31 Dec 2007

TEN TIPS on how to photograph children - part 1

Children may be spontaneous subjects, but photographing them needs a little planning on the part of the photographer – plus good camera craft and lots of patience.

How times have changed. I am fortunate to be of a generation that that could photograph children without being demonised as an evil pervert. Point a camera at a child these days and you will immediately be branded a dangerous monster. This paranoia, fostered and encouraged by official agencies, has even got through to the children themselves and we are all poorer for the loss of beautiful images of childhood.

But let’s not be too negative, there are still many enlightened parents who are overjoyed to have natural, unposed photographs of their children, and you may have children or grandchildren of your own… perfect subjects.

Sensible parents can be a tremendous help by keeping an eye on things (wiping runny noses etc.) but only assisting when asked. It can be very frustrating when mum moves in to straighten clothing just at the moment when the child’s expression is perfect and you press the shutter button. So talk things through in a really informal, friendly way before the photo session starts. Stress that you will all be working together to produce lovely pictures of the children. You need their help.

I went along to photograph Rory and Niamh, whose parents are good friends of ours. I had the advantage that the children knew me and were relaxed in my company. I did go armed with a few carefully chosen presents – the sort of things that would make good props for the pictures. I knew, for instance, that Niamh loved making pictures, so I took along a colouring book for her – and a book for Rory, of course. The plan was that these books could be used not only to occupy and interest the children, but the white pages of the books would act as reflectors, putting light back into their faces. This did work remarkably well. I also took along a golden tiara for Niamh (Rory certainly wouldn’t want one of those), and bubble-making pots for each. These proved unsuccessful – I spent so much time helping the kids make bubbles that a didn’t get a single picture of them blowing bubbles themselves.

Top right photograph: After trying unsuccessfully to get a picture that caught both children at their best, and with Rory’s attention flagging, I decided to photograph the children individually. I gave Niamh her tiara, which she immediately put on her favourite teddy and gave him a cuddle. This made a lovely picture. You simply MUST be ready and waiting to capture these wonderful moments when they happen

Lower left photograph: From behind the camera I asked Rory what he had in his bulging pockets. He continued to look out of the window while distractedly fumbling around in his pockets to find out. This made another natural pose


Talk through your plan with parents
Find a position in good natural light
Try to ‘confine’ your subjects in some way
Check the background for unsightly elements
Take your light reading and set the exposure
Try to set a shutter speed of at least 1/125sec
Set white balance
Have toys or props ready
Drawing books make good reflectors

When all is set, bring in your subjects

Photograph of the two children: The pictures were taken beside a patio window. A large white reflector was placed off picture to the right. Getting the two children in the same frame and with good expressions proved almost impossible. Niamh would always go one way, Rory the other. When they came together it was for a fraction of a second; they were always on the move, and so was the camera. Shooting at 1/45sec at f3.3 without a tripod has taken its toll – and this picture is not quite sharp as a result

Bottom photograph: WRONG! The problem with this sort of set-up is that there is a high possibility that when your subject leans over the book, you will only see the top of his head – like this

Next, in part 2 - TEN TIPS while taking photographs of children

30 Dec 2007

How to photograph sunsets - part 2

Photographs of sunsets are really very simple to record because once you have arrived at the correct exposure for the sky, you can adjust your shooting angle and move around to silhouette subjects between you and the sky without worrying about changing exposures at all – you are really just photographing a colourful backdrop (the sky) with shapes in front of it (silhouettes). It is how you position yourself and arrange those shapes that can make or break the picture – and that’s all about good composition.

You will generally create a yawn if you include nothing but sky – no matter how dramatic or colourful it is. Neither will you create any feeling of the place in which the picture was taken. So look for interesting buildings, objects, trees and people doing things and try to include them in your sunset pictures. Often these subjects can be researched and found well before the sun actually sets – we all know it’s going to go down in the west – so a bit of pre-planning can pay dividends.

If we photograph a colourful sunset across an expanse of water, down a rain-soaked street or a snow-covered field, the rich colours will be reflected right into the foreground of the picture. The eye will then be led along these reflections. Photographing over reflective surfaces like this can almost double the colour of the sky.

People can make wonderful subjects for these outline shapes (silhouettes). Depending on what the person is doing, the inclusion of people in your sunset picture can add an immediate sense of romance, atmosphere, action or stillness. However it is vital that the outline of the person included is kept ‘clean’. It’s no use photographing someone running across the beach with a wonderful sunset behind him if his outline shape is obscured by a boat pulled up on the sand, for instance.

Top photograph
Having photographed the Taj Mahal during the day I was determined to return at sunset. I had worked out roughly where the sun would go down and found my way to a spot beside the river where I could position the setting sun behind the building. The atmosphere was absolutely still and a slight haze has diffused the sunlight and put subtle detail in the shadows. The inclusion of the man has added human interest, scale and narrative. Centre-weighted metering mode was used and although the light reading was taken mostly from the sky, part of the building was included. This has helped retain detail in the shadows without over exposing the sky

Centre photograph
For all I know, this couple might have been planning a divorce, but photographed against a setting sun the message is a romantic one. All detail the figures and the bridge has been removed by exposing for the brightness of the sky – this has created strong silhouettes. Even the hard, angular structure of the bridge has added to the composition

Bottom photograph
Even a poor Thai fisherman gathering supper for his family will stop to appreciate the beauty of a sunset over the sea. Don’t be afraid to point your camera straight into the light in these situations. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The Rule of Thirds is used here – horizon on a top third, man on
right hand third, sun on intersection of two lines

29 Dec 2007

How to photograph sunsets - part 1

There’s more to photographing a sunset than just capturing the colour. So how do you can inject more visual appeal, drama and romance into your pictures?

Sunsets have always attracted photographers and artists, and so they should. But there’s more to capturing a great sunset photograph than just pointing a camera at a colourful sky. It is unlikely that you will need to improve on the colour of a really good sunset, either with filters or in Photoshop, but if you want to capture the romance and spectacle of the moment, you simply must resort to sound composition and good camera craft.

Strangely, it is rarely the glory of the sky alone that rivets the viewer or stirs the imagination in a successful sunset picture. It is more likely to be the inclusion of a foreground: people, landscape or other objects that the sunset is actually lighting or silhouetting. It will be the whole scene that will tell of the romance or drama, not just the sky. In an exotic location, a picture of the setting sun can express the thrill of travel like few other subjects. However, the most common mistake leading to boring pictures is to get so dazzled by the splendour of the scene that you cease to look at it objectively – you must bear in mind the way the camera will record it.

TOP PICTURE: an interesting foreground has been included in the picture of the lighthouse. There is no detail in the silhouettes of the rocks – just outline shape, that’s fine. The eye is moves over them and across the bay to the island and the sky, taking in detail as it goes. The pictures has much more to say about the subject and is far more rewarding to look at. Notice how that colour has been reflected right into the foregound

SECOND PICTURE: Yawwwwn… okay, nice colours. But where is the real visual impact? The only thing that can be said about this is that it is correctly exposed and the lighthouse has been placed on one of the vertical lines of our Rule of Thirds. The picture has no depth. Bin it!

BOTTOM PICTURE: A wide angle lens has been used to include lots of interesting foreground details. Notice how the reflected colour of the setting sun has been brought right into the foreground adding more value to the whole image. The camera was put on a tripod and a shutter speed 1/30sec was used at f11. The exposure was taken from the foreground. The small aperture has helped created a nice sparkle flare around the sun
NEXT in part 2 - Photographing people at sunset

28 Dec 2007

Photography forums

I've recently joined a couple of photography forums - and I'm seriously impressed by the way the members are so willing to share their knowledge... and the depth of some of that knowledge. I can highly recommend http://www.talkphotography.co.uk/ to anyone with an interest in photography.
It's all about sharing information - far better value than paper magazines.... it's free!
I had a bit of fun by asking the members what was the first thing they photographed with the camera they got for Christmas.
Answers and still coming in, but so far they range from...
The inside of the lens cap, the floor (by accidentally pressed the shutter button), and ducks.

How to photograph people -simple portraits 3

I've been enjoying showing you some of these black and white images of mine. This time I’ve chosen a photograph to demonstrate the importance of good composition within a simple portrait.

The picture itself is pretty simple. A telephoto lens was used, and this has foreshortened the perspective and pressed the farmers together from front to back. This in itself has had a powerful effect on the composition by making all three heads the same size. It has flattened the perspective into three layers.

Lines of composition do not need to be obvious. The horizontal line created by the top of the metal gate, which runs along the bottom third of the picture, is a pretty obvious line of composition. So, too, is the diagonal line made by the man’s forearm. This line is extended upwards across the lighted side of his face. The area of the hand and face has become the focal point. Diagonal lines of composition can be very effective and appealing.

The less-obvious line of composition is the eye line of all three farmers. This follows the line of the arm towards the bottom right of the picture. There is little to satisfy the eye down there and it is drawn back into the top third of the picture by the light on the man’s hand and face. Then the whole process starts again – the eye is being drawn around the picture in a cycle, gathering information as it goes, but always coming back to the focal point.

27 Dec 2007

How to photograph people - simple portraits 2

My portrait of the rabbi was well received yesterday. So I thought I'd show you the second portrait I took immediately after the first. I asked this man to sit beside another small window in the synagogue and gave him precisely the same treatment.

Powerful sidelight is ideal for this type of subject because sidelight enhances texture - and that 'texture' reveals every wrinkle and line in the sitter's face. I went through a stage with this photograph when I thought that perhaps it would have been better if I had turned the man's head towards the light just a little more. But now I feel it is best the way it is. The intense shadow hides almost as much as the light reveals - and, for me, that adds rather than subtracts from the overall effect.

I believe black and white has far more impact and appeal for this type of photograph.

