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Update February 2019

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SNAP SHOTS   by Harry Flashman


Never believe what you see

It used to be that people would claim “photographic proof” to demonstrate the veracity of something or other. How could you deny the existence of anything, if you had a photograph of it? After all, look at the Loch Ness monster. Nessie is real, there are dozens of snapshots of her, whilst all these other pretenders such as Big Foot are myths. You’ve never seen a photograph of Big Foot, now have you?

However, as we sauntered into the digital age, it became very obvious that not everything you saw in a photo was necessarily ‘real’. Mr. Photoshop soon put an end to that reality nonsense, complete with his filters and contrast and brightness adjustments. No, it was an all-new ball game.

But pro-shooters have been bending the truth for years. Even before Mr. Photoshop. Let’s look at a few examples where the photographer has to stretch the truth somewhat. Ever tried photographing champagne? There’s never enough bubbles to make it look as if it has just been poured. What to do? Drop some sugar into the glass. Only a few grains are enough to give the almost still glass of champers that “just opened” fizz look to it. You also have to bring the light in from the back of the glass, as well as from the front. Stick the flash head in behind and a large white reflector beside the camera and you have the ultimate shot.

While still on wines, if you try and shoot a bottle of red wine, it comes out thick dark maroon or even black. Restaurateurs who have tried photographing their wines will agree. So what does the pro shooter do? Well he has a couple of courses of action. First is to dilute the red wine by about 50 percent and secondly place a silver foil reflector on the back of the bottle. So what happens to the half bottle of red that was removed to dilute the wine? The photographer has it with dinner. Silly question.

And so to food photography. This is one area where there are more fraudulent practices than any other. Cold food can be made to look hot by sprinkling chips of dry ice to give “steam” coming off the dish. Not palatable, but it looks OK. Cooking oil gets brushed on slices of the cold meat so that they look moist and succulent.

That is just for starters. In the commercial photography studio, the dedicated food photographer would erect a “light tent” of white polystyrene and bounce electronic flash inside. Brightness is necessary to stop the food looking grey and dull. If you do not have bright sparkly light then potatoes will look grey, and even the china plates look drab and dirty.

In places such as the USA, there are very firm rules about photographing food. Mainly the fact that you are not allowed to use substitute materials which “look” like food, but are actually not. This covers the old trick of using shaving cream as the “cream” on top of cappuccino coffee for example, or polystyrene foam as “ice cream”. Personally I think this is a load of ballyhoo, because the photograph is just to represent what the food will look like – you don’t eat a photograph, now do you!

Even in simple portraiture, the concept is to show the sitter in the best possible way. For example, if the person has “bat ears” the portrait should be taken with the head turned so that one ear disappears from view. Not “lying” but presenting Mother Nature in a different way. And always remember that when all else fails, it’s a quick trip to the retouchers.

Another area of deception is real estate brochures. I have inserted an architect’s model of a hotel, as not yet built, into the aerial shot of a beach resort city. This required working out the height of the helicopter relative to the height of the model and then combining the two slides. It took two 12 hour days in the studio to photograph the architect’s model and another day in the lab to combine the images.

Never believe anything you see!

Shadow Boxing


B&W beach shot using shadow.

With the advent of color photography, the emphasis on lighting became (apparently) less. Photographers spent much time looking for blue doors to use for a model in a yellow dress. Eye-catching, colorful and powerful images were the new mantra.

However, with the advent of digital photography, and the ability to instantly review what you had taken, there became a shift back to looking at lighting.

The true “definition” of photography has often been said as “painting with light” and quite honestly, this concept of painting with light is one of the more exciting aspects of photography. It is also something that even the weekend photographer can experiment with and produce photographs that will amaze not just you, but also those who view them, with their ability to leap off the paper.

The secret of painting with light is to remember that all photographs should have a mixture of light, and its opposite, called shadow. Blasting the subject with a sea of light produces flat, wishy-washy photographs. This is why I am not in favor of the in-camera flash that pumps out enough light power to illuminate the moon. To produce shots with depth requires shadow. Just as when you look at a house, the sun casts a shadow which gives the house depth, as well as height and width. Depth is the third dimension, and without it you only have a two dimensional flat image. For the impression of 3D, you need shadow.

Now getting back to the job of taking photographs and painting with a bit of light. The usual light source is the one I like to call the Great Celestial Light Technician. This is more commonly referred to as the sun. Now the sun will supply enough light to illuminate half the world at one sitting, so there’s plenty of power for your subject and then some.

