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Things I Wish They’d Told Me #3: My Favourite Photo

Photograph of an Australian Shepherd Dog on Stafford Common

 

Photograph of an Australian Shepherd Dog on Stafford Common
Skip the Australian Shepherd enjoying a snowy walk on Stafford Common.

“Which of my photographs is my favourite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” – Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)

A big part of my life as a semi-freelancer these days seems to be social media. There’s no escape from Facewitter or Linkstergram or any number of new and exciting flavour-of-the-month social websites. As a photographer it’s no surprise that a lot of what I see online is photography related chit-chat. One of the age old discussions that goes round again and again is this: what is the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer?

I don’t like to get involved in online arguments about photography – I’d much rather be out making pictures, but I’ve seen this one so many times that I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.

To me the only way I define the difference between a professional photographer and a non-professional photographer is this: A professional photographer takes photographs for financial reward. That’s it. There’s nothing to say that professionals are better photographers than hobbyists. In fact there are a great many hobbyists who produce really excellent work. I suspect the reason behind this is quite simple: they’re free to photograph the things they’re passionate about, while free from pressures of time and budget.

Of course, not everyone shares my views, and there are a certain class of “professional photographer” out there who like to suggest that they’ve got photography mastered. This is a view that really grates on me. Quite often the work showcased by some of these people can only be described as mediocre. Of course, the opposite type exist too – the very humble pros who know that they still need to learn and develop their skills.

So back to Imogen Cunningham’s favourite photograph. Photography is a journey and not a destination. We all have to start out somewhere and work from there. The trick is to make sure we keep ourselves stimulated and challenged. It’s not always easy to stay inspired, but we have to keep looking for opportunities for tomorrow’s photograph.

When you’re lacking inspiration and your creativity seems to have dried up there are a few ways to get yourself back on track.

Impose limits on yourself: maybe take less camera equipment with you when you go out – I like to take a walk with just a camera and a prime lens (i.e. a lens without zoom).

Create projects for yourself. Projects create rules and rules give you focus. If wildlife is your thing then maybe pick a single breed of bird or mammal and produce a collection of photographs. If you’re into landscapes then maybe decide on a project photographing local historic landmarks or modern high-rise buildings in a city centre. Projects can also be more abstract. Maybepick an emotion and take photographs to represent it. Think about how you might represent love or happiness, anger or contentment.

Wherever your photographic journey takes you, as long as you look forward to tomorrow’s photograph you’ll stay on the right track.

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New Year, New Photographer?

Baby Photograph
Baby Photograph
2014 has been a particularly eventful year for Alys and I – we saw the arrival of our son Elliott back in February. This photo was taken in the studio using a roll of damask pattern background paper, around 8 feet of skirting board off-cut, a bit of oak effect lino from a car boot sale and a faux flokati rug.

 

What happened to 2014? Its really zoomed past, which can mean only one thing . . . time to make those new years resolutions!

I’m not going to suggest that we all aim to eat healthy, lose weight, save money or improve on our green credentials – those are all good things, but I’m a photographer so I’m focusing on specific ways to move forward with our photography.

Its important that we don’t try and be over ambitious – we all know that two weeks into that radical new diet we’re probably going to end up diving head first into a big bag of doughnuts. Our photographic resolutions aren’t any different. For a couple of years I tried “the one photo every day” challenge – the aim being to take and publish one photo to Flickr every day for a year. By the middle of February I’d failed. Why? Mostly because I was too busy to keep it up. I take a lot of photos over the course of a year, but taking one every day was just too much to fit into my busy life. Ironically the reason for my failure was probably down to the amount of photographic work I had on. I was too busy editing photos, designing layouts and managing customer documents.

So, where do we start on our achievable resolutions? Take some time to take stock of where you are with your photography. Look back through the past 12 months of photographs critically and identify what you perceive as your strengths and weaknesses. I’m trying to get into the habit of compiling a book of photos each year. Blurb do excellent quality hardback books for fairly reasonable prices (I always use their Proline uncoated paper which has a fantastic matt finish). The process of distilling twelve months of photos into a “greatest hits” compilation really gets me taking a long hard and critical look at my work. The finished result serves as both a record of my photographic journey as well as providing a great collection of family memories.

Start small and keep it simple. You don’t have to resolve to turn your world upside down to make a difference. Pick something small and achievable, and when you make it through the year you’ll feel good about it. Maybe decide on one area that you want to work on in your photography and make sure you actively think about that before each click of the shutter. This could be taking time to ask yourself “is this the best composition I can create here” or just taking time to look around the image as a whole and concentrating on the details more (one of the things I’ve struggled with in the past).

Resolve to take some me-time on a regular basis. I love to get out and go for a long walk in the countryside alone or with the dogs. This gives me space to collect my thoughts and I find this is when I do my best creative thinking. When I’m at home or in the office I’m surrounded by distractions – television, phone calls, Facebook, twitter, text messages and all sorts of other things. Quite often I plan concepts for photo shoots or training courses while I’m out walking – when I get back I grab my notebook and write it all down so it doesn’t get forgotten about once the distractions are back.

One of my personal goals this year is to spend more time using the equipment I already have and less time window-shopping. It’s always very exciting when the latest camera or lens turns up but I’m pretty sure that the limiting factor in my photography isn’t so much the camera as the photographer. I’m hoping I can spend some quality time getting to know my equipment better in the coming 12 months. I’ve found that almost every bit of kit requires a few thousand photos before you really start to understand it’s “personality” – whether that be compact cameras, camera bodies, lenses, filters, speed lights, studio flashes or even reflectors and light modifiers.

Although I’ve said I’m staying away from the usual new years things of diet and exercise, another way I’m looking to encourage my personal creativity in 2015 is by taking better care of myself in general. One of my biggest problems is not knowing when it’s time to step away from what I’m working on and take a break. My inner creative thrives on being fed a healthy diet and kept well rested, so although I’m not going all out on the latest fad diet or exercise plan, I am planning to try and keep myself in better shape. This is the thing I’m probably going to find the hardest to stick to!

Finally the thing I’d suggest everyone resolves to do in the coming year is this: spend time photographing the things that make you happy. Spend some time rediscovering the aspects of photography that you really love. The more you enjoy your photography the more you’ll get stuck in, and the more you get stuck in the faster you’ll improve.

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Things I Wish They’d Told Me #2: The Best Camera

Dog running though a shallow stream
Dog running though a shallow stream
Sometimes the best locations aren’t the most accessible – here we’ve had to walk quite a way from the car park to the location.
1/3800 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800

“The best camera is the one that’s with you”

— Chase Jarvis

How many times have you seen the most amazing opportunity for a photograph only to find yourself without a camera? It has happened to me on countless occasions. It took a while to spot the obvious problem, but eventually I worked it out – my camera kit was just too bulky to carry around with me and so when I went out it would stay at home.

As photographers we love our big DSLRs – we have an amazing choice of lenses and accessories, they’re fast and they provide excellent image quality. The downside is the weight and bulk of them. So what are the alternatives?

There are a bewildering array of cameras available on the market today – these can be roughly divided into a few categories:

  • Camera phones: These have the advantage of being attached to something we already carry with us. Image quality isn’t the best, but it does improve all the time and newer models will produce reasonable images in good light. You can even buy some accessories for some mobile phone cameras now, such as add on lenses. Another big plus is the ability to install camera apps on the phone which provide additional functionalities.
  • Compact cameras: There are a vast and bewildering array of compact cameras on the market from the entry level at a few tens of pounds all the way up to the high end models which are in the thousands. When shopping for compact cameras the thing to look out for is the possibility to make use of manual controls so that the camera still provides the creative freedom we want as photographers. Not all zooms are created equal – but do check both ends of the zoom range as some of the cameras that zoom in the furthest do so at the expense of the wide-angle end.
  • Bridge cameras: Bridges are chunkier than compact cameras but still have a fixed lens. These tend to have the best zoom range but this comes with some compromises. Typical bridge cameras don’t have much control over the aperture due to the lens being so heavily optimised for extreme zoom.
  • Compact system cameras (CSC): Compact system (a.k.a mirrorless) cameras have interchangeable lenses, but unlike DSLRs do no have a mirror and prism setup, instead opting for electronic viewfinders or no viewfinder at all and just a screen. Without the need for the mechanical mirror the compact system camera fits into a much more compact package. Historically, compact systems weren’t as fast as DSLRs, but the latest generation are starting to make that a grey area. Some CSCs are now as fast as similarly priced DSLRs, although the high end DSLRs haven’t been beaten yet.
  • Digital SLRs: Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras have been around for a long time, and as such have evolved to be very versatile. The downside is that most DSLRs are big and heavy. The thing to consider when buying a DSLR is that some are much bulkier and heavier than others. The same applies to lenses – some are bigger than others. To cut down bulk consider whether prime lenses (those with a fixed focal length) would be suitable as these are often smaller than zoom lenses of a similar length. If you don’t need fast aperture lenses then consider buying the cheaper, slower versions as these are smaller and lighter (and easier on the wallet).

Personally I’m using a Fuji CSC for around 90% of my photography, and using my DSLR for the rest. I take a few camera phone photographs on occasion, but mostly I use that for quick documentary shots rather than anything artistic. The great thing about my CSC is that I can put it in a small messenger bag with a couple of lenses and a laptop and still carry it comfortably for long periods.

