:

Enough of the gear-involved posts. It is time to get serious again. I had the recent joy of spending some time with a student and going out photographing with him. At some point he asked me a question about what he should be looking for. A fair and valid question, since that uncertainty usually clouds our approach to making an image. If we don’t know what we are looking for, then the result will be confused at worst, derivative at best. I would like to take the opportunity to talk about this. For a time I would have said: “it’s all about design”.
Well it is and it isn’t.
And like all worthwhile journeys, the path to better photography(whatever that may mean) one comes with big, deep potholes which we can fall into. They are very hard to climb out of. So I would like to suggest some guidelines.

The first thing to realise about photography is the disparity between how our camera sees and how we see. Let’s recap: you see with your mind, not your eyes, which only feed raw data to the brain. We see what we want to see, or what we have learned to see.
Potholes. Habits. Visual laziness.

We focus on what is of interest to us, and our brain discards or reduces the significance, both visually and therefore psychologically, of what we are looking at. If we see our true love for the first time across a crowded room (barf), then our chemically altered perceptions immediately block out all the other people in the room. Our psychological zoom lens kicks in. We have edited the scene.
We do this all the time.

Another example. Last week I was crossing on the back road from National Park to Turangi after a lovely dinner in Kakahi. It was around midnight, and a full moon. The southerly storms that had blown through had lowered the snow down to the bushline. In the moonlight Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngaurahoe glowed with a ghostly purple-white intensity. The ski lodges with their low-Kelvin lighting marched up the sides of the mountain and made it seem as if I was staring at castles from some fairy-tale. It was ethereal and otherworldly.

My photographer’s acquisitive instinct told me to stop and make a photograph. So I pulled up and got out. Then I began to analyse the scene, the proportions of the subject matter in the scene, the potential design problems, which lens to use, exposure issues and whether it would work.
A.C.E. Analysis; Composition; Exposure.

Then I realised the foreground was wrong, that all I had was a thin band of subject matter, and that it couldn’t work. I was too far away. If I went closer, the left-to-right spread would be too far. It just wasn’t going to happen. The issue here was my mind, which was in Maximum Selective Edit mode. Only when I took the time to work through the issues did it become clear that the disparity between my brain and what my equipment had to offer was uncrossable.

Somebody once said that the trick is not knowing when to make the photograph; it is knowing when not to make the photograph. This was one of those times. So I made a photograph in my mind and drove on. I still have that image and I have replayed it almost daily.

You see, it seems to me that to make better photographs, you need to understand your camera fully. No, I am not talking about knowing which knobs, dials and buttons to push. I mean closing the gap between what the camera sees and what you do.

The fundamental thing to understand is that your camera sees impartially. It records all that is framed and accords it importance according to the proportion of the frame that it occupies. Thus, if that lone tree in the distance occupies 1.5% of the framed area, then it will occupy 1.5% of the finished picture space. That gives it minimal visual significance unless it has something to give it greater visual (sic: psychological) weight. A flock of psychotic vultures or a werewolf next to it could do that, especially if it is the only tree on a largely empty picture space. Then it assumes greater visual weight. This is why so many images that we thought would be fantastic often turn out to be disappointing. We haven’t yet learned to close the gap.
So how do we do this?

A.C.E. Analysis. Composition. Exposure.

Analyse your scene. Start by looking at it without the camera. Roam around it (visually), noting things of importance to you. Ask yourself what you want to keep, what you could live without. Is the space expansive or confined? Do you want the whole scene or just a part? If the latter, then you may be looking at a longer focal length to extract that portion of the scene. Do you want to accentuate space? Perhaps a wider angle would work here.

Now get out your camera, put on the lens you thought about and work the scene through the viewfinder. Preferably use a tripod. It slows you down and makes you think. When you decide you have it framed, step away and look at the scene.
Now come back to the viewfinder and run your eye around the frame, noting the relative size of the objects in it and whether the object that caught you attention has any visual competition. If so, you may need to reframe to make a clearer statement. If you have a grid screen facility, turn it on. This can be a big help for scene analysis. It forces you to see what is really there; a series of shapes, lines, patterns, shadows and other design elements on a piece of glass.
If you are digital, then shoot a frame and analyse it on the LCD. Does it look the same as what you are seeing through the viewfinder? Surprisingly it may appear quite different. The proportions may look other than what you are seeing in the viewfinder.

Closing the gap.

Change lens, change position, change whatever. But keep working at it, chimping as you go.

Great images all have to be worked for. And they demand your respect.
Shoot and change. Shoot and change.
If you keep working on that one idea, shooting a lot and moving in closer, you will begin to drill down to what really attracted you in the first place.

Take time and make lots of photographs.
And close the gap.

