Creative Education

Colouring Within by Glenn Dixon

When I was in grade two I entered a colouring competition. We were all issued an identical piece of photocopied paper with a drawing on one side. Though I cannot recall what the exact subject of the illustration was, I will always remember the precision by which I applied my pencils to that paper. Each block of colour was evenly shaded in a harmonious compliment to it’s neighbour. There was not a single stray stoke that escaped the confides of the black faded outline. I won a prize in that competition, a pair of sunglasses signed by a famous Australian cricketer.

On a subtle yet profound level, this validation seemed to nurture the notion of colouring within the lines and being rewarded for diligently playing by the rules. Never questioning, straying too far from the pack or testing your personal boundaries. Even now I see remnants of that piece of work in my photographs. I do not think this is all negative, there is no lingering bitterness or resentment, even though it did take me nearly twenty five years to begin to unlearn these unintended principals. After all, my original drawing nurtured a lifelong obsession with wanting to arrange, co-ordinate and represent the world through colour, line and shape.

Photographs: Lamp and Cushion - Anglesea VIC

February 2012

Is there some of that residual influence staining the subconcious of each and every artist as they create? I wonder if the judges are conscious of the enormous power they have to influence a young child’s aesthetic. Would they realise what the repercussions of there actions are as they flippantly chose a winner at random to beat the traffic home one evening after school? Are these “judges” in part responsible for shaping and influencing the artistic and aesthetic cultures of future generations?

"Taking" VS "Making" a Photograph by Glenn Dixon

“Let’s go make some photographs!” my good friend David DuChemin would say as we would prepare for a day exploring the ice on our Antarctic “Within The Frame” adventure. This purposeful and very deliberate use of language, make photographs rather than take photographs struck me as rather profound. The subsequent reflection process lead into interesting avenues of thought regarding the importance of specific language when describing our work.

Taking a photograph to me implies an act of removal. Extracting something from the environment or subject without care or regard for the way in which the scene was originally discovered. It also insinuates that the photographer who takes a photograph does not stop and spend time interacting with the space or people with whom they are photographing, there is no sense of reciprocity or mutual gain. Quite literally it is all take and no give.

Making a photograph on the other hand is an act of production. A positive initiative of raw creation. “Make” is an active verb, infused with energy and passion. The photographer who makes a photograph is aware of the surroundings, sympathetic to the subject and actively engages with the space in a way that beautifully blends the artistry and craft.

Above: Necko Harbour - Antarctica, 2012

Below: Petermann Island - Antarctica, 2012

This photograph was created during my second voyage to Antarctica just before Christmas of 2012.  I spent half an hour walking around this rocky monument, climbing boulders, observing how the light fell and how the lines and perspective effected the composition. Once I found a composition that I liked, I waited for this penguin to walk into place and complete my story. Had I not sat calmly observing the scene, this penguin would never have walked so close to me. This approach when combined with conscious camera decisions is a an example of making or building a photograph. Quite different to walking up, taking a picture then moving on without any further regard.

Slowing Down Time by Glenn Dixon

A still photographic camera has the ability to record the world in longer instances of time than we experience as humans. It allows for motion to be recorded in ways not visible to the naked eye. This technique detaches the resulting images from our perceptions of reality and invites interesting abstract and impressionistic possibilities.

Ronge´Island - Antarctica, 2012

Four minute exposure at 12.30am. Right next to my camp spot for the night!

In addition to the aesthetic beauty, this technique serves a very important visual storytelling function. Removing the element of recognisable form and definition in moving subjects allows the viewer to focus on the other elements inside the frame. In the case of these photographs created last week in Antarctica, the motion blur in the water establishes a greater visual and conceptual contrast between the bay and the mountains. There is one less element in the photograph competing for our attention and cluttering the story.  The texture in the water and clouds were not important details in my story, consciously removing them through technical decision making allows the other details to take on greater significance.

The technique: (skip this part if you just like looking at pretty pictures)

I did learn one very important lesson the hard way while experimenting with long exposures in Antarctica. When I reviewed my images after an entire day shooting, I noticed all my photographs that used this particular technique had odd colour casts in the centre of the frame. This is something I have never experienced elsewhere even when using the same equipment.

Petermann Island - Antarctica, 2012

Above: 6 second exposure with light leak. Below: 6 second exposure with eyepiece closed.

Let’s take one small step back, In order to capture a long exposure you need some way of controlling and reducing the amount of light entering the lens. In my case I use a neutral density filter from Lee, the “Big Stopper” which removes 10 stops of light from the scene effectively allowing you to select shutter speeds 10 times slower. This affords capture times of anywhere between 5 seconds and 30 minutes depending on the available light. I also use a sturdy tripod as there is no hope of capturing sharp images hand-held when your exposure time is five seconds or more.

When discussing this issue with my photographic pals on the boat with a glass (or five) of fine Mondozan red, we realised that the sheer amount of light in Antarctica was causing problems for our cameras. In the summer time light is everywhere and in such vast abundance for almost twenty four hours a day. It reflects off the ice, the sky and the water, so basically everything in Antarctica. It also bounces in through the eyepiece and wreaks havoc inside the camera.

The moral of the story; when shooting long exposures close the cameras eyepiece and prevent unwanted light from leaking in from behind. If you don’t have a eyepiece cover I suggest putting some kind of covering over the viewfinder during the exposure.

