Category Archives: information

What’s that on your desk? Part three

Desk lighting

For this third in the series, “what’s that on your desk?” I want to focus on my desk lighting and actually more generally my office lighting.

The importance of this is for image processing in post produciton and it might be a very a personal thing but, for me it’s important so I thought it worth sharing. More of us photographers whether professional or enthusiast are probably spending more time at our desks on our PCs doing photo editing during the lockdown we are enduring thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, whether you are revisiting old images to re-work them or learning and practicing new techniques I hope this short post on how I light my room and desk for this will be helpful.

Let’s begin with the “why” question. Why does room lighting matter? We’re not working with film and paper in a darkroom. As I said, it’s probably a personal thing but, for me, it’s important to have a nice clear screen to work on. I need to see the images as clearly as possible so that I know what adjustments I need to make. I therefore don’t want glare or reflections on the screen and I also don’t want colours being affected by ambient light at different colour temperatures affecting the hue of what I’m looking at.

So let’s begin with the office. For reasons I could do nothing about, my desk sits almost directly opposite this window.

office lighting

I could choose to have a total blackout but I like daylight and generally want to work in daylight as much as possible, but then I want it as diffused as possible and I need to prevent light from this window garing on my screen. The answer is vertical blinds but these are solid vanes rather than fabric and only allow light to pass between or around them and not through.

The window is east facing so by having the blinds angled this way direct sunlight is prevented from coming in as the sun tracks westerly – or to the right as we look at this photo. I simply angled the blinds until there was no glare or reflection on my computer screen.

This arrangement lets in a good amount of diffused daylight on a bright sunny day when I might not need any dask lighting at all.

But what about those dull days when some artifical light is required in the room?

So, let’s look again at the photo of my desk set-up.

desk lighting

You can see two lights on my desk. To the top right with a blue shade is an adjustable angle-poise lamp. To the left is a small LED clipped to the top of the desk and directed straight down. Apart from the diffused natural daylight coming from the window, these are pretty much the only lights I work with when editing.

Again, the whole aim is not to pollute the screen with glare or ambient light at a different colour temperature. But whay have lights on the desk at all? For me, I like to be able to clearly see my keyboard and Loupedeck control panel so the desk lighting is primarily for that.

Let’s start with the angle-poise lamp to the top right. As you can see, I have that angled to the wall when I am photo editing. That way the light is bounced off the wall rather than being directional. The bulb in that lamp is also rated as a “daylight” colour temperature (on the bulb anything between 5,000K and 6,500K will do). I tend to find that this set up serves me well.

The LED to the left of the desk is not daylight rated and delivers a warmer clour temperature, so it is used only to illuminate notes or anything else to my left which I need to refer to. It is purposely pointed straight down to minimise interference with the screen and I’ll tend only to switch it on for when it’s absolutely needed.

And that’s it, really, apart from the ceiling light which I never use when editing, but it also is fitted with a daylight rated bulb just in case.

What’s that on your desk? Part two

My usual desk set-up

In my last post I answered the question, “what’s that on your desk?” “That black and white thing above the computer screen?”

It’s this thing and I explained that it’s used for lens calibration.

Lens calibration chart

I closed by saying that focus can be slightly out in one of two ways:

Front focus – this is where the focus is sharp in front of the subject

Back focus – this is where the focus is sharp behind the subject

I then said that in the next post I’d explain how to do lens calibration, so let’s get on with it but first, here’s an example of a photo which illustrates the problem:

The focus is meant to be on the flower but, look closely and you will see that the upper leaves are sharper. That’s where the focus is amd those leaves are slightly nearer the camera than the flower, so this is an example of front focus.

How then do we go about calibrating the lens to the camera?

We need a flat level surface, a lens calibration chart, tripod and the camera/lens combination we want to calibrate.

Set the lens calibration chart on the flat surface (a table is ideal) and set up your camera on a tripod. This takes just a little bit of fiddling around, but you want the centre of the lens to be dead level with the centre of the chart – ie on the same horizontal plane. Distance isn’t critical but I’d suggest around 2 metres between lens and chart. You need good even lighting, so maybe choose your time of day and location. It wouldn’t make a huge difference using flash, but I prefer not to.

Then, you need a good exposure with the aperture wide open, for the mimimum depth of field. This ensures maximum accuracy in the focussing. Make sure you focus using the viewfinder not live view and focus on the centre of the chart.

The process from here is faster if you are able to shoot tethered – which means having your camera cable connected to a computer or laptop so that you see the image straight away at a decent size. To shoot tethered you need either Capture 1 or Lightroom software on the device you tether to.

Having taken your shot you now want to look at it closely – probably zooming in. Remember you focused on the centre of the chart. On the right the zero of the scale is on exactly the same plane as the chart so, if the lens is completly calibrated with the camer the zero should be sharpest. That’s what we are aiming for. If the lines below the zero (coming close towards the 1 are sharper, then we have front focus. Similarly if any of the lines above the zero headed to the more distant 1 are sharper, then we have back focus. You need to find out where your focus is falling. Once that’s done, we need to make adjustments in the camera.

I should point out that I use Canon DSLRs so the menu settings that follow are for Canon. For any other camera, you will need to find out where to find the similar settings.

Start by accessing the Menu, then find the Function area, and Auto Focus settings. Make sure the Autofocus AF Microadjustment is enabled.

