29 January 2013

The Yale of Beaufort at Kew

I'm not sure why a mythical white beast with gold spots and swivelling horns would be considered sufficiently imposing to be an important heraldic device for generations of British Royals. Especially as depicted here, looking like he's about to throw up. A condition I can entirely relate to, having yesterday contracted the stomach flu raging through Cape Town. Sadly, although I am quite white already, no gold spots have appeared.

11 January 2013

Labia Theatre

For Lily who is both a marvellous cook and poetic writer and photographer, and Braam, who appreciates benign decay but not necessarily the pigeon shit that tends to come with it.

http://labia.co.za - it's still running, and still the only independent movie theatre in Cape Town. Go and watch an art movie there in an atmosphere of authentic shabbiness, tinged with sadness and served with beer. It may not be around forever.

Update 14 Jan- A digital photographic aside

I've been concious that I need to deal with my tendency to take too many pictures, with not enough care given to each one. I've been looking over transparencies and negatives from the days when money and therefore film was very limited, but my time was cheap. I took better pictures. Exposure and composition tended to be spot on, even on transparency film where one has a half stop margin at best. Far more of the pictures were of meaningful subjects.

Now don't get me wrong, I love digital. As an environmentalist with a technical bent, how could I not? Anyone who's ever done darkroom work is aware that the chemicals are super-scary. Sure my best selenium toned prints are lovely to look at, but that stuff will kill you and is environmentally toxic even in tiny amounts. Digital is benign by comparison, and done right can provide quality that required far more time, and insanely expensive medium format gear back in the day. Plus you don't have to spend hours at a stretch locked in a pitch black, humid hole reprinting the same bloody print to get it right. The magic of seeing that image appear under the orange light soon disappears after the fifth time you've fixed, rinsed and dried it, checked under realistic viewing conditions, and still haven't got the exposure and contrast right.

Sometimes, digital does let you get the moment that would have been almost impossible before. The image above is one of around 65 shots. I wasn't just shooting randomly, I only pressed the shutter when there were flying pigeons potentially located in compositionally useful places. No motor drive, single shot only. It's never easy to compose with fast moving elements, but the great joy of digital is that you can check those difficult shots, and when you've got it, you know. I realise it's not a picture for everyone, I've left it quite flat and cold, but I love the composition, and what I didn't even notice at the time, the way the diagonal viewing line of isolated pigeons bottom left and top right just emphasises the stillness of all the sitting pigeons, in contrast to the two flying.

And yet. There are too many mediocre pictures. In the world, and on my computer. I don't want to photograph less, but this year should be a year for deleting, for taking fewer pictures, and going over old ones. Expect some posts from the analogue archives.

07 January 2013

the science of portraits

Cameras do horrible things to people. Self-conciousness sets in, and with it uncontrollable rapid blinking and forced smiles. Even the most self-confident rapidly get that rabbit in the headlights look when faced with a huge unblinking glass eye. Ladies contort their heads into weird positions in a misguided attempt to hide real or imagined flaws or sagging.

For me portraits must be entirely natural. Unguarded and not posed.

This is why family portraits are a nightmare. Let's do the maths - it's all about probability. For an average picture with an average group of humans I'd estimate the input numbers as follows:

chance of an adult sitting properly without finger up nose: 99/100 = 0.99
chance of an adult having an acceptable expression: 4/10 = 0.4
chance of an adult having a great expression: 1/20 = 0.05

chance of a child sitting properly without their finger up their nose: 6/10 = 0.6
chance of a child having an acceptable expression: 5/10 = 0.5
chance of a child having a great expression: 2/10 = 0.2

For the purpose of the calculations that follow, it is important to note that having a great or acceptable expression and putting your finger up your nose or similar antics are NOT mutually exclusive, as demonstrated convincingly here by both Sadie and Zoë who manage to look beautific while respectively mining for gold and pretending to be an eel.

Single children

Contrary to popular wisdom, portraits of single children on their own, are therefore not too much of a challenge - probability of a great expression, natural, decently framed picture without orifice exploration is:

0.6 x 0.2 = 0.12 or 12%
i.e. 1 in every 8 or 9 photos is likely to be a great success

If you can even relate to kids a little, just set up your kit, shoot 8 to 9 photos and et voilà:

You want a picture of your son just before his milk teeth fall out and he looks all rabbit-like for the next five years? No problema señora:

Multiple children

Two kids together? Still do-able:

(0.6 x 0.5)2 = 0.0144 or 1.4%
i.e. 1 in every 69 photos is likely to be a great success

Three kids? We're starting to get into lower your expectations territory. Unless you want to shoot the 579 images that it would take to have at least one shot at them all looking great  over enough sessions for the kids to stay fresh, you'd better accept that at least two of them are going to look merely OK while the other one looks superb enough to make the mediocrity of the other two clearly noticeable:

(0.6 x 0.2) x (0.6 x 0.5)2 = 0.0108 or 1.1%
i.e. 1 in every 93 photos is likely to be a two-thirds OK with one-third great success

And best you bring your best reflexes and enough light for f11. You don't want to be a little out of focus for that one in 100 shot. Keeping them still is not an option.

Single adults / teenagers

Single person portraits of adults are already substantially more challenging. While it will probably be easy enough to get an acceptable photo unless the person is really camera-phobic...

0.99 x 0.4 = 0.396 or ~40%
i.e. one in every 2 to 3 pictures is likely to be OK

...getting a really natural and flattering picture can be a lot harder:

0.99 x 0.05 = 0.0495 or ~5%
i.e. one in every 20 properly exposed, lit and framed pictures might be pretty decent.

Teenagers can be more challenging still, although the standard deviation on that group is awfully high so I will omit probability calculations as largely meaningless for specific cases. I personally think morose is not actually that bad since it's at least natural and will likely make an authentic portrait, although not necessarily one parents would pay you for.


Hopefully I've already made my point and you know where this is going.

Let's say two grandparents, two parents and two kids. Want everyone looking their very best?:

(0.99 x 0.05)4 x(0.6 x 0.5)2= 0.000000054 or 0.0000054%
i.e. one in every 18,507 pictures is likely to be close to perfect.

I'm not really an 80/20 kind of person, but with these odds, I'll settle for OK, with a dash of lovely. Oh wait, one of the kids has run off and refuses to come back? Never mind, then it's time for alchemy. Just put grandpa with any available granddaughter:

Probability of success: 100%