Category: Part 4

Exercise 4.3 Initial images

This would have been a much easier exercise to accomplish had I addressed it earlier in the year!  As I have chosen, at least initially, to shoot outdoors, I face the practical problem of having to stay up quite late (at least for me!) for it to become dark enough for artificial light to do its work.  At my elevated Northumbrian latitude, around the time of the summer solstice, it does not get properly dark here until very late, and is already light again by 4 a.m..

The following are the first few images that I feel have worked.  Each was taken in my garden in an attempt to capture something of the light cast by lights within the house and on the outside of the garage.  All were taken using a tripod, because of the long exposures, using a 50mm lens.  For sharpness, and as long exposures were going to be used anyway, I left ISO at 100.  None of the images have been processed in any way.

f/10, 30s

This is a view from the lawn into the kitchen through the garden room (with curtains half drawn).  White balance for this was set to fluorescent which seems to give the most natural effect for the halogen and LED lights in the room.  The light in the middle of the open curtain section is clearly over-exposed and is harsher than it would be in reality, no doubt a function of the long exposure. Nevertheless the over all effect , perhaps as a result of the colours of the wood in the kitchen (American walnut and birch) is quite warm, notwithstanding that the walls and ceiling are white.  I think it is quite a welcoming light.

f/4.5, 30s

This was a chance encounter and not what I was seeking but I have included it because of the quality of the light.  This is a common frog that has taken up residence in a small orchard to the from too the house, and I just by chance happened to notice sitting on the wall by the drive as I moved the camera.  Very obligingly it remained motionless for the duration of the exposure!  Ideally I would have used a zoom lens to focus more on the frog itself but only had the one lens to hand at the time and in any event the real subject here is the light rather than the frog.  The frog merely provided a different way of capturing some of that light.  It is illuminated by a fluorescent light on the outside of the garage (which also illuminated the shots that follow).  What strikes me about the light here is that is quite strong, casting sharp shadows, but is again quite warm.  It also brings out the colours, particularly of the grass, much more strongly, and richly, than I might otherwise have expected,

f/9, 30s

This view is lit by the same light as above but no doubt because of the distance from the subject the light is a lot less strong.  It does though still make the stonework and the leaves of the apple tree almost glow.  I was also struck by the difference in the tone and warmth of the interior lights that can be see in the background, despite the fact both are from similar energy saving fluorescent bulbs and swing through curtains of the same material (though of slightly different shades0.  Possibly it is a result to the remnants of the natural light reflecting on the upper window, giving it a much cooler cast.

f/9, 30s

This last one (for now) was the first one I took and is looking back into the drive from the road.  I was careful to ensure the light source was just out of frame to avoid overwhelming the shot and overexposing the left hand side.  I might reshoot this as I am not sure about having the car in view but it does help to emphasise the strength of the light and the sharp shadows it cast.  It does also help to highlight the cool tone of the ambient light, post sunset, as reflected on the surface of the car. What this also says to me though is that whilst the light is quite strong in the sense it is sharp, it is not so strong in so far as how far it projects.  Beyond the front of the car it is already starting to lose intensity.  This shot also emphasis in a way the other two above do not how directed and channelled the light is by the physical structure of the garden here.

This is the only one of this set that has more than one significant light source.  Getting the white balance though was not difficult.  Fluorescent gives the most natural hue to the stone work, even if perhaps overemphasising the green of the grass, without unduly distorting the natural blue of the sky.  I have played around with other setting to see if there is a more natural colour for the latter but there seems not to be, that does not also make the light from the garage appear unnatural.


Exercise 4.3 Research

This exercise is dealing with artificial light.  I understand that what is being talked about is ambient artificial light of some sort rather than light produced by a flash.  I assume that what we are therefore concerned with is light from, for example, street lamps, domestic lights, signage (as is the case with the work of Sato Shintaro referred to in the course material), and so on.

As an aside, although I looked at Shintaro’s work I did not derive much inspiration from it.  Although I can see what he was doing his work does not appeal much to megrim a compositional point of view.  My immediate impression is of random assemblages of illuminated signs with no particular form or structure to them.  I do though accept that I have perhaps not analysed them in as much depth as no doubt they warrant.

Coming from that starting point, an issue I have with this exercise from the outset so far as research is concerned is that it is not always immediately apparent whether a given photograph was taken under ambient artificial light or whether it was lit by flash.  I have focused on work that as far as I can tell has used ambient light rather than flash, but obviously cannot be certain.  Nevertheless, I am not sure whether the distinction is ultimately that important so far as what work has influenced me and my final choice of what to shoot is concerned.

