Having been making photos continuously for the better part of a decade or more, if you had to ask me what one single photographic skill that I ‘ve learnt that is most important in making a photo? I would say ” to think inside the frame.” What I mean has two parts: the first is the easy part and that is to be able to envisage the photo in your mind’s eye before you press the trigger. To be able to put up an imaginary frame in the vista in front of you and pick the correct lens for the job, or more often is the case that I already have armed myself with a fixed focal lens, say a 35mm lens and I literally scan the scene for possible 35mm images. Most of the time I also have a second camera on me with a telephoto so I have even more options available readily. I am not a big fan of zoom lenses, but a zoom lens would certainly further increase your composition options, but will decrease your creative play with depth of field.
I said that this is the easy first part, because strangely enough to learn this skill didn’t require me to learn actively, it was a fairly rapid passive process. It started with my first first fixed 35mm fixed focal lens (it could’ve easily being a 50mm lens), it was a rather weak and inexpensive Kodak point and shoot, I loved the camera so much that I stucked with it for many months. And during this time my mind became accustomed to seeing in 35mm field of view and was able to accurately predict the results. I would recommend anyone that asks, to try it themselves, I think it is the first step to good composition and training for the mind.
That was the first step, the second step is much harder and require lots of reading, practicing, research and examining other people’s photos. In other words it requires thinking! This is the thinking part of “think inside the frame.” Once you have acquire the innate ability to form the frame in your mind, it then becomes important for your mind to assess if that is a good photo opportunity or not. To know you must know the basics of composition, how to break these rules, which lens, filter, flash or some other tool is required for the job, what are the effects you can use in post-processing to enchance the scene, have you seen examples of such or such photo in the past, will a shift in camera position improve the scene and what are the contrasts in the scene, is the scene beyond your camera’s dynamic and tonal range, what depth of field & shutter speed do you need? All these factors must go through your mind continuously as you search the scene inside the frame in your mind’s eye.
There is no quick way to acquire this second skill quickly but it is made a little easier after learning the first skill (at least you have minimized a variable). How I learnt was from reading from different sources a lot, learning the workflow for processing photos and critically examine other people’s photos objectively and not just to say this is nice, learn to read the photos you see and be able to understand why a photo looks good or bad. It will only come with lots of hard work.
This process of learning reminds me of reading x-rays. I am a veterinarian during my non-photography and non-sleeping moments and in the beginning of my veterinary career, with much less experience under my belt as I do now, when I took x-rays, I often zoom into the problem at hand, will it be a fracture or a cancer, and this can lead to missing the bigger picture. After over a decade of practice, when I pick up a x-ray, I see the bigger picture, is the film exposed well, if not what will be limitations on contrast of the radiograph, was there any problems with the processing fluids, is the animal straight, did the settings for the exposure adequate, is there other factors that will effect the contrast of the x-ray, was the required part of the animal in the frame, aside from the obvious main problem at hand is there anything else wrong, I’ll make a mental note of even normal anatomy. Do you see the parallels with photography?
I mean to talk about the dimension differences when it comes to compositional framing and printing, on a most basic level film comes in either square or rectangular formats, rectangular formats are divided into many different proportions. On another basic level is the physical size of the film and in the modern era, the size of the sensor. Everyone has a preference and I am no different, my favorite is the square format, in the past there have been smaller square formats like those taken with the Robot cameras but nowadays, square format is ubiquitously considered to be the 6×6 format, this is a medium format size and with good lenses and fine grain film will result in a very high quality and enlargeable print. This is my film format of choice because I think it has the most flexible framing and cropping opportunities. When framing your photos with 6×6 you don’t have to stick to the tried and true compositional rules of thirds, you can still apply this rule but you’ll find that many of your photos can be centered. In rectangular formats having the subject dead center is often a taboo because it leads to a static photo, that tends to be uncomfortable for viewing with the elements in the wider edge wasted. But if you apply this to a square format, its different, even though it still lends itself to be more static having the subject in the center, there is now a symmetry with the natural square frame the keeps the photo comfortable for viewing. This means that you have more compositional flexibility overall. With square format you can crop the edges for portrait or landscape arrangements as necessary and still retain a large enough negative for printing, with minimal loss in quality. It is also logical that with square format a single photo can take advantage of the whole image circle projected by the lens and this just seems right to me. The only bad thing I can think of, is the lack of square format option for digital cameras, there are some lower resolution medium format digital backs that are square but these are expensive and nowadays a little out dated.
