Postdoc Photography Workshop #2

Hej and welcome back! This past weekend we had the second post doc photography workshop. For the first workshop we were indoors at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, this time we went outside to the Grantchester meadows. We asked people to bring a prop with them, and as a result we looked like an odd bunch, sporting wigs, toy guns, umbrellas and big hats.

After gathering at the Orchard we made our way to the meadows. The previous time we had started with an introductory presentation to seed some ideas and get people going. This time we were lucky that Maria came dressed up for a themed formal hall, and that she was willing to be our model. This provided a natural centre point for our informal demonstration. There also just so happened to be a canoe beached next to the river, so we took temporarily possession of it and had Maria do a Titanic. Before we knew it she had her very own DiCaprio wooing for her affection, which made for some funny shots. We asked people to experiment with both a big and small aperture to see the difference in depth of field and to observe how their background shifted from blurry to sharp. This of course also made it important to keep an eye on what was in the background, both to make sure that there were no branches pointing out behind the head, but also to start thinking about composition. Another thing we focused our attention on was how the light fell on Maria’s face, by turning her head a little bit to the side we could make sure the face was properly lit. The traditional Rembrandt light where one side is lit, and the other one has a small triangle of light under the eye, has become one of my new favourites.

We found this abandoned canoe on the side of the river, and temporarily borrowed it for our photo shoot. Maria was asked to do a Titanic pose in the front. This random guy must have realised we needed two people to make it complete, for he came running and started making some great poses, before equally suddenly disappearing again.
Behind the scenes at the photo workshop, everyone wanted in on the action. It is easy to get carried away, but I also tried to walk around looking at other people’s photos as they were shooting, giving small suggestions on what to try. After this we split into several smaller groups photographing different things.
This dog came walking by with his owners, so I asked if it was okay for us to take a few photos and they were more than happy. I gave them my email so they could get in touch if they wanted the pictures later. By getting close to the ground we get the world as the dog sees it. It is an easy trick, but very powerful.
Sometimes it is fun to step back and take behind the scenes shots. Meryem took a really nice photo with J-F’s and Sophie’s reflections.

After getting the right light in the model’s face we also encouraged people to keep an eye on the subject’s eyes. If they are looking too far to either side a lot of white shows up in their eyes. Ideally you want a bit of white to either side of the pupil to make it defined. Sometimes you want them to look straight into the camera, to get that connection with the viewer. There is a technique that some of the old painters used, which was to place one eye dead centre in the painting. That can give the illusion that the eye is following you, regardless of where you stand in the room.

Meryem Ralser climbing on a fence. Here we were trying to get both the light, eyes and facial expression all at once. People came up with some really creative ways of using this fence. Sanne was standing on her head, and at one point hanging head down from the fence. If you want to see that, check out the facebook page (linked below).

At one point during the evening it was my turn to pose. When you stand in front of the camera you realise the importance of the photographer being on his or her toes, ready to capture the right moment when it happens. The fleeting smile, a glance or some gesture. I quickly became very self conscious, and with little feedback I had to ransack my brain for what to do. I decided I wanted to illustrate the contrapposto pose. I had first read about it on the Canon of Design (now paywalled, example) where the author talked about it in quite some depth. The idea is to have the weight on one foot, and this will cause the hips to angle one way, and the shoulders another way. The pose is quite common if you look at Greek statues of both the male and female form. It also appears again and again in old paintings. According to the other blog it is supposed to add movement and elegance to the model. Well, I was anything but elegant in my attempts to replicate it. We will try it later again, hopefully with better luck.

Another thing we did was to experiment with backlit models. Having the sun in the picture, and still getting a reasonably good exposure of the subject’s face was quite tricky. Somehow we transitioned into taking jumping shots, and then, on the suggestion of Clara, we started combining the two ideas. This was when the shot really started to come together. To be able to capture the models against the sky I needed to be on the ground with my camera, the closer I got the higher their jump would look. Luckily I had brought my 20 mm lens along, which allowed me a very wide angle of view. There is a funny behind-the-scenes photo where a group of us are lying on the ground in the down slope, all trying to capture the right moment. Many many jumps later, we finally had a great shot. The next hurdle appeared when I got home, and had to figure out how to post process all the backlit photos. That will have to be the topic of another blog post.

Since we had an umbrella with us we just had to do a Mary Poppins inspired photo. Lying on the ground with a 20 mm lens it was possible to get all of them in the view while at the same time separating them from the ground. Clara suggested we incorporate the sun in the photo, so we changed the setup and several jumps later we finally got this shot.
Jean-François Mercure and his medium format camera.

After finishing shooting we walked off to the Green Man, a pub not too far away, for dinner. It was a great opportunity to get to know each other a bit better. We also talked about future workshops. One thing that came up was that it would be fun to try and have a more planned shoot, to see if we could first come up with a vision, and then make it come to life in front of our cameras, possibly with a bit of photoshop help. One of the ideas that was floated was to combine smoke pellets with fancy dresses. To me that, together with some good lighting conditions, sounds like a recipe for success. Then to give it more impact we might need some story which the photo will centre around, perhaps we could recreate an old fairy tale.

The workshop does not really end when we go home, it continues on the facebook photo club page afterwards where everyone uploads their photos and we have the opportunity to critique each other’s work. By giving feedback and receiving feedback we can help each other improve. Sometimes there are easy fixes such as just lowering the exposure a little in post-processing, other times it is white balance that is a bit off. When you become aware of these things they are easy to spot and fix. At one point during the photo shoot Aysel was acting the model and posing with an umbrella. Clara had asked her to turn so that her face would be side lit and the shadow cast on the umbrella would show her profile. That was a brilliant idea. There was however one small thing we probably could have done to make the photo even better. There was a big crescent of shadow in the umbrella, if Aysel had tilted it we could have avoided that shadow which would have made her shadow profile stand out even more. It is not easy to think of everything at the time of shooting, so it is valuable to look at photos afterwards and think about how to improve them. The next time we do a similar shot we can draw on what we have learned before.

– Johannes

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