Monday, March 30, 2015

Veritography IV: Making the Cut

This is a photography entry that addresses some of the process I go through after I'm done shooting an event. How do I go from a massive pile of photos into a (hopefully) smaller pile that I want to spend the time to edit? Why do I pick one image over another? How much thought do I give to style? I'm going to talk through all these points while we look over some photos that didn't pass the test.

These photographs are all from the performance that followed the lecture recital of a saxophone doctoral student, Michael Shults. Appropriately enough, it was in a local jazz club. The subject was the music of Bobby Watson, world famous saxophonist and jazz icon, and the special guest was none other than the same Bobby.

I hadn't intended to shoot anything, wanting to just listen. I hadn't been approached beforehand by anyone to take pictures, but as soon as I entered the club, I started to get questions: "Did you bring your camera?" "Are you going to shoot anything tonight?" "I don't see your camera; I hope you brought it!"

It was very flattering. Of course, it would have been more flattering for these people to say, "We have money! Please come shoot!" but one step at a time. The truth is I didn't want to be caught unprepared, so I'd brought my camera but left it in the trunk of my car. If I didn't feel the need to shoot, no need to go back into the night. If I did, no need to go back home.

I didn't want to shoot photos during the lecture, because if Michael (the doctoral student) is anything like me, photos of me standing up and talking are just likely to make me even more nervous when speaking than I already am. I just wanted to listen and absorb the topic. It was the right choice for me, since the lecture was informative and interesting.

But after the lecture and the first set of performance, the energy in the room changed. The subject of the lecture, Bobby Watson, was expected at any moment to play. And I, having shot one of Bobby's previous public impromptu sit-ins, knew that I wanted to have my (photographic) say on the matter.

It was a first for me, shooting with several other photographers in the room, but I'll leave that topic for a future Veritography entry.

I ended up shooting 279 photos. Of those, I narrowed down to 21 images, what I refer to in my shorthand as "keepers." To me, a keeper isn't just a photo that I intend to keep: I'm storing the vast majority of the original 279 in my photo library, deleting only a couple that were grossly out of focus.
I consider the keepers as the photos that are the best set of how I want to represent the event. They're not necessarily the "best" photos from an objective point of view, and I would fully expect a different person to have a different list, even if all the pictures were developed to my satisfaction. [For more on my concept of "developing," please see the previous Veritography entry, A Real Reality.]

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Some photos are very easy to rule out.

It might be hard to tell from the size, but this one is blurry. It's also blurry in a specific way. If you enlarge it, you see that not only is the subject blurry, but even the music stand, microphone, and rear wall are blurry. They're not out of focus, they're just... smeared. The tell-tale signs of camera shake!

There's a concept in photography known as the Reciprocal Rule. It's an informal principle designed to minimize camera shake. It states that in order to minimize shake, one should take care to shoot faster (smaller fractions of a second, 1/x) than the effective focal length of the lens. So at 200mm, shake will probably be minimized if one uses a shutter setting faster than 1/200th of a second.

The above photo has broken the reciprocal rule. In fact, it broke the rule, smashed the pieces, then sat on them. It's a shot taken at effectively 280mm (quite zoomed in), but at 1/20th of a second. Of course, the rule is just a rule: I've had similar shots that were usable. But this (my second shot of the evening) just wasn't there. Out it goes.

As in the previous discussion about shutter speed, camera moments are fast. A twentieth of a second is slow and blurry! But fast can be fast enough to catch expressions that look weird when removed from context. The above photo had Mr. Michael Shults tightening his face while another person was taking a solo. In the moment, he was making a "yeah, that's awesome!" face. (Brett Jackson in the background is making a similar face) Out of context, he looks very pained and disapproving.

While it's amusing, it's also misdirective. He's not unwell, he's enjoying a solo! This photo does a poor job of conveying that, so it's out.

But I enjoyed the composition (looking through the piano, strong angle lines), so a similar shot was kept in.

Michael is still making a face, but it's a more interesting one. He's looking away from the audience, and his curious face helps make the viewer curious: what's he looking at? It's amusing, but the humor comes less from feeling like we're taking advantage of a bad frozen moment. Also, Brett in the back is better framed.

Bobby started the set still unpacking.

I caught a picture, but this is more of what I'd call a snapshot. This is the sort of picture that I took a lot of before my new camera. It looks like what I was trying to capture was Bigfoot, but instead just had VERIFIABLE PROOF that Bobby Watson was there. He takes up a small portion of the frame, the whole picture is blurry, the human face we can see (not even the subject's) looks bored and uninterested. It's just a terrible photo that only barely classes as capturing a moment. If it looks like the only real purpose is to establish proof of life, it's not a great photo. Out!

Instead, I kept this photo:

Taken about ten seconds after the previous one. You can't see what Bobby's looking at (or clapping about) but he looks happy about it, so it draws the interest out of the frame. It makes you realize that he's watching the actions from the other photos. As a little piece of trivia, thrust down his bell he has the bag he keeps his sax neck in. Forgetting to remove it when he took the stage, it led to a little comedy moment when he realized it and had to throw it off stage into his case.

Next, a perfectly decent photograph in its own right:

It's in focus, has a ton of detail, good color balance (thanks to Bobby for wearing a complimentary color shirt!). But he's a little far back in the frame, and while I shot it vertical to get his feet and hat in frame, I really needed to be about five steps closer. Except there were two rows of people and tables in front of me, so there's nowhere for me to go.

