30 Jun 2008

Light opportunities

The weather can be a bit fickle in Scotland - and that's being kind.

Light can change dramatically and suddenly. This can be both good and bad for photography because while this changable light can certainly add drama to your pictures, it does mean you must always make the most of your opportunities when they present themselves.

If ever there was an example of taking your photographs when you have perfect light, here it is. I took this very short video while my boat was on a mooring off the beautiful Scottish island of Arran. The low evening light was just magical and I took lots of pictures of the small town of Lamlash with the spectacular mountains of Arran in the background.

But just look what the weather was doing early next morning...

Enjoy the video - and remember, never expect beautiful light to last - press the button now!

25 Jun 2008

Photographing outdoor events

It's the time of year for open-air events like local carnivals, gymkhanas and town festivals. You really should try to get along to these weekend events. For one thing, they can be a great day out, but most of all, they offer tremendous photo opportunities if you keep your eyes open and your camera at the ready.

If you are at all nervous about photographing people, then these local events can be great places to get started. The folks who go along to them, both participants and spectators are usually there to enjoy themselves. Certainly the participants expect to be photographed, so you will have no trouble from that direction. The atmosphere will be relaxed and that always helps.

I photographed these two chaps taking part in a mediaeval battle re-enactment in my home town of Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland. The armies went at it hammer and tongue, knocking seven bells out of each other with swords and maces. All this made wonderful action photographs of course, but the shot I liked most was of these two 'dead' lying on the battlefield. I like the way the man nearest the camera is holding his chest as if he's having palpitations, while the other chap has two mighty swords stuck in his chest.

Of course this sort of event can lend itself readily to the photo-essay treatment, with pictures of the soldiers putting on their armour, sharpening swords, fighting, and maybe even in the bar having a pint between bouts. You should always be on the lookout for the unusual, out-of-context shot. Perhaps an armoured soldier eating an ice cream, sitting in his car, or checking his watch.

Just a couple of tips...

Try to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to freeze the action - no less than 1/250sec if possible.

A small telephoto lens is often ideal for this sort of assignment - something equivalent to around 125mm

Whatever you do go and have a great day out and take lots of photographs.

19 Jun 2008

Photography at sea

The other day I said that I would be posting some of the pictures from my time aboard my boat.
Well, this one captures one of those very special moments when the light is just mind-blowing. I was sailing up Loch Striven in Scotland when the skies went almost jet black as a squall came in. Then, suddenly, the cloud parted just wide enough to allow a beam of sun to spotlight the side of the hil and that lonely cottage down on the shore.

Oh, just in case my friend Alwyn, who suggested last time I posted a picture of this sort that I'd got at it a bit with Photoshop, no Alwyn, this is as nature produced it. In fact, Alwyn had a point last time, I had just tweaked the image a little, but not his time.

It is vital not to underexpose in these conditions. Expose for those highlights and let the rest go almost black if it wants too that brings out the drama. That's what the picture is all about.

The pilot book decsribes this Scottish loch as 'bleak and featureless', but I have to disagree when the light plays tricks like this. Daunting, awesome and threatening, maybe, but featureless, no.

One of the downsides of taking photographs of seascapes and landscapes from a boat is that the images can often take on a two-dimensional, flat aspect because of the lack of foreground interest. In some respects, this picture has to be described as lacking depth, but the drama of that light makes up for that in my opinion.

This picture will be one of a series that will illustrate a feature I have written for a yachting Magazine called Sailing Today I actually began the magazine myself some years ago and became its founding editor. I still write and photograph regular features for it when I have time.

12 Jun 2008

Why you should always carry a camera

Do you always have a camera with you to capture those unexpected pictures?

If you rely totally on your bulky SLR system then almost certainly you will not want to carry it about with you all the time – I certainly don't.

However, since I discovered the Canon Ixus some years ago, I am never without a little compact camera.

This has been a revelation for me.

Of course these little cameras have many limitations, but they do enable you to grab those unexpected shots whenever they present themselves.

I'm still using a Canon Ixus 700; its dented and worn case is proof of the amount of work and travelling it has done over the last couple of years or so.

But its lens is spotless and the results are always good – if I work within the limitations of a compact camera.

At 7.1 megapixels I can produce a 10 inch wide 300dpi image, and this far exceeds the needs of many newspapers and magazines when I have a picture to sell.

I also use a Canon G9 which is bulkier and heavier – just a bit too bulky to put in a case and attach unobtrusively to my belt.

Yes, I know, if you have been reading this blog for a while you'll know there are things about this camera that I find far less than perfect – but it is versatile and the quality is excellent.

Anyway, carrying my Ixus 700 paid off yet again yesterday when, loaded with shopping bags, I was returning to the boat in the marina.

I noticed an engineer sitting in a bosun's chair and working at the top of a yacht's mast.

Above him the sky was almost jet black and very ominous – he looked so lonely and vulnerable up there beneath that sky that I just had to take a photograph, and I had the means readily to hand – my little Canon Ixus.

All I had to do was put down my bags and reach for the camera at my hip.

Seconds after pressing the button, my subjects came down the mast like a monkey on a string.

I almost always keep the camera set to the 'M' (Manual) mode – this is not really a proper manual mode on the Ixus, but does give a little control.

I try to keep the ISO set to 50 for top quality, and the exposure compensation set to Minus 1/3.

I find that Canon tend to over-expose a tad, and this stops the highlights burning out too much.

Of course, in theory when shooting a subject like this man against a bright sky, I should have set the exposure compensation to the PLUS side. In order not to under-expose.

