Monthly Archives: February 2011

Pub Photography

College projects are beckoning again. Among them a brief where we need to portray a business. And what really interests me is my local, Dublin landmark pub Toner’s in Baggot Street. Ha, yeah, you’ve got my priorities… It is a beautiful old pub, with a wonderful mix of clientele, friendly proprietors and many photoworthy corners. I have never taken pictures in a pub properly, so here is an opportunity to finally get the shots of the old geezers snoozing over their pints of Guinness.

This all came to me as I was walking past Toner’s back home the other day. And then I thought – why don’t I do it now? I have time, I have the camera on me. And I need to start projects asap if I want to avoid a similar end-of-semester panic as last semester. “What’s keeping you, Sonja?” “Um, I have to ask permission, that’s what’s keeping me!” “All that can happen is rejection!”

So around I turned and down I went again, into the pub. It was quiet and empty, only a few people in there, a slow Saturday mid-afternoon. And of course there was no rejection. I didn’t even have to launch into the whole spiel about “my favourite pub… local… drink here often… photography student… project…”. I got as far as “This is my local, would you mind if I took some pictures…”, and the barman said “Ah sure, go ahead!” I suspect he thought “the tourist is gonna pull out her little compact and snap a couple of shots.” Little did he know – he had me in there for half an hour, climbing chairs and crouching in corners, shooting from all angles.

Anyway, I set ISO at 6400 and shot away. And of course, noone objected, everybody looked unconcerned, largely ignoring the silly camera-wielding eejit who was crawling around on the floor and standing on benches to shoot across the room.

Quiet afternoon in Toner’s

I am quite happy with this first try: The ambient light images catch the muted light and atmosphere in the pub. The fact that it was empty in there may not be good if using these shots for commercial purposes – a pub needs to be shown busy and full of happy drinkers. On the other hand, I want to show that the pub is an old original – too many people in there obscure the view of the original panelling, mirrors and tiles.

Well, I have certainly learned one thing from last semester’s project: You don’t expect to shoot a project on one afternoon. You acquaint yourself with your object/subject and return several times, shooting again and again to get all the various facets of the business on film sensor. So I will be back a few more times. And I can say that this has again given me a bit more confidence to rise to the challenge and ask people for cooperation. It’s not that hard.

(Not) again, please

Let’s think a bit further than my own box camera today. I nipped into Dublin’s Gallery of Photography yesterday where I looked at an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s photos, entitled “Worlds of Colour“. Having travelled to some far-flung places and loved the colourful ethnic garb there, I was especiall interested to see what McCurry has produced. My photo of the beautiful Namibian basket seller does not reach his masterful portraits at all, but below is my attempt at a proper exhibition review.

Ovambo Woman

A picture can become synonymous with a name. Usually this will be the name of a person who is identified with an evocative portrait of him- or herself, maybe an actress in her most famous role. With photographers it is usually the other way round – their images of another person becomes a placeholder for their name. Rarely do we know the face of the photographer but we associate him with one of his portraits. And there are many photographers whom we associate with their most famous shot. Dorothea Lange and the “Migrant Mother”, Man Ray and the “Tears”, Alberto Korda and “Che Guevara”. Or Steve McCurry and the “Afghan Girl”. 
Arguably the most famous (photographic) portrait of all time, the “Afghan Girl” features in the current exhibition of Steve McCurry’s colour photography in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, too. The world loves a good story, and the fact that McCurry went back 17 years after shooting a young refugee girl to search for, find and re-photograph the grown-up Sharbat Gula satisfies the public’s curiosity over the girl’s fate. And even better that it turns out a happy ending – Sharbat survived war and refugee life.
Nonetheless, the drama of the circumstances and the soppiness of the story is that little bit too distracting for this reviewer. Surely we have seen the image countless times, do we need to see it yet again in yet another Steve McCurry-fest? It overshadows some of his other great work.
McCurry’s images are displayed in the blacked-out gallery in varying sizes, framed and mounted, and hung on the white wall. An extra display wall was erected in the middle of the main exhibition area of the Gallery of Photography in order to get more hanging space and show more from McCurry’s archive.
Curated by Darragh Shanahan, the exhibition, eponymously titled “Worlds of Colour”, focuses on McCurry’s colour documentary photographs. Travelling all over the world, images from Afghanistan, Tibet, Peru, India etc. are presented in the exhibition. They all feature strong colour references, even in the few images that seem not particularly colourful at first sight. The “Miner Smoking”, for instance, initially feels rather monochrome, the black coaldust in the miner’s face, his dirty hands, the dark shirt. Colour is subtle in this photograph, but it is there – in the miner’s brown eyes, the faintly yellow light on his helmet and the pink-brown bit of clean skin underneath his collar. The hardship of the hard physical labour is etched into the man’s face. The lines on his forehead speak volumes, as do the bitten-to-the-quick, black fingernails. Despite this having been taken near a coal mine in Afghanistan, the image allows representation for miners of all races in all parts in the world – his ethnic origin is “buried” under the coaldust.
While some photography reviewers see this “representativeness” of McCurry’s portraits as a congenial part of the effectiveness of his images, some critics have also rightfully pointed out, that McCurry has a knack for choosing such subjects which will appeal to his (mainly) Western audience. The aforementioned “Afghan Girl” is a case in point – striking green eyes and brown hair which would both not be unusual anywhere in Europe.
And yes, McCurry has an eye for the beautiful, the aesthetic, the colourfully striking subject. His sitters in their ethnic costumes are a feast to the eyes, as are his images taken in India, such as the women huddling in a sandstorm, the boy running away from the camera around a corner or the participants of a Holi ritual in Rajasthan. His composition is flawless (if sometimes a little bit too predictable – viewers nowadays certainly can deal with asymmetrical arrangements…), and the release of his shutter always comes at the right time to also record emotion and personality in his sitters’ faces. Whether in his earlier film photography or in his contemporary digital format, McCurry records the (colourful) life of his subjects clearly and focused.
So a look at Steve McCurry’s images on display in Dublin is a must for anyone interested in photography. There is more to McCurry than the one image that he is most famous for – even if that has been chosen for the poster of the Dublin exhibition. Again.

