Category Archives: composition

Seeing the familiar differently

This is a tag-line I sometimes use in connection with my photography so I thought it might be interesting to share an example of how that finds expression.

A couple of days ago I set out to do two things at the same time – yes, I was feeling ambitious. My plan was to take the dog for a walk and also to photograph some of the  rhododendron collection at Balbirnie Park near Markinch in Fife. So, off I went with dog, camera bag, tripod and the rather essential poo bags.

I had no preconceived ideas about how I would photograph the rhododendrons but as always, wanted to stay open for possibilities.

In the interest of getting something “in the can” a fired off a few fairly traditional  shots such as this one.

Rhododendron Collection

Rhododendrons

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s just like so many other shots we’ve probably all seen of rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs and trees. There’s nothing here that would make this stand out from the crowd – it’s an example of seeing the familiar familiarly.

I went in search of something different and took some tight shots of the blossom but, again, it had a familiarity about it. As I wandered the pathways I became aware of one that branched off from the denoted path but still looked like one that was established. It led down through the trees and as I explored this I was met with the attractive sight of red rhododendron blossom lying on the ground and lit through the surrounding trees by shafts of daylight. This was a shot I felt I should have.

Fallen rhododendron blossom

Rhododendron blossom

In terms of photographing rhododendrons, this would probably not sit on it’s own, but rather within a wider set. What I like is that it is suggestive of the rhododendron and the fallen blossom is a reminder that the season in bloom is a short one. It is also, I think, a good example of seeing the familiar differently.

For me, it’s important to keep my eyes open and be ready to see things from different angles and perspectives. This is where we can find those images and compositions that stand out from the crowd.

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Seizing the moment

fallen tree - patterns and colours

Deadwood

This is one of those opportunistic shots. I was out walking the dog when I passed a fallen tree and was immediately struck with the lines, patterns and colours in the bark of this dead wood.

I was armed only with my iPhone but wanted to capture this image. The more I look at it, the more I am drawn in to it and the more I see. It simply intrigues me and makes me think that even in decay there is beauty.

I shot it in a square format as my original thought was to post it on Instagram, which I have done, but I also wanted to say something about it, hence this blog post.

There’s a lesson here about always being interested in one’s surroundings as sometimes compositions or images just make themselves available to you. This is one such example of seizing the moment. And it really doesn’t matter all that much if you don’t have your “proper” camera with you – the photographer is more important – though a camera of some sort is still essential!

I like this one so much, I’ve added to my website so it’s available as a print. So, if you fancy having this on your wall, feel free to go and place an order.

 

The journey to the image

The journey to a final image has barely begun when the shutter is fired. There’s still work to be done in getting to the composition that the eye has seen and the imagination has worked with. I thought it might be worthwhile looking at that journey again with another example.

Unretouched view towards Edinburgh

Unretouched view across the Forth to Edinburgh

This is the original unretouched shot as it came out of the camera as a RAW file. I pretty much always shoot RAW so that I have the maximum data to work with in post. This was shot in the evening as dusk was falling. I shot it hand-held at 1/40 sec, ISO-200 at f/8. The reason I’m sharing those settings is that I want to explain how I was trying to find the right compromise to get a workable image. The available light was fading quite quickly as dusk fell and there was a natural haze to the light looking out across the water. I was using a focal length of 55mm so normally, to minimise camera shake, I’d want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/60 sec (the general rule of thumb is to sue a shutter speed at least as fast as the focal length – ie shooting at 30mm choose a shutter speed of at least 1/30 sec).  I was therefore shooting just a little slower than I ideally wanted and took the risk of minimal blurring from camera shake – but I thought I’d manage to be steady enough at 1/40 sec. I could have opted to widen the aperture to get a faster speed, but I wanted to have a reasonable depth of field for a landscape shot, so didn’t want to come lower than f/8. Then there was the question of ISO. I wanted to minimise grain (noise, if you prefer) so opted for ISO-200. I think I was pretty much pushing the boundaries here.

The initial RAW image (above) is rather washed-out and not as clear as it looked to the eye. My job in post was to try to get as close as possible to what I saw without making it look too heavy-handed. I did all the processing in Lightroom to end up with this:

Edinburgh from Fife

Across the Forth to Edinburgh

That’s much closer to how I saw the sky and the landscape of Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills. So, how did I get to this? Here’s a brief run down of the editing. First of all (and this is standard to my workflow) I made adjustments to the Lens Corrections and ticked to remove chromatic aberrations. I cooled the colour temperature just slightly to bring through some more of the natural blue tone. Then I added some dehaze, and clarity, trying not to overdo it. As both of those essentially affect contrast, I left the master contrast control alone. I also boosted the vibrance a little to enhance the colours and then made slight adjustments to the saturation of purple and aqua. That pretty much got me to where I wanted to be with it. Then, just to deal with the sky, I added a graduated filter and darkened it slightly. I wasn’t entirely happy with the landscape across the centre, so used a brush to add a little more dehaze to that central strand.

