Category Archives: composition

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.

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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.

A location product shoot

I thought it might be interesting to write about a little product shoot I did earlier this week which was done on location in The Lemon Tree cafe in Leven.

There are  pros and cons in doing a location shoot. Probably the biggest downside is not having use of a studio and therefore full control of the lighting. The upside, however, is that as this is food product, it was all prepared fresh and looked at it’s best.

So here’s a look at the basic set-up I used (which I shot on my phone)

camera and lighting set-up

set-up

I asked to use a table at the feature window as it would provide good diffused light to flood the various subjects. This was especially effective as the sun was at around 90 degrees to the window which meant no direct light and the harsh shadows that would come with it. I then used two artificial light sources. As can be seen in the set up above, I used a tripod mounted flash with a soft box. I balanced this with a small continuous LED which is hiding behind the camera. The LED was mounted on a Gorilla Pod for ease and flexibility of positioning.

As you an see, the flash was triggered via a cabled connection to the camera hot shoe. As there were three different light sources working together, I set the camera white balance to auto with the intention of adjusting this in post if necessary. In the end it only needed a very small adjustment.

I opted for aperture priority on the camera and set the flash to manual operation. Using a couple of test shots to get the lighting I wanted, I made adjustments to the flash output, shooting at a reduced power. The soft box was to make sure I had a diffused light which was not overpowering the background natural daylight. The LED has three output settings and, again, the test shots allowed me to find the optimum balance of light between the LED and the flash.

I shot at f8 which is pretty much around the sweet spot of the lens I was using. I wanted to have a nice sharp focus exactly where I chose and with just enough depth of field. To keep things nice and steady I used a cable release for the camera – it’s sensible when you go to the bother of using a tripod. If you don’t have a cable release, the next best option is to use a two second delay on the shutter release.

By now, you might be wondering how the shots turned out. Well, here’s one with the same subject as in the set up above:

cafe sandwich

Lemon chicken sandwich

What you might spot here is that the LED became a principal light – note the shadow from the salad – with natural daylight providing the background flood with reduced power flash filling shadows and picking out highlights.

Post production was mostly done in Lightroom. As I wanted to have a consistent feel across all the images, I created a pre-set out of the settings I used on the first one I processed and used that as a basis for all the others, requiring only minimal adjustments in each case, I know you can sharpen in Lightroom and I generally do so preferring to use heavy masking to make sure I only sharpen what I want to. On this occasion though, I sharpened the images in Photoshop using a High Pass set to 5 pixels.

If you are curious about the LED, as you can’t see it in the set-up shot above, here it is as mounted on my Gorilla Pod.

small fill light

LED light

And finally, I should say that the Lemon Chicken sandwich was delicious. If you ever find yourself in Leven, make a point of visiting The Lemon Tree. The cakes are also amazing!

You can see some of the other product shots and more here on my website.

A compromise of composition

Kelpies, sculpture, installation

The Kelpies

I don’t know about you, but I usually find myself bristling when I hear or read the words, “…it’s all about…” because I find it seldom is that exclusive. I was on the verge of titling this blog “it’s all about compromise” then had an argument with myself. I’m pleased to say I won.

I am not, therefore, going to say that photography is all about compromise, though that features in so many ways, not least finding the best compromise of ISO, aperture and shutter speed. What I will say, is that this blog is about the compromise of composition.

This was the third time I had photographed these magnificent sculptures called The Kelpies, but my first visit in winter. I like to find different ways of seeing and photographing subjects so set out to look for something unusual. Walking round the side I notices a canal boat moored up with smoke  rising from it’s chimney. I thought that might offer an interesting composition contrasting the ephemeral nature of the smoke with the solidity of the Kelpies.  How then, did this end up as a compromise of composition? Ideally, I’d have preferred to position the boat more between the sculptures to balance the scene a little more and provide more of a leading line. I was physically unable to do so as, to get more to the right, I would need to climb a fence and engage in trespass, which I thought to be a bad idea. That said, had I been able to position the boat as I wanted, I’d have lost contrast on the smoke with it positioned against the sky, and it was the smoke that had captured my compositional attention. I did feel, however, that the fading daylight in the background offered an interesting contre-jour shot and the grey of the winter sky reflected the steel construction of the Kelpies.

The grasses on the left of shot are also something of a compromise. Ideally, I’d have left them out of shot but it wasn’t possible to do so on location with the lens I was using. I debated removing them in Photoshop but decided to leave them in as I didn’t feel they were too distracting. I did, however, remove a lighting pole which was directly in line with one of the Kelpies and definitely spoiled the shot. One compositional advantage of shooting from behind, is that I eliminated the power lines and pylons which are in full view from in front.

I think the lesson here is to accept that sometimes, maybe more often than not, we photographers have to accept compromise in our compositions and the job is to make the best of what we see. Personally, I like to do that with the least manipulation in post.

This was shot at ISO-400, 1/000 sec, f/8 with a focal length of 18mm. I used an auto white balance with the intention of colour correcting in Lightroom if necessary. I used Lightroom to make basic adjustments to highlights, contrast and toning (among others) and used Photoshop to remove the troublesome lighting pole.