If you want to be the best, you need to learn from the best. Chris Gatcum asks ten pro photographers to share the secrets behind some of their greatest shots. Within the professional photography world there's a strong tradition of 'master and student' relationships. For many aspiring pros, their first tentative steps will involve assisting an experienced snapper to learn the craft, and – depending on their mentor – this can provide a solid foundation for a future career. However, not everyone is looking for the low pay and long hours that typically come with assisting, and most amateurs don't want to turn their photography into a full-time career. That doesn't mean we can't all learn from the pros, though. After all, these are the people who have spent many years behind the camera, solving problems and developing the skills they need to keep them in business. So we've bought together ten of the finest exponents of their craft, from a range of disciplines, to take you on a behind-the-picture excursion into their working processes. You might not have movie superstars popping round for tea or bears roaming your back garden, but the skills and techniques are just as relevant to you, and the pictures are sure to inspire.
Noton shot in Aperture Priority mode with Evaluative metering. "I dialled-in +2/3 compensation," he says. "Any more and I'd start clipping highlights, but by exposing to the right like this I maximised shadow detail and the signal to noise ratio."
To ensure that everything was sharp, David consulted his depth of field charts to determine the hyperfocal distance. Then, with his aperture set to f/13, he focused manually at this distance, knowing that he was maximising his depth of field.
Placing the horizon at the centre is usually a no-no, but with reflection shots it's near-essential. Dividing the frame into two halves gives sky and water a similar weighting, which would be lost if the balance were shifted more towards either the sky or the water.
A tripod is the only way to keep your camera steady for landscape shots. It also enables you to finetune the composition more easily and precisely, as well as letting you utilise low ISO settings and slower shutter speeds (here, ISO50 and 1/6 sec).
"It was early evening and we we're skirting around the lake to a location I'd spotted at the head of the valley," David Noton remembers. "An artfully sculpted piece of driftwood lay on the shore, leading the eye into the frame with the perfect peak of Mount Burgess beyond looking like a proper mountain; triangular and imposing. But if this shot was to work I needed perfect reflections, and one hour before dusk, a strong breeze was scudding across the glacial waters and spoiling the show."
So began a long wait beside Emerald Lake, Canada. But patience isn't the only thing Noton has developed in almost 30 years of shooting. He's knows from experience that, "Often, as the sun drops to the western horizon the world settles, the wind drops, and lakes become mirrors. It did it on this night, and as the sun dropped I attached my 24-70mm lens, with a polariser fitted, to my Canon EOS-1D Mark III."
Capturing the image was only the start, and a significant amount of post-production work was also involved. "To bring out the best of all the tones in the scene I made two separate conversions of the same RAW file – one for the highlights and one for the shadows," says Noton. "I combined these in Photoshop by selecting and feathering appropriate areas of the lighter image and laying them on top of the darker image as layers. All the information was there in the one RAW file, I just needed to bring it out – which is where attention to detail behind the camera really pays off."
Polarising filters have two main uses in landscape photography: to darken skies and reduce reflections. Because polarisation is a combination of polarised light and a polarising filter, it's a technique that only works at the capture stage and is impossible to achieve through post-processing. This is why most landscape photographers would pick a polariser as their number-one filter choice.
1. Classic influence
Painting has been a source of inspiration since photography's invention. With this shot Paul "was influenced fairly obviously by the artist L.S. Lowry", an artist known for his painted street scenes containing elongated, often dark figures. "The deep shadows remind me of the surreal painter Giorgio Di Chirico," says Freeman.
2. Reverse Scheimpflug
The Scheimpflug principle is a classic large-format camera technique, which at its simplest involves tilting the lens forwards to increase the depth of field in an image. However, in this shot, Paul has tilted the lens backwards to reduce the depth of field, which also alters the plane of focus.
3. Point of focus
Although much of the image is blurred, we can still see this is a cityscape, but the inclusion of four sharp points – the three clocks and the central, suited figure – immediately adds a narrative. This isn't just a creative cityscape, it's a photograph about work and time: as the old saying goes, 'time is money'.
