Martin Bailey [on] Photography (Podcast 113)

Cosmos Rhapsody #1

Martin Bailey [on] Photography (Podcast 113)

Today we share a document entitled Martin Bailey [on] Photography, which is basically a play on the site name. I have just put down a number of random thoughts on Photography, based on a few headers that I spat out while thinking of the project. The main point of today’s Podcast is to go through the document for the sake of those of you that would prefer to listen than to read. I do urge you to take a look at the document as well though, as I have placed example images appropriately throughout the document. I’m not going to call out the numbers of all the images today, and will not include them all in the audio files either, because they are so readily viewable in the document, and there are links to the images at the end of the PDF as well. There are two that I need you to look at to get what I’m talking about though, so I’ll let you know when we get there.

PDF IconFirst off there’s a little bit of a biography, in which I just explain that I was born in Nottingham in 1967, which yes, makes me forty this year. I talk a little about when I got my first camera, what I shoot with now etc. I also mention what type of subjects I shoot but I won’t go into details on this now.

I then start the document with a section on what attracts me to photography. Basically, since I was small I loved to make things. I spent ours drawing, painting or sculpting with Plasticine, which for those of you that don’t know is a kind of modelling clay that kids love to play with in the UK. I’m not sure if it’s available in other parts of the world, but it probably is. During my school days I hated maths. I don’t like anything where the teacher can only say “It doesn’t matter why you multiply the two numbers in this situation you just do, so remember the formula!” Sure, if I’d had better teachers with the patience to explain how the formula came about or why we use it, it might have been fun, but I wasn’t that lucky. I did enjoy art, metalwork, woodwork, physics and even English language and literature which were more academic than my other favourites, and I did pay more attention to all of these subjects, when I wasn’t trying to be the center of attention and messing around in class. These subjects were either creative, or had formulae and rules attached that I could either understand the explanation of, or guess the reasons why it was how it was.

To me, photography is the amalgamation of art and science. With film or digital it has always been about both the physics of light and mechanics of the equipment, as well as the eye and will of the artist. We can enlarge the aperture and reduce the shutter speed to get the same exposure value, and the aperture used to do so effects our depth of field, which gives us artistic options. I can take 10 minutes to fill the bucket very deliberately through a straw, or smash the water into the bucket in 1/500th of a second with a fire-hose, right? It’s the science and physics behind photography coupled with the artist inside of us that we use to create beautiful slices of time. This was one of the many attractions of photography to me.

I go on to discuss what motivates me. I guess I need to start again from my school days. I was not a good student when I tried the first time around, though I did OK when I went back to college here in Japan at age 28 to learn Multimedia. I was though always pushed on immensely, when I received even the tiniest amount of praise. Despite my not being a good student, I have never done anything by halves. I either give it my all, or just don’t do it at all. My Mum always told me “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”, and I was profoundly changed by this seeming simple statement. Everything I decide to do gets 100%. I have in fact had to learn to go easy a little on some projects, because I was getting almost compulsive about getting everything just right.

In photography I’ve found something that excites me from a scientific and artistic perspective, and I’ve become good enough to receive praise for my work. When I see the reaction of the viewer of my photographs, I am encouraged to create more and more. It’s the look, or sometimes even the tears in their eyes, or the kind comments I’ve received from viewers of my work that makes me realize that my mastery of both the science and the art of photography is in some way affecting them, sometimes causing an emotional response. Sometimes people enjoy my work to the point that they buy prints to enjoy the work first hand, hang on their walls or gift to loved ones. This is another huge motivation for me. These things are my drive and what urge me to push the boundaries further, to better my craft and to continue to reach out with my photography.

Next, I discuss the somewhat clichéd subject of Painting with Light. As we all know, light is everything in photography. With no light at all, we can’t make a traditional photograph, not without including infrared and what have you. The quality of the light we use for our photographs governs the end result. I shot the two images of the same flower bed within minutes of each other. We looked at these together in a recent Podcast, but I really have to have you look at these again now to follow the topic, so let’s look at just these two in the normal way, either in iTunes or on my Web site by entering the image numbers or looking at the Podcasts page. Anyway, the first one is image number 1561. As you can see, this shot has light pouring into it, actually through a gap in the trees behind the scene that you can’t see in the image. I’m not going to go into detail about the image itself, but take a look quickly before we move on.

Cosmos Rhapsody #1

Cosmos Rhapsody #1

Which we’ll do now by looking at image number 1564, literally taken minutes later, and has just a tiny amount of direct sunlight hitting the pink flower in the top right third intersection with the rest in total shade.

Cosmos Rhapsody #1

Cosmos Rhapsody #1

The feel of the shots though as I’m sure you’ll agree is totally different. The image with the direct light has a very warm, late afternoon, maybe even lazy afternoon feel to it. The almost totally shaded flower bed though has a very pastel colour feel, looking more like it was shot around dawn. This really shows just how much light effects an image, even when shot at pretty much exactly the same time. I go to great lengths to be at the right place at the right time. Driving through the night or sleeping in the car is not uncommon. Especially in Japan, the sun rises very early, so the morning “golden” time is very early. Getting up early just doesn’t cut it because I’m so far away from many of the places of natural beauty that I frequent.

Having said that I don’t believe shooting in the harsh midday light is a no-no. We often can’t beg and choose, and so have to learn to capitalise on what we have sometimes. With macro work for example bright midday sun is not always a bad thing, so I adjust my goals to suit the time I have to shoot.

Next I go into working the Depth of Field. When I started out in photography I was under the misconception that I had to get as much depth of field in my images as possible, regardless of my artistic objectives (or lack of them). Of course there are times when you need as much depth of field as you can get, and I now shoot at hyper-focal distance quite often when doing landscape work just to achieve this, but before I figured out the real artistic uses of depth of field I was obsessive about getting as much in focus as possible. I shot almost exclusively in Aperture Priority mode, not a bad thing in itself, but my main reason was so that I could adjust the aperture to the smallest possible while watching the resulting shutter speed, just to increase my depth of field as much as possible. Thinking about it I’d probably have been better off shooting in Shutter Priority and setting the lowest speed I thought I’d need and let the camera give me as small an aperture as it could! I now cringe when looking at some of my early photography, due to this misconception.

Since I started to experiment with the artistic uses of bokeh (the now Anglicized Japanese word for the out of focus areas of a photograph) a huge proportion of my photography is shot with wide apertures. This started with macro work, but as I am able to add large aperture lenses to my arsenal, this is really taking over my photography and changing my style immensely. I now tend to think in terms of how wide an aperture I can get away with. At first I would shoot from widest to the smallest aperture I could get away with, probably a remnant of my earlier habits. Now though I tend to shoot wide open, and then a few clicks stopped down, and not even bother to cover the smaller apertures as I know I won’t use them. Placing objects between your camera and your main subject area can help to add depth and additional interest. I call this foreground bokeh, and tend to keep my eyes open for situations where this will work, but try not to overdo it. Doing this too much would soon become cliché.

Many people think that once the background has been thrown out of focus with a wide aperture it can be forgotten about. This is at best wasting a valuable artistic resource, and at worst, you’ll end up with patches of colour or contrast in areas you really didn’t want them, and they can really disrupt the composition or flow of your end results. This is especially true when you have stopped a wide aperture lens down some without checking the depth of field with the preview button. Not always necessary once you’re used to this, but advisable while developing your eye, as stopping down even by one stop puts considerably more shape into your bokeh that can’t be seen with the aperture wide open.

Once you get the hang of really seeing your bokeh though, you can start to clean up the background and foreground, and then start to use it to add interest to your images by placing patches of colour and light in key areas, and use the bokeh to paint-in your background. While out shooting these days, I keep an eye out trying to see subjects in the shade with bright backgrounds. Then, once again, keeping my eye on the positioning of the elements in the bokeh, I find an exposure somewhere between that necessary for the shade and the bright areas. The results can be incredibly interesting, sometimes even surreal, watercolour-like bokeh.

Next I discuss proximity. Getting in close to your subject will always add impact and help to remove distracting objects from the surroundings. This is how we edit our image in camera. This goes for all kinds of photography, including Landscapes and Wildlife. While being careful not to get too close, by keeping your distance and using telephoto lenses, you can still fill the frame with portions of the landscape or wildlife. It’s sometimes difficult to know just how much to crop out while shooting, but my rule of thumb is to keep everything that’s necessary to identify the subject or the scene and everything else is expendable. People sometimes comment on my work, saying that it would be nice to see the whole scene, or the top of the tree line. What they don’t often realize is that by going wider and showing that, you are simply detracting from the main subject, the thing that attracted you to the scene or subject in the first place. In my opinion, it’s totally unnecessary to include something that people can guess is there.

Sometimes quite the opposite is true. You can stay well away from a subject that you might want to get closer to, but compose the shot in such a way that the surroundings are either totally non-distracting, or a natural yet un-encroaching environment for your subject. Isolating your subject in its environment will of course distance you from the subject, but this can actually result in a shot almost as intimate as one in which you can almost feel the warmth of their breath.

