April 13, 2011

Sharing My Secrets

Over the course of this blog, I'll discuss the basics of photography with an eye toward roller derby: composition, focus, exposure, lighting, and so on. As you become familiar with these technical aspects, it gets easier to look at someone else's photo and figure out how they shot it. But there are always some "how" questions that remain unanswered, and the "why" questions are often harder to pin down. So I'll begin by sharing some of my secrets.

I edit the crap out of my photos.

Most of my photos are crap. During a typical bout, I'll shoot between 500 and 1000 photos. Then I sit down and remove all the out-of-focus shots, the poorly exposed shots, and the shots where nothing interesting is happening. When that's done, I usually have 100 to 200 photos that are worth posting. Then I make a second pass to select the best 50 to 100 shots of this bunch, and I edit each one to make it look better. In many cases, even a good photo has crap that I edit out.

Here's an extreme example. In the original photo below, I managed to focus sharply on jammer Heather Juska, but the composition is awful:

Original unedited image (1/500 sec, f/3.2, ISO 3200, two remote flashes)

At the very least, I'd crop this image to remove the dead space on the bottom and right side. But I wanted to highlight Heather's face, and the refs and other skaters don't really add anything to this shot, so I cropped even tighter. After a few more tweaks to improve the brightness and color balance, I settled on this image as the final version:

Final version after cropping, brightening, color correction, noise reduction, and sharpening

My point is that when you look at my photos, you literally don't know what you're missing. If I've done my job correctly, you see only the good stuff and none of the crap.

I shoot the types of photos that I enjoy seeing.

This is probably obvious: I shoot the things that are interesting to me, not the ones I think might be interesting to someone else. Although there are lots of things happening at a bout, I always end up focusing on the action. My most satisfying shots are the ones that convey a combination of conflict, emotion, action, and beauty. Those are the types of photos that I usually seek out from other photographers, although I also enjoy seeing them capture details that wouldn't have caught my attention. When I'm editing it's easier to ask, "Do I like this photo?" than to ask, "Will other people like it?"

I find it easier to capture a scene than create one.

This is the other reason I tend to take mostly action shots. Although they're technically challenging to shoot, action photos don't require a lot of creativity. It's hard for me to visualize in advance what a scene will look like from various angles or under different lighting conditions, so my style is pretty straightforward and learned through trial and error. That's not to say action shots can't be creative or artistic, but a photojournalistic style is perfectly acceptable.

When shooting non-action photos, there's a lot more flexibility to create the look of a scene, or to create the entire scene by having subjects pose for the camera. A more creative photographer would welcome that flexibility, but I haven't yet developed the intuition to create great scenes. This is where I think I need the most improvement.

I shamelessly copy other photographers' techniques.

When I see a photo I really like, I study it to figure out why: What's interesting about the subject? How is the scene composed? What's in focus, and what's out of focus? Where is the light coming from? And most importantly, how can I adapt these techniques to suit my own preferences?

Here in Seattle, I've had the pleasure of shooting roller derby with several very talented photographers. It's a huge learning aid to see the same bout through the eyes of different people, to see what they focus on, to understand how and why. I'm especially indebted to Jules Doyle, who not only takes awesome photos but also takes the time to answer my questions. I can only hope to help other photographers as much as Jules has helped me.


Bob Dunnell said...

They say great artists steal shamelessly but I think it's more that great artists analyze what other great artists do so they can incorporate it into their work. There's no shame in that. Look forward to reading more!

Christopher W. Weeks said...

Wow. Very informative. Thanks a ton. (I feel slightly comforted by seeing how many images you edit out. I was feeling frustrated by how much "crap" I had after each bout ...)

Fotodog said...

Nice post, Joe!
Leveraging other photographers to refine your style is what I like to call, "learning and growing".

I enjoy looking through your images and try to dissect what you do. The crispness and timing of your images are amazing.


BagelHot said...

To Christopher. It really is the secret between a good photographer and the "bad" photographer. The good photographer doesn't show you any of the "Bad" photos.

As far as stealing ideas from other photographers. Why stop there? I get my ideas from comic book (mainly Marvel) compositions at times.

Right on RollerFan, RIGHT ON! :D

Anonymous said...

Sigh. You cropped it all wrong!

