Tag Archives: Advice

The Canadian Men’s Chorus

I sing (tenor) with the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. When you sing with a community choir, one of the expectations is that if you have gifts (quite apart from your voice) you will place them at the choir’s disposal to contribute to its success as an organization. And so I am called upon, now and again, to show up with my camera. It’s given me occasion to think about the mechanics of shooting both choral groups and individual choristers. However, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts into practice, at least not in a concert setting with Orpheus, because it’s hard to sing and shoot at the same time. Fortunately, in the last few years, there has been an explosion of high quality choral groups in the Toronto area. With that has come a corresponding explosion in demand for choral photography.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with the Canadian Men’s Chorus as they update their promotional material. The CMC is in its sixth season, with Greg Rainville as artistic director and Arlene Jillard as manager.

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Here are some thoughts about shooting choirs, by no means exhaustive:

This is NOT wedding photography.

If you expect to shoot a group of people standing static on risers and smiling for your camera, you’ll be shooting something that looks like a choir, but it won’t be a choir. Choirs are anything but static. Sometimes, I think choirs are dance ensembles that happen to sing. Choral music engages the whole body.* There are the obvious things: the lungs, the tongue, the palate, the lips, the face. But the feeling radiates out from there. The body sways with the rhythm. Feet tap to the beat. The whole spirit vibrates and, if it’s a good choir, those vibrations start to move the audience too.

Sometimes, body movement is deliberate, as illustrated by the shot below where the CMC sings the world premiere of “Boots (Infantry Columns)”, Don MacDonald’s TTBB setting of a Rudyard Kipling poem about infantrymen on the march. Footsteps (and snare drum) supplement the work’s martial character.

Think of shooting choirs as more like street photography than wedding photography. You’re looking for that decisive moment—a facial expression, a meeting of eyes, a sway in the body as the music transports the singer.

(In fairness, good wedding photography is not wedding photography either.)

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Respect the performer’s dignity.

My second observation flows naturally from the first. Shooting choristers as they sing can be a lot like shooting people as they chew on their food. When singers work to give their words clarity, they contort their faces. Captured as stills, the resulting expressions can be unflattering, or even frightening. Shoot continuously through a range of motions, keep whatever works, discard the rest. Better yet, wait for held notes when the face isn’t doing a lot of weird things.

Related to that is eye contact. In a perfect world, all choristers watch the conductor all the time. When still photos catch a chorister with their nose buried in the score, it’s incriminating evidence. A flattering photo is one that captures the chorister staring attentively at the conductor with smiling eyes. Yes, smiling eyes. As I am learning from my own choral experience, eyes that smile help to produce a brighter sound.

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Community choirs aren’t church choirs.

I can’t speak for Europe, but in North America, community choirs have a branding challenge. They are secular organizations heavily reliant on funding from secular sources (government & charitable foundations), and many (including both Orpheus and the CMC) are committed to commissioning new works that reflect the huge cultural shift from sacred to secular that engulfs us all. At the same time, unless a choir can pack a large concert hall, the best venues are churches. Acoustically, most churches are designed to amplify the sonorities of a choir. They also serve well as mid-sized concert venues. The problem is: they’re full of religious paraphernalia.

The challenge for the photographer is: you’ve been asked to photograph a secular organization, but all your images end up with religious symbols and churchy-looking architecture in the background. There are workarounds but no perfect solutions. One technique is to use a shallow depth of field to make the background blurry. This is fine for blurring out small crosses and whatnot, but never really eliminates obvious architectural features like gothic arches. A second technique is to fill the frame with individual choristers, which is fine but never answers the challenge of shooting the entire ensemble. A third technique is to clone out sacred details in your favourite image editing software. Effective, but labour intensive.

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Choristers in community choirs are like superheroes.

During the day, they go about their ordinary lives. Working. Going to school. Making meals. Caring for children. Picking up poop after their dogs. But when the sun goes down, they assume a new identity. They put on gowns and bow ties. Or if they’re off to rehearsal, they fill their water bottles and sharpen their pencils. Like superheroes, their involvement in community choirs is voluntary. That means their time is limited. It’s difficult to gather them all for a dedicated photoshoot. Instead, you most likely have to shoot at times when the choir is already gathered. Rehearsals and concerts. The problem with shooting during rehearsals and concerts is that choirs already have something to do: rehearse and perform. Artistic directors have things they want to accomplish during rehearsals. Those things are musical, not photographic. It’s important for the photographer not to interfere with those aims.