Next I get back to my favourite controversial subject of Luck in Photography. There is almost always a special moment, or few minutes when the photo is right there for the making. Mist on a lake for example may only be there for 30 seconds, or a few minutes. A quirky pose of a wild animal can last less than a second. Getting to a spot that you’re likely to see your subject and being ready to capture the scene is paramount. Knowing your gear like the back of your hand is important too, so that you don’t fumble the shot in the excitement of the situation.

I’ve heard people talk about luck in photography as though it’s a dirty word. Some feel that as the technician behind the shot, we have total control, and the very thought of an element of luck effecting the outcome is simply outrageous. This to me is as outrageous as luck having no part in photography. Sure, if you are shooting household goods for a catalogue in a studio, with total control over the subject and the lighting, then luck won’t come in to it, I agree. Even if you are working with models, children or animals, if the situation is controllable, luck probably plays only a tiny part in your end result. But, if you are shooting nature or natural events, or wildlife, any one of multiple factors can either make or break your photographs.

Of course, planning your shoots at a time of day to get the right quality or direction of light is important. Using information on hand like magazines, the Internet or your own shooting history to time your visit at a certain time of year, say when the autumn leaves are at their best, or a certain type of flower is blooming is necessary. No amount of luck will bring a rose into bloom or autumn leaves on the trees in the middle of February, not in the northern hemisphere at least.

All the best planning and effort on your part though does not guarantee you to get the shot. Mother Nature will always have the last say. We can sometimes make the most of what we get, by switching to shooting in the rain instead of sunshine if that’s what happens, and this can give good results too. I actually sometimes head out in the rain just for this, but then if I wanted rain, and the sun shone, I’d be in the reverse situation but the same lack of luck, or should I say cooperation?

Hold Your Post and Don’t Listen to Everything People Say. External or available information is important in photography. We can’t know what’s happening everywhere, and often local information from someone in-the-know can be invaluable. Where there’s a bird with hatchlings in the nest, or where there is a little known waterfall at the end of a dirt track is information that we must reap or we’d have no idea where to go. When it comes to nature though, the locals may have as little knowledge as you, as again this can be based mainly on luck.

A good example of good fortune through holding my post is when I climbed a mountain that is a few hours away from my Tokyo apartment by car. I was hoping to capture a sunset including the iconic Mount Fuji, which I know is visible from the top of the mountain. (I’d been there before and planned to come back for this someday.) It had become quite cloudy as we approached though and climbed the mountain with my heavy camera gear, so I was thinking that maybe I’d be out of luck.

As I reached the summit, there were a few photographers that started packing their gear away and after a short while made their way down the mountain. My better half who was with me at the time turned and said that we were probably out of luck, and should go home. I wasn’t ready to quit though. There was a small shack selling drinks and snacks, as this is a popular location, and I went inside and bought a drink, and at the same time asked the guy inside if he thought we’d see Mount Fuji today. “Nah” He said. The clouds had rolled in thick, and we were probably out of luck for today, was his forecast.

Still I was not ready to quit. The clouds were thick and it was cold, but I was hoping for a spot of luck. I set up my camera, and waited for a while. My wife was getting cold, and I was thinking that maybe it was a futile exercise, but what the hey, we’ve spent the afternoon getting here we may as well wait until the sun goes down! After a while, the clouds started to turn a little red, indicating that the sun was getting lower in the sky. Within minutes the clouds broke and the magnificent form of Mount Fuji presented itself, with the sun also breaking through the clouds forming an incredible fiery red sunset with thick cloud still looming across the top of the sky. Despite it being a magnificent landscape on a grand scale, it was almost as though I was watching the drama unfold through a letterbox! Needless to say that I felt not only humbled by the beauty of the vista before me, I also felt happy that I’d stuck to my guns. I also of course felt incredibly lucky. Against all odds I was the only person left on the mountain with a camera as everyone warmed by the air conditioning of their cars on their way home, and I have the photographs to prove it.

Next I talk about respecting our subjects. I have a deep respect for all living beings, and like to think that this comes through in my work. Every living creature be it flora or fauna, and every piece of earth, rock or body of water that homes it, deserves to be treated with respect. If you treat your subjects with contempt the results will not only show through in your work, but you’ll probably end up harming your subject in some way to get your shots. In macro photography for example, I’ve heard of people capturing their subjects, killing them and then pinning them in place in order to get a shot of a rare insect looking natural on a plant. This is rare in itself, I would hope, but still people are sometimes careless enough to harm the insects or their habitat, which of course is never going to help the creatures we covert on film.

