As JP Sudre states in Photography A middle-brow Art. “The subject that I photograph is ephemeral… photography alone captures a precise moment… which disappears and which cannot be brought back to life, hence my distress and also the essential originality of my profession. What could be more transient then a facial expression? Within these words of Sudre lies the importance of the cameras we as photographers use. Alongside the importance of the ephemeral moments that photography alone can capture, revisting the technology inherent in the camera systems that we use, as photographers trying to capture these moments, is of great importance too. I as a photographer use a ‘M6 rangefinder camera for important personal projects when possible.
Portraiture has been at the heart of photography from the start. A good portrait is much more then a likeness of someone, a good portrait tells something about the subject, like the importance of family for Roanne Trigg in the above photograph. To do this the photographer and subject need a base of trust and to connect first, only then the spirit might come through the lens and touch down the sensor and then only for a micro second… John Robinson
I love perspective, photography is also about perspective as it is about cropping, to understand something better I have to sometimes walk across and stand in other shoes. Perspective helps me to to see as other people might have seen.
What is photography?
At the roots of the word photography the words light and drawing lie around. Up to the time of the invention of photography people where painting in multi chrome and drawing in mono chrome; and the pointillists or neo impressionists were beginning to paint with small dots of pure colour that where blended together in the eyes of the viewers of the resulting work not unlike the pixels of modern digital photography.
Their world changed and the new black and white pictures of those first photographers pushed aside the non photographic realist artists of the period as photographers went to the front line of war, adverts begun to employ the photographer rather then the painter and more and more portraits of the famous where done through photography rather then artist and paint brush. There was a time when photography just did realism better then the painter with colour and brush of the time. If the technology of the time had permitted and photographers had started out with colour, we might have been known as photo portraitists rather then photographers.
The realism of that period of photography was backed up by the little slip of plastic covered in emulsion that we call the photographic negative; in the analogue or film age of photography the realness of the photograph could be just broken or backed up by the production of the original negative.
Now in our modern digital photography world news wire services like Reuters ask their Photographers to give in unprocessed .jpg files straight from their cameras because of the eroding of the realness in the public eye by ‘over processing’ of image files in the digital news picture industry and in the modern photography arena in general.
Though I too love the creamy colour of the modern digital photograph, I prefer the crisp image that my rangefinder lens provides me with the no nonsense provability that colour film in my M6 camera still gives me and my readers… JR
Photos Jenny Matthews from her book Women and War.
Visual literacy can be described as the art of reading or writing with what is presented in a visual format as against the written word. A photograph is a 2 dimensional crop of what is; and there is a lot that surrounds me…
All of what you are colours how you see all that is around you. I have presented the same picture of a Swedish doctor working in a Sudanese internal displacement camp to different people. These different people have interpreted the same photograph differently accordingly to their world views. One person commented on how thin the people in the camp were, another commented on how pale the medic was and a third pointed out that there are also African doctors working in the Sudan… While the ‘language’ of photography transcends all the languages of the spoken and written word, it’s not an exact language as a photograph can be interpreted in so many ways, it’s a lawyer’s nightmare in this regard. The subtext of a photograph is also affected by the angle of view of the photographer, by what is in focus, in the foreground and what’s small and insignificant and in the background for example. The message of the photograph is affected by many things.
As much as the world view of a reader of a picture filters the message of a photograph, the world view of the photographer also affects their resulting images. I am an African photographer and I have never been to Norway, but I have seen pictures of the Norwegian fjords and pasture lands. This image of the fjords has coloured my perception of Norway as a whole; and if I got to photograph in their country I feel that the images burnt into my mind will affect my resulting images too. The pictures of the Norwegian fjords were taken by my ex wife’s father on his holiday there, the photographs of the landscape were ‘chocolate box’ in essence. I went away after seeing these images of the fjords and pastures thinking this maybe why the Norwegians too donate so much to my Africa. The social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said that photographers should work by looking at that which they instinctively respond (Dyer, 2005).The photograph is also as much subjective to the individual photographer as it is also truth.
The photograph cannot exist if not for the camera itself first being present in the Sudan or the Norwegian fjord for example. I use cameras to make photographs to message a truth to my visually literate readers but have found out that the presence of a camera itself can alter the very subject that I have come to message to my readers. Jenny Matthews in her book Women and War talks about photographing survivors of a rebel attack in Mozambique, in Matthews’ first photograph the woman looks like a war weary refugee, in her second image the woman noticed the camera and she became the beatific mother, both moments happened, both images are truth. In the second photograph the camera itself changed the resulting picture. The woman in Matthews’ example became normative in that she put forward a face that she felt appropriate for a photograph of herself when she saw a camera pointing at her.
