Posted on

How I Got the Shot: Canine Noir

I love this type of image. It’s all about “just enough”: Just enough light to illuminate just enough detail to reveal the subject, while keeping just enough mystery in the shadows. I find this is particularly effective with dark subjects, such as Cleo here – her black and tan coat works really well here.

The set up

This is a very simple set up. To get this shot I’ve used a black pop-up backdrop, but any dark background
would work equally well. The light is provided by a single light in a strip softbox. The strip softbox is designed to diffuse the light over a long, thin area. This particular box is 120 x 30 cm (approx 4 x 1ft). This allows me to light the dog while avoiding any light hitting the background. I’ve placed the light at around 45 degrees behind Cleo. If you don’t have a softbox you could try using natural window light and position the dog relative to the window, or you could try bouncing a flash off of a white surface such as a wall or even a fridge-freezer!

I’ve set the camera to manual mode, 1/125th sec at f/11, ISO 100. I’ve then used a light meter to set the power of the flash to give me the right amount of light to get a correct exposure with these settings. If you don’t have a light meter you can use a bit of trial and error to get the correct exposure – take a shot, check the image and it’s histogram on the back of the camera and then adjust accordingly.

Shooting the image

Cleo is an experienced doggy model these days – she’s not upset by flashes and will actually come and strike a pose as she knows she’ll be well rewarded with gravy bones! Not all dogs are this helpful and some may take a lot more persuasion. The trick to working with dogs is to work in short bursts and to keep it fun.

To get Cleo looking the right way I’ve left a treat where I want her to look. She’s well trained in “wait” and “stay” commands so has no trouble staying in position for a few seconds while I get as many as half a dozen shots. Once I’ve completed each set of shots I’ll give her a “take it” command to let her know she can have the treat now. If your dog isn’t quite as obedient you may want to recruit a helper to handle the dog while you concentrate on the camera.

What I’m looking for when shooting this is the light in Cleo’s nearest eye. I want to make sure the angle between the light and the dog is just enough to give me a catch light and a little bit of light into the eye socket. If the angles aren’t quite right I can either move the dog (by moving the treats she’s gazing longingly at) or by moving the light.

Printing

I love printing my photos. For this image I’ve chosen to print it on Canson Edition Etching Rag 310gsm. Etching Rag has a matt finish, with a subtle texture. This gives velvety blacks that I really like in images like this.

Posted on

London Fashion Weekend

asweb-6411
London Fashion Weekend – Edeline Lee’s AW16 collection on the catwalk at the Saatchi Gallery

I love fashion photography – it’s one of the subjects I photograph in my spare time for my own enjoyment, so when Canon Professional Services invited me to come and photograph London Fashion Weekend I was more than a little excited!

Where London Fashion Week is aimed at industry insiders, London Fashion Weekend aims to be outward facing, inviting in the fashion conscious consumer, and students with aspirations to become the designers of the future.

Photo Pass for London Fashion Weekend
As a photographer there are very few things that get me more excited than picking up a photo pass for a major event!

 

My day started meeting Canon for a briefing. This gave me the opportunity to chat to some like-minded photographers, as well as getting my first look at Canon’s newest camera kit, the EOS 1Dx mkII and the EOS 5D mkIV. (Both look like excellent cameras, and I’m looking forward to trying them out in the field at some point in the future!) The briefing included a talk from an experienced fashion photographer and some practical guidance. Once we were briefed, it was time to walk over to the venue, the Saatchi Gallery.

The Saatchi Gallery and grounds
The Saatchi Gallery, a glamorous venue for a glamorous show! This was a quick shot I grabbed through the railings on my phone.

Press pits are interesting places. This small space at the end of the catwalk needed to accommodate 40 photographers and a TV crew, plus all of the bags and equipment. They call it a “pit” for a reason! The best spots are in the centre, and are usually reserved for the TV crew and those shooting for big name publications, but with tiered platforms there is usually a reasonable angle for everyone.

View from the press pit
The press pit can get a bit crowded, with 40 photographers tightly packed into a few square metres.

Once we were in position it was time for the show. The Saatchi Gallery has a very long catwalk, so I made the decision to go for a 70-200mm zoom lens to give a reasonable range. Using the 70-200 allowed me to photograph the models from a fair distance, helping to reduce the effect of my high vantage point in the back row of the pit. Fashion shows use a lot of artificial light, but even so, they still require a reasonably high ISO. In order to get both eyes in focus an f-number between around 4 and 5.6 was required, with a shutter speed of around 1/400th and above being necessary in order to freeze the motion of a fairly brisk walk. You can tackle image noise in post production, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with motion blur!

Although I wasn’t shooting for publication, I still tried to treat this as a photojournalistic assignment, so I’ve kept the retouching to a minimum just adjusting the exposure, contrast, black and white points, sharpening and noise reduction. I’m not used to having to preserve any journalistic integrity in my normal fine art work, so this helped me to focus on getting things right in camera.

Camera set up is reasonably straightforward for this soft of thing. I worked in manual mode with the starting point for my settings being ISO 1600, f/5.0, 1/400s. I did make a few adjustments to this one way or another as things went on, just to compensate for changes to the lighting at different points during the show.

White balance is always tricky with artificial light, for this show I cheated a little and asked one of the Canon team for the colour temperature of the lights. With this information I was able to choose the “K” white balance option on the camera and set a value of 3400K. Had I not had this information I could have photographed my grey card and used that to set the white balance. Correct colour is critical for fashion. If you’re photographing for the designer or for a publication you need to ensure that what’s printed on the page matches how the garment actually looked – the colour will have been carefully chosen by the designer and they’re not going to be impressed if you’ve changed it!

Also critically important when shooting fashion is autofocus. I set mine to “AI-Servo” mode on my Canon 5D mkII – other camera brands usually refer to this mode as “AF-C” – “C” for continuous. Continuous focus means the camera will track the subject I have the camera pointed at for as long as I keep my finger half-pressed on the shutter button. (Some people like to use back-button focus here, but I’m still trying to decide if that’s a technique that offers any benefits to me and the way I shoot, but that’s a story for another day!) I set my focus point to the top point in portrait orientation on my camera as that’s likely to be where I’ll want to place the eyes.

One setting photographers often overlook is the focus range limit switch on the lens. My 70-200 allows me to choose the focus range between 1.2m – infinity or 2.5m – infinity. You may wonder why I’d want to restrict the range, but it comes down to one thing: speed. The less range the lens has to search for focus, the faster it will lock on. From the back of the pit I’m going to be at least 2.5m from the action so that limit won’t be causing me any problems at all.

Some photographers will set their camera to shoot in burst mode for these shows, where the camera will keep taking photographs as quickly as it can for as long as the shutter button is held at full-press. For me I didn’t want to surrender control of my timing to the camera, so I left my camera shooting a single frame for each press of the button. There’s a simple reason for timing your shots – you usually want to make sure you’re catching the model with both feet on the ground, otherwise they’ll look like they’re balancing awkwardly on one leg. This is quite tricky to master, as you’re simultaneously trying to keep the focus point on the model’s face, while watching the movement of the model’s feet and trying to hit the shutter button as the model’s heel hits the ground on each step. Definitely something where practice helps!

One of the bits of equipment I wish I had taken with me was a monopod. I didn’t need it for stability, but it does help to take the weight of the camera, making for a more comfortable shoot. That 70-200 lens soon starts to feel heavy! I used to be fine using the heavier lenses for longer periods, but since I’ve started using smaller mirrorless cameras I think I may have actually lost a little muscle tone in my upper body! Maybe it’s photography’s way of telling me I need to join a gym!

Here’s a selection of my photographs from the show (click images to see larger):

 

 

Posted on

How to Make Photos for Kids’ Bedrooms

Soft toys and a fujifilm X-T1 camera
Soft toys and a fujifilm X-T1 camera
Some of my son Elliott’s favourite toys and one of my favourite “toys” too: Fujifilm’s excellent X-T1 camera with the 56mm f/1.2 prime lens. The accessory on the top is a Cactus V6 wireless flash trigger.

You don’t have to look far to find all sorts of things to hang on the walls in your kids bedrooms, but this project gives your nursery decor a much more personal feel. The whole process of creating these images has taken place either on my kitchen table, in my home office or in the nursery itself, so there has been no need to do battle with the elements outdoors. That said there’s no reason why you couldn’t take the photographs outdoors against a natural backdrop – especially with the autumn colour we have around at the moment.

I planned to create three portraits of Elliott’s favourite soft toys: bunny, bear and floppy dog. Step 1 is to get set up to photograph them.

Set up

Set up shot showing soft toys against a wood effect background with a softbox to the left of camera position
I’ve chosen to light the photographs with a speed light flash on a light stand with a folding softbox. Don’t worry if you don’t have access to equipment like this – you can achieve similar soft light naturally by working by a window.

I decided to photograph the toys against a paper backdrop roll with a white washed wood print (Ella Bella range from Creativity Backgrounds – photography-backgrounds.co.uk). These smaller paper rolls are designed for baby photography, but also work well for our purposes here. This range of backdrops is inexpensive (around £10 a roll), lightweight and while not as tough as a traditional paper backdrop they can be reused several times if you’re careful and look after them. I’ve attached the roll to my kitchen curtain rail using some general purpose spring clips from a DIY store. As an alternative to a paper roll you could consider working against a painted or wallpapered wall.

My next consideration was lighting. I’ve chosen to use a softbox as I want a nice soft and gentle mood to these images. Nothing too dramatic today. I’ve positioned the softbox quite close to my subject – about a metre away. The important thing to remember when positioning lights is the ratio of the distance between the light and the foreground and the distance between the foreground and the background. This affects the relative illumination of foreground and background when working with a single light. I’ve tried to keep my subject and background close together so they both receive a good illumination. If I had my subject closer to the light and further from the background then the background would appear darker in relation to that subject.

Shoot

With my set up complete I can now take my photographs. I’m working with a fuji mirrorless camera with a 56mm prime lens, although a DSLR with a standard kit lens would be fine too. I’ve chosen to use f/4 to soften the backdrop a bit. If you prefer to keep the background in focus then consider using a higher f-number – maybe around f/11. I’ve chosen a shutter speed of 1/180th as that’s the maximum flash sync speed the Fuji X-T1 is capable of. To get the best possibly image quality, my ISO is set to the lowest available, which on the fuji is ISO200.

To get the correct exposure I’m going to adjust my flash power. Using the Cactus V6 triggers allows me to adjust this from the unit on the camera, which can be very handy (although in this case it’s not really necessary since I’m working a few feet from the flash). I could use a light meter to get the correct flash power, but in this case I’m going to use a little bit of trial and error to get it right. I’m going to start with the flash power at around 1/16th power and adjust from there. Why 1/16th as a starting point? Because I’m working quite close with a small aperture I suspect I won’t need a lot of power from the flash. The test shot at 1/16th power looks a bit bright, which I can confirm by looking at the image histogram. When the histogram is banked up on the right hand side it tells me that my image has a lot of pure white in it, which isn’t what I’m looking for here. I’m estimating the image is overexposed by about a stop, so I need to halve the amount of light. To do that I’m simply going to drop the flash power to 1/32. At 1/32 my test shot looks prefect and I’m ready to go.

I’m planning on using three images together so the important thing for me to think about is making sure the images are consistent. That means I want each subject to occupy the same amount of space in the same part of the frame. I also need to be careful with the lines in the background as these won’t look right if they don’t line up across the triptych.