The total time taken to capture both the portraits amounted to no more than 5 or 6 minutes. It is vital to get things right first time in these situations. So practise by photographing friends at every opportunity. This practise will pay off handsomely when you find yourself in a situation where you need to pose a complete stranger and get the picture you envisage quickly and without fuss.

I was asked yesterday if I had any plans to do a Portrait Photography Workshop. This is a very good idea and I will see if I can set something up for later in the year. Meanwhile my next DVD will be out in the spring of 2008 - and that will cover Portraiture in Natural Light. I will keep you informed.

26 Dec 2007

How to photograph people - a simple portrait

The inside of the synagogue was a blaze of coloured wall tiles and, understandably, most of the visitors waned to take photographs of these. When I set eyes on the faces of the rabbis and scholars, I’m afraid the colourful surroundings faded into the background – such wonderful faces! While the others looked around the synagogues inner sanctum. I made a beeline for the man handing out the obligatory skull caps. There was no time to spend on chat and I don’t think the poor chap knew what hit him, but I wasn’t prepared to give him the chance to refuse to have his picture taken. I took him gently by the arm and sat him down by a small window – the best light available.

Setting up a tripod was out of the question, it was a case of making the most of the conditions as they were.

Fortunately, there was a table between us and I was able to rest my elbows on this to hold the camera still for the 1/15sec exposure. The result – a simple, but powerful portrait, whose impact is due to the sidelighting, which brings out the quality of the man’s features and the unblinking expression on his face.

The penetration and gravity of this simple portrait centres on the man’s doleful, knowing eyes. A frown or a smile is so often merely a transient, fleeting expression, and a more reliable giveaway to a someone’s personality is to be seen in the eyes. When we photograph someone looking straight at the camera like this, an intimate and hypnotic link is forged between the subject and the person looking at the picture.

The lower picture shows the simple set-up where I took the portrait. Just one small window and a table. It’s sometimes all you need.
First published in my book 'A Practical Guide to Travel Photography'.

23 Dec 2007

Photographing Christmas lights

Following our festive theme, here’s a picture of one of those houses festooned with OTT Christmas decorations. Well, you’ve got to take a few photographs, haven’t you?
Once again, the old methods work best in these situations…

Find your best angle.
Get the camera on a good firm tripod.

ISO down to 100.
Aperture stopped down to f11.
Long exposure.

Again, I just used the ‘Bulb’ setting on the camera, opened the shutter for a couple of seconds or so. Checked to see the image was okay, and moved on to the next shot. Keep it simple. It's always best.

What do you do with your White Balance (WB) setting for pictures like this?
Take it easy, that’s what. In this case I stuck it on Auto White Balance (AWB). Doesn’t seem a thousand miles out to me.

Try to take these pictures just before it goes completely dark. The perfect time is when there is still a touch of colour in the sky.

Have a wonderful Christmas everyone, and thanks for visiting my new blog. I hope you are enjoying it and finding it useful. Please do post your questions and responses.

Photographing Christmas

Okay, let’s get a bit festive and look at how to produce a couple of simple, atmospheric pictures this Christmas.

I put the camera on a tripod. A flash unit was hidden away on the fireplace behind the couple. I didn’t bother setting up flash synch cables or infra-red gizmos. I just got the young chap to fire the flash with his spare hand when I had the shutter open.
I used the ‘Bulb’ setting on the camera and fired the shutter with a cable release – the simple, sensible type that screws into the shutter button. This is the type that you can no longer use because the camera manufacturers have stopped putting the screw thread in the shutter button. Clever – now you have to buy expensive electronic release cable or silly remote controls (have you ever tried using one of those things outdoors in the wet on a bitterly cold night?). Ggrrrr!
I set the aperture to f11. ISO 100 was used. The shutter speed would have been around 2 seconds.

It is a big mistake to try and use wide apertures with this type of shot. Those small Christmas tree lights can often appear as fuzzy little blobs at wide apertures. The magic starts at f11 – just look at the sparkle around the candle on the mantle piece. You do not need star filters to get this – just stop down and use a slower shutter speed.

22 Dec 2007

Depth of Field 2

In my last post I showed you a landscape photograph I took with a very wide aperture in order to limit the depth of field. Also contributing to this limited depth of field was the use of an 85mm lens. Normally, the longer the focal length of a lens the less depth of field it will give. So using a wide aperture with an 85mm lens is guaranteed to limit it and throw much of the scene out of focus. It is a technique that must be used with great care in landscapes. It can look dreadful. Usually it is used to isolate a particular part of the scene. In the case of that picture taken in Thassos, it was used to give an abstract feel to the shot.

It is far more common to aim for the maximum depth of field when taking landscape photographs. That means smaller apertures – f16 or less.

A wide angle lens is a favourite for landscape photographers because it has inherently tremendous depth of field. It also has and the ability to exaggerate the perceived perspective, which has the effect of creating the illusion of depth within a two dimensional image.

In the picture of the old wooden wreck above, I wanted the absolute maximum depth of field, so I have used a wide-angle lens, stopped the aperture right down to f22 and used a shutter speed of 1/4sec. The camera was, of course, put on a tripod, so I was able to use ISO 100 in order to get maximum quality.

Depth of Field

I'm looking out of the window and the rain is pouring down and washing away the frost. It is still nearly dark at midday. So I thought I would cheer up by looking at a picture taken on the beautiful island of Thassos.

I am always stressing to my students that they should not get too hung up and obsessed by the importance of depth of field. Well, here is a shot that gets much of its visual interest from the fact that I have deliberately limited the depth of field.

I used a very wide aperture in order to throw much of the picture slightly out of focus . Why?

Well, when I looked at this scene I was reminded of a painting by one of the French Impressionists, Claude Monet. I was trying to achieve a sort of 'mystical', soft feel to the image. Of course I did take other pictures with smaller apertures to get the whole scene sharp. But this is the picture I am most pleased with.

An 85mm lens was used at f2.8

Beside, it's an excuse for me to use a sunny picture on a gloomy winter's day.

The nights get shorter and the days get longer now!!!

21 Dec 2007

People photography, candid

Are you nervous about photographing people? Do you feel as if you are intruding when you point your camera at someone? Yes? Well you are not alone. One of the subjects we tackle on the photography holidays in Menorca is ‘people’. It is the subject most of my students say they are most nervous about.

I explain that it is important to realise that you are not just ‘taking’ when you point a camera at someone. You can also ‘give’ a great deal too.

It is possible to make a subject feel special if you go about it in the right way, and I’ll be giving you lots of tips in the future.

By the end of the week in Menorca, I can guarantee that most of the photographers in the group will be a people photography addicts. It’s not for everyone, but once you overcome your inhibitions about taking pictures of complete strangers, it can be tremendously liberating… and it can certainly produce some fantastic photographs.

Once you have been spotted taking someone’s photograph. DO NOT drop the camera like a hot potato. Keep your camera to your eye and keep taking pictures. It is so often the response to being photographed that makes a wonderful picture. Very, very rarely will subjects become angry when they spot a camera pointing at them. If they do, lower the camera, hold up your hands and SMILE. With practise, you will soon learn where NOT to point a camera.

It was his response to spotting my telephoto lens pointing at him that produced the extraordinary expression on the farmer’s face when I photographed him at a sheep sale.

Black and white photography

I’ll be showing you lots of black and white pictures in these short articles. Partly because b/w has always been a great passion of mine, and partly because I have a vast library of b/w images from my time in newspapers. Certainly, a lot of my work for The Sunday Times was in b/w, and it’s good to share them with you.

My love of b/w photography is not the reason for showing you this picture. It’s to drive home something I’ve banged on about a couple of times recently – good timing – and the importance of keeping that camera to your eye when the subject is in front of you. Sounds obvious? Well you’d be surprised how many photographers miss the best shot because they are either looking down to fiddle with the camera controls, or watching the subject while their camera hangs around their necks. Don’t so it!

Whe the action happens, the camera has to be ready.

Had I been doing anything but look through the viewfinder when that one swan stretched its long neck, I would have missed the picture. The action was just too quick to be caught in the time it would have taken to lift the camera to my eye.

The picture also demonstrates the potential of ‘breaking the pattern’ to create a focal point and add interest. I’ll tell you more about that soon.
These are the famous Berwick swans, and the picture was used half page in The Sunday Times. It was taken with a Nikon F3 with a 180mm Nikkor f2.8 lens - one of the finest lenses Nikon every made.

Generous photographers

I've just got to show you these wonderful gifts to Norene and myself from the September photographers group in Menorca. The boat took a while to get up to Scotland because it had to be brought back in a friend's car. The picture is now framed and on the wall where everyone can see it.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the the group had a drawing of the two of us done - complete with Light Monkey and Rectangle Monkey on my houlders (anyone who has bought my DVD or been to me for tuition will know all about the Monkeys!) - and, knowing my love of boats and sailing presented me with a beautiful scale model of a Menorcan sailing fishing boat. It was very, very generous and we were both extremely moved by the gesture.

That group started a forum which anyone can join - they share photographs and all sorts of useul information.

You would certainly be made welcome.

20 Dec 2007

Wide angle lens - Part 2

It’s the wide angle’s tendency to create the impression of increased depth within your pictures that makes it such a great tool for landscapes. By tilting the camera slightly downwards, taking in more foreground and putting the horizon up towards the top third of the composition, the viewer of your picture can get the idea of almost walking into the scene. See picture at bottom of post...
Here the wide angle’s tendency to exaggerate perspective has caused converging vertical lines. You may think this unpleasant, but it has the effect of making the cathedral look even more magnificent, while making the figure look even smaller in comparison

Of course the same works the other way: tilt the camera upwards, put the horizon down the bottom third and you can create wide and fantastically dramatic skies. The wide angle lens is especially effective when including these large areas of sky. When shooting straight into the sun, or when at least including it in the frame, interesting ‘starburst’ effects can radiate from the bright light source. This can be very pleasing – who needs a starburst filter?