4. Dodge and Burn
A number of traditional black and white darkroom techniques have been applied to the scanned image to selectively control the contrast, including selective Curves adjustments and dodging and burning. Making these alterations to Adjustment Layers means you can fine-tune the results without affecting the underlying image.
Digital tilt-shift effects are increasingly popular, but for architectural and interiors photographer Paul Freeman, doing it in-camera has always been the preferred method. Like Joe Cornish (see page 45), Freeman took this shot with a large-format Ebony 5x4 camera. "It's strictly speaking called 'reverse Scheimpflug'," he says, "but 'tilt-shift' will do. Most architectural photography uses camera movements to make a more accurate rendering of a structure, but here I used them to do the opposite – tilting both the front and back of the camera to reduce the depth of field. Tilting the back also causes some perspective distortion, which helps to create the dreamlike effect."
"The film I used was the now-obsolete Polaroid Type 55, which gives both a 5x4-inch print and a negative," Freeman continues. "The immediacy of the positive print is pretty much like shooting digital, but you can also peel off a negative and print or scan it, which adds another dimension. After washing the film, I scanned it and enhanced the image fairly extensively in Photoshop. The corner shading was partly caused by the lens and extreme camera movements, but I added Burn layers to create more drama. I also masked out the clocks and used a Dodge layer and Curve layer to bring them out and add more contrast."
Katmai National Park is a popular place for photographers as the local bears stand in close proximity to each other as they catch fish. However, by moving away from the usual shooting spots and putting himself in a different position, Bloom has managed to get a far more individual photograph.
For this shot, Bloom's 1Ds was set to its predictive autofocus mode, so when the bear charged towards him the camera automatically made sure that it remained in focus. In a situation like this, getting the camera to take charge of the focusing means there is one less thing for you to worry about.
3. Focal length
When you're dealing with animals in the wild – especially ones that have the potential to easily kill you – you don't want to get too close to them. Steve used a fast, 300mm prime lens on his full-frame 1Ds for this shot, but a 200mm lens on an APS-C sized sensor would have the same pulling power.
4. Exposure settings
The combination of a wide aperture (f/5.6) and a fast shutter speed (1/1500 sec) has guaranteed two things: that the depth of field will be shallow enough to blur a distracting background and concentrate focus on the subject, and that the movement of the subject and the water will be 'frozen'.
Although Steve Bloom is a highly talented documentary and portrait photographer, he is perhaps best known as one of the world's greatest wildlife photographers. The photograph here comes from Untamed, one of Steve's iconic wildlife photography books, and is such a striking image that it was used on the cover of seven of its ten language editions.
"I was in Katmai National Park, on the Alaska Peninsular, photographing grizzly bears as they stood on the rocks where salmon swim upstream to spawn," Bloom explains. "I decided to move further downstream, where photographers don't usually go, and waded in to see what photographs I could get. The water quickly rose to stomach level, and my arms became tired as I held my Canon EOS-1Ds and 300mm f/2.8 lens above the surface.
"Then I looked up and saw this bear quite close to me. At first he just stood around in the water, quite oblivious to me, but when you're in close proximity to bears it's important to make them aware of you – they don't like being startled and it's impossible to outrun a bear, especially when you're waist-deep in water! So I made sure he knew I was there. It wasn't long before some salmon swam up between the bear and me, and he started to become excited, running straight towards the fish – and me. In the instant the bear ran towards me I managed to get a photograph, and as soon as I saw the picture I knew it was a contender for the cover of the book."
Although the bear looks as though he's charging the photographer, Bloom knew he was more excited by the fish in the river. He also made sure the bear was aware of his presence, so he wouldn't get 'spooked'. Understanding an animal's behaviour and respecting its territory is paramount to great wildlife photography – not just for your own well-being, but for that of your subject, too.
1. Mirror image
To create the reflected image, Parry clamped eight mirrors, each measuring 4x1ft, to C-stands. These were arranged around the subject (or, rather, around an assistant before De Niro arrived) to produce the 180° view, with the subject placed so that he would conceal the photographer's reflection.
