A Father- Daughter Photo Interlude
Posted on August 6, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 19 Comments
Athena finalized her next semester’s class schedule today, and one of her classes is on digital photography. This got me talking about how the camera and the eye don’t really see the same thing at all, and then taking pictures of her with my 28mm – 300mm lens at different focal lengths so she could see how much it changed the apparent shape of her face (very generally, if you’re doing portraiture, the higher your focal length is in millimeters, the flatter and wider someone’s face is going to look). Then we also talked about how I used photo software to work with pictures after I took them, and how what you do in Photoshop (and other programs and plugins) can change the photo.
The photo above, for example, was shot with a 28mm focal length, then tweaked in software to fix facial distortion, lighting and skin tone evenness, and then turned monochromatic, with grain and a border added. The idea was not to turn the photo into some obvious and unrealistic Facetune slider-fest (although sometimes that’s fun to do), but to at least initially bring what comes out of the camera closer to what the human eye sees, and then find a visual presentation that compliments the subject. Mind you, this is what photographers have done pretty much since the advent of photography; the only difference is that digital tools make it quicker and easier (and cheaper!) to do, without the need to devote space in one’s home for a darkroom and its attendant poisonous chemicals.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to people that when I post pictures of Athena and Krissy, I run them through Photoshop to clean them up and to make them more visually interesting. I am occasionally asked whether either my daughter or wife ever take a bad photo; the answer is yes, of course, it’s just I never show you any of those. I show you my bad photos. That should be enough for anyone. Anyway, I’ve from time to time had people tell me that they thought I probably prettied up pictures of Krissy but then they met her in real life and realized that no, she actually does look like that, which I find gratifying. As I noted before, I want the pictures I take to accurately reflect life.
It was fun to talk photography with Athena because it’s a hobby of mine, and it’s fun to explain your hobby to others, and also because Athena is already a pretty decent photographer herself, so talking about something she already has an eye for I think will make her eye even better in the long run. I suspect she’ll do just fine in her class this next semester.
Hey now, many a first kiss was had in a high school darkroom. Don’t know what the kids do nowadays.
I’ve never quite grokked the physics of what’s going on with the different focal lengths and the effects they have, though I do understand the result.
So, I met you in that food court at O’Hare airport a few years ago, but I didn’t see you first. I saw Krissy first and I knew her right away because of all the photos you take. In fact, I turned, saw her, and said, “Oh my god, you’re Krissy Scalzi.” Lol. And you walked right up then. Your photos are very well representative of your subjects. I can definitely attest to that! :)
That’s one of the things art school teaches you, that what you “see” with you eyes is an illusion. And then they teach you how to actually see what is there, and then how to represent it in the art. What you see as this movie in our head is a 3D holographic projection created in your head informed by what your eyes see. But you brain performs a lot of short cuts to create that illusion (the easiest to explain is color, if you hold your hands out at about a 5 degree angle from your shoulders, that’s approximately your color vision area, everything your eyes see, the peripheral vision, is greyscale). The movie in your head is color because your brain fills in a lot of detail for you. This is also why your keys will “suddenly” appear where you know you’ve looked before. Your eyes saw the keys, but your brain took a short cut by retrieving previously processed images to fill your vision. Photography can lie, but raw photographs are often closer to the truth than your vision.
Lately I’ve been looking at a lot of real estate pics (yup, moving again.) It’s interesting to use those as examples of the way you can lie with perfectly honest photographs, often unintentionally. You can make a room look ENORMOUS with enough view angle, or make a vanishingly small front setback look like it belongs to a country manor.
Then you tour the real thing.
@ Marie Brennan: It’s not really much of a physics problem, more one of perspective and perception. A shorter focal length gives you a wider angle of view than a longer focal length so if you want a person’s face to fill the whole frame you need to be closer to them the shorter the focal length.
Things that are closer appear larger than similar things that are further away. The tip of someone’s nose is a few centimetres closer to a camera in front of them than their cheeks, eyes etc. When you’re 10 metres away those few centimetres don’t make much difference. When you’re only a few centimetres away they do. Perspective makes the nose look bigger.
You don’t notice this distortion when you’re using your eyes because your brain lies to you. Don’t believe what you see with your own eyes. Trust the camera.
