Archive for the ‘advice’ Category

Still Life at home using small flashguns

Tuesday, 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For this session I used my Canon 100mm Macro, though this is a few years old now and has recently been superseded by the Canon 100mm L Macro, which, judging from reviews, is slightly better but not worth upgrading if you already own the original.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.



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: 19% [?]

Working A Subject – Photographically Speaking

Wednesday, 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: 39% [?]

Easy Bird Photography

Wednesday, 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: 30% [?]

Create a Mini-Studio Wherever You Are

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Grumpy’s was the sign over the door, but the door was padlocked. Then a friendly face appeared and guided me round to the other door signed Canal View and I went in. Two different names, two doors, same business – same building. No wonder I was a little confused.

But it can get a bit like that when you’re engaged to take some pictures in a place you not only don’t know, but you’ve also never heard of before. The barman showed me my space. It was at one end of the bar, about six foot by eight with a cushioned bench along one wall and a big Grumpy’s sign filling the wall at the back. I was rather hoping I could get away with using a wall as my backdrop. My lighting stands were useless since they would have to be out in the walking space where the inebriated would inevitably trip over them.

Looked like a night of on-camera flash and the resultant awful lighting that would produce.

The barman seemed to think this space was fine because the guy with the computer doing keyrings the other night was happy with it.

Mary, who had asked me to photograph her and  Jo’s joint 50th birthday party, and I had a word with the boss. It turned out I could use the entrance space where I’d come in – the Canal View hallway – sort of. She locked the door, took the padlock off the Grumpy’s door and I suddenly had a 15’ x 15’ studio to work in. The wall wasn’t suitable so I gaffer taped a piece of black velvet to the wall. That would take care of any hard flash shadows. Set my lights up, attached brollies, asked Mary to pose for a shot or two while I got the exposure sorted and I was good to go.

I was using two Yongnuo YN-560 II manual flashguns. These are great little low-cost manual flashguns with plenty of power. You can pick one up for less than £40 now. They don’t do any of that fancy E-TTL stuff so you have to understand exposure to benefit from using them. One the things I most love about them is that they have built-in optical slaves. I set them both up as slaves and used an on-camera Metz 58 AF-1 pointing up to the ceiling to fire the Yongnuo’s. I had a wireless trigger in my bag but having the Metz on-camera, rather than the flash trigger, gave me the option of easily adding a bit more light to the subject should I need it.

The Yongnuo’s were on lighting stands with Lastolite Tiltheads. These are great little devices that allow you to fasten a hot-shoe flash to a lighting stand, or tripod, attach a brolly and adjust the angle of the flash. The camera was a Canon 6D with 24-105mm L lens attached. Everythign set up, test exposures completed and I was good to go.

My hosts had provided a dressing up box filled with silly hats, feather boas, giant sunglasses, and the like as well as a selection of empty picture frames. Now I’m not really a dressing up person but the guests loved them and had great fun.

I came home with almost 200 images and started work the following day.

Most of the images were vibrant and fun, but a few were suitable for a little special treatment.

This one cried out for some Black & White treatment. The black background made it easy to incorporate a subtle dark vignette to focus all attention on the faces.



For this one I thought it might be fun to remove the colour from outside the frames, so I played around with a Layer Mask in Photoshop to achieve this.



For this one I wanted to create a vintage look. I tried a load of Lightroom pre-sets, and tried some toning in Photoshop but none of it fitted the image. In the end I de-saturated the image and found that gave me just the look I wanted.



This is the set up.

It looks most uninspiring and very lo-tech – which it is – but it just goes to show that you can create pleasing images without needing to spend a fortune on lighting equipment.

Popularity: 44% [?]

Product Photography – How do you Make an Object Desirable?

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

What makes an object desirable?

Sexiness? Shape? Colour? Texture? Features? Suitability for Purpose?

Have a think about the last thing you bought that you didn’t need and what drew you to it.

Ignore all the reasonable stuff that your mind throws up, that’s just you trying to convince you that you made a wise choice and weren’t swayed by anything other than functionality. I mean, who needs the latest iPhone if they already have the previous model, or the one before that, or the one before that? Yet thousands of people will queue up to buy Apple’s latest offering even though they bought the last version just 5 months ago.