  • When the lens Front focuses, dial “+” numbers in the camera AF Adjustment menu
  • When the lens Back focuses, dial “–” numbers in the camera menu

↓ “-” back focusing

↑ “+” front focusing

How much you have to adjust is a matter of trial and error. This is why shooting tethered makes a big difference to the speed of this process. Having made an adjustment, you now need to take another shot and do remember to refocus on the centre of the chart again. It’s really important that nothing moves throughout this process – the camer and chart must stay in exactly the same relationship to one another.

Now look again at the image you’ve just taken – where is the focus now? Keep making adjustments and repeating this process until you have focus pin sharp on zero. And that’s you done at that point.

Here’s a quick aid-memoir for camera settings:

  • Use manual mode
  • Select manual white balance
  • ISO between ISO100-400 (ideally 100 if lighting allows)
  • Shutter speed at least as fast as the lens is in focal length (50mm lens shoot at no less than 1/60 sec and tripod mounted)
  • Aperture wide open (smallest f stop)
  • Centre focusing point with autofocus on
  • switch off lens stabilisation
  • Focus through the viewfinder, not live view
  • for extra security, use a cable release or two second timer delay

There are many lens calibration charts on the market at all sorts of price levels. I made my own:

It’s not difficuly to make and you can download a graphic of the chart from the internet. There’s no [rescribed angle for the ruler but the key part of the build is to make sure that the zero on the scale is on the same plane as the vertical chart – that’s vital.

I hope that’s been helpful and it’s worth doing a lens calibration test once a year. If, like most people, you are currently restricted to home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, then now’s a good time to spend some time calibrating your lenses and camera bodies.

What’s that on your desk?

My usual desk set-up

For a while now we have been asked to work from home during this Coronavirus pandemic. As a self-employed photographer I normally do, so I’m pretty well established with a home office. This is my usual desk set-up where all the admin happens as well as the post-production editing. I’m sitting here now writing this very blog post!

I might do a wee tour round the desk over a couple of posts just to explain what’s on the desk and why but, right now, I sense some of you are asking, “what’s that on your desk?” “That black and white thing above the computer screen?”

This thing?

Lens calibration chart

Well, let me explain.

This is a lens calibration chart and it’s used to help calibrate lenses for pin sharp focus performance.

If you know all about this, save yourself some time and go have a nice cup of coffee, or whatever your preferred beverage might be. If you don’t know but are an enthusiastic photographer with a DSLR then you might want to read on.

You would imagine that when you pay good money for an expensive lens then it’s going to perform brilliantly when you attach it to your camera. If, like me, you have more than one camera body and you switch lenses between them, you might expect the same performance from the lens across the camera bodies. Oh, if only…

Actually, what we are really calibrating is the autofocus system in the camera to make sure it is totally in tune with the lens. Ideally we should spend some time calibrating each camera body with every lens so that all combinations are going to perform perfectly (or near enough perfectly).

So, what’s the problem we are trying to fix? Depending on what you shoot and how you shoot you might not notice a problem at all, landscape for example. If precise focus is important to you, such as portraiture, product photography, events photography, wildlife etc, then it may be that you have experienced times when, in camera, you were sure focus was spot on, only to see on your computer screen that the focus is slightly off. This will be most noticeable if you shoot at a low depth of field (ie with the lens aperture wide open).

Focus can be slightly out in one of two ways:

Front focus – this is where the focus is sharp in front of the subject

Back focus – this is where the focus is sharp behind the subject

How we fix this is through what’s generally called lens calibration and, in my next post, I’ll take you through how to do it.

A little product experiment

Ardbeg – dark, smokey and mysterious

Well, it’s day two of Covid-19 lockdown here in Scotland so I thought I’d aim to post a picture every day or so. Lockdown here essentially means staying at home apart from some very limited exceptions including taking some time outside to have fresh air and excercise whilst maintaining social distancing. I am aiming to have a daily walk and to take my camera with me. Those might offer up some shots.

Otherwise it’s a case of what can be done indoors. To that end I thought I’d share this photo of a bottle of Ardbeg (it’s a personal favourite).

My business as a commercial photographer is in hibernation until such time as the restrictions are removed or reduced to a level that allows business to resume. Part of what I offer is product photography, and I thought it would be fun to see what can be done with minimal resources. So here is the story of the shot.

Normally, doing a product shoot we begin with a client brief noting the characteristics and mood they want to convey. In this instance I was doing this for myself, for fun and experimentally. I should be clear that Ardbeg are not sponsoring this blog or supporting me in any way.

In the absence of brief I began by thinking about how I taste and experience Ardbeg and of what it evokes for me. My whisky tastes are divided between summer and winter. Summer is a time for lighter Strathspey and Highland malts. For winter I like the deeper warmth and peaty flavours of the island malts. Winter is a dark time, especially the futher north we are, and so I wanted the photo to reflect that but to contain a hint of promising light. As I reflected on the flavours I came to the conclusion that, for me, Ardbeg is dark, smokey and mysterious. Those then, were the mood cues I wanted to pick up on.

There was a lot of experimentation before I ended up with this shot. Lighting, background, staging etc. Here’s the mix of things that finally came together to produce the shot.

Background: I had tried using a black backdrop but it was just too much. After trying lots of things I settled on suing an Ordnance Survey map. Ideally it would be one of Isla but as I don’t have that map (and can’t now pop out to buy one) