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Things I Wish They’d Told Me #5: Enthusiasm

Bluebell woods with a dotted outline of a model superimposed on top
Bluebell woods with a dotted outline of a model superimposed on top
I didn’t get to take many photographs today, and the ones I did take are mostly just to check lighting, so I’ve had to go a little conceptual with the headline photo for this article!

“Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm” — Winston Churchill (possibly!)

The origins of this quote are a bit questionable. Some accredit it to Winston Churchill, others Abraham Lincoln. Regardless of the origin it seems fitting today.

The start of May has a special place in my photographic calendar. It’s the high point in the bluebell season. Staffordshire has some great bluebell woods – including some that seem to be exceptionally well kept secrets. Jackson’s Coppice is one of those special places for me. It’s only a small site but it’s a truly magical place. Situated out in the countryside near Eccleshall and away from any major roads it’s incredibly tranquil. One of those places where the only sound to be heard is birdsong. In spring the coppice is transformed with a vivid blue carpet for a couple of weeks. Above this you’ll find fresh vibrant greens of the new leaves on the beech trees, and the occasional bit of blossom on one of the flowering trees that are dotted around.

This year I decided I’d try and be super-organised and get a model booked for a fashion shoot at Jackson’s Coppice. I posted a casting on a model directory site and had a dozen or so offers. I booked with a fairly experienced model who matched with the mental image I had created of the final images I wanted to produce. I always get quite excited about fashion shoots. I photograph a lot of different subjects, but fashion/editorial is the genre that gives me the biggest “buzz”.

Yesterday was a busy evening of charging batteries, testing and cleaning equipment and generally getting prepared. The way I shoot fashion has a tendency to be quite gear-intensive. I packed up three Canon Speedlites along with Cactus v6 wireless triggers and some light stands so I could use the flash off-camera. Because I was aiming for a fairly soft look to my lighting for this shoot I packed up a 60cm square softbox and an 80cm shoot-through brolly to give me some choice of how I wanted the light to look. I also packed a Honl grid – this doesn’t give soft light at all, but is ideal for putting the light exactly where you want it while keeping it controlled so it doesn’t go any further. I mostly use my gridded Speedlite as a hair light to add a glossy highlight to the model’s hair and to help the model stand out from the background. (If you’re interested in finding out about using flash off-camera and with a variety of light modifiers then you should book in on our Introduction to Studio Lighting Course. The skills you’ll learn are transferable between working in the studio and using off-camera flash on location).

So the big day finally arrived. Exciting times. I got the car packed up with everything and headed off. I always aim to arrive around an hour early for these shoots. Arriving early gives me time to takes some test shots and get a feel for the ambient light. This is when I’ll make my final choices on exactly where I’ll be shooting. I’ll also work out a starting point for my lighting, although it may change during the shoot depending on how the photos are looking. So far so good. 15 minutes before the model is due to arrive I head back to the car to wait for her to arrive. Some models like to turn up a few minutes early, so I like to be there to meet them if they do. Today wasn’t one of those days. The shoot start time came and went and still no model. Not an ideal start to a fashion shoot I’m sure you’ll agree.

So there I am in the middle of nowhere for a fashion shoot and the model hasn’t turned up. The first thing I’ll do in that situation is to check my phone to make sure she’s not been trying to contact me. Helpfully my car is parked in something of a valley, and my phone is showing a “no service” message. Less than ideal! The only way I can get a signal is a 2 minute walk up the steeply banked coppice where I’ve found a spot that has a remote chance of providing some mobile coverage. I wait for five minutes to see if my phone picks up any messages but there’s nothing. I text the model with my exact location according to my phone’s GPS (isn’t modern technology a wonderful thing!).

Half and hour passes with me alternating between visiting the car and visiting the mobile phone “hotspot”. Still nothing. I give the model a call but get her voicemail – that’s not unexpected as she may well be driving. After an hour I decide to head for home and call the model on the way (via my bluetooth hands-free kit, naturally). It’s at that point I meet a car coming the other way. It’s a single track road, so I do the only thing I can – a very long reverse. As the other car pulls into the passing place next to me I catch a glimpse of the driver – it’s Rosie, my model. I wind down my window and suggest we pull up in the next layby.

So we’re in the right place an hour later than planned. It turns out that on the way over Rosie was following a car when it was involved in a collision. Being the lovely young lady, and thoroughly decent human being she is, Rosie had stopped to make sure everyone was ok. Thankfully there were no serious injuries, but Rosie was held up while she helped the lady involved get her springer spaniels out of the car. All this time Rosie had been texting me, but due to the wonder that is the mobile phone network these messages wouldn’t make it to my phone until an hour after I got home.

Being that close to a car accident had really taken it our of Rosie – as she stood there talking to me with her perfectly styled hair and expertly applied makeup you could see she was still shaking from the experience. She wasn’t in any real state to model at that point. She looked like all she really needed was to get home and have a sit down with a hot drink. After a quick chat we agreed that we’d write off today and try to rebook in the future, although with a different concept as the bluebells sadly won’t be around the next time I’ve got space in my schedule.