But in this case that black cloud seems to have helped balance the exposure and retain some detail and colour in the man.

Normally he would have appeared as a silhouette.

So, if you want to capture those fleeting moments that occur when you least expect them, keep a camera on your hip for a quick draw.

10 Jun 2008

Using a monopod

There are usually plenty of ways to get around a problem if you are prepared to be a little adaptable.

Some time ago I was commissioned to photograph a lovely chap called Cedric Robinson, the official Queen’s Guide to the Kent Sands. A grand title for an important job. The Kent Sands are in Morecambe Bay in the NW of England, and some of you may remember that a few years ago over twenty cockle pickers were drowned in the bay when they were caught by the inrushing tide. It is a very dangerous, but hauntingly beautiful place. Quick sands abound and the going is treacherous underfoot – unless you know what you are doing - and Cedric certainly does.

He organises walks across the sands, and these have become hugely popular, attracting hundreds of people at a time. Obviously a magazine feature would have to include a picture of Cedric leading this multitude across the sands at low water. I envisaged a shot of him at the head of a column of followers – looking just like Moses.

Only one problem – the sands are almost completely flat, so getting an elevated position from which I would be able to see this line of people was not going to be easy. I couldn’t possibly carry a set of step ladders across the sands.

I solved the problem by mounting the camera on a monopod and using a long electrically operated shutter release. I was then able shove the whole assemble into the air above the heads of the crowd. This enabled me to get a picture of the whole long line of people with Cedric striding out at the front. Of course I could not see exactly where the picture was framed so I had to use a good dose of guesswork - and I was shooting film, so there was no way I could check the images as I went along and adjust the angles. But I took lots of pictures and was surprised when they were processed to find very few with completely wonkey horizons. Using a 24mm wide angle lens was a big help.

The biggest difficulty was holding the weight of the camera at the end of the pole, and trying to walk backwards at such a fast pace without falling over. I got the feeling that there were a few of those walkers who might have been waiting keenly for the photographer to make a complete prat of himself. They were out of luck. The picture was used across two pages in The Mail on Sunday Magazine and later in Saga Magazine along with many other pictures showing Cedric at work. That's Cedric in the centre of the picture above.

6 Jun 2008

Photography in mixed light

For anyone who doesn't know, and who may have a passing interest, I'm a keen cruising sailor, and posts on the blog may be a little spasmodic during the summer months because of this interest. But that doesn't mean that I will not be taking lots photographs. In fact few activities lend themselves to picture gathering more readily than sailing. Maybe not when the conditions are rough; then I'm just too busy sailing the boat. However, cruising takes me to some very beautiful locations. At the moment I'm based on the West Coast of Scotland and few places on earth can be more spectacular. Mountains and sea are a powerful combination. I hope to be posting some pictures taken on some of my short voyages over the next few weeks… but I promise I won't bore you rigid with boat talk.

Yes, I'm lucky that on my boat I get to see some wonderful places; I often drop the hook in secluded anchorages that are impossible to get to without a boat. But, you know, with that understanding of the light that I keep rattling on about, visual interest and appeal is to be found just about everywhere you look.

The picture above confronted me one evening when I put my head out of the saloon doors and looked across the marina at Troon Yacht Haven. Now marinas are not noted for their beauty. In fact they have been disparagingly described as boat parks. Although Troon is a good safe place to keep a yacht, no one could describe its setting as idyllic. But look at the way the last rays of daylight are slanting onto the houses behind the row of boats, while the boats remain in shadow. I took one glance at this scene and dived back below to get the camera. This sort of light sometimes last for only a few seconds.

It's the combination of light temperatures the 'mixed' light - that gives this picture impact and appeal. The high temperature blue light of the shadows is in total contrast to the low temperature golden light shining on the houses. Those are not the prettiest houses in the world, but in that wonderful light the place looks like heaven.

It is vital not to over-expose with this type of shot. By all means let the shadows go dark that will add to the impact but over-exposure would have washed out and lost the colour in the houses. I took my light reading from the houses NOT the boats, and I deliberately under-exposed by 1/3 stop in order to saturate the colours a little.

3 Jun 2008

photographing Scotland to Australia

Here in Kirkcudbright early this year one of the students who joined us for a photography weekend was Tee Smith. Tee, who was then based in London, was keen to learn more about travel photography because he was about to set off on an epic trip to Australia via the trans-Siberian Express and Vietnam.

Tee was born in Thailand and educated in New Zealand, so his first trip to Scotland was quite an experience for him. Especially as his weekend here coincided with Burns Night. Now, I'm not a Scot, but there were plenty of Scottish photographers on the weekend who explained the mysteries of 'addressing the haggis' and the wonders of clewty dumplings. To his eternal credit, Tee tried and enjoyed all this wholesome Scottish food - as we all did. Well, you simply have to on Burns Night. I think Tee even tried a 'wee dram'.

All was quiet from Tee until yesterday when I got an email from him to say he had finally arrived in Australia after a wonderful trip and after taking hundreds of photographs.

He sent me a link to some of them and it's well worth taking a look. There are some beautiful evocative photographs among the usual - and very important - fun travel pictures that can mean so much.

I have posted a couple of them here for you to enjoy, but do take a look at the others.
The top photograph shows just how important it is to keep that camera handy at all times - here Tee has been snapping away even while riding through Hanoi on a cyclo.

The middle picture is a poingnant shot of a woman placing a lighted candle on the memorial of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw - the scene of some of the worst German atrocities in WW2.

The lower picture shows the man himself - Tee tucking into a meal in Vietnam.
The links to Tee's Facebook pages are: