Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Revelation

Those of my readers who know me in RL know that  in a previous life I worked as a teacher. Up until now I was more than happy to have left that career behind me. Teaching itself was always fun – I particularly loved dealing with the 14- to 16-year-old age group. Puberty at its best – maybe I was so good at dealing with them because I never left that permanent state of awkwardness myself? In any case, when I left teaching, it was a relief – because I hated grading my pupils. It never felt right to me to discourage them with bad grades. Big Mummy Bear Sonja always wanted to encourage them with positive feedback. Not an option in a results-oriented environment like school.

So off I went, easing myself out of the business by moving my teaching activities to a third-level institution, then to a language instruction magazine and then into the world of marketing before I finally arrived in the realm of media and photography where I am now at my happiest. But who would have thought that a “blast back into the past” would prove to be such a fun, gratifying experience? 

I am just back from a day teaching. But not my dreary old, cerebral subjects of History and English Lit and Language, but — Photography!!! The job landed in my lap through sheer luck and I have loved every second of it. Turns out that this is actually a marriage of my hard-earned and studied skills of teaching and my passion for photography. And even though my students today were not necessarily interested in photography beyond its documentary value for their own area of expertise, I enjoyed passing on my knowledge in an appropriate, applied and meaningful way to them. What I got out of it – apart from an insight in my own talents and skills – was a large number of really brilliant photos that I produced together with my students and models – a class of make-up students in a third-level institution in Co. Dublin. The girls became most receptive to my instruction when I actually allowed them back into their comfort-zone – doing make-up – and then popped them in front of the camera to take some portfolio pics for them. 

Some of the girls were absolute naturals in front of the camera – playing around, cheekily posing and generally not being afraid to look funny. They were the best shots of the day. Like the one above – approprately wintery with the gloves and hat and an understated winter make-up (I suppose… what do *I* know about make-up…). This was a truly humanist experience, as if the Humbold brothers had written it up for me (See what I am doing here??? Yeah, showing off that I still know my history of teaching…). This is what teaching is supposed to do. Not just the passing on of knowledge from the instructor to the instructed, but a mutually beneficial interaction in which the instructor receives ideas, inspiration and insight from the students. I’d love to do it again – I would have never thought that I would ever say that…

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Candlelight Photography

I love candlelight. It is the one thing I really love about the dark season when you can light candles at 5 pm and enjoy the warmth and coziness it spreads. Maybe there’s something primeval about it – instinctively reminding us of the cave days? In any case, I love it and I like photographing it, too, but that has its challenges. That you need to turn off the flash and use a tripod goes without saying – you need to avoid drowning out the lovely yellow glow while also shooting as slow as possible.
Opening the aperture as wide as possible is probably the way to go. A fast lens would be ideal – anyone got a nice f1.4 prime? No, I don’t either. 

So other tips and tricks are needed. Here’s the obvious one: have more than one candle in the shot. That’s what I did when I produced this Xmas pic years ago. To be honest, it was a bit of a fluke – I just shot and the outcome was better than I had thought. Not ideal, though, because some of the challenges of candlelight photography were not met: the image is blurry. The meta data tells me (early on-set Alzheimer – I can’t remember any of this. Thank Canon for meta data) that I shot this at aperture priority with a shutter spead of 1/3 of a second (hence the blurrrrrrrrr) and an aperture of f 4.5 (as wide as my  Canon 350d would allow me) at 200 ISO. This was in 2005 – just before I copped on to manually setting the camera. *blushes* 

Purely by chance I worked out a couple of other tricks that help when shooting candles or candle- lit scenes. On a mission to produce a self-portrait for college I deliberately made the whole project harder for myself by deciding to picture myself in candlelight. (Underlying reason being, of course, that candlelight is supposed to be kinder to women if my age… Well, kindness doesn’t help much when you are working with an ugly mug, but anyway…) It just wouldn’t work, if I didn’t want to crank up the ISO to sky-high 25 million. Mind you, the resulting grain would probably also have been quite kind to my crows feet… Anyhow, turning around in my location I eventually figured that I could get twice the amount of candlelight in if I posed with le candle in front of a mirror. Tada!

Likewise, tip number 2 happened on the same occasion when I realized that even bare (pale) skin reflected more light into the camera than my usual artsy-fartsy black attire. Off it came and yes, it eventually worked (after about 500 unusable mugshots…). I suspect, the clever use of a white tablecloth or a reflector somewhere near would have done the trick, too.

So there you are. With the festive season soon upon us, it is the right moment to experiment with candle-lit photography. But remember kids: Don’t play with fire!

Passport Photo Problem

Best thing about being a photographer? Being able to create a picture in a matter of minutes. 
Hang on. Anybody can do that. 
Heck, everybody has a camerahone these days, so snapsnapsnap we go. So maybe I need to be a bit more specific in my statement here.
Best thing about being a photographer? Having access to the gear and studio that enables you to create a useable image in a matter of minutes. 