2. Focal length
With his full-frame Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Parry has employed the classic portrait photographer's lens – an 85mm fixed focal length. The mild telephoto avoids the distortion you'd get with a wide-angle, and also means the photographer can work at a distance that isn't going to be uncomfortably close to the subject.
New York-based photographer Nigel Parry is best known for his portraits of celebrities from the worlds of movies, music, politics and sport. It only takes a quick glance through his inspirational website to see that this prolific portrait specialist has shot an extensive list of 'big names', including Barack Obama – for an equally impressive roll-call of editorial and advertising clients.
On any shoot – no matter how large or small – there's a whole host of things that might go wrong and, regardless of the problem, it's the photographer who has to come up with the solution. Shooting Robert De Niro was no exception. "On arrival, Mr. De Niro – who was meant to be wearing black – wasn't," sighs Parry. "He was in fact wearing a slightly oversized tweed jacket and a pale blue polo shirt, which I knew immediately would not work for the shot. After a little explanation that the colours were way too distracting, he agreed to wear my coat instead, which isn't the first time that's happened. But with this simple change of wardrobe we were able to make the photograph I was after – a single image depicting him as an actor with many faces."
"This is one of my favourite photographs; not only because of its simplicity, but also because of its almost caricature-like representation of the many faces an actor must be capable of wearing. I also like it for its lack of digital manipulation!"
Mirrors are a great tool for photographers, but come with an obvious drawback – by their very nature they reflect a lot of light. This means you need to be careful that whatever lighting you're using doesn't bounce straight back into the camera lens and cause flare. You also need to make sure that nothing in the reflected background – such as the photographer – is going to create a distraction and ruin the whole image.
Although the rule of thirds is often berated, it undeniably works as a compositional tool. Here, the two standing clerics are on thirds lines, as is the upper row of coffins. This instantly creates a sense of balance in the picture, with the central walkway leading the viewer into the shot.
Danziger avoids flash wherever possible, and for this 'intimate' style of photojournalism that's definitely the way to go. Flash could easily destroy the atmosphere in this predominantly backlit shot, so a wide aperture (f/3.8) and higher ISO (400) are used to retain a naturalistic appearance.
3. Focal length
Favouring fast, wide-angle lenses, Danziger used a 12-60mm f/2.8 zoom on his Olympus E3. Set at a 40mm focal length (80mm equivalent) the mild telephoto doesn't compress the scene in the same way as shooting with a 'voyeuristic' long lens would, so it remains intimate.
The back-lighting has created a mix of bright highlights and deep shadows, making the exposure slightly challenging. A Spot meter reading off the neutral wall in the background would have worked, but Danziger relied on his E3's Centre-weighted pattern to balance out the contrasting tones.
Nick Danziger's career as a world-renowned photojournalist has taken him all over the globe, putting him at the centre of events that most of us wish didn't happen. He's attracted myriad awards and honours, but Danziger isn't in it for the accolades; for him it's something much deeper, more human and personal.
While other photojournalists have put the horrors of the Balkan conflict behind them, Danziger has returned to Bosnia to document ongoing efforts to identify the remains of 'the missing': men, women and children whose bodies are still being recovered from mass graves. The shot shown here, from his forthcoming book, Missing Lives, shows three Imams, Muslim clerics, and the 'boxes' at their feet contain the remains of the missing. "This image is important to me because of what it represents to the families of the deceased in the photograph," says Danziger. "Tens of thousands of families across the Balkans continue to live in limbo as their loved ones remain missing from the Yugoslav wars, their torment drawn out as long as ten, even 18 years. For many it continues still." Given his working methods, Danziger's understanding of the emotionally sensitive environment in which he operates is essential.
"I tend to work close to people, not with telephoto lenses. This means I gain their trust to access the events I'm photographing. I believe this particular image captures closure for some of the many families of the deceased in a dignified and sensitive manner."
Reportage photography is about creating an image that tells a story, and to do this effectively you need to fully understand what that story is. Danziger's approach to his work is as much about his involvement with the subject and his empathy for their experiences, as it is his kit. From a technical standpoint, using either standard or wide-angle focal lengths gives a much stronger feeling that both the photographer and viewer are involved more intimately with the situation.
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