As a narrative photographer I have to have a handle on the dynamics of what surrounds me when I use photography to message to readers of my images…
A few weeks ago I wrote about the story tripod of the the photographic image; and how the photograph relied on story, technique and composition to convey the moment to the reader of the photograph.
Now I want to write a short piece on the most basic photographic tripod; and this is the tripod of the manual exposure mode of your film and or digital camera.
A camera is a lightproof box connected a hole through which a controlled amount of light gains access to a light sensitive surface producing a ‘drawing with light’, or photograph.
In all cameras light is controlled by just 3 mechanisms; and they are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The aperture controls the intensity of the light coming through the hole or lens, the shutter controls how long the light coming through the lens is in contact with the film or the digital sensor and ISO or International Standards Organisation controls the sensitivity of the film or sensor to the light coming through the aperture and shutter.
At this point I want to say that there is no single standard exposure setting for bright sun light or late afternoon light as it where. The 3 legs of this tripod work together; aperture, shutter and ISO work together for the photographer’s good, there many exposure options whatever the light conditions are.
Exposure is based on ISO and balanced out by aperture and shutter speeds like an inverted equilateral triangle. ISO is at the bottom and aperture and shutter speed keep the balance on top. ISO in photography can be defined as the film or sensor’s sensitivity to light, ISO 100 is half as sensitive to light as ISO 200. ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200, and ISO 800 is twice as sensitive as ISO 400 and so on to ridiculous heights with the new digital cameras.
The principal to remember in exposure is one of halving and doubling, ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200 and so on…
When coming to grips with manual mode on your camera the first step is deciding what ISO film you want to load on your film camera or what ISO you want to set your digital camera at.
Another way of understanding exposure is seeing it as two glasses filling with water under the water tap. The size of the glass is like ISO in exposure, one glass is twice the size of the other glass so it will need twice the amount of water to be filled to the brim. The water in the filled to the brim glass is like exposure in photography. The smaller of the two glasses is like ISO 400 to ISO 200, it only needs half the amount of light to be fully exposed. When filling a glass just to the brim with water whatever the size of the glass you always depend on how wide the valve in the tap is and how long the glass is held under the tap. The valve in the water tap is like the aperture, and the time I hold the glass under the tap is like the shutter speed in the camera.
So when I want a glass filled to the brim or a photograph exposed just right, if I halve the size of the valve through which the water flows I have to double the time the said glass is under the tap. Or if I double the time time I hold the glass under the tap I have to halve the size of the valve or visa versa. It always depends on the size of the glass or the ISO of the film or the camera setting.
Firstly you set your ISO then whatever you do in your aperture setting you have to compensate with your shutter speed until you get your light meter centered on the dial in your viewfinder and visa versa if you slow down your shutter speed by 3 stops you will have to close down with your aperture by 3 stops too. If you open up the aperture by a stop you increase the intensity of the light to compensate for this increase you will have to decrease the time the film or sensor is exposed to light by a stop too or you will over expose your photograph in the end.
By practising this exercise you will now discover that there are many combinations of aperture and shutter speed that will give you a perfectly exposed picture under any given lighting situation.
In closing, no you can’t change the ISO mid film, you should stick to the given ISO.
Diagram courtesy of https://www.videomaker.com
Printing my own black and white photographs in the darkroom taught me a bit about what my M6 camera and a bit of Kodak Tri X film could record for posterity. Learning about the importance of 18% grey, middle grey or zone V taught me about the importance of correct exposure in gaining from all the black & white film could give me no matter what light conditions I work in.
I have now given my Leitz enlarger away and no longer wet the floors of any darkroom floors; I now just do the ‘darkroom’ thing with a Nikon Coolscan V ED scanner, Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS5 in my office. But my hand held Polaris light meter still ensures that the colour or black & white print film in my camera records the moment so close to how my eyes perceived it. A hand held light meter in incidence mode ensures that the high and low lights remain as just that. When I still worked my negatives in the darkroom, the negatives exposed with my hand held meter in incidence mode were much less hassle to work with. The empirical evidence in front of my eyes told me that it was much better to work with the available light then fight with it in the ‘darkroom’ or ‘lightroom’ as the process is commonly called now.
The hand held light meter in incidence mode meters the light in an as is way, deep shadows or blacks will remain as just that and high lights or whites will remain as is. If you a photographing someone in the dim shadows they will appear as such. When I am doing a portrait I sometimes reposition the subject to get some of the available highlights to fall across their face; I then take a light metering and shoot the portrait. Work with the light, don’t fight with it, you will get better pictures in the end.
