“A picture is worth a thousand words” rings as true for OH&S material as anywhere else. But it’s also true that using images ineffectively or including bad quality ones can detract from the quality of what you’re trying to achieve.
I ain’t no graphic designer or expert photographer, but I’ve spent a bit of time trying to pay attention to what works when using images and how to improve the quality of photographs I use in reports and the like. This article is about the stuff I’ve learnt.
I use a few “rules” on image used in reports or any other OH&S documentation. Here are me main ones:
- An image has to do work. If it’s not informing the reader I don’t use one. That is, images just to make a report pretty isn’t much chop.
- Make the image as big as it needs to be to inform the reader. I’d rather have a page taken up with one image and a bit of supporting text vs. squeeze in an image that is so small the viewer has trouble working out what is depicted in the image.
- Use images to illustrate a piece of equipment that has a workplace-specific name. I always defer to finding out and using the name a bit of equipment is commonly known as in the workplace. But I recognise that it can be a mistake to assume that everyone in the workplace knows the commonly used name. A photo of it puts the identification beyond doubt.
- Don’t muck about with a paragraph to describe a location in the workplace. A photo of a location (with the shot including a readily identifiable reference point) is much more efficient that a written description.
- Photos of recommended PPE (with necessary explanatory text) is much better than just relying on a written description. One thing to be very aware of though is that if the PPE is also identified through colour coding (e.g. gas cartridges for respirators) be aware that colour rendition may vary with different computers. Always back up a shot with a clear written description if colour coding is part of the way to identify a recommended piece of PPE.
And here is some stuff on gear and techniques I use. I’m well short of being an expert photographer, but I do enjoy it as a hobby.
My two main bits of gear are a digital video camera (Sony handycam) and a digital SLR (a Canon 40D that I love to bits).
The video camera is obviously a useful tool when I want moving footage of a work process. Comes into it’s own when putting together a wee movie and playing it back to a client to go over risk control options. I run a Mac and iMovie is perfectly adequate for putting together movies. Whack in some subtitles over a few frames as a prompt for hazards or risks and Bob’s ya uncle. But the Sony has another handy use.
When the things I want to shoot don’t demand high quality images and I’m wanting to avoid stopping during an inspection to take notes, I use the vid camera to shoot and describe the issues or location via voice. That is, the camera is used to capture images and to take dictation on the issues. Trick with that is to keep camera movements slow. Next step is back at the desk. Download the movie to iMovie. Take any notes needed from the audio track and then take still grabs from the movie clips. The still grabs from the movie are what make it important to keep movement of the camera slow and steady. Too fast and still grabs will be blurred.
My Sony handycam is about 6 years old. It doesn’t have a still shot option. More modern ones do. That can be a substitute for lifting still grabs off the actual moving footage of course.
For high quality images, or in situations where I can’t expect good lighting I use the Canon 40D with a relatively small focal length range in the zoom lens fitted to it (24mm to 85mm). The “point and shoot” digital still cameras obviously can produce wonderful quality images. But it was a work gig that revealed their weaknesses.
I was at a workplace a few hours drive from home and the manager was accompanying me during the inspection and photo shoot. I had my partner’s very good “point and shoot”.
Every shot had to count. There were no options for a repeat visit. Plus I felt I had to shoot quickly, just by virtue of having the manager there; didn’t want him to be wasting time. The point-and-shoot was too slow to manually over-ride auto shots. And I often needed to do that to make sure lighting or details I needed were what I wanted.
The higher end digital still cameras are better designed and laid out to allow quick manual over-ride, or at very least allowing manual setting of critical settings like “film” speed and depth of field.
And here are some simple tips on how to improve the quality of photographs, particularly in the context of how to get good control over what information you’re trying to convey in the shot. I’ve included some “f’rinstances” to illustrate the tips.
In OH&S World we’re mainly shooting “documentary” images. We are after objective informative images. This is much harder to do well than it might seem. Our wonderful eyes and brains do a huge amount of work to make what we want to see clearer. It’s important to appreciate the camera doesn’t do that. What it sees you get. Practice shooting objectively. A good practice thing is to crawl around your car and shoot something you want to concentrate on. Check the shots and see how simply pointing and shooting will often miss the key bits of information. I try and constantly remind myself that a photo is like a good bit of writing. I ask myself, what is the critical bit of information in the scene I’m looking at, and how can I make sure that bit is a feature of the shot?
This is where the trend to make us camera buyers believe we can have a camera make a clever shot is a bit of a deception. It’s important to understand the core principles like depth of field, rules of composition and proper use of lighting to make sure a shot conveys the information you want it to. That is, all the traditional skills in photography are important.
Here are some examples of what I’m on about. The examples are hand-held shots of bits of me car. I used my Canon 40D to take the shots in various modes, including full auto.
“When you think you’re close enough, take a step forward”.
Can’t remember where I read this tip about how important it is to get close to the important feature of your shot; it’s a beauty to keep in mind every time you’re composing a shot. It’s also a tip that reminds us that our brains can trick us into thinking we have nailed the important feature. Our brains tell us, “Good, that looks clear”, and when we look at the shot later we often find the important feature is much less prominent than we originally thought when he pushed the shutter button. What’s in the frame is what really matters and bigger is better.
Let’s say we are interested in the type and quality of the top anchor point of a shock absorber. The shot on the left shows it’s still there, but not much more. Zooming in with control over focus point makes the key information bold. Notice how this also throws bits around the main feature go out of focus; a good way to make your main subject even more prominent. This business of what is or isn’t in focus in front and behind the focus point is called “depth of field”, it’s an important photographic principle to have a basic working knowledge about. Your camera manual will have stuff on depth of field and there are plenty of web sources on how depth of field works. (The manual is that wee book you got with your camera. You know, that thing you, like all of us, just scanned through when you first got your camera!) I also plonked the close-up shot in a basic photo editor program (in this instance the bog-simple iPhoto, and straightened the original shot up to make it easier to view). Having a basic digital photo editor and management program can be a real life-saver. Start with a simple one. Once you get the hang of it, it’s likely you’ll see all the benefits and will be tempted to use more advanced ones like Adobe Lightroom or Aperture. And be assured; even the pro quality ones are not that tricky to use.
