• Michael Hadfield Photography

Still Life at home using small flashguns

October 25th, 2016

Another challenge from my photo group. This time it was something beginning with ‘I’. I couldn’t easily lay my hands on an igloo so I settled for a bottle of ink. But then there is the question that must come with all contemplation of a still life subject – ‘How do I make this interesting?’

You make it interesting with two things.

  1. The props that you use.
  2. The way you light it.

I really wanted an old fashioned ink well and a quill pen, but I failed miserably in locating suitable objects so, as we so often do, I settled for what I already had – a bottle of ink and a fountain pen.

Glass is tricky to light well. It is also reflective and so you have to watch out for camera, reflectors, and photographer showing up otherwise you only notice after you’ve packed everything away and started to post-process the image.

I have a black, shiny, table and a black background paper roll, and I like the look of objects against a dark ground, so that part was easily decided – though I could have managed with coloured mount board, which is readily available on Amazon, or even Foam Core Board which is a little more substantial and essential stuff to have lying around the studio.

The arrangement of objects is the key to the success of a still life. I like to set up the camera on a tripod and then arrange whatever I’m photographing. Live view makes it easier to see how the finished arrangement will look, but the viewfinder serves just as well. It is much easier to nudge objects than to keep moving the camera.

For this session I used my Canon 100mm Macro, though this is a few years old now and has recently been superseded by the Canon 100mm L Macro, which, judging from reviews, is slightly better but not worth upgrading if you already own the original. I also use a cable release to make sure I don’t accidentally jiggle the camera when I press the shutter button. Focus is done manually with the live view screen magnified to maximum (in this case x10). Switching to manual focus is a really good idea for still life because your camera is locked in position on the tripod and you aren’t dependent on one of the focus points being in the right place. Only you know what needs to be sharpest. The camera can only guess and at these close distances, with a non-average scene, the camera will almost certainly guess wrong.

The first step is to decide on the aperture, I used f11 to give me a reasonable depth of field, though you have to remember that at such close distances even tiny apertures don’t you give you much depth. Set shutter speed to anything under the flash sync speed, I used 1/100th sec. If you don’t know your camera’s flash sync speed then it’s easy to tell if you exceed it – you will get a black bar across one edge of your image. If this happens just choose a slower speed and try again.

Because I’m only using artificial light to create this image, and I’m not working in a blacked out room (just drawn curtains) I need to make sure that none of the daylight will register on the image. So without connecting any flash units I take a test shot. If it looks dark then everything is good. If I can see image details then I need a smaller aperture or a faster shutter speed.

Taking a still life isn’t about setting it all up, taking one shot and heading off to the computer to post process. It’s about working towards the final image – one step at a time.

The first step is to introduce the main light, take a shot and see how the light is hitting the subject. Is it falling where you want it to fall? My main light was spilling on to the background and making it show up so I introduced a flag (a flag is an object you use to block light in a studio), in this case a large piece of black mountboard, between my studio flash and the background. It was arranged so that it didn’t block the light from the table but it prevented any spill.

The ink was dark so to lift the bottle away from the background I used two additional lights – one to each side firing across the camera position (this is where the big lens hood that comes with the 100mm comes in handy). I arranged them one at a time, without the main light switched on, so that I could see where the light was falling. The light on the right creates that bright spot and reflection on the right hand side of the base of the bottle and puts that line of light down the label. The light on the left puts the bright edge to the lower half of the bottle on the other side. This pair of lights are responsible for being able to see the detail in the screw top of the glass and the actual colour of the ink there as well. The ink on the pen nib was added with an eye dropper to give a little touch of colour.

When I’d finished with the lights I found the bottle top was disappearing into the table top so I added a low reflector in front of the camera to push a little bit of light back there and give a little lift.

If you are paying attention you will notice that I set up the shutter speed and aperture (ISO always set to 100 for still life work on a tripod for maximum detail) before introducing any light. I adjust the power output and position of the lights to give me the exposure I want. I don’t play around with the aperture setting. This is why it’s important to choose flash guns that allow you to select the power output. Mine have an 8 stop range from maximum to minimum in one-third stops. Correct exposure is established using the camera screen along with the histogram. Also, when working at home, it’s easy to slip the card out of the camera and into the computer to have a quick look in Lightroom to make sure everything is ok.

Post processing was mostly removing specks of dust from the table top. When you get close, dust starts to become a serious problem. After the usual little tweaks with with contrast and saturation the image is complete. If you’ve done a good job with the lighting, very little work will be needed on the image as you can easily control contrast and brightness by using the power adjustment settings on the flashes.

 

Equipment:

You need a surface at a comfortable height to work on. I have a folding black topped table that I find perfect for still life. Mount boards can be placed on it to change the colour. I’ve mentioned the background already. I used two Yongnuo manual flashguns for the back lights. These are powerful flashguns, and really good value for money. The only downside is that they have no ETTL, but I actually find that better because I just decide how much power to dial in and that’s it. They have built in slaves so they’re easy to fire from another flash. I also used a Bowens Studio flash (strobe), with a 2’ square soft box fitted, for the main light. When this fired it triggered the other two flashes to fire. An on camera flash pointing at the ceiling, or away from the subject, is an easy way to fire slave units if you don’t want to use the light from the camera position and, I have to say, you should almost never need to use light from the camera position.

Here’s a diagram to give you an idea of the lighting set up.

 

Yes it needs a little investment, but manual flashguns are relatively cheap (the ones I use were less than £50 each – compared to over £500 for the equivalent powered Canon Flash – and they will run from rechargeable batteries. You don’t need a studio flash, I just use them because I have them. Another portable flash with a modifier to soften the light output would have produced similar results. Any dSLR will do, though I would recommend getting yourself a radio trigger. The one I use I’ve had for over 10 years and it cost me around £15. There are more expensive ones around and I’ll probably get one when this one packs up, but it’s an inexpensive way to get into off camera flash without needing long cables from hot shoe to flash.

