A basic guide for Low Fidelity Photography
Cameras are more sophisticated every day: better sensors, improved auto-white balance systems, optical image stabilizers... the list goes on an on. What's the reason for such improvements? To obtain the best possible image quality. But, what happens when some guys with a brilliant idea discover that cheap toy-cameras with awful plastic lenses and light leaks may produce incredibly beautiful photos? The result is a fever for Low-Fidelity Photography.
Of course you can buy a Holga camera an start taking low fidelity photos. Although the idea is very nice, there are some disadvantages: first, the Holga is a medium format camera, meaning that you can't use 35mm films but medium format films, second, you'll need a trip to a professional laboratory (the average laboratory won't handle medium format film); third, it is a film camera, so you will need to return from the lab to see the results. Since many photographers prefer the digital approach a new question arises: "how can you achieve Lo-Fi look in the digital realm"? To answer that question the net is flooded with this Lo-Fi trend: from forums to photo sharing sites (and now even PhotoAficionado.com) there is a quest to obtain this images that are both magical and beautiful.
There are many ways to achieve the Lo-Fi look, and this article is to give you some ideas to shoot some gorgeous lo-fi photos. But before that, there is an important question that needs an answer: Why are this images beautiful? How can a cheap plastic camera produce such results?
If you have visited PhotoAficionado.com you already know our Physics expert Dr. Otto A. Fishonado. Let us introduce to you doctor's brother, Arthur. Art is a bohemian, bongo extraordinaire (unemployed, obviously) and visual arts expert. Meet Mr. Arthur A. Fishonado, or simply "Art".
Those Austrian guys...
"I want to tell you some facts about Lo-Fi to answer most of the questions to understand this trend. Everything began with some guys at Austria that realized the magic of Lomo, some cheap plastic soviet-made cameras. They created a concept they called Lomography that "emphasizes casual, snapshot photography. Characteristics such as over-saturated colors, off-kilter exposure, blurring, "happy accidents," and alternative film processing are often considered part of the "Lomographic Technique."*
The "Lomography" concept was pretty successful. Some critics raised an eyebrow and said that the "Lomography" concept was a cheap trick to make money. Well, maybe it was a trick, but not a cheap one since these guys made a lot of money. We prefer to use the term "lo-fi-" from Low-Fidelity instead of Lomography because in theory a Lomography should only be a photograph made with a Lomo brand camera, and it is possible to have this distinctive look with other legendary plastic-toy-cheap-cameras such as the Holga or the Diana and even with digital cameras. So we call it "Lo-Fi".
Art A. Fishonado. Bongo extraordinaire; the black sheep of the Fishonado family. His brother, the scientist Dr. Otto A. Fishonado is particularly ashamed of this eccentric character.
But the rage of the critics is right about bad photos: a bad photo is a bad photo anywhere, even if it was done with a professional camera and with a breath-taking lens. If it has poor framing, if it is vulgar in any sense, it will be a bad photo.
The second criticism is that Lo-Fi is nothing new, but good old expressionism.
In case you were asleep in your Visual Arts class at high-school (as you did in the Physics class -hey! what class did you actually attend?), let's remember a little about Realism and Expressionism.
Realism vs. Expressionism
In Realism, the artist is concerned to depict or describe accurately and objectively the subject at hand. Before the camera arrived, painters tried to copy reality with their paintings. That was solved when the photographic camera arrived. But even before the arrival of photography, some painters such as El Greco rejected traditional ideas of beauty or harmony and use distortion, exaggeration, and other non naturalistic devices in order to emphasize and express the inner world of emotion. Painters such as Edvard Munch insisted on the primacy of the artist's feelings and mood, often incorporating violence and the grotesque.
Jean August Dominique Ingres was a french neo-classical painter. He painted the Princess De Broglie portrait in 1853; it is a good example of painting in a realist way. There were some hyper-realist painters that created a technique called tromp d'oeil (cheat the eye) to recreated a subject exactly as it is.
On the other hand there is Expressionism. At the right you can see the famous painting "The Scream" by Edvard Munch (1893).
