I really enjoyed watching this blacksmith make nails in his traditional shop; no electric lights, and no machines. You can tell, with no machines to assist, every step in the process is thought out and made to be as efficient as possible. Before I started shooting, I was counting his average time to produce a nail. Within a second or two, he stayed right around 45 seconds per nail. All of his movements had tempo and purpose. I found all of this to be very fascinating to watch.
This shot was the result of a self-imposed challenge to capture in one frame the strong dynamic light conditions, the sparks flying, and the quiet, intent nature of the Blacksmith. I was using a Nikon D700 full-frame camera with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. The D700 has an incredible dynamic range which made my challenge a little easier to manage but a challenge nonetheless.
The list of challenges:
- The shop was very dark.
- I had only a small window to peer through so I didn’t have many options for where I could position the camera to make the shot.
- The window in the background was the main source of light for the shop and, unfortunately, made my subject backlit.
- I didn’t bring an off-camera flash and the on-camera flash couldn’t get around the large diameter lens I was using. I had no way to fill-in shadows to balance out the lighting.
All of the challenges boiled down to three decisions. What ISO to use which would determine what aperture and shutter speed. I knew I wanted a shutter speed that would be slow enough to cause the flying sparks to streak a little but not so much that the hands of the smith would be a ghostly blur. Using Manual mode I settled on ISO 3200, and a shutter speed of 1/350 sec. This resulted in an aperture of f/4. Given my distance from the subject and 48mm focal length, this aperture gave enough depth-of-field to put the anvil and blacksmith in focus while providing a correct shutter speed to render the sparks as short streaks rather than sparkles. I wanted the sparks to provide the sense of motion more than the Blacksmith’s hammer and hand. I found the details of his hands to be interesting enough to not obscure them with motion blur.
When the smith brought the hammer down on the nail, it would strike it once sending sparks flying. Then he allowed a smaller bounce-like hit to occur which sent a second volley of sparks. I timed the shutter release for the second bounce so that his hand had less motion and there were more sparks in the air. If you look closely at the sparks, you can see a gap between the first and second set from the two hammer blows. Since I couldn’t exclude the bright window in the background I decided to use it to frame the Blacksmith instead. Given the circumstance, the bright frame around the Smith provided an excellent area of contrast that overpowered the stoked fire on the right side of the image.
Years ago I received a great piece of advice from a professional photographer and film developer. He told me to stand back (or zoom out on screen) from a photo and squint your eyes. Let your eyes relax. Now, what is the first thing your eyes go to in the image? This, intended or not, is the focus of the image. If you have high points of contrast/interest/details that aren’t related to the subject, they are distractions that should be eliminated or obscured somehow. You know you’re on track when you run through this little exercise and your subject is the first thing that pops out at you. Since learning this little tip, I always view my images as small thumbnails (like stamp size) to assess what I need to do in post processing to make my photo all it can be.