Full auto shooting isn’t really that handy
It can be a temptation to have full auto shooting “rusted” in position on your camera photo mode dial. Fine for the happy-snaps of barbies and parties, not so good for documentary type photography. Full auto mode is not your friend: the “P” mode is. Lots of cameras have this priority mode as a selectable option; it allows you to manually adjust some of the most critical shooting controls like depth of field (via aperture control – also called “f-stops”) while leaving the camera to make it’s own decisions about other less important adjustments.
Here is an example of how full auto can be a real pain. I’m up close to the muffler. Let’s say our interest is in the general quality of the critical welds in front of the muffler. (PS: It’s a diesel, hence no catalytic converter.) The shot on the left is with all guns blazing – full auto. Notice how the flash creates distracting shadows and the auto selection of focus points mucks up the key information needed. The shot on the right was done in “P” mode. I had control over focus, depth of field and whether I wanted to use flash or not. (I’ll say more about use of flash in the next tip.) With only a very small amount of knowledge I was able to quickly decide what settings to use and the result is a sharper depiction of the 2 front welds. Many cameras have selectable spots in the viewfinder or viewing screen that locates the primary focus point or points. This can be handy, but like full auto, the convenience can be a bit of a trap. I find that at least half of the time when doing work shots (and even fun stuff) it’s better to focus manually. It allows me to compose the shot for maximum effect , a very important thing. I can put the key feature where I want it in the viewfinder frame and decide what other things I need in the shot to make the shot do all the work I need it to do. That is very tricky and time-consuming to do when the camera is making it’s best decision on what needs to be in focus. A good habit is to look at each part of the scene separately; that applies whether you are peering into a conventional viewfinder (which I tend to prefer over using my LCD viewing screen) or looking at your larger LCD viewing screen. By systematically looking all over the different bits of a framed scene we can be sure we don’t have irrelevant or distracting things in the frame before shooting.
Natural is best – flash with caution.
Natural light is always better than a light generated by a flash, unless you’re in a studio with total control over the light and colour effects. A flash will tend to flatten out shapes, distort colour reproduction and mostly just look awful. As a general rule, set your camera to flash off: it’s a good way to look to ways you can use other settings to make best use of naturally available light, and that includes shots in what may seem to be dark situations.
The top line of shots have the cable boot as the primary feature. The shot top left is the full disaster. Auto on, flashing blazing away, no real concern for composition. The flash has slammed a huge shadow on the top part of the image, the colour of the boot is not natural (and a bit of reinforcement wire has found it’s way into frame, distracting a viewer). The shot to it’s right was done in P mode. I used a high ISO setting (the higher the ISO the more light the camera sensor absorbs, with big shots that will come with a degradation in detail. For smaller sized shots that degradation is not very noticeable.) In the absence of flash the cable boot is seen in its more natural colour. No severe shadows also means the viewer is able to put the cable boot in context with the rest of the bits around it. As an aside, notice how the top right shot is up in the upper third of the frame? This exploits the weird principle of “thirds”. It was discovered a long time ago that by dividing an image into thirds, vertically and horizontally, we generate natural points of interest. Don’t ask me why, it just is. This is nice for arty-farty shots, but it’s also real good for documentary shots. It means we have multiple points in a frame where the viewers eye will want to go to naturally.
The bottom 2 shots are focusing on the universal joint in front of a differential. These are trying to show the “flattening” effect of a flash. Both shots are pretty much in focus. But see how the left one, by filling all shadows detracts from the form of the universal joint? If it’s important to depict the shape of something it will almost always be vital that you shoot without the flash. A simple tip when in dark situations, apart from cranking up your ISO speed to shoot, is to exploit the nice thing that light travels in straight lines. Depending on the size of the thing you’re trying to photograph of course, nothing more than a bit of reflector can direct some useful amount of light on your subject. With the car bits topics I’ve used here, an A4 white sheet of paper on a clipboard would be all I needed to almost double the amount of available light. None of the shots I’ve used were done using that technique but I think you get me drift. Experiment with it. Grab a clipboard with an A4 white sheet on it (even with print on it, it will be better than nothing). You’ll be surprised at how much extra light you can direct onto a subject with that simple reflector. Keep it as close to the subject as you can.
There is one less commonly known use of a flash that can be very handy. That’s when shooting outside in daylight. We can’t always control where we shoot from and that may mean that the thing we want to feature has the sun behind it. If the thing you want to shoot is in shadow and you can get within the effective range of your flash (usually only about 3 or 4 metres in daylight) turn your flash on and check the shot. This is called using “in-fill” flash. With a bit of experimenting you’ll see that by keeping a good distance away from your subject the harsh flash light will disperse a bit and you’ll get a nice bit of light to lessen harsh shadows.
Well, that’s it. To sum up the photography bit:
- Semi-pro digital cameras give you more control over your shot, but a “point and shoot” can be made to work well – if you learn it’s abilities and experiment.
- Closer and bigger is best with images.
- Take control over depth of field, focus points and ISO speed as a bare minimum. It lets you make the important features of your shot stick out, and that means your image works harder to inform the viewer.
- Your on-camera flash is more likely to ruin a shot when you are relatively close to your subject. However, using a flash outside in daylight can work in your favour when used as “in-fill” light.