Photos John Robinson

Durban is also a skate board riding city, it’s not just about poison. The skate board park on the beach front is a place where anyone can come. Skate Board Gents is an ongoing personal project by johnrobinson narrative photographer & craftsman. “As I portray a gent I am introduced to another” – JR


Mark Cook stands out on the pavement of ZK Mathews Road in Durban, South Africa. Cook irks ill informed Durban city officials with his ‘willing seller willing buyer’ of private items from his home garage.


Cameras and coffee.

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.


Durban's People, a young model on a street fashion photo set, Bulwar Park,  Glenwood, Durban, South Africa.
Durban’s People, a young model on a street fashion photo set, Bulwar Park, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa.


As a narrative photographer I take pictures of what is around me, I don’t go into a studio situation to get a picture of say ‘two people looking meaningfully into the middle distance’ or ‘someone next to a window in the morning light.’

I once saw the Oliver Stone film Salvador with two student friends, Hamish was studying commercial photography, Bruce was studying journalism and I was a interior design student. Salvador is a film about two photogs covering the war in Salvador in South America, I came out of the cinema hyped, telling Hamish that as a photographer he should do this type of work when he was finished with his diploma, Hamish just looked at me as though I was mad. Hamish went on to be a successful commercial photographer and I went onto scraping out a living as a narrative photographer. Though both Hamish and I use the same cameras, I seem to think quite differently about photography to Hamish as a commercial photographer. I never wanted to become a war photographer as in Salvador but I have perceived life as it is around me as a photographer.

As Hamish though I was mad, I too have had a hard time understanding the ways of some other photographers in the portrayal of the human form. I posted the following on a Facebook photographic group: What is it with some (group Name) photographers and young womans bottoms and boobs? I got 10 likes and 1 reaction and the comments ranged from because I like it, I can and a sarcastic don’t you know? to the quite defensive and the inclusion of the word pornography. One photographer’s model said “if you have it flaunt it.” 

Then there was also the inclusion of the word passion and the sense of the decisive moment which I as a narrative photographer can understand too, I now think that it is something about the personal thrill of the photographer concerned in getting a preconceived concept together. Maybe it’s the same way I get a thrill when a moment came together when I have done a portrait on the streets of Durban.

I think we all as photographers have our driving forces, some forces are exclusive to the different types of photography, and other forces are common to us all.




Diagram courtesy of

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.


Joshua G's  5th birthday

Sisters in Woodlands, Microsoft Lumia 435 ‘phone camera, Photo John Robinson

Cell phone cameras do not produce the same image crispness of a medium format Carl Zeiss lens, but the ‘phone camera does have the same ability of a medium format to take pictures out of the way of the human contact between the photographer and the person photographed…

Way back when I was just starting out on my own photographic journey, I remember Jenny Gordon commenting on the ‘feel’ of her photographs taken on her medium format Hasselblad camera at the time. When a Hasselblad camera is used, it is usually mounted on a tripod out of the way of the photographer and the persons photographed at the time; and this reduces ‘strain’ on the person or persons photographed.

Click your shutter button now, don’t chimp, look and be surprised later. When using a ‘phone camera in bright light it’s often hard to see the coming image on the camera screen, so just have a quick look to make sure of your angles, the camera has already a surprisingly good hold the exposure and focus side of things. So just get on with capturing the moment – it’s only digital, so no loss as ‘they’ say… And your pictures will be more spontaneous and ‘of the moment’ too.

On the theory side, when someone is being portrayed they can become ‘normative.’ Another way of saying this is: they present themselves to the camera in a way that they think they should be portrayed. The result of this behavior by the person been photographed is that the photographer does not get the moment as she or he saw it. The ‘phone camera is much less “serious” in the mind of the person photographed and so they get less up set by the process…

To end this piece, I say spend more time taking pictures and less time getting hung up in photographic gadgets; I also think that if H.C.B. had had a ‘phone camera he would have used it too.



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.


"Give us an education" Rebbeca Akoi

I have a thing for thrills.

In the years just before democracy came to South Africa I had a stable job as a lecturer at a design college in the City of Johannesburg; I taught aspects of interior design and also a ‘basics of photography’ course for their graphic design students because I “knew more about photography” then anyone else on the staff at the time. I had the feeling at the time that though I enjoy teaching I was wasting time and there was something all consuming waiting for me – it was the thrill of my narrative photography.

I believe that I have been created to run with this thrill, it is all consuming, I feel most alive when I am on the ‘street’ with my ‘M6 camera. But the ‘thrill of the moment’ only comes later when I am quietly viewing the negatives on the light box in my home office. I don’t trust the thrill of the moment while still out there with my camera, it has often just been the hype of the moment. Until I see the image I just think that I have something special.

I only stop taking photographs when I feel that I have captured the moment adequately.

Too often I have gone home to be disappointed with my images, by mistaking the hype of the moment for the thrill of the moment caught. It takes me a quiet space to really judge the moments caught; and that space is never while still out on a photographic shoot. It does not matter if you shoot a digital or an analogue camera, judge your images only after you have gone from the scene and you just feel that you have captured the moment while there.

View your thrills in a quiet and calm space.

I take ownership of all the images I have taken, there is nothing such as personal images and work images, all perceived by me and all are personal to me photographs. It does not matter if I took them for personal or monetary gain…

A photograph is just the perception of it’s author.






Illustration – pages 62,63 The Camera, Life Library of photography, Time Life Books

Cell phone cameras are becoming in the 21st century as were the 1st 35mm rangefinder cameras in an age of then bulky unwieldy cameras. When Henri Cartier Bresson first held a Leica M rangefinder camera in his hands, he had a camera that was small and easy for him to use, just as are the cell phone cameras in so many of our hands today… The Leica M camera has always been about a focus on the basics of aperture, shutter speed and ISO; and leaving the way open for the individual’s capture of the moment.

All cameras are just a light proof box with a controlled hole that lets a momentary light in onto a light sensitive surface where a image is recorded. There are just 3 controls in this regard: the aperture, the shutter speed and ISO.

“The quantity of light that reaches a piece of (photographic) film (sensor) inside a camera depends on a combination of aperture size and length of exposure (shutter speed). In the same way, the water that flows from a faucet depends on how wide the valve is open and how long the water flows. If a 2 second flow from a wide open faucet fills a glass, then the same glass will be filled in 4 seconds from a half open faucet.” – Editors of Time Life Books, 1976

The technical side of photography is simple. But as a photographic teacher I have had many learners who’s whole focus has been on all the buttons on the modern camera rather then on the images produced by these essentially simple devices, prompting the idea that these learners would be equally satisfied with a new multi buttoned torch in their hands.

Photography should be about the moments framed and not all about the gadgets framing. I have a client that does not mind if I use a digital or analogue camera, rather minding the picture produced by me. Just as the Leica M cameras changed the way we saw things when Henri Cartier Bresson first got one, we now have changed again the way we see things through the lens of the cell phone camera.

The cell phone camera has cut us loose from even the 3 basics of photography by dealing with these remarkably well on the whole, letting us focus on the moments in front of their tiny lens.

Now it is just for those who sill look down their noses past the ‘chimp’ screen on their DSLR camera at the little smart phone that could just as well frame the moments unseen in front of the ‘photographer.’