The crazy events of today got me thinking about how we deal with things going wrong. Sometimes however much you plan things and however prepared you may be, life just throws you a curve-ball. There’s nothing either of us could have done to plan for this situation. We just have to accept what happened, and move on. I’m not sure I’ll be chalking this one up in the win column as such, but I’m not going to let it get me down. As far as what Churchill may or may not have said, I think there’s a lot of truth in the sentiment. You have to pick yourself up and move on. Keep your enthusiasm going and remember that tomorrow is another day.

If you’d love to experience this wonderful bluebell display then why not join us for our free bluebell walk next Sunday afternoon? Further details can be found here: Bluebell Walk

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Travels with my Camera – part 1

Douro river in Porto, Portugal.
Douro river in Porto, Portugal.
I’ve ended up ghost-writing this blog for David while he’s jetting off to Turkey. It’s alright for some! Since he hasn’t left me with any photos from his travels here’s one of my shots all the way back from 2009 (you can see how often I get to travel!). This is a shot looking down on the Douro River in Portugal. To the right of the river is the city, and to the left are the port cellars. This was shot on my old Canon EOS 30D, with the 17-85mm kit lens –Andy

Going on holiday is always exciting but it can be stressful too. If you want to take camera equipment with you by plane, here are a few tips to take the stress out of your travel photography.

The first thing to check carefully are the rules set out by your airline for hand and hold baggage. It is sensible to put tripods, chargers and spare batteries in hold baggage if that is allowed. I have even put lenses into hold baggage – admittedly well wrapped up! My camera always goes in cabin baggage with me and it is crucial to make sure that your camera bag is within the size limits dictated by your airline. Check these limits even if you have travelled with your airline before, these rules do change

Finally about baggage – read the rules carefully to see if your baggage weight limit includes the weight of your cabin baggage. Sometimes the situation is clearly stated, sometimes it isn’t. If you cannot be certain from reading the information you have been given, it is best to assume that your cabin bag IS included in the baggage weight limit.

Happy travels! I will blog soon about what sort of lenses and filters to take with you on that special holiday.

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Timber! Lumberjack Themed Model Shoot

Model in a denim dress sitting with her back against a tree

Sometimes you just stumble across a great location for a photoshoot. The idea of a model shoot with a lumberjack theme came to me while I was out walking our dogs at Swynnerton Old Park. Swynnerton Old Park is an active forestry area and so you’ll often find a pile of logs stacked up – which seemed like the perfect backdrop for this themed shoot.

I’m often asked how you get into model shoots. The good news is that, just like photographers, there are models with all sorts of experience levels. This means that hiring a model doesn’t necessarily have to be prohibitively expensive. Check out sites like Model Mayhem or Purple Port to find local models – both hobbyist and professional. To sign up for these model sites you’ll need to provide a short profile describing yourself, your experience and the direction you plan to take with your photography. You’ll also need to provide a four to six photos of past work – these don’t have to be world class shots, but they should be relevant to model photography in some way. If you don’t have any suitable photos then consider booking in on our Introduction to Studio Lighting course, where you’ll have ample opportunity to take some studio quality photographs of a local model.

The model I booked for my lumberjack themed shoot actually approached me on Purple Port asking if I wanted to work with her. She’s quite new to modelling but she certainly shows a lot of promise and was very confident in her posing.

Here’s some photos from the shoot:

Model in denim shorts and a checked shirt holding a felling axe in front of a large wood pile at Swynnerton Old Park
Here I’ve used a little off camera flash to help light Kia’s face while allowing me to deliberately under-expose the background. 1/180th @ f/4, ISO 200.
Head and shoulders portrait of a model in a checked shirt holding an axe over her shoulder
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. 1/180th @ F/4, ISO 200
Lumberjack sitting on a wood pile
For this shot I asked Kia to sit on a protruding log and put her feet up. It was only after we got the shot that she told me just how uncomfortable it was! This is one of those shots I like, but wish I had done differently – it could have done with a little splash of flash to better light Kia – the daylight wasn’t quite directional enough to make her really stand out, but I’m still going to include the shot here as I really like the pose. 1/250th @ f/4, ISO 200.
Full length portrait of the model from a low angle with a wide angle lens
A wide lens and a low angle combined with an off-camera flash and a strong pose has resulted in this dramatic shot. 180th @ f/4.5, ISO 200
Model in denim dress holding axe
This was supposed to be a lighting test, but I quite like the look. It wasn’t a warm day, so Kia wrapped up warm between shots. I always try to keep my model as comfortable as I can on a shoot – for this one I had hot drinks and jelly babies on hand in the car so we could take breaks to warm up. 1/180th @ F/3.2, ISO 200
Model in a denim dress sitting with her back against a tree
This shot is supposed to look like a lumberjack taking a break from work. I’ve used a shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus. 1/680th @ F/1.4, ISO 200

As a first shoot with a new model I’m really pleased with how we worked together, and I’m sure we’ll be working on some more projects in the future.

In the future we’d like to run some themed shoots with local models for 4 – 5 photographers. If you’d be interested in this we’d love to hear from you – get in touch from our contact form and let us know.

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The Photography Show

The crowds attending The Photography Show
The crowds attending The Photography Show
The Photography Show is a very popular event with both professionals and enthusiasts.

The Photography show takes place every spring at the NEC in Birmingham. David, Alys and I visit most years to see what’s new in the world of photography as well as taking time to catch up with the suppliers we each use in our own photography businesses. This year David and I spent the day there.

