Category Archives: documentary

soap and beads

Forced to think and see a little differently

What am I doing during this time of lockdown as the world deals with the Coronavirus?

As a professional photographer whose business is currently in hibernation, part of what I am doing is taking the time to practice and learn. To experiment with new techniques and seek inspiration. As a result I am tuning in to some photography channels on YouTube which normally I only have the time to look at occasionally. One of my favourites is Ted Forbes’ channel, The Art of Photography. I discovered there, that he’s started a series of assignments which are very much for this time of lockdown. I just watched his video setting the Available Light Photo Assignment and it certainly inspired me.

The initial assignment is to choose a window and observe it (ideally photograph it) hourly throughout the day to see how the light changes. The idea is that this will allow you to plan when to use the light in different ways. Ted introduced a few photographers as examples including the Czech photographer, Josef Sudek, whose work is a good example of using available light. This image called Glass with Flower is one such example.

My wife and I have been living in a new house for almost three years now and as we plan out the garden we have both been very conscious of how the sun tracks across it. We have a cabin in the garden with a wooden table and there are net curtains on the windows. Today is very overcast so there’s no directional light to speak of and I thought therefore that the cabin might offer an opportunity to experiment with available light. I realised this would be something of a challenge with such diffused light but also thought that the net curtains would add to the diffusion and it would be interesting to see what I could come up with.

It would have to be a still life and whilst I wanted to try to get the feel of Sudek’s style I didn’t want to do a rip-off, so a glass with flower was out of the question. In my business life I do product photography among other things and normally that’s under studio conditions with very controlled lighting, so I thought it might be good to try something out with available light. But what to shoot?

Then in a moment of inspiration, while washing my hands (as we are advised to do regularly) I thought I would photograph the soap. I thought it might be boring just as it stands so I grabbed some glass beads which I thought might add to the compositon and potentially do something interesting with the light.

With props and camera in hand I hot-footed it to the cabin and here’s what I came up with:

soap and beads

It’s no award winner, but that’s not the point. It was fascinating to do this and it forced me to think differently about using light compositionally. When you examine Dudek’s still lifes, it’s almost light itself that is the subject. I wanted to achieve as much of the desired effect as possible in camera, but I have to confess this has had post-production in Lightroom and Photoshop. Here are the details:

It was shot hand-held at 1/125 sec at f4 with an ISO of 320 and a focal length of 24mm. This was underexposing from the TTL metering by about 2 stops. It was cropped in Lightroom to a square format (which I intended from the outset) and I also made slight adjustments to contrast and highlights as well as converting to black & white. In Photoshop I added a gentle sepia filter.

Originally I shot the bottle on it’s own then added the glass beads by just scattering them randomly. I really liked the way they picked up the light and behaved a little differently depending on whether they had fallen on the flat side or rounded side.

Having been inspired by the way the beads worked with the light, I decided to make them the subject resulting in this shot:

glass beads

Again, this was hand held and taken on the follwoing settings:

1/160sec at f5.6 on ISO 320 and a focal length of 55mm. This was only cropped in Lightroom with adjustments to contrast and highlights and a black and white conversion.

The I wondered about leaving the beads in colour and having everything else in black and white. Here’s the result of that:

green beads

To get this, I went back to the colour shot and desaturated all the colour channels apart from green and aqua.

I’ve really enjoyed doing this and being forced to think and see a little differently.

Which of the glass beads shots do you prefer? The pure black and white or the green? Let me know in the comments – I’d really appreciate it.

Ted Forbes, I will be back on your channel for more assignments!

In it together – apart


We’re all in it together – apart!

I live in Scotland where the current advice for people who do not have any Covid-19 symptoms is to practice social distancing. Briefly, and quoting from NHS Inform Scotland, that advice is to:

  1. Avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) – these symptoms include high temperature and/or new and continuous cough
  2. Avoid non-essential use of public transport – when possible, alter your travel times to avoid rush hour
  3. Work from home, where possible – your employer should support you to do this
  4. Avoid large gatherings
  5. Avoid gatherings in smaller public spaces such as pubs, cinemas, restaurants, theatres, bars and clubs
  6. Avoid gatherings with friends and family – keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media
  7. Use telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services

So, yesterday, feeling hale and hearty, I decided I should follow this advice but also get some fresh air and do some photography in the great outdoors. A fine activity when my commercial work is somewhat slowing down in the current climate.

So, I got in the car (2 – tick) and set off for the picturesque East Neuk of Fife, very near where I live. I was never within less than about 3 metres from anyone and all of this was outdoors (1- tick). I moved between the great outdoors and the car (4, 5 – tick) and used a hand gel each time I entered or left the car (bonus tick). I think, therefore, I managed to have some good and productive time out whilst keeping on the right side of the social distancing guidance.