Yes, get your shot, but be unobtrusive. Don’t get in the way of sight lines. Turn the camera to silent mode so it doesn’t make beeps when you release the shutter. In performance, time the shutter release to moments when the choir is singing forte so your clicks don’t disturb the audience. Wear quiet shoes and dark clothes. Show up early for the performance so you can catch the choir warming up. That way, you can get “performance” shots (i.e. the choir singing in concert dress) from positions you wouldn’t be able to occupy during the actual performance.

Catch the next concert of the Canadian Men’s Chorus on May 7th 2016: On Growing Up.

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* People who know me and how stiff I can be may find this amusing. Treat my writing as aspirational. It reflects an ideal, not something I actually accomplish.

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The Travel Paradox

The love of my life and I have an idiosyncratic argument that plays out all too often, but especially when we’re traveling.

Me: Stop walking so fast.

Her: Walking has no health benefits if you don’t walk fast.

Me: I’m not walking for health benefits.

Her: No, you’re walking because you’re a pervert.

Me: You keep walking into my frame.

Her: People will think you’re a creep the way you point your camera at them.

Me: I can’t very well take their photo if I don’t point my camera at them. And I can’t point my camera at them if you’re in the way.

So I end up with a lot of photos of my wife as a blurred figure through what could have been an interesting street scene.

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I recently attended a talk by the maritime photographer, Kas Stone, during which she mentioned in passing the so-called travel paradox. Most photographers share the experience of traveling to outstanding or exotic locations only to return home with images that are meh at best. There may be a number of reasons for this but one, she speculates, is that we travel with (typically) non-photographer companions who cramp our style. It’s not really that they cramp our style so much as that their presence injects guilt-laden mind games into our process. Here we are, doing what we love. There they are, in this amazing locale, waiting patiently for us and doing their best to mask their boredom. We feel guilty. We rush so we can move on to things our companions will enjoy. In our haste, we compromise our process and end up with crappy photos.

I’ve developed a couple workarounds. The first is to arrange my travel on the coattails of my wife’s working trips. That way, while she’s spending weekdays in an office, I’m free to wander alone. We meet for dinner at the end of the day and spend our evenings together. I don’t feel guilty about doing whatever I need to do to get my shot. And she doesn’t feel guilty telling me she’s impatient because she’s already given me scads of time on my own.

Bench and Lily Pond at ArtScience Museum, Singapore

Bench and Lily Pond – no wife within miles

But not all our time is divided. For the time we are together and (naturally) I still insist on shooting, I have a second workaround. I restrict myself to street photography. Not the street photography that frames a scene and watches patiently as people pass through the frame. But the street photography that responds to the immediacy of the pageant that continually unfolds in public spaces. Because it demands split-second responses, it doesn’t tax anyone’s patience. It becomes a game. How good a shot can I get with less than a second to compose it?

Orchard Road, Singapore

Woman Shopping for Skirts, Orchard Road, Singapore

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Visual Hygiene

Last night, I went to a clinic in the suburbs for a sleep study. I rode the subway and got out at Leslie Station just before my 9 pm appointment. Leslie and Sheppard is one of those big suburban intersections where cars rule and pedestrians are an afterthought. My head was in a different space. I’d been reading a poetry journal and couldn’t make the switch to the more prosaic task of crossing the street. The light changed before I was halfway across and I had to run. My boots crunched on the salt. The road was slick and reflected the headlights beaming through the darkness.

This is my fourth sleep study, a followup to make sure everything is fine. My first—the one where I was diagnosed with sleep apnea—was 16 or 17 years ago. My current CPAP machine (which makes me look like one of those Giger-inspired creatures from Alien) is 11 years old and has logged more than 22,000 hours of use. I find that shocking. That’s 22,000 hours when I’ve failed to be a productive contributor to the global economy. Instead, I’ve spent time refreshing myself and dreaming. I’m so irresponsible.

I suffer a clinical loneliness during these studies. You sit in a cramped stark room while a technician daubs putty all over your head then sticks wires into the putty and tapes them in place. Then you have to lie back on the bed while the technician performs a series of baseline tests. “Blink ten times,” he says through the futzy intercom. He’s sitting at a computer terminal in another room and watching you through a camera hanging from the ceiling. “Cough three times. Point your left foot down, then flex it. Move your eyeballs up and down, up and down. Now side to side, side to side.”