That’s the sexiness of having the latest version making the sale. It’s the desire to be seen as someone as special as your jewellery. And by jewellery I mean whatever shiny new toy you happen to possess – whether that be a nice car, the latest iPad, or a fancy new camera.

Then, once you have that fancy new camera hanging around your neck, notice how you suddenly start to notice what kind of camera everyone else has hanging around their neck and where that fits in the hierarchy of camera-ness compared to yours.

The manufacturers of these toys generally go to a lot of trouble to have them photographed well so they create a good impression. They pay skilled copywriters to tell you, in simple, emotive, terms how this thing will change your life for the better and help you to live out your dreams. They make mini-movies (TV Ads) to convince you that your life will be so much richer once you have that shiny cardboard box in your hands.

As photographers, it’s important that we understand – that we have an idea about what it is we are trying to communicate – when we photograph an object. And many of us are finding that we photograph objects frequently so that we can encourage people to give us money for them on sites like eBay. Photographing for auction sites is doubly difficult because you have to represent the object honestly – warts and all. Still that doesn’t prevent you from using your photographic skills to create the best possible image and the best possible image has much more to do with lighting and context than it has to do with the equipment you use to create the image.

The two images below were both taken in the same space and using the same lights, yet they create a totally different emotional response. The first is the type of image you might find in a catalogue, taken against a white background so it can be placed with other products on the same page. It shows the product clearly and the fine detail is easy to see.


The second image is, to me certainly, much more appealing. I took it against a dark background and on a reflective surface. That reflection, coupled with the bright red colour of the camera, lifts this image and makes me want to own that camera. Notice the arrangement of the wrist strap. Nothing is accidental here. The intention was to create an appealing, sexy, image. The design of the camera itself helps: the colour; those gentle curves creating a symmetrical body with those areas of red focusing attention on the lens; that big sticker extolling its features; and even those rugged looking clips. Those rugged looking clips, by the way, are just mouldings on the camera body and don’t actually seem to do anything – they are there to sell you this camera and the reason you would want to buy this camera is that it is tough and will withstand a little ill-treatment. You don’t need to read the blurb, you can tell just by looking at it.

But this isn’t a catalogue image. The contrast levels are too high – brights a little too bright and darks a little too dark, but it creates a moody seriousness. You look at this and you know the camera means business.

So next time you want to sell something on eBay, think about what the object means and then create some attractive photographs that really sell it. Include the images in the body of your listing (that way you can have as many as you want at no extra cost). Use large images for the good stuff and smaller images where you need to show wear or damage.

But most importantly think about your lighting.

For these images I used two studio strobes, one with a small softbox and the other with a shoot-through umbrella diffuser. I also use black and white boards to control this light. Obviously the backgrounds were also different. Yes, Lightroom and Photoshop were used to enhance the images, but not until I’d created the best image I could in camera.

Popularity: 32% [?]

Simple Lighting Set-Up for Flower Photography

Friday, June 20th, 2014

I spent quite a few years photographing flowers wherever they happened to be. I mostly used Velvia slide film because I liked the way it handled greens and there is a lot of green in flower photography. At the time I was writing for a gardening magazine so there wasn’t much call for arty images, just attractive pictures of plants and flowers growing wherever I happened to find them. There is a world of difference in my approach to photographing flowers when that photograph is being used to illustrate a point in an article, from when that image is destined to be printed onto a 40” canvas and hung on the wall.

For me wall art is at its best when distracting elements are reduced to a minimum. For me that means simple backgrounds, attractive lighting, and a pleasing subject. If you want to get a feel for this subject, and what is popular, have a look round a store that sells mass-produced low-cost art. This is a great source of ideas for how to style your images.

But I digress; I really wanted to show you how simple it is to set up a shot using a flower, or several flowers, as a subject using a minimum of equipment.

Here’s the shot I produced.

