8 Nov 2008

Philip Dunn's new blog

Philip Dunn has moved his blog to www.photoactive.co.uk

I'm delighted to tell you that my blog is now incorporated within my own Photoactive website. I very much hope you will continue to visit for photography advice, tips and information.

Everything seems to be running fine with the newly updated website, but if you find any glitches, please let me know. Your comments would be greatly appreciated.

The plan is to grow the Photoactive blog even further with lots more free photography tips and techniques advice.

If you subscribe to my blog, please make sure you update your Bookmark or RSS Feed.
See you over there

4 Nov 2008

Seeing photographs differently

It's been a particularly busy period with one-to-one tuition. Some photographers have come as far as Brighton in the south of England and the range of their skills and experience has been very wide-ranging: everyone from an complete beginner who brought along her new compact camera, to an experienced pro from London who wanted to learn more about using portable studio lighting on location.

The one thing that all these photographers have in common is a keenness to learn more and to get more from their photography. The other common denominator is that they all see things quite differently. I have many options for different locations here in Galloway, and I try to suit a location and subject to each photographer's particular requirements. Some, for instance want to learn more about photographing interiors, people or seascape. I simply take the photographer to the location that I believe will best suit. Even so, this means that I visit some locations more often than others - but always with different photographers.

The thing that never ceases to astound me is that each photographer will approach these subjects and photograph them in a totally different way. Yes, I know light conditions are never identical from one visit to the next, but that's not what I mean. Take Neil Murray, for instance. We went together to a part of the coast where there is an old derelict stone building. I've been their dozens of times with other photographers but none has seen it the way Neil saw it.

What was one of the first things he did? He sat in the ruined fireplace and pointed his lens up the chimney.

Okay, the picture didn't work very well, and as I watched him shooting away, I had a good idea that it wouldn't. But no way would I tell him that. Far better that he kept his enquiring eye and learnt from the ocassional failure. That way he will definitely produce something very special every now and again.

That's Neil in the photograph above

2 Nov 2008

Light and landscapes

I was out and about with a student the other day – and what a glorious autumn day it was for taking photographs. Despite the strong winds and terrible weather we’ve had recently, the trees have held on to lots of leaves and the colours are still fantastic.

We walked together down a wooded path which I’ve not used for over a year. This path meanders alongside the tidal river Dee through a stretch of oak and beech trees. It came as something of a surprise that, although I knew the path well and have taken many pictures here before, I was seeing things as if for the first time. New pictures were jumping out at me at almost every step. I was seeing new close-ups and different angles between the tree trunks; I noticed lovers’ initials and hearts carved in the bark of some of the trees, I photographed the sparkling water of the river, and hawthorn berries showing bright red against the deep blue sky. So why did it all look so different? The trees were the same and so was the river.

It was all about light. That’s what was so different. It was brighter, crisper, and striking the trees and all the other subjects at different angles to the last time I was there.

It reinforced my old theory that even though your local landscape may be very familiar to you, and you may have photographed it many times before, if you look at the same place at a different time of day, a different season and in different light conditions, it can reveal many previously unseen secrets.

Certainly my student for the day enjoyed his walk through the woods – and we took an awful lot of photographs together that lovely morning.

29 Oct 2008

Should you join a camera club?

“Should I join a camera club?  How many times must I have been asked that question by my students over the years? It is usually followed by: “I’ve heard they can be a bit sniffy about welcoming newcomers like me.”

Well my answer is always the same. Yes, join. But first, go to your local club and see if you enjoy it. Only you can decide whether or not you are made to feel welcome. I do point out that it is only fair to go to at least a couple of club nights so that you get a ‘feel’ for the atmosphere. If you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome after that, just don’t bother going back again. End of problem. If you have not been put off entirely, try another club.

A very small minority of clubs really are sniffy and not worth bothering with. Most are well worth joining. Any club is really only a group of people, and, like all groups of people, there are good and bad. A good club is made up of people who are generous with their experience and knowledge – they like to share it with members who are less experienced and they enjoy learning from others.

I am often asked to talk at camera clubs and photographic societies. It’s a job a really enjoy. Some while back I was invited to speak at the Ayr Photographic Society. There was nothing sniffy about the photographers there. Just a genuine thirst for understanding and a willingness to include photographers of all levels. The club is thriving because of this inclusive attitude. There are just a few clubs whose members could learn from this openness – they are the ones, thankfully in the minority, who treat newcomers and novices with patronising distain. The strange thing is that these sniffy clubs often produce inferior photography. Their core members are far too busy being precious to open their minds and try new ideas and techniques or to help new members.

Perhaps I’ve earned the sort of reputation that means I am unacceptable to ‘sniffy’ camera clubs, because I’ve never been invited to speak at one. 

Ayr Photographic Society

27 Oct 2008

Night photography

In yesterday's post I forgot to put a link to the other pictures that Jason took on his nighttime shoot.
Here it is
Click here

26 Oct 2008

Becoming a professional photographer

I have several professional photographers who come to me on a regular basis - some of these travel up from London for the sort of coaching that can help keep them ahead of their game. I also get a great many amateur photographers who have ambitions to turn professional. Not all these photographers have what it takes to make it in the highly competitive world of professional photography. Jason Harry came to me full of enthusiasm and brimming with the sort of energy that just couldn't fail.

Today, just a couple of years later, Jason is chief photographer of a major studio in Manchester and has 7 photographers working under him. I'm delighted to say that Jason is among the countless numbers of my students who keep in touch regularly and the other day he sent me this photograph which he has agreed I should share with you.

This is what Jason wrote:
"Here is an image from a shoot that I did on Saturday night using rear curtain sync, two 580ex mounted on a film-type boom shooting through a big brolley, cannon don't do wireless rear curtain sync but that didn't stop me I had some custom kit made up including light sens triggers that mount on my camera 580ex and repeat shoot without having to reset the damn things and using the radio pulsar transmitters means (radio waves) they (the off camera units) can be up to 100 meters from me and still trip off - even through walls.

"The light setup on camera, boom, triggers, custom kit and two units on the boom is about £2k worth of stuff, I think it is worth the spend...

"Hope you like the resulting image, ISO 400 about 1/6 sec shutter speed and f5.6 from memory... oh and the camera hand held!!!

"The image has had some cross processing on the buss colours but apart from that it is as shot, I was taught well early on to get it right in camera as much as .... possible. All the best dude."

And to you Jason. Thanks for sharing.

22 Oct 2008

Photography Holidays in Menorca dates

We've just sorted the dates and prices for the Menorca photography holidays next year and put them on the Photoactive website.
We now get so many people wanting to come back for a second - and sometimes a third time, that we now do two different itineraries - Menorca One and Menorca Two. 

1st - 8th May 2009

18th - 25th Sept 2009 

The cost for both holidays is £1030
It includes:
  • 7 nights at four star S'Algar Hotel inclusive of breakfast and dinner.
  • Airport transfers in Menorca.
  • Transport to locations in Menorca.
  • Entrance fees where necessary 
  • Welcome and farewell drinks.
  • NO single room supplement.
I really love doing these holidays and it would be great to see you.

The picture shows Jan, one of the Menorca photographers, getting a little help from one of the locals.

20 Oct 2008

Manual Exposure and buckets of water

I had a student with me the other day who was really keen to get to grips with the 'M' (Manual) exposure mode on his Nikon D60. She felt - with some justification - that having the ability to set the camera's exposure herself would enable her to get better photographs. Well, I explained that this would not necessarily follow as there are many other elements that go into creating a good picture. But I did tell her that an understanding of, and familiarity with, the manual settings on any camera would certainly mean that she would have more control and, eventually, she would be able to interpret a scene in her own way. This can often lead to better pictures.

The problem was that as she had kept the camera on a program mode for most of her photography in the past, she had little understanding of shutter speeds and aperture settings and the way they must work in harmony.

I tried very hard to explain in the simplest possible way that, for instance, an exposure of 1/125sec at f11 lets into the camera exactly the same amount of light as an exposure of 1/25osec at f8. This was part of the age-old problem that f numbers do not work logically for normal people. The fact that big apertures mean small numbers and small apertures mean big numbers is enough to confuse anyone.

And then I remembered a really old chestnut of an explanation...

With much theatrical acting, I placed an imaginary and very full bucket of water on the table in front of us. This, I said represented the correct amount of light to expose our picture correctly. The water was not sloshing out (over-exposed) nor was the bucket half full (under-exposed), it was full to the brim. Just right.

There were two ways of filling that bucket with a hose pipe (more acting) - I might use a big wide hose pipe (wide aperture) and fill the bucket very quickly (fast shutter speed). Or I could use a very small diameter hose pipe (small aperture) and trickle the water in very slowly (slow shutter speed).

Either way, I got the same amount of water in the bucket (or the same amount of light in the camera).

It worked like a charm - the penny dropped and from that moment my student understood a concept that had been totally confusing her. I do like simple.

I've posted a fair bit about using manual exposure in the past, so you could try these pages if you want to learn more...

16 Oct 2008


post removed

13 Oct 2008

Compact camera settings

I mentioned last week that from time to time I would post a few tips about using compact cameras.  I'm often asked just how I set up my own compact cameras, so here is a list of just how my little Canon Ixus 960IS is configured right now.

Please bear in mind that these settings suit me. They may not suit you. I know the camera well and I find it no problem to change things quickly when I need to - that is one of the keys to good camera craft... KNOW YOUR CAMERA!!! I cannot stress too much just how important this is.

Running down the Menu in the M (Manual) mode, my list goes like this...

AF Frame - Centre
AF Frame size - Normal
Digital Zoom - Off
Slow Synchro  - Off
Red Eye - Off
Auto ISO Shift - Off
AF assist Bean - Off
Review - 2 secs
Review Info - Off
Auto Category - On
Display Overlay - Off
IS Mode - Shoot only

Sound - Mute
Touch Icons - 0n
LCD Brightness - medium
File Numbering - continuous
Auto Rotate - Off
Lens retract - 1 minute

In the FUNCTION SET menu I set things up mostly like this...
M - Manual
Exposure Compensation -1/3 ( I find Canon cameras almost always over expose a bit.)
AWB ( although I regularly change this)
My Colours - Off
Centre Weighted exposure Mode
S - Superfine quality]
L - Large file 4000 x 3000 pixels.

So there you go... you will see that I turn off a lot of auto functions that are mostly unnecessary.
Give it a go 

9 Oct 2008

People, horses and underground photography

Just to give you an idea of the sort of high standards my students have reached, I have posted here some photographs by Maria Falconer and Mark Esling. The pictures were taken during our latest photography holiday in Menorca. Both photographers have been to Menorca before, in fact, this was Maria’s third time. Each time she produces a fantastic set of photographs, and this year was no exception.

It is worth mentioning that although some of the photographers on these holidays have reach a very high standard, beginners are definitely not excluded. This may surprise some of you, and you may think that this will hold back the more advanced in the group, but the system works extremely well. You see, these holidays are very much about sharing, and having an enjoyable experience. No one is left out, and everyone is encouraged to produce pictures way above the level they think they can achieve. The results can be seen in my recent posts – in particular the pictures by Jeanette Suddard. Jeanette was a complete novice at the beginning of the week when she arrived in Menorca, but the pictures she produced by the end of the week demonstrate very clearly what can be done with tuition and encouragement in a relaxed atmosphere.

Maria Falconer has been coming to me for coaching for four years and she is now a highly competent photographer who is taking on many commissions. As the two portraits here show, Maria is a very gifted people photographer. However, her close-up of the horse’s teeth is an indication of her enquiring mind and her persistence once she gets a picture idea in her head. In fact I am trying to adjust Maria’s way of getting so utterly wrapped up in one aspect of a visual situation that she might easily miss out on other outstanding picture opportunities. I have no doubt she will work this out of her system very soon. Her pictures have a sensitivity and vitality that I find very refreshing and hugely rewarding.

Maria would love to hear from you on the forum she moderates – this was actually started by a group of photographers who came to Menorca, but anyone with an interest in good photography is welcome.

This was Mark Esling’s second trip to Menorca. He is the sort of chap who works away quietly and happily in almost any situation until he gets the picture he wants. He is very determined to achieve good pictures because he gets so much pleasure from photography.

His picture of the horse being hosed down with water after a race is an absolute corker. He shot straight into the light and this backlight has highlighted the spray. But, for me, the most important aspect f the shot is the timing. That horse is relishing the treatment and it shows.

His picture in the underground labyrinth of the old fort of La Mola is another cracker. The exposure is spot on and the composition just about perfect. La Mola is a regular location for our photography in Menorca, but the place is so vast that each time we go we see new places and things to photograph.

I have put together a short video of the photographers in Menorca and next week I will post it on YouTube and embed it in the blog. It should give you a real taste of the things we photograph and how much fun we have.

6 Oct 2008

Light and wine in Menorca

I have two very different pictures to show you this time from the group on the Menorca photography holiday. I was particularly delighted to see Ian Smith’s photograph (below) taken at the trotting races because of the way he has captured the wonderful backlight. This was Ian’s second time with me to Menorca and I have seen a tremendous advance in the way he is capturing the world around him on this trip. He is now constantly aware of the light direction and quality and always trying to improve his framing and composition. His efforts are really paying off. Just look at the way he has caught the light shining through those translucent cart wheels. The contrast of this brightness with the dark shadows under the trees has really brought drama and power to the picture.

In complete contrast, Phil Hallam took the top photograph in pretty flat light conditions when we visited the Binifadet bodega. The old lorry was parked outside the bodega and the blues and purples have helped make a very eye-catching image. I love the simplicity of this shot, which conjures up all sorts of impressions of the Mediterranean life-style despite the lack of sun light.

Pictures by Phil Hallam and Ian Smith

2 Oct 2008

Photographing horses in Menorca

One of the great photo opportunities we often enjoy on our photography holidays in Menorca is the chance to photograph horses – very special horses. We spend some time at the trotting races, where we are welcomed to visit the stables and photograph the race preparations. We use the races themselves as exercises in panning technique and I teach everyone the art of ‘following through’ with the camera as the subjects race past – very much like the ‘follow though’ in a golf swing. This has produced some fantastic shots… you may remember Maria Falconer’s action-packed picture I posted some time ago. Click here.

Now most photographers need a fair bit of help and practice to perfect the panning technique, but on our latest holiday we had one snapper, George Greenhill, who amazed us all with his panning accuracy. Even when the horses were racing past us a top speed, the horses and riders were always perfectly framed in every picture he took. It was uncanny just how easy he found it to get great panned action pictures.

I expected that George had done this before, so I asked him where he had learned the technique.

“In the army,” said George, “I was a machine gunner”.

I would hate to be on the receiving end of Georges sure-fire technique.

Menorca is famous for, among other thing, its dancing horses. These jet black beauties are taught the most extraordinary dressage routines and to rear up on their hind legs. The horses are a great attraction at fiestas and weddings. Our photography group was lucky enough to witness a wedding party at our hotel at which the rearing horses were to be a great attraction.

The party was held at night in the street outside the Hotel, so the light was just about as difficult as it could possibly be. But just look at these two photographs produced by Ken Terry – fantastic pictures that have captured the wonderful atmosphere of the event. Ken used his new Canon EOS-1D Mk111. He pushed the ISO right up to 3200 and was able to shoot at 1/30sec at f3.2

There are more pictures and stories from Menorca to come.

These holidays have proved a great success and if you’d like to join us next year please let me know as soon as possible. I’ll be putting the dates and costs up on the photoactive website very soon.

Pictures by Ken Terry and George Greenwell

28 Sep 2008

Photography holiday in Menorca

Photographs by Jeanette Suddard

Well, we came to the end of another photography holiday in Menorca the other day, and I think I can say that everyone had a wonderful time. There was just one new student in the group this time – Jeanette. She came with partner Phil, who has been to me for tuition in Scotland. Of course, Jeanette was naturally nervous to begin with because she is a beginner, but she quickly realised that the way I run these photography holidays is anything but formal.

And what fantastic progress Jeanette made over the week. At the start she had no understanding at all about shutter speeds or apertures; knew nothing about colour temperature, the direction of light or depth of field. However, Jeanette possessed the most vital ingredients for successful photography – she had a natural eye for a picture, she was mad keen to learn, and she just loved taking photographs.

I would like to think that after just one week working with me and with the help of all the others in the group – these holidays really are a sharing experience – Jeanette is now well along the way to becoming not only a competent photographer, but a photographer who can capture something special.

I’ll be showing you some of the pictures taken by the group in forthcoming posts – I think you will agree that some of the shots are really outstanding. But that is to be expected when among the team were regular Photoactive snappers Ken Terry and Maria Falconer. Some of their photographs are just superb. Among the subjects tackled and the places visited were underground chambers, a winery at Binifadet, and a horse trotting event. We worked in a whole variety of light including flash and mixed temperature light - just wait till you see some of the pictures that were produced.

The top photograph shows just how well Jeanette’s eye was working. She spotted this dramatic shot as we were waiting for the daylight to fade and the street lights to come on so that we could photograph ‘mixed light’.

The bottom photograph demonstrates a keen eye for pattern and colour… very well done Jeanette

19 Sep 2008

Compact cameras - how to take control

Gordon Stockley, who bought my DVD some while ago, emailed me the other day…
“I have been meaning to write for some time to say thank you for sharing your skills and knowledge via the blog. I have been reading it avidly since you drew my attention to it in an email and I have learned an awful lot from it (as I also did from your DVD). Thanks once again.”

Gordon went on to say he thought it might be useful if I gave some tips on using compact cameras like the Ixus 960IS. I think this is a good idea and will post one or two ideas over the coming weeks.

The biggest problem with compacts – no matter how many megapixels they boasts, or how good their lens – is the limitations of exposure control. However, while you cannot choose your exact shutter speed or the precise aperture you want, there are ways of manipulating things to get somewhere near the results you want to achieve.

Frankly, the first thing I do with any of these compacts is to disable most of the unnecessary automatic function such as Face Recognition, and Auto ISO. Above all disable the AiAF and set the focus area to Centre. Then you will always know exactly where to focus by half-pressing the shutter. If someone could explain to me why I would want a camera to focus on what it wants to focus on and not what I want it to focus on, I will try to understand. I also set the exposure area to Centre Weighted.

The M (Manual) setting on the Ixus is not really manual at all, but is does give you a greater degree of control than the fully Auto or the Scene settings. In M you can, for instance use the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) function. In other words, you can select an area of the scene from which to take your light reading – lock the exposure setting, then reframe and apply that exposure setting to your chosen composition. On the Ixus this is simple – just half-press the shutter and at the same time press the top of the multi-function ring on the back of the camera. AEL appears on the right hand side of the screen. The exposure is locked. To return to normal, just press the top of the multi-function ring again. AEL disappears.

The picture above is a good example of taking control of exposure and focus with a tricky subject.

The flower heads are in bright sunlight. The camera was set on M at ISO80. The background is very dark and a long way away. I first locked the exposure on a bright patch of light on the ground in front of the flowers. I then pointed the camera at an area at the base of the stems, half-pressed the shutter button and held it down to lock the focusing. I now had the exposure set and the focus locked.

Had I not done this, the camera’s auto focusing may have locked onto the distant background and the flower heads would have been out of focus. If I had not locked the exposure on a bright area, the camera’s auto exposure would have taken a light reading that included a lot of dark background – the flower heads would have been over exposed.

15 Sep 2008

Canon Ixus 960IS

My little Canon Ixus 700 has expired. I suppose it was my own fault, I put it in its soft case and attached it to my belt before donning old waterproof clothes and tackling a heavy outdoor job in torrential rain. After a couple of hours it was just as wet inside the waterproofs as it was out. My little camera drowned quietly in bed. The lens steamed up and refuses to come out to play, and it now raises only a pathetic bleat when I switch it on. I’ve tried taking out the battery and drying the camera out it in the airing cupboard, but to no avail.

Once I certified it as dead I immediately set about finding a replacement. It had to be just about the same size and weight as the old Ixus 700, but higher on pixels. Eventually I chose another Ixus – the 960IS.

It has been on my belt now for just over a couple of weeks and I am, so far delighted with the camera.
I really got chance to try it out the other day when I visited a Bloody Island in Mahon Harbour, on Menorca. I was there to explore new locations for my photography holidays in Menorca.

The camera behaved beautifully and did everything I could have wished. Even interior shots in very difficult light conditions proved no problem with judicious adjustment of the exposure compensation control in the ‘M’ Manual mode. This ‘M’ is not a true manual mode as it does not enable you to change the aperture or shutter speeds – it’s a sort of half-way house. But if you can work within the limitations, it is perfectly adequate for many situations.

One of the secrets of getting outstanding quality with these small cameras is to keep the ISO as low as possible. When the ISO is raised to the maximum 1600 on this Ixus 960IS, the results are, to be kind – noisy. However, there are some situations when in order to get a picture with any sort of atmosphere (avoiding flash), that noise just might be a price worth paying.

So far I’m pleased with the Ixus 960IS and its 12 Mega pixels are providing me with some excellent quality images.
The camera was bought from Amazon for £222. Postage free.

Top photograph
The IS (Image stabilisation) has worked well – this shot was hand-held at 1/4sec. ISO200 and it is very sharp. I ave desaturated the colour in Photoshop because I think bw adds to the interest of the picture
Photograph 2
The Canon Ixus 960IS
Photograph 3
The Ixus 960IS has coped very well with the wide range of light strengths in this situation. I simply set the Exposure Compensation value to minus 1.5 to achieve even results and not ‘burn out’ the stronger light through the doorway

Photograph 4
Exactly what a compact camera is good for – giving you the ability to capture those fleeting moments without the hassle of carrying a heavy camera. This shot was snapped from a boat as it left Bloody Island, Menorca


9 Sep 2008

The Independent Newspaper

I thought I’d share this picture with you – it’s really a very old one, perhaps 20 year old!. I took it while working on an assignment for The Independent newspaper. As far as I can remember, they sent me to cover a press photocall to unveil a very special new type of one-man mini hot-air balloon. The idea was to cross the Atlantic in it, or perhaps fly over the Alps – but I don’t think that ever happened. I seem to remember that Richard Branson was involved somewhere along the line.

There was a gale of wind and rain blowing outside, so the balloon was inflated inside a huge hangar on a remote airfield in Shropshire. All the other national daily newspapers where there to photograph the event. I saw these occasions as a challenge – they brought out the seriously competitive spirit in me. I simply ALWAYS had to try to beat the pack and get the best picture.

It was very nearly dark inside that hangar and powerful floodlights had been set up. There was a general groan of despair from all the other photographers at what appeared to be the lack of opportunities for exiting pictures.