I ventured round Elie, Pittenweem and Anstruther and bagged a whole series of shots much of which I broadly had in mind before I set out but the one that speaks most to me is the one that was opportunistic and which I have titled “soiltude”.

As I was walking uphill on the coastal path I spotted this lone kayaker out on the Firth of Forth. It just seemed to capture for me, something of the sense of “self-isolating” which is the phrase of the day. At the same time, it also looked like a peaceful and serene way to spend some time alone. There’s already talk in the media that perhaps the phrase “self-isolating” is portraying negatively which is partly why I titled the photograph “solitude”. This sounds more like a positive sense of being alone and having time and space to reflect.

I like the negative space* in this photo which represents not only the physical space around the kayaker but also the space to be and to think. Space we often desire away from the madding crowd.

This photo doesn’t need pin sharp detail – it’s all about conveying a mood or feeling. Consequently the processing was fairly light and I’ll take you through what I did. First, here’s a before and after comparison:

I wanted a slightly brighter, slightly bluer image so here’s a quick run-down of the editing which was all done in Lightroom:

  • First up – apply lens correction and remove chromatic aberration
  • exposure +0.5
  • clarity +9
  • dehaze +14
  • vibrance +15
  • white balance customised to 5855 (temp) – slightly cooling from as shot
  • applied a medium contrast tone curve
  • colours:
    • Aqua hue +12; saturation +12
    • Blue hue -9; saturation +20
  • detail – heavy masking (94) to isolate the outline of the kayaker then:
    • sharpening amount 82
    • radius 0.5
    • noise reduction – luminance 31

And that’s it.

The image was captured on a Canon EOS 7D with a 55-200mm lens shooting at 200mm and the settings were:

  • ISO 250
  • 1/1000 sec
  • f11

*Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image.

Changing times

  • Old and new technologies
  • Old dock gates

Isn’t it always the case that the things on your dooorstep are the things you tend to ignore? I decided to rectify that so made a visit to Methil Docks to see what I could photograph there.

I was struck by two things which are reflected in the two photographs here. Firstly there is evidence of changing technology reflecting the changing times.

After World War One, Methil was Scotland’s chief coal port which by 1923 was said to be exporting over 3,000,000 tons per year. The main colliery supplying the docks was the Wellesley which was located on a site virtually adjacent to the docks.

The colleries in Fife all disappeared a number of years ago as coal reserves were exhausted or became too costly to mine. Now, of course, the burning of fossil fuels has been shown to be a key factor in climate change. Now Methil Docks is home to Fife Energy Park which focuses on renewable energy as evidenced by the wind turbine. 

It’s good to see this change in emphasis from a location which once was so key to the coal industry.

The second thing I was stuck by was the sense of industrial decay as seen in the old dock gates. Sights like this always make me think of the people who once worked there as I wonder what their lives were like. There’s a tinge of sadness at what once was but that’s balanced by seeing something new emerging and that always leaves a sense of hope for the future.

One camera, one lens and two days in Prague

I recently had a couple of days in Prague on a short family break with my wife and daughter. But, as we all know, a photographer’s never really on holiday so I set myself a little challenge to see what I could do with spare moments as we made our way round this amazing city.

As we were travelling light carrying only hand luggage, I was immediately limited by the camera gear I could carry and I opted to take only one camera and one lens – really out of packing practicalities and no other reason. That then led me to the idea of seeing what I could do in terms of travel photography using one camera and one lens over two days.

Getting back to base and editing the images I then decided to go monochrome for them all to give the set a kind of vintage feel and also to crop everything to a square format. These further restrictions proved interesting in whittling the set down to what we have below as a slide show. Some photos just wouldn’t work in a square crop, so were ruthlessly abandoned. As were others that I felt didn’t work so well in monochrome.

So the results are here in this slide show – please have a browse through. Who knows, I might take a fancy to this travel photography approach – limited time and gear.

This is exciting

It might look like just a coil of cable to you but, to me, this is genuinely exciting.

fibre optic cable
more than it looks

As a commercial photographer I am heavily reliant on broadband for delivering photographs to clients. Businesses tend to need photographs for website, media and publicity purposes and my preference has always been to deliver those online, either through a secure page on my website, or via an online intermediary such as Dropbox. This means uploading images once I have processed them.

