Victor Rufus

Niccolò Machiavelli, the photographer — photoshoot notes

If for a moment you consider the requirements for a successful shot as a pyramid, technical requirements will sit at the bottom and as we go up the pyramid, more artistic aspects of photography will be placed.

The environmental, situational, technical and skill-related aspects usually covered first, and as one become a more experienced and knowledgeable, more artistic aspects gradually being covered, to the point one can delegate the technical aspects to muscle memory and focus more on artistic aspects.

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I think there’s a clearly defined line where one can be sure that they covered the technical aspects of successfully captured photo. Correct exposure, avoiding unwanted distortion, motion, achieving the desired depth-of-field, focus and sharpness are the basics that can be clearly defined.

However, one can pass all these requirements and yet create technically perfect and boring photographs, just like most of my pictures, and on the other hand, you still can create art without regarding and adhering to all technical considerations. But that doesn’t mean avoiding doing your homework magically make you an artist. Photography can be a chaotic, unpredicted work. Being prepared technically and mentally always help. This reminds me of Machiavelli’s quote in his notorious masterpiece, “The Prince”.

Fortune can be compared to a river that floods, destroying everything in its way. But when the weather is good, people can prepare dams and dykes to control the flood.”

Machiavelli – The Prince

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Looking at the bigger picture, photography, fortunately, is not mostly a one-off experience. Of course, you’ll be going to miss a lot of photographic opportunities as you start your journey, but as you gain more experience, with each photoshoot session you cover more ground, to the level that you can focus on matters that are placed higher on the photography pyramid and think only about them and leave the rest to subconscious and muscle memory. Maybe this approach sounds archaic. I worked all my life just like an artisan in the Renaissance times. I know no shortcuts to greatness.

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I’m trying to learn my lesson about the technicalities, and study the possibilities of artistic communication in other people’s words and works. For the moment to arrive, you have to be mentally well prepared and of course, be there.

This article photos are from a recent performance of Victor Rufus, musician, teacher and Canberran and his band, at Smith’s alternative.

You can view the complete album here:

Victor Rufus at Smith's alternative

Focus on APS-C sensor

Be careful what you wish for, it might come out-of-focus

Being a long-time user of smaller-than-35mm cameras and enjoying their sharp and all-in-focus images in street photography, my early experiences –more accurately put, re-encounter, considering film era- with 35 mm format — was initially difficult. Shots were easily got out of focus. Lack of any visual indications (i.e. split screen or micro prism) in modern digital cameras added to the problem [1]. I was being at the mercy of cameras autofocus system unless I use the more accurate, but usually difficult-to-use live view.

Dialogue - 1/80 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 140 - 105mm - APS-C
Dialogue — 180 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 140 — 105mm — APS‑C

The larger area of 35mm format sensor – in comparison to smaller formats- increases the light capturing ability and improves the low light performance. [2] Larger pixels ‑if the sensor pixel density kept at reasonable levels- helps improve dynamic range. Also, rendition of out-of-focus areas can be softer using smaller f‑number [3] These create enough motives to try to go up the ladder of sensor sizes to achieve better picture quality and creative control. But there’s a downside to this. As you opt for larger sensor sizes, controlling the focus and depth of field becomes more difficult. A tiny misplacement in focus point translates to visible softness. F‑numbers considered safe in a Micro Four Thirds or APS‑C formats, can have very shallow in-focus depth in 35mm. Get close to f/1.4 or smaller f‑numbers and the in-focus plane becomes so thin that focusing accidentally on an eyelash can make subjects’ eye look slightly blurry.

Lunch - 1/320 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 100 - 200mm - APS-C
Lunch — 1320 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 100 — 200mm — APS‑C

Let’s look at an example: A typical APS‑C Nikon camera with its kit lens at 18mm and f/3.6 focusing on a subject 3 meters away will have ~1.2 m in front and ~5.7 m behind of the subject in focus. That’s ~6.9m of in-focus depth, which leaves a very good safe margin in case several non-linear subjects needed to be in focus at the same time, for example, people standing in a U‑shaped group.

Doing the same calculations with a full-frame Nikon with same f‑number and angle of view [4] and the total in-focus depth reduces to ~3.2 m. Now you have less than a meter in front and about 2 meters behind the focus point in focus.

In some circumstances, the unforgiving nature of 35mm in comparison to smaller formats eliminates most of the probable advantages for choosing it in the first place. For keeping the subject in focus you need to choose a smaller f‑number, losing light gathering advantage you had to some extent. You might need to bring more light into the scene to compensate and hence complicate the process. If you do all these and manage to keep your focus on the creative aspect of the work at the same time, you get better results than a smaller format. [5]

Jerrabomberra wetlands - 1/250 sec @ f/5.5, ISO 100- 18mm - APS-C
Jerrabomberra wetlands — 1250 sec @ f/5.5, ISO 100- 18mm — APS‑C

That’s why I envy the owners of latest APS‑C cameras. If you begin purchasing a system nowadays, there’s a real opportunity to be very happy with APS‑C and Micro Four Third systems nowadays. Everything is achievable with them except very low-light (like music photography in bars), For monochrome, photojournalistic work they are adequate and you enjoy a smaller system within budget. Camera’s are fast and have deep buffers, autofocus is accurate and minor mistakes in choosing the aperture are forgiven. For people like me, who really need 35mm (and larger) for certain type of jobs, it’s just more shooting discipline, awareness about the in-focus range and refusing the temptation of getting carried away by the allure of wider apertures.

After all, there’s so much wisdom in Arthur Fellig’s famous quote, when asked about his technique: “f/8 and be there”. [6]

1/200 sec @ f/7.1, ISO 100 - 200mm - APS-C
1200 sec @ f/7.1, ISO 100 — 200mm — APS‑C


Footnotes

[1] Focusing screens for digital cameras are too soft for manual focus and lack micro prisms and split screens, due to different design goals.

[2] With a physical limit on the number of photons that a sensor can receive per exposure, each sensor size receives and records a finite number of photons per area. Obviously, the actual number of photons that their values are recorded with precision is less than the maximum theoretical limit, but even if theoretically ideal sensing device was achievable, able of recording 100 percent of photons it receives, still the data being sampled cannot exceed the total number of photons. So here’s where the size of the surface area becomes the key factor in sampling more photons in the same exposure timeframe and having more image information to work on.

[3] F‑number is the ratio of the lens’s focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil. F‑number –being a ratio- is equal among cameras with difference sensor sizes, but it doesn’t mean physical aperture size and light gathering capability with the same f‑number is equal among various formats.

[4] 18 mm in APS‑C is approximately equivalent to 27 – 28 mm in 35mm format, depending on the manufacturer’s APS‑C sensor size.

[5] I understand why Fujifilm and Four-Third Consortium chose to build their system on a smaller format. They correctly anticipated that the technology will progress to the level that quality will be acceptable under most conditions and eventually will surpass and cover all typical shooting scenarios. Because they were early movers, the investment of the Four-Third standard consortium took a long time to show a positive return. Early camera’s low-light performance was subpar and contrast-detect AF was less capable than phase-detect systems used in DSLRs. Later, with better sensors, on-sensor phase detection, and better contrast-detect systems the gap narrowed. And they are not still 100 percent there. For Fujifilm however, the return of the benefits of this approach bears the fruit faster, because they have chosen a format only one step (and stop) behind the 35mm. Just look at the recent photo samples of the X‑T2.

[6] Speed Graphics — the cameras used by Arthur Fellig at the time were 4×5 inch and the optimal aperture for them were f/16. I don’t know why he quoted f/8 as the optimal aperture.

Canberra Swing Katz - Canberra City Band Floriade 2016

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016 — photoshoot notes

Introduction

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to photograph Canberra city band’s performance in Floriade 2016.

CCB is one of Australia’s oldest community concert bands, serving the ACT community for over 90 years and recently ‑among many other accolades — won the New South Wales A Grade Concert Band Championship 2016, Australian National Eisteddfod Champions 2009 – 2016.Here are my technical notes of photographing the performance.

Here are my technical notes of photographing the performance.

The problem with the scene’s dynamic range

Music director face is darker in than the mid-tone in background. Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Music director’s face is darker in than the mid-tone in the background. Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016


Canberra City Band performance photography in Floriade 2016 was amazing and difficult at the same time. In an ordinary sunlit midday, there’s around one stop of difference in light between the surroundings and the stage 88 itself. So you have to either overexpose the backgrounds or take an underexposed shot and pull one stop of details from shadows, which I dislike. Pulling details from shadows in landscape photography and inanimate objects is one thing, and doing the same on the delicate human skin is another, and usually leads to unpleasant results, unless you are looking at a particular effect.
Now, the performance day was dark and rainy, and I had around 3.5 stops of difference between mid-tones outside and inside the stage. So, while having the cloudy sky as a slightly underpowered softbox helped to take shots from people under the tent, the difference with the surrounding made the job rather difficult. But after all, I don’t want to pretend that I took pictures on a sunny day, so let the things be true to themselves. The following picture is a good example of the situation that I had:

Musician's face is at least 3½ stop darker than the sky in the RAW capture. No flash used.
Musician’s face is at least 3½ stop darker than the sky in the RAW capture. No flash.

They say don’t do black and white just for the aesthetics.…

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

I disagree with that. I love the pure black and white photography (as the joy of seeing the world black and white and taking pictures of that). But sometimes, converting a colour photo into black and white can remove distractions. Maybe it’s the only technique that ‑unlike all other post processing techniques-  can turn an ordinary picture into a something worthy of keeping.

First steps in dance photography

Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016
Canberra Swing Katz in Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

From my past experience in dance photography, when you haven’t been to rehearsals, you will get constantly surprised by the moves and your subjects hands and feet will be out of the frame, ruining otherwise great shots. So wide-angle, good shots need anticipation that either needs knowledge about particular moves of the dance you are photographing or simply having the chance to attend rehearsals.


When you have none of the above, I think one of the best techniques is stepping back and zooming in. This way, you can anticipate the movements and keep the dancers within the frame without knowing their next moves.

 

Canberra City Band in Floriade 2016

I’ve chosen to bring a Canon 60D and 24 – 105L for dance shots (Best thing I had access too) and it was useful because of spot-on and fast autofocus and good frame rate. I also liked the film-like black and white renderings of the lens and camera combination. These days any seemingly notable photography results (or even cheesy ones) are attributed as being “film-like”. But by film-like, I just mean a slow and smooth transition to highlights, which was very pleasant in the case of Canon 60D. The negative part was the shallow camera buffer of 16 images in RAW. If I have to do photography again with the same configuration, I would certainly turn off burst shooting or at least put it on slow burst mode, not being out of memory in the midst of photography.

For complete gallery, please visit the following gallery in Flickr:

 
Canberra City Band - Floriade 2016

The Parlour Social - Jazz Photography

The Parlour Social at Smith’s Alternative — Jazz Photography

I had the opportunity to photograph The Parlour Social, an amazing Canberra-based traditional jazz band. The most interesting part of this particular jazz photography was having the chance to photograph piano playing, which a rarity for me. However, the stage was so small and the Café so crowded which moving behind the piano or changing position as I liked was impossible, so I used a limited set of locations which I could hide and be less of a distraction and photograph. Canon 5D MKII shutter sound was at the threshold of being of noticeable, which was something new to me because my jazz photography experience with Canon 5D is mostly limited to big bands which are loud enough for suppressing the loudest shutter sounds. Perhaps a camera with a quieter shutter sound or an electronic shutter is more suitable for these environments. The light was adequate most of the time, so there was no focusing problem and use of extreme ISO levels, which is common in jazz photography.

On the technical side, this event coincided with the introduction of Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which has amazing specs and looks like a very balanced camera just like it’s predecessors. It’s amazing that even the old 5D MKII is so good that having the minimum light and paired with the right L lenses, there’s very little left to be desired technically. Being a Nikon user, I personally really like to try the 30 megapixels sensor and the more advanced AF system in the reliable and ergonomic chassis of 5D, provided that all this be paired with a near silent shutter.

Thanks to Robbie Hugh Mann of The Parlour Social,  Tim Benson and Smith’s Alternative for help making this to happen.
The Parlour Social at Smith's alternative - Contact Sheet

Music photography and the difficulties of shooting in the dark

Music photography and the difficulties of shooting in the dark

I bitterly remember the time when I was asked to photograph a band in a dark whisky bar. The light was so low (Candlelight plus some disco lights in purple, orange and green) and in no way, the camera could focus. The tiny pinhole of modern DSLR’s viewfinder didn’t let me focus manually either. I was watching the band playing hide and seek in the dark in frustration. My equipment was too modest for the job, but I doubt even having the best professional cameras could have changed anything for the better then. After that night, I studied and thought a lot about ways to do better if I had another photoshoot in similar conditions. Choices of lenses, flashes, autofocus method, post processing choices, noise reduction and composition re-evaluated and re-thought.

Recently I was asked to do another photo shoot for the band Big Boss Groove, in Mawson Club, Canberra. When I entered the club I realised I’m going to have a difficult night; the environmental light was nonexistent and harsh disco lights in red, green and purple were used on a corner of a stage, flashing on musicians faces.

I realised that Canon 5D Mark II can’t focus in that light if I insist on using single point focus. So I switched to full autofocus, something I rarely do, and also switched to burst shooting. To my surprise, results were better than waiting forever for the camera focus on a single point. Of course, I had to pick and choose in-focus photos from a collection about twice the number I usually shoot normally, which was frustrating, but I didn’t return from the event empty handed.

I like nightclub’s spotlights. They are interesting and can be used as a strong compositional element, provided that light designers plan them carefully. Otherwise, they distort the colour channels of every object they hit in a way that is irrecoverable in post processing. Also, they make the focusing in low light even more difficult.

Because of very low light, I broke the rule of not using flash for some shots. Using Nikon SB-700 pointed to the ceiling and the diffuser, I took some of the most difficult to expose angles.

Here you can see the results of my photo shoot and judge yourself how much I was successful in taking successful shots in such a challenging environment. Comments are welcome.

Big Boss Groove at Mawson Club - 2016

Meditative music of John Burgess electronic quartet - Merimbula Jazz Festival 2016

Meditative music of John Burgess electronic quartet — Merimbula Jazz Festival 2016

I was already sure that John’s performance would be an interesting photography subject as well as a chance to listen to a different kind of music in this year’s Merimbula Jazz Festival. The single-track performance, a meditative journey through various soundscapes being played in a semi-dark room and among an audience of mostly professional musicians was a genuine musical experience. I tried to use the harsh, unidirectional light, the reflections of light on steel and chrome musical equipment and all the cables and microphones to my advantage and do what I really like with them, and really like the results. Photos are taken with my inharmonious trio of lenses, Sigma 70 – 200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM, Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 18 – 105mm f/3.5 – 5.6G ED VR and  Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G  Nikon AF‑S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G.