You would think. I was called by a professional body to whom I had applied for membership. All-clear – membership processed (yay) but could I quickly send through my passport photo, high-res colour version, please? Duh. Hard to believe, and even harder to admit for a photographer, but I didn’t have a decent passport pic of myself in digital format. Arrrrgh. Typical. But hang on. I have a camera with 21 m pixels. And I have a studio at my disposal, too. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have a resident assistant, though, because I am slightly struggling with the concept of putting myself into a passport pic while simultaneously releasing the shutter. Another self-portrait exercise? Oh no, please, no!
So instead the present house guest  was roped in. I only needed him to push the button, but as usual the shoot turned into an exercise in problem-solving. While the current studio set-up was perfect for a passport portrait – white backdrop and big octabank softbox – there was one problem: yours truly’s feckin’ glasses!!!! Whichever way I shoved them up and down my nose, angled my face away from the light, moved the softbox up and down – we always caught two rectangular green reflections on my specs! Graaaah! Even with 10 foot ceilings the massive softbox was too big and still caused shadows on one half of my face. Good thing there was also another daylight lamp in there that was smaller and thus allowed us to get shadowless light from above. And still I had to resort to kneeling down and force my shutter release pusher on his knees, too, to get a clean shot. And I had to offend marky Mark by letting the shutter release pusher shoot on automatic – cos it appeared to be too much of a multitask exercise to control autofocus, exposure and f-stop manually…
Half an hour later we had the shot in the bag. Jeepers, how was this ever done in analog times?? Best thing of being a photographer? It should be that you have looooads of photographer friends who will fulfill all your photographic needs as they arise! At my disposal, please! You know who you are!

Musings on Flickr

Anybody use flickr? I do. Frequently. But at this stage it has merely become an online photoalbum where I host the pictures which I later link into my blogposts. How mundane, when it all started so romantically…

I discovered flickr in early 2006 through two friends and immediately got hooked. Initially, I started out on the free flickr, but reached my limit after about a week. The Pro Account was the only solution, and certainly boosted my ego with its association of “serious photo buff”. Ha! *huffs* Seriously, though, I think, if it hadn’t been for flickr, I would not be where I am now with photography. When I started out, I was using a non-digital SLR (Canon eos) and an old, simple Olympus digital C-150. I had my SLR-photos on disc and so was able to load some stuff up. The response I had was so unexpected and good, that flickr had me enthralled. I had not expected to receive comments so quickly – well, I didn’t know how flickr worked, I suppose – and it became a major motivation to take photos which others would find worthy for comment. I believe that flickr is another case in point that the internet can be far from anonymous and individualistic as there is an awful lot of interaction possible.
On a more personal level, flickr turned out to be hugely inspiring for my photography. Or rather – the people on flickr and their photographic endeavours became an inspiration. I saw interesting things images there every day which spurned me on to be creative, too. It made me realize that I CAN be creative at the push of a button – literally.
My passion for photography blossomed. I booked myself into a photography course with a good friend, I started buying accessories… Oh, and most importantly, I got myself a digital SLR *grins*. Nothing else would do, so back then I bought a Canon eos 350d which I loved dearly.
Six years down the road flickr has lost its lustre. What impressed me back then is not quite so awe inspiring anymore since I have learnt how to take interesting and technically acceptable photos myself. Moreover, it quickly became clear to me that the number of comments, views and favorites is not necessarily an indication of truly good photography – but merely a sign that the photographer is good at using social media. I have given up the hunt for comments and favorites. It is more important for me now to finish a project to my own expectations and standards than to produce yet another golden sunset which attracts 500 pink stars. How arrogant of me. That’s what a college education does to you – too posh to push (the shutter release).
– Posted on Tour, using BlogPress from my iPhone

That’s Not Me

In the past I have talked occasionally about how uncomfortable I feel in front of the camera. It is actually a sentiment felt by many photographers – even though that species adores taking pictures, it abhors being in them. Occasionally, the wish to become a photographer grew from the practicality of avoiding being photographed by actually being the one who takes them. An easy way out – just “hide” behind the camera…
Nonetheless I have appeared in photographs (*gasps*), preferably though in self-portraits, because even if they are a painfully laborious enterprise, at least one has *full* control over them. And I have occasionally also sat for other photographers’ projects which included getting dressed up and styled. Not because I am keen but because I am ready to support. I have posed as 80s white American trash in a tacky tourquoise blouse with gold pin stripes and my hair styled into a side-braid. I have sat with a strip of gorilla tape plastered on my mouth which had the word “Nazi” written on it. Today I pretended to be an Irish farmer’s wife from the 1960s, complete with polyester house-coat and pink headscarf. What a hoot. And such unflattering images of myself, too…
I’ll admit that part of the reason I don’t like being in photographs because I am vain. But I quickly came to realize something that helps me accept being in those photographs: The person in there is just not me! With the help of a ludicrous get-up I can completely distance myself from the person that is pictured. I do not wear a headscarf, ergo non sum. Once you have realized that, being photographed actually becomes quite fun. How liberating to fool around in front of the lens, when you know that the result will not be a likeness of yourself but an entirely constructed, fictional character that merely shares some facial similarities with me… You can let go and be as ugly as you want.