I envisaged this as amore cinematic shot, so cropped to a 16×9 ratio slightly recomposing to drop the horizon below the centre line. Finally, I added a slight vignette to help draw the eye in to the composition.

That, then, is how I went from the original shot to the final image. Is this a keeper? Probably not. If I go pixel-peeping, I can see some evidence of slight blurring which is probably the result of hand-holding at 1/40 sec. This wouldn’t really stand up to printing in any large scale, so I’ll put it down to a useful experiment. If I wanted to make something of this composition, I’d need to go back and re-shoot it using a tripod. Of course, whilst I could go back at the same time to the same location, the light won’t be the same and I will never be able to exactly reproduce this image. Such are the joys…

 

 

Making the most of it

I went to the seaside recently on what was a fairly calm but uninspiring day. I did have a definite plan, though. My aim was to shoot a minimalist seascape and see if I could make it interesting whilst lacking a major feature or subject within the frame.

This is what I ended up with.

beach sea and sky

deep blue

But it’s not how things began.

Here’s the original RAW file as it came out of the camera.

unedited seascape

seascape

I could see some potential in this, but as I’d been shooting towards the light, the colours are muted and the picture is pretty flat and lacking in contrast. I also felt that there are distractions here that would be better removed.

I liked the faint leading lines in the wet sand which are complemented by the small raised sandy patches helpfully pointing towards a vanishing point roughly mid-frame. Compositionally, I thought there was enough going on here to be interesting without a major subject. However, the small stalks of seaweed rising from the sand were a distraction was the drilling rig to the right of frame. I also wanted to remove the slight piece of lens flare to the left of frame. It was also clear that if this image was going to work, it needed to have a better colour treatment and some more contrast.

To achieve what I had in mind I was going to need me to work with both Lightroom and Photoshop. The danger I wanted to avoid was ending up with something that looked like it was on steroids – I wanted a natural look, so the job was more about recovering the image to something close to what I actually saw, whilst also getting rid of the distractions.

I started in Lightroom and, following my usual work flow, made the usual lens correction and ticked for removing chromatic aberration. After that I added a little dehaze to bring in some contrast before making a slight adjustment to the contrast setting itself. I find the dehaze feature more helpful with shots into the light. After that it was a case of reducing the highlights enough to prevent the left of frame area looking too thin and making a slight compensating adjustment to the overall exposure. That didn’t quite achieve what I wanted so I added a graduated filter running vertically and extending in from left of frame. Within that I made local adjustments (quite finely) for exposure and highlights.  I finished my work in Lightroom by adjusting the colour temperature to cool it a little and bring back some of the blue. I also slightly adjusted the saturation of blue and aqua in the HSL setting, adjusting for both hue and saturation. All of this with the lightest touch I felt I could get away with to achieve the effect I wanted.

Then it was over to Photoshop to deal with the distractions. After making a duplicate layer to work on, I removed the distractions I wanted by first using the content aware fill and then refining where necessary with a little cloning. Finally, I ran a high pass to sharpen the overall image.

In the end, I am happy with what I finally produced. I think I managed to achieve something very close to what I saw with my eyes on location. In short, I think I managed to make the most of it.

What lies beyond

It’s a grey, wet miserable day and I am not out shooting. So, by way of a break from the boring but necessary admin work, here’s one from the archive.

mountains, landscape, clouds, vista, valley

revelation

This is a favourite of my landscape shots and is one I keep returning to. I just love it. This was shot on 20 September 2008 during a special trip to the French Alps. It’s one of those completely serendipitous unplanned shots. My wife and I were returning to our hotel in Chamonix from a visit to Evian on the shore of Lake Geneva when we stopped for a break at a service station. I was aware that there was a degree of elevation where we were and headed, more in hope than expectation, between the parked-up lorries to see what kind of view might be on offer. At first, I was met with a very dull scene but, very quickly, the clouds started parting and the revelation was simply breathtaking.

I love the theatrical nature of this image, the clouds being drawn back like curtains to reveal the main attraction. Honestly, you could have sold tickets for this.

Apart from the memories this image evokes, I really like the composition of three main elements: the cold clear crispness of the mountains; the softness of the cloud  and the lush verdant valley below.

This image also works for me on a philosophical level and is a reminder that there is always something better lying beyond the clouds that face us at any given time.

 

The art of preparation

Sometimes you get lucky – the trick is to be ready for it.

Heron by the river

Heron

First the disclaimer – I am not a wildlife photographer for two principle reasons:

  1. I don’t have the infinite patience it needs
  2. I don’t have the specialised kit for it

So, with that out of the way, on with the story.

This morning I decided to walk the dog along the river. The last time I was there, two days ago, I saw one heron and three deer. I decided, therefore, to pop the 200mm zoom lens on the camera before I went out, just in case. We’d walked well past where I saw the heron last time and my hopes were fading when I spotted it immediately across the river, no more than 15 metres away and well within range for my lens. Slowly and steadily, making as little movement as possible I began to lift my camera up, at which point it took off and flew away downstream. Perhaps my bright red mountain jacket had something to do with it – another reason I am not a wildlife photographer. I watched it fly low down the river and suspected it had landed not too far away. I therefore kept my camera on and up at the ready. Then I spotted it again, about 50 metres distant on the far bank. This time I stopped and took a shot from where I was before slowly edging forward hoping for a better opportunity. After twenty paces or so, it spotted the red mountain jacket again, and took to the air. This time I was ready, had the camera to my eye and followed it, getting the following shot.

Heron in flight

In flight

Although both of these shots were opportunistic, I had prepared for the opportunity. Not only did I have my camera with me, I had also decided to maximise my chances of a clear and successful shot by setting up in a way that I thought would work. I knew I would be shooting hand held so wanted to have a short enough exposure to overcome any camera shake and to freeze action. I also wanted to shoot around the sweet spot of the lens (between f8 and f11 for the one I was using). I therefore opted to work in manual mode, setting the shutter speed at 1/1000 sec and the aperture at f8. I then set the camera on auto ISO so that I would be pretty much guaranteed a good exposure. I also set the metering to spot, aiming to keep the subject centre frame with the intention that I would crop in and recompose in post – which is what I did with both images.

It’s pleasing that my preparation was rewarded on this occasion, despite the bright red mountain jacket.

A little further along the walk, and feeling optimistic about having grabbed a couple of decent shots I turned to look behind me and was struck by the way the marsh grasses and trees looked in the sunlight.

Grasses and trees

Impenetrable

I’m still not sure quite why I like this shot but I was fascinated by the patterns created by the light on the boughs and branches, the resulting contrast and the apparent randomness of the patterns. This too is cropped in post to achieve the composition I envisaged at the time I took the shot. I also heavily desaturated the image, not quite fully, and added a slight colour cast just to help the mood. I like to think of this one as my bonus shot from the morning dog walk and the great thing is that landscape is not startled by a red mountain jacket so stays put while you take time to compose the shot; a whole lot more co-operative.

Settings, bleh!

It’s kind of funny the way people are often interested in what camera settings you used. Do you find that?

It’s largely irrelevant, because you can’t go out to the same location at roughly (or even precisely) the same time of day, dial in the same settings and hope to get the same results. Why’s that then? Well, there are so many other variables: the weather conditions will affect the air quality and clarity, it may be overcast when originally it wasn’t, others will probably not be using the same camera and lens and even if they are, they might respond differently; and those are just some of the variables. On top of that there’s the post-processing to factor in.

What’s more important is knowing how to use your settings to get the results you want knowing how your particular kit behaves.

Let me talk you through the above three photos all of which were taken on the same night in Perth, Scotland. I had been to the location before with just my iPhone to take some scoping out shots and get a sense of what I wanted to come back and shoot properly. That pre-shoot visit was really helpful in allowing me to get a sense of how the lighting was working, the scale, and some preferred vantage points. Based on that, I began to think about what kind of shots I wanted to achieve and how I would go about getting them.

For the shots across the River Tay, I was certain that I wanted to soften the water and therefore blur the reflected light which would offer a contrast to the sharper definition on land. To achieve that, I knew I would need a long exposure. However, I also wanted to minimise grain (or noise, if you were raised in the digital age) which might be an issue with a long exposure at night. I opted to shoot at ISO 100, knowing that the relative lack of light sensitivity at this setting would push for a longer exposure. So, I’ve now considered ISO and exposure time (shutter speed) leaving the issue of aperture. Here, I was mainly concerned to shoot near the sweet spot of the lens, the aperture where the lens is sharpest and performs best. For the lens I was using that was going to be somewhere between f8 and f11. So, I opted for aperture priority, setting that to f10 on an ISO setting of 100. I then had a look to see what the camera was choosing for an exposure time. For both shots across the river, that was coming in at around 30 seconds which I was happy would be long enough for the effect I wanted, and so it turned out. Had it been longer, I might have had to consider changing the ISO. It’s a juggling act.

I used the same basic thought flow for the shot of the catering van but I wanted something more subtle here. The plan was to include some human interest but in a way that a slow exposure would blur the movement of the people. However, an exposure time of 30 seconds would be too long and could almost render the people invisible. I was looking for something nearer five to ten seconds, but also wanted to shoot within the sweet spot range and keep the ISO low. In the event, the lighting here allowed me to shoot at f8, stay at ISO 100 and get the kind of exposure time I needed. I’m certainly pleased with the result.

Post-processing was fairly light touch, really and done only in Lightroom. I’ll often use Photoshop for sharpening, but in this instance Lightroom did all I needed. One of the issues with night photography with the range of lights here, is that some areas had highlights that were just too bright so I needed to treat them specifically with the brush tool.

So, there you have it. Don’t be too bothered about what settings anyone used for their photos. I know it’s interesting and I’m as culpable as anyone for often providing that information, but it actually tells you relatively little that’s actually all that useful. Better to understand how to use the settings to achieve the shot you want, whether that’s in a very structured pre-planned way or in the moment when a composition lies before you.

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the good feeling of pulling off a photo just as you envisioned it.

Happy shooting.