White mount boards make great reflectors and backgrounds. Coloured ones make great backgrounds and they, again, are relatively inexpensive, so compared to the cost of a camera and a decent lens, a couple of cheap flashguns with variable power output, a wireless trigger, and a stack of boards is not a big expense and will set you up for lighting a variety of still lifes.

Popularity: 9% [?]

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In the Style of Old Postcards

September 18th, 2016

I joined a small photography group several months ago. My reasons were purely selfish. I wanted to be around others who were interested in photography, but at the same time I didn’t want to be involved in anything hugely competitive. The group I discovered (part of the Frodsham U3A) were a small group with members ranging from inexperienced to expert. The group sets a bi-monthly challenge:

  • Four images from a group outing
  • Four images on a theme
  • One image based on a letter of the alphabet

 

The image sharing meetings are not competitive. It is simply a friendly presentation of 7”x5” prints and an opportunity to discover what others have made of the same challenge. The only quality demands are those I set for myself and there are no winners or losers.

 

The most recent challenge had the subject matter bridges. For this I had to present four prints. Bridges are plentiful; photogenic, attractive bridges, less so. As I was doing my research and thinking about the challenge I was wondering how I could present them in a way that would make them coherent and bind them together as a set. There’s something about a set that looks visually pleasing in the way that completely unrelated images don’t.

 

This got me thinking about old postcards.

 

Now, many years ago I used to submit images to a postcard publisher – J. Arthur Dixon, so I’d done a bit of postcard photography, but what I wanted, since my chosen bridges were quite old,  was to reproduce an older style of postcard. The sort that harks back to around the 1930’s when colour printing wasn’t that good. Back then colours were garish and overblown, and images a little soft. No problem, I thought, a quick Google search and I’ll have a Photoshop recipe for what I want.

 

I spent a long time looking and could not find exactly what I wanted. Plenty of postcard recipes for B&W and tinted, but nothing with the look I was after. I’m no Photoshop expert and I didn’t really know how to do what I wanted. It was, after all, just a vague mental image, so I had no choice but to have a go at creating what I wanted without any help.

 

Here’s the set of four cards I created. If you like them, read on and I’ll give you a few clues as to how you can have a go at this yourself.

Aldford Iron Bridge

Frodsham Viaduct

 

 

Dutton Horse Bridge

Dutton Railway Viaduct

 

Basic image adjustments were done in Lightroom. I used this to adjust saturation, contrast, exposure and the like. Nothing special here, just what I would normally do to any image to make it look as good as I can before sharing it with the world.

 

Then over to Photoshop.

 

Here I applied a Gaussian blur (Filter>Blur>Gaussian blur) I used a radius of 1.1 but I’d just use that as a starting point. The idea here was to introduce just a little softness to the image.

 

The next step was to add another filter (Filter>Filter Gallery>Sketch>Water Paper) Again just play around with the sliders until you get the effect that you want. This introduces that over the top glariness to the colours. I also added an fx Outer Glow to this filter (fx>Outer Glow from the bottom of the Layers panel).

 

Now using the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the layers panel, add a brightness adjustment linked only to the water paper filter layer. I just played around with this until it was looking the way I wanted. Then, in the same way, I added a curves adjustment layer and bent the line into a very gentle S. This brightened the light tones and darkened the darker tones – a gentle increase in contrast. This method gives a much finer control over contrast than when you use a brightness/contrast adjustment layer.

 

I found a font LittleLordFontleroy that seemed to evoke the style of the age, a suitable script font would serve just as well especially if it was not too perfect.

 

The last thing to add was the border which is done by CTRL-A to select the outside edge, followed by Edit>Stroke and then select a suitable width and colour and remember to select the Location> Inside radio button.

 

I hope you’ve found this useful.

 

And just to finish off here are the original images.

 

 

 

 
 

Popularity: 10% [?]

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Panoramas for Beginners with a dSLR

June 14th, 2016

Have you ever photographed an absolutely stunning location? Then back home, checking your images, realise you have totally failed to capture the majesty that was spread out before you?

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image

One of the reasons for this is that the human eye/brain takes in so much more than your camera. Your eyes are constantly moving, yet they focus so quickly on all of the interesting bits that everything appears ultra sharp to you. Your eyes have a really wide field of vision too. Just try this. Look directly at the computer screen in front of you. Then, without moving your eyes, hold your arms out so they form a straight line through your shoulders, with palms facing the floor. Stick your thumbs out. Now, slowly move your arms inwards until you become aware of your thumbs while still looking straight ahead. You’ll probably find that your field of view is not far short of 180°. If you move your eyes left and right you’ll find you can actually see a little way behind you – still without moving your head. In comparison a digital SLR with an APS-C size sensor and an 18mm focal length (around the widest angle on a typical kit lens) has a field of view of only 64°. Your eyes take in so much more than your camera, and that’s what leads to disappointment, time after time.

There is a solution, and the title of this piece gives it away.

In order to recreate some of that awesomeness in your images, you need a panorama to do it. Creating a panorama couldn’t be easier, and to begin with, the good news is that it won’t cost you any money either.

From an equipment point of view all you need is a dSLR camera.

But you will need to add just one more item to your arsenal, and that’s some stitching software. Stitching software is what seamlessly joins your separate images to create that stunning panoramic view. The software is necessary because lenses distort images – especially wide angle lenses, and especially at the edges – which is where you need the images to match. Stitching software takes this distortion into account and corrects it.