The great advantage of working for a newspaper like the Independent – at least in the days soon after it was launched – was that we photographers were totally free to photograph an assignment in any way we chose. We were never restricted by having to take the most literal pictures. In fact we were encouraged to look beyond the obvious.

The obvious photograph on this assignment, for instance, was a shot of the pilot suspended in his harness beneath the inflated balloon. But that looked totally boring when it was done inside a darkened hangar.

I have said it before – and I will stress it again – that with an understanding of light, a photographer can create interesting images out of very little.

It was obvious to me as soon as the flood lights were lit and the balloon was beginning to inflate that there would have to be an interesting picture if I could shoot against one of these lights from almost inside the balloon as it inflated. Remember that mantra – BACKLIGHT FOR OUTLINE SHAPES!!

However, that picture would need a sense of scale and a human element if it was to be interesting enough to get published.

I quietly asked one of the technicians to stand outside the balloon between me and the floodlight and open his arms to smooth out any wrinkles in the balloon as it inflated. I worked very quickly in order not to give the other photographers any chance to copy what I was doing. The timing was spot on. No sooner had I taken this picture than the balloon lifted off the floor of the hangar as it inflated – making any similar pictures impossible.
I think the picture was used across half a page - a worthwhile job.

The picture was taken with a Nikon F3, Nikkor F2.8 24mm lens. Fuji Neopan 400 film.

2 Sep 2008

Wildlife photography - spoonbills

I was out on the River Dee near my home the other day with wildlife ranger and photographer Keith Kirk. Some of my students will know Keith because I sometimes arrange for them to spend the day shooting wildlife with him.

The reason for our river trip was something very special – indeed it is a First for Scotland. Here in Kirkcudbright it has been known for some months that a pair of spoonbills have been feeding on the mud banks of the river. Well, it is now confirmed that the birds have successfully raised three chicks nearby. All five birds are now seen regularly feeding in the shallows.

This is an extremely rare and important event for wildlife in Britain. Although there is one instance of spoonbills having bred successfully in England, it is the first time in over 300 years that they have bred as far north as SW Scotland. Twitchers are now flocking to Kirkcudbright to see the spoonbills and, happily, the birds seem quite oblivious to their new fame.

Keith was shooting with his Nikon D300 and a 500mm Sigma lens. Due to the shallow water over the mud banks we were unable to get the boat very close, and Keith’s biggest difficulty was in keeping the camera still with the slow shutter speeds needed in the very low light. Although he pushed the ISO right up to 1600, and opened the aperture as wide as possible, he was still using a shutter speed of just 125sec. The motion of the boat and the movement of the birds did not help.

But just look at the picture Keith achieved – you can even see the rain spot bouncing off the wet mud.
If you would like to spend a day with Keith photographing wildlife in Galloway, Scotland, just contact me and I'll see if it can be arranged.

Top photograph by Keith Kirk
…and here’s one of the adult spoonbills striding past a resident heron. Under the conditions, that’s a great shot, Keith.

Lower photograph shows Keith at work photographing the spoonbills from the boat
Find out more about these rare birds on the RSPB site

31 Aug 2008

A career in photography - 4

It’s some time now since I posted an instalment of this story about how I got started as a professional photographer (click here to read part 3). In that post, I explained that I realised how much I needed contacts in the business if I was to gain a foothold on the first rung of the ladder. I was a 14 year old kid with ambition - but I knew no one in the business. So I set about changing all that…

The letter that dropped on the doormat was from Mr Percy Broome, FRPS (Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society). I was so keen to open it I nearly ripped the envelope in two.

After my talk with Dad some months before about the need to get to know someone involved with photography, I enrolled for night school classes. Not only would I learn more about photography that way, but night school just might bring me into contact with someone who could help me break into local newspapers. The scale of this commitment can be judged by the fact that the night school classes were held in the same school I went to during the day and that meant retracing my steps to school two evenings a week for six months.

At night school, or evening classes as they are sometimes called these days, I learned about the characteristics of different films and developers; Percy Broome, the tutor, demonstrated darkroom techniques and how to make high quality black and white prints from my negatives, he instilled in me an understanding of shutter speeds and lens apertures - and he didn’t laugh when I told him about my ambitions to become a professional photographer. A former police sergeant, gruff and plain-speaking, Percy had an artist’s eye and he encouraged me to photograph local events. He assured me that if I was good enough I would reach the top. His no-nonsense tuition was so successful that, several months before I left school, I had my first publication in a newspaper, The Manchester Evening News – a picture of a little boy and his pet at a dog show - and I received my very first publication fee – three pounds, thirteen shillings and six pence. Believe me, that was a good price in the early sixties.

Percy also knew the chief photographer on the local weekly newspaper. There was no such thing as ‘work experience’ in those days, but Percy persuaded this chap to let me spend a Saturday with one of the newspaper’s staff photographers while as he went about photographing weddings, bring-and-buy sales and coffee mornings. I got on well with the photographers I went out with, and those Saturday outings with them became a major part of my life. Somehow I managed to get through each week at school - just longing for Saturdays to come round.
I learned everything I could from every situation, I took countless photographs, learned how to handle a 5 inch x 4 inch glass plate press camera. Above all else, I learned how to persuade reluctant subjects to have their photographs taken, and how to deal with people at every level... vital requirements for any professional press photographer.
Percy’s letter read:

Dear Philip,
Present yourself at the Advertiser office at 9 o’clock sharp on Saturday 21st April. Mr. George Greenhough, the chief photographer, is expecting you.
You may be allowed to accompany a photographer on assignments and you might travel by bus – so have some money in your pocket for bus fares. Take your camera with you.

Don’t be late! Keep you mouth firmly closed and your ears and eyes wide open!
Look! Listen and Learn!
Percy Broome, FRPS

I knew I was on my way to Fleet Street.