With larger animals, getting too close or stalking them for too long can affect their behaviour patterns. This can have repercussions on their mating habits too, which again is not really what we want to be doing. This is a fine line. We need to get relatively close to animals to photograph them. Also, shooting wildlife and publishing our work helps to bring them into the spotlight and helps others to appreciate them, which in turn helps to raise awareness and to some degree can help to protect their environment. So I’m not saying we should not photograph wildlife. I’m saying that when we do, we should treat them with respect, and be careful not to disrupt their behaviour patterns or the environment they depend on. If you really live this, it will start to shine through in your images.

Next is another of my pet topics — getting it right in camera. With digital photography making it so much easier to confirm that our exposure is correct I find it totally backwards to not chimp (which is of course the act of looking at your LCD after shooting a photograph). I agree that this can be taken too far – looking at the LCD after every single image is counter-productive – but I see no reason why we shouldn’t use the technology to ensure that our results are what we expect and that the light falls where we intend it to in our histograms. I’m a huge believer that we should strive to get it right in camera. Just because you can change the exposure or White Balance or a multitude of other settings in Post Processing, it doesn’t mean that you should rely on this. Even if you shoot RAW, everything done to your final image is destructive to a degree, even if you don’t change the original RAW file. There is a limit to how much you can restore detail in blown out highlights, and dragging detail out of shadows only increases the grain. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t use Post Processing to correct mistakes in the field, but I believe it should be used for just that, correcting mistakes, not used as an excuse for sloppy shooting.

I finish with a section on Fine Art Prints. I find actually printing out our photographs is an incredibly important step in appreciating our art. People actually hold their prints in physical form so much less now, with the advent of digital. These days we can see a perfect representation on-screen, create amazing slideshows and flick through thumbnails at will on our digital light-boxes, without ever having to create a print. But when you do print out your work on nice quality paper, especially at A4 or better still A3+ (13×19”) sizes, the print really just comes to life. Sure, there are issues of monitor and printer calibration to make sure you get something very close to what you see on your screen, but I find calibrating the monitor regularly and then using printer profiles from the paper manufacturer enable me to get it spot on most of the time, with the odd reprint for predominantly dark subjects.

Just the feeling of one of your babies printed out, especially on one of the professional fine art papers, really caps off the whole photography thing for me. It is these prints actually that is my main form of income from photography, especially as penny stock photo agencies increase with more and more people practically giving away their images effectively knocking the bottom out of the stock photography market. Pretty much all of the images in my online gallery are available to buy fine art prints of at sizes up to 13×19”.

I price my images reasonably, to allow more people the thrill of holding a fine art print without it breaking the bank. It’s always a thrill for me too, to receive an email from a happy customer that has just slid one of my prints out of the postage tube and held it in their hand for the first time and experienced the quality and beauty of the print. Quite often they simply can’t resist letting me know how this feels, and I’m incredibly grateful for this.

And this is pretty much what I finish the document with in terms of content. I include a page with links and some reference details for all fifteen of the images included in the document. There is also a reference page but as you already listen to this Podcast there probably won’t be anything there new to you, so I’m going to skip over that today.

Before we finish just a quick reminder that the Fire Assignment finishes this coming weekend — your images need to be uploaded to the assignment gallery by the end of November the 25th, at which time I’ll lock the gallery for uploads, and start the voting system for this gallery until the end of December the 9th. I’ll then announce the winners in the Podcast released on or shortly after December the 10th. I also have found a sponsor to give us a great prize that I intend to announce in the opener for the next Assignment, and I may well make this the year prize a tad earlier than expected, so get those entries in to give yourself a chance of scooping that.

Finally, a word about the Hokkaido Workshop next year, I have actually left the price of the workshop at the early bird price even though the deadline has passed, because we still don’t really have enough attendees to really make this gig pay, so if you were thinking you’d missed out, don’t despair. I’ll continue to take bookings for a while at the original rate. The longer you leave it though the more like it is that I won’t be able to add additional rooms and flights etc so I still urge you to let me know as soon as possible if you are interested. You can actually book your place by making payment with the links on the web site, and you can also find lots of other information there too to help you to make up your mind. If you still have questions though, just mail me at and I’ll answer any questions you might have.

And that’s about it for today. So with that, all that remains to be said is thanks for listening, and you have a great week, whatever you’re doing — Bye-bye.

Show Notes

If you don’t want to read the document, take a listen instead, but I suggest you at least flick through the PDF, as it’s quite pretty!

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Michael Rammell

Posted on behalf of Martin by Michael Rammell, a Wedding Photographer based in Berkshire, England. Michael also has a long-standing passion for Nature & Landscape photography. To catch up with Michael, visit his Web site, and follow him on the following social networking services.

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