Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Portrait Talk


We've spent a bit of time chatting about portraits.

One of the the points I made is the importance of introducing some variety into the 'pace' of images. That's to say it's very easy, particularly in an exhibition or a book, to have a series of portraits which are so similar in style they can render the viewer comatose.

Not that I'm being critical but the effect is easy to see when, for example, you look at a series of Richard Waldendorp's pictures. He's a magnificent arial photographer - definitely not a portrait photographer. Take any one of his pictures and view it in isolation and it is brilliant. But look at a series of them in a book or an exhibition and the senses become quite dulled. His graphic vision is excellent but his sense of light is not and his work would be improved a great deal if he were to shoot ariels at different times of day to bring out  texture in the landscape. Most of the shots depend entirely on graphic effect and a single overhead light - the sun.

The same argument applies to Richard Avedon's iconic essay "In the American West".  Avedon was one of the world's greatest photographers and his series of portraits has become a landmark and an inspiration. However, the same repetitive effect can apply. All of the pictures were taken against a white backdrop on the shaded side of  buildings, thus  providing a huge softbox effect from the open sky. The incredible variety of characters held the work together.

Both photographers have achieved inspiring bodies of work but the effect of similarity in approach to their images can lead to a 'seen one, seem them all effect'.

This was my reason for caution when looking at your early portraits on the current project. I'm not being critical there - the motivation behind this is perfectly valid. I'm thinking down the track and visualising how the similarity in style may have a negative effect.

I mentioned that it may be an idea to break up the exhibition, to add a touch of visual relief, by taking not only a close up head shot but also to look for other characteristics which make up a persons character - hands, feet maybe. Or to take them in a non studio environment such as the one in the ruined building on this blog. I made a comment about that and I think that's an image and style which can be fine tuned very easily.

I've just managed to get m own daylight studio set up after clearing truckloads of rubbish out and the lighting as low but very nice quality. I've only done a few tests on a digital camera this far and am happy with what I'm getting. The lighting needs a little bit of work but it's fine - it just needs variety which I'm achieving by the use of reflectors.

I've posted some shots below. A couple of you to illustrate how the environmental effect can be put to good use. I like the tight shot but I prefer the wider one of you sitting and having a tea break. If I were to write a caption to this I 'd keep in mind your background of professional fishing. The mural goes some way towards helping that along.
Dewi Hyde, Esperence, 2011                                                                                                                                   Roger Garwood

I liked this shot Dewi. Totally natural and unposed. The light was a gift which included a touch of backlighting.

Dewi Hyde, Esperence, 2011                                                             Roger Garwood
This picture tells a different story. It loosly fits in with your past professional experience as a fisherman. There is a wider shot which takes in a lot more of the mural but this has the better expression.

Narayani, Fremantle, 2011                                                                 Roger Garwood
Naraynai, Fremantle, 2011                                                                  Roger Garwood
Both of these were taken in my daylight studio space. The light is simply filtered through scrims placed over the glass doors. I didn't feel I had the skin tones quite right but I'm also feeling that's one of the quirky aspects of digital exposure which needs to be mastered. 

Richard Read,  Art Historian, UWA. 2011                                                                                                               Roger Garwood

This was shot in the same lighting from a slightly different angle. I kept the session a bit loose, not actually posing anything but letting Richard carry on chatting and responding to a friend who was also in the studio. He's an animated sort of character and I feel that approach paid off.

Richard Read, 2011                                                                            Roger Garwood
When we'd finished shooting I made a cup of tea. We all carried on chatting and I felt the picture which most epitomised Richard was this one.

An interesting thing about this posting is that the images all look different from those on my desktop in terms of contrast and skin tones. They are tending to be a touch darker and flatter and this has to be yet another lesson to be learnt from this technology. That's to say an allowance for the posting has to be made when scanning and correcting images.

By the way, the backdrop is an old canvas cover from a railway truck. I cut it into two parts, one of which is hung on the studio wall, the other is rolled up and portable for chucking into the back of the car. 