For one recent job I needed to deliver 112 images. That doesn’t seem too much until you come to uploading them on a broadband connection that is delivering an average download speed of between 2mbps and 3mbps. The upload speed I “enjoy” is significantly slower at around 0.35mbps. When I started the process of uploading those 112 images, it was estimated to take several hours to complete so I abandoned that and opted instead to deliver the images via a flash drive. That’s OK, but it’s not all that convenient.

In addition I also need to upload high res images to my website galleries where they are for sale as high quality prints and wall products. The upload time has been hugely frustrating.

My excitement at this roll of cable is because this is fibre optic cable waiting to be connected. Yes, I’m getting FTTP – Fibre To The Premises which will transform my uploading experience and also mean that I can deliver more quickly for clients on those occasions when speed is essential.

I am forecast to have an average download speed of 300mbps – one hundred times faster than now – with a guaranteed minimum speed of 150mbps. Crucially, my estimated upload speed is 49mbps – this is going to be absolutely transformative! Uploads so fast I won’t have to go make a cuppa as it happens, let alone consider planning and preparing an entire banquet! Can you tell that I’m excited?

Of course, the download speeds are also important to me on those occasions when I have upgrades to Photoshop or Lightroom to download and install. No more having to stop doing anything else whilst that happens for fear of the connection dropping out or failing.

So, exciting times are just around the corner. As soon as that cable gets connected up!

Pic of the week – Friday 3 May 2019

National Trust Conservator

Honouring skill

It’s a good thing to honour skill and craft and this is the first in what I hope to be a series of portraits of skilled craft people doing their thing.

For a while I have been afraid that the educational system, in highly valuing academic ability, might end up devaluing the development of more traditional crafts and skills so I am keen to photograph skilled craft people and give at least some acknowledgement to the abilities which enrich our lives.

This was rather an opportunistic photograph from a visit to Oxburgh Hall, a National Trust property in Norfolk. Fortunately photography was permitted though with the usual restrictions on flash and tripods. There was some significant restoration work underway on the Hall and as I went round I spotted this conservator at work seated in the light of a window.

Fortunately she said she was happy to be photogrpahed when I asked permission. I suppose I could have just taken a shot but I felt, in the circiumstances, it would be polite to ask. A willing subject is so much better.

I was immediately attracted to the general composition, and epecially to the way the lighting from the window was working and the fact that her notepad was acting as a very useful reflector to cast light back up to her face.

This was shot handheld (no tripods allowed) on ISO 250, 1/125 sec at f5.

Being discrete

a game of pool - table corner with side lighting


How do you preserve confidentiality and tell a compelling story? This photo is my answer to that question in a very specific context.

Recently I have been working on a set of photographs for the Levenmouth Foodbank which will be used in a new brochure they are producing. One of the challenges of this project was to illustrate aspects of the work of the Foodbank whilst preserving the confidentially of those who use it. It’s important to be able to tell a story through these kind of images which, for me, fall into the genre of documentary.

Why the need for discretion? It’s probably well known that people who use foodbanks are not doing so through choice but because they have fallen on hard times financially, perhaps temporarily, or perhaps more long term. There is a natural stigma about this and, for the most part, no-one forced to use a foodbank would wish to be recognised as doing so. The trustees and volunteers at the foodbank, quite rightly, also wanted to protect the identity of their clients.

One of the surprising things for me was to find that there is so much more going on at a foodbank than handing out food. I can’t be sure if this applies to all of them, but the Levenmouth Foodbank also runs a café where clients can come in and get a cup of tea or coffee, a hot filled roll and biscuits or, occasionally, some cake. It’s also a social time when clients can meet with each other and chat with Foodbank Volunteers who can guide them with things like budgeting, job seeking etc.

During a shoot at the café I was attracted to the pool table where clients can have a relaxing game with one another or, typically, challenge a volunteer to a game. I wanted to be able to capture this and illustrate the importance of human interaction in a supportive way. I also had to be discrete.

I knew this would need to be a tightly focused shot (and I’m not talking depth of field here) closing in on the detail rather than going wide. The set up for this was pretty simple. I set up my light source (one speed light mounted on a light stand bounced into an umbrella) to the side of the table. I used a wireless trigger to allow me to roam around the table looking for compositions that would work.

The single light source allowed me to create a clear focal point for the image and the shadow cast by the player on the left emphasises the light on the table. I like that the eye is drawn to the action on the table and the cue of the player on the left provides a nice leading line into the composition. It’s obvious that there are two players here and, in the background, there is also one spectator clearly visible. Immediately, there is a sense of what’s going on here without having to reveal any faces.

One of the bonuses for me is that I feel the depth of foreground shadow helps to accentuate the action and perhaps this gives a sense that out of the darkness of despair, there is always the hope of light and better things to come.