Though I have given up on the darkroom, I have not stopped using colour and black & white film; and when I use film I use my Polaris light meter too.
This method of exposure gives me images that have all the tones from the highlights through to the deep dark shadows just as God gave them to us all.
Goat herder and goats just before sunset in Iriri, Uganda 2006, Photo John Robinson.
The camera never lies, but we can not always say the same for the photograph or the photographer in our digitally adjusted world…
The other day I interviewed a prospective client for my ‘photography lesson over a coffee’ sessions, the client wants to learn “candid, fashion, landscape photography and everything” including editing. We live in a world of selfies, photo bites and altered realities where the subject is carefully ‘perfected’ after that aspect of reality passes into the wonderland of digital photoshopping between the camera and the end viewers of said photograph. When the above client said editing, she was not talking about which pictures worked best or which one to open the body of work with but rather “polishing imperfections” and “touch ups” of the original digital file. My client wants to become a photographer of everything and the polishing of imperfections is an expected part of the photography that the client wants to learn.
Photography and photoshopping or lightrooming has become synonymous. As a lecturer I have often heard “you can change things in photography” when a photograph is viewed, or “you can now do that in photoshop” is also heard from the sceptic in the class…
So the file that comes out of the digital camera is now just the first step in many possible steps in the expected altered realities of the the modern digital photograph.
I don’t think that it is for nothing that most documentaries are now movies and not still photographs, these moving picture documentaries are just more believable then still photography for now. When the technology to make these documentary movies becomes more accessible as has become of photography in general they will too be in a wonderland of of their own and lose their credibility too. The World Press Photo competition is also evidence of people who should know better, of photographers who enter altered realities instead of aspects of reality in the hope of gaining a prize as such.
We can’t blame this ‘wonderland’ state of narrative photography solely on amateurs and the sceptic, ‘adjusting reality’ has been around as long as the photograph itself… Adjusting reality also includes viewing a full colour world in black and white to adjusting vibrancy to make a scene muted or a bright day dark, this all adjusts how the viewer perceives the reality in front of the photographer and camera.
I do all my important narrative photographic work with a Leica M6 rangefinder camera on colour print film now, I use a hand held incident light meter to get an exposure as close to what my eye saw in the first place.
Making documents of what we see around us is important. Going back to the basics of ‘getting what we see’ with colour film will also provide tangible proof that what the viewer sees is also what the photographer saw through the eye piece of the camera.
Hate, fear and love are also 4 letter words; and by another 4 letter word, if I don’t grapple with their out working each and every day of my life.
H is now a friend of mine; she lives just off South Beach with her husband and works in her brother’s restaurant at the top end of Dr Pixley KaSeme Street across from the old grave yard. She makes a petite Ethiopian coffee that my homeopath should never know about, and with its clove infusion is my favorite shot of down town coffee. Her brother’s restaurant is a scent filled alcove, without a menu he serves meat and salad on a plate of injera; a sour flatbread from their home in Ethiopia. H’s coffee is roasted and brewed on charcoal in front of me, she serves it in fine porcelain that her friend G sells alongside the coffee beans from the highlands of their homeland. It is because of local ‘hate of other’ that the brother has said no to photos of H here, it is out of respect for him that H quietly shook her head to me when I took out the M6 just off this road in down town Durban.
F is fearful and is still the victim of a brutal hijacking about 3 years ago. F can’t go out at night alone, and has panic attacks in dark places.
Fear is so debilitating, it’s a part of the psyche of many people who I know around me. As an age we are preoccupied with the concept of ‘safety’, America has a department devoted to the safety of their homeland. South Africa is devoted to the issue of their ‘crime’. For all our other advances we are not a people of can do but a people of can’t do due to our fear. I would like to be able to take F for a walk along a down town street, to sample coffee with clove, I feel that it will be awhile yet before F is ready to browse for porcelain on Dr Pixley KaSeme Street. F’s fear is real, I can see it; there is nothing put on about it.
I will always love X, L and Y. But I lost my temper with L a long time ago, I did apologise and I am so sorry for what I did.
L is deeply hurt and I have to love from a distance. I live with these consequences and now know that love is not a fluffy thing. Love is deep like a river, it has a power of its own, and I have to love for all of us for now.
I will never stop loving and doing what I can for X, L and Y. I will continue to walk along side F and maybe one day we will go browse for porcelain together. I will be a friend to H and all others in little Addis Ababa on the top end of Dr Pixley KaSeme Street.
Names have been changed to protect all those involved in this down town walk of mine.
South Africa has a bad reputation on the crime front. But as a street photographer in South Africa I have not been mugged yet, and I have worked on these streets for about 20 years now.
Respect, this is someones home, people also live here. Before I leave my house I know what I want to message, though I might not have preconceived images in mind. If somebody just came up to me on the street with a camera I would be pissed. So I don’t do the same; I rather say Sir or Ma am, I am John Robinson and I am a photographer, I am doing a project on… and I have just made a few new friends in an area that I had none in a few moments ago. If things get edgy I have somebody who will vouch for me too…
A knowledge of local culture overrules knowledge of local language. I am a native tongue English speaker with just a smattering of Congolese French and even less Arabic and Swahili. What I do have is an understanding and appreciation of Ubuntu (African culture) and a wide general knowledge of things African. This knowledge continues to open so many doors without me trying to get my tongue around so many different languages.
I go local… I live in Durban, to get around my city I walk and use the local mini bus taxis. This practice keeps me ‘in the zone’ I am now comfortable on the streets of this busy port city. If I am hungry, I will eat from the street vendors rather then the big franchises. As I walk I greet all those I pass on the pavements. This comfort shows; I read as local and in the know, not as somebody out of his depth, an easy target.
These truths have worked as well for me in The Sudan, Uganda, The DRC, Johannesburg and in West Africa too… Yes I am also street wise, I know how to walk with purpose and keep in touch with my surroundings at the same time too. Afrikans are a hospitable people, and Africa is a welcoming place.
If you want to photograph on our shores, just know that this is our home, respect our culture and immerse your self in our way of life.
I prefer the Leica M6, it’s a small film (analogue) rangefinder camera that lets you view your subject through an offset viewfinder with no blackout and an almost silent cloth shutter.
I also have a Nikon D90 DSLR camera along with my Lumia 435 mobile phone camera, the Nikon is great for fast turn around work on the run, and the Lumia is a good visual notebook for day to day use.
But as a photographer I try to ‘step softly through the flowerbed’; trying to leave as little trace as possible.
A pair of ‘shooting shoes’ are are my foundation in the above respect, I feel that these shoes say to people around me that I am comfortable and feel at home in their space. These canvas takkies (sneakers) are light on my feet they are the closest thing to shooting bare foot which is what I would like to be doing.
The Tiffen Company have been making the Domke range of camera bags for years, and I like them. I am using the F-8. Domke camera bags are tough, easy to use on the run, I don’t have to worry about my kit when it’s in them and they are very good value for my hard earned cash. I don’t like back pack camera bags because they are on my back and so not easily accessible.
I always have a set of compact tools, a mini torch, power bank and a small memory stick with copies of my C.V. and other personal details.
Moleskine make a series of small notebooks made famous by the late Bruce Chatwin and together with a black gel ink pen they are hard wearing and do the job regarding sketching and note taking.
As a result of a mild stroke 3 years ago I sometimes have a problem with stress kali phos 6 tissue salts work wonders for me.
Music hypes me up, so I don’t listen to it when I am shooting but I carry a blues harp and an old iPod with about 2 weeks worth of music on it for when I am writing, editing and or just sitting in the breeze.
I carry with me a Leica M6 rangefinder camera with 35 mm and 50 mm lenses. I like the look of film and the discipline of separating editing from shooting; while I am still ‘on site’ my head is not in the right space to edit my images. The Leica M6 has no blackout, when you shoot on a rangefinder camera you still ‘see’ the captured moment, and there is no shutter lag or mirror as on all DSLR cameras. …It’s a truth brothers and sisters, no matter how many frames per second a DSLR can shoot there is always a shutter lag and mirror shake that go with it.
I rely on a hand held Polaris flash meter for light metering. I use the meter in incident mode; it gives me an image where blacks are black and whites are whites just the way I see it with my eyes. Pre metering also frees me up to concentrate on the catching moment on my film.
I have a South African Police Service issue gun sling, I use it to secure my cameras, light meter, house keys and water bottle to me when I am on the streets anywhere. I got the idea from some some Hollywood ‘stan movie. Yes I know, I watch them…
Rolls of 400 iso 35 mm film are a given, I carry 2 spare rolls and one in the Leica at all times. I am shooting on Fuji X-TRA colour at the moment, and I over expose print film by a 3rd of a stop as a standard. I under expose transparency film by the same fraction. 400 iso film gives me enough light space when combined with my 1:2 lenses.
An old friend once introduced me to Fisherman’s Friend, they are bad ass throat lozenges. Don’t leave home without them if you are brave enough