The important thing to remember is that you need to pick the camera that suits you. In any camera buying decision there will be compromises, you just have to decide what is most important to you. I highly recommend having a camera that is portable enough that you’ll want it to go everywhere with you – that way you’ll avoid the frustration of spotting an amazing shot and having no way to capture it.

 

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Things I Wish They’d Told Me #1: Taking or Making?

Bride and groom under an umbrella in the rain
This isn’t a picture that could have been “taken”. We made this photograph by setting up a speedlite behind the couple to create a strong backlight to the image, illuminating the rain and giving a rim light around the couple. We also lit them from 45 degrees to the left of the camera with another speedlite. While the Bride and Groom stayed relatively dry I ended up soaked as I didn’t have a free hand to hold a brolly over me!
1/125 sec at f/8, ISO 200

 

I’ve been thinking about the best bits of advice I’ve received over my photographic career – the things that have really stuck with me and influenced the direction my photographic journey has taken.  I was going to title this series of blogs “10 things I wish they’d told me as a new photographer”, but I’m not sure quite how many there will be yet – and I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard everything that everyone has to tell me either, so the number could change in the future. The great thing about photography is that however much experience you have there is still more to learn!

To kick off here’s a well known quote from a very famous photographer:

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it”
–Ansel Adams

The number one difference between a snapshot and a photograph is very simple – a photographer puts a lot of thought and effort into a photograph. Great photographs rarely just happen – they take preparation, careful equipment choices, timing and a good rapport with the subject.

When we photograph a wedding, we always make the effort to visit the venue prior to the wedding day so we can wander around and plan our photographs at our leisure. We will usually shoot test shots using ourselves in the place of the bride and groom so we can make sure we’re making the best lens choices and getting the lighting angles right. Ideally we aim to have a plan of the shots we’ll take, listed in order. It is rare for us to stick to the complete plan as ideas may develop on the day, but we have a structured outline to direct our efforts within the limited timeframe available to us.

Once the preparation is over and the time comes to make the image, we take the time to set up the shot, paying attention to composition and lighting to help create the look we’ve been planning. This preparation may take several minutes – especially for more technical shots. If there are going to be people in the photograph, they probably won’t be there yet – they’ll be called in once everything else is ready to avoid them getting bored.

Something I would encourage all new photographers to do is to carry a small sketch pad and a pen or pencil. This can be used to jot down ideas and to draw diagrams. You don’t need any special drawing skills as long as you can understand your own scribbles! We often write out a list of the shots we’re planning to fit into the half hour we get alone with the bride and groom, along with a few sketches of anything complex.

The great thing about slowing down and taking time over each image is the rate at which you will notice your work improving.

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Jackson’s Coppice Bluebells

Rustics stepped path up a bank of bluebells

Jackson’s Coppice is one of Staffordshire’s best kept secrets. Located a few miles outside of Eccleshall, the coppice and marsh are a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours with your camera – and that’s exactly what we did with a group of previous course delegates on Sunday. What makes this stunning reserve even more amazing is the incredible display of bluebells at this time of year.

With the success of this event we’re looking to run some more photo walks in the future.

Here are a few of my photos from Jackson’s Coppice:

Rustics stepped path up a bank of bluebells
I love the look of these rustic steps cutting through the bank of bluebells. The alternating light and shade on the steps helps to add interest to the scene.
1/70 sec at f/6.4, ISO 800

 

Group of photographers walking down the path in the bluebell woods at Jackson's Coppice
Photographers at work! 1/80 sec at f/11, ISO 1600

 

Wide scene of Jackson's Coppice showing the floor of the woods covered in bluebells
The floor of the Coppice was a sea of blue.
1/110 sec at f/8, ISO 1600

 

Photography Tutor David lying down with his camera getting a photograph from a low angle
This was a quick “grab shot” of David taking a photo from a low angle. Using a very large aperture has allowed me to blur out both the foreground and background, helping David to stand out.
1/3200 sec at f/1.2, ISO 800

 

Steep path through the bluebells at Jackson's Coppice
One of the paths through the bluebells. The verticals of the trees help to show how steeply banked the coppice is.
1/230 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800

 

Closeup macro photograph of 2 bluebell stems.
David and I have both started using Fujifilm’s X series compact system cameras, so I borrowed David’s 60mm macro lens for this shot. Using a near wide open aperture means that very little is in focus, but this creates a softness to the image that I like.
1/680 sec at f/2.4 ISO 800.

 

Here I've tried to capture the contrast between the delicate and short-lived bluebells against the ancient ruggedness of the tree. 1/110 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800
Here I’ve tried to capture the contrast between the delicate and short-lived bluebells against the ancient and rugged tree.
1/110 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800

Update

Following on from the success of this event we’re running it again this year. Click here to book your free place.