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Painting With Light

Rick Doble's
Experimental Digital Photography Book
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Painting With Light
by Rick Doble


These digital photographs were taken with a Sony CD1000 camera and a Casio QV 770 camera. The Ferris Wheel pictures and the self portraits were taken with the Casio and involved a lot of rapid camera movement. The rest of the images were taken with the Sony. Most images were taken hand held; those through the windshield of my van were taken with a small tripod mounted on the dash.

Shutter Speed:
Most images were created with a shutter speed between 1/4 of a second and 8 seconds. The shutter speed had to be adjusted to suit the camera movement, movement of the subject, lighting (especially to avoid over exposure) and also the degree of realism desired (a faster speed will yield more recognizable objects). With digital photography this is quite easy. Take a few pictures at different speeds until you start to get something. Then make some decisions about how realistic or abstract you want that imagery to be.

Subject Movement:
---Absolute movement:
By absolute movement I mean how the subjects are moving, i.e. whether they are running or walking, and in groups whether they are moving together in tandem or at different rates and/or in different directions.
---Internal movement (part of absolute movement):
People move in a variety of complex ways. They don't simply walk forward but swing their arms. When dancing, a person often stays in one small space but moves his/her body quite quickly within that space. You can minimize some movement by panning the camera in sympathy with it or conversely you can exaggerate it by panning against it. Most subjects involve several movements at the same time. In a complex group scene you might have some people who are quite stationary and thus will be relatively sharp, while others will be blurred.
---Relative movement:
By relative I mean the motion of the subject in relation to the camera. For example, to create the same effect a subject that is walking away will require a slower shutter speed than a subject that is walking from left to right directly in front of the camera.

Camera Movement:
With a slow shutter speed the camera can move in several different ways all within one exposure. For example, I can smoothly pan the camera with walking subjects or I can move in fits and starts.
Hand held vs. tripod:
A hand held slow shutter speed image will appear to be much softer than one taken with a tripod. Although this has always been true, long exposures exaggerate the hand holding motion, even in the hands of a very steady photographer such as myself.

A Combination of Movements:
For example, you can combine a panning camera movement with a subject that is walking. Or you can freeze some aspects and lets others run free. For example, I took eight second exposures through the windshield of my van with rain on the windshield. The tripod in my van kept the camera steady in relation to the windshield, but not in relation to the lights outside the moving van. While the windshield and rain drops remained relatively sharp, the lights outside were smeared and blurred.

Lens Focal Length:
The longer the focal length, the more movement will be exaggerated especially with camera movement. A photographer will be able to achieve some of these motion effects late in the day using a telephoto lens and a somewhat faster shutter speed (1/8 of a second or faster). Very slow shutter speeds are often not possible during the day because the light sensitive material may overexpose even late in the afternoon.

The higher the aperture, the longer you can set the exposure and the more will be in relative focus. If your camera does not have high enough f-stops, you can use neutral density filters to knock the light down several stops.

Lighting Conditions:
For very long exposures to work, a photographer needs to find a low light situation that is appropriate. Generally this will be at night or in twilight. In addition to the color and intensity of the light sources (see below), I look for reflective surfaces that will bounce the light back and spread it around. I watch for things such as shiny metal surfaces, white sidewalks and reflections in the rain.

The Color of the Light:
I look for conditions with a variety of light sources at night. A neon light, a normal house bulb, and several different street lamps can produce a range of colors in one scene. Stop lights are also quite interesting.

I have to confess, I have not worked much with out of focus images. The one exception is that I have focused on the rain on the windshield of my van and let the outside light, which will be blurred anyway, go out of focus.

Determining exposure:
With digital this is really simple. Just take a picture and look at it on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. For long exposures you will need a camera that lets you override automatic exposures and go to shutter preferred mode or totally manual mode.

This is a bear! For some reason, the LCD screen goes blank when a long exposure is going on, at least with my cameras. I have learned to use the old microscope trick. I frame with my right eye, through the camera, and then switch to my left eye when the picture is being taken. This is not ideal but after a while I get a sense of framing even though I can see nothing through the lens at the moment the picture is being taken.

Chance and accident:
Long exposures mean that someone may suddenly walk into the frame or a car with bright headlights will appear and overexpose the entire picture, but it's only film (as we used to say). With digital it is only space on your hard drive; you can even erase a picture. I have found that letting accidental elements occur often yields wonderful and surprising results. It is also very freeing. This adds a new dimension to photography.

If you experiment as I have suggested here, you might take fifty images before you find one that you really like. As you become more experienced, you will find that ratio comes down from 50:1 to maybe 20:1. This is not unusual for any kind of photography. What is really important, however, is to be able to recognize your own best work since these images are often quite abstract.

Sharpness is relative! Just ask Einstein. While there are absolute optical criteria for sharpness, the eye sees things differently. A slightly unsharp face will look quite sharp against a blurred background. This is a major effect that a photographer can use when working with motion and long exposures.

Instead of framing a rectangle, this photography requires you to frame a figure in motion. Lots of trial and error will show you the best way to work.

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