The extent to which any of the work that I am going to consider below can realistically be a significant influence is tempered by the reality of where I live.  I live in a dark village – it has no street lights.  There is as a result little in the way of ambient artificial light.  What light there is  is limited to localised house lights, both internal and external.  What I therefore decide to try to capture is going very much to depend on finding what light I can locally, unless I travel further afield.  I do not propose though, for example, to travel into the centre of Newcastle, the nearest city, where there would no doubt be plenty of potential subjects, not least because of the distance involved and the need to be out late.  In any event I feel that such a subject as the Quayside in Newcastle in particular has, although quite photogenic at night, already been done to death.  Any Google or Bing Images search on the internet will bring up so many examples that the subject matter is in danger of becoming, if it has not already done so, thoroughly hackneyed and over done.  The Abbey and Market Square in Hexham, which is a good deal closer, do though offer some more practical and interesting opportunities.

The first two examples of work that has caught my eye are fairly extreme and are doing quite different things.  One is the work of Gregory Crewdson, whom I first came across in Cotton (2014, pages 67-68) and then again in Bright (2005, pages 80-83).  This really is extreme!  His work is more filmic than anything and compresses a dense and richly allusive, although not necessarily easily comprehensible or decodable, narrative into a single frame.  These pictures are very clearly artificially lit (apparently using film lights) and bring a light to the scene that is unnatural, dramatic, and even on occasion hyper-real.  The artifice is always evident and is presumably key to what Crewdson is trying to achieve.  This is one of my favourites, not least because it is so redolent of so many sci-fi movies!

The other extreme, of a different nature, is represented by the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, particularly his Theatre and Drive-In Theatre series.  Here the artificial light of the films projected onto the featured scenes is all important, and indeed pretty much all that these pictures show.  As Crewdson is perhaps compressing a longer narrative into a single frame, so Sugimoto is here compressing time into a single image, the exposure for each lasting the entire length of the film that happened to be showing.

“Union City Drive-in”

Both of these I find interesting but from a practical and technical point of view neither are really achievable, and therefore capable of being emulated with the equipment that I have (not to mention the lack of technical skills!).

Thomas Ruff’s Nachtbilder series also caught my eye, not least because of the air of unreality that he has captured (Campany, 2012, page 122).  Nevertheless his work generally is not something that inspires me and his effect are not really what I am interested in.

I like some of Nan Goldin’s work that involves interior scenes, presumably lit with ordinary lights. To take just one example shown in Campany (2012, page 179), Self-Portrait with Brian from The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy, is striking because the warmth of the light is at odds with the uncertainty and uncomfortableness that the scene itself otherwise presents.  As so often seems to be the case with Goldin’s work all is not well nor everyone happy!

Some of the work of Rut Blees Luxembourg has a similar air of unease, and possibly lurking threat given the nature of some of the places where she has photographed, as is the case with the example shown by Campany (2012, page 108) – such a public stairwell is not somewhere that I would want to be after dark.  The examples shown by Bright on the other hand (2005, pages 202-204)  do not seem to carry that same sense of menace.  Rather, by photographing the city at night, in this case Dakar, she produces somewhere that is unreal (the predominance of green I find surprising and although it has a somewhat alien air it is nevertheless strangely comforting) but nevertheless warm and almost magical.  What impresses me most is the way she creates a different way to see the place, and this is something that I would be interested in exploring.

The one picture though that I have most in mind when thinking about this subject is this:

This is the work of Julian Germain that originally appeared in an issue of Ashington District Star, the community led photographic project that Germain helped establish in and around Ashington.  In daylight this scene (based on a painting by Fred Laidler, one of the original Pitmen Painters) is probably unremarkable.  The ambient light though, presumably from sodium street lights as well as the signs over the shop, adds a comforting and welcoming warmth to the scene.  Although the light inside the ship is harsh and cool (in contrast to what was no doubt a warm, close atmosphere within the shop) it is nevertheless also welcoming, contributing to the over all sense of community and inclusion that the picture projects.  Again I am not sure that this is something that I nevertheless want to emulate but I am sure it will still be at the back of my mind when I make my attempt.

The last work that says something to me about this exercise is Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hartford, 1979 used by Stephen Shore (2007, page 67).

Here the artificial light is inside and does not really illuminate the exterior of the buildings.  This serves to frame the subject and draw the eye and centre of focus to him.  Given that locally at least I am probably going to have to depend on light coming from inside buildings this is an effect that I intend to explore.

Bright, S, (2005).  Art Photography Now.  London: Thames & Hudson.

Campany, D, (2012).  Art and Photography.  London:  Phaidon.

Cotton, C, (2014).  The Photograph as Contemporary Art.  London:  Thames & Hudson

Shore, S, (2007).  The Nature of Photographs.  London:  Phaidon.


Part 4 Exercise 4.2

This was an interesting exercise not least because it made me notice more consciously and appreciate the differences in the quality of light and how it changes over the course of a day.

For subject matter I chose a nucleus box, a sort of compact bee hive, in my garden in which I am raising a new queen bee to start a new colony of honey bees.  Partly this was purely pragmatic as I did not want to have to cover any great distance every couple of hours for the next shot.  Also though it has some visual interest from the mix of materials and textures that are involved:  wood, metal, rock, grass and plants, and tree bark.  The box is facing roughly due south and so catches light throughout the entire day.

I had hoped to start shooting very early, not long after dawn, but practicalities such as having to attend first to my dog and chickens meant that this was not workable.  I did though start before 08.00 and continued until after 19.00, by which time the sun was sinking behind a neighbour’s trees, cutting out direct light.  All were shot using an 85mm lens (I wanted to keep out of the way of the bees flying in and out, though, as it turned out, they were not very active despite it being a good flying day for them – not very surprising as this set of bees had only been in the box for a few days and were just getting established) with ISO set at 100.  The camera was set to Manual mode. To achieve a true comparison I settled one one viewpoint.  I did not use a tripod so  I worked around using a minimum shutter speed of 1/60s throughout, adjusting the aperture to match.  As it worked out all but one of the pictures were taken with this shutter speed, the exception being the fifth one below, for which the shutter speed was 1/320s, no doubt because of the strength of the light at that time.

07.52,  f/14, 1/60s

This early light was very sharp and clear.  There was very little cloud and almost no haze.  Shadows were strong though not sharp edged.  Temperature was about 8.5°.

10.07, f/8, 1/60s

Just two hours later the temperature had gone up to 19° and there was a lot more cloud.  The light as a result was a lot more diffuse and flat, the shadows were quite weak

12.00, f/7.1, 1/60s

By midday the cloud had thickened further but the light had become less flat so there stronger shadows.  The change in the aperture though shows how the light was actually getting weaker as the morning wore on.

15.20, f/5.6, 1/60s

By mid afternoon the temperature had risen to 21° and the main layer of cloud (cumulonimbus?) was more broken but there was a lot more higher level cloud and the light was again quite hazy, and a little weaker.

17.32, f/5.6, 1/320s

Late afternoon and the sun is now behind the subject.  By this time the sky was much clearer again and the light was quite strong again, casting sharp shadows.  Although the temperature was now 22° there was less haze.  The very much faster shutter speed came as something of a surprise and is an indicator of the relative strength of the light.

19.02, f/3.2, 1/60s

The sun was now falling below the top of my neighbour’s trees.  It had again become quite cloudy  and the light had become very flat again.  I would best describe it as “milky”.  The sharp contrasts and deep shadows of the previous shot had now gone.  The steady decline in the strength of the light had continued until I had to decrease the f stop still further to 3.2, a far cry from the f/14 with which the day had started.

Was I surprised by the results?  Not really.  As Sally Mann comments in the interview referred to in the course material, there is a particular quality to northern light.  It does have a particular clarity and sharpness, literally a lucidity, all of its own, and it is all the more striking when the temperature is cool.  As there was little cloud early in the morning I expected the light to be at its best, and anticipated that it would deteriorate (if that is the right word) as the day progressed.  I similarly expected it to strengthen again in the evening – sunsets in northern latitudes can sometimes be quite spectacular.  If I was surprised at all it was by the fact that as time progressed the quality of the light deteriorated as much as it did.  It is tempting to think of high noon being the time of the strongest sunlight but here at least it is not always so.

Part Four Exercise 4.1

This was an interesting exercise that I have not done before.  I had read that in automatic modes modern DSLRs find it hard to differentiate different shades so that even black and white can come out looking the same, and that is exactly what has happened:

These were shots of, respectively, black, grey, and white cards.  Although there are some slight differences the histograms are very similar.  All were shot from the same position, the camera mounted on a tripod, focused manually by reference to the distance scale on the lens (50mm 1/1.4) – not surprisingly the autofocus would not work.  I know for the purpose of this exercise it is not necessary to focus accurately but as I was hoping that the second set, shot manually, would bring out more of the qualities of the ‘neutral’ grey card I decided it would be useful to focus as accurately as I could.

The camera settings chosen by the camera were unsurprisingly different – black, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 320; grey, f/3.5, 1/125s, ISO 100; white, f/4.5, 1/160s, ISO 100 – nevertheless the end results are barely distinguishable (but for a blemish on the grey card!).

Switching to Manual I set the camera to f/22 for all the shots, otherwise exactly the same procedure as above.  This time the images are distinctly different and the different shades are clearly apparent.

To get the right histograms all I had to do was adjust the shutter speed for the white card to 1.30s.  The other two were both set at 0.50s.  ISO for all three was 100.

All the shots were taken in natural light, somewhat overcast, so perhaps it is not great surprise that the second set have much slower shutter speeds than the first.  I did notice while experimenting in camera before taking the shots that setting the shutter speed for the white card to 0.50s as well produced a histogram with he peak shifted significantly back towards the centre, about one third of the way in from the right.

The other thing I find particularly striking is that the grey card shows its colours and texture much more clearly; it is not a monotone, nor is it smooth.  The black and white cards are, in contrast, monotones and the surfaces smooth.