The Ingres' painting is a copy of the reality: the fabric, light, the princess' skin... It looks just like the subject (even more, it is -in fact- an idealization of reality).
Princesse Joséphine-Eléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1853)
The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893)
But Munch's subject didn't have a beautiful skin or an impressive technique to copy the exact likeness of the subject's clothes: "The Scream" is focused on the texture that transmits a message of desperation and despair.
With "The Scream" Munch didn't want to depict reality in an objective approach, but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him. He accomplishes his aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements.** Nazis forbid expressionism; they branded the work of almost all Expressionists as degenerate and forbade them to exhibit or publish and eventually even to work. Many Expressionists went into exile in the US and other countries.
Now, back to photography: if you are a coin collector and you need your collection to be photographed, you won't allow the photographer to use violent, primitive or exaggerate techniques; the size, color and design must look exactly as the subject. But think in this: what if you want to photograph a coin to show the degradation of society because of money? What if you want to show how much you hate materialism and a symbol of it such as a coin? Then you may want to use violent, primitive or exaggerate techniques. On the other hand, you don't need to be angry with money or a coin; you may just use the little coin as a subject seen with a different eye and you may want to emphasize the color, shape, etcetera.
An expressionist painting or photograph may be beautiful because it is organic, full of feelings and movement. Realistic images are nice, but tedious for some people. And that's why the Lo-Fi techniques are so appealing to a wide audience. The Ingres' painting may be beautiful but it also a little boring, yet the Munch's painting communicates many messages and you can see it over and over and over. Wich one is better? Realism or expressionism? In art there is no such thing as good or wrong.
It is like a font: you may have Comic Sans and it is not better than Edwardian. But maybe you won't choose Comic Sans for a presidential campaign or Edwardian for a Kindergarten.
So, there's no such thing as a good or bad font, it all depends on the function of each font."
That's it for Art A. Fishonado. Thanks, pal!
Maybe you don't want to be an Expressionist photographer and also very probably these photos above do not seek to communicate an emotion. You may like the Lo-Fi look just because it changes everyday subject in extraordinary forms, lights and shadows. These photos were taken with a G9, a S5 IS and a SD 800 IS cameras, not with a Lomo, Diana or Holga cameras, yet these shots have all the classic lo-fi look: vignetting, strong contrast, very vivid colors. Although many photographers try to achieve the Lo-Fi look with PhotoShop, we tried a different approach.
Choosing the camera
We used three different cameras for this article: a Canon G9 and a Canon S5 because both are fully manual cameras. We chose the Canon SD800 IS because our camera has an optical defect and images tend to be softer. Our new SD870 IS overcomes such problem but, hey! Lo-Fi is not about perfect optics! So we chose the SD800.
Here you can buy the filters we used in this article. Check also our Lo-Fi Department at the PhotoAficionado Store.
To achieve this look we used a set of filters for a Holga camera. They are cheap in every sense, both in price and quality and that's exactly what we needed.
The set of filters that we employed has blue, orange, green and red plastic filters. There is a yellow filter with a round transparent hole in the center. The set has transparent prism-like split-image lenses that are great to achieve the multi-image look and, finally, we used a Tunnel Vision adapter for an ultra-wide angle look.
If you want to save forty bucks, instead of the filters, you may also try a cellophane for candy wrapping as a filter or any other way to filter light and to achieve a texture, although you won't have the split-images.
These filters distort the image and the optical quality is subpar: just what we were looking for.
It's not the most scientific approach but it works: just hold with your left hand a couple of color filters plus a split-image lens and put it on the front of the camera. The Tunnel Vision adapter works great in a smaller lens such as the one on the SD800.
The G9 with split image lens set and an orange filter.
The S5IS with perforated split-image lens set and filters.
Ultra compact cameras are great to use the Tunnel Vision adapter.
This filters work well with compact cameras but not that well with dSLRs.
The advantage of using filters instead of just PhotoShop is that the final look is way better since the original image has true analogic defects and variations. But you can also use PhotoShop in post production.