Ka kite ano

May 15, 2006

It’s a Lensbaby, Baby

Filed under: Technical posts — Tony Bridge @ 8:55 pm

Kia ora tatou:
Somewhere back in the pile of posts in this blog is one about the importance of play, of being willing to step outside the square and just try stuff. Easy to do with digital. There is no cost to speak of. It certainly worked for people like Picasso and Braques.
But sometimes as a photographer you need a bit of a helping hand. It is really easy to get inside the square and become walled up in it, and keep on churning out the same old, same old. Sometimes you need to be willing to have a play at something that is really challenging or just plain silly, to have fun (no, the two can be synonymous).
Enter the Lensbaby.

How to describe it? Well, it is a superb piece of ….um… design.. It flops all over the place; it looks ridiculous attached to the front of a 1-series Canon or high-end Nikon; it requires a certain prehensil-ity of technique to operate…

And it is fun. Essentially it is an infinitely flexible PC ( Perspective Correction) lens. You push it in and out to focus, and tilt/twist/tweak/ it to shift the point of focus. If you want to change apertures, you slip out the ring and pop in the one of your choice, up to f/8. The lens comes with instructions on how to use it, and a guide to calculating exposure,which requires a little experimentation to get the exposure right if you are using film. If you are digital, then it is easy. Shoot a test, read the histogram, then adjust accordingly.
Using a Lensbaby will attract instant ridicule from all your 400/2.8L-toting mates, until curiosity overcomes them, and they get their hands on it. Then they will go nuts, and laugh a lot while they play. You will probably not see it for days.

And be warned: getting it back WILL be difficult. Be prepared to have to prise it from their cold dead fingers.

As for price? Better than you would think. Around $NZ230 for the deluxe f2.0 version. It is well-made, and quite complete.

Many thanks to Mark Cosgrove for the image at the top of this post. Believe it or not, it is a shot of vegetables in his basket.
And yes, his fingers are warm and fully-functional.

Ka kite ano

Volker Speaks!

Filed under: Technical posts — Tony Bridge @ 8:27 pm

Kia ora tatou:
I love it when people send in comments. ( Have confidence-make your comment attached to a post). I received this one from Volker, who has forgotten more about IT than I will ever know. There is only one thing about him I find quite insufferable-he is always right! So when he sent me this email, I thought it worth posting.

Had a look at your blog again – always good reading. Some technical issues need updating though: formatting a memory card will most definitely not wipe everything off it. It will only mark the directories empty. It’s equivalent to a quick format on your hard drive – wipes nothing, only puts an empty directory on. To really wipe the card, you have to overwrite each block with zeros. A one-liner in Linux, no fancy Lexar Image Rescue(TM) needed. Verbatim CDs are indeed among the best quality one can buy (unfortunately the better stuff went off-market years ago), and the cost is them, but if you go to the Warehouse, it’s your own fault. (I like When naming files, it’s a good idea to use the date (though I put it into the directories above). It is however essential to use a Japanese date format – YYYYMMDD. Why? When sorted alphabetically, bingo – sorted by time. I’ve been using Bibble heavily the last 2 weeks, doing up a wedding, our West Coast holiday, and a few things afterwards. Great program, a bit buggy in places though. And that “Perfectly Clear(TM)” is an absolut w*&k, as well as doing everything to destroy my images (Bibble 4.7). I’d buy it, but pity they don’t want to talk to me – no contact email address, no bug reporting-Hey those wallies don’t even collect suggestions. Well, nowhere to send them to. D’OH!
He went on to ask which RAW convereters I recommend. Well, ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) is excellent. Pixmantec RawShooter is outstanding. But Adobe Lightroom kicks them all into a cocked hat. I am itching to get the PC version when it is released!
Ka kite ano

May 7, 2006

The ultimate camera tech?