Maybe that’s the approach to take, even in bona fide photographs. Whether snapshots or photographic portrait – put on a stupid face and claim afterwards that it was all deliberate! Who knows, I may after all become quite camera-keen…

Black Thursday

Black Backgrounds. Love them. Thought I had them sussed. 


This is one of my earliest studio experiments. Way back more than three years ago, I undertook that scary task of doing some studio portraits for college for the first time. I didn’t know much apart from what we had gone through in class. I roped in my (unwilling but helpless) victim and sat him on a box in a big white room. Then I played with lights. Although the room allowed daylight in through three windows on two sides, the background was completely blackened thanks to a single harsh flash from the sitter’s left.

I was actually really happy with the outcome of the shoot, and even three years in, I still like this shot: I like the harsh light illuminating only half of the face; I like the dark background. I like that there is a colour difference between the background and the black jumper of my subject – the fact that there is actually a little bit of (three-dimensional) depth in this. And no Photoshop.

Three years on, things have changed. I have just looked through a shoot I did more than two months ago – and which I still hadn’t properly looked at. And right I was – my initial experimentation with a nude placed on a black background has totally gone tits up, if you pardon the pun. Just hasn’t worked at all. Perspectives are weird, three-dimensionality lost, light not illuminating the important bits, a lot of grain in the images. How the hell could that happen. How can you get some decent shots out of your first ever session – and utterly fail three years down the road? Beginner’s luck? Can’t be the fault of the camera, because “my 5d makes great pictures”whereas above picture was shot on a 350d. Actually, I know why – because I haven’t used a lightmeter for lack of same. Graaaaah.

*Sighs* Good thing, the black background pose was only the start of that recent shoot. The rest of the images actually came out looking good and there are some that I am quite happy with. Only concentrate on the good ones, I guess.

Candid Fan did

Those who know me have probably become aware that I have recently been quite distracted by my interest in a certain fandom. At my age, being described as a “fangurl” suddenly loses the former whiff of degradation and offensive diminuation of a woman into a pre-adult female and takes on a rather complimentary appeal of youth and irresponsibility. 17 again!

A member of said fandom recently approached me, asking for my expertise (hear, hear!) in photography. “What”, she asked, “should a fan keep in mind if they had the chance to take a quick candid of Mr Smouldering Stare?”

Now, I have never been in the position to take a candid of a celebrity. Despite sharing a table with Des Bishop, standing behind Bono at the Electric Picnic and hob-knobbing with Stephen Fry in the QI green room. (Now, if this name-dropping doesn’t bring the Page views up on this blog, I’ll give up!) Mostly because I am not much awed by celebrity. And secondly because candids generally fail to satisfy my aesthetic demands (ooooh).


Chair (with green canvas bag), recently vacated by Des Bishop


However, I guess there are a few things that amateurs might wanna keep in mind in case they get to drag their favourite actor/singer/politician in front of their lens. My top tip really is to be prepared!!! Might sound dumb, but a lof people who only take pictures recreationally have no idea how their camera works. Not that there is much to know about the workings of a compact – but it helps when you don’t have to fiddle with buttons while Justin Bieber is getting restless in the frame. So (try to) keep calm and take your time! Taking a picture is done in a flash, so don’t worry about the extra second it takes to frame your shot well.

A propos flash: Avoid! Unless it is really really dark (but then where are you stalking that poor celebrity, anyway?). Shitty inbuilt compact flash hits your subject straight on and usually completely drains all natural colours, makes your subject(s) squint and possibly blink for that lovely “derp” look. Apart from making them look like a vampire who hasn’t had a decent bite to drink in a while.

If you can, steer Mr Gorgeous towards a blank or calm background that will not distract from the subjects in the foreground. Nothing worse than a busy background with signs or other clearly visible distractions. Or people cleverly holding up bunny ears and grinning in the background.

Shoot automatic and let the camera do the work. No fiddling with zoom and focus, please. Set it on autofocus but make sure you focus on the face (better still: eye). If you can, take a few shots in quick succession (even compacts have settings for serial exposure). And always shoot at the highest possible resolution – that way you can always crop out unwanted distractions/bystanders/ladies on Mr Heartthrob’s arm in post-production and still get a decent sized close-up of his face to drool over and keep in your wallet.

Right, those are my top tips, bearing in mind that what you will get from this is just a memory, that might look better and last longer if it was just taken in your heart. Awww.