There are down sides to the wide angle lens and one is a tendency to exaggerate ‘converging verticals’, but even this can be used very effectively to add drama and depth to our pictures, especially when photographing tall buildings. The wide angle even has its place in portraiture, but great care is needed when photographing people unless the distortion effect is something you are aiming for. Mostly the wide angle can be used to place people in a setting. By positioning your model near, but not too near, the camera, a great deal of visual information in the background behind the person can be included. Add to this advantage the wide angle’s considerable depth of field, and everything can be kept in focus.

A 24mm wide angle lens was used for this portrait of Chris De Burgh so that I could put him in the context of his surroundings. The story was about him and where he lived on the Irish coast. The wide angle view of the lens has enabled me to include the small harbour in the background, while its tremendous depth of field capability has ensured both Chris and the background are reasonably sharp

This time a combination of beautiful sidelight and a vertical format using a wide angle lens leads the viewer’s eye into and around the picture. There is no actual focal point, but the effect of the wide angle lens holds the eye within the frame. The eye goes through the long grasses, takes in the brooding sky and the water, then does it all again. There is little temptation to look out of the composition. Notice again that the horizon has gone up towards the top third of the image

Darkroom kit for FREE

After my talk at the Ayr Photographic Society last week, one of the members contacted me to say he has now decided to convert entirely to digital. Wow! I'd no idea I had such powers of persuasion.
So - anyone who wants an entire set of darkroom gear (several enlargers and everything else I'm told) just contact me and I will put you in touch. It's free to anyone who can collect from Ayr in SW Scotland.
Sounds good to me.

Wide angle lens - Part 1

Do you have a wide angle lens but rarely take it out of your camera bag? I reckon a wide angle is one of the most useful lenses you can own for everything from landscapes to portraits… it just needs treating with a bit of respect and understanding.

A wide angle lens is not just to get ‘more in’. There, I’ve said it again - something I bang on about to my students every time we talk about short focal length lenses. A lens with a focal length equivalent to about 24mm is perhaps the most useful because it has the effect of accentuating the perspective of your pictures without distorting things too much. Yes, I know there are people who would argue that it does nothing of the sort, but I was careful to say ‘has the effect of’. It has the effect of making the foreground appear nearer and the background further away because it captures more in the frame, and yes, I suppose it is useful for getting ‘more in’ when you are taking pictures in confined spaces.

The most obvious effect of this accentuated perspective is to add a greater illusion of depth, or the third dimension, to your two dimensional photographs.

The perspective of the bridge and the boats has been exaggerated with a 24mm lens to ensure that the eye is led right into the picture. The swans, of course, are the focal point, but the overall effect makes the viewer feel as though he could clamber out over the boats

Lenses equivalent to a focal length of less than 24mm start to have considerable distorting effect. I rarely use them for this reason. The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of the lens, and the greater the distortion. Pictures taken purely for the effect of a super wide, or fish-eye lens have become a cliché and unless you have specific purpose for such a lens you are unlikely to get much use from it. However, a 24mm or perhaps 28mm equivalent can be extremely well employed for a great range of subjects. For landscape, townscape and interior shots in particular the 24-28mm equivalent lens is indispensable. I say ‘equivalent’ because you have to remember that unless your digital SLR has a full-frame sensor – and most digital SLRs do not – there is a magnification factor of around 1.6. So you need a lens with an actual focal length of around 15mm to get the ‘equivalent’ of a 24mm.

This time a 21mm wide angle lens has been used to gather extra information into the picture. This man is a saddler and I wanted to show what he was doing and the sort of tools he used to do it. The tools were carefully arranged in the near foreground and he was asked to stand back just a little and reach forward. This has added to the effect of extra depth by making his hands look slightly bigger so that he seems to be coming further out of the picture

Yes, a wide angle lens can be used to ‘get more in’ and it really come in handy with interior shots. I would have been unable to include the entire room in this photograph without a 24mm lens. This lens has already started to distort the settee a little. Had I used an even shorter focal length lens, I would have got ‘even more in’, but the distortion would have been unacceptable. Notice how I have been able to include the flowers in the foreground to create a pleasant atmosphere. By stopping down to a small aperture, the already considerable depth of field of the wide angle lens has been boosted even more. Those flowers are just three feet away from the camera, yet they and the background are perfectly in focus
Next, in Part 2 - wide angles and converging verticals

19 Dec 2007

Photographing fog Part 2

I almost forgot that a couple of days ago I posted the first part of a piece about taking pictures in fog. I promised part two, so here it is. Last time I said that one of the problems of getting the correct exposure when photographing in fog was that all that reflected light can fool your metering system into under-exposure, creating dull, lifeless images.