Having started with my favorite format, I will move on to your other options, but first I’ll like to talk about size of the film and in the case of a digital sensor, both the size and pixel density. The size of the film you should use is mostly dependent of your end output of the image you capture, the larger the print the larger the film the better. There are other factors like larger film/sensors allow for more cropping options, but it is obviously best to do the framing properly in the first place so you don’t have to crop. Other factors include, the size, cost, weight of the cameras that produce the respective size images, larger formats will be less flexible and slow to use and quiet bulky and usually very slow to setup, so even if you want the best quality photo possible you may still be limited by these other factors depend on your subject matter. For ultimate quality there is still nothing better than large format with film sizes 4×5 and up, these large setups will result in the best quality photos you can make, medium format is a compromise but will result in better portability and then there is the 135 format where its relatively cheap and in this age of better and better sensors you can get medium format like quality from a relatively light professional DSLR. 135 format is also the most flexible to use and carry around but the quality of 135 equipment is wide ranging from plastic lenses to professional lenses, it can be a minefield of poor quality lenses and cameras out there. Size isn’t always better with 135 format there are compact point and shoots that make amazing photos especially on film. Going back to my initial point, there is no point carry a large format camera or a professional 22MP DSLR if you never print the photos out large, for most people in this age of social apps, the most common output is online on the computer monitor and in this situation you don’t need anything better than 6 megapixels, with most cameras nowadays at 10 megapixels, even the rich amateurs amongst us should think twice about upgrading.
The most common format is 35mm and we are all used to using it, but do note that with cameras with cropped sensors there is flexibility within this format and cameras like the micro four third system are more square compared to regular full frame 35mm with a 4×3 proportion (so using these cameras will result in slightly different compositions that can be refreshing). But we should be talking about proportions as I have already talked about size, so lets convert 135mm film to its more simple proportions and that is 24x36mm or 6×9, this is a relatively wide format and is particularly flexible and hence it has become the standard format. This is also the reason why 35mm (slightly wide standard lenses) lends itself to this format. 6×9 allows for landscapes to portraits and hence arise these common labels for shoot 135 film vertically and horizontally. For most people, it is the only format choice. In medium format half frame, 645 and 6×9 are very similar in style. 6×9 & 6×8 formats are also very close to the dimensions to the printed page with its obvious advantages of no wastage in published texts.
Then there is the panoramic formats like 6×10, 5×10, 6×12 or Hasselblad/Fujifilm X-pan format or even the dopey APS panorama format, these are specialized formats and very inflexible. they lend themselves to horizontal landscapes, but this is only true because our visions are naturally horizontally wide. These can be used vertically for surprising shots that need the viewer to explore by moving his or her head up and down. Some say that if these formats are overused these formats can be a little boring, highlight the strength of the 6×9 format. I suspect that it isn’t the fault of these formats but the fault of the photographer not using these longer formats creatively. Most photographers shoot very stereo typical panorama shots of the horizon, no wonder this format appears more boring than it really is. But there is always a little magic and surprising to see panoramas and it is an important trump card in an photographer’s arsenal, used creatively it reflects our natural vision the most. 135 digital photos can easily be adapted to take panoramas as well making this format even more flexible if not more clumsy to using compared with a panoramic camera. In a pinch Tilt-shift 35mm lenses can be made to take short panoramas as well.
There are even more extreme formats with some Lomo cameras, their lenses’s quality leave a lot to be desired but some of the format options are intriguing. So next time you consider upgrading your camera, think about getting a camera in another format, it will broaden your photography horizons!