So what’s new in the world of photography? The short answer this year seems to be “not a lot”.

The big things this year compared with previous years have been the number of visitors using mirrorless (compact system) cameras, and the number of UAVs/Drones that were on sale.

Show visitors trying out fuji mirrorless system cameras
Show attendees trying out Fujifilm’s range of mirrorless cameras.

Mirrorless cameras have really taken off over the last year or two, and it seems that pro photographers are finally beginning to accept them. Many pros, myself included, have a mirrorless camera system in addition to their digital SLR kit – they make a great addition as they’re compact, lightweight and can go anywhere. They’re also very unobtrusive, and provide great image quality.

Personally I think mirrorless cameras have a way to go yet before they catch up with DSLRs, but at the rate they’re being developed I’m not sure how long it will be until cameras with mirrors start to become the minority.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - an 8 rotor multi-copter capable of carrying a mirrorless camera
While there were plenty of little drones around, there were some that looked a lot more serious – like this 8-rotor behemoth.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones” seemed to be everywhere. These “multi-copters” with camera attachments allow you to take photos and record video from a viewpoint that was previously restricted to those with the budget to hire a helicopter and crew. These now seem to be available in all shapes and sizes from those which appear to be little more than toys to some very serious looking hardware. While I like the idea of drones, I can’t help but worry that the laws governing the use of these devices will become more restrictive over the coming years as drones become more popular. There are many good reasons why the use of drones should be restricted – there numerous questions to be answered about the privacy and health and safety implications.

Hasselblad H5D
The Hasselblad H5D medium format camera, one of the most expensive cameras at the show. With a starting price into 5 figures, this is definitely aimed at very serious photographers, but hey – I can dream!

One of the things I’d been waiting to have a look at was Pentax’s new Medium Format body, the 645Z. Medium format cameras have a much larger image sensor, meaning they can offer impressive image quality with extremely high resolution. Surprisingly while the new DSLR and Mirrorless cameras had swarms of people around them, this medium format monster didn’t seem very popular. All I need to do now is save up the £7000 needed to buy one (plus convince Alys that it’s a sound purchasing decision!).

Harris Tweed and tan leather photo book.
Harris Tweed and tan leather? This album looks ideal as a very high end product for my specialist dog photography.

As always there was a huge range of albums plus frames and other wall-art products, but amongst this lot there didn’t appear to be any amazing new innovations since last year. I did spot one high end album in a mixture of leather and Harris Tweed, which I might consider using as a high end option for my dog photography customers.

A selection of different films.
We may live in a digital world, but for some they just can’t escape the old-world charms of photographic film.

There was even one stand selling a selection of rare and exotic film – most of which was well past it’s use by date. Using film like this has become popular in recent years as it gives an interesting effect as it degrades over time.

Practical lighting demonstration on the Bowens stage.
Practical lighting demonstration on the Bowens stage.

The photography show isn’t just about being a trade show – they also run a busy programme of live events with some big name speakers. We sat in on a couple of talks, one where a well known portrait photographer attempted to recreate the Mona Lisa as a photograph, and one with a well known contemporary wedding photographer talking about his reportage technique.

Model dressed as the Mona Lisa posing in front of a painted background
Recreating a famous painting as a photograph.

All in all we had a good day out. I came away with a few odds and ends that I’ve been after for a while – a carry case for a beauty dish, a boom stand and an additional flash trigger. Sadly I had to leave the Pentax 645Z for another year, but who knows – maybe one day!

Model in a wedding dress lit by a large softbox
A practical demonstration of how to use light in wedding photographs.
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Never Work With Children or Animals – Part 1

Australian shepherd dog on the back of a sofa giving his owner a cuddle
Here’s a candid shot of Skip, the Australian Shepherd giving Alys a cuddle. This shot was lit using just a low energy floor-standing uplighter and the light from Alys’ iPad. 1/60th @ f/2.8, ISO3200.

We’ve all heard people say that you should never work with children or animals. At Alys Griffiths Photography I’m often called upon to photograph both. I’m going to start by talking through some of the challenges presented by animals and will try and persuade Alys to write a post about photographing children! Since I predominantly work with dogs I’ll be discussing how I photograph dogs, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t apply the same techniques to other animals.

The number one consideration when photographing dogs is safety. Safety of the dog, the dog’s handler, the photographer (me!) and any assistant I may have with me. If I’m working in a new location I’ll always have a scout around in advance to identify any hazards. I’m on the lookout for roads, water, risk of falling from height, livestock etc. Anything that could compromise the safety of my team or subject. If I do identify any risks I’ll either work out a way to handle them or I’ll try another location.

So we’re working safely. That’s a great starting point. The next thing I like to do, before the dog arrives is to identify the locations I want to photograph in. I’m paying particular attention to the backgrounds I want in my images as well as the direction and quality of the light. The thing to remember when looking at light is that it changes incredibly quickly. I like to cheat a little by using an app called Photo Pills on my iPhone. Amongst other things the app will show me where the sun will be for a given date and time. Sadly it can’t tell me when the clouds are going to be in front of the sun, but that would take all the fun out of the British weather!

Black labrador running towards the camera
With a black labrador I’ve made a deliberate decision to avoid any sky in my frame. This reduces the dynamic range of the image. Since she moves at quite a speed I’ve set the camera to continuous autofocus and set the camera to high speed drive mode. 1/800th @ f4, ISO 1600.

So I’ve checked everyone’s safety and planned my shots. It’s time to get the dog in. There are two main types of shot I capture – those where the dog is in motion and those where the dog is in a static pose.

I usually choose to start with the action shots. When dogs first get out in the great outdoors they usually want to run and jump and sniff – anything but staying still. I like to get some action shots while I let the dog release some of that exuberance.

At first action shots can seem quite daunting, but if you run through some pre-flight checks it isn’t that difficult. Here’s my checklist for setting the camera up:

  • Autofocus mode. Since our subject will be moving we want our camera’s autofocus system to continuously adjust the focus. This is done by changing the autofocus mode to continuous. This is labelled differently on different cameras and may be labelled as “C” or “AI Servo” depending on the model you’re using.
  • Autofocus point. Autofocus points are the pattern of squares you see through your viewfinder. Most cameras will let you select an individual point, or will have an automatic selection option. Most of the time I’d advise setting your focus point to a single point in the centre, or close to the centre as these usually give the fastest focus on most cameras. I know that compositional rules suggest you should compose on the thirds, but I’d prefer to achieve this by cropping later on rather than risk missing my subject or failing to achieve focus.
  • Aperture. With dogs I try to avoid extremely wide apertures as I like to get both the nose and eyes in focus. If you think about a dogs face the eyes are a few inches further away than the tip of the nose. I find f/2.8 or f/4 are usually the sweet spot for me. I don’t like to go much higher than f/4 as this doesn’t give enough light to get a fast enough shutter speed.
  • Shutter Speed. I like to keep my shutter speed above 1/500th of a second as that guarantees me a sharp shot.
  • ISO. Once I’ve chosen an aperture and shutter speed I’ll choose the right ISO to give me a correctly exposed image. Ideally the lower the ISO the better as this gives less “noise”, but I’d rather have a sharp image with a bit of grain than a blurry one.
  • Drive / Burst mode. Dogs in flight move too fast for me to press the button at exactly the right moment. My hand eye coordination isn’t good enough. Instead I’ll set my camera to take photos continuously while I have my finger on the button. Some cameras have multiple continuous drive modes rated at different speed.

Once my camera is set up I’ll get the dog to run and take a quick test shot to make sure everything is working as expected. I’ll check the image and histogram on the back of the camera to make sure the exposure is right. Once I’m happy with that I’m ready to shoot.

Australian Shepherd with a frisbee
Toys can help to keep the dog’s attention on you.

Depending on the dog I’m working with I have a number of ways to get the dog to run to me

  • The Wait Command. My dogs are both trained with a “wait” command. This means that the dog should stay where I leave them until I tell them to do something else. In this case the something else is me calling them. To ensure that the dog isn’t preempting me calling I’ll sometimes tell the dog to wait and then I’ll return to the dog. This stops the dog anticipating the call and moving off before I’m ready. (The wait shouldn’t be confused with a “stay” command which means “stay where I leave you until I return to you”)
  • Hand Signal. My dogs are trained to respond to me raising my right hand by dropping into a down position wherever they happen to be at the time they see it.
  • Toys. Our spaniel cross is absolutely nutty about tennis balls. She loves them. I use this to my advantage by having someone throw a ball over my head so the dog will run towards me. If I’m on my own I’ll pretend to throw the ball so the dog will run off in the direction I want. Once the dog realises I’ve still got the ball they’ll run back towards me. I don’t actually throw the ball unless I was a photo of the dog with the ball in her mouth. Once the dog has given me a good run I’ll always reward them with a quick game of fetch.
  • Treats. Treats are my last resort. I find they cause more problems than they solve as the dog will spend the whole session trying to get their nose into my pocket rather than doing what I want them to. Sometimes throwing a treat can get a dog running towards you, but I only use this method if the dog won’t respond to anything else.
A well trained dog is much easier to photograph - if the dog will stay in a down position you can work without having a lead in the way.
A well trained dog is much easier to photograph – if the dog will stay in a down position you can work without having a lead in the way.

Once the dog has had enough running around i’ll move on to some static poses, but not before offering the dog a drink. I find it’s a good idea to carry a towel to dry the dog’s face off after it’s been in the water bowl.

Static poses require a completely different camera set up.

  • Autofocus mode. I’ll chose “Single” or “One-shot” autofocus. This is where the camera will lock focus on a subject, give you a reassuring beep and then stop adjusting the focus. This gives a more accurate focus on a non-moving subject and allows me to focus, hold the shutter button half-depressed while I recompose and then take the shot. Focusing and recomposing is faster for me than choosing autofocus points, which is ideal for a dog that won’t stay still for long.
  • Autofocus point. I’ll usually choose the centre point and use the focus and recompose technique. Sometimes I’ll choose a focus point while I’m setting up the shot if I plan to have the dog a long way off centre, such as with wider “figure in the landscape” style shots.
  • Aperture. This depends on the background. If I want the background in focus I’ll choose f/8 or f/11. If I want to keep it blurry I’ll go for f/2.8 or f/4. Sometimes I’ll use an even lower aperture for some of these shots as I have more time to work out which bits of the shot are in focus and which aren’t.
  • Shutter Speed. Even though the dog isn’t obviously moving they’re still moving a little. I like to try and stay above about 1/180th second for most shots, although with wider lenses I may go a little slower.
  • ISO. Once again this is something I see as being secondary to getting the right shutter speed and aperture. I adjust the ISO to the point where I get the correct exposure based on the Shutter Speed and Aperture I require.