Three photos of soft toys.
My final shots of Bunny, Bear and Floppy Dog. Notice how I’ve tried to keep the size and framing of the toys the same throughout the set and lines in the background aligned across the three images. When you plan to use multiple images together it’s important to think of the final arrangement as well as the individual images.

Edit and Print

I’ve decided that I’m going to print and frame these images at home. That way I will have more control over the prints and I can save a little bit of money over going through a photo lab.

Because I’m trying to create nice soft images I’m choosing to go for a smooth white matt paper. The paper I’m using for this is Jessops “Inkjet A4 Matt Heavyweight Photo Paper”. This has been my go to matt paper for personal projects since I bought a job lot super cheap when their Stafford store closed down. It’s not the best paper, but it provides a good enough quality at a very reasonable price.

Now that I’ve got my images and I know what I want to do with them it’s time to edit them and get them ready to print. I always work with RAW images, so editing is an essential part of the creative process for me. I don’t need to make any huge adjustments here so all I’m doing is adjusting the exposure, white point and black point in Lightroom, applying a little bit of sharpening and then cropping to an A4 ratio so the image will fit on to 297 x 210mm.

What I like to do at this point is to create a contact sheet print with all of my images on it, so I can check that they print as I’m expecting while only “wasting” one sheet of paper. For this I use the Lightroom print module as this gives me a quick way to put multiple photos on to one page. Other editing products have their own ways of doing this so don’t worry if you’re not a Lightroom user.

Contact sheet in printer tray
Here’s my contact sheet fresh off the printer. When I print contact sheets I always try and adjust the size of the images to fill the paper. At the bottom of the page I’ve got the print settings listed so if I’m working with different versions with subtle differences I won’t get them mixed up!

So, with the contact sheet done and looking good, it’s time to print the final images. The only print setting I need to change is the layout – instead of printing all the images on one page I now want to print a borderless full page photo from each image.

Inkjet photo prints
The final prints, ready for framing.

Framing & Hanging

The final things to do are to get the photographs framed and then to hang them on the nursery wall. The great thing about working in a common size (like the A4 photos I’ve created here), is that ready made frames are easy to find and are relatively inexpensive. I’ve picked up some 40cm x 30cm oak effect frames from Hobbycraft – these are ideal as they’re supplied with a pre-cut mount for A4 (Other craft suppliers are available.)

Before I get down to the business of framing I like to ensure I have a clean and tidy working environment. There is nothing more annoying than framing a photo only to find it’s picked up a dog hair along the way (always an issue in our house!).

Once I have a clean and tidy working environment I’ll open up the frame and position the photograph against the back of the mount, making sure I know which end is the top. When I frame photographs I use an acid-free hinging tape. I only use a small piece of this at the top and allow gravity to do the rest.

Hinging tape
Hinging tape is the ideal thing to attach your photograph to the mount. It’s inexpensive and available from all good craft suppliers.

Once the photo is mounted up the back board can be put back in position, ensuring any fixings on the back are the right way up.

The last part of this comes with this disclaimer. I’m not a DIY expert. If you’re not sure about securely fixing your photographs to the walls then you should seek advice from a suitably skilled tradesperson.

Hanging photos is a relatively simple DIY job, but it’s worth taking your time and making sure you get it right. “Measure twice, cut once” as they say.

When I hang photographs in areas where there’s a high risk of them being disturbed I prefer to use mirror plates rather than hanging them using picture wire. This is usually places such as on stairs, corridors or in this case, nurseries.

Mirror plates
Mirror plates provide a secure fixing, although they do remain partially visible once hung.

Don’t forget to get the correct fixings when attaching the pictures to the wall – in this case I’ve gone with fixings designed for hollow partition walls as I know just how solid the wall I’m planning to hang on is . . . not very!

I’m really pleased with the finished result – a nice relaxed triptych of some of Elliott’s favourite toys. He loves them too – it’s hard to tell with a one year old, but I’m pretty sure he recognised them as his toys.

Three framed photographs on a grey wall
The finished article. I think it looks great on Elliott’s wall and definitely add a nice homely touch.

All in all I think this has been a great project for a rainy day. I’m really pleased with the result. If you do decide to give it a go then we’d love to see a picture of the results.

Posted on

Willersley Castle Escape 2015

Artists and Photographers on a Training Weekend
Artists and Photographers on a Training Weekend
Artists and Photographers enjoyed spending some parts of the weekend learning from each other, as well as other parts of the weekend concentrating on their own disciplines.

August was a big month for us here at Illuminate. After months of planning and location scouting we ran our first residential course, a weekend at Willersley Castle, on the banks of the Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire. As well as taking a group of photographers we also took a group of artists and welcomed art tutor Sue Chatterton to the team. Sue brings a wealth of artistic knowledge and an infectious enthusiasm for her art.

The great thing about taking both the photographers and the artists away together is the lessons that can be learned by talking to each other. There are many areas where art and photography cross over. We also ran some crossover sessions where we talked about how to take better photographs to print or paint from, and how to use notan sketches to plan your photographs and paintings.

Classroom training session on aperture priority at Willersley Castle
David explaining how to get the most out of our cameras, whether we be using them to capture reference images to paint from or photographs to print.

Of course, when we go away for a weekend in the Derbyshire Dales the last thing we want to do is spend all day in the classroom. The majority of our time was spent out and about photographing, sketching and painting on location.

St Mary's Church, Cromford
First stop was the scenic St Mary’s church. From here we were able to wander up the banks of the Derwent.
Detail of St Mary's Church Cromford
As well as the more traditional photographs there were also some interesting geometric details which were brought alive by the bright sunshine.
Artists at work at St Mary's Church, Cromford
Later in the day the artists visited the church and spent some time working with sketches and pen and wash.
Cromford Canal
While the artists were at the Church the Photographers visited the Canal Wharf. I can never resist using reflections when photographing near water!
Photographers with cameras and a tripod
Photographers at work!
Narrow boat
Canal boats always make an interesting subject with their bright paintwork. I’m not quite sure what they thought when confronted with several photographers while trying to moor their boat!
Little Grebe on the Cromford Canal
One of the most popular subjects of the weekend was a family of Little Grebes. They’re impressive divers and while we were there they were displaying some excellent fishing skills too!
Selection of textures of the peak district.
The Peak District and Derbyshire Dales are full of texture – whether that be naturally occurring or man-made. (Yew, Stone, Roof Tiles, Railway Hardware)
Textures from the Cromford area
Some more textures (Ivy, Dry Stone Wall, Peeling Paint)
Street photography at Cromford Mill
At Cromford Mill there were some opportunities for some street photography around the antiques store. I love the little ice cream seller operating through one of the mill’s sash windows – they had quite a queue with the amazing sunshine we were having.
Cromford mill reflection in the River Derwent
On the Sunday morning I had an early start and went exploring the hotel grounds. Getting low to the river has allowed me to capture the reflections of the mill in the water.
Cromford Mill chimney
I love morning light. Here the top of the Chimney is caught in the low warm sunshine. The low angle of the light helps to reveal the cylindrical shape and shows off the architectural features.
Photography training at High Peak Junction
Later on on the Sunday Morning we visited High Peak Junction. This is where the River, Canal and Railway all used to meet up and would have been a busy place during the industrial revolution. Here David is giving some guidance to one of the delegates.
Red Admiral Butterfly
I discovered just how well nettle stings can penetrate denim while taking this shot. Sometimes you really do have to suffer for your art!
Photographers taking photos of old railway carriages
One of the star attractions at High Peak Junction is a pair of old railway carriages, complete with peeling paint.
Railway track detail.
The rails themselves also held some interest. The railway used to go up a steep incline to get out of High Peak Junction. Some of the workings are still intact to this day. Here I’ve used black and white to highlight the lines and curves.
Lumsdale falls
The final location on Sunday afternoon is one of my favourite places – Lumsdale Falls. It’s a fantastic place with at least 4 different waterfalls and a millpond straight off the front of a chocolate box at the top. Give me a camera and leave me for a day and I won’t get bored!

If you like the look of a photographic weekend taking in the natural landscape and industrial heritage of the Derbyshire Dales when we’ll be returning in September 2016. Drop us an email if you’d like to book!

Posted on

Embracing Limitations

Fujifilm X100S Camera
Fujifilm X100S Camera
This little camera goes everywhere with me. It’s got big camera image quality in a tiny little package. With a fixed 23mm lens it’s not the camera for everything, but I’m constantly surprised at just how versatile it it.

Many, many photographers are very caught up in the equipment they use or want to use. Anyone who has been around photographers for any length of time will have heard the age old Nikon vs. Canon discussion (if you’ve been on one of our courses I’m sure you’ll have heard David and I joking with each other about this one). I’m not going to say that equipment is entirely unimportant, but I think Ansel Adams has a really good way of putting this…

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adams

The twelve inches behind the camera. That’s you. That’s your eyes and your brain! Sure we all love to play with the latest toys, but that doesn’t make us a good photographer. The good news is that upgrading your eyes and your brain is something that won’t break the bank. The best way to improve your photography is to grab whatever camera you already have and to use it on a regular basis. When I say you should use your camera, what I’m really saying is that you should use your eyes and brain. Practice seeing images. Practice being creative. Practice designing compositions. Look at a familiar scene and think “how could I represent this in a way that hasn’t been done before”.

One of the things that gets in the way of using your eyes is having too much equipment to choose from. You’ll look at a scene and find yourself in a state of analysis paralysis where there are so many options you’ll spend more time choosing the camera and lens combination than actually taking photos. I know this as I used to be one of those photographers who would carry around a huge bag of gear. These days I take a different approach. The camera that goes everywhere with me is my Fujifilm X100S. This little camera has a 16 megapixel APS-C sensor and a fixed 23mm f/2.0 lens. This means I can’t zoom and I can’t change lens. My only choice with this camera is to get closer to or further from my subject. Sure, I’ll miss some shots and it definitely isn’t the ideal wildlife photography camera, but I’ve been surprised at just how much I can do with this little camera. If I’m taking my interchangeable lens cameras out, I’ll often choose just one lens – again these are likely to be prime lenses as I’d rather sacrifice zoom for better image quality and better low-light possibilities (as most primes are capable of much wider apertures than their zoom equivalents).

Why not try sticking to a single camera and lens when you’re next out and about experimenting with your photography. See if restricting the kit helps to free your creativity. If nothing else I’ll give your back a break from carrying that big heavy bag!

This shot was taken at the Staffordshire County Show. Had I been there with a lot of equipment I would have been photographing a tight crop of the bikes flying through the air. Only having a 23mm lens to us has left me shooting a wider shot, which helps to set the scene.
This shot was taken at the Staffordshire County Show. Had I been there with a lot of equipment I would have been photographing a tight crop of the bikes flying through the air. Only having a 23mm lens to us has left me shooting a wider shot, which helps to set the scene.
Staffordshire County Show Tractor
Another shot from the county show. I found that getting up close with a tight crop gives this tractor a menacing expression.
High Peak Junction tunnel roof
Limiting yourself forces you to be creative. This abstract shot reminds me of the grooves in a vinyl record, but is actually the corrugated roof of a disused railway tunnel
Derbyshire Dales Waterfall
Of course, the other major benefit of taking less with you is that it’s much easier to carry to amazing locations like this waterfall in the Derbyshire Dales.
Posted on

Jargon buster: Stops

Bus stop lit with an off camera flash
Bus stop lit with an off camera flash
I didn’t know how to take a photo of the concept of a stop, so I took a photo of a bus stop instead. The bus stop has it’s own light inside, but it’s nowhere near powerful enough to illuminate it against even a modest amount of daylight, so I’ve cheated and hidden a flash inside. The warm tone comes from a ½ CTO gel over the flash. CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) is a warming filter. Where the flash has illuminated is correctly exposed, giving a bright image. Where the flash hasn’t lit I’ve deliberately allowed it to become underexposed, giving a dusky look.

Photographers are always talking about stops. We stop up and we stop down. We have f-stops. (and bus stops). The question a lot of new photographers will be wondering is what exactly is a stop?

Exposure

In order to understand stops we first need to understand what exposure is. Exposure in it’s simplest form can be thought of as how light or dark the image recorded by the camera is. There are three factors that determine this: shutter speed, aperture and ISO (how light-sensitive the digital sensor/film is). These three things are sometimes referred to as the “exposure triangle”.

As a quick recap:

  • Shutter speed is the length of time that light is allowed to enter the camera for.
  • Aperture is the size of the hole through which light enters the camera.
  • ISO is the light-sensitivity of the surface the light falls on to (i.e. the digital image sensor or the film).

The key to a correct exposure is balancing out these three settings.

Stops

So with exposure out of the way we’re on to the big question: What is a stop? Put simply, a stop is a relative unit of light. If I double the amount of light recorded I’ve increased my exposure by a stop. If I halve the amount of light recorded I’ve decreased my exposure by a stop. It really is that simple… almost!

The confusion comes when we start to look at the numbers:

Aperture Shutter Speed ISO
2.8 1/15 100
4 1/30 200
5.6 1/60 400
8 1/125 800
11 1/250 1600
16 1/500 3200

They’re all different! How do you know what doubling and halving any of this is? Let’s take them one at a time, starting with the easiest and working our way up to those weird aperture “f-numbers”.

ISO is the easiest to understand. If we’re set on ISO 200 and double the amount of light we get ISO 400:

200 × 2 = 400

That makes sense. It works the other way too. If we have ISO 1600 and we want half as much light we can choose ISO 800:

1600 ÷ 2 = 800

Again, very sensible.

Shutter speed is pretty easy to get to grips with too. It’s complicated a little bit by the fact that we’re often working in fractions rather than the friendly whole numbers we had with ISO. Lets start off with an easy whole-number example. Suppose we’re using a shutter speed of 4 seconds. To double the amount of light we would choose an 8 second shutter speed:

4 × 2 = 8

It’s almost too easy isn’t it. Going the other way, if we have a 2 second shutter speed and we want half as much light:

 2 ÷ 2 = 1

Lets make this a little more challenging now. Lets say we have a 1/250th second shutter speed and we want twice as much light (this will show who remembers those high school maths lessons!):

1/250 × 2

= 1/250 × 2/1

= 1 × 2 / 250 × 1

= 2 / 250

= 1 / 125

So, even with fractions involved, the maths still works – if we want double the exposure of 1/250th we would choose 1/125. Lets go the other way. If we’ve got 1/30th and we want half as much light:

1 / 30 ÷ 2

= 1 / 30 ÷ 2 / 1

= 1 × 1 / 30 × 2

= 1 / 60

Again, the maths is a little more complicated but still holds true, and we’re left with 1/60th.

At this point you’re probably thinking that I forgot about leaving the most complicated to last. But sorry – we’re not nearly there with mathematical complexities until we dive in to the strange world of f numbers – the world of the aperture.

2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16  . . . who came up with that one?! That doesn’t make any sense at all right? While the numbers don’t seem to make a lot of sense they do actually serve a very important purpose. The f number (sometimes called an f-stop) is the ratio of the diameter of the aperture to the focal length of the lens. For example, at f/4 a 50 mm lens will have an aperture diameter of 50 / 4 = 12.5mm. So why not use 12.5 instead then? Suppose we have a 100mm lens with a 12.5mm diameter. Due to the longer focal length, the lens gathers light from a narrower field of view when compared with the 50mm lens. This means that the 100mm lens will give a darker image than the 50mm at the same diameter. It’s going to get confusing if every time I change lens the numbers all change with it. That’s why instead of using the diameter, camera manufacturers have standardised on the f-number system. Our 100mm lens at 12.5mm aperture diameter will have an f-number of 100 / 12.5 = 8.

There isn’t really any easy way to work out f-numbers on the fly, so what most photographers do is accept the sequence of 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22 as being “whole” f-number values. This means we only need to remember a short sequence of numbers.

Clicking the dial

The good news with all three settings on most cameras are they’re handled in 1/3rd steps, so for every click of a the dial your camera changes the setting by a third of a stop (this may be indicated as -0.7 / -0.3 /+0.3 / + 0.7 on some cameras). With this knowledge we know that if we want to make the image darker by a stop all we need to do is click any of the settings down by 3 clicks. If we want to make the image one stop brighter we just need to go three clicks the other way.

Posted on

Why Every Photographer Should Try Studio Photography

Loop lit portrait
Naturally lit photograph of a baby/toddler
This is a naturally lit photograph of my son, Elliott. He’s sat on the floor in my front room playing with his toys. To get the light I’ve closed the curtains slightly to create a smaller light source. Smaller light sources give a harder and more contrasty light, which is exactly the look I wanted here. This is a look I’ve created on many occasions in the studio using a softbox on a studio flash.

Studio photography is something many photographers never try. They’d rather photograph in the real world with natural light. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to tell you that natural light photography is bad or wrong. I love working with natural light when I can.

So why should photographers who prefer the great outdoors spend some time in the studio? Because Studio photography will improve your natural light photography. Before you decide I’ve gone entirely loopy allow me to explain.

