The things you do

How do you illustrate an After School Club without using photographs of children doing what they do in the club?

I’m working on a project for a client to provide illustrative photographs for a website redesign and this is a question to which I’ve needed to find an answer. Why? Well, the obvious thing is to take a photo of the club in action but that would require shots of children and for that I’d need to get parental permission for every child in the photograph and that’s a logistical nightmare.

So, to avoid doing the obvious, I decided to ask the basic question: what is it the website needs to convey? Answer: that there is an After School Club. That opened up the opportunity to approach this in a different way. My original idea was to photograph a sign on a school gate and add some graphics to it so I set off in search of something appropriate that would also not identify any specific school. The answer ended up staring me in the face as I drove towards a school:

School street sign

I immediately envisaged a nice tidy crop on this with a graphic treatment that would clearly say there is an After School Club.

This is the end result:

Street sign composite

So how did I get there? Let me take you quickly through the process.

I did some initial work in Lightroom which involved slight adjustments to tone and contrast, lens corrections, straightening and cropping. The rest then happened in Photoshop where I worked with layers.

Photoshop layers

I find it helpful to name the layers so that it’s easier to make sure I am working on the correct one at any given time. As I drove home, it occurred to me that the background would be cluttered and distracting so when I got back I took a shot of the clouds which I intended to use as a background. That became a layer called Background copy (it now occurs to me it would have been easier to call it sky, but there you go; wise after the event).

I made a selection round the sign and used that selection to create a new layer via copy which I called Layer 1 and stacked that above the sky layer. I wanted to create a mixed approach to this graphically so decided that it would be good to have the word “Club” contained in a box like “School”. To do this, I made a careful selection round the “school” lozenge and again created a new layer with that. This one I called lozenge (finally getting down to one word labelling!). That was OK but it still contained the word School so that needed to come out. The easiest way to do this was to make a selection surrounding the word (but not touching the letters) and using the edit menu select fill/content aware. After that it was a simple job of tidying up some loose pixels using the clone stamp tool. Next I created a new text layer and typed the word “Club” which helpfully automatically renamed the layer. I moved that layer to overlap School and adjusted font and size until I had the closest match I could find. Then I moved the Club layer into position below School.

The next step was to create another text layer for After where I used a handwriting font, and free transform to place it just where I felt it had most impact. I was almost there, but two things still troubled me.

If you look at the original image you can see that the pole to which the sign is attached is off-centre. I decided to cut this into a new layer then reposition it centrally. That brought a better balance to the image.

Finally, I felt the sky was just too distracting so applied a gentle blur to make sure all the attention went on the actual sign.

And these, my friends, are the things you do to deliver on a brief.

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One to go back to

rock, beach, water, calm, sky, low tide, ripples

Rock, water, sky

It was low tide this morning when walking the dog along the beach so we went a little further than usual to where I know there are rocks and pools. This mini scene caught my eye and I was struck by the calmness of the water in this extensive but shallow pool left by the receding tide. Immediately I was thinking about a possible photographic composition but this was no more than something I might end up noting for the future – potentially one to go back to with the proper gear. All I has was my ‘phone but it’s invaluable for recording possible compositions.

This one needed a good focal point and I thought the seaweed covered rock offered a decent subject reflecting gently in the water. I felt this needed a low angle of attack so I walked into the water and crouched as low as I could to get the foreground filled with the pool and the include the sky where the cloud offered a nice “sandwich” effect with the bright horizon more or less central.

Given that this was a “scouting” shot” you might ask if it’s worth doing any processing on the phone image – yes, absolutely it is because, for me at least, it helps me see more of the potential of the composition and what I might look for in going back. Of course, anything I later do will be different, because the conditions will be different but, having gone through the full process, I have a much better idea of the possibilities.

So, I thought I would take you through the editing adjustments I made to get the final “scouting” shot above. First of all, here’s a before and after comparison to show how the image looked straight out of the phone compared to the final result:

rock, beach, water, calm, sky, low tide, ripples

before and after

All the editing was done in Lightroom and the comparison above is taken from the Lightroom Before/After function. The red area in the “before” shot is showing up as I keep highlight and shadow clipping switched on, so this is showing areas of sky that are blown out. So, where did I begin and what adjustments did I make to end up with the final “after” image?

First of all, and I pretty much always do this, is I made lens corrections and ticked to remove chromatic aberrations. After that I went into the basic menu in Lightroom and selected the auto tone option. I don’t always do this, but on this occasion I felt it would give me a decent baseline to work from. Working sequentially, I then did the following:

Exposure – dropped by about half a stop

Contrast – reduced slightly

Highlights – to deal with the blown-out area I used a brush adjustment to localise the effect only where I wanted it – in specific areas of sky

Shadows – slightly lightened

Whites – slightly lightened apart from the sky where, as part of the brush adjustment, I also dropped the whites slightly darkened

Blacks – were slightly darkened

Clarity – go carefully with this, but increased it slightly

Dehaze – as with clarity (both of these affect contrast)

Vibrance – slightly increased

I then made some colour channel adjustments, increasing the saturation of green while also adjusting it’s hue. This was to help make the rock stand out a little more as the key subject. I also made some slight adjustments to purple and magenta (hue and saturation) to bring about the effect I wanted in the sky and the sand below the water.

Finally I added a slight vignette to draw the eye towards the centre of the composition.

Having done all of that I feel this is one I might return to with the full gear even though I know it will inevitably be different. Rehearsing the whole process has encouraged me to think there is some potential here.

It also occurs to me that this shows there is much more to photography than just “taking a snap”.

 

The importance of story

I am currently working on a project to provide photographs for a website redesign. One of the challenges is that I can’t identify people within the photographs unless I have their written permission. Normally that’s fine and permissions can be obtained. But one aspect of what I needed to shoot required absolute confidentiality, for good reason.

One of the areas I needed to cover is a Foodbank. For many people the Foodbank is a genuine life saver  but it’s something no-one really wants to have to rely on and there’s a potential embarrassment in being known to use a Foodbank. When I turned up I was given a tour and explanation of what happens when people come in need of the help that’s available. They are generally referred and will have a voucher to use the Foodbank. They are met and gently welcomed by volunteers who appreciate how difficult this might be for the beneficiary. First off, they have a chat with a volunteer over a coffee and usually some biscuits. Here the Foodbank volunteer tries to create a friendly and compassionate conversation which allows them to do some of the necessary things such as checking for food allergies and dietary intolerances etc. Generally though, the beneficiaries just need to talk with someone friendly, have their story heard and be taken seriously.

This was what I felt I needed to capture in a photo and, especially when you can’t show faces, story becomes really important. So, while this shot was carefully set up, I think it manages to tell the story – of course, the context in which it finally sits will help and hopefully will inform the photo as much as the photo informs the context.

a confidential meeting over a coffee and biscuits

meeting in confidence

I entitled this photo “meeting in confidence” as the meeting is both confidential and one of it’s aims is to give the beneficiary confidence.

Foodbanks are run by The Trussell Trust and do a brilliant job. The project I am working on is not for The Trussell Trust but the Foodbank in question is directly related to it.

 

Refreshing, inspiring and prompting thought

Clouds part to reveal the Mont Blanc Massif

Mont Blanc Massif

This image is available to buy from my website as a fine art print. Perhaps at this point I should be clear that if you buy a print, it will not have my signature watermark so it is a clean image.

There are differing opinions about what constitutes a fine art photograph and this is largely due to the fact that there is no universally agreed definition. Fine art photography seems to cover a wide range of subject matter and can almost be seen as anything that isn’t otherwise categorised, such as: photojournalism, science photography, portraiture etc. A broad consensus seems to lie around the idea that a fine art photograph is more generally about the vision of the photographer and their creative input to produce an image they have preconceived in some way. Personally, I think there’s more subtlety to it than that. Any time I take a photograph, be it documentary, portrait, product or anything else, I am always thinking about how I want the final image to look and I think that’s true for most, if not all, serious photographers.

Taking all of that as read, I believe that fine art images are those that refresh, inspire and prompt us to think. They are images that communicate and hold an inherent beauty in the eye of the beholder. Essentially they are images you would want to hang on your wall and look at, and the image above, of the Mont Blanc Massif emerging from parting cloud, hangs on my wall at home.