I’ll try and photograph the dog in sit, down and stand positions in most locations in order to get a variety of poses. I may add in a bit of flash if the natural light isn’t quite giving the look I need.

If you’ve ever photographed a dog with flash you’ll probably have experienced a problem. Dogs eyes are very reflective and light up green. It’s a lot light red-eye in humans, only much worse. The way I avoid this is by using the flash off-camera. This also provides a much better directional light. I use an inexpensive radio triggering system to trigger the flash. I’ll either have an assistant hold the flash for me or I’ll put it on a lightweight light stand.

Adding a splash of flash has helped Lottie the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel stand out from the background.
Adding a splash of flash has helped Lottie the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel stand out from the background.

It’s important to keep an eye on the dog’s wellbeing when photographing. Watch out for signs that the dog is becoming stressed. Dogs show stress in different ways, but common signs can include:

  • Ears pinned back
  • Licking lips and nose
  • Yawning
  • Panting (while rested)
  • Tail dropped
  • Excessive Sniffing
  • Looking Away
  • Moving Away

If the dog is starting to look stressed take 10 minutes to have a change of scenery and a change of activity. I know a lot of dogs will perk up almost instantly once a frisbee or tennis ball comes into play.

One last thing. If you end up photographing puppies, don’t be tempted to take one home – however cute they are!

Husky puppies running towards the camera
I fell in love with one of these husky puppies, but had to call on my common sense to help me walk away without taking her home!
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Preparation for a Day Out

Contents of camera bags laid out, along side a baby's change bag and a toy camera
Contents of camera bags laid out, along side a baby's change bag and a toy camera
When you lay it all out it looks like a lot of equipment . . . but really we’re travelling light!

The Illuminate team are planning a day out in the peak district location scouting for a future course we’re planning to run (watch this space!). My personal mission for the day is to try and find some great locations to work in with delegates as well as capturing some great shots for the website and advertising materials. On top of that we’re also planning a team photograph. I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain my preparation for the day in terms of the equipment we’re taking and why we’re taking it.

Both Alys and I have a few camera bags for different uses. Since we’re on a location scout we’re taking smaller bags. Alys has the Jo Totes “Gracie” bag (black) to add a little style to her kit. I’m using my Tenba Small Messenger bag (orange). The Tenba bag is a laptop bag with a removable camera compartment that holds a small camera and 3-4 lenses quite comfortably. Since Elliott, our 1 year old son, is coming with us, we’ve also got his change bag as well as a couple of bits of his “kit”. I couldn’t resist featuring his toy camera and cuddly bunny!

In Alys’ bag she’s got the Fujifilm X-E1 with 18-55 and 50-230 zoom lenses. The X-E1 is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC). It has since been replaced with the X-E2, but it’s still a great little camera. You can still buy this camera new and in my opinion it offers fantastic value for money. The 18-55 is a good general purpose standard zoom lens. It’s not enormously expensive but provides good sharp images throughout it’s zoom range. The 50-230 was a freebie that came with the camera. It’s a cheaper construction having a plastic body, and it isn’t very fast focusing, but at the end of the day it still produces decent enough images and hasn’t cost us a penny. We could have bought the 55-200 with the better build quality and faster focusing, but at around £500 it’s a lot of money for a small improvement. Sadly Fuji’s flash system hasn’t really been fully developed yet, so instead of using a Fuji flash Alys has a Canon 580EX, which can be used on or off camera in manual mode. To help soften the flash there’s a Sto-Fen diffuser cap with it – this fits over the business end of the flash gun and helps to soften the light a little. Alys also carries spare batteries and memory cards a notebook and some pens.

In my bag I’ve got the Fuji X-T1 which serves as my main camera for most things these days. While Alys uses the Fuji zoom lenses I’m using the primes. I’m carrying a 35mm (on the camera), a 56mm and a Samyang 8mm diagonal fisheye. I’ve got 2 Canon flashes, a 580EXII and a 430EXII. Again I’m using these in manual mode with the Fuji camera. To get the flash off camera I’ve got a set of Calumet Pro-series radio flash triggers. These are fairly inexpensive little gadgets that connect to both the camera and the flash and convert the trigger signal from the camera into radio waves and from radio waves back into an electrical signal to the flash. Some cheap flash triggers can be a little bit temperamental but I’ve never had a problem with these. I’m planning to retire them at some point in favour of the Cactus V6 triggers which will allow control of flash power from the transmitter, which will allow me to work faster. I’m also carrying a Lens Pen cleaning kit, which is my preferred way to clean lenses. I like to think that with the cleaning tip having a lid it’s less likely to pick up anything that could scratch my lens coating. I’m also carrying some spare memory cards and batteries, a sketch book, diary, pens and pencils and a mini-brolly (the wet weather variety).

