Ken Duncan – The third dimension

KECF01344_ILast night I went to a presentation by Ken Duncan called “creating the third dimension”.  I saw a lot of other Blackwood Camera club members there.  It had been well advertised.  This event was organised by the SAPF. I saw Sam Savage in his official capacity, as was Helen Whitford who was checking people in at the door.

ken-duncanKen introduced himself by describing the advice he had given to an up and coming photographer.  “He was technically very good, but frankly his images were let down by his composition.  I told him, ‘You’ve got nothing that leads your eye into the picture'”

“Here look at this, you need a nice leading line.  It’s better of it comes in from the corner.  That always works well to draw you into the centre of the picture.  People talk about the rule of thirds.  I never use the rule of thirds.  The subject goes where it creates harmony in the picture.  It’s different for every shot.  Sometimes it’s in the centre.  And here this tree and this rock I call book ends.  They stop your eye from going out of the picture.  Turn you back in to the centre so as to speak.  And here in this image everything is cluttered.  You have to separate things apart.  ”

Ken went on to describe how he climbed up on the roof of the van so that he could take a picture of the Mad Max film set.  Or at the Tasmanian Lavender farm he stood his tripod on a 44 Gallon drum in order to separate the lines of lavender.   “A print is just flat, but you want to fool the eye into seeing in three dimensions.”

So this young photographer went off and when he came back his work was much improved.  He was separating the elements and using the corners, and book-ending the picture.  It had greater impact.  He said to me, “Ken You know you gotta let on and tell people this stuff.”  So that’s why I’m here.

I will recap some of Kens life story.  According to Wikipedia he was born in Mildura, Victoria,  and lived most of his early life in country towns.  He became interested in photography in his early teens.  After leaving school, he eventually became senior technical representative for a photographic supply house.  His particular interest with panoramic shots began when the company imported the Widelux camera, which had the ability to produce panoramic  landscapes. In 1981, he moved to Sydney.

Ken goes on to explain, Photography comes from the greek, photos, meaning light and graphia to draw.  It’s all about the light.  Nowadays Ken shoots with a phase one medium format digital camera.  He is also ambassador for panasonic Lumix in Australia and swears by the Lumix G1.  It’s so light and takes brilliant photos.

Back in the film days I had 4 stops of dynamic range.  You have to choose where to expose.  With my digital camera I have up to 14 stops.  Why would you want any more that that?  Nowadays people feel they have to show all of this detail in the shadows.  All this high dynamic range photography, merging 3 to 9 pictures.  No you don’t have to do that.  They are shadows, that’s what they are there for, so you can’t see the detail.  It’s important for the composition of the picture.  You want to be looking at the subject, not all of the detail in the shadows.  I usually expose for the highlights.

I just love detail.  I can take a photograph that I can print on an office wall.  You can walk up to it and it’s pin sharp, all over.  I could shoot standard format and crop to make a panorama, but I really wish the camera manufacturers would make a proper digital panoramic camera.  You know I don’t really like to shoot in wide angle.  You get distortion.  I prefer to shoot 50mm and then stitch to make a panorama.

He went on to describe his panorama technique.   He uses a tripod with a 3 element Arca-Swiss panoramic head.  There are both single-row and Multi row panoramic heads.  The camera has an L plate.  For each lens in his collection he works out the nodal point for that lens.  When the nodal point is set correctly the camera can be pivoted without creating errors due to parallax.  He recommends 25% overlap between frames.  You will need more overlap with wide angle lenses (due to distortion).  Ken stitches in Adobe Photoshop, or PTGui.    After describing all this kit, Ken then admits he will take panoramas hand held, estimating the nodal point.  He has stitched panoramas of waves breaking, and of wildlife, and even from the basket of a balloon.


Ken loves to tell stories.  Like that house in the South Australian mid north.  “I had forgotten where it was, close to Burra, and when I found it I climbed over the fence so that I could get a good angle.  You know they don’t plough the paddocks like that any more.  This farmer walks up and says, “Hey, you know this is private property.”  “What’s the problem”, “Well this bloke Ken Duncan came up here several years ago and took a photo of this house, and ever since we have been inundated with jokers wanting to do the same”. “Well I’m Ken Duncan, and I’m pleased to meet you”.  As it turned out the house was in disrepair and at risk of falling over.  Subsequently Ken and Midnight oil were able to raise funds to preserve the building.

Ken tells of his interactions with Mel Gibson in the Mad Max movies and subsequently in the Passion of Christ.  He shot pictures with Peter Dombrovskis and mixed with Max Dupain.  Max asked Ken why he had never shot in black and white.  Ken admits that he is addicted to colour.  Ken asked the audience how many people had seen an original Peter Dombrovskis print.  A few held up their hands.  Who out of you owns a Peter Dombrovskis print?  The hands went down.  Ken admitted he has several.  He is hoping to open a gallery of photography and is purchasing famous prints.  People are showing me stuff on their phones all the time, but you know what I think.  It’s not worth a cracker until you make a print of it.


In question and answer time a member from the audience asked Ken why he saturated his images.  Ken denied that he had boosted the saturation.  He had planned the shot in question to be taken at dawn when the saturation was intense.  He indicated that he generally shot for large depth of field in order to get as much in focus as possible.  He described being dropped into remote areas by helicopter for a week at a time in order to get his shot.  A shoot he did in Derby for Qantas involved dumping several tons of red soil at the base of a stand of baobab trees.   People say not to shoot in the middle of the day.  That’s not right.  There’s a lot of shots you can take with intense light.  You have to watch the light and see what is going to work.  I aim to get it right in the camera, so that you don’t need to spend time in PS.  My main photographic manipulations are aperture and shutter speed.  Ken will even endeavour to remove dust from his sensor on location using vacuum extraction and swabs.

I can see that there is a role for photographic art, and believe me I have done it in the past.  However I see myself as a photo realist.

I was talking to Les Ludgate after the session.  Yes I really enjoyed that.  You know it was certainly more interesting than doing what I had planned to do tonight.