Thinking in shadows by Glenn Dixon

“Light is knowledge. Knowledge is love. Love is freedom. Freedom is energy. Energy is all. Without light we cannot have any images.” Vittorio Storaro. Cinematographers Style (2006)

A cinematographers ability to control light is paramount in visual storytelling. We need to be aware of how the light falls on our subjects yet think in shadows at the same time. It is that contrast between light and dark, positive and negative that gives life and emotion to our photography. Shadow quality refers to the definition and sharpness of a shadow when a source of light is “cut” or blocked by an object. The more sharply defined the edge of the shadow is, the easier the light becomes to control and manipulate.  The continuous lamps I will focus on here are the three that find their way into my basic kit whenever I am filming, these include 1x1 Litepanels, Dedolights and Redheads. Please note this article does delve into the technical in order to serve the artistic. If you are interested in cinematography and lighting, please push on. I know you will enjoy it.

Shadow quality is determined by two main factors:

1. The number of individual light sources. 2. The ratio between the size of the subject and the surface area of the light source. It is commonly thought that each video lamp is one light source. As we will see that is not necessarily the case.

1. A very popular piece of lighting equipment is the open face flood. There is the Redhead which typically comes in an 800W flavour, and it’s big sister the 1K-2K Blondie. They are relatively inexpensive to acquire and are extremely versatile. A Redhead is a fine example of something that has many uses but is fairly useless at everything. To it’s credit it does lots of things acceptably but nothing exceptionally. One of the reasons why? You guessed it. Shadow quality.

It is very difficult to produce sharply defined shadows with an open face flood such as a Redhead. The reason being that these lights use a bulb suspended inside the arc of a parabolic reflector element. When you spark the light, a percentage of light is emitted directly from the front of the globe. The remainder bounces backward into the reflector before being diverted through the front in a jumbled mess to join it’s buddies. This means that there are essentially two sources of light. The globe and the reflector. The result is a double shadow effect in the falloff pattern. You can see in the image below how there is a ghosting around my sleeve and fingers.

At this point I would love to come to the Redheads defence but I digress: it does get worse. The lamp is rated at 800W however the actual light output is significantly lower due to a huge amount of energy lost as heat. The globes are extremely delicate and blow at the slightest bump. Carry lots of spares! Why then would you bother with this light? Unfortunately it does save your life on the odd occasion. When all seems lost you can dump it in the corner of a room and bounce the light off the roof to give you some ambient fill.

The Dedolights developed by the Cinematographer Dedo Weigert’s company are greatly renowned for their precise detail, manoeuvrability and superior shadow quality. They are a small directional light with the ability to move between spot and flood positions with extreme precision. The barn doors and various light modifiers afford the cinematographer the possibility of creating abstract shapes and ethereal light effects. This lamp largely owes its fame to the lens which emits light as one unison source. Single source of light = higher shadow quality.

2. A Litepanel is an array of dim-able light emitting diodes. There are literally hundreds of individual LED’s that cover the 1’ by 1’ surface. Subsequently there are hundreds of individuals sources of light, as a result the shadow quality is extremely poor. This lamp is said to have a comparatively softer quality of light to that of a Redhead or Dedolight due to its large surface area.  If the surface area of a light is large in comparison to the subject size, the light is able to “wrap” around and we observe this phenomena as “soft light”. We must be cautious though around labelling a light as being “hard” or “soft” indefinitely. A Dedolight may appear hard when lighting a wall from five metres away, however it will appear quite soft if lighting a piece of lego from 15cm away.

It is important to understand that each model of lamp has a specific quality. That should not be mistaken with every light having a specific application. Labelling lights as “interview lights” or “special effects lights” is the enemy of artistic expression. Why can’t a Dedolight be used as a key light for an interview if a hard quality of light serves the story or drives the character development forward? The key is understanding the effect of each tool and being able to utilise it in a way that is thought provoking and moves the heart.

Links:

Dedo Weigert discusses the Dedolight here. Cinematographers Style on IMDB. Light Panels website.

** Image of Litepanel to come.

Creative Exercise: Your treasure map by Glenn Dixon

I have been hosting creative photography and filmmaking workshops for students between the ages of 7 and 18 for about four years now. Only yesterday did I finally begin to develop a meaningful exercise that explores the idea of photographic composition to children in a manner that is non restrictive and detrimental to their natural creative flair. I have always been hesitant to introduce composition through the “principle of thirds” and “golden mean”. I believe these concepts (when not explained properly) are nothing short of indoctrinations and recipes for stagnant art. Children learn naturally through play and experimentation. That still left me with one big challenge, how do you get the students to start exploring the corners of the frame and stop putting all their subjects right in the middle?

I drew a large rectangle on the whiteboard to represent the photographic frame with a thick "X" somewhere in the top left corner. I asked the students to imagine that box as a treasure map and the “X” as the "treasure" or “subject in the photograph”. Kids love pirates so I think I could have just gone home at that point and it would have still been a very successful workshop! Never the less, we dug deeper. I asked the students how the treasure hunters could find the lost treasure? They reasoned that we needed to draw them a safe route so they know where to go. Now I was getting very excited, we were talking about how the lines in a photograph help guide the viewer to the main subject.

For the practical exercise I asked them to find a small piece of treasure for themselves, any simple object from around the room that was small enough to carry around in their hands. Now it was their turn to create some treasure maps by placing the object somewhere in the outside environment and taking photographs where they utilised naturally occuring lines to guide the viewer to the treasure.

All images by grade 4 students.

© Dallas Brooks Community Primary School, 2012

Toward the end we engaged in some very articulate and interesting conversations. When I asked one student why they had decided to put their treasure in the extreme corner of the picture, they replied “If I put it in the middle it would be too easy to find.” I was truly blown away by the sound reasoning of this eight year old student. I think through experimentation they began to realise how conscious arrangement and placement of elements inside the frame allows for stories to be communicated.

If you are an educator I would love for you to explore this concept with your students, by all means modify and add where necessary. Any thoughts, recommendations or discoveries I would love for you to share them below!