With the team photo in mind, I’ve picked up a couple of light stands (at the top of the picture) and a couple of multi-way flash brollies (the black bags at the top). These will stay in the car and only come out if and when required. One of the light stands is a heavy duty version. Lightweight stands aren’t great on a windy day – one gust and they’re over. The heavier versions provide a much more solid base.

Can you spot the one thing missing from the above photo which I almost forgot to pack? I’m missing a camera tripod. It’s difficult to be in a team photo while holding the camera!

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Can You Get a Serious Camera for Under £150?

Canon EOS 30D digital camera with 50mm f/1.8 prime lens against a blue background
Canon EOS 30D digital camera with 50mm f/1.8 prime lens against a blue background
The Canon EOS 30D. An older camera, but one with all the essentials for learning to be a photographer.

Photography isn’t a cheap hobby. In this digital age it seems that equipment prices are soaring. Everyone is trying to sell you their latest and greatest camera with a selection of expensive lenses and accessories.

So how do you get into photography on a shoestring budget?

It’s important to remember the most important lesson in photography: Cameras don’t make great photos, photographers do. Give a top of the range camera to an inexperienced user and they’ll only be able to take very average pictures. Give a cheap camera to an experienced photographer and they’ll be able to capture something impressive. The classic comment most pro photographers have heard at least a few times in their career is “Wow that image is amazing – you must have a really good camera!”. I bet no one ever said to Rembrandt “Stunning painting – your brushes must be fantastic!”.

So, where do you begin when you’re planning to buy a camera? Start by thinking about what you want to photograph. All camera buying decisions, whatever the budget, should start here. Ask yourself some questions. Why do I want a camera? What do I want to do with it? What features are important to me?

Some things to consider are:

  • Pick a camera that won’t limit you. If you’re serious about improving your photography you’ll want a camera that offers you the opportunity to take control of any or all of the exposure settings (ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed). Make sure it gives you a usable Manual Mode as well as Aperture and Shutter Priority. Pretty much all Digital SLRs offer these modes. Compact cameras typically don’t do a good job of this.
  • How big will I be printing my photos . . . if you never print anything above a 10 x 8 then you don’t need a massive number of megapixels. If you’re planning to print billboard size then you want a good high pixel count.
  • How far away will my subject be . . . if you’re into wildlife photography you’ll probably want a longer lens. If you’re into portraits you’ll probably be after something in the 50mm – 135mm range and might want to look at prime lenses (i.e. fixed focal length without zoom)
  • How fast will my subject be moving . . . if (like me) one of your main subjects is dogs running around you’ll want a camera that focuses fast and has a high frames-per-second (fps) rate. If you’re a portrait or landscape shooter you can settle for more modest performance.
  • What light will I be shooting in . . . if you shoot in very dark environments you’ll probably want a camera with good performance at higher ISO or a lens with a fast maximum aperture (or both). ISO performance is generally better is younger cameras – it’s one of those things where manufacturers have been making some technological breakthroughs in recent years.

Come up with a list of priorities to help work out your ideal camera. Once you know what you’re looking for, decide how much you want to spend on a camera and then stick to it. It’s no good having an amazing camera for your landscape work if you can’t afford to put petrol in the car to get you out to the locations you wanted to photograph.

Once you know what you want it’s time to shop around. Get online and start browsing some photography shops. Have a look at how much you would need to spend to buy a brand new camera that meets your requirements. If your budget will stretch that far then you’ve got the option of buying a new camera. If your budget falls short of the mark then don’t panic – it’s time to look for a pre-owned bargain.

For some people the thought of having an older model is something they just wouldn’t consider. They want those latest cutting-edge features they’ve seen in brochures and glossy magazines. In some cases a new release completely revolutionises the product line, but in my experience the majority of updates are relatively incremental. Progress is rarely as rapid as the manufacturer’s marketing department would have you believe.

The second hand market in digital cameras tends to scare some people. It’s true – there is more that can go wrong, and you’re less likely to be protected by any form of warranty. All of my film SLRs have been second hand and so was my first DSLR. Out of those I only ever had one thing fail on me, and that was kit lens that came with my DSLR. It failed after about 6-7 years of heavy use, so I’m pretty sure I got my money’s worth out of it! Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I suspect that the majority of serious cameras are built to be rugged and are usually owned by people who like to look after them. The only reason I don’t tend to buy pre-owned kit these days is because I photograph weddings and I want to be 110% certain that my kit will work flawlessly every time.

Have a look at some second hand camera websites to get a rough idea of how much you should expect to pay for different makes and models. Expect to pay quite a bit less if you buy privately, but with much less comeback than you’d get with a dealer.

Lenses tend to “age” at a slower rate to camera bodies, so expect second hand lenses to hold their price better than the cameras. “Kit” lenses (i.e. those that were originally bundled with a camera body) tend to be very cheap, and most are pretty capable these days.

So, can you really buy a serious camera for under £150? I had a quick rummage on eBay and came up with this kit:

  • Canon EOS 30D DSLR body – £99
  • EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens – £45

The reason I chose the 30D is because I own that particular model of camera and I know just how much life there is still left in it. It’s the a great DSLR to learn on. I can already hear people shouting “but it’s only 8.2 megapixels”. True, by modern standards that isn’t a high resolution image, but it’s enough. I’ve had prints from this camera at A3 size and they’ve been fine.

