Sunday, October 12, 2003

Good pictures are more than just a snap

Two professionals offer advice on how to get great photographs down by the river

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Maureen France makes these observations about one of her photos (shown above):
• Shot from the bridge, a good vantage point for an overview of the event.
• Boats are stacked up, making it look busy and exciting.
• Foreground boat with plank and people waiting invites you into the picture.
• Morning light but not first light, good color saturation and contrast.
• The bridge at top and water to the left define the setting and frame the boats

When the tall-stacked steamboats glide down the Ohio River, amateur and professional photographers will head to their favorite spots to view the boat parade. These photos are keepsakes and livelihood, boat shots and crowd scenes, strange sights and family close-ups.

Regardless of your expertise, it's good to get a few tips from the pros. We asked husband and wife photographers Maureen France and Tony Walsh to answer a few questions.

Will I need a special type of camera?

France: No. The event has been photographed with everything from 8 x 10 view cameras to pinhole cameras.

Will I need a special type of lens?

France: No, but if you have a zoom or longer lens, it will probably come in handy. A long lens compresses the image and makes objects in the scene appear closer together than they are. This is useful when shooting boats from bridges.

Walsh: If you don't have a long (telephoto) lens, you'll have to get close to your subjects to have them fill the frame. The opposite goes for a wide-angle lens, if you want a wide view with a standard lens, you'll have to move farther away. Most people have what they need in their auto focus zoom.

Maureen France is a documentary photographer whose work has been exhibited in nearly 100 national and international exhibitions. Last year she was honored with a mid-career retrospective at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Positively Alive: The Photographs of Maureen France. She is an associate professor in the School of Design at the University of Cincinnati and has photographed every Tall Stacks since the first in 1988.

Tony Walsh is a commercial and editorial photographer who has worked in Cincinnati since 1979. Recent projects include the books The Cincinnati Wing and A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati's Golden Age, 1877-1922 and the 2004 Bare Roots of Gardening Calendar for the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati. Walsh also shoots travel and gardening stories for Midwest Living magazine.

Will I need a filter?

Walsh: If you want to deepen the blue of the sky to bring out clouds, or control reflections on the water, a polarizing filter will help. It will also increase color saturation.

If it's overcast or rainy, the light is in the cooler (blue) end of the spectrum. If you want to warm up the scene, an 81A filter (warming) will do the trick.

If you're shooting black and white (a great option for riverboat scenes) a yellow to red filter will help you increase contrast and deepen the tone of the sky, maybe to make the white of the riverboat stand out.

But most people will be able to get by without filters.

Will I need any special accessory equipment?

France, Walsh: Tripod, cable release and comfortable shoes. (Note: Tripods will not be allowed within the event area.)

What speed of film should I use?

France: If you are just shooting during the day, 100 or 200. If you want to photograph very early or late in the day, get 400 speed. I prefer a fast film to photograph people so that I am not dependent on a flash and I can use a faster shutter speed.

Walsh: I usually try to use the slowest film possible for the situation, the slower the film the finer the grain in enlargements. There are more films today in the 100 ASA range that have fine grain. That might be a good place to start for most shooting during the day.

If you do most of your photography with a telephoto lens you might need the faster speeds, especially if you're not using a tripod.

What are the best vantage points?

France: There are interesting things happening on the Kentucky side, and Cincinnati makes a great background for the ships. I like to be in the middle of the event to photograph people and entertainers.

Walsh: The bridges are always good, especially if you want boats and water. Mount Adams might offer a good view. Eden Park for the Parade of Tall Stacks on Friday.

What is the best time of day?

France: For the light, early in the morning and late in the day, before the light goes out of the sky. Harsh, midday light is not flattering for people. The sun acts as a large overhead light, causing the eyes to be in heavy shadow. A fill-in flash can be used to fill the shadows. Match the exposure with the background.

What if you are shooting from a moving boat?

France: The boats don't move that fast, but if you have high speed film, it won't be a problem.

What if it rains?

France: Try and keep your camera dry but keep on shooting. Many people think they have to have sunny skies and 70 degrees to photograph. Some of the best photographs were made in adverse weather.

Walsh: The rain might make for more interesting shots, reflections on wet surfaces, lights reflecting in the water. When the sun comes out after a storm it can be incredible for pictures.

Flash or no flash?

France: I generally only use flash fill, but it's often necessary inside the boats.

Walsh: If you're going in and out of boats or displays, you'll probably need a flash. They're also helpful for filling shadows and balancing the foreground with a brightly lit background.

Give us a few tips on composition?

France: Try and make the photograph when you look through the viewfinder - don't include anything more or less.

Look for a different angle, be aware of your surroundings. The light, the motion, the interaction, the color. I think it's always good to try and simplify your image and make it visually clear what your subject is.

Using shallow depth of field is good for this.

Walsh: I find my best shots are often not what I had planned. The person or place often dictates the composition. Or the gesture or thrust of the movement. It could be the curving line of the boat parade or the diagonal of someone waving or throwing a tow line.

Try to anticipate what's going to happen and be ready when it does. This will be good advice if you're trying to shoot musicians. (See for the list of musicians who permit photographs.)

I used to shoot rock concerts; get a good spot and wait for the finale. Many acts save all of the action for the encore.

What about format?

France: I usually photograph with 35mm but I have used medium format cameras as well. One year I photographed a good deal with a Fuji panoramic camera which was a lot of fun. I would recommend getting a disposable panoramic camera if you like that format.

Walsh: If you're into big prints, the larger the format the better (4 x 5 or 8 x 10 view camera). If you're trying to catch action, 35mm, 2 1/4 is good for both. A panoramic camera suits this subject well.

Do digital cameras make it easier?

France: There isn't a simple answer to that. You are able to review the shot immediately. That can be an advantage or you can be so busy reviewing and editing that you miss something. Some of the viewing screens are very difficult to see in bright light.

Walsh: It might make it easier to adjust film speed/ASA for different situations and color balance different kinds of light. Technology doesn't make a good picture though, you still have to have great light, an interesting subject and good composition.

What about shooting Tall Stacks on Light Up Cincinnati night?

France: Get your position early, bring your tripod and wait until the lights are on in the buildings. It's ideal when there is still light in the sky. Light will define the shapes of the buildings. If you wait until it is totally dark, you have bright lights against black - too contrasty.

Walsh: Take a series of shots from early twilight to about 20 minutes after sundown, then have the best one printed.

Any final advice?

France: Get up early, focus on your work and enjoy the experience.

Walsh: When shooting around water with low sun etc., a lens hood can be very important. It keeps the sun from hitting the front of your lens and lighting up all of the dust and fingerprints there. You'll get a sharper, clearer image.