Archive for 2014

Still Life on a Low Budget

Tuesday, 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: 22% [?]

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

Tuesday, 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: 27% [?]

Beginner’s Guide to Wildlife Photography

Thursday, 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: 27% [?]

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% [?]

Seeking Inspiration

Wednesday, 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: 26% [?]

Photography Clubs, Meetup, and Themes

Sunday, 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: 25% [?]

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% [?]