Unless I was illustrating a book on photography I probably wouldn’t take a head shot of someone with a 28mm lens. I tend to shoot portraits around 80-100mm.
@Marie Brennan, to add a little bit to Mister Dalliard’s excellent comment, the only significant factor is the distance between the camera and the subject. You can easily observe this with today’s high resolution digital cameras. Try taking the same picture (any subject) without changing the distance between the camera and target, with many different focal lengths. Even with John’s 28-300 zoom lens, the only real difference will be in the area covered. Shorter focal lengths will have a much wider field of view and show a lot more on either side of the main subject. But if you were to “crop out” the sides, the 300mm view will look virtually identical to the 28mm view as long as the distance doesn’t change. There will be quality differences because the number of pixels devoted to the central area will be much higher at the 300 mm view, but the perspective never changes. And the relative distance between foreground and background (or nose and ears, etc.) never changes.
Having met Athena in passing at the last Chicon, I recall trying to hunt you down for some convention-related business, I will second the point that your photos do look like her!
I meant Krissy…duh!
Too. Much. Coffee.
I mean, the pictures of Athena look like Athena, too.
> (very generally, if you’re doing portraiture, the higher your focal length is in
> millimeters, the flatter and wider someone’s face is going to look)
Or to put it the usual way, the lower your focal length, the bigger the person’s nose is going to appear in a full face closeup, which is why 50mm and 35mm lenses are unflattering and a 70-90mm lens gives a more pleasant full face portrait. Try it and ask people which they prefer ….
I’m still hoping someone comes up with a slide-in digital back and film cassette shaped computer image-taking solution to put into my screw-mount 1930s Leica.
One thing that happened this year was I stopped using my SLR. I have a Pixel 2 and it’s been Good Enough. Thing is, I’ve been using an SLR since I got my first one in 1981. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, I just never puled it out.
Having ‘met’ Krissy a couple of years ago, I can attest to the fact that your pictures, flattering and taken with love, are spot on, She is a striking woman.
I’ve never been a big picture-taker, but when I went to Scotland I took a ton of pictures, because who knows when I’ll get to go back. But when I got home, I was displeased–none of the pictures accurately captured the vibrancy of Scotland’s greens.
Luckily it didn’t take long for me to figure out how to edit the pictures to restore them to what I saw when I was physically standing there.
Since we’re discussing focal length, it would be good to also mention the shorter the focal length of the lens the greater the depth/area of acceptable focus (iirc). This is why most point and shoot cameras have a slightly wide angle lens, more if the photo should be in focus. For every lens there is a plane of absolute focus and areas in front and behind that plane that are acceptable. With longer focal lengths those areas are proportionally smaller, but because the focus is farther the area appears the same (I would have to use charts and graphs to show how that works). Also the longer the focal length the “flatter” the image will appear.
I stayed in the same hotel as you the last time you did San Diego Comic-con, and I can attest that Krissy is strikingly good-looking at 9am waiting for her coffee.
Fun fact, Jimmy Durante had a normal sized nose, but was only ever filmed with a short lens.
I have always loved taking photos. I am definitely NOT a photographer, mind; maybe a picture-taker with delusions, but not a photographer. I used film cameras for a long time, but finally summoned up my courage to dip a toe in the digital world about a decade ago, and I’ve now got thousands of digital photos carefully sorted and filed on my external hard drive.
The problem is that none of them look anything close to what I hoped they would when I took them. And while I have tried valiantly to figure out photo-editing software like photo-shop and gimp and others, I’ve come to realize that I’m just not smart enough for that. I can point a camera at something and push a button, but that’s about the extent of my photographic ability.
Not that that stops me from taking more, of course. I still enjoy taking them. I just wish the results looked better.
All of which is to say that if you and Athena have got that photo-editing part figured out, you deserve a whole lot of credit, because it’s not easy to do. But ultimately, that’s how great photos are created.
Have fun in your class this semester, Athena, and I hope you are willing/able to share some of the results here. I’d love to see them.
Editing with software is fine, but not the same as taking a decent picture in the first place. Classic photography ‘tips’ like the ‘rule of thirds’ and ‘fill the frame’ are still valid. (It also helps to be able to use shutter and aperture priority modes.)
Editing can only make a mediocre picture ‘okay’ but it can make a good picture great.