This was a terrific photo of dashing referee Jonathan Lee (aka Hunter Stompson), and you had to go and ruin it! For shame.

- Referee Hambone

Christopher W. Weeks said...

@BagelHot -- HAHA! Yes, I know that. Which is why I also edit out most of my "bad" images before I post them. The real secret is in the true percentage of success. My point was that I was feeling like I had an excessive amount of "bad" ones to "good" ones. But after seeing Joe's ratio, I actually feel "normal".

(And just as a historical footnote, it was Picasso who said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal.")

Anonymous said...

My non-Hotrod professional side can't give enough praise to good editing and lighting. Thank fucking god. It does not go unnoticed, the photographers who are in the upper tier. -Suzy Hotrod, NYC's Gotham Girls

godzillaclub said...

I enjoyed this post. I am learning something new each bout I shoot. Getting better with practice.

I usually post once after the first pass and a quick edit. I then do a second pass and my final edit. I'll then post the album anew.

Tim Whalen said...

Great blog Joe. My wife and kids play derby and I just got a new Canon DLSR so this blog will be just what I need. What program do you suggest for basic photo editing? I've used Picasa but would like to try others.

Joe Rollerfan said...

Tim, for the last year I've used only Adobe Lightroom for editing, and I can't imagine using anything else -- although I've heard that Aperture on the Mac is similar. Both have 30-day free trial versions that you can download, and Adobe has some great tutorial videos on tv.adobe.com.

Christopher W. Weeks said...

@Joe & Tim -- I'm not a big fan of Aperture, personally. I have it on my computer and never use it. I use Adobe Photoshop. I have CS4 at home and CS5 at work. I've been hearing a lot of people are using Lightroom, though. Is there anything that Lightroom can do that Photoshop can't?

Joe Rollerfan said...

Lighroom's editing functionality is a subset of Photoshop's, but Lightroom has the advantage of being non-destructive. All of your changes are saved in a database, and you can revert to any previous version whenever you want. It's like an endless undo buffer that never disappears, and you never have to save multiple copies of your images. My understanding is that Aperture works the same way.

Tim Whalen said...

Thanks for advice guys..I'll download the program and give it a try.

Peter D said...

What are you using for noise reduction? I can see Juska's face looks crystal sharp, but the surrounding scene is grainy. Photoshop is also non-distructive, but it might depend on how you use it.

Joe Rollerfan said...

Peter, I use Lightroom's noise reduction, which was dramatically improved in version 3.

Nullset said...

Hi Joe,

Are you going to do a post on your lighting setup (or direct us to a good writeup)? The light in the rink that I've been shooting at isn't awful, but it's terribly one dimensional and pushing the ISO/SS balance. I'd love to know where you're putting your speedli(gh)tes and any complaints you've had from fans/skaters in regards to distraction from the strobes.

Joe Rollerfan said...

I'll get to lighting eventually, after I cover the basics of exposure. I'm starting to find that it almost doesn't matter where you put the lights, as long as you get them away from the camera. Wherever I'm shooting from, I try to have one light to my left and one to my right, at least 20 feet away.

Surprisingly, I've had very few complaints about the lights -- never from skaters, and only once from scorekeepers.

Sarah Hillier said...

Well I must be doing something right because most of what you've stated so far, I've been attempting to do. I've still got a long way to go but I'm so glad I was directed to your blog. Awesome information for a complete novice like myself. Thanks :)

Peter D said...

The photo in the example looks great after the crop, but I wonder how useful it is for large prints? Is there enough data left over to make a non- grainy poster size print? Also, it would be great to see your post processing techniques for noise reduction/sharpening especially on these over 100% cropped images.

Chris Edwards said...

I realize this is an ancient post, but what lights do you use? 500-1000 flash shots is a lot of battery power, so I'm wondering if you use plugged in strobes or battery packs rather than in-flash batteries.

Joe Rollerfan said...

Hi Chris, I use speedlights with external battery packs in addition to the in-flash batteries. If I ever get back to writing this blog, I'll be sure to add a section on lighting.

Joe Rollerfan said...

However, there are quite a few derby photographers using plugged-in studio strobes. That definitely gives you more flexibility, especially when you want to overpower the ambient light.

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