Above is a picture of a cutting of my first publication. The negative is long lost. The cutting is now very discoloured and fragile, but it is from The Manchester Evening News in 1962!

26 Aug 2008

Photography down river - part 2

Here in SW Scotland the tides can be very high, fast and strong. Be safe – check the tide times so that you don’t get stranded on sand banks on a rising tide. Try to time your photography for the falling tide when the water level is falling.
Buy a local tide table, or check on tides at the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast/tides

Use your fingers

Even the best autofocus system can be a little confused when photographing water, you may find that it ‘hunts’ for something to focus on. Be prepared to resort to the tried and tested method – manual focus. Use your fingers on that focusing ring. If you are photographing a landscape scene and using a wide angle lens, you may find it difficult to manual focus accurately – so use the distance scale on your lens – if you have one. If you set this scale to just less than ‘infinity’ and use a small aperture, perhaps f11 or less, the wide angle lens’s extra depth of field should ensure you get most of the scene in focus.

Remember those basic rules of light…
Frontlight – Reveals colour – good for the straighforward reflections.
Sidelight – emphasizes texture and form.
Backlight – reveals outline shapes – like silhouettes.
Toplight – go have a beer!

Top photograph

Do not get carried away by the wonderful sounds of the estuary. The haunting call of the curlew does not photograph very well – you need to record only visual information in your camera, and this picture contains lots. The hull of the boat is in pretty low, non-directional light, and this has helped show more colour than texture. The rusty ladder leans at an angle that counteracts the lines of the planking, and the focal point, the sky, is a mass of bold colour. The camera was put on a tripod, a slow shutter speed (1/8sec) and a small aperture (f16) was used to gain maximum depth of field

Photograph 2

It is late afternoon and the last glimmer of sun just catches the superstructure of this scallop dredger as it heads down river and out to sea. I have not tried to counteract the extremely high temperature blue light, but kept the White Balance (WB) setting on the daylight (Sun) setting. This has had the effect of washing the whole scene – except the dashes of yellow sun on the boat – with blue

Photograph 3

Always be alert to those moments that just happen, and don’t get so wrapped up with one type of shot that you ignore everything else around you. When the lifeboat appeared going flat out down river, I stopped photographing the river bank for a few moments, took a couple of pictures of the lifeboat, then carried on with what I was doing

Photographs 4 & 5

Explore each subject carefully and take lots of pictures. Don’t be afraid to return to the same subject if possible to photograph it in different light or tide conditions. In this case, I photographed the boat’s reflection at high water, and returned when the tide was out to take more details.

21 Aug 2008

Photography down river - part 1

Water has always inspired photographers to reach for their cameras. Sunsets dipping into reflective seas, waterfalls, fountains – the possibilities are endless. My favourite watery locations are tidal estuaries and rivers, and I’m lucky enough to live near the beautiful River Dee in Galloway. My students love the area, too. However, all tidal rivers, whether they are industrial or rural, can draw me like a magnet. That soft morning or evening light bouncing off rippled water; undulating muddy river banks; fishing boats setting off to sea or heading home after a long trip… just some of the subjects that have me spending many happy hours exploring the river banks.

The River Dee has a huge tidal range, often 8 metres or more, and at low water an entirely different scene is revealed. I’m not in the least put off by all that mud and exposed sand – it is sure to present me with wonderful picture opportunities. At low water the mud shines silver and vibrant – especially when you shoot into the light. This is the time to look for different shapes and textures in the wet surfaces.

Unless you are aiming for a totally abstract feel to your picture, try to use some readily identifiable object as a focal point or foreground – perhaps a wooden stake, a clump of reeds or a boat. Without this, your picture can be confusing to the viewer, who can easily be disorientated with little visual information to go on. For example, an image full of nothing but mud ripples stretching into the distance can lack a sense of scale and impact… again, I stress that that is fine if you are aiming for abstracts. Personally I find, in many instances, these sort of images are unrewarding.

Sensitive use of light is probably the most important asset when trying to produce evocative images of wide-open rivers. Of course, if you can stir yourself to be in position at dawn, you may be rewarded with the most glorious soft light peeping through the sort of hazy, low-lying mist that creeps silently in with the tide. Do not waste these opportunities. Take pictures as if your life depends on it. Explore each and every subject thoroughly. Do not be afraid to shoot straight into that light. This will not only illuminate the mist, but will bring contrast and texture to the surfaces of the water and mud.

Keep alert for everything that happens on and alongside the river. Everything will be changing all the time, and it is a common mistake to get so focused on one particular type of picture that you miss those fleeting opportunities – when the fishing boat appears through the mist, or a flock of waders take flight.
Top photograph
It is simple enough to capture moments like this provided you stay aware of what is going on around you and anticipate what might happen next. I had watched the lobsterman moor his boat in the middle of the river and row ashore in his dinghy. Obviously he had to walk up that muddy river bank. I took lots of pictures of everything that happened , but this is the one I liked best because it seems to sum up the atmosphere of the riverside town and the man heading home after his day’s work

Photograph 2

Always be on the lookout for reflections in still water. It would have been a great mistake to crop off the bottom of this picture because it contains so much visual information. The soft sidelighting and threatening clouds have certainly helped create atmosphere, but those reflected masts have given the picture its appeal

Photograph 3

I took lots of pictures to record this special morning light as the mist rolled up the river. In this picture, I have included a clump of grass in the foreground and, combined with a wide angle lens, this has induced a tremendous feeling of distance. Mist always photographs really well when it is backlit like this, and that backlight also reveals the texture of the mud. Using Centre-Weighted Exposure mode, I took my exposure reading from just above the grass to the right side. This has underexposed the grass and created bold dark shape

Photograph 4

Remember the mantra – backlight to emphasize outline shapes! In this case the old wooden mooring piles have been completely silhouetted against a sunset. The exposure reading was taken from the sky
NEXT... more tips and more photographs about photographing rivers

18 Aug 2008

Photographing junk - part 2

When I am faced with the enormous array of picture possibilities to be found in this old barn, I find it best to pick off each picture one at a time and move on to the next subject only when I feel Ihave captured what Iset out to achieve. Explore each subject thoroughly and be prepared to move in close to pick out details. These close-ups can make fascinating images, especially when you are photographing old and weathered tools and implements.