Photoshop has had a panoramic stitching feature (Photomerge) since at least CS2. You will find it under File ==>Automate ==> Photomerge. Lightroom also has this function built into the latest Creative Cloud version. Adobe, by the way, do a great deal for photographers. You can get an annual subscription that allows you full use, not only of the latest versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, but also any upgrades that take place during your subscription period so you always have the latest version of the software. Adobe are currently offering a huge discount to photographers taking both versions together compared to subscribing to either Photoshop or Lightroom individually. Photoshop CC alone is more than double the price of the Photoshop & Lightroom package so grab this offer now.

If you have a Canon EOS camera you can download Canon Photostitch for free from Canon. It is part of the software set that is supplied with your camera. You’ll also find it in Canon’s ImageBrowser EX.

A quick Google search for Free Stitching Software leads me to believe there is plenty out there if you don’t have any photo-editing software that lets you do this. I use either Photostitch or Photoshop. Photostitch is simpler, Photoshop gives you much more control over your finished image. If you’re new to creating panoramas you’ll find Photostitch more than adequate. The only other free software I’ve used is Hugin and that also does a brilliant job, but it is far from straightforward to use. if you click on the image below you can compare the results from Canon’s Photostitch, Hugin, and Photoshop. The same four images were used to create each panorama.

OK, so you’ve got a camera that allows you some manual control, and you’ve got some suitable software – what next?

Next you need some images. How many is up to you. You can join two, three, twenty three. It doesn’t really matter, though the more images you join in one operation the longer the job is going to take. The software has to match up pixels on each edge of adjacent images and correct lens distortions and pretty much do a load of number crunching so you don’t notice the join. This takes time, especially if you are using a camera where each image has a high pixel count. So I would suggest that three or four images might be a good place to start until you gain some experience.

One of the things I’ve found speeds things up – since I’m not making big prints – is to create smaller jpeg files for each image and join those. I’ll reduce my 5000+ pixel side to 1000, or maybe 2000 pixels and then the stitching process goes much quicker. This will still provide you with a large image that’s too big to view full size on a monitor.

Time to get started and to make it a little easier I’ve turned panorama creation into a simple ten step process.

  1. Find a subject – which can be absolutely anything that takes your fancy.
  2. Decide on the start point and the end point.
  3. Measure the exposure for the brightest part of the scene (so that you don’t blow out the highlights)
  4. Set the exposure manually: move the mode selector to M, then adjust aperture and shutter speed.
  5. Take a shot of the brightest part of the scene and check the histogram to ensure no overexposure of highlights.
  6. Set the focus to manual and focus on anything significant in your panorama.
  7. Turn the camera to portrait orientation
  8. Take the first shot at the left hand end of the panorama and make a mental note of an object near the right hand edge of the frame.
  9. Move the camera so that the noted object is on the left hand side of the frame now (this ensures sufficient overlap) and take the next shot.
  10. Repeat until the panorama is complete.

In Much More Detail

1. Subject

Panoramas tend to full into the landscape category, but they can be of anything that fails to fit into the standard 3:2 ratio rectangle we force most of our images into. Unlike general photography, panoramas don’t usually have a simple subject – like a person, statue, building and so on. Your subject also needs to be captured without moving the camera up or down between shots. Check out Panoramic Photography by Arnaud Frich for some great examples of what you can create. Also be wary of moving objects in the frame. Stitching software can’t cope with objects that are in a different place in each frame.

2. Beginning and Ending

Panoramas, just like any other image, need to have a little thought spent on composition. If you can, find parts of the scene that act like natural stops to frame the image. In the panorama of the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port (see section 7) I’ve used the taller buildings and deep shadows on the left and the grassy bank with another shadow on the right to frame the image. The panorama of Hope Valley, Sutherland uses a hill at each end – as does the one of Conwy, Wales.

3. Measure Exposure

Exposure is one of the biggest problems with wide panoramas because you can find that light levels across a wide scene vary by as much as two or three stops. If you leave your camera on auto exposure (Aperture Priority Av/A, Shutter Priority Tv/S, Program P, or any scene modes), then the camera will adjust the exposure for each shot every time you move the camera. As the exposure changes so does the colour and brightness of each pixel. What this means is that the pixels on adjacent image edges – that are supposed to be identical – end up being different. This causes problems in the stitching software. When you switch to manual exposure and set the aperture/shutter speed combination to cater for the brightest part of the scene, you know that all edges will be identical. You also know that you will have detail in the highlights. Panoramas frequently contain a lot of sky and if the clouds are blown out and have no detail then they will detract from the appearance of your image.

Point the camera at the brightest part of the scene half-press the shutter and look in the viewfinder to see your camera’s exposure suggestion.

4. Manual Exposure

Set the exposure mode to M, then set aperture and shutter speed to the reading obtained from the camera in the previous step. The exposure needs to be consistent across all the images. If it isn’t the joins will show up and the stitching software will have difficulty matching identical pixels on adjacent images. Setting the exposure to manual prevents the camera making the minor changes it would make as you move the camera for each successive image.

5. Brightest

Now take your shot, check the screen and check the histogram. If the vertical bars on the histogram are up against the right hand edge then either select a smaller aperture setting (if you have f11, then try f16), or increase the shutter speed (if you have 1/250, try 1/500). If there is a large gap between the vertical bars and the right hand edge then select either a larger aperture or slower shutter speed.

Repeat this process until you have the correct exposure.

6. Focus

Focus is a bit like exposure. If the focus changes from image to image then matching pixels along the edge of the frames will not be identical.  Your camera likes to pick something that interests it and focus on that, so you need to take control. Switch the focus to manual, usually the switch is on the lens, and find something that seems to be a representative distance for the whole panorama and focus manually on that. Alternatively, leave the focus on auto while you shoot your exposure test, and then, without altering the focus distance, switch to manual focus. That way the camera will do the focusing and switching to manual will just leave it where it is.

7. Portrait

It really doesn’t matter which way you hold the camera to take your panorama. But if you are hand holding then you’ll find that portrait orientation gives you more vertical ‘wiggle’ room. It’s not easy to keep the camera movement perfectly horizontal, unless you use a tripod with a levelled head, and until you’ve had some practise you will find that your stitched panoramas have a lot of white space at opposite corners. This needs cropping out and will make your resultant panorama very narrow.

 

Shooting with your camera held vertically allows for more vertical space, though it does require many more images to cover the area of the same panorama.

Compare the above with this image where the camera was held vertically.

8. Start

Start at the left hand end of your panorama. Stitching software tends to want you to arrange images from left to right, so that the matching edges are adjacent. If you use something like Lightroom to sort your images it also makes it easy to select the images that you want in order to create your panorama. If you’re anything like me, these will be mixed up with a lot of other shots. Some photographers take a shot of their hand before the first image of a panoramic sequence, and another at the end. This makes it easy to find a panorama set when scanning through a lot of images.

9. Pay attention

As you take each shot find something close to the right hand edge. You will use this as a reference point when you move the camera to take the next image. So, when you move along for the next shot, line up the same reference point, but this time on the left hand edge. You want to aim for an overlap of around 25%. This gives the software lots of information to work with. If you fail to overlap, or barely overlap, the stitching software may just give up and you won’t be able to create your stunning view.

10. Repeat

Just repeat point 9 until you reach the end of the panorama. When you’ve finished, remember to reset the focus switch and put the exposure back to auto. I’ve quite often found that I’ve taken a load of overexposed shots simply because I forgot to reset everything to normal and I’ve been shooting on manual thinking the camera was looking after the exposure.

 

That may seem like a lot to take in, but once you’ve done one or two the whole thing will become second nature to you and you’ll find yourself creating panoramas every time you go out with your camera.

 


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Thank you.

Popularity: 22% [?]

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Still Life on a Low Budget

December 30th, 2014

 

 

While I enjoy photographing a wide variety of subjects, still life is the one I think I have most fun with. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I’m having fun
  2. I can take as long as I want
  3. I am in total control

That last one, however, means that if I don’t get it right, I can’t blame the weather, the time of day, the subject, or any of a host of other reasons that shooting stuff out of doors gives me. I also can’t blame the subject, because that’s my choice too and what I do with it in the studio is also down to me. But I like that. I like that if it works, it’s down to me and if it doesn’t it’s down to me.

Another part of the total control is total control of the way the light falls on the subject. Now in the studio I’m usually playing around with studio flash, portable hot shoe flash (though never in the hot shoe), and various, reflectors and backgrounds to get the light just the way I want it. But I wanted to do something low budget that would be possible for anyone with a camera and a few scraps of card to emulate – so here goes.

One of my favourite drinks in the winter is hot chocolate. Not with all that squirty cream and marshmallows, just the chocolate. Every time I pick up a fresh mug I spend a few minutes enjoyed the way the light hits the bubbles on top, and every time I do that I think – I need to photograph this next time I make one.

My daughter gave me a lovely new mug for Christmas that would be a perfect prop for the chocolate picture.

So, with no more excuses, I set about creating this with the minimum of accessories.

Here is what I used:

  1. The sun shining through the window
  2. A table with a shiny black top
  3. Several pieces of black mounting board (white on the back and available from art shops or framers)
  4. A couple of pieces of card covered with aluminium foil
  5. A tripod ( not essential but makes the job so much easier)
  6. A cable release (also not essential)
  7. A Canon 6D (any camera would do)

I set the table up so it was in the direct sunlight. Then I put black card around two sides of the table. One piece of card was used to make a dark background, and the other, on the right hand side of the table, to shade the background from the direct sunlight so the background stayed dark. On the left hand side I placed a piece of white card to reflect light back onto the subject. Subject placed on the table, a foil covered piece of card put a highlight down the left hand side of the mug to lift it and provide shape and that was pretty much the first shot of the mug on its own.

I then thought more about the still life aspect and added the solid chocolate to make the image more interesting. The second piece of foil was used to highlight the chocolate pieces, the packet label, and to reduce contrast in the froth.

Finally I took the image that started me thinking about this whole project.

A few tweaks in Lightroom, sorted out the froth and the mug on its own. But the still life needed a little more work. So it was into Photoshop to finish it off. There was a small mark on the mug that needed removing, a small bit of paper from the wrapper was a creating a highlight where I didn’t want it so the healing brush removed those. Finally I wanted to reduce the brightness of the highlight along the front of the mug so I used a brightness adjustment layer with a mask to do that.

At this point I was totally pleased with the finished result.

I had created three images with nothing more than the light coming through the window and a few bits of card.

Why not have a go and see what you can come up with.

Popularity: 18% [?]

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Just Because It’s Winter Doesn’t Mean The Camera Has To Be Packed Away

November 25th, 2014

It’s 25th November, and in my part of the world, that should be getting well into winter. This morning’s outside temperature of 3C seemed fairly consistent with that. The sun was shining warmly through my living room window and I was curious if there had been any overnight frost. My curiosity aroused I wandered out to check the car. This is where frost likes to hang on because the road is in shadow at this time of year.

No frost on the car, so I wandered into the back garden to see if any of the dahlias (frost tender) looked like they’d been frozen overnight.

Another no, but the quality of light from that low winter sun was quite breathtaking. It had a softness to it that made me want to run upstairs and grab camera and tripod.

My first subject was a gladiolus. The only one of a group that had bothered to flower, but I was so pleased it had. I have to say that the lateness of this (gladioli normally flower mid to late summer) was down to the fact that this was from a bargain pack of bulbs being sold off well into summer, so they were planted very late.