Let’s wing it!

Night photography is a special challenge: In order to get clear skies you need to find a spot without light spills from big city illuminations. As there is so little light, your exposure times will be extra long and you need a proper tripod to keep your camera still. And if you are as mad as me and my friend-in-photography A___ and attempt night photography in winter, you will also need some thermal underwear!!!

No kidding, people. We nearly froze our arses digits off on this little shoot that we undertook a couple of nights ago. First it took us a while driving out of Dublin to get to a spot where the night sky wasn’t bright orange. 15 minutes of hairpin bending on small country lanes, and we found a dark motorway bridge from which we could attempt our experiments with car trail photography.

Did I mention that I am a believer in the “Let’s wing it”-school of photography? That night was another example. Well, my function on the shoot was as assistant and company, so there was no pressure on me to get any particularly presentable results. Nonetheless, in hindsight, I could’ve thought about the shoot a bit more and prepared myself properly. As it was, I went along and only had my camera with me – no tripod, remote shutter release or any other indispensable accessory to night photography. I was thoroughly impressed with my companion who was properly kitted out and therefore got some pretty good results.

Well, as I was there, I decided to try catch some car trails, too. And it is amazing what a steady hand and a bridge railing can do for you. The above image, ISO 1600 of course (grain, grain, grain), large aperture (f 4.0) and long exposure (1,3 secs), was shot balancing marky Mark from the railings, pointing it at the motorway below me. I love how the ghostly headlights just appear out of nowhere and light up the road ahead. Aiming just for one passing car, I was able to create the impression of an invisible car that is shining its headlights. The white lines are the trails of the headlights, of course.

We messed around on the bridge for about an hour and a half. Focussing the camera was the hardest part. Much of the (good) results owe to fluke and luck. And manipulating the camera in the dark was a bit messy, too. It’s all very well that there is a display on the camera that you can use for setting the settings, but finding the interfaces for remotes etc is mere guesswork. So lesson of the day night: Get the camera out in a dark room at home and try some manual setting, familiarising yourself where the various little buttons are. Could come in handy if you try a night shoot.

Alternatively bring a torch. *doh*


Blogs are slightly exhibitionist in nature. Written from a very personal point of view by the owner, blogs represent the opinions, likes and dislikes of their writer. He or she determines the nature and the overall impression through the style and contents of the posts and has full control over the “image” that is created. Photographic (self-)portraits are the graphic equivalent to a written post, I suppose.

A self-portrait – so here I had full control over the image, thank Scott!

This control over an image is what interests me – after an interesting recent experience. Strictly speaking, the rights to a photograph belong to the photographer, no matter what. He has created the image, has directed the shoot and has told the sitter how to pose. He has literally “made” the picture. In an ideal setting, he has also got a signed model release form which entitles him to publish the photo as he sees fit. For your sitter that means that they have no say in how the photographer digitally enhances the image. Strictly speaking, the photographers could do what they want with it – within the parameters of what is morally acceptable, of course ;-).

But that is where the warped human sense of self comes in. We always see ourselves much different from how others see us. And we may not be enamoured by a representation that another has created of us. That is a crux I experienced recently. And something that I had to learn the hard way when I sat for a friend and was unsure about the resulting pics. It took me a while to come round to seeing the picture only as a momentuous view, or one potential facet of the larger complexes complexity that is me. The whole episode was quite instructive for me – from both the photographer’s point of view who had to deal with an overly sensitive sitter, and from the sitter’s point of view who had to accept the complete lack of control over the final image.

The aptly named upshot of the matter is: Do not shoot ladies from below. No, kidding, that isn’t it. The conclusion is that it helps to discuss with your sitter that the image rights are yours, that you may be putting it through a post-production process that may change the look and feel of the image/sitter – and that there is no personal comment intended in that. Oh, and it helps if you are nice, too!