I took this photograph a few years ago when visiting Chamonix. There is an element of serendipity about it as I happened to be in just the right place at just the right time to capture the drifting clouds revealing the mountains beyond. To get to the image above, though, I needed to do some work in Lightroom to create the mood and atmosphere I remembered at the time I fired the shutter.

I appreciate that we don’t all buy images on a regular basis but if this photograph refreshes and inspires you to thought, then next time you are looking for a picture to hang on the wall, why not remember this one and maybe also look at the others I have available.

Thank you.

 

I couldn’t leave empty-handed

The trouble with landscape photography is getting just the right conditions which  requires both planning and patience. Sometimes though, there just isn’t enough time left for the conditions to improve so you need to improvise a little or leave empty-handed.

recumbent stone circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

It was a grey, heavily overcast, drizzly evening when I visited Tomnaverie Stone Circle near Tarland in Aberdeenshire. The light was heavily diffused and refusing to do anything remotely interesting, making everything boring and flat when I’d hoped for the better conditions that had been forecast. My plan had been to build a composition that included the stone circle as a foreground with Lochnagar in the background. On this occasion, however, Lochnagar was not even visible in the low cloud. As I don’t like to leave empty-handed I scouted around for some other shooting opportunities.

By way of context, Tomnaverie is what’s called a recumbent stone circle as it features a large stone lying flat which is flanked by a pair of uprights. This type of stone circle is peculiar to north-east Scotland and typically the recumbent stone is on the south/south-west of the circle. The obvious shot would be to feature the recumbent stone, but as I walked round the circle my eye was taken by the cloud hanging low over a distant hilltop. I thought it might make for a dramatic scene with the low cloud cover leading over the stone circle towards the hill and the setting sun was casting some light into the scene. The difficulty in getting this shot was always going to be the exposure. I needed to feature the clouds but not lose the foreground of the stones and there was just too much of a difference in exposure between the sky and the land. What this was going to need was an HDR composite.

If you’re not sure what HDR is, it simply stands for High Dynamic Range and is achieved by shooting the same scene at different exposure settings, then blending them in post to achieve an HDR composite in which all elements are correctly exposed. It’s getting closer to how the eye sees the scene and the wonder of our eyesight is that it compensates beautifully (and automatically) for different brightnesses; something cameras just can’t do. There are some key points to keep in mind when shooting for an HDR:

  • use a good sturdy tripod. It’s so important that the camera doesn’t move at all between shots
  • settle on the aperture setting and ISO you want and only alter the shutter speed from shot to shot. This means you keep the depth of field and grain (“noise” for you digital freaks) consistent
  • use either a cable release or the short timer on camera to minimise any other source of shake

I opted for an ISO of 100 (to minimise grain) and an aperture of f11. Here are the three different exposures I took from which I created the final HDR image.

Using Lightroom, I first made lens corrections for each image then selecting all three asked Lightroom to merge them into an HDR. That’s an automated process and it does a pretty good job, but it still needed some more work to get the final kind of effect I was looking for. I made a slight cropping adjustment to change the format to 16×9 which I felt was more suited to the composition. I also applied a gradient filter to make some fine tuning adjustments to the cloudscape.

In the final image (top) the recumbent stone with the twin uprights can be seen in the middle-ground just left of centre.

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I had no idea…

Well, it’s been a busy week with all manner of boring (but necessary) admin tasks to attend to and yesterday evening I realised I didn’t have a subject when I intended to write a blog post today. I decided, therefore, to take the initiative and head out with my camera and no clear idea as to what I would shoot.

Inspired by some shots my family had taken on a trip to Elie in the East Neuk of Fife, and  only a short drive from home, I set out for there to see what might be on offer photographically. As I prepared to leave, the dog was giving me “the look” which was enough to persuade me to take her along. If nothing else, the evening air would be good for both of us.

I parked up near the Fife Coastal Path and headed out towards Elie Ness Lighthouse. There was nothing really catching my attention there so I carried on round to Lady’s Tower, an old stone edifice built in 1760 apparently as a changing room for Lady Anstruther who liked to bathe in the shelter of the rocks just below. It’s said that a bell would be rung to warn the locals to stay away while she was bathing.