I used one Metz 58 AF–I, one Yongnuo YN560-II, a wireless trigger, my Canon 6D, a Giottos tripod for the camera, my old Benbo MKI tripod for one light, and a low-cost lighting stand for the other light. I used two Lastolite bendy flash holders (not their official name) so I could easily change the angle of the lights and attach them securely to the stands, a small Ikea table, some black mounting board left over from when I framed a panorama print, and two bits of hardboard that were drawer bases from some furniture that was no longer needed. The draw bases were painted white on one side and make excellent reflectors.

The Metz was attached to the wireless trigger, and the Yongnuo was set to slave mode.

This was the arrangement. The orchid that I used for my subject was one I already had on the living room windowsill.

I started off by pulling the curtains and setting the camera to manual mode so I could independently adjust shutter speed and aperture. Aperture was set to f16 because I was shooting so close to the subject and wanted the depth of field this aperture setting would give. Shutter was set to 1/160. An exposure was made to ensure everything was dark and no daylight was affecting the exposure. Then the power and position of the back light was adjusted to give me that highlight you can see along the edge of the flower stems and the buds. I adjusted the power output of the flash to get the effect I wanted – not the aperture. Adjusting the aperture would have allowed me the same control over exposure but would have changed the depth of field.

When I was happy with the back light, I adjusted the front light to give me the desired effect. That was when I noticed that those two sprays of buds going off to the left were a little dark so I added the second reflector on the left to bounce back some of the light from the other flashes. Although I had another Yonguo, and I could have used this to add more light, I wanted to keep it simple. This reflector lifted the brightness sufficiently and I was happy with the result.

Two flashguns, a method of triggering them and some card or even white paper is about all you need to produce images like this.

Popularity: 35% [?]

Macro Photography

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Strictly speaking macro photography is close-up photography where the image size is life size or greater. So that means if you are photographing something 1cm across then the image that forms on the film or digital sensor must be at least 1cm across. Of course since we always enlarge the image from the film/sensor the viewed image ends up many times larger than real life.


Having established the rule that macro is 1:1 or greater, macro is nowadays anything that is done with the little flower symbol set on the camera – and this is invariably a far cry from life-size reproduction. So I am now going to ignore the rule and for the rest of this article treat macro as another word for close-up photography.

My first ‘proper’ macro lens was the superb Tamron SP90 which, in it’s pre-digital incarnation, allowed half life-size reproduction on 35mm film. True macro (1:1) required the use of a matching extension tube, which I rarely used. I’m currently using Canon’s 100mm EF macro, a lens which creates images up to life-size and focuses as close as 31cm (about 12″).

Macro lenses are available from the big two in a variety of focal lengths. When I used the Tamron on a 35mm camera its 90mm focal length made it incredibly useful for two reasons: it functioned as an excellent portrait lens; and its moderately telephoto focal length meant I didn’t have to get quite as close to flighty insects in order to fill the frame. The 100mm Canon I now use, because of the 1.6x crop factor is effectively a 160mm telephoto. This is excellent for insects still, but just a little long for portraits. There are other advantages, however. The lens hood (ET-67 available to purchase separately), is very deep, so that extra distance you get from the 160mm means there’s generally enough room in the studio to get some light into the small space between end of hood and the subject.

And just in case you think you need to fork out hundreds of pounds on a dSLR and macro lens, here are a couple of images I took with a 5 megapixel bridge camera (Minolta Dimage A1) several years ago.



The chocolate curls image is my most popular image on microstock sites and I’ve sold many copies of it. It was taken in the garden with the camera on a tripod. I used the self-timer to trip the shutter – thus avoiding jerking the camera when the shutter release was pressed. The damselfly was captured while I was wandering around the Dorothy Clive Gardens.

Subjects for macro photography are everywhere. I frequently go for a wander around my garden to see what I can find. It’s largely a matter of starting to take pictures and then as you become more familiar with the process you ‘get your eye in’ and start to see potential subjects everywhere. Here is one I took just a couple of days ago.


Macro shooting, like most other photography, can be done indoors and outdoors. Indoor macro photography has some very distinct benefits over shooting outdoors so I will look at these two aspects separately.

Almost anything you have in your home is a potential subject for macro photography – from a close-up of your partner’s eye to a pile of coloured pencils.