The last time I did this, there was a man in the next room who snored like a tractor and when he wasn’t snoring he was buzzing the technician to help him unplug his wires so he could go for a pee. I had a miserable sleep and, the next morning, rode home on the subway like I’d been out all night on a bender. It could have been worse; I could have been him. The time before that, I met a girl who looked like Drew Barrymore. I stepped into the room while she was having wires stuck into the daubs of putty. She looked up at me, smiled, and fell asleep. She functioned like she was a hundred and three.

This morning, the technician opened the door and flipped the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault. Once I’d adjusted to the light, I noticed, for the first time, a print of a painting that hung on the wall above my feet. It was the only adornment in an otherwise bare room. It was a “realistic” painting of a maritime scene: ocean, rocky shore, green grass above the rocks, lighthouse, rainbow, and bald eagles. The colours were gaudy. The horizon line cut straight through the middle of the scene. It was sentimental. It was kitschy. It was worse than the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault.

It reminds me (of at least one of the reasons) why I spend so much time with a camera. I feel like King Canute declaring war against a rising tide of visual garbage.

Cycling in snow flurries

Cycling in snow flurries

There’s a phrase I learned, probably after my first sleep study when I went back to the clinic to get outfitted with a CPAP machine. The RT (respiratory therapist) spoke to me about sleep hygiene. I’ve always been a fan of the Buddha whose principal claim is that he wanted people to be awake. I think the Buddha was talking about a spiritual state, but he could have been speaking literally, too. You can meditate until your toes fall off, but it won’t amount to anything if you’re dozing with your head between your knees. So I practise sleep hygiene.

By analogy, I think there is visual hygiene. I have lofty aims. I want to SEE the world. I want to see in a way that isn’t distorted by my own situatedness in it. Or, at the very least, I want to see in a way that is aware of its distortions. But sometimes that seems an impossible task. Every day my eyes are assaulted by a barrage of images. Advertising. Facebook memes. Glossy magazine spreads. Instagram posts. Book covers. Traffic signs. Instructional manuals. Cheesy prints on clinic walls. I swim in their culture. I swallow their meanings. I become desensitized to visual garbage. I lose my ability to distinguish one thing from another.

Desensitization and the inability to distinguish modes of seeing are distinctively postmodern experiences. I don’t think we need to evaluate them. As experiences, they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. However, these experiences should alert us to the risk of overwhelm. Psychologically, we aren’t designed to cope with the barrage of imagery that screams for our attention, just as we aren’t designed to cope with perpetual wakefulness. We need time to tune out, turn off, recuperate.

My experience with a camera engages me in intense seeing, but it also shields me from the risk of overwhelm. The very fact that I can frame a scene gives me a measure of control over it. I can eliminate excess detail and focus attention. I can use depth of field, cropping, desaturation, black & white conversion, and mindful curation to accomplish the same thing. Using a camera also helps me to hone my visual literacy so I can reacquaint myself with the habit of distinguishing one thing from another. Finally, as a practical matter, whenever I’m looking through a viewfinder, I’m not staring at advertising, Facebook memes, cheesy prints on clinic walls.

I’d love to write more, but I had a horrible sleep last night and I need a nap.

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Over-exposure

Now, as the weather turns colder, one must take precautions against over-exposure. Photographers, of course, are concerned about over-exposure all year round. Photographers tend to think of over-exposure as the presence of too much light space in an image, but over-exposure can just as easily result from the presence of too much dark space in an image. Watch out for dark space. If handled poorly, it can ruin your photograph.

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Playing with MacPhun Software

I recently bought a suite of photo “enhancement” apps from MacPhun. I use the word enhancement in quotes because I feel conflicted about such tools. They make it easy to inflict an endless array of cheesy effects on unsuspecting photos.

The “to app or not to app” debate reminds me of an episode from the novel, Diva, by Delacorta (Daniel Odier), which also appears as a scene in the movie of the same name. The opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins, is giving a statement to the press when a reporter asks why she refuses to record her performances. She answers that the performance is a special moment which a recording can never capture. She then mentions Glenn Gould by way of contrast. Gould famously refused to perform and devoted himself, instead, to the post-production process.

A analogous debate has raged in the world of photography since the discovery that film negatives could be manipulated. But what was once an esoteric art practised by a handful of darkroom geeks is now accessible to anyone who owns a smart phone. And so the debate has gained new force. Purists insist that everything rests on the process; their aim is a Platonic photograph captured fully formed in camera without the need for post-processing manipulation. The rest of us aren’t so skillful or we’re lazy or we like to play with all the latest digital tools. We draw an analogy to Glenn Gould and wonder: if the object is to produce a compelling image, what difference does it make which process we use to create the image?