Well that’s not always the case, and this picture is an example of a situation when arriving at a correct exposure is very simple indeed. You’ll see that there is a good distribution of tones in this shot. The bridge itself is very dark. There are dark shadows beneath it. These shadows are balanced with lots of white – even the street lamps a glowing. The result is that if you take a general or average exposure of this scene then you will not go far wrong.

I mostly use the centre-weighted exposure mode. I simply took my exposure reading from an area around the centre of the composition and used that.

Come on – photography does not have to be complicated. Just think of all the extra pictures you can capture if you keep things simple.

Photographing children 2

Here’s another of my old pictures of children in the street. It was taken well before the politically correct industry took control and poisoned so many minds: a time when photographers could take pictures of ordinary people in the street without being accused of every offence under the sun.

This picture was taken in the late 1960s when I was photographing what today would be described as slums. Well, these houses may not have been immaculate, but the people who lived in them at least had a strong sense of community. Their children had the freedom to play outside in the street and no one got the vapours when a photographer took pictures of them. And guess what? I dare say these kids grew up into perfectly balanced human beings.

Anyway, the shot was taken on a Pentax with a 55mm lens. I have mentioned before the importance of a photographer keeping the camera to the eye when photographing people. This was precisely the case here. The little boy was hiding his face and just turned for a glance at me. Another of those fleeting moments.

18 Dec 2007

More about exif tags

I've had a query about the exif tags I mentioned in a previous post. I gave you a link to some software for removing these tags. It is always wrong to assume everyone knows what you are talking about, and I am at fault here for not explaining more thoroughly what exif is about.

I am NOT a technical dweeb, so you must also forgive my simplified explanations...

Exif is the abbreviation of 'Exchangeable image file format'. Exif tags are used mostly to encode additional information about an image created on a digital camera. The exif information is all that stuff about which camera took the picture, what exposure was used and the time and date when the picture was taken. There are lots of times when you might not want a client to know all this information, so it is useful to be able to remove it. That's why I told you about the software.
If you really do want to know more about exif tags, try this website. It is excellent, but technical...

Photographing fog

Just because the weather is poor, it’s no reason to put your camera away and hunker down in front of the fire. Fog, for instance, is one of those weather conditions that can transform everything you see into mystical shapes and monochromatic colour.

When fog descends on this part of SW Scotland, I often head down the estuary to photograph the boats heading up river into the harbour. These fishing boats come looming up out of the mist, so it is important that the camera is set and ready to take pictures.

Fog is one of those conditions that can cause your autofocus to ‘hunt’. So be prepared to use the Manual Focus function – remember that? It’s the one where you actually have to use your own fingers to turn the focusing ring. If you are using an automatic compact camera, you will not have this option, but my little Canon Ixus always seems to cope better that the SLRs in these conditions.

The other main problem can be one of exposure. All that white mist reflects a lot of light. Just like photographing in snow, this can fool your exposure reading into believing there is lots of light – that causes under-exposure. So over-expose by one stop or value if you are using manual exposure mode. If you are using an auto exposure mode then set the exposure compensation to +1 value. Experiment for best results. Not all subjects need this compensation, as I will show you in my next post.

17 Dec 2007

Using backlight

This picture was taken for The Sunday Times and demonstrates a couple of sound techniques that can help you create powerful images. Firstly, never be afraid to ask someone to help you by posing them or moving them into the correct position. Secondly, Don’t be afraid of using very strong backlight.

The pictures was taken at the famous Avebury Ring. It was very early on the morning and I had already taken lots of photographs of the deserted stones before this chap turned up. Newspapers prefer pictures with people in them, so I just asked him to stand beside the largest of the stones and shot straight into the sun. The inclusion of the figure has given the stones a sense of scale and has helped inject interest.

You will notice that in order to cut down on some of the glare from the sun, I have partially hidden it behind the stone. Very careful positioning is needed to do this. Hide the sun too much and the effect is lost. Include too much sun and the whole picture can flare out.

15 Dec 2007

Photographing reflections - part 2

I try to persuade my students not to get too hung up with the importance of depth of field, but it really is a vital factor to consider when photographing reflections, and, for maximum depth, the smallest possible aperture should be used. It is not just the object reflecting the image that needs to be in focus, but the reflection itself, which could be some distance away. For maximum depth of field, focus on a spot about one third the way between the nearest (the reflector) and the furthest (the reflected images) points which need to be sharp. The depth of field preview button on your camera can be very useful for checking that everything will be in focus.

With most reflections, except those on metal surfaces, a polarising filter can intensify the colours and clarify the reflected image. It does this by removing indirect light reflections. In effect, the polarising filter removes the ‘film’ of reflected light from the surface of the reflector, so increasing the clarity of the reflected image itself.

With the light directly behind the camera (frontlight on the subject), the boats in the picture above have been brightly lit. This has caused the colour of the reflections to be very intense. It is worth remembering that if you want powerful colours in your reflections – use frontlight.

Polarising filters
For the picture of the small boat, a polarising filter has been used to take away the ‘film’ of white reflected light on the surface of the water. This has intensified and deepened the colours of the reflected image. Slight under exposure ( by ½ a stop) has helped saturate the colours even more. Remember – a polarising filter will not take away the image of the reflection – only that ‘film’ of reflected light. Very useful!

A completely abstract design has been made from a very ordinary white-painted factory building. Looking into smooth, but slightly undulating water like this can often reveal really lovely images of very mundane and everyday objects

Reflections do not play a major part in the picture of the harbourside building at sunset. They just help add interest by drawing the colours right into the foreground. I used a slow shutter speed of one second so that the gently-moving surface of the water would show the reflections of the lights in the windows as a series of wiggly lines rather than a series of ‘pin pricks’. The reflected colour of the sky has been captured as a more general colour on the surface of the water

Photographing reflections - part 1

The ‘reflection’ theme is a regular subject for camera club competitions, and rightly so. It’s a theme that’s open to all sorts of imaginative interpretations - from abstract ideas to perfectly symmetrical mirror images.

The idea of including mirrors to reveal an part of a subject that is out of the framed picture itself is far from new – artists have been using it for hundreds of years in portraits and interior paintings. The effect can be to bring an intriguing illusion of the third dimension to a two-dimensional iamge. Done well, it can also inject a sense of mystery, compelling the viewer to look more closely – and so get drawn into your composition.

The mirror inside Lincoln Cathedral (picture above right), was positioned so that visitors could see the roof without craning their necks. I preferred to photograph the stained glass windows through it. I used a small aperture, f16, which meant I needed a slow shutter speed of 1/4sec. The camera was put on a tripod. Using the centre-weighted exposure mode, a light reading was taken from the window’s reflection, this has underexposed the interior of the cathedral – just the sort of contrast I wanted

Simple reflections can virtually double the amount of colour, form and interest within your picture. They can reveal the most amazing abstract shapes by breaking up the form into waving patterns of colour and shape.

In town, reflected images seem to be everywhere we look, even more so in our modern cities with their glass-sided office towers. There are reflections in shop windows, pools and puddles – even the polished paintwork of cars can reflect interesting images worth photographing. Intriguing contrasts can be created when new glass office blocks reflect older architecture. Perfectly still water can mirror buildings, people and landscape, but lightly rippled water can sometimes produce even more interesting photographs – back to those abstracts again.

Each pane of glass in this tower block has distorted the reflection of the building behind the camera., creating an abstract design. The window cleaners’ box has helped bring a sense of reality to the picture and added a focal point to the pattern

Next - in Part 2, water reflections

14 Dec 2007

Using compact cameras

Following on from my comments about the amount of heavy kit photographers lug about with them these days, I thought I’d show you a couple of pictures taken during one of the recent photography holidays I ran in Menorca.

When I have students with me, my priority is always to offer them guidance and tuition – their pictures not mine. So I carry the absolute minimum kit. Of course, I need a camera to demonstrate how composition can be changed and how pictures can be made to happen, but you do not need fancy kit to do that.

One of the places we photograph in Menorca is a fish market. The photographers are always made welcome and they have a great time taking close-ups; the ladies who serve the fish; the customers, you name it.

The pictures shown here were taken to demonstrate to my group that you sometimes have to arrange things a little – in this case by moving the subjects into the right positions. They were taken in a matter of seconds with no fuss.

And the camera that captured these detailed close-up shots?

A little Canon Ixus 700.

Any photographer worth his or her salt will very quickly find the limitations of a compact digital. But within those limitations, they can produce excellent and striking images. Remember – it’s not the camera that makes the pictures. It’s the photographer.

13 Dec 2007

Making picture happen

I don’t get nearly as much time as I would like to do talks for camera clubs. A great shame because I love the contact with all those keen photographers. I’ve just done a talk at the Ayr Photographic Society and what a smashing and receptive group of people they proved to be.

The theme was ‘Making Pictures Happen’. It’s a subject that can raise eyebrows among those purist photographers who claim never to ‘interfere’ with a subject in order to create a picture. I’ve heard lots of ‘precious’ photographers spouting this clap-trap over the years. Professionally they don’t usually last very long. They spend a lot of time mincing about and telling picture editors how gifted they are, but when it comes right down to getting out there and producing the goods, they are soon found lacking.

There are countless ways a photographer can have an influence on a picture in order to make something special happen: from subtle alterations of position to improve composition, to actually getting someone to do something within the shot.

The iconic picture of Freddie Mercury did not just happen. It was made to happen with Freddie’s total co-operation. We planned the shot together in every detail before we did it. My silhouette picture of the man and the cart horse is a very different style, but again, it was planned and executed with the complete co-operation of the man in the picture. So if ever you are tempted to get sniffy about ‘making pictures happen’ just think of all the wonderful pictures you’ll never take.