It works pretty well in colour as well. Here's my very first shot in the studio. It's a bunch of bananas from the garden which have been drying out all summer. It works well in B&W too and I'm going to work on a series of still life pics this winter.

Dried Bananas. 2011                                                                           Roger Garwood

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Importance of Proper Contact Printing

A long time between drinks I’m afraid. Sorry. There’ve been a lot of problems to sort out up here, mostly of my own creation.
I want to get into the issue of what I call ‘proper’ contact prints. It’s something that is done a lot easier by demonstration but the theory has be laid out first. In essence it boils down to using a simplified version of Ansel Adams’s zone system with a disciplined method of making contact prints.
Without going into great detail I’ve zoned many films for their correct speed. More to the point I’ve had somebody do it for me as I don’t have a densitometer. My conclusion is that films (with the exclusion of Agfa film) all zone out to a correct working ASA/ISO close to half the manufacturers rating. Therefore a 100 ASA film will be close to 50, a 400 close to 200 etc. We’re talking B&W here of course.
That said and done we need to have a system which gives us control, or indicators at least, of a correct exposure/ processing combination in different lighting situations.
About 40 years back, using a system of basic logic, I concluded that the only thing we know about a piece of film is that if we don’t expose it to any light, then process and fix it normally, we wind up with a sheet of ‘clear’ film. 
We can make only one assumption now. That is if we  make a good print from that ‘clear’ film it should be a beautiful black image with no detail whatsoever.
I have said ‘clear’ - not clear. Because as we know the film is not totally clear. When it is processed and dried it has a base fog which will vary from film stock to film stock. 
As I said before the only thing we know about this film is that it will print to a black tone.
We also know that if we expose and process a film correctly and make a good print we will have a fine print with a full range of tones from highlights through to shadow detail. We can also take into account some personal style here. Some photographers prefer more contrast in prints, some fuller tone prints. Nevertheless, we do need to have some control and not depend totally on guesswork.
So, given that we have our technique under control we should get a good print.
But we’re still in the position of having only one controlled fact - the black print.
This is where the technique of PROPER contact printing comes into action.
Many photographers will make contact prints several times in order to get one which looks good - often to keep a client happy.
However, a contact print can tell us an enormous amount about how good our basic technique is. But first we need to make a very simple test to help with the production of a proper contact print:
Then, given that you have chosen the correct paper grade and have a perfectly exposed and processed negative, you will automatically get a perfect contact print given the correct enlarger exposure time. And this is a technique which, with very little practice, can give you a near perfect print on the first effort. Test strips are a thing of the past, both time wasting and a waste of paper and chemistry.
This is where the proper contact print becomes your only guide.
Here’s how we obtain the perfect contact. We can talk about other aspects of this technique later but the basics are simple.
We first have to use a negative which has been processed but NOT exposed to any light. I’m writing this on the assumption that you use 4x5 most of the time but it works on all formats.
  • First set up the enlarger so that it throws a pool of light on the baseboard which is sufficient to cover about 12x10 inch paper (we’ll be using 8x10 for this exercise).
  • Focus the frame edges of the film carrier on the baseboard.
  • Measure the height of the enlarger above the baseboard and note the height. (I measure from the lens panel)
  • Set the lens aperture to a normal aperture that you are likely to work with. This is to ensure even light coverage. A good enlarging lens will usually be operated at 1 to 2 stops down.
  • Choose a sheet of paper from the type you normally print with and set the enlarger or filter to a normal contrast. eg Grade 2.
  • Place a sheet of 8x10 paper on the baseboard and keep it flat with a sheet of clean glass or use a contact printing frame but strip from it those plastic film holding guides. They don’t let light through and make neat white lines all over the place. We DO NOT WANT ANY WHITE ON THE PAPER. It makes any dark grey look black by comparison. We need to compare black to black.
  • Now place the negative in the centre of the paper and make a normal step wedge, exposing, say, 1cm strips of the film at a time for a short exposure. You’ll know your enlarger better than, me but 5 second intervals will work well on a bright enlarger.
•When the step wedge is completed process it right out for about 2-3 minutes, depending on paper stock.
  • Fix wash and dry the paper and then examine it under the light you would normally examine your prints under in the darkroom.
  • The trick now is to look for the first point where you see the difference in black between the paper’s black and the negative’s edge disappear. You will see the grey tones becoming increasingly dark. Until the negative black and the paper black match. That point will represent the MAXIMUM PAPER BLACK IN THE MINIMUM EXPOSURE TIME NECESSARY TO ACHIEVE IT. 
  • Make a note of everything you have done to achieve this and keep it with that enlarger:
Enlarger height
Paper type
Paper/filter grade
Exposure time as well as making sure that processing times/temps for the print are in reasonable control.
Every time you make contact prints simply set up this system.
Now here’s the rub. If you have this contacting system under control and you’re not happy with your contacts for one reason or another they will help you sort out the problem. For example, if you find the images made with one particular shutter speed are looking over or under exposed it indicates a problem with the shutter. It’s not necessary to send the shutter off to the workshop, simply learn to compensate when using that speed. If images look too contrasty or flat it is a problem with basic exposure and processing control.
You will be surprised at how quickly you come to read the contacts and fine tune your whole technique.
While I’m a believer in the Zone System I find that this is a very useful, simplified, technique for putting it into practice. 
Here’s another advantage of the system. You should never have to make a step wedge test again. When you have got your contact printing technique under control try this little test. Simply take a negative and without changing anything on the enlarger at all put the neg into the carrier. You may need to fine focus it. Now slip a sheet of 8x10 paper in a frame and make an exposure identical to the one you used for the contacts.
It will obviously only be a cropped image (because you’re covering about a 12x10 area). Process it and you should find the image is a very close match to the contact. So close that it will be an acceptable print. You may only need a tiny change in exposure or paper grade to put you in the realm of a perfect print.
Slight variables do cause slight changes - that the image is now projected through glass is one of them. But with very little practice you will find your print technique will expand beyond recognition. 
But what happens if you want to make a smaller or larger print? That’s quite simple and it’s worth putting in a bit of practice. A simple law of physics (almost) applies. Check this. It looks complicated and is best demonstrated:

Inverse Square Law, Light
As one of the fields which obey the general inverse square law, the light from a point source can be put in the form
where E is called illuminance and I is called pointance.
The source is described by a general "source strength" S because there are many ways to characterize a light source - by power in watts, power in the visible range, power factored by the eye's sensitivity, etc. For any such description of the source, if you have determined the amount of light per unit area reaching 1 meter, then it will be one fourth as much at 2 meters.
The fact that light from a point source obeys the inverse square law is used to advantage in measuring astronomical distances. If you have a source of known intrinsic brightness, then it can be used to measure its distance from the Earth by the "standard candle" approach.
And it only applies to a point source which, in relation to the Law, is infinitely small. Your source will be 4x5inches. Again, is is a simple matter to make a note of the difference in exposures necessary. And the arithmetic is simple. For example if your enlarger is set to make a 12x10 print and you need an exposure of 20 seconds and you then want make a print of 16x20 inches which entail the enlarger lens to baseboard distance increasing from 15 to 30 inches your exposure will need to increase  by a factor of 4. That’s 80 seconds. (I’d stand to be corrected on that - my maths is B-).
Either way you will find that with very little practice you will be able to make very accurate exposure compensations.
A lot can be read from the contacts, not only equipment faults. If for example you find your negs are consistently too contrasty or too flat it means that your exposure/processing needs a minor tweak. It may be that the film zoning just needs a small adjustment. Eg from 50 to 64 asa.
Also, as you know, different lenses have different transmission characteristics. However, all of these things become apparent when you have the contact printing under control.
It’s also important to know the difference which occur with different enlargers, paper grades, processing times etc. So it is necessary to make tests for different enlargers. I don’t bother with tests for different enlarger lenses though, mainly because I use  different ones for different neg sizes. It’s possibly to pick up variations simply with a ‘feel’ through experience.
I’d like to make sure we go through this system in a practical way when I get down there.