Trivia: you can see the drastic difference in the color temperature of the two ceiling lights in the center and right of frame. The center one looks like it has an amber gel, while the right one is so blue as to almost be daylight. Depending where people are standing on stage, the photos need to be balanced carefully to make sure they look human (not too orange or purple).

Next, an example of having an idea, then refining it.

I was stage right for this, trying not to obstruct anyone's view. As you can see, all the action is happening to the left. I wanted to get a photo of the three guys all looking left, but this first attempt is strange. They're compressed into a third of the frame and there's too much space on the right. And having so much of the rear two guys obstructed means it feels like the photo viewer has been kept out of the action. I have six or seven like this, with slight variations. They're out!

Twenty seconds later, I took this:

This photo gives the viewer more of an idea what's going on, with equipment and instruments in the background. There's connection not just between Michael and Bobby, but Bobby's turned head draws the viewer in, too.

I mentioned the quick shutter speeds earlier. One nice thing about quick speeds is it allows the photographer to capture things that last only for moments. The bad thing is not all of those moments are good pictures or flattering.

They're getting ready to start a tune, and I captured Brett's inhale. Again, I like the photo (good lighting, nice background, nice color), but I don't use it. It's not flattering, and my guide is usually "would the subject like the photo I took?" Brett might laugh at it, but it's not going into his headshot pile. So it's out.

Here's a much better picture of Brett. I didn't include it because (again) he's small in the frame, and he feels very disconnected, as though he's waiting on the bench for his turn to play. And even though I like his posture and body attitude, he's turned a little far away from the camera. It's difficult to "catch his eye" and it would have done better if it had been more of a close-up. That would have taken some of the sight-line problems and replaced them with more detail. It's out, but it will stay on the sideline, in case I need a photo of confident demeanor.

Speaking of Brett, here's a little play I captured in three photos.

In the first picture, Brett has just finished a solo that he was NOT pleased with. His expression shows it, but it's an easy to lose detail because it's such a small thing in the frame. There's nothing else that relates to him in the entire frame, so the content is just outnumbered by distractions.

The second picture is the one I ended up using. It's Bobby offering a still-dissatisfied Brett a literal pat on the back. There are always more solos! I used this in spite of the distracting audience head and foreground elements, because I felt like the moment was valuable and well captured.

The third photo is another one I didn't use, though I came close. This probably would have been photo #22, if I'd included one more. It's a strong complement to photo above it. Everybody's back in a good mood. I liked the blue displays of the camera and recorder, offering cool color accents. The foreground obstructions also work to frame a level of intimacy between the two men, boxing them in for a conversation that only they can hear.

Ultimately, I didn't pick it because it was too similar to the moment above it. And when a stage has seven people on it, it feels gratuitous to not try my best to spread the moments between as many people as possible.

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I do try to balance the photos. I give primacy to hosts (like Michael) and special guests (like Bobby), but I try to get everyone. In most setups, the drummer, bass player, and piano player suffer inattention most. In situations like the one from Saturday night, the bass and drummer are in the back row. So, any problems I have getting close to the *front* row people is twice as bad for the back grow. Even more stands, mics, and equipment are between us. Not to mention that the drums and bass are always moving. And the lighting is worse.

The pianist suffers the most, especially in this particular venue. The piano is at the far left of the stage, and for space purposes, the performer has their back directly to the audience. So, their face is lost to photographers for the majority of the performance. I have lots of pictures of the back of piano player's suits!

My method for sorting starts this way:

- I do a first pass, assigning one-star ratings to any photo that looks good. I may also flag some for deletion, but those are the ones that are accidental pictures of ceilings or feet, or so gratuitously out of focus that it doesn't even serve as an abstract art piece. This is primarily a binary pass/fail step. I evaluate each photo on its own, without respect to how many other ones I've taken that look similar.

- I then look only at the one-stars. From 279 photos taken, I was down to 53. Several of these are two- or three- picture variants of a single scene. I compare them closely, to determine which has the best focus, the best composition, or the best moment.

- Then I start developing. I go down the line, working each photo to see what works. If I'm happy with the direction it's going, I give it two stars. If I work with it a bit and it's not speaking to me, it stays at one star (or even gets demoted, though that's rare).

- When I get close to having a picture "finished," I consider the star rating. Some pictures stay at two-stars. Those are my minimum standard for placing into an album. Most get upgraded a little further, since if I like the pictures, I'm likely to think they're better than "acceptable."

Three stars generally mean that I like the picture and it does a good job of conveying whatever I think it should.

Four stars means it's very strong from a technique view, and it's something that I feel will be recognized by anyone as a "good picture," regardless whether they know the subject or what's happening. I might get annoying and show you these pictures on my phone.

Five stars is reserved for the pictures that best represent what I want to accomplish with my photograpy. I consider them the best intersection of skill, timing, and aesthetics. I won't show you these pictures on the phone, because I'd rather you see them on a big monitor or the prints I have on my wall. Of the 7500 pictures I've taken in the past year, only 39 of them have five stars.

Most five-stars are given retroactively, after I've had time to think about it. Rarely do I instantly promote something to five stars while still developing, though I did have one from my recent NABBA 2015 album that was so honored.

Nothing from this session merited five stars, but the ratings tend to change over time. Who knows what I'll think by October?

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