Happy Valentine’s Day

Let’s be topical. It’s Valentine’s Day today. Not that I take much notice of it. Just another artificial holiday for Hallmark to sell more cards. Or could it be that I am the most unromantic woman ever? Well, I’ll give you a Valentine’s pic, though.

Prince Lionheart

This is another example of some Photoshop-ping. Apart from cropping the image and hiding some nasty lines of the wall, I also had to clean up the lion. Eagle eyes can probably spot where I used the clone stamp tool. Some silly eejit racist had written the words “jew” onto the lions leg. Whatever for, I do not know, but it ruined the image. Graffiti is a nice photo subject, but not if it is offensive and criminal. And so I “rubbed” the word out of the image.

It’s truly great what you can do with PS. (And what I am capable of doing is only the tip of the iceberg.) We learned a few tricks in college last year, but I have to say that I draw the line at beautifying the people whom I photograph. Well, ok, I’d probably mercifully and graciously delete a nasty red zit from their face, but I wouldn’t turn a frown into a smile or rub out a permanent mole or even out the freckles. It’s all part of the sitter’s look and personality. Beautifying is sanitising and altering beyond recognition. Purist, me? Yeah. How far would you go, though?

Right, then, if you are off to your Valentine’s dinner tonight, have fun – surely looooads of interesting conversations to eavesdrop on, considering that you’ll be sitting on someone else’s lap the way they are cramming the tables on a night like this. And don’t go too far, kids!!!

PS, I’m Beginning to Love You

Never thought I would feel this, let alone write this. I am beginning to get into Photoshop. *shock horror* Maybe my dislike for it is really a deeply rooted fear that I might just not be able to get my head around the tool? There’s nothing to it but trying. I have messed around a bit with calculations and present you with another shot from last weekend’s fetish shoot.

Maybe I should have kept the Manhattan in the glass red. On the other hand, I find those partially coloured images kind of corny. In any case, I like the shot in b/w for a change. A red sofa is just a little bit too cheerful for a shot of this type.
On the subject of “this type of photography”: No sooner had I uploaded a couple of close-ups of the heels onto Flickr, I received immediate reactions to them in my stream – from people with rather evocative aliases and avatars. Hm. What is it with heels? They are just shoes!!! 
Back to PS. As there are about 360 shots to go through, there will be quite a pool of images to practice PS on. I am starting with the basics again – as you do when you only use PS once in a blue movie… eh… moon. (Sorry, Dr Freud, the context here is making my attention slip.) Cropping, levels, curves, calculations. I think I will have to dig out my notes from first year in college to remember everything we learned about enhancing photos. If you have any pointers – welcome!

Red Rubber and Zimmer Frames

Since I have started doing photography on a more serious, formal level (studying it at college level etc.), I find myself constantly pushed to explore new techniques, topics and genres. Along the way I have met some pretty cool and interesting people – my fellow class mates of course – but also the people who have been gracious and kind enough to be my sitters. One of them is on the way of becoming my inofficial muse. S___ suggested a shoot for last weekend, and it was yet another highly intense yet valuable learning experience. Not least because the theme of the shoot was “pin-up”, veering into fetish photography.

I had never been very au fait with erotic photography (despite in my previous life working in a job where I had to review erotica and worse almost on a daily basis), so this project was virgin soil for myself. It is, of course, great when you work with sitters who have had previous experience on photo shoots. This was the case with S___ and M___ whom I photographed yesterday. It helps, too, when the models are friendly, open minded people who enjoy a chat, have few inhibitions and don’t mind a wait while the greenhorn photographer gets her own prudish embarrassments settings right.

The theme for the shoot had been set by my sitters. They wanted to be photographed in rubber dresses and high heels. I quickly found myself drawn towards the aesthetics of shiny latex and sky-high heels as these translate so easily and dramatically well into photographs. Indeed, even half way into the shoot, the ladies stated that I obviously have a shoe fetish, just based on the amount of close-ups I was taking of the heels –  from all angles and perspectives. (Pssst – I have never even attempted to stand on anything higher than 2 cm. How I would deal with 8 inch platforms, I cannot imagine. I would most definitely need a zimmer frame to get around, so that would probably cancel out the erotic fantasy.)

The reflective rubber, made even shinier by a special oil that is rubbed in for photo shoots (!!), proved less challenging than I thought. I worked with only one light in the shoot, leaving the softbox on throughout. The result was a soft illumination of the skin and faces of the ladies, while still giving a nice, punchy catchlight on the rubber. And red is such an attractive colour to photograph. Whatever it is about red, it gives an image an instant ooomph, I think. With 360 images taken, I have my work cut out for me now to edit and post-produce them – not really my main interest when it comes to photography, but an inescapable part of the photographer’s job nowadays.

Anyhow, loved it, and particularly the heels. Oh and by the way: if there is anybody out there with a zimmer frame fetish – please get in touch! :-))