Archive for 2016

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For this session I used my Canon 100mm Macro, though this is a few years old now and has recently been superseded by the Canon 100mm L Macro, which, judging from reviews, is slightly better but not worth upgrading if you already own the original.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

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In the Style of Old Postcards

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

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

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


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


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


This got me thinking about old postcards.


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


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


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

Aldford Iron Bridge

Frodsham Viaduct



Dutton Horse Bridge

Dutton Railway Viaduct


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


Then over to Photoshop.


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


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


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


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


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


I hope you’ve found this useful.


And just to finish off here are the original images.





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Panoramas for Beginners with a dSLR

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

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

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Much More Detail

1. Subject

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

2. Beginning and Ending

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

3. Measure Exposure

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

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

4. Manual Exposure

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

5. Brightest

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

Repeat this process until you have the correct exposure.

6. Focus

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

7. Portrait

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


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

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

8. Start

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

9. Pay attention

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

10. Repeat

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


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


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Thank you.

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