Monday, September 2, 2013

Difficult Light and Casual Cameras: Shooting with Compacts Past Their ISO Capabilities

Alumni of the University of British Columbia know that while there are a multitude of clubs on campus, the two that everybody remembers are the ski club and the dance club. Both have memberships that number into the hundreds, if not thousands... but for different reasons. Ski club held the best beer gardens, year in and year out, so you didn't actually have to be a skier to reap the benefits of membership. Dance club, on the other hand was(is) a wonderfully social and expansive society that turned a number of my friends into hardcore ballroom junkies; that or raging swing addicts. I think one or two even met their eventual spouse through dance as well.

Combining the alum of both the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University makes for an active dancing population in the city of Vancouver. This weekend was the last of the Dancesport BC events held at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver. During the summer, the society holds free open-air events for public dance lessons and demonstrations, which ends up being a popular place to spend a Friday night... with or without a date. There are a lot of enthusiasts, but equally, the events grab the attention of the considerable pedestrian traffic that goes by during the summer months.

The Panasonic LX5 makes for a great street shooting companion, but being an older compact camera, it has it's limits. Though it has a fast f/2.0 lens (at the wide end), it's difficult to take the camera past ISO 400 before the image quality degrades to noticeable levels. Some of these shots were up to ISO 1600, which makes for the digital equivalent of impressionistic watercolour. An LX7 and its f/1.4 lens would have knocked that back down to ISO 800, which would have been huge. Also... I don't have one those. They say that the best camera you have is the one that you have with you, but what if the camera that you have is not the best?

Sometimes you have to live with what the camera gives you.  When the light is low and you sensor is small, you can't have razor sharp images with short action-grabbing shutter speeds.... nor do you want to, actually. If you freeze action until it is perfectly still you no longer have a sense of it. Conveying a sense of movement is probably the most quintessential thing about dance photography. While there are other methods, the most basic is to allow for a limited amount of motion blur to suggest movement. To little results in the equivalent of mannequins frozen in awkward positions.To much motion blur and people question if you were just randomly aiming the camera.

Sometimes it's okay to let go of the preoccupation of  recording detail... movement is much harder to put down onto an image. One is an objective fact, but the other is an idea. How do you record an idea such as movement? It's not natural to the medium of photography... the printed image is static after all. Recording more detail might help form the idea of movement, but it is not motion in and of itself. This is the freedom and challenge of leaving your best camera behind... you can no longer maximize every single pixel... now what?

For one thing, it's important to remember what you do have. You might not have 6 fps and a bottomless RAW buffer to burst through, but most modern cameras have very little lag time between shutter-press and exposure. It might not seem that way with some compacts,as the write-to-card time can make it seem as though you have no low-light ability and a a laggy camera. However, that's not true, even if the camera goes dormant for a couple of seconds it will have recorded the image at the instant that you pressed the shutter button. This means that you still have your own sense of timing to work with. If you can't rely on a a continuous stream of burst frames, then you have to go back to the old way and anticipate the right moment to press the shutter button.

This is also where post processing comes into play... lots of it. Leicaphiles are known for their craft with black & white photography, but did you ever wonder why it remains such a huge part of the Leica zeitgeist well into the age of the digital M? Apart from the aesthetic qualities of b&w, my theory about why it is so popular amongst Leica photographers is because Leica was late to the digital game. Both the M8 and the M9 have a pleasing tonality at base ISO, thanks in part to their CCD-based sensors, but compared to their Japanese contemporaries, both cameras lagged as you boosted the sensitivity. This is only distracting if you insist on judging a camera's worth by comparing outright technical performance against its competitors... which is a problem in the the forum-driven age of the internet. One way to remove the distraction of a so-called "nosier" image is to remove the colour all together. This reduces the visual impact of image noise and brings the image down to it's essential forms. Considering that black & white photography has been such a big part of the Leica mystique, it's no wonder that Leica shooters relied on the b&w tools that they had been so used to throughout the decades, even. In the age of digital, the Leica love for b&w is almost a rejection of digital itself. Freed from the confines of film, Canon and Nikon shooters went wild with colour in the DSLR age, boosting saturation past Velvia-like levels and doubling down on HDR to ehance realty into eye-popping new sensations. By comparison, the Leica community entered their digital dawn with a much more conservative... dare I say traditional... approach to colour.

Here's a 100% crop of an out of camera shot. (Click to view actual size) The expression on the dancer's face is just about perfect. Even with the expanse of the plaza and the crowd looking on, this image captures a performance that is something uniquely intimate between two people. And as you can see, the file quality is utter crap.

Panasonic LX5 ISO 1600, 1/30s, f.3.3

What to do then? Remove the colour and selectively apply sharpening to where you need it, and pour on more sophisticated noise reduction everywhere else. The plaza was rigged with configurable LED lights, but the blue colour that was on at the time is not flattering in the recorded image. So technical difficulties aside, recording the scene faithfully would not do this image justice.

The above is the end result as I chose to interpret it. Removing the colour changes the mood, but not the emotion... emotion being the essential idea of the picture. The image is cropped to bring the couple off-center in a classic 1/3 composition. There's no doubt that they are the center of the picture, but by leaving 2/3 of the frame open with the crowd behind, the viewer is reminded that the dancers' private moment is happening in the larger scheme of this public gathering.

All in all, if you can't have the camera that you want, you have to love the camera that you have. That means you you've got to leave the apologizing behind and make it just about the craft of image making itself... telling a story... letting your hair down... yes, all those clichés. Or.... just go with the flow:

Last open dance of the season to Madonna's "Vogue"


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