Filed under: Technical posts — Tony Bridge @ 7:27 am

Kia ora tatou:
As the man said, it’s a hard road finding the perfect camera tech, son, especially when you need to get your sensor cleaned. But there is a solution at hand, especially if you live in Christchurch.
I have heard a lot of horror stories about sensor cleaning. People using tissues, spit, blower brushes (and using the brush bit). Well, in a word, don’t.
If you own a digital SLR, your sensor will need to be cleaned at some point- with one exception, the Olympus SLRs, which have an inbuilt ultrasonic cleaning device. The rest of us will need to do at some point. You can minimise dust build-up by switching the camera off when changing lenses, which discharges the sensor, and doing so with your back to the wind.
So how do you know when it is time to clean the sensor? Large areas of clear blue sky are classic areas where it is obvious. Enlarge your file to 100% and scroll around, looking for those telltale areas of blobby tone. There is a better way. Go outside; shoot an area of clear blue sky with the focus at infinity. Then open it and apply auto levels. Hey presto! (It’s not a bad way of seeing dead pixels either, and a good way of checking the sensor on that second-hand SLR you may be thinking of buying.)
If you are going to do it yourself, then a few guidelines are in order.
Use a proprietary sensor-cleaning device, such as a SensorBrush (available on the Net). You can read about them here. Do not use any old brush.
Before you begin, RTFM (read the friendly manual). Most digital SLRs have a special setting for cleaning. I am told that Nikons need a special accessory power adaptor. Nikonnnies help me out here. This opens the shutter and locks the mirror up. If you must use your battery pack, make sure it is fully-charged.
DO NOT USE ‘B’ or ‘T’. This is not the same thing. The sensor-cleaning setting desensitises the sensor and discharges it. Using B/T has been known to cause scarring on the sensor.
If this scares you, then don’t go there. I know I would rather have an expert in there, for the same reason I take my truck to a mechanic to be serviced. They know what they are doing. There is a reason why they spent 3 years learning to do it. So what is the answer?
Take your camera to a competent technician. And, curiously enough, I happen to know of one I highly recommend.
Enter Hayden Marshall. He used to be a camera technician for H.E Perry, the Olympus/Bronica/Bowens/ Ilford agents. Now he works in Papanui from his home.
And does he know his stuff! He showed me the ex-20D he has restored to fully functional, and the Canon FD (that’s manual focus) lenses he has converted to run in an EOS AF mount. He did this by turning custom mounts on a lathe and then mounting them on the base of the lens.
He has been servicing my gear for the last 6 months or so. He picked up a nasty little fault in my 24-70/2.8L, which would have made life difficult indeed. The focus was a little stiff and the lens barrel was catching a little. He spotted it, found the screws that had dropped into the guts of the lens, repaired, cleaned and reassembled the lens for a really reasonable price. That’s what I call service!
He does manual and AF cameras, studio flash, you name it. And he is really reasonable.
And he is a secret I am happy to spill. You can phone him on +64 3 352 6737 or +64 21 264 0633. You can even email him
Ka kite ano

May 1, 2006


Filed under: Something different — Tony Bridge @ 6:36 am

Kia ora tatou:

The portrait is one of the oldest genres in
photography. You may be interested to know that, while recording the landscape was the reason photography came into being as a technology, the portrait was the economic engine that drove its development. When people realised that they no longer had to find a (very expensive) professional painter to have their portrait done, that it was now affordable, they flocked in their droves to the nearest professional photographer, to have their likeness recorded. For the first time in human history, it was possible to have an accurate record of themselves and their lives. Needless to say, average portrait painters went out of business overnight.

The portrait is somewhat of a fraught area. It carries a lot of baggage, both social and historical. In addition, there is the issue of photographing another human being. An insensitive and are un-aware approach can do a lot of damage. When we make portraits, we have immense power; the power to make our subjects feel good about themselves, or the power to destroy. Portrait photography is not an area for the psychologically jackbooted.

No wonder so few of us like having our “photo taken”…

Which brings me to the point of this post.

I had the singular honour of mentoring Virginia, as she produced a body of work for an exhibition and later for her associateship. Virginia is one of those wonderful people who is interested in everything, but especially the human condition. Her life has been a road containing more than its fair share of potholes, but she remains deeply interested in people and the lives of those around her. She is one of those wonderful human beings who are able to see beyond her own difficulties, take life by the throat and give it a really good shake. She has a real concern for others and an intuitive understanding of what makes people tick, not to mention a ferocious intellect and a razor-sharp wit. In other words, all of the things needed to make a fine portrait photographer.

In our initial discussions, she expressed interest in making photographs of the women in a dragon boat team with which she was involved. The thing that makes this group of women so special is that they have all survived breast cancer, and the psychological trauma of the disfigurement that so often goes with it. She wanted to photograph the women and show their courage and nobility, and perhaps give them a new way of looking at what had happened.

Virginia is one of those wonderful photographers who are idea-driven, so I taught her the basics of studio photography and loaned her a Mamiya C330 6×6. We felt that the formality of using a twin-lens reflex would give her photographs the right feel. We both agreed it had to be black-and-white. We also talked about shooting angle and the importance of correct camera positioning. Because she wanted to show her respect for his subjects, she chose a fractionally lower camera angle to demonstrate this.

Then she went to work.

From time to time, she would get in touch, and we would look through what she had done. I would suggest ways in which she might refine her technique or make slight adjustments to the lighting. From the start, there was no way I could or would comment on the content of the pictures she was showing me. They were and are so extraordinarily powerful, that I was moved every time I saw them. I still am.

Needless to stay, she completed the project, and has produced a series of images which bear testament both to her own talent and commitment, but as importantly, to the extraordinary courage and fortitude of the women she has photographed.

Something special has happened here.

Ka kite ano

Blog at