Here’s a few photos that have come from the 30D over the years:

Wedding photography at St Marys Church in Stafford
Shots like this present a challenge for the camera as there is a very bright area and a very dark area in the same shot. For an older camera this has been handled relatively well.
Button hole flower close up
I used to use my 30D as a second body at weddings. Quite often I had it paired with the 60mm macro lens as the close up details are usually the smaller photos in the album.
Bride and groom having a picnic with a gramophone at Ingestre Hall
Another shot from the 60mm macro lens on the 30D. Most macro lenses are also great for portraits.
Bride and groom first dance
Dark dance floors are one of those tricky moments at weddings.

Of course there are plenty of other models out there on the second hand market. If you’re more into Nikon cameras you could find yourself a great deal on a D60 with 18-55 lens for around the same money as a 30D. There are similar cameras from other manufacturers too.

So yes – you can find yourself a reasonable camera without having to spend a fortune. You just have to work out what’s important to you in a camera, do your research and shop around.

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Playing With Fire: Smoke Photography

Photograph of smoke
Photograph of smoke
No two photos the same. Smoke patterns make for a fantastically abstract subject. 1/180th sec @ f/11, ISO 200. Flash in manual mode at ¼ power.

Winter isn’t always the best for getting out and about with your camera. Daylight hours are limited, and when there is enough daylight it’s often cold and/or wet.

With that in mind I thought I’d share a suggestion for a little mini-project you can photograph in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Smoke is one of the classic subjects photographers have been playing with for years. There’s something interesting about capturing something so transient and ethereal.

There are many ways to make smoke. The simplest that I’ve found is to get hold of some incense sticks, which give a good consistent wisp of smoke in a relatively safe manner. They’re also very inexpensive – you can get 20 for around a pound from the likes of Wilko or Poundland (and they smell nice too, which is a bonus).

Burning incense photographed with a strong backlight
Incense sticks give off the perfect amount of smoke. 1/180th sec @ f/11, ISO 200. Flash in manual mode at ¼ power.

It’s worth experimenting with lighting. I’ve found that placing a flash behind and off to one side works well. Using the flash behind keeps it from hitting the background resulting in a strong contrast in your image. Having the light off to one side helps to prevent lens flare (where the light from the flash reflects off the front of the lens).

To further concentrate my light I’ve used a grid on the flash. A grid (sometimes referred to as a honeycomb) is a light modifier that allows light to travel through a series of channels in a honeycomb arrangement. This has the effect of concentrating the light into a tight spot. For these photos I’ve used 1/8th inch grid designed for speed lights, which was around the £5 mark from Amazon (including postage). It attaches to the front of the flash very easily using a velcro strap.

Grid for speedlight flash
The honeycomb grid. Of all the light modifiers out there this £5 mix of plastic, velcro and drinking straws is probably my favourite.

I’m using some fairly inexpensive radio triggers to fire the off camera flash. You can also get cables that do the same job, but I prefer the wireless option as it creates less trip hazards. The flash is mounted on a budget compact light stand from eBay.

Set up shot showing the position of the flash
Here’s the simple setup. Since the flash is pointing away from the wall and overpowers any ambient light the background appears to be black – even though it’s quite a light colour.
Lighting diagram
Here’s a quick sketch diagram of the set up. As always I apologise for my sad lack of drawing ability!

Of course, not everyone has access to off camera flash equipment so what can you do? You can create similar effects by setting your ISO a bit higher and illuminating your smoke using a desk lamp or even a bright torch. If you’re using a torch try shining it through a loo roll tube to get a similar effect to a grid.

Photograph of smoke that resembles a figure holding out their arm
Photographing smoke involves a lot of trial and error – for every twenty shots you take you’ll probably only find one where the smoke is being interesting. This shot almost looks like a human figure reaching out an arm. 1/180th sec @ f/11, ISO 200. Flash in manual mode at ¼ power.

When photographing smoke you’ll start to notice that the slightest movements in the room will affect the smoke patterns. When the room is perfectly still the smoke travels in a near straight vertical line. To make it more interesting I introduced some movement by gently waving my hand near to the incense burner. This causes the air to move and the smoke with it. Try to experiment with different movements and different amounts of movement. Don’t forget you can also move your incense stick (or other smoke source) around and create smoke patterns that way.

Abstract photograph of smoke
The key to smoke photography is to keep an open mind and have some fun experimenting.
1/180th sec @ f/11, ISO 200. Flash in manual mode at ¼ power.

If you decide to give smoke photography a go don’t forget to share your experiences with us via our flickr group or on our Facebook page.

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10 Tips for Portrait Shooters

Girl wearing blue jeans reclining in a tub chair
Young woman in designer jeans reclining in a tub chair
Some people love being in front of the camera, but they’re in a minority.

Your first portrait shoots can be a daunting experience. Here are my top 10 tips to help you bring out the best in the people you photograph.

  1. Be yourself
    It’s far easier to communicate and give off good happy vibes if you just be your usual self and communicate in a manor that naturally flows from you.
  2. Be prepared
    Check out the venue before your shoot and have a rough plan of your favourite must have spots to shoot at. Check out poses and have a rough idea of what you want to achieve (very useful to show your subject as well). The internet, magazines, apps, newspapers and bill boards can all prove inspiration and mood board ideas.
  3. Don’t be late
    Sod’s law, when there’s little margin for error you will be stuck in that traffic jam! Aim to arrive an hour in advance. Bring early not only ensures you get a parking spot near your meeting point but you can also have a quick wander round to ensure where you want to go isn’t cordoned off, rained out, trampled on or otherwise unavailable. You also have the opportunity to remove dead leaves, litter and any other distractions from benches or others important areas. It’s also a nice time to set up your camera for the current weather conditions and ensure everything is in working order and ready to be used.
  4. Relax your subjects
    Relax your portrait subjects by saying you’re taking some test shots at the start of a shoot when most people feel a little self conscious. This takes the pressure off them to strike the perfect pose and gets them used to having a camera pointed in their direction. Most people will have a very flattering natural expression when they don’t think they have to pose and pull that “cheesy” smile.
  5. Ask questions
    People generally find it easiest to chat about themselves. Topics such as where they are going to go looking so glam after the shoot, how they spend most of their time or what they are going to do with the photographs are fab talking points.
  6. Boost them up with honest sincere compliments.
    Love their jumper? Say so. Find their mascara divine? Ask for the brand. If they just pulled a beautiful smile let them know. People can detect an insincere comment though so stick with what you believe and not what you feel obliged to say.
  7. When posing give clear instructions
    I find the easiest thing to do is to go and stand/sit in and model the pose while explaining what you’re doing with each body part one at a time. It indicates you’re not asking them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself and can make it easier for them to replicate.
  8. Be careful what you say when viewing pics on the back of the camera
    We all make mistakes when photographing. If u look at an image and feel it’s not translated what was in your mind, don’t say things like “um, whoops, just need to do that again”. Instead keep it positive and say things like “that was fab can we refine it further”, “let’s really work that” or “let’s spice it up by . . .”
  9. Take variety
    Candid shots can provide some very emotional and evocative shots with a very different feel to your more posed photos. These are best achieved after a joke or when your subject thinks you have finished capturing what you wanted.
  10. Show sneak peaks to keep your subject motivated
    These can help boost their self confidence and really help them to relax and trust you. They will say things such as “I love my hair”, or “I like how that flatters my waistline” which can give u extra points to work with. Be very careful to avoid showing any mistakes or unflattering shots.
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Things I Wish They’d Told Me #4: Your First 10,000

Large pile of photographs

Large pile of photographs

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

A long time ago, way back in my childhood years I became a photographer. At least I became a camera owner. I’m not sure I would have described myself as a photographer back then. To be honest I’m not sure I’d describe my Hanimex 110DFTele as a camera either. This camera was about as low tech as cameras come, with a total of 4 controls. This camera stayed with me for a number of years until I was a teenager when I persuaded my parents to buy me an Olympus Trip 35mm camera for Christmas. My 110 camera sat gathering dust and was eventually thrown away – something I regretted enough that I recently purchased a replacement Hanimex 110DFTele from eBay!

Hanimex 110DFTele
The 110DFTele. It wasn’t a good camera then and certainly isn’t now, but despite that it’s still where the magic of photography began for me.

You might wonder why I decided to buy a 110 camera in 2014. I certainly didn’t buy it to use as a camera, but it does serve as a reminder of where it all started for me. It reminds me of how far I’ve come if I compare the pictures I produce now with those that I produced with this terrible camera back in the 90s.

The truth about photography is that it takes a day to learn but a lifetime to master. There really isn’t much to the mechanics of photography. Once you’ve learnt the exposure triangle (the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO) that’s all of the science out of the way. Once the science takes a back seat what’s left is the art of photography. A camera to a photographer is much like a chisel to a wood carver. On it’s own it’s not a lot, but with the right operator the results can be mind-blowing. Essentially it’s a tool.

Now obviously some tools are better than others – you only need to look at the Screwfix catalog to find that out. Cameras are no different. You can buy a digital camera for under £50 or you can shell out over £25k. Does spending 500 times as much on a camera produce better results? Maybe slightly, but unless you know what you’re doing with your fancy expensive camera you may as well have bought the cheap one. Instead of investing in equipment, invest in the photographer. Invest some time and maybe invest some money on getting yourself and your camera to places that inspire you to take photographs.

Henri Cartier-Bresson tried to add a little humour to the learning process. In a roundabout way he’s saying that the more photos you take the better you’ll get. I think the use of the word “photograph” is fairly deliberate too. He’s not saying that you can keep pressing the button and hoping for the best 10,000 times. You need to be going through a well thought out creative process for each of those images you create. You need to take time to consider your composition. Think about what you’re including and what you’re leaving out. Think about how the scene is lit and what you can do to improve the light. Think about the final outcome of the image – what is your reason for creating it. Is it just going to be another image you leave hidden away on your computer’s hard disk or are you going to print it and frame it.

Don’t get me wrong – photograph 10,001 isn’t necessarily going to change the world of photography as we know it, but if you stick at it and make an effort to thoughtfully capture images on a regular basis then your photography will begin to improve. If you don’t believe me I challenge you to spend a year taking 10 considered photographs each week and then comparing those from week 52 with those from week 1. If you can improve over the course of 520 photographs then just think what will happen by 10,000.