September 28, 2011

How to make a photo

FILED IN: Africa, Gear, Personal

I thought I’d try something a bit different with the blog this time round and focus on one specific photo, in particular how I shot and processed it.  There are still plenty of Africa blogs to come (I haven’t even touched 2 weeks of amazing safaris) but there’s still the daunting task of facing thousands of photos and selecting those that are blog worthy – this way I only need to select one photo and I’m done!

I think there’s this perception that great photos just happen, that the photographer happened to be in the right place at the right time and everything just fell into place. This is certainly the case with some photos, but the vast majority of great photos have a lot of thought put into them to allow the photographer to capture that brief moment. (For the record I’m not claiming this is a great photo, but it is one that I really like and am proud of).

The photo I’ll be talking about today is this one.

And here’s how it looked straight out of the camera.

It would be easy to blog about the post processing I did to make the final version, and I’ll cover that briefly below, but in this case that’s the boring part. The interesting bit (at least I think it’s interesting!) is the lead up, the failed attempts and the joy at finally getting what I was after.

We spent 2 weeks volunteering in a tiny village called Bigodi in Uganda. There wasn’t much to the place, a small main street with a few bars (you’d better like your beer warm though as there was no electricity in town), a shop that charged your mobile phone using solar panels, a couple of schools and an oval. The oval was at the top of a hill and we were told that the locals played soccer there each evening before the sun went down. As soon as I saw the oval I knew it would make a great photo, the sunsets were generally pretty nice and the location on the top of the hill meant it would be possible to get clean silhouettes.

A day or two after hatching this photo idea we headed down to the oval to see what was shaking. We were a bit early so we joined some of the local kids kicking round a bunch of plastic bags taped together to form a crude football and waited for the big boys to arrive. (Side note: probably my favourite part of volunteering was being able to hang out with the locals and play soccer or throw a netball round with the local kids. If we approached a group of 8 year old kids in Australia and started joining in with their games there’s every chance someone would call the police – at the very least their parents would immediately come and take them away and warn them not to talk to strangers. It’s a sad indictment on society when adults and kids can’t interact without the adults being suspected pedophiles (side-side note: I never expected to use the word “pedophile” on the blog when I started out 3 years ago!)). Once the proper game got underway it was time to go work and to capture the shot I had seen in my head.

I figured out right away that to get a clean silhouette that didn’t start at the player’s waist I would need to lie prone on the ground, it’s amazing how much difference moving the camera a few feet lower can make. I set the camera to Manual exposure and metered off the sky. As the sun was setting the light decreased so I had to change the exposure several times, I was usually a bit late so most of the photos were a bit underexposed but as I was shooting in RAW it was easily fixed in post. The settings for the winning shot were:

Focal Length: 70mm (using 70-200 lens)
ISO: 1000
Aperture: f/2.8
Speed: 1/500

The most important thing was to have a fast enough shutter speed to properly freeze the action. I could probably have gone a little slower than 1/500 but I didn’t want to risk it, that’s something you can’t fix in post. This shot probably wouldn’t have been possible with a slower lens as it would have meant slower shutter speed (risk of motion blur) or unacceptable noise (this was shot on a 40D which isn’t great above ISO 1000). It’s true that you don’t need great equipment to make great photos, but in certain instances you actually do.

So once everything was set I went to work following the action and trying to get a good shot. It was slightly tricky getting the focus right as I didn’t have much margin for error shooting at f/2.8 but I did the best I could using the pre-focus button on the back of the camera. I’d like to say that I just kicked the winning goal straight away but I didn’t. It took a long time and a lot of bad photos before getting it right. Here’s some of the ones you won’t see in a photo competition any time soon.

When it was all said and done I really didn’t know if I had anything usable. It wasn’t until I got back to the house and looked through that I discovered one that might be a winner. It was underexposed, crooked and there was a distracting guy on the far right, but all those things could be fixed in post.

The editing was pretty straight forward, I used Lightroom to straighten the image, crop the guy out on the right edge of the frame, lighten the photo, boost a few things like sharpness and contrast and apply some noise reduction. It took less than a minute.

I experimented with a few other Lightroom presets, the options are virtually limitless and depending on how comfortable with totally changing a photo you can come up with some looks.

After all that I wrote a blog on it.

If you liked this let me know in the comments below or on the link you followed from Facebook or Twitter – if I get 10 comments I’ll do another one next week!



Get in touch