Moving further inside the barn and away from the door, it got much darker. But this just meant using slower shutter speeds. There is absolutely no reason why you need use a wide aperture in these low light conditions – provided you are using a good firm tripod. For most of my shots I set the aperture to around f11 or f16 and used shutter speeds ranging from 1 or 2 seconds. Be patient when waiting to check your image in the LCD, processing usually takes a little longer when you have used a slow shutter speed.

For many of my pictures I used a slow shutter speed and let off a hand-held flash. Sometimes firing the flash several times from different directions and positions while the shutter was open.
Read more about this The flash does not need to be connected to the camera in any way: a very basic technique that can create beautiful light if done well – experiment. It costs nothing.

If you'd like the opportunity to photograph the wonderful contents of this old barn, it is sometimes - not always - possible when you come to me for one-to-one tuition. See my website for more details

Top photograph
I moved some other implements that were hanging on these same hooks. This was done to keep the shapes simple. When shooting at a white wall like this, your exposure metering can easily be confused by all that white and give you a reading that will under expose. Use you Exposure Compensation function to increase the exposure by up to one stop. If, like me, you only ever use the Manual mode, simply over expose by a similar amount

Photograph 2

I liked this old wooden boat resting on the pram wheels. I actually wanted to show the whole boat, but it was in a cramped corner of the barn surrounded by other objects. A very wide angle lens would have distorted the shape too much so I contented myself with having to cut of the stern of the boat

Photograph 3

The Ski-Lark has been in this barn since the 1960s, gathering more and more junk around her – a tin bath, milk churn and a mildewed tarpaulin. It was the combination of greens and blues that attracted me. I simple put the camera on the tripod with an exposure of 1sec at f9.5 and used the available light that was filtering down from the roof

Photograph 4

Don’t forget to explore each subject critically – The Ski-Lark was resting on a very old trailer, and I noticed the flat tyres and rusty springs. This time I needed to put a white reflector beneath the camera (just out of shot at the bottom of the picture) to reflect some light back upwards to show some detail in the shadows

Photograph 5
I did no re-arranging whatsoever with this picture. I did not want to disturb the dust and leaves on the floor – it might have taken years for them to get like that. No flash, no reflector, no tricks. Just a straightforward image with loads of nostalgic interest

Photograph 6

This saw wheel was in a very dark corner of the barn. In order to pick out the outline shape of the curved blade, I simple fired a flash behind the wheel facing towards the camera... remember - backlight accentuates outline shapes. I debated whether or not to remove the bright green nettle. In the end I decided I quite liked the splash of colour

17 Aug 2008

Photographing junk - part 1

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder – well, I find old junk a constant source of inspiration.

Give me a barn full of old tat and I’m in heaven. Problem is, so many people just throw their old stuff out before I get around to photographing it. Fortunately there’s a retired farmer near my home in Galloway who still has a treasure chest of rusty old implements and tools in his barn. Hopefully he’ll never get rid of it and I’ll be able to keep going back to take pictures. I sometimes take my students there, but it’s best if they are on the same wavelength if they are to get the full benefit from the place.

There are old boats that haven’t seen the water since the 1960s, a road roller of similar vintage, farm implements hung on the walls and scattered around the floors, saws, spanners, you name it. There are colours, shapes, textures and heavy doses of nostalgia everywhere you I look.

When you are confronted with so many photo opportunities like this, it’s always best to take a good look around first and work through the place methodically with some outline plan about what you want to achieve. This way you won’t be stumbling around aimlessly trying to pick off pictures here and there. You’ll have a system.

I started just inside the doorway where I used the available natural light with the camera on my solid Benbo tripod. I photographed an old boat and the road roller. If possible, always walk all the way around the objects that catch your eye – ask yourself what it was about them that attracted you and then try to accentuate that aspect. Is it the colour, for instance, the texture, outline shape? Perhaps the object tells a story – like the wooden boat resting on the pram wheels. Whatever it is you must try to maximise it in order to bring impact to each picture.

There is no need to hurry in these situations. You can enjoy every minute, so take your time and consider each picture angle carefully. The light is unlikely to change dramatically, so again this will not put you under any pressure. Take a good big white reflector with you so that you can direct some light into the shadows, or even bounce your flash off it. There are endless possibilities once you get started.

Photograph 1 (top)
The the first thing I saw when walking through the barn door was this old roller. I explored it from all angles – walking round it several times and took lots of pictures, but it was the front view that really interested me. I moved right in to crop out all the surroundings. I also set my WB (White Balance) to Cloudy. This added more yellow and emphasized the orange paint and reddish rust of the subject

I also photographed the roller’s steering wheel and seat, but this time I used some flash to give harder, crisper lighting.

Photograph 3
As part of my exploration of this subject, I decided to use some flash off the camera. It’s harder, more direct light would add more shadows and impact to the picture. I shot several different angles. This time the shutter speed was speeded up to 1/3sec in order to cut down the daylight coming in through the door and the hole in the roof of the barn. I didn’t even connect the flash with a synch cable to the camera, I simple pressed the button and fired the flash immediately - while the shutter was open. This takes a bit of practise when using anything less than one second, but saves messing around with cables. Okay, so I’m lazy.