Keep photography simple

I watch with growing astonishment the amount of sophisticated gear my students manage to stuff into their camera bags. There are times when they can hardly lift their bags – rucksacs mostly – onto their backs. I sometimes wonder why all this sophisticated hi-tech kit has to weigh so much. Strangely, I seem to have spent most of my working life trying to reduce the amount of kit I carry about. It is heavy, and is responsible for my bad back. Bear in mind I started at the age of 15 carrying a large wood and leather camera box full of glass plates and a 5x4 plate camera, and I have lugged some sort of camera bag over my shoulder ever since. Have things really progressed?

I am totally converted to digital and could not imagine going back to the old days of film, but I do think there are countless methods and techniques for producing good photographs that are being lost to those photographers who are completely obsessed with kit. All that equipment just gets in the way.

Lots of expensive kit DOES NOT produce great pictures – photographers DO. The camera is merely a tool, and it is right that you should buy the best you can afford if you are keen. But keep it sensible.

The picture here was taken using just a camera on a tripod – no fancy tripod head full of gizmos and knobs to twiddle, just a simple ball and socket job. The lens was an 85mm and the light was from a window reflected with a sheet of newspaper. The quality of the subject, the quality of the light, and the timing made it a worthwhile image that sold. Simple – I like simple a lot!

12 Dec 2007

Photographing the wind

Living on the west coast of Scotland offers plenty of opportunities to photograph the effects of strong winds. Wind-bent trees make fantastic subjects, and my students often photograph them when we head off along the coast to take landscapes.

There are two basic methods of showing the wind actuality blowing – one is to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, and the other is to use a slow shutter speed to allow the movement to blur. Both can be highly effective when done well.

The practical difficulties of actually putting the camera on a tripod and using a long exposure in strong winds can be hard to overcome. Camera shake is the biggest problem. Yes, even when the camera is on a tripod, it can still be subject to vibrations and movement when the wind whistles around it. A good heavy tripod is one answer, but failing that you might try weighting the tripod down with a plastic bag full of stones or sand. Anything will do. The last thing you want is for the camera and tripod to get blown over. Most tripods these days have a hook onto which you can hang a weighty bag.

For the picture of the waves, I used a 200mm lens to compress the perspective and pull the waves closer together. 1/350sec was used to freeze the action.
The shot of the wind-blown grass was done with the camera on a tripod – a heavy Benbo. A slow shutter speed of two seconds was used to show the movement in the grass as the wind blew through it. A wide angle lens was used to fill the foreground – because that is where the action is.

11 Dec 2007

How to photograph snow

Winter is well and truly upon us here in Scotland, with hard frosts and the threat of snow. When town and countryside is blanketed by snow, the world is transformed and pictures abound. So wrap up warmly and make full use of the opportunity.

The greatest problem presented by snow - apart from getting about and keeping both you and your camera warm - is exposure. Automatic metering systems want to average out all the tones, and this causes under exposure and dull, grey snow. Just as I explained when talking about photographing the coast where there is lots of reflected light.

The answer, once again, is to deliberately over expose. Maybe by anything from +0.5 to +2 times. Either by using the Exposure Compensation control, or literally setting a manual exposure that over exposes by this amount.

If you are photographing snow on a cloudy day, try to include something in your composition that adds contrast to all that white - see the picture above of the man walking past the railings on a snowy day. The black railings have added contrast and given an impression of depth within the image.

Keep you eyes open for contrasting colours that can catch the viewer’s attention. Red always works well against white snow – see the picture of the snow-covered boat. To add depth this time, I have included the snow laden branches of the tree.
Just in case you are thinking you need expensive SLRs to take pictures of snow, forget it. These pictures were taken on a Canon Ixus 700. Exhibition prints as large as 20"x16" have been printed.

10 Dec 2007

Photographing seascape and coast - Part 2

With all that reflected light off the sea, sand and sky, the exposure meter in your camera can be fooled into thinking the scene is brighter than it actually is – and this can lead to under exposure – dull images. Provided you are aware of this, it should not present a problem. You can easily compensate for it. If you are using the ‘M’ (Manual) mode, just over expose by at least ½ an f-stop. If you are using one of the automatic exposure settings – Aperture or Shutter Priority for instance – you can use the Exposure Compensation facility to over expose.

Setting the Exposure Compensation to plus +½ or 0.5 of an f stop.

There are countless different subjects on the coast, so learn to be ‘visually agile’ - keep your eyes open all the time so that you spot pictures everywhere. Look for colour blends and contrasts; shapes and textures. The beautiful, soft, high quality sidelight has added shape and form in the picture of the the rocks and pebbles.

Fascinating close-ups are all around you on the sea shore. Here I’ve photographed the rusting ironwork of an old jetty. Don’t always try to complicate these shots by looking at the surface at an oblique angle. This often confuses the image and detracts from the visual interest of the subject’s texture and colour. Try shooting at rightangles to the subject’s surface – and you won’t have to worry too much about depth of field if you do. Keep it simple and you will raise the impact level of your close-ups. This picture relies on the colour and texture of the subject for its appeal. Make sure you get your close-ups absolutely pin sharp – people will peer more closely at a close-up and expect to see all the fine detail.