My position in this debate? I begin with the observation that recent developments in camera technology make photography almost idiot proof. Auto-focus has become blazingly fast. In fact, it’s possible to dispense with focus altogether. The Lytro Illum allows you to take your photo and decide what to pull into focus after the fact. Add to that the proposed technology that would allow you to take perfect HDR images every time, and it becomes impossible to take a technically bad photo. Stripped of technical challenges, all that remains for photography are creative challenges. Composition and post-processing.

Maybe purists will insist on using old cameras so they can claim bragging rights for all the technical challenges they’ve overcome. But for those who adopt new tools and still want to call themselves purists, all that remains to them of creativity in the process is composition. Personally, I find that unnecessarily limiting. I like to play.

With a name like MacPhun, you get the feeling this app developer panders to people who like to play (especially if they are Mac users). Each of the tools in the suite can function as a plugin in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Although they aren’t non-destructive editing tools as you’d find in Lightroom, they get around this problem by automatically making a copy of your image source file and editing the copy instead. (The downside of this is that a copy in .tif format of a 50 megapixel image can be as large as 250 Mb and I begrudge the space.)

What follows are before and after shots to illustrate some MacPhun possibilities using 4 of the 5 tools. (The 5th is SnapHeal Pro which you don’t need if you have Photoshop but would be useful for people using other image editing software.)

First, let’s play with Tonality Pro, an app for conversion to black and white. To illustrate, here’s a shot of a horse eating grass framed by another horse eating grass. It’s compositionally interesting, but not a great shot because I was facing the technical challenge of shooting into the shadow side of a dark subject. But convert it black and white and use the handy slider to reduce the shadow and the result is vastly improved.

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Next are a couple samples using Focus Pro. In the first, I apply a tilt-shift effect to a rooftop scene in Paris. In a way, Focus Pro allows you to simulate the Lytro Illum camera. If you shoot with a small enough aperture so that most of the image is in focus, then that gives you a lot to play with in post-processing. In this case, I angled the plane of the tilt from bottom left third to top right corner. It produces the “toy town” effect, especially in the trees, that is characteristic of tilt shift lenses.

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I used Focus Pro to try a different effect with an image I took last weekend at Toronto’s Buskerfest. I mask the woman in the foreground, then give everything else a motion blur. Again, what makes it work is the fact that I shot the source image with a narrow aperture – f/11 – so I could start with most everything in focus.

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Toronto Buskerfest 2015

Intensify Pro is probably the most dangerous of the apps because it’s the one with all the cheesy HDR possibilities. Use with moderation. I’ve applied a moderate “punch” to a photo I took during this year’s Pride celebrations. It brings out the colours in the umbrellas and their reflections in the wet pavement. Too much? Maybe. The app also allows for black and white conversion.

Boys Holding Hands

Boys Holding Hands

Finally, a sample using Noiseless Pro, a tool for reducing (or increasing) noise. I shot these fireworks from Ward Island across the Toronto Harbour at the end of the PanAm Games. I was shooting at ISO 1250. (Despite Canon’s advertising, I find the 5DS doesn’t handle low light as well as other DSLRs, not even as well as the Mark III.) I reduce the noise in the sky, then use Intensify Pro to give the colours some punch.

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Bottom line: it’s a decent suite and works effectively (and efficiently) as a plugin to Adobe products. If you have self-control, it can be applied to make subtle enhancements to your images.

You may not need the full suite. SnapHeal seems unnecessary. There are black and white conversion and de-noisifying tools in Intensify Pro so you can probably dispense with Tonality Pro and Noiseless Pro. All the apps are available on a trial basis, so you can judge based on your own needs.

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Blogging Photography – 1st Anniversary

Today marks the first anniversary of my first post on this blog. More than 200 posts later, I find myself in a reflective mood. Here are a few random (and eerily interrelated) observations which may be of use to fellow photographers, but more generally to anyone engaged in an artsy pursuit.

1. Discipline

The act of posting things on a regular basis gives a self-imposed discipline to your work. The world won’t come crashing down if you miss a self-imposed deadline, but missing it on a blog does provide a sense of public accountability. If you’re like me (i.e. a bit OCD), it will goad you to do more.