Lego Truck

You will need a tripod for this. The Joby Gorillapod is a particularly useful lightweight tabletop tripod useful for low-level shots outdoors too. The tripod gives you two huge advantages over handholding. The obvious one is eliminating any softening of the image as a result of camera-shake. The other is that it frees you up to concentrate on the composition. With the camera locked in place you can continue to make minute adjustments to your subject, check it in the viewfinder/screen… tweak it again… and again… until everything is the way you saw the image in your mind. This really is a very pleasant way to work and allows you not only to exert fine control over the way the subject is presented but also over the light and shadow too.


Whether you are using window light, portable, or studio, flash remember that the use of white paper/card is invaluable for lifting shadows and reducing contrast. With a tripod too, shutter speeds can be relatively slow, though sometimes a touch of flash is need to add a little sparkle – but using flash doesn’t mean it has to provide all of the light for the exposure, be aware that you can balance it with window light to create quite pleasing effects.


When shooting indoors with subjects that you’ve had on display. Watch out for dust particles. They really stand out once you get close to life-size reproduction. So keep an anti-static cloth handy.

Again a tripod is useful and back in my film days when I was selling a lot of flower and garden images the camera was almost permanently tripod mounted and the Tamron SP90 rarely off the camera. However, for insects – like butterflies and dragonflies – a tripod is a bit of a hindrance as they rarely co-operate by remaining in one place for long. They can also be quite difficult to approach closely – this is where the longer focal length macro lenses like the Canon 180mm or the Nikon 200mm come into their own. One place that I found the Canon 100mm 2.8 macro really useful was in the butterfly house at Chester Zoo.

Butterfly Houses

Butterfly houses are a great place to practise macro photography – the butterflies are generally much larger than out in the real world (at least in the UK) and so much easier to get frame-filling images. Lots of nectar sources often mean that feeding butterflies will remain stationary long enough for you to grab a few shots.


If you look carefully among the foliage you can also find colourful and exotic caterpillars feeding and since caterpillars are really slow movers you can take your time, watch the background, and capture some stunning images.


Butterfly houses are hot, humid greenhouses because they re-create tropical forests. On a cold day, this means that the minute you take the lens cap off, the cold lens is covered in condensation. On a warm day the lens is just covered in less condensation. Wiping it off is a waste of time until the glass has warmed up. One really hot day I was surprised to find the glass stayed clear but that’s the only time I haven’t had to hang around waiting for the camera to warm up. For the same reason, if using a dSLR, change the lens before you go in, if you open your camera up inside then you increase the chance of condensation forming in the interior of the camera and on the sensor – and that’s one place you can’t wipe it off.


Depth of Field

Depth of Field is the portion of the image (measured as a distance from front to back) that is in sharp focus. This area of sharp focus changes as the aperture changes. Smaller apertures (larger f numbers e.g. f11, f16) mean greater depth of field, Larger apertures (e.g. f2.8, f4) mean very shallow depth of field. But there is another factor that affects this area of sharp focus. The nearer the subject is to the camera, the shallower the depth of field for a given aperture. At macro distances the depth of field, even with small apertures, can be measured in millimetres.







You can see this as a severe limitation, or you can choose to see it as a beautiful way to focus attention on the part of the image that is really important. Using a tripod means that you have total freedom to choose the aperture, large or small, that is most appropriate from a pictorial point of view, since you don’t have to worry about camera shake when using slow shutter speeds.

Watch your backgrounds. It is so easy to become wrapped up in the subject that the background is largely ignored – only to realise when you view the images on your computer that there are unsightly blobs, lines and other distracting elements that you didn’t notice at the time. You can also use the aperture to throw a background out of focus as in the shot of a tulip below.







If you are photographing flowers then dead stems show up as highlight lines that immediately pull the eye away from the subject. Nowadays it is possible to remove these things in a photo editor like Photoshop, but life is much easier if minimal post-processing is necessary. Usually a slight change of position is all that is needed to remove unsightly objects from view. I also tuck pieces of offending foliage, or dead flower heads out of the way – be careful not to damage plants in any way if you are shooting in someone else’s garden.

Manual focus
When you are working really close and the depth of field is quite shallow, it is a bit of a lottery to allow the camera to choose the point of focus and the best pictures are made when the photographer is in charge – not the camera. So switch to manual focus so that you can accurately direct the viewer’s attention to the correct part of the image. When I’m working in my studio I use the live-view screen on my Canon dSLR, switched to maximum magnification. This is just a little easier than using the viewfinder when the camera is at around waist height on a tripod.


Macro photography, in some form, is possible with most cameras. But you will only achieve consistently good images if you learn the limitations of your equipment. When using a compact you need to know if that blurred image is because the subject was closer than the camera can focus or because of a slow shutter speed and camera-shake? Bridge cameras and dSLRs have their limitations too. The benefit of the dSLR is that spending money can remove the limitation. Let me know if you find this information useful and let me see some of your images. Contact details on the website

Macro Photography Kit for Beginners
Canon 1100D
50mm f2.5 Macro
Tripod + head
cable release

Macro Photography Kit for the More Advanced User
Canon 60D
100mm 2.8L Macro
Manfrotto tripod
Manfrotto head
Cable release

I recommend Canon equipment because I’ve been using it since 1977. I have no doubt that Nikon equipment is just as good – I am just not as familiar with it as I am with Canon.

Michael Hadfield

NB All images in this post are copyright Hadfield’s Photography. If you want to use any of them, then rather than steal them, just drop me an email with details of what you want them for. If it’s non-profit, and I get a link back, I’ll probably let you use them for free, and certainly give you a better quality copy than you’ll get by grabbing the image from this page.

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Painting With Light

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

I was out the other evening with some friends doing a little paranormal investigation. While they were messing about looking for EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) with digital recorders and electromagnetic disturbances with a KII meter I was busy with my camera doing some fun photography.

We were at a place called Lydiate Abbey, unsurprisingly located in a village called Lydiate, around 10 miles or so north of the much better known place called Liverpool – that’s the original Liverpool in the UK. The Abbey, however, was not an abbey at all but a ruined chapel dedicated to St. Catherine and this was what I intended to photograph – in the dark. I wanted to create an emotive, slightly spooky looking image and the technique I was going to use was something I’d read about many years ago but had never actually attempted. The technique, as you’ve probably realised from the title is called ‘Painting with Light’. But in the days when I read about this technique, film was King and the results could be very hit and miss simply because you had to wait for development and printing in order to assess the results.

The kind of situation where Painting with Light is a useful technique is when you have a large area to light and you haven’t got loads of studio strobes or the strobes would have to be in the picture. Places like building interiors, especially if the building is poorly lit.

What the technique involves is setting up your camera on a tripod, locking the shutter open on the bulb setting, and then walking round with a hand held flashgun firing off sufficient flashes to illuminate a section of the subject, then moving on and repeating until the whole area has been lit. Being mindful, of course, that you don’t illuminate yourself with the flash, or point the flash directly towards the camera.

The equipment you need to do this successfully is as follows:
A sturdy tripod.
A camera with a ‘bulb’ setting that will accept a remote cable release.
A locking cable release.
A portable flashgun.

My gear consisted of a Canon 40D with 17-85mm EF-S, Canon remote release, my trusty old Benbo Mk I tripod which is very heavy, very solid, and must be getting on for 30 years old. And finally, the most important bit of kit for this exercise my Metz 58 AF-1. The higher the guide number of the flash the easier the job will be because the flashgun will produce more light per burst.
A head torch is a particularly good bit of kit for night time photography. I do a lot of photography in the dark when on these sort of investigations and since the camera needs light to autofocus, shining a light on the subject is essential but very difficult to do with a hand-held torch. Fastened on my head, it’s out of the way of the camera and points directly at whatever the camera is pointing at.

I found myself a suitable location where I could get the angle of the church just the way I wanted it, set the camera up, decided to focus manually using the distance scale on the lens (estimating the distance from camera to subject). This was easier than attempting to obtain and maintain a focus lock for each exposure. It meant I could forget about looking through the viewfinder once the camera was lined up. Then I set the shutter speed to bulb – bulb is a hangover from the days when flashguns actually used bulbs and the bulbs were single use. You opened the shutter, fired the bulb (the light from the bulb making the exposure) and then closed the shutter. On modern cameras the bulb setting is just the same, the shutter remains open as long as you keep your finger pressed down on the shutter release. As soon as you release the shutter button, the shutter closes. This is why you need a locking remote cable release. You have to keep your ‘finger’ on the shutter at the same time you are wandering around with your flashgun. With the remote release I use you can lock the shutter open by pressing the button down and forward.

Right, so shutter open and sensor recording whatever light happens to find its way onto it, I headed for the building, and with the flash set to manual full power fired off one flash between each set of buttresses and the base of the tower and the top of the tower. Headed back to the camera, closed the shutter and checked the results. Disappointing – barely anything registered.

The interesting thing about film and digital sensors is that they are essentially photon counters. Within some limits (this gets us into the territory of Reciprocity Law failure, which is not something we need to get into here) as long as light is hitting the sensor the light is recorded. So it doesn’t matter if all the light needed to make an image arrives in a fraction of a second or arrives over a longer period of time – the effect is cumulative.

So I opened the lens up 2 stops from f16 to f8 and repeated the exercise. Much better. But still a little faint. The building was now visible, but one of my friends had wandered into shot taking photographs while the shutter was open and so I had a series of ‘starbursts’ decorating one area of the image.

The Second Exposure

The Second Exposure

I waited until everyone had gone inside the building and increased exposure by another stop by using four flashes at each location instead of two. Much, much better and with the interior of the building nicely illuminated by the photography taking place inside. If I’d been on my own I could have achieved this effect by going inside and firing off a few flashes myself.

Third Exposure

Third Exposure

Looking at the two images, the ‘spoiled’ one has nicer atmosphere but is just too dark, overall. There was sodium street lighting about 100yds away and this is causing the orange tint and the tree shadows. The final image has the building much better illuminated but the patches of light on the grass are a little too bright. So I used Photoshop to cut out the street light created tree shadows from the first image and pasted them over the bright grass, removed some torches from the left-hand side, toned down the brightest light in the church interior just a touch, and the result is quite acceptable.

You’ll notice that the shutter was open long enough for the stars to register their movement across the heavens and for the moon (hidden just beneath the roof line next to the tower) to considerably lift the sky from the black that it appeared to the eye.

Lydiate Abbey final

One word of warning, working on uneven ground in the dark is potentially dangerous so watch your step – and remember, black tripod legs in the dark are almost invisible.

Michael Hadfield

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Fun Things to Photograph on a Wet Day

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Ever planned a day out indulging in your favourite hobby (photography, naturally) only to wake up to the sound of raindrops hitting the window like gravel on a drum. Well rather than roll over and snuggle down into the quilt, why not get creative, pick up your camera and discover what do indoors instead. I remember the first time I tried this, I ended up with one of my photographs gracing the pages of Practical Photography – and I even got paid for the privilege.

Indoor photography is very entertaining and if all you have is a camera, then that’s just exactly what you need. If you have a flash gun, you have a little more versatility. If you have several flashguns, there’s little you won’t be able to achieve. Stuff you have lying around the house can be pressed into service. Windows, table lamps, torches, even candles can all be pressed into service to provide that beautiful play of light and shadow that will lift your images above the ordinary. Bits of plywood, mdf or hardboard from the shed make excellent backgrounds, and if there’s a bit of leftover paint you can make use of that too. Although you may not have any lying around I have quite a few pieces of mount board for framing that I frequently make use of – so next time you’re near an art supply shop, pop in and get a few sheets in different colours. White boards not only make great backgrounds but also make really good reflectors to fill in shadow areas. Quite often the only light I use is a single flash coupled with a large white mount board to bounce a little light back into the shadow side of the subject.

A tripod is really handy, I find the tabletop Joby Gorillapod really useful. Otherwise you will have to find some other way to support your camera – books are handy for this. And if you don’t have a cable release use the self-timer to fire the shutter. Unless you are using flash, light levels indoors will be much lower than outside, consequently shutter speeds will be slow and if you try to hand hold your camera you will just get blurry photographs – that’s why your camera needs to be supported. Try it with and without and you’ll see the reason when you look at your images. Finally, you will need a table. I have a small folding one that that I just use for photography. It provides me with a lovely reflective black surface (see the Lego Truck, below). And is the perfect height for small objects. Before I got this I just commandeered the dining table for a little while. Once I even used two speaker cabinets to support a Perspex shelf so I could light some transparent glassware from below using a Metz flashgun resting on the floor and pointing upwards.

Unless your camera has an effective macro setting you may have to choose large objects so you can still fill the frame at the closest focusing distance. The more the subject fills the frame, the less background you have to worry about and the more impact your photography will have.

You will probably have lots of your own ideas by now, but if you need a little inspiration to get you started, here are seven suggestions.

1. Flowers


Flowers are a good choice, because of their own inherent beauty they photograph well. Choose a background that complements the colour of the flowers. Think about how you are going to light it, if you use window light be aware that light levels drop off quite dramatically across the width of a typical room. If you use a single flash, use it off the camera and even consider lighting the flower from behind so that the petals glow with transmitted light.

2. Fruit


Fruit is that staple of the still life or you might consider the odd vegetable too. Use a single fruit like an orange and practice lighting it from different directions, side, top, front, back, and if you’ve got something translucent or transparent to stand it on (or even an old lightbox from your film days) then you can even light it from beneath. Just doing this teaches you a lot about lighting. When you tire of that, add a few different fruits to make a still life, add some props – a bowl, a knife and a sliced fruit perhaps. Let your imagination have fun.

3. Food


Food is one of my favourite subjects: cake, cookies, chocolate, cook something or persuade someone else to do that and dress it up, napkins on the table, a fork, glass, wine so that your photograph looks like you caught it just in time before someone ate it. With food photography it is the accessories and background that make or break the picture.

4. Ornaments

Lego Truck

Ornaments, toys even, can be pressed into service. Be mindful though that if you are taking close-ups that scratches and marks will be more obvious and may need a lot of Photoshopping to correct afterwards. Take your photograph from an unusual angle so the object is not seen the way it normally is.

5. Pets


If you have pets in the house then press them into service as models. Spend an hour or two stalking them and playing with and watching for a cute pose. Make sure you focus on their eyes. Just be mindful if they start to tire of the game. Leave them in peace and come back to it a little later. Check out CritterStudio if you want to see how it’s done.

6. Family & Friends


Members of your family, or friends, may be persuaded to model for you. If you are using window light you may want to consider using a white board, a sheet or some other white surface to provide a little fill to lighten the shadow side of the face.

7. Puzzles


Go around the house and make a collection of about a dozen or so objects and then take close-ups from unusual angles. Go into your photo-editing software and assemble them together as one jpeg and then email it to all your friends and ask them to identify the objects.

And if all this gives you that taste of adventure and you realise that you could do so much better with a small equipment upgrade then check out these cameras and maybe have a look at some low cost lighting to give you that creative edge so you can continue to enjoy your hobby whatever the weather.

Michael Hadfield

Popularity: 59% [?]

How to Take Better Pet Pictures

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

How to Take Better Pet Pictures by Michael Hadfield
Our pets are part of the family and it’s so important to include them in the family album and have a record of them growing up and enjoying themselves. But pets, especially dogs, are lively and sometimes difficult to capture well. So here are a few tips and tricks that we use in CritterStudio that will help you to take pictures you’ll be proud to hang on your wall.

1 The Eyes Have It


The eyes are the single most important features in a pet photograph. They must be in focus and you must be able to see them, unless you are shooting a profile, in which case you can get away with seeing just one eye looking straight ahead. Watch for the direction of the gaze, too much eye white looks very unattractive, so catch your pet looking at you when you click the shutter. Eye contact in an image creates an intimacy that is otherwise lacking. This intimacy is what creates the emotional response that you seek to capture when you view the picture – the ‘ahhh’ factor, if you like. Have a look here for some examples.

2 Had Enough
If you are having a photography session with your pet, then be mindful of their level of fascination with what’s going on. Different animals will have a different tolerance to being posed so you need to watch out for the warning signs indicating a loss of interest. When they start to get fed-up stop and give them a rest or continue on another occasion. I find that dogs, in the studio, will generally take about 30 – 40 minutes of me sticking a lens in their face and firing bright lights at them. That’s plenty of time to get some excellent shots, but it’s pointless to continue after that because their lack of alertness will show in the photograph.

3 Ready… Camera… Action…


Movement takes practice, and a little knowledge of how your camera works, to capture well, so don’t be put off if your first attempts don’t come out the way you want them to. So even though your action shots are more difficult to pull off, with a digital camera, you can shoot away as much as you like. I am not, however, suggesting the ‘machine gun’ approach that many people use with digital SLRs. Just click the shutter, critically inspect your image on the camera’s view screen and use that to learn how to improve your timing – and your photographs. Be aware that on many cameras, especially low-end compacts, there is quite a delay between pressing the shutter button and the shutter actually firing, so you will have to learn to adapt to this, pressing the shutter a few moments before the point at which you want to capture your pet. If this is preventing you from getting the images you want then consider investing in an entry level Digital SLR like the Canon EOS 1000D or Nikon D3000 Aim to catch the peak of the action, switch your camera to shutter priority (Tv), and set the value to either 1/500, or faster, in order to freeze the action, or around 1/30 (you may also need to switch on Image Stabilisation with this speed) to create a very attractive blur that will show the movement off nicely. You may have to burrow into the camera’s menu system to change these settings on a compact digital camera. They are usually easier to find on a dSLR

4 Be Relaxed
Pets have minds of their own. Some are more sedentary than others, but they are unpredictable and taking pictures of them requires a very different approach to, say, producing a portrait of a person who will respond to direction. Because of this, patience is your biggest ally. You need a willingness to wait and watch and be ready to click the shutter when everything is just so. If you are impatient, or in a hurry to get your pictures then you will probably be disappointed with the results. Animals do not have our concept of time and you will produce much better results if you can slip into their timeless state while you seek to capture images of them.

5 See What You Don’t See

Holly copy

The background can make or break a photograph. Backgrounds that are sympathetic to the subject will almost be unnoticed, but how often have you looked at an otherwise good image and found that something in the background was pulling your eye away from the subject? The reason we so often get unsightly backgrounds is that the eye tends to focus on the centre of interest and ignore everything else. So you need to make a conscious effort to sweep your eye around the frame (whether you are using a traditional viewfinder or a viewscreen) to see what else you are photographing along with your pet. Things to watch out for are bits of other people, strong lines (pavement, posts) that cut through the subject, bright colours (red/yellow/orange especially), anything in fact that catches the eye and draws attention away from the subject. Natural backgrounds – rocks, foliage, sea/sand, sky – tend to work very well. Watch out also for clutter and litter.

6 How Close
Robert Capa once said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” And he wasn’t suggesting that you use your zoom control to zoom in or Photoshop to crop out the excess and create the illusion of closeness. When you are physically close to your subject there is an interaction between you and your subject that shows in the photograph. It makes the subject of the photograph more real, more alive. This is so crucial with pet photographs as often the photographs are all we have left to keep that memory alive. So make sure they are good ones.

7 If You Haven’t Got It, You Can’t Use It
Your camera needs to be with you when you are out with your pet (and I don’t mean the camera in your phone). If you haven’t got it, then you cannot capture your pet in that cute, once in a blue moon action; that spectacular pattern of mud or mess; or that loving way your pet looks into your eyes asking for forgiveness because they just know they’ve done something wrong. So make it a point to carry your camera and if your camera is a heavy DSLR then buy a high quality compact like the Canon PowerShot G12 to keep in your pocket. That way you will never miss that special moment and create a collection of photographs of your pet that you can be proud of.

Have fun.

Michael Hadfield is one of the photographers running CritterStudio. CritterStudio is a successful Pet Photography business, creating beautiful images of your pet to hang on your wall.

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