Background was difficult because my garden is a most untidy place: plants, furniture, garden canes, and even my neighbours bright white plastic windows all contrived to make the best angles, from a photographic point of view, totally useless. I eventually managed to manoeuvre the tripod so my brick shed filled the background space. Because the flower was light in tone, and spot lit by the sun, I was able to underexpose and turn that ropey brickwork into a dark background that set off the flower to perfection. It looks like a studio shot with a big softbox, but it was shot in direct sunlight in the garden. I chose a wide aperture to narrow the depth of field and add a touch of softness to the edges of the flower. A few minor tweaks in Lightroom and I had this beautiful flower portrait.

EOS 6D 24-105mm f4 L      1/250 f5   ISO 100

 

While I was out with the camera I had a quick look around to see if any other subjects were worthy of my attention. I spotted a dahlia which I would have preferred to be facing the other way, but often with photography, the challenge is to work with what you are presented with and come away with the best image you can.

This portrait isn’t in the same class as the gladiolus above, but is, nevertheless worthy of attention.

What I sought to capture here was the backlit outer petals. The very fussy background needed to be thrown completely out of focus – hence the choice of an aperture of f4 –my intention being to create a mottled background with out of focus highlights. Had I chosen a small aperture to maximise sharpness in the bloom itself, there would have been so much fussy background  detail for the eye to explore that the dahlia bloom would have been lost against this noise. As it is, it stands out quite nicely and the background has been turned into an interesting mosaic rather than a glaring eyesore.

EOS 6D 24-105mm f4 L      1/640 f4   ISO 100

 

The third image, of a mahonia, is my least favourite of the three. Mahonia, by the way, is a magnificent winter flowering shrub that adds a beautiful splash of gold in the gloom of winter.

The yellow of the flowers was reflecting the sun a little too well and looked a bit too bright when I checked on my monitor. The background, a tangle of honeysuckle and crinodendron stems, was particularly messy, and although the mahonia was covered in flowers, I couldn’t find one clump that was just right.

Lightroom took the edge off the flower brightness and darkened the background a little more than it was on the original RAW file. With a little cropping I believe I’ve ended up with an acceptable image.

EOS 6D 24-105mm f4 L      1/500 f4   ISO 100

Because there are almost no angles from which I can photograph my garden without including unsightly barriers, walls, neighbours gardens and other photographic unpleasantness I rarely do anything other than going in close when I’m taking pictures in my own back yard. The closer you go the easier it is to remove unsightliness. I deliberately left my macro lens upstairs in the studio in order to demonstrate how, with a mid range zoom, you can still create amazing images if you apply a little thought, explore several angles, and really think about the finished product.

My finished product was really just something to say – hey! It’s winter, but there is still beauty outside in the garden, and subjects galore. All I needed was some good light, a camera and a tripod.

Popularity: 24% [?]

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Beginner’s Guide to Wildlife Photography

October 23rd, 2014

I’ve just returned from another trip to the wilds of Northern Scotland. It was a holiday spent with my family so it wasn’t primarily a photographic trip, however, every opportunity was used to take advantage of the beautiful scenery and amazing wildlife that the area provided.

My kit for this was a Canon 6D along with a borrowed Canon 100-400mm L f5.6 tele-zoom. The 6D has some benefits and one huge drawback for wildlife photography. One of the benefits is full-frame shooting, so that cropping tight in post-processing still gives acceptable images and can be the equivalent to tripling, or even quadrupling, the focal length of the lens. For the examples I use below I will include the original image so you can see the difference that Lightroom adjustments and cropping can make.

The 6D also has excellent low-light capabilities and although the high ISO settings (800 and above) do show visible noise, if there is sufficient detail in the image, this passes relatively unnoticed.

The drawback: focusing speed is slow, so tracking moving objects, or focusing on something that is flying towards you is, to say the least, tricky and requiring not just skill but a modicum of luck too.

I have a friend who produces excellent images, in the same locations, with a Canon 7D and 70-200mm L f4.0, so do not feel that without a huge lump of expensive glass that you cannot engage with your loves of wildlife and photography.

I also took with me a tripod, a Giottos Silk Road Series GYTL8383, but I only used it for the fish where it was a question of standing and waiting and hoping. Hand-holding in those circumstances would have been tiring and probably resulted in zero usable images.

Now, since I’ve mentioned the fish, that might be a good place to start.

The Highlands of Scotland are wet – very wet. One consequence of this is that there is a lot of surface water in the form of rivers and lochs. The Highlands, as the name suggests are far from flat so all that water, trying to find its way to the sea, tumbles down slopes and over rocks, creating spectacular waterfalls and rapids. These are very picturesque, but also form a formidable barrier to the salmon that have to spawn in the quieter, gentler areas near the source of these streams. At the time of year when these fish return to spawn they can be seen jumping up over these obstacles and they create a wonderful opportunity for wildlife photography that just needs a quick finger on the shutter – since they are only out of the water for a fraction of a second.

They do however, usually have a preferred area where the jump requires a little less energy and the river flow is less turbulent. Watch for a while, notice their favoured spots and focus your lens in this area then wait. This is where the tripod and a cable release comes in useful. If you make a mental note of the area covered by your lens you don’t even have to stand with eye glued to the viewfinder. Just set up, pre-focus and wait. This is much easier to do when there are a lot of fish jumping but when you have to wait five or ten minutes between fish, then concentration can start to drift and you will miss. Failure rate is likely to be high, but don’t worry just persevere and you will eventually grab a shot that you are pleased with.


 

1/1000 f13.0 ISO6400

In comparison, birds are much easier as long as you can get close enough to them. Birds in flight offer you more image detail because of the spread of the wings. Certainly the images of the gannets in flight looked far more impressive than those of them sitting on the water and required a much smaller crop to create a useable image. This is one of those areas where it’s ok to take loads of images with the expectation of deleting most of them later. It’s so easy for the focus to be off just a touch because of the bird’s speed of movement. Hand holding a long telephoto lens would suggest the use of higher shutter speeds to minimise camera shake, and it is essential if you want to freeze wing movement. Mind you as long as you can get the head sharp you may be happy with blurry wings so that you can convey that sense of movement to your viewer.