Studio photography is all about control. In the studio you have control over the background and you have control over all of the light in the scene. You choose the direction and intensity of your light and how many light sources there are. This control will get you thinking about how the light lands on a scene – whether the subject is a person, animal or inanimate object. The more time you spend really looking at the light in a scene the more you’ll learn the skill of not just looking but seeing. When you get back outdoors into your naturally lit environment you’ll take this skill with you. In the studio you’ll really learn to see light and understand it because you are forced to create your own. Creating your own light will force you to think about the finer details of where your light is coming from.

If, like me, you photograph a lot of people you will quickly learn the lighting patterns that work on human faces. The most common being known as butterfly lighting, loop lighting, rembrandt lighting, split lighting and rim lighting. These are all about getting the angle of light relative to your subject’s face right. These lighting styles can all be achieved using daylight, but they’re much easier to practice in a controlled environment.

Loop lit portrait
This is a studio portrait I created for a make up artist who wanted to show off her use of extreme false eyelashes. I’ve used a bare faced studio light to give a harsh quality to the lighting. The light is positioned slightly above the model at around a 30 degree angle, creating a characteristic loop shadow on the model’s nose. In loop lighting the nose shadow never touches the cheek shadow.

Of course, when you go back outdoors you have no control over the intensity of the light, but you can control it’s direction relative to your subject. By moving your subject you can choose how the light will land on him/her/it and how it will reveal shape and form. This is slightly harder if the subject you prefer to photograph is landscapes, but by thinking about the time of day you shoot them you can have control over which direction the light is coming from. If you’re a smartphone user there are some useful apps which can help you to work out where the sun will be at a given time of day. The app I use at the moment is called PhotoPills. For a few pounds PhotoPills comes with a whole lot of photography planning tools, although it can take a bit of working out how to use it. Another great app for landscape users is called SkyClock. SkyClock will give you precise details of when to expect sunrise and sunset so you can plan to be in the right place at the right time.

Having said that you don’t have control over the light outdoors, I should point out at this point that that isn’t entirely true. We can use flash outdoors in balance with daylight to create the look we want for our photograph. Working in the studio will get you used to working with a key light and a fill light. In the great outdoors we can use the sun as either one of these lights and create the other with flash. Fill flash will add light into the shadows on a  sunny day. We could also use the sun as a fill light and overpower it with flash as a key light. Once you understand how to light the possibilities are endless.

Head and shoulders portrait of a model in a checked shirt holding an axe over her shoulder
Here I’ve used off-camera flash on location balanced with natural daylight. Using a bare-faced speed light flash from around 45 degrees has given this dramatic Rembrandt light, with it’s characteristic triangle of light on the unlit side of the face where the shadow from the nose meets the shadow on the unlit cheek.

A lot of people tell me that they’re put off by not having access to a studio. I know of a good number of studios within a few miles of my home that I can rent by the hour for a very reasonable hourly rate. Most photographers are willing to let out their studios when they’re not using them. Photographers tend to be fairly hard up and anything which brings in a little extra cash is usually quite welcome! (Believe me, I know what it’s like to try and make a living as a photographer!) On top of that you may find that some studios also come with an experienced photographer in the next room who is only too happy to give you some help if you need it, although most will understand if you’d prefer to be left to work things out for yourself without the pressure of having someone looking over your shoulder the whole time.

Setting up a basic home studio doesn’t have to be expensive either.  A basic set up with two studio flashes and a backdrop can cost less than an entry level DSLR. All you need is a little bit of space, such as a spare room or garage. We occasionally take studio photographs of our son at home – we’ll get a couple of lights and backdrop out in our lounge for a couple of hours and then put them away when we’re finished. Set up time is around 15 minutes, so it’s no big deal.

Of course studio photography also has some other advantages. It’s unlikely to rain in your studio, and you don’t have to worry about it getting dark.

We’re running our first ever Introduction to Studio Lighting course in June. The aim of this course is to demystify everything and remove the pre-conception that studio photography has to be complicated. Rather than working in a pre-built studio we’re going to be in a local village hall, so you’ll have the opportunity to build up a studio from scratch, step by step. We’ll be joined by a (friendly!) local model, with the aim that course delegates get plenty of time to take photos throughout the day. With this in mind we’ve limited the course to a maximum of 6 attendees. We hope you’ll come and join us and improve your understanding of light. Click here for more details.

So – if you’re looking to improve your understanding of light give studio photography a go and take control of the light in your photographs!

Posted on

Children & Animals: Charity Event

Basset hounds

They told me never to work with children or animals. I frequently work with both and I love every minute of it! This weekend I was invited to a Charity Event by Donnachie and Townley Vets. They’d asked if I could set up in one of their consulting rooms and take some pet portraits. As I’m sure those of you with pets will know, veterinary consulting rooms aren’t particularly large spaces. This one was no exception – I can’t have had more than a 7 x 9 foot space to work in.

So, what do you do when space is limited?

To start with you can’t compromise on image quality when you’re selling prints. Paying customer aren’t going to understand the technical difficulties presented by the space. All they see is a good image or a bad image. We wanted to make sure every one received great photos. A great photo is the best advert I can possibly put out for my services. It’ll sit on the customer’s wall and will be seen by their friends. When their friends see it they’ll be inclined to ask questions like “who took that?”, “where can I get one” or most commonly “how on earth did he get Fido to stay still for so long!”.

So if image quality is a must, then how do we go about achieving it with so little room? I’m sure you’re expecting me to give you a very detailed and technical answer at this point and to some extent I will, but there is a step which comes before that. This is a stage a lot of people skip to save time, but it’s probably the most important thing you can do: planning and preparation. As the saying goes, “to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail”.