However, that sunlight is not all that suitable for most of the day, because when the sun is directly overhead, you do not get nice shadows. In the early mornings or late afternoons, when the sun is closer to the horizon, the shadows are longer, more visible and give more depth. So as well as being a more flattering light in the golden glow afternoons, the sun is at a better angle to give good shadows. So to improve your daytime shots only shoot between sunrise and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. till sunset.

Do not be afraid to let shadow into the shot. Position your subject so that they are not square on to the sun, but let the light come from about 45 degrees across the subject. Shadow adds mystery. Shadow adds that extra something. Use it!

Now let’s look at when you provide the principal source of light, after the sun has disappeared. There are actually many sources of light after dark - there is the electronic flash, both the “on camera” type and the off camera type, there are tungsten studio lights, there are tungsten spotlights (like the garden varieties), there are street lights, neon lights and even car headlights. All these light sources are at you beck and call, and all (other than the on camera flash) can work for you to produce great shots. Just look at where the shadows lie.

Many of you have a small flash unit that slips on to the “shoe” on the top of your camera. Do not use it there! Go and invest in a remote shoe. This comes with some electric cord that plugs into the camera body and has a shoe plate at the end of it that slips over the foot of your flash. You can buy extension cords too, and I would advise getting one about three meters long. Now you can position your subject anywhere you like and let the flash come down upon the subject at 45 degrees and you will get a much better photograph than the flash on top of camera straight on shot. Try it.

Take the camera off “Auto” and use A and S

We are in the ‘automatic’ era. We drive automatic cars. We have automatic gate openers and remote controls on our television sets, so we don’t even have to get out of the armchair. And when it comes to photography, slip the camera into “auto” mode and you ‘automatically’ get reasonable photographs. Note: I did not say “great” photographs, but if you want to get great photos take the camera off the ‘auto’ mode.

Now the camera manufacturers say that this is not necessary. Today’s cameras are smarter than we are, etc etc etc. You can twirl a knob, or select from a pull-down menu, the “portrait” mode or the “action” mode, and let the camera do the rest. That is all very fine, but you will get the portrait, or the action, that the camera ‘thinks’ is right. Not what you necessarily want, and there’s a big difference. You have a brain – it doesn’t.

In photography, there are really only two main variables, and after you understand them and what they do to your photograph it becomes very simple.

The first thing to remember is that the correct exposure is merely a function of how large is the opening of the lens and how much time the shutter is left open to let the light in. That’s almost it – that is photography in a nutshell. No gimmicks or fancy numbers – a straight out relationship – how open and for how long – this is known as the “Exposure”.

Now I will presume, for the sake of this exercise that you have an SLR and use it in the automatic, or “Programme” mode. Let’s go straight to the “mode” menu and look up “A” or “Aperture Priority”. In this mode it means that you can choose the aperture yourself, and the camera will work out the shutter speed that corresponds to the correct exposure. Still simple.

So let’s play with this facility to give you some better pictures. Select “A” and then look at the lens barrel and you will see the Aperture numbers, generally between 2.8 and 22. To give you a subject with sharp focus in the foreground and a gently blurred background, you need to select an aperture around f2.8 to f4. Hey! It was that simple. To get those “professional” portrait shots, with the model’s face clear and the background all wishy washy, just use the A mode and select an Aperture around f4 to f 2.8.

Now, if on the other hand you want everything to be nice and sharp, all the way from the front to the back, like in a landscape picture, then again select A and set the lens barrel aperture on f16 to f22. The camera will again do the rest for you. Again – it’s that easy!

Flushed with creative success, let’s carry on. The next mode to try is the “S” setting. In this one, you set the shutter speed and the camera automatically selects the correct aperture to suit. Take a look at the shutter speed dial or indicator and you will see a series of numbers that represent fractions of a second.

First, let’s “stop the action” by using a fast shutter speed. For most action shots, select S and set the shutter speed on around 1/500th to 1/1000th and you will get a shot where you have stopped the runner in mid stride, or the car half way through the corner or the person bungee jumping. Yes, it’s that easy.

So this week you have learned that to get a good portrait shot use the A mode and set the aperture on f4 to f2.8 and forget about the rest of the technical stuff. Just compose a nice photograph and go from there. (Do remember to walk in close however!) To get a great landscape shot, again use the A mode and set the aperture at f16 to f22.

Finally, to stop the action, choose the S mode and around 1/500th of a second and you won’t get blurry action shots ever again.

Certainly there are other aspects to good photography, but master the A and S modes and you will produce better pictures.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Never believe what you see

Shadow Boxing

Take the camera off “Auto” and use A and S