16 Aug 2008

Video with Canon G9

You may be pleased - or maybe not - to know that my posts will again be getting more regular as I am now back home after my 'summer' sailing. I thought I might just give you one more blast of salt air by embedding a very short seafaring video here. It shows my boat Moonshadow rounding the notorious Mull of Galloway in SW Scotland. This headland can be a very nasty place to be in bad weather. On this trip there was little or no wind. Even so, the tide was whipping along and giving me a speed of 11.9 knots - that's a lot in a sailing boat.

The video was shot on my Canon G9 and, even considering the loss of quality of YouTube compression, it has done a pretty good job.

You will notice that some filming techniques are exactly the same as those used for stills photography. Towards the end, notice the slight lowering of the shooting angle in order to get a clearer view of the distant headland between the gear on the back of the boat. This is followed by zooming back to view the wider scene including the foreground - with stills photography, the shutter button would have been pressed to take a picture at each separate stage.

And for those of you who love shooting sunsets - the video finishes with a really spectacular one. We carried on sailing into the night.

11 Aug 2008

Words in photographs

Words in pictures
Okay, I admit that some of you who have been to me for tuition might have heard me say that I do not normally like photographs whose only claim to any sort of appeal is an obvious printed message. Some people like this sort of thing. I'm definitely not a fan.
However, any photographer shooting for stock, in fact any professional freelance photographer, would be a fool to pass by an opportunity to capture a silly, but sellable, photograph like the one above these pictures can make money. And this one has done just that.
The picture has no artistic visual merit whatsoever, the camera has simply been pointed and the button pressed. Little time and effort was spent on it. Its message and humour (if you like that sort of humour) is entirely in the written sign behind the tethered cow. It is a good example of how a photographer who needs to make a living from his camera should often put his own personal views to one side in order to turn a penny and pay the mortgage.
Photographers who get sniffy and 'precious' at this sort of thing are often financially poor photographers out of touch with the realities of life. In fact, I've been quite happy to label myself as a 'panchromatic prostitute'. I take pictures for money. The fact that I love doing it is a tremendous bonus.
It's worth mentioning that the picture was taken while I was working on a major commission to cover the Royal Agricultural Show for a government publicity department. They would not want this type of image but I knew plenty of people who would.
It is wonderful to work for people who want to stretch my artistic skills and journalistic experience, and I have been fortunate to have worked for many such people over the years. These commissions are to be enjoyed to the full but I've always found it profitable to keep my eyes open for the less glamorous shots while I'm at it.
I get many aspiring professional photographers coming to me and wanting to know how to make a living from their hobby. Some have very grand ideas of how they should go about things. That's fine, but I like to show them a picture like this first so that they start off with their feet on the ground.

2 Aug 2008

Photographic viewpoints

I suppose photographers might be roughly separated into two types – those who, when they spot a vantage point, and assuming they are able, simply have to climb up it to see what the view is like from the top, and those who can’t be bothered. I’ve spent a lot of my working life as a travel photographer climbing up hillsides, towers, walls, stairs, onto rooftops and leaning out of upper floor windows. You simply never quite know exactly what you are going to see until you make the effort to get up there and look down on the world.

Of course, you can make an educated judgement of what you might see; you will certainly have looked around from ground level a judged the angles and the light, but the view from the top can often take you completely by surprise. The most wonderful scenes can be revealed and, best of all, the most intriguing pictures of people can be captured.

If it surprises you how few photographers bother to look down, it is even more surprising how few people ever bother to look up. That means the photographer who takes the trouble to find a high vantage point can often work very effectively without being spotted. If you are at all nervous about photographing people this can be a useful technique to try.

The picture above was taken in eastern Turkey. Several pony carts had trotted by and I had photographed them, but the background was very busy and distracting. Fortunately there was a small cliff face running alongside the road – the perfect vantage point – so I climbed to the top. The great benefit was that by looking down on the scene, I was able to eliminate all the background and show only the dusty road.

And did I say nobody ever bothers to look up? Well this eagle-eyed chap did – and gave me a friendly wave as he trotted by with his family.

31 Jul 2008

Adobe Lightroom 2

My good friend and student Ken Terry - a wizard with technical stuff - tells me that a new version of Adobe Lightroom is now available.

Ken says it has new features like dodging and burning. It uses the adjustment brush for all that and for altering the sharpness and saturation. He says the dodging tool is fantastic and that it is possible to use a brush without going beyond the subject's perimeter.

What particulaly interests me is that there have also been improvements in the facility for keywording.

Find out more at http://www.photoshopuser.com/lightroom2

25 Jul 2008

Marine photography

You probably know by now of my interest and involvement with boats and the sea. I try to spend as much time sailing as I can. Sailing and photography suit each other so very well because the one creates so many great opportunities to enjoy the other. Some years ago I sailed right round the coast of Britain in a 27ft sailing yacht, and I now have an archive of photographs showing harbours of Britain from Dover in Kent, to Newlyn in Cornwall, and Scrabster on the northern coast of Scotland.

This picture was taken at the entrance to Scarborough in Yorkshire. It was a very easy picture to capture especially as the sky and the light were so dramatic. Of course I pressed the button a couple of times as the fishing boat rolled into the harbour entrance. I was using a Nikon F3 film camera, so there was none of this '8-frames-a-second' stuff. I just had to wait for just the right moment. The boat was moving very quickly in order to maintain steerage in the rolling waves.

Of the two shots taken, I prefer this one because it has such a tremendous feeling of movement. The bow of the boat is just about to go out of shot and that has injected a sense of depth to the composition. Of course the use of a 24mm wide angle lens has accentuated this effect by exaggerating the perspective of the harbour wall.

Camera: Nikon F3
Lens: Nikkor 24mm f2.8
Film: Fujichrome 100
Exposure: 1/125th f8