My first planning decision was to decide exactly what I would shoot. Thankfully the styling of the photos had been left entirely in my hands. The only thing they had suggested is that we should give the option of both pet portraits and family portraits (with pets). When space is tight I want to immediately eliminate anything unnecessary from the photograph, so in this case I opted to go for a head and shoulders portrait style. This meant that I could avoid the need for any floor coverings and I didn’t need to consider the transition between the backdrop and the floor. I chose to use a Lastolite pop-up backdrop in black. Pop-up backdrops are like enormous reflectors – they have a sprung frame and literally pop up once they’re taken out of the bag. The sprung frame also serves the purpose of keeping the fabric taut – creases in backdrops aren’t visually pleasing! The reason I didn’t use a more traditional muslin backdrop comes down to space – the support system for these involves two tripods, and tripod legs would have brought the backdrop out from the wall. Using the popup backdrop I could lean it against the wall and only lose an inch or two at the most.

With the backdrop planned I started to think about lighting. When working against a black background, ideally you want to avoid putting too much light onto it, otherwise it will record as grey. We call this a low-key style of lighting. As photographers we have a good number of light modifiers available to us which help to control the light. On this occasion I settled on a beauty dish (or parabolic reflector, to give it it’s proper name) and a strip softbox. These modifiers both give a soft quality to the light, while providing control over how it falls off at the edges.

So what are these lights for? Well, lets start with the strip softbox. This will be the key light (the main light in the scene). I’ve positioned this around 30 degrees to camera right in a vertical orientation, and feathered it round so that the light from the back edge of the softbox isn’t hitting the backdrop. I’ve chosen to position the softbox very close to where my subject will be as this allows me to restrict the amount of light hitting the background yet further thanks to the inverse square law. The basic premise of the inverse square law is that things closer the the light will be brighter than things further away from it, with the ratio between the light to subject and light to background distances being the deciding factor in how bright they are relative to one another. I won’t go into the detailed physics of it all right now!

The second light, my beauty dish, I’ve chosen to position above camera position. To do this I’ve used an incline boom arm which allows me to have the base of the tripod off to one side, leaving me with somewhere to stand. I’ve deliberately metered this light so it would be a little under exposed if used on it’s own. This allows the light to fill in some of the shadows where the key light doesn’t land, but without losing the shapes of the shadows which allow us to appreciate the subject as being three dimensional. When a light is used in this way it is known as a fill light (or occasionally as a “contrast control”). I chose a beauty dish here for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s relatively compact so it isn’t going to get in my way. The second is that it give s a lovely soft quality of light, but has a harder falloff at the edges than a softbox, meaning I could keep it away from my black background, which needs to be kept black.

So, I’ve worked out the lighting and background, the next step was to test it. To create realistic conditions I set up in my kitchen, which is a similar sized small space. I rigged the lights and the backdrop and got my dogs in on the act. Aside from a few minor tweaks the the light positions I was very pleased with the results.

Head shot of a cocker spaniel x rottweiler
This is Cleo – my four year old Cocker Spaniel x Rottweiler (yes, really!). She’s a great test subject as her face is mostly black so can be tricky to photograph. Here I’ve tried to add in just enough light to keep her looking black, while bringing out her features.
Australian shepherd head shot
Skip is my two year old Australian Shepherd. He’s always very smiley and photogenic.

Happy with my tests I packed up and waited for the day of the event to arrive. We arrived an hour before and got everything set up as planned. This process is a lot smoother if the experimentation has taken place in advance! Once our little studio was set up, we got to work setting up our laptop and a mobile dry lab printer (kindly lent to us by fellow Illuminate tutor David). We were ready to go with 10 minutes to spare owing to a small hiccup where the laptop decided not to play ball. This gave us time to get hold of a dog and make sure everything was working.

The final setup looked like this (please excuse the quality of the photo – I forgot to take a proper shot and only had this on my phone!):

Studio set up diagram and photo
Our set up, which we managed to squeeze into our tiny space.

We tested the set up using Kit, an exceptionally cute little Sheltie puppy.

Sheltie puppy against a black background
Kit the Sheltie puppy – our lighting tester.
Sheltie puppy looking at the camera.
Another shot of Kit, this time looking at the camera. Notice how the catchlights in the eyes give away the shapes of the lights used – one long and thin and the other circular. Depending on how it looks i will sometimes edit out the catchlight from the fill light as this can sometimes detract from an image.

Happy with the lighting it was time to get stuck in. By the time the event was due to start we already had a queue, and it stayed steady all the way through. I was exhausted afterwards, but very happy with the results we achieved. Here’s a selection of photographs from the day:

Dog headshot
Some dogs are great in front of the camera and give you a big grin. Others will turn and run as soon as the first flash goes off.
Sniffer dog and handler
I loved the relationship between this police sniffer dog and his handler. Thankfully I didn’t bring any drugs or explosives with me so he didn’t find anything (before my house gets searched I should point out that this is a joke!)
Girl with her dog
It doesn’t come much cuter than this. I love the way the girl’s hair and the spaniel’s ear are hanging the same way.
Handsome dog
This handsome boy belongs to Deb who we’ve met before on a few of our courses. I came close to passing her the camera and leaving her to it!
Pomeranian giving a smile
Sometimes you get a dog who will come in, sit in the right spot and strike a few poses. I think we were done with this little Pomeranian in just a couple of minutes.
Bull dog puppy
Cute and wrinkly!
Teenage boy and his dog.
This is one of my favourite photos from the day. I like shots of gun dogs and working dogs with people as that’s traditionally been their place.
Four dogs sat together.
This one was a challenge. Getting two adult dogs and two puppies to sit together isn’t an easy job. The trick is to be ready on the shutter button so when that fleeting moment arrives you can grab that shot. I was so sure I had missed this one that I didn’t stop to check it so we went on to shoot for a few more minutes not realising that I already had the shot!
Basset hounds
I love Basset Hounds. They just look like they need a cuddle. They’re actually quite an active and cheerful breed, despite the droopy faces.

