Basic Fundamentals of Creating a Quality Photo

In the past few years, things have changed a little…

Sharpness is still popular, though differential focus in product and portrait photography is a powerful tool if used well. View cameras allow more flexibility with front and rear movements (focal plane vs perspective control) than simply using wide apertures or long lenses. Completely out-of-focus images are often used as backgrounds, though require a simple and graphic subject to work. Differential focus in portraiture is great so long as the eyes are in focus. Check that your camera actually focuses accurately when lenses are set on maximum aperature to avoid frustration and disappointment. Clarity while related to contrast is a subjective measure and easily affected by flare, poor optics, poor processing, old film stock etc… Don’t be a cheapskate, images are irreplaceable.

Exposure accuracy is very important to the success of your final product and can be assured using a number of techniques. With colour transparency film, an incident light reading is generally most accurate assuming that the meter is correctly calibrated and the film stock rated accordingly. For example, under ‘normal’ conditions, I rate Fujichrome Velvia @ 32 ISO. I find at the manufacturers recommended speed of 50 ISO, that the film looks “heavy”, skin tones are overly warm (though this is a characteristic of Velvia to be wary of) and shadow detail blocked up. Determine your meter’s accuracy first, then your processing (stick to one lab) and then experiment until you obtain optimum results. Evaluating exposure can also be difficult and requires a good light box, some ‘cutters’ and an objective eye (refer to Contrast for further details). Other techniques to assure well exposed results are clip-tests and bracketing. For static subjects, I prefer the later as it loses no film quality through alterations in processing. A clip-test on the other hand is a small sample of the first frame or two, from which the photographer determines altered (push or pull) processing for the remaining film. This technique is good where you intend to shoot a lot of exactly the same subject (eg. fashion) with exactly the same lighting conditions and exposure. The down-side is a loss of contrast and colour saturation and general cooling of colour balance if the film is PULLed. On the other hand, PUSHing a colour film is generally less problematic if done in moderation. Finally – if working with 4×5 colour transparency, the two-sheet method (both with the same exposure) is useful, as the first sheet acts as a test, which if correct exposure means you have two copies of the same shot!

Colour balance is affected by a number of factors including lighting type, film stock, exposure duration and even optics to some extent. Many photographers like to carry vast selections of correction filters and adjust for every possible lighting situation. I prefer to use film appropriate to the available light and if necessary use a few ‘standard’ filters for large corrections (eg. 80A – tungsten, FL-W for fluro etc…). Make mixed light sources work for, not against your photography. Tungsten light is good to warm up natural textures such as wood and paper, though avoid areas of blue in your subject as it will cancel out and become a murky grey. Even fluro’s can be used in moderation – try shooting with tungsten film (eg. Fuji RTP) and they become an appealing blue tint. The main rule is to keep some grip on reality by maintaining a good level of daylight or tungsten (depending on film used) so that the shot looks exciting rather than a mistake! Film stock also directly affects the colour balance. For really neutral skin tones, use Kodak EPP; A warmer skin tone can be achieved with FujiChrome Provia; and an even warmer result from Velvia (often too warm, but very useful in especially cold situations eg. warehouses). Know your film! Extremely long exposures may affect colour balance (and density) with Kodak and Agfa films though the reciprocity affect (as it is called) is hardly noticeable with Fuji films. Read ALL available information on any new film and most importantly – test any film before using for anything important.

Colour saturation is less easily controlled than balance. It is a product of lighting, film stock, processing and even subject matter! Using specular lighting (eg. spotlight) will produce more saturation than diffuse (eg. softbox) sources. Experiment with the angle of the light – direct light will help, but glare or even subtle reflection will reduce saturation. Choose appropriate film stock. Fuji Velvia will provide maximum saturation under normal processing conditions. Conventional style Agfa and Kodak films will provide a more naturalistic result. A polarising filter can also help but only under some lighting conditions. As previously mentioned, increased processing (PUSH) will increase saturation (and contrast) to a degree, but requires testing relevant to the film and lighting situation. Avoid reduced processing (PULL) to minimise saturation as it alters the overall clarity and colour balance if done beyond half a stop or so. Finally – saturation is only as good as the final product. A Velvia transparency printed on CibaChrome paper will produce a result with amazing saturation, but the same transparency printed via interneg will look less stunning. Again, match the material choices to the subject matter…

Contrast range. Unlike B&W photography, there are few easy ways to alter the contrast of a colour transparency, before or after processing. Keeping this in mind, it is best to provide the film with a subject of optimum contrast range and let the film do the rest. This does not mean that every shot should be flat and lifeless as shadows make interesting images and give the viewer a sense of lighting and mood. Just keep in mind the limitations of reproduction whether it be CibaChrome printing or web printing for the local daily newspaper. The general rule of thumb is to produce transparencies with good detail in the larger areas of low and high density, and not too worry too much about small spots – eg. a highlight in a kettle. Often the ‘correct’ exposure will differ according to the subject matter (eg. particularly light or dark overall), so if unsure, bracket and when choosing, keep in mind the entire transparency, not just the high and low areas.

Parallels are the bane of every photographers existence. Do you level the camera completely and produce a lifeless shot, or angle it slightly and improve composition in the process. With a large-format camera you luckily have some control with movements, but with smaller cameras, you are forced to make a creative solution. Some options are a large tripod and ladder (to get higher), a wide lens (and later crop foreground) or a long lens to reduce perspective problems. Sometimes (client allowing) it is easier and more interesting simply to obviously tilt the camera, thereby bringing in another level of visual interest through the use of diagonals. That way at least no one can criticise your parallels as there won’t be any!

Film format is still an important factor in any job, despite advances in computer scanning technology. While the quality of a 35mm colour transparency may exceed the maximum scanning rate of a repro-quality scanner, it will still not look as good when compared with the same subject on 120 or 4×5. Idealism aside, it would be downright silly to shoot a step-by-step article (where the shots are to be used 2cm square) on 120! Keep in mind the following from my own work…

35mm – Great for small reproduction images, large quantity work, candid people and animals, aerial photography and where extremely wide or long lenses are necessary.

120 – Great for interiors, set-up portraits or product shots, architecture, copy-work, most studio work, cover photography etc…

4×5 inch – Ideal where perspective corrections are necessary or where extremely large reproductions are likely. Otherwise largely obsolete (sadly).

Other formats I have used include 8x10inch (ideal for B&W contact prints), 6x17cm (fixed lens panoramic camera – great for landscape and architectural work – large format roll film) and 24x58mm (Widelux camera – rotating lens panoramic – great for super wide and distorted perspective work).
The purpose of this information is not to scare you, but provide the tools with which you can control final results in your work, every time you pick up the camera. While you have the opportunity to experiment, do so and learn as much as you can on films, chemicals and paper as well as your equipment. That way when the time comes, you will be able to master any situation the industry throws at you. And when the editor says “they’re too yellow, reshoot them you idiot!” (as mine did only a week ago), try and understand that your photography is ultimately a pointless waste of time, if it is unable to convey the message which you set out to convey when picking up the camera. Good luck!