Tibet is full of surprises and apart from coastlines, there isn’t a geoscape that its missing, from the rain forests in the far east to the sub-alpine and alpine areas to eternal glacial ice and to this a desert landscape. The Tibetan plateau is a place of wonder. During my travels in Tibet, there were long periods where I was stuck in the 4WD looking out the window. I remember when I was young in Australia and my parents and I would go on long drives in the country side, I can still feel the acute monotony of the out the car window landscape, miles and miles of flat farm land with intermittent small clumps of Eucalyptus trees. Not so in Tibet, the vista outside the car window was beautiful and different around every corner and in every valley. The journey to our destination was as much the destination as the destination, sort of like life really. If I stopped the 4WD every time I saw something photo worthy out the window, we wouldn’t get very far, very fast. I had to stop the 4WD when I saw this scene though. It was a study in tones, the subtle tonal changes in the sand, with stark harsh shadows in the foreground and the surreal low contrast aerial perspective in the distance, and all in one photography was just too good to miss. It also gave the driver and guide a few minutes for a smoke and a piss. There are huge rolling dunes on the Tibetan Plateau and the government is planting trees to stop its spread. It is remarkable how well the M9 sensor performed.
This photo was taken at a local cemetery in Siam Reap, Cambodia, armed with my medium format 6×6 square format camera, I was in for a treat. 6×6 square format is my format and lends to its own unique sort of composition. No longer are you restricted to rules of thirds and now the image in front of the photographer will dictate the best composition for framing. The photo just flows on to the frame. There are landscape or portrait options, freeing your mind. Here I was using slide film, knowing that I would be shooting indoors in low contrast environments. The only challenge was fighting camera shake hand-holding a such a large and heavy camera. As with all spontaneous portraits, you need to be quick off the mark and this fully automatic medium format camera was simply made for the job compared to a relatively slower Hasselblad manual camera. If I was using a manual camera I am sure this image would just remain in my memory and never have made it on to film!
Here is something you don’t see everyday, no its not my rare and beautiful cat I am talking about, nor is the hint of my left hand in the frame, its the half-frame Olympus Pen, made back around 1954, this camera was the Japanese’s answer to raising film and developing prices, a roll of 135 format film could take 74 exposures. Its actually quite like a digital camera in the sense that you don’t really care about wasting film because it just goes on and on. This little camera is actually a SLR and functions like one. The lenses are extremely sharp, they need to be for better enlargements from a half-frame. I use these lenses most often now days on my modern micro four third system (M4/3), unlike many other lenses adapted to M4/3 these lenses are small and have a nice fit. 40 years apart and they still make a great pair. No wonder so many people are camera and lens collectors. Combined with the modern extremely fine grain Kodak Ektar 100, you have enough resolution to make good enlargements. By scanning the half-frame into two frames you introduce a new form of creativity, the dual nature of the cat in slightly different positions result in a dynamism that is lacking in a single frame.
Another photo taken in Phnom Penh street side, the weather was steamy and there were lots of people just relaxing on various jumbles of makeshift furniture. Here is a powerful photo, with the man in the foreground in deep thought, the diagonal line drawn by the bench draws the viewer into the photo. The lens’ shallow depth of field isolated the main subject, with classic compositional placement of objects, makes for an emotive expression of the man contemplating.
Photo of a lime grocer in a street market of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The biggest impression from my first trip to Cambodia is the people, after the long struggles during the evil Khmer Rouge regime the people’s morale is high and even in poverty the mood is uniformly happy everywhere. The Cambodian people are friendly and wasn’t photo shy, a smile from the photographer goes a long way. I made a concerted effort to show the picture I just took on the LCD display of the camera to the subject and that would invariably elicit laughter all around. It is important to make it easy for the next photographers to come along, so I always try to leave a happy trail.
This photo is one of my favorites of the trip, the natural spot lighting, the genuine smiles, the vibrant colors of the lime and various articles splayed about makes for a colorful photo. This lens is probably one of my favorite and most used in the Canon stable. It is sharp and high contrast with beautiful out of focus areas, if its the only lens I own I would be a happy man.
Here is a third photo from the same event, the man in the picture is holding the lure that is the way the villagers use to direct the fiery dragon, at the end of the festival the fire dragon is extinguished by returning it to the sea. The geometric shape of the lure, made of incense makes for an interesting composition, though the handler is in the bokeh you can still feel his intensity.
