Thursday, October 23, 2014

Photography and the Art of Saxophone Playing

 Dear Stephen

I think I'll stop studying photography. It's far too technical, and all I really want to do is make nice photographs that I can show to my family and friends. 

I don't see the point of all that stuff about white balance, ISO settings, aperture and shutter speeds etc, etc. 

They are not what I wanted to hear about and it all seems pointless and something I'll never get my head around.

Dear (whoever feels the same)

I'm learning to play the saxophone at the moment, and I started last year when I was 58 - and I am concentrating on a jazz style. I had played other musical instruments previously, so I thought how hard could it be? it certainly looks easy enough when you hear a good player do it.

Well, it's very hard. I first of all had learn how use the mouthpiece - getting the "embouchure" right (and there are whole books just on that topic). Then, I had find the right mouthpiece (another endless task that some people apparently never get right), choose the right reeds to suit me (I have spent a  LOT just on bits of thin cane so far), and eventually get a sound out of it. It took several months before I could practice without worrying who was hearing me.

Oh, practice, that's another point. I have (without a word of a lie) practiced every single day since 1st August 2013 for not less than one hour. Actually it probably averages 3 hours a day. I've often done it very late at night - sometimes in the early hours of the morning - after my day's work (luckily, we have no near neighbours).

As for playing great jazz tunes all the time, my main practice has been based around learning scales, arpeggios, chords (major, minor, harmonic minors, chromatic scales, blues scales) and really boring technical exercises to get them into my head.

I have the exercises in books, on printed sheet music, in Kindle books and even in apps on my iPad. It's been like learning another language. It's the most mind-numbing, technically challenging thing I've ever done. My partner says that some of jargon I quote now sounds like I'm speaking another language.

She also says (now) that I really seem to understand it. Also, when I first played her a tune, she couldn't work out the name of it. When I played her the same tune recently, she said - "wow, will you play that at the Christmas party, it sounds great!".

She told me I sounded like one of my hero sax players - Courtney Pine - who plays at lightening speed. She was probably being nice to me, but actually I know that I now play quite fast and with a good tone.

And my point is...

Photography, like anything else worth doing - but which looks easy when you see it done well - is extremely technical.

But unless you do the homework, understand the jargon and practice (a lot) you'll never get to the point where it all just makes sense, and the technical side allows you to do what you wanted to do in the first place - take good photographs.

The technical side is the "engine room" that sits there in the background, but is really driving the thing along and without it, you'll get nowhere.

It's boring and not glamorous, but when you put it all together, with a good idea for a photograph - and a creative eye for composition (that's also a very technical aspect that needs to be learned) you get great photographs.

But you can't just have a good eye. If you don't understand exposure and white balance, and ISO and focus, the photos just don't work.

But when you do, and then "play" the camera your way, it will suddenly produce great photographs. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

PI Module 3 - Greyscale Test Setup

Assignment 3 of the Diploma in Professional Photography course, from The Photography Institute, seems to get a lot of students feeling frustrated and it's got a reputation for being difficult.  

I teach on that course, and while I agree it's technical - photography itself is a lot more technical that some new photographers care to admit. 

But, I don't agree that it's an impossible assignment, and not even one that is as difficult as it may first appear. All of the answers in are in the module, they may just take a bit of reading. 

I have offered many of my own students some additional guidelines in terms of photographing the grey cards - and I thought I would share them below. 

I guarantee that if you follow them to the letter you will be through that part of the assignment in no time. 

It's not really anything you won't find in the module and it's not a "cheat sheet". But it may help some students clarify this aspect of the assignment. 

Oh, about the zone V position and whether it favours highlights or shadows....

This is much easier than it seems.  You just need to know if your zone V numbers are lower or higher than the exact middle of the zone ruler range (the module tells you what that number is). 

If your zone is lower than the middle the sensor favours the shadows, meaning that it may under exposure average tones. If they are higher than the middle values, than it favours highlights, and the sensor may over exposure average tones - very practical information to have at your disposal.


1. Before taking a shot, pin or tape the grey card to a wall and try to make sure that the light is soft, but not too dull (maybe a thin cloud cover if outside but inside in a room with daylight is probably best). It's best not to use a wall with bright colours that may reflect onto the card. A white or grey wall is best (also the same for the ceiling if you are inside).

2. Make sure that you set the camera to "spot" (or "partial") metering and ensure that you fill the frame of the camera with the grey card - look through the viewfinder and not the screen to do this as it gives more accuracy, and meter from the centre of the card. Keep the camera on a tripod if possible.

Turn off "auto ISO" and set it quite low to 100 or 200 ISO. If your numbers are too high at the darker end of the zone, this could actually be causing a lot of the over exposure problems.

Set a custom white balance - your camera manual will explain how to do it if you're not sure.

3. To set up the first exposure, set the camera to manual and then set the aperture to f8. Then, while looking through the viewfinder, move the shutter speed dial - probably DOWN - until the exposure meter (a scale in the viewfinder) is at zero (usually in the middle of the scale.)

4. This is your first "correct" exposure reading. Take a note of these settings (f8 for the aperture - and whatever shutter speed is showing when you half depress the shutter button). Take the first shot of the grey card at these settings.

5. Then turn the shutter speed dial (not the aperture dial) UP - slower speeds - by 3 clicks (one full stop) and take another shot of the grey card. Do this for 6 shots and then go to step 15.

6. Then reset the aperture and shutter speed to the numbers you wrote down.

7. Then click the shutter speed DOWN - faster speeds - for 3 clicks (one full stop) and take another shot of the grey card. Do this for 6 shots in total. 

You should now be at step 18.

If zone 0 is still too high (above 0) go back to step 3 and set the aperture to f11 - or f16 and try again.