At the end of the day we did our sums and were pleased to have been able to contribute £115 to Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. We’re hoping they’ll invite us back for their next charity event as we had a great time!

If you’d like to start exploring studio lighting then we’re running a course on 27th June – for full details click here.

Posted on 1 Comment

Travels with my Camera – part 2

Thanks to Andy for posting the first part of this series. I actually went on holiday to Turkey the day I wrote that blog, so I had very little time. It would seem from the number of views that people might have found it useful – I hope so anyway!  Travel photography is a favourite pastime for me and I look forward to continuing this series.

The picture below is of the equipment I took with me on holiday to Turkey.  With a camera bag and a small laptop, the total weight was 5kg – nearly the 6kg weight limit of my carry-on baggage.  It was enough for travel photography where most of the photography was landscapes and general tourist shots.

holiday kit-27165

My cameras are a Nikon D700 and a Fuji XT-1.  I took the Fuji with me because that kit is much lighter than the Nikon yet the quality of the images is at least as good in most circumstances.

The two lenses I took with me were an 18-55mm standard zoom and a 55-200mm long zoom.  To accompany these lenses I took a polarising filter for the long zoom, a neutral density filter also for the long zoom and a very small flash that comes as standard with the XT-1. I always carry a number of spare SD cards with me.

Compact System Cameras (CSCs) like the Fuji tend to be very heavy on batteries, so I took two spare batteries to make sure that I didn’t run out during a day.  At worst I used two of the three batteries in a single day, so I was fine.  The battery charger was one of the first things that was plugged in when we got to the hotel in the evening though! My wife also shots with a Fuji that conveniently uses the same batteries and, in total, we had six batteries and two chargers between us.  Without a charged battery, modern cameras are just expensive junk!  The battery chargers are very light and robust and were packed in our main suitcases.

That is a decent travel photography kit. You can add other lenses, perhaps a small torch to help see your kit when taking sunrises or sunsets and a small tripod but what I’ve described will be enough for most people.

Which lens was most useful? Definitely the 18-55mm standard zoom. During the seven days we were away I took just under 500 images, which is not much for me, and the vast majority (80-90 %) of those were taken with the 18-55mm lens.  It’s not called a standard zoom for nothing! At the 18mm end of the zoom range you can take a reasonably wide view of a landscape and at the 55mm end you can take a reasonable close up. The 55-200mm lens enables one to get close to fairly distant objects but that is not needed so often on many holidays.  Every time I used the 55-200mm lens it had the polarising filter on it.  The weather was bright enough to justify that.

I mentioned that I didn’t take many pictures for me.  That was not due to a shortage of opportunities but rather a reflection of how easy it is to take pictures with the Fuji. Picking out a favourite or two to put in this blog is difficult! However, I’ve chosen two that appeal to me at least.

The aim of the holiday was to visit a number of ancient cities in the west of Turkey and so most of the pictures I took are of ruined temples.  Some of the places blew me away and I’ve picked one from the remains of Pergamon – reconstructed columns of the Temple of Trajan

_DSF0631-2 Trajan Temple

The second is of the Sanctuary of Athena at Priene nestled under the lovely Mount Mykale.

_DSF0816-3 Priene

See you next time, when I will describe how to take sunset and sunrise images.

Posted on

Bluebell Walk 2015 at Jackson’s Coppice

A single bluebell stem
A single bluebell stem
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, The native Bluebell. I’ve gone for a wide open aperture to throw the background right out of focus isolating a single stem.
1/320th sec @ f/2, ISO 200.

It’s bluebell season again. This time of year is a great time to get out in the woods with your camera and capture some spring colour. This afternoon we headed down to one of my favourite Staffordshire nature reserves with a group of photographers and spent a couple of hours photographing the bluebells. The reserve, Jackson’s Coppice, is located near Eccleshall and is home to birds, badgers, and bluebells. There’s also a wild flower meadow which is currently in the process of being cleared and re-seeded with native wildflowers and a marsh, with a boardwalk over it.

This year was a little different to previous years – it’s the first time mine and Alys’ son, Elliott, has come out with us. At 14 months he’s still a little young to use a camera, but we’re hoping that he’ll grow to love both photography and nature when he’s old enough to.

The great thing about Jackson’s Coppice is that it’s reasonably compact, so there’s no real danger of getting lost. There’s one main footpath that circles the site and that’s it. At a brisk pace you can do a lap in under 15 minutes, but we managed to take a lot longer thanks to frequent stops to take photographs!

Once we had completed our lap we had a quick chat with some of the photographers who came along about ideas for possible future walks. We’d love to run a similar event in the Autumn photographing the autumnal colours on the trees – the question is where should we go? If anyone has any suggestions for some great autumnal spots then do please let us know via our contact form.

If you’re thinking about going to see the bluebells yourself please remember that they’re protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, under which it is an offence to remove or damage them, so tread carefully! (This only applies to native bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

Path through the bluebells
For a few weeks each year Jackson’s Coppice is transformed with an amazing Violet-Blue carpet. Don’t forget to stick to the paths if you visit so the bluebells can continue to thrive for future years.
1/100th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400
Photographer crouching down to take a photo from a low angle.
It’s always good to see people getting down to the same level as their subject rather than shooting from eye level the whole time. Shooting from your subject’s level helps to develop a connection with the viewer.
1/600th sec @ f/2, ISO 200.
Alys with baby Elliott in a baby carrier on her chest
Today was Elliott’s first outing with Illuminate. He’s not teaching just yet, but you never know what the future might hold! Also good to have Alys back with us – we’ve missed her while she’s been off on maternity leave.
1/100th sec @ f/8, ISO 250
Baby Elliott in amongst the bluebells waving his arms in the air.
Elliott loves a trip out in the woods. I don’t know how many times I had to stop him trying to eat holly leaves while taking this shot!
1/800th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200