The following images were all taken from the safety of dry land with the birds out at sea.

 

 Oystercatcher 1/2000 f8.0 ISO 1600

 

 

 Gannet 1/2000 f5.6 ISO 400

 

Gannet 1/2000 f9.0 ISO 3200

 

One of the tricks you can use, especially when using shorter lenses or the animals are just too far away, is to select groups of animals. That way more of the frame is filled even though each individual is quite tiny. Imagine the difference in each of the following two images if there had been only one cormorant, or just one grey seal in the image.

 

Cormorants 1/500 f9.0 ISO 800

 

Grey seals 1/500 f9.0 ISO 800

 

Large animals provide much better photographic subjects if only you can get close enough to them. Most animals have a safe distance and once you  move inside that they are off, so approach slowly, quietly, and take plenty of pictures on the way so that if you spook them you will at least have something in the bag. These seals allowed an approach of something like 60 ft away, so I was able to get some reasonably frame-filling portraits.

 

Grey Seal 1/2000 f5.6 ISO 3200

 

 

Grey Seal 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 1600

 

…and if you can’t get anywhere near the animals you want to photograph (and red deer are incredibly wary – but that’s probably because people keep shooting at them) then just create something atmospheric.

Red Deer 1/250 f4.5 ISO 400 EF24-105 f4 L @ 105mm

So what you need to do is to find out where the animals are that you wish to photograph, and turn up equipped for any weather. Be sure to check the weather forecast, but don’t rely on it to be accurate and make sure that you can keep you and your equipment dry, and you warm. Rocky or pebbly beaches require waterproof walking boots to protect feet and ankles, and if you are off somewhere remote then make sure you let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. One of the problems with the more remote areas is that mobile phone coverage is very hit and miss so don’t rely on your phone to get you out of trouble.

Popularity: 23% [?]

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Working A Subject – Photographically Speaking

August 20th, 2014

One of the things I most notice, since the advent of digital imaging, is the number of photographs people take. Once you have your camera, lenses, and memory cards there is no additional cost to taking pictures so I can see how it seems to make sense to keep on clicking. In the good old days of film (I’m only joking, I love digital photography) there was a cost to each shutter click. Every exposure cost money to process in order to see the results. 100 slightly different images of the same thing were not a good investment for most people with a camera.

Nowadays it seems that it’s perfectly ok to not only shoot 100 slightly different images of the same subject, but it is also ok to share every single one of them with your facebook pals.

Unfortunately, it isn’t strictly true that there is no additional cost to shooting 100 slightly different images – there is. The cost is the time it takes to look at them all, upload them all, and if you are even a little bit serious about your work, then to check every one just to find the best 10. The best ten then need tweaking in Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever you use.

I can understand the machine gun approach to rapidly moving subjects, such as you encounter at sporting events, but for anything relatively stationary it is totally unnecessary and just lets the world know that you have no idea what you are doing.

Working a subject is different, and I’ll show you why.

For my example I’ll share with you a subject that I took 27 shots of. This is a single subject – a small group of gazania blooms – that I found in a garden I was photographing. Now you may think that 27 shots comes very close to that machine-gunning of a subject that I was being critical about earlier. But for this series I had automatic exposure bracketing set on my camera so each image I set up produced three different exposures. So there were really only 9 separate images. This starts to look a little less like machine-gunning and a bit more like thoughtful photography, don’t you think.

So what exactly is working the subject as opposed to just being trigger happy?

Over the many years I’ve been taking pictures I have found that the first picture I take of a subject is rarely the one I like best, and the last one usually is. My approach to a relatively static subject is to wander around it; notice how the light is falling on it; and observe how the background changes as I change my position. Then I consider how changing the height of the camera can affect things –like placing the subject against the sky instead of a cluttered background. I find something I like, take a picture, move then take another. When I check the result on the view screen, that framed version of my subject lets me know how I want to improve that image, and tells me what isn’t quite right. So I move again, change aperture if I want more or less depth of field, or maybe change shutter speed if I’m taking pictures of something blowing in the wind or moving – like water.

So I take another, check it and repeat the process.

While I do this I become more and more engaged with my subject. It’s almost as if a relationship begins to develop, and as I get to know my subject better I get closer to what I want.

Let me guide you through my process and show you the images for the example I mentioned earlier.

What I am photographing is a small group of flowers about 8 inches tall that were only accessible from a path to one side of the flower bed, so there was a quite limited number of shooting options. All images were taken with a Canon 100mm Macro lens. They have only had minor adjustments made in Lightroom and you are seeing the uncropped images.

This was my first image. Looking straight down, my intention with daisy type flowers like this would be a square crop. But notice the most obvious thing I didn’t like. The foliage of this plant is covered with silver hairs that catch the light, so that leaf, lower right, is just a big distracting highlight. The petals were pointing upwards and not lying flat so the depth of field is insufficient. Apart from those technical issues it’s just a bit, well, boring.

My second attempt is an improvement. I found two blooms together and thought that the asymmetry they produced was a little more interesting than the single flower. The petals growing through each other offered a little intimacy, and the general mess of silver-edged foliage in the background, while still a little distracting, is better than the first image.

At this point I changed my viewpoint from looking down to looking across.

I still wanted to see into the centre of the flowers so my viewpoint was still higher than them. This is getting closer to what I want but that leaf tip lower right and the closed flower are irritating. Also I placed the subject too low in the frame. But I like the group of three, and I like that viewpoint.

Here is the shot I ended up liking best.

I moved the subject a little higher in the frame and adjusted the exposure so that the backlighting was more obvious. Had this been my garden I would have removed the dead head in the background and tied the unopened bud out of the way and maybe done a little gardening around the subject to improve things a little.

I’m not suggesting that this is the perfect result, but I wanted to demonstrate how thoughtfulness produces much fewer exposures than machine-gunning and gives you a much better end result.

I’ve used flowers as an example but any subject would have done, however, if flower photography interests you then check out my beginner’s guide to flower photography.

Popularity: 32% [?]

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Seeking Inspiration

August 13th, 2014

I find it easy to take pictures when I’m somewhere new; some place that I haven’t visited frequently; some place that allows me to explore with fresh eyes. It’s not so easy to come up with fresh images of places that are familiar and I have photographed often. I live in Runcorn, Cheshire and the most prominent landmark here is the bridge over the River Mersey. There is a local facebook page and I’ve seen so many images of this bridge that they all start to look the same. Unfortunately, when a landmark is well-photographed it is difficult to come up with something even a little bit different.

We get jaded and blind to the familiar in our world.

This is why it’s a good idea to occasionally challenge yourself. By that, I don’t mean that you must set yourself a difficult task – just set yourself an objective and then go out and take the pictures that you need to fulfill it. I find that having a purpose in mind, when I set out camera in hand, focuses my eye and mind so that I look at the world in a different way. This different way makes it much easier to see suitable images and come home with something that pleases me.

For instance imagine that your task is to create a set of six postcards that make your home town look like an amazing place to visit. Then go out and produce those pictures. You can even go as far as having some postcard sized prints made. Maybe you could put your black and white head on and set off to produce 10 B&W prints taken within a ten mile radius of your home. Go out at dusk with a tripod and see what happens.

I recently set myself the task of creating the idea of an idyllic walk along the canal. A bit like the postcard thing I mentioned earlier but all taken along a familiar stretch of canal that I had never bothered to photograph because it wasn’t that exciting.

Thinking about the essence of canals and leisure is that sense of freedom epitomised by the narrow boat. They chug along at around walking pace and create a real sense of time slowing down and nothing really mattering anymore. The world of hi-tech can seem quite far away. Unfortunately there are narrow boats and narrow boats. Some are spic and span and look worthy of the effort of getting the camera out, others are tatty and dripping with rust. The problem is that if you want one moving you have to take what comes along. On this particular walk I had three pass me by. You will also rarely find people that look like attractive models sitting in them. It’s not the same as a photo shoot for a magazine cover where everything is carefully chosen. This is a case of making the best of what shows up.

1/500 f5.6

The good thing about narrow boats is that the engines are quite loud and they move slowly so you get to hear them coming in plenty of time. I found this gap in the vegetation, crouched down to the level of the boat and waited. I took three shots, this one had the boat positioned in the best place. Bright sunshine at midday is reason the image is a little contrasty. We all know that this is not the best time of day to take pictures, but we also know that sometimes we want to take pictures even though the light is a long way from perfect. If photography had been my main reason for being out then I would have waited until later in the afternoon. But exercise was my main purpose and I had taken my camera simply to make the exercise more interesting.

1/80 f13

There were patches of wildflowers growing along the bank, and this orchid caught my eye. There is nothing in the image to suggest that this is anything to do with canals. It is just an average image of a flower. But this is where the idea of setting yourself a project comes in. If you are creating an album, or even a poster made up of several images, then you can take shots of small details, but because other images in the album create the impression of place you know where the flower is even though nothing in the image gives that away. It’s a bit like making a movie where you begin with a wide shot that establishes location, then a medium  shot to give a bit more detail, and finally a close-up. Do the same with your project images, wides, mediums, and close-ups. The variation creates interest for the viewer.

1/30 f14

Landscape shots are generally landscape format, but the height of the tree and the curve in the canal lent themselves much more to a portrait orientation. Notice how the buttercups create foreground interest and the gentle curve of the canal leads your eye into the frame. Notice also how the foliage has been used to hide an uninteresting sky.

1/500 f5.6

Canals are an 18th Century invention and consequently you will come across stuff that’s been lying around for a long time. Here’s a mile post that hasn’t been painted for a long, long time. Although I liked the full colour version I wanted to create a sense of the age when this was first planted here. I spent a little time in Photoshop playing around with the colours until I came up with something that created the feel I was looking for.

There is plenty to photograph, even in familiar surroundings. All it takes is an idea, or a theme, to get those creative juices flowing and give you back that sense of purpose and fun.

Popularity: 22% [?]

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Photography Clubs, Meetup, and Themes

August 10th, 2014

I joined a photo club many years ago and, in all honesty, I can’t say it was a hugely enjoyable experience that I looked forward to. I joined largely to make friends with other photographers, but while there was no hostility, no one went out of their way to make me feel especially welcome. I remember my first September evening of the new season. I sat at a table on my own for the whole night. There was no unfriendliness, but there was no effort put in to make sure I wasn’t feeling isolated.

Another problem I had was with the club competitions. I was taking largely 6x7cm slides at that time so most of my best work was in that format, but competition classes only accepted 6x6cm slides because they had a projector for those. Model nights were a bit of a free-for-all with no guidance for beginners and at that time I’d never done any studio work and so felt totally out of my depth.

After I left I felt little desire to ever get involved in anything like that ever again.

But 20 years on I found myself heading off, with a little trepidation, to meet a group of strangers for a day of photography in Chester. I’d come across them on the Meetup site and thought I’d give it another go. The group was supposed to be nine people, five showed up. Mind you, this seems to be the nature of Meetup groups. Lots of people say they are going and around half turn up.

The theme was reflections and I headed off with two strangers, who provided me with companionship for the two hour photo challenge. The obvious place to start was shop windows I thought, so I won’t do that. It would have been great if it had been a wet day, but it was bright sunshine. Chester has a river so I headed in that direction. The wind was fairly brisk so I wasn’t expecting mirror like water; what I wanted to photograph was ripples and the beautiful way the light reflects. I had in mind something a little abstract, rather than an identifiable reflection.

I headed off along the river bank, took a few shots of the river – nothing very exciting.  But I find that it is essential to get warmed up. By this I mean looking through the viewfinder taking a shot or two and then inspecting the results on the viewscreen. For me this provides stimulation and once I see what I don’t want I get a little clearer about what I do.

The river bank in Chester is full of mature willows with little in the way of access, but I spotted a small dry patch where I could get down to the water’s edge. There was a log bouncing about making interesting ripples at one end.  I took a few shots of this, and in Lightroom tried playing with the colour version and it was okay, so I thought I’d see what it was like in B&W. That was better, but it still lacked a little oomph. That was when I did just a touch of split toning and I had something I was happy with.

1/2000 f4.0 ISO 400 Canon 6D EF24-105mm F4 L IS

Then it was on to the park where I knew there was a pond. This was not a very attractive setting and although I took a dozen or so shots of ducks and a weird-looking sculpture of two herons, nothing got me excited.

After that we headed back through town towards the canal. On the way I spotted an interesting piece of pavement with golden studs reflecting the light. This had possibilities. A little work in Lightroom to make the studs stand out a little more and I had my second useable image.

1/125 f16.0 ISO 400 Canon 6D EF24-105mm F4 L IS

 

From there it was on to the canal. Here was the first thing I actually got quite excited about. The water surface had gentle ripples – just about the size I was looking for when I first thought about using water. Reflected in the surface was a latticed pattern from the bridge above. The pattern was in a constant state of movement so I used a fast shutter and took several shots in an attempt to capture something that appealed to me.

1/2000 f4.0 ISO 400 Canon 6D EF24-105mm F4 L IS

 

The next bridge gave me the shot I was looking for – a dark frame and a sunlit brick building. The oranges looked amazing and I even had a green tree to frame it. I especially liked the way the ripples broke up into isolated blobs of colour towards the bottom of the frame.

1/160 f11.0 ISO 400 Canon 6D EF24-105mm F4 L IS

 

Then it was heading back to the café to meet up with the others and have a chat about photography. For me it was an enjoyable experience. I liked the coffee and chat part at the end, and I was pleased that I was able to come up with some images that pleased me on a theme that I wouldn’t normally bother to think about.

What I am aware of is that having a focus is so important to improving the images you create. Many years ago when I was shooting slides to illustrate articles, in a magazine I was writing for, my photography improved dramatically in a short space of time and the reason was simply having a purpose, having a reason, to take the pictures.

I also want to draw your attention to the idea of working your subject.

There is a world of difference between just snapping away, hoping you’ll have something useful when you check them later, and purposefully working with a subject. I find that as I work around a subject I’m getting closer and closer to what I want. It is rare that the last shot I take isn’t the one I eventually choose to use.

So explore angles and shutter speeds and apertures, stand on something to look down, and crouch down to look up.

Most of all, enjoy the process and have some fun.

Popularity: 19% [?]

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Easy Bird Photography

July 30th, 2014

Many, many years ago I came across a book with the intriguing title An Eye For a Bird. It was in the photography section of my local library so I took it home. It was written by the No 1 bird photographer of the day – Eric Hosking. By the time I’d finished reading it I had decided that bird photography wasn’t really for me since it involved days of sitting motionless in a hide, and that was only possible after you had located a nest. I thought I’d have a tough time finding a nest never mind getting a hide anywhere near it.

However, I like birds (I’ve been a birdwatcher for all my adult life), and I’m a photographer, and birds are colourful attractive creatures so I’ve photographed them in zoos and wildfowl collections, but unless a robin happened to land nearby, almost never in the wild.

Until a couple of weeks ago.

I was invited for a holiday with my daughter and her fiancé who live on the north coast of Scotland. This is pretty much the middle of nowhere, but incredibly beautiful. I woke up each morning to a view of a sea loch and mountains. Although they didn’t appear while I was there, sea eagles occasionally fly overhead, and otters frequent the shore. Golden eagles are not quite as elusive and wild red deer are in abundance.

My early morning view

One day we headed off to a place Duncansby Head. This is the north east corner of the Scottish mainland and a place where, without needing to set foot in a boat, you can get within photographic distance of a noisy gathering of a variety of cliff-nesting birds. Razorbills and guillemots were present in large numbers, but there were also plenty of fulmars, kittiwakes, and the bird I’d come to photograph – the puffin.

I’d been generously offered the loan of a Canon 100-400mm L lens to use with my Canon 6D. With such a long focal length a tripod is essential – but I was travelling light so I pushed the ISO up to 800 and the shutter to 1/500 and hoped for the best. I would have got slightly better results with a tripod, and next time I visit I will probably take one with me.

It was around 6pm but bright sunlight from a clear sky created harsh shadows. Dead grasses on the clifftop and a very strong wind all added to the challenge of coming home with something I’d be pleased with. Even with maximum zoom the birds didn’t fill a lot of the frame, but with the full frame 6D you can crop quite heavily and still end up with a reasonable quality image.

The guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes were a little trickier because they were in total shade.

While I was looking through the lens at a handful of razorbills clinging to the edge of a sea stack I was struck by the effect of the slightly out of focus water behind and the slightly disorienting sensation it created. Although I was aware of the sea moving I knew that wouldn’t translate into a still image so I waited for a bird to approach the cliff just to add sense of movement to the image.

So you can see that with just a 400mm lens, you don’t need to get too close in order to capture quite acceptable images. There are plenty of cliffs around the UK that are utilised by sea birds for nesting purposes. Of the few I’ve visited, Duncansby Head is the only place I’ve been able to get close enough to photograph puffins.

Popularity: 26% [?]

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