Setting the camera
Putting a filter between the lens and the subject is just half of the trick. Since new cameras have so many ways to correct the image it is just exactly the opposite of what we need.
The in-camera auto white balance is a pain on the neck for Lo-Fi photo, because the camera will compensate the color of the filter. To achieve a Lo-Fi look you'll have to change the white balance settings. Choose a different white balance setting depending on the kind of look and the particular filter that you intend to use. Shooting RAW with G9 helps. E.g. if you are using a yellow filter, set the white balance to "Cloudy", if you use a blue filter set it to "Tungsten".
No image stabilization
Well, we always say that it is great to have IS technology, but this time you'll have to turn it off. We don't want perfectly sharp images, so the camera shake will provide an extra sense of movement.
It's great to have high ISO sensitivities
We always say that compact cameras are awful at high ISO numbers, and it is true in the realistic realm, but with Lo-Fi you can crank up the ISO sensitivity and take advantage of the grainy luminance noise. At ISO 1600 you'll have a lot of grain, and you may want to use something less extreme but already distorted, such as ISO 800.
Having manual control is great for this kind of shooting. Lo-Fi images may be under or over exposed and it is an essential part of the look. You can control exposure in a full manual camera. Check our article on using the manual mode >> here. If you are using a fully automatic camera such as the SD800, then you should change with exposure compensation. It is better to under expose because once you over expose the details are lost forever, and under exposing is better because there is more information retained. You can always change the exposure on post production.
Framing and designing
We are right in the middle of the road. You have your super filters in one hand, the camera on the other and everything is ready to begin the Low Fidelity Safari. And now, what?
As we said at the beginning, a bad photo is a bad photo anywhere. You must pay extra attention to your Lo-Fi photos because they may end being bad photos badly exposed and awfully looking. What should you look for?
-Strong contrast. It looks great in Lo-Fi, look for silhouettes in back light conditions.
- A clear point of interest. Although those Austrian guys will tell you that leave everything to surprise don't do it. Yes, feel free to experiment, but also try to have a clear point of interest in your frame and don't hesitate to use basic framing techniques such as the rule of thirds.
- Over exposure. Lo-Fi photos may be over exposed or with light leaks. If you have a defective A650 IS that has a light leak don't take your camera to Canon, instead make it a Lo-Fi device ;-)
- Nothing is ordinary. Look around and check the local scene. Even your feet may be a good subject.
- Bold shapes. If the image has a lot of noise and it is under exposed, a simple and bold shape will be more efficient than a crowded scene.
- Dynamic compositions. If you use a split-image lens try to make dynamic composition with diagonals. Check our feature >>Night at the Museum to learn many different ways to frame your photos.
- Experiment! Try different combinations of filter and lenses, some will work great, some won't. It depends on you.
Everything is Lo-Fi in our set of photos. Now, it's time to enhance our images a little. You can use any image editing software. We used LightZone and LightRoom. Change the following settings:
-White balance. Decide what color will be dominant at the photo and choose a white balance setting to enhance it.
-Noise. It's OK to have luminance noise, but chroma noise looks bad even in Lo-Fi photos. Unless you want to use image's chromatic noise creatively, try to eliminate chroma noise. Leave luminance noise untouched.
-Saturation. Most Lo-Fi photos will look even more lo-fi if you crank up a bit the color. You can go extreme, but also images tend to lose their original look, so experiment and check what suits you best.
-Contrast. Lo-Fi cameras tend to produce highly contrasted images. Change curves and go really low on blacks and really high on highlights
-Vignetting. This setting will provide you with darker corners, a signature of Lo-Fi cameras. Don't be shy with this slider.
-Too much of anything is too much. You can be extreme with the sliders, but we prefer to go easy on them. A little touch in post production is spicy; too much post production and your images will look fake and plasticky. If you want a fake and plasticky look don't be shy with those sliders then.
Check out our >> Lo-Fi gallery. Check the cameras we used and also try to figure out how we achieved each particular look.
Source: Digital Lo-Fi on PhotoAficonado