As you know so far, I use many systems but this setup with this lens is the fastest low light monster I own (with the exception of the equally good Canon 1D mark III), even a Leica 50/0.95 is a few stop slower if you take into account the ISO 3200 that I am using with confidence on this mobo. Not to mention the rapid fire of the camera, even the relative slow Canon 5DMk2 can manage 3.9 fps with a much larger memory buffer than the digital Leica M9. This photo depicts the man manning the tail, it is the most active part of the dragon and needed a new person to handle every minute as its very tiring. As the tail is swooshed around the sparks fly! It’s actually quite dangerous for prospective photographers! Note that unlike the other photo, there is no faux film grain added to this photo as the grain with compete with the point sparks for the viewer’s attention.
Here I had the privilege of a press pass to get close and personal with the Tin Hau firedragon, it is a part of the full moon festival that occurs annually around April, but in Tin Hau, Hong Kong there is a twist to the usual dragon, its a fire dragon. The story goes that the old fishing village that was Tin Hau had a plague, a seer advice the villagers to raise a potent fire dragon to frighten away the disease and as the myth goes it worked and it has been a tradition ever since. The dragon itself is huge needing hundreds of volunteers to manuveor, the body core is made up of a very long roll of straw and stuck in the straw all along its long length is tens of thousands of burning incense. It was painful to photograph as the smoke of all those incense stung the eye badly and I was weeping all the while. The results were worth the pain though. Here is one of my favorite photos, its composition turned out perfect with dynamic subjects this is very difficult, or should I say fortunate. The photo retains the vital energy of its subjects and it is this dynamism that attracted me to this photo. With all these people basically running through the scene, the high ISO, f/1.2 aperture and rapid autofocus was essential to keep the shutter speed up to capture this scene. The gritty black and white look was added post-processing.
It is my pleasure to present to you a series of photographs by various other photographers, I’ll call it “be my guest.” Photography is such an infinitely expressive medium and it is amazing how different people use it differently to express themselves. Over a decade of making photos and taking voyeur pleasure in looking at others’ work and I am still surprise how fresh this hobby of mine still is. Here I present you our first “be my guest” image by Cheong Lai, another photograher of many in Hong Kong.
Cheong Lai’s photograph description:
Photo label: I Seen Your Voice
I am happy to meet you (Eric) in this a small way and I am glad that I can share my works with you and HK Camera Life’s audience. This is a project I started during my life at school and I call it my Self-Shooting Project. This and other personal projects of mine are an escape from the art projects dictated my others in my workplace, where I am hired to prepare an image, I understand the instructions but I have no passion in doing other’s visions. So I started projects like this one for my own satisfaction. To express myself, my thoughts with no limitations.
For me expression is important, I can directly express myself through speech or through writing, but I want most to express through images. To express my emotions, my thoughts and my loved ones. And through images I speak louder then any words and through them I deliver my message to others. For me being a subject in my own images is important, because the images are “me, myself, my soul”, no one can understand me and express my thoughts or emotion better than me.
So, today I pick this image I call “I seen your voice”
It’s time to express a relationship between others and me, We’ve known each other for a long time. Even though we are not together nor can we speak to each other. I can see the thoughts she is thinking inside. I know her and she won’t change. It is something I feel in my heart, it is this feeling that I express in an image and the image also makes a mark in my memories.
I hope you (Eric) and everyone can enjoy it!
I frequently use many different cameras, both large and small. If it was a planned photo outing, I would always try to bring the best tool for the job and that usually means the camera with the best sensor. But it is the small cameras that shine through and save the day for that impromptu and unplanned shot. I am unlikely to have my Rollei 6008AF with me on my tram ride past Victoria Park on this rainly day and I would have miss this shot if I didn’t have my little Olympus E-P1 with me.
As the tram went pass the park, a thought flashed past my mind. The wet green asphalt of the football grounds in the park would make a wonderful reflective surface and the interesting cloud formation would be spectacular in this otherwise a rather uninteresting scene. I haven’t reached my destination but I jumped out of the tram anyway! Life of a photographer! I was wet from head to toe, but I was able to capture this photo just as the sky was clearing up. I converted the photo to black and white to make the clouds stand out more, and left the color green in the photo to give attention to the reflections in the wet asphalt.