Reflection from polished granite, Avenue Road, Toronto

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Colour Street Photography

More than in any other genre of photography, street photography seems to demand purity codes, like a religious cult or a hockey team. You can’t be a real street photographer unless you shoot with a Rangefinder, or a Leica, or only shoot “unposed” subjects. There’s even a UK-based web site that sells “official” streettog T-shirts. But perhaps the most persistent “rule” of street photography is that it display in black and white (ideally shot with black and white film, since digital post-processing taints the craft). I don’t know where this comes from. Joel Meyerowitz has been shooting street in colour since the ’60’s. Funny how I’ve heard of him, but never any of the rule-touting purists.

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Sometimes I take a shot and realize that colour is the whole point of the image. For example: the image above. A man in red sweat pants and plaid shirt crosses Yonge Street carrying his McDonald’s breakfast in one hand and pulling a St. Bernard with the other. Conversion to black & white would eliminate something vital to this image.

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The second example is a shot looking east along King St. at Bay — the financial heart of the country. A pipe has burst and steaming water pools along the curb. I draw my focus to the orange pylon while people stream across the road in the background. Again, the photo would somehow be diminished without the pylon’s orange colour in the foreground.

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Finally, a shot by the Church of the Holy Trinity behind Toronto’s Eaton Centre. A woman helps a man light his cigarette while an unlit cigarette sits on her lips. I tried this in black & white with all kinds of filters, graininess, & contrast presets, but nothing worked as well as simply presenting it in its original colour. When I shot this, it was overcast. I think that made the brick of the church and the skin tones more saturated, warmer. This one deserves colour.

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7 (non-photographic) things you can do to improve your photography

The following are suggestions (not prescriptions) and are highly personal. They reflect what I would describe as an emerging philosophy of seeing and engagement with the world. In particular, I preach a holistic gospel of photography: photography works in service of the whole person. For that reason, the whole person needs to be enlisted in the service of photographic practice. That’s why seemingly irrelevant activities might benefit, and even improve, your photography.

1. Meditate

By meditation, I don’t mean that you should embark on an elaborate pilgrimage to a Tibetan monastery. I mean something simpler. Breathing. Mindfulness. The work of becoming awake. The discipline of meditation can provide the foundations for a discipline of seeing. You walk down a street and are more alive to the visual possibilities that present themselves. You may have walked down the same street a hundred times, but because you have become habituated to that walk, you cease to notice the wonder of its particularity. It’s as if you are sleepwalking. The thisness of its place and time have vanished. Wake up!

Time to wake up!

Time to wake up!

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Yes You Can Break A Carbon Fiber Tripod

Another gear mishap. The last time was a lens dropped on gravel with a scratch that rendered it unusable. This time, it was a broken tripod. On Monday, I was up to my wazoo in snow as I tramped through the sugar bush at Williams Farm (see yesterday’s photos). I was trying to get early morning shots of sap lines through the trees. The problem with setting up a tripod in snow is that it’s hard to find a stable base. That problem is compounded late in the season by the fact that the snow is dense and compacted. I was ramming my tripod through the crusty layers to find the ground. But once I hit the ground, I couldn’t open the legs. So I tried ramming the tripod into the snow with the legs slightly apart. The idea was that, as I shoved the tripod down, the legs would splay further into an open position. Seemed like a good idea. I shoved down and heard a loud crack like a branch or a bone breaking, but the only pain I felt was in my hip near my wallet. One of the legs had cracked lengthwise along the grain of the fiber.

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A couple takeaways from this experience:

1) When the salesperson tells you your carbon fiber tripod will be the last tripod you buy, don’t believe them (unless you’re really dainty with your gear).

2) When shooting in snow, don’t be impatient. Spend some time tamping the snow down with your boots before setting up your tripod.

3) Always have some duct tape on hand. I could still have gotten a few shots if I’d had some duct tape in my pack.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I replaced it the next day with the same tripod – a Manfrotto O55. It’s an awesome piece of gear.

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Shooting Into The Light

The rule of thumb is: shoot with the sun to your back. It’s a good rule. It means your subjects are well lit and your colours are more saturated. You don’t have weird lens flares or washed out subjects. And yet, sometimes, rules need to be broken. For one thing, if your shooting is determined by a few simple rules, one image will start to look like all your others. Here are a few shots I took into the sun just to change things up.

The first shot is kind of a cliché. It’s the steeple of the San Francisco de Asis Mission in Taos, New Mexico. I was going for all the flare I could get. (Tip: don’t use your view-finder when you point at the sun or your could damage your eyes. Set up your shot using the LCD screen.)

San Francisco de Asis Mission

I took the next shot facing west from St. James Cemetery in the late afternoon. I held my hand above the lens hood. The shadow of my hand reduced the glare.

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