The evening sun was getting a little lower in the sky, casting a warm glow on the stone of the tower and the rocks below. I tried a few shots around the tower before setting up with ND filters to get some soft water effects as the sea washed over the rocks. At the time, I wasn’t all that convinced that I was getting shots I would be happy with, but opening them up in Lightroom and doing some editing got better results than I had expected. I was by that time, however, thinking that my blog post would be about a forlon trip when nothing really presented itself as a pleasing image that would be “a keeper”. And that happens – often. Just like fishermen, photographers come home with tales of the one that got away, or the one that actually never was.

I was preparing to settle for this just being a nice time out with the dog, taking some photos and enjoying the sea air on a pleasant summer evening – not a bad outcome – and was thinking about stopping by a bench to pack my camera away when I spotted this….

grasses in the sunset

sunset grasses

This is actually the last of three shots that I took of this scene. What immediately attracted me was the warm glow of the sun which was casting a more diffused light having been partially obscured by clouds. It was the beautiful golden light that was capturing my imagination.

Shot 1 – was very bog standard – wide, capturing the whole scene and very much the typical sunset type of photograph. It was my shot in the can, if you like; something to have that could probably be worked on a little in post.

Shot 2 – was cropped in a little, by zooming to a longer focal length and focused on the background. I felt that was a better composition. With landscapes, it’s easy to stay with the grand vista, but there is often great merit in homing in on a specific feature, or aspect of the scene.

Shot 3 – the one above. This time I decided to keep the same basic framing as shot 2 but this time to focus on the grasses in the foreground and throw the wider “grand vista” out of focus. I’m pleased with it as the grasses make for a good point of interest, provide a leading line and frame the highlight on the water.

All of the processing was done in Lightroom with the intention of using as light a touch as possible, which consisted of a slight warming of the colour temperature and some minimal and local highlight dampening.

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This photograph is available to buy as a print from my website.  Sales allow me to keep doing what I do.

Be inspired and keep those shutters firing.

Be prepared … …for the unexpected

This morning when preparing to go out for the early dog walk I decided to go down by the river as I’d passed a heron recently on that route, standing barely 15 metres away in still water. I didn’t have a camera on that occasion – today was going to be different.

Of course, having the camera along meant that I didn’t see the heron but what I did get was completely unexpected:

a pair of deer

Deer

a pair of deer standing in a grassy clearing beside a stand of trees.

My preparation for something I had anticipated allowed  me to get this shot with the minimum of fuss and was taken within seconds of spotting the deer.  Apart from taking the camera along, how had I prepared and how had that prepared me for the unexpected? Let me explain…

All of my preparation was for seeing the heron, but that also perfectly suited the scenario that I faced here. Before I left home I put on a 55-200mm lens and also fitted the sling harness to the camera allowing me to carry it securely across my body but readily available to pull up and take the shot. As I anticipated that the heron could quickly take off I needed to be ready with a shutter speed fast enough to catch the action and avoid any motion blur from camera shake. I also wanted to have an aperture that would give me a safe depth of field to make sure focus should be OK. I set the camera to manual mode and opted for 1/400sec at f/8. All well and good, but what about ISO? My camera has the option to set ISO to automatic, which is what I did. That way, I can shoot with my preferred shutter speed and aperture and allow the camera to determine the ideal exposure by adjusting the ISO. I find that using evaluative metering tends to work well with this, though I almost always need to make some exposure adjustment in Lightroom.

Therefore, being prepared to shoot the heron, I was also happily prepared for this unexpected sighting of deer. All I had to do was lift the camera, switching it on as I did so, quickly frame the basic composition and shoot. All done within a few seconds. I’m not a wildlife photographer but I do know that it generally doesn’t give you time to set up and carefully consider what settings to go for – being prepared is the key.

Having got that photo, I spotted that there was some cow parsley (I think) just a pace pace or two in front of me. I thought that a shot taken through that would provide an interesting foreground bokeh. As I crouched to frame the shot the deer became nervous and made a bolt for it so I just pressed the shutter release as I was also moving . Here’s the resulting shot:

deer on the run

and we’re off…

It’s not the greatest wildlife shot ever as all the movement that was going on has combined to result in a less than sharp image, but I wanted to demonstrate the bokeh effect that I was wanting – only with stationary deer!

And here is what I shot through for the image above; the gap just right of centre…

cow parsley

Cow parsley

Keep those shutters firing, look out for the unusual and be prepared for the unexpected.