Headshot, portrait, street and documentary photographer in NYC and Jersey City

alastair.arthur@gmail.com

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Photography Fundamentals

Week 6

Taking more control - focusing and lighting

There are times when autofocus won’t work, even with the best focusing systems available in the latest cameras. You might be trying to focus through something, like a rain-covered window. There might not be enough light or contrast. In the case of street photography, your subject might not be in place yet or you might want the speed of having a focus distance preset rather than relying on the speed of your autofocus. Or you might want to use a classic vintage lens or camera with no autofocus.

 

You might not want to use manual focus often, but you should know how and practice occasionally so you’re ready and able to use it when you need to. Here are a couple of resources to help:

Guide to Manual Focus Photography - Amateur Photographer

Vision is Better: Zone focussing

There are also various phone apps for calculating your Depth of Field and Hyperfocal distance (a distance to focus at, after which everything is focus), particularly useful for zone focussing (if your lens doesn't have distance details) and landscape photography. I use one called Simple DoF on iOS.

Particularly if you're using a mirrorless camera, you might have various different tools to help with nailing your manual focus. Focus Peaking for example is a function that adds colored highlights to show you the area that is currently in focus, or your camera may provide a magnified view of the area you're focusing on. Dive into your camera manual or menu system to see what's on offer. Even for manual operations there's no shame in using the technology available to you.

Manual Focus

It’s always worth having some shots in mind if you can before a photoshoot. Whether you have full creative control, like a model shoot in a studio, or very little, such as street photography or an event, you can still have at least a few shots worked out in advance. I’ve often sketched out rough ideas on paper before an outdoor photoshoot. They might not be possible and might not work, but often they do and if nothing else they give me fallback options if I run out of improvised ideas. The more you know about your location, subject and likely lighting situation all helps too.

You can also use an app such as the excellent ‘The Photographers Ephemeris’ to give you accurate details of the angles of the sun in relation to your surroundings.

 

Then it’s a case of testing your creativity. What does your client want? What story or mood do you want to show? Are then any props or aspects of the location that you’ll want to include. Jot down or sketch some ideas and you might find it helping to plan your shoot.

Pre-Visualizing

Despite the progress, the promotions, the apps and the sheer volume of mobile photographers, the capabilities of phones are still often underestimated, especially by photographers. Now with dual lenses and clever software, the latest phones are even starting to replicate (not exactly but getting closer) the shallow depth of field that a wide aperture can achieve.

What makes the phone such an amazing tool is not only the size and convenience, but that you can shoot, edit and upload images all from one small package.

You choose to use your phone as a 'visual sketchpad', noting down ideas that you might come across. Or you might decide to use it as your main camera, as many others are already doing.

If you haven't signed up to Lynda.com, it offers a free trial for a month and includes this excellent iPhone course by the iPhone photographer Richard Koci Hernandez. It's a relatively old course and is based around street photography but I think that adds to the inspiration, seeing the images that he was able to produce on a much older generation phone. His enthusiasm for the tool and it's possibilities come through very well too.

Phone Photography

Color is a huge topic in terms of how different colors interact with each other, how to correct color and the emotional responses we have to color.

One common method for correcting color in an image (i.e. to make it as close to color in the original scene as possible) is to use a gray card or color checker. In a portrait photoshoot for example, once the lighting has been set up, take an photo or two including the gray card or checker. You then have a standard to work from in your post-processing.

There is plenty of color theory online. There is also plenty of advice (especially from and to Instagrammers) about the benefits of using a consistent color palette. This is one of the few tutorials I’ve seen that makes the connection between them.

How to Edit Colour and Create your own Style

 

This webpage from Adobe is a great tool to use to analyze an image or create a color theme: Adobe Color CC

Color

Spend an hour or two or three just using manual focus. Practice moving quickly between different focus points. Try out any focussing aids that your camera provides such as magnification or focus-peaking.

Go out with just your phone but with the intention of making the best images you can, and edit them only on your phone afterward. Get creative and playful, use a few different apps, see what you like and what you don't.

 

Most of all, keep practicing. Keep photographing, keep a camera with you, keep experimenting. Not everything will be a success but everything can be a learning exercise.

Practice

Most photographers, most artists, want to develop their own style or find their own voice in their work. It’s one of the most difficult things to achieve. I’ve listened to many talks and opinions on the subject and here’s a summary of what I think is the most useful advice:

 

1. Absorb the work of other artists. Multiple artists, not just the one you admire most. Work out what it is you like about it (or them) and whether you can incorporate that element into your own photography.

2. What moves you? What do you react to? What do you want to be known for?

3. Don’t look at other photographers images immediately prior to photographing or editing. You’re bound to copy too closely, consciously or subconsciously.

4. Let you own style develop and change over time, as you change personally. Don't try to force it. Look for themes or patterns in your images. Let your work mature with you rather that feeling obliged to stay the same.

 

One practice that can help with the first couple of points particularly is journalling. Rather than trying to conduct a one-off exercise, chances are that occasionally you’ll come across images that particularly inspire or engage you. Assuming that’s online, take a screen shot and keep an image journal. I use the Day One app on iOS. Make a few notes about the image and why you connected with it.

 

You might also decide to identify a few descriptive words to define your style, either the way you currently shoot or the way that you want to.

Journaling and Finding your Style

Lighting is a huge subject, and it can be daunting to start out using artificial light. Rather than being reliant on the sun and whatever is available, you’re the one in control. My recommendation is to start simple. One light, even if it’s a household lamp (nothing wrong with that) or the light from an iPad, or a cheap speedlight. Something that you can control and ideally move around. Start to understand the difference between direct and diffused light and the effect of the distance of the light to your subject.

 

This Lighting 101 is an excellent course to take you through the basics, including suggested equipment:

http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/03/lighting-101.html?m=1

 

It's not free but Zack Arias also has an excellent tutorial series called One Light.

Lastly, guessthelighting.com is an interesting website that I came across recently, looking at some well known images and analyzing what lighting set up was most likely used to achieve the final result.

Lighting

For a long time I hated the idea of using continuous shooting (burst mode). Keep your finger on the shutter and let your camera take as many images as it’s processor and buffer will allow. Almost by necessity, most sports and wildlife photographers use it extensively. I use it now more often than I did, although I still find it a less satisfying experience than exercising the skill of timing exactly the right moment to photograph.

 

Apart from the experience (occasionally rather harshly referred to as ‘spray and pray’), the other main drawback is the time penalty. Not while you’re shooting, but back at the computer when it’s time to select from a lot more images, many of them very similar. There is also the factor that you are trusting to luck a little. Depending on the speed of your camera and the speed of your subject, your camera could still miss the ideal moment.

The key advantages are that you’re probably more likely to get the image you want. On the streets, especially with multiple people in the scene, you’re more likely to get the moment when their strides look more natural or they are most evenly spaced across the frame. For portraits, especially of a group, you know that anyone blinking will only effect one of the images.

My suggestion is use it, but not all of the time. In fact, if you have a film camera, I find that the perfect counterbalance, forcing you to be careful and concentrate on each frame where burst mode can tempt you to get lazy.

Burst Mode

Sooner or later, and especially if you have a website, you'll want to put together a portfolio. Or maybe more than one portfolio if you're showcasing more than one type of photography. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Aim for 12-20 images. More than 20 becomes a lot for a viewer to look through and you'll necessarily start to include weaker images.

  • If you are showing more than one portfolio, keep them related.

  • Print out the photos before making a final selection and before finalizing the order you’ll present them.

  • Get second and third opinions from people you trust.

  • Try not to include a very recent image (you’re more likely to be including it because of the emotional connection).

  • Review them often.

Portfolios

I hope these pages have been useful. Do let me know if there are ways that I could improve them further to keep helping new photographers get started and start making rapid progress they can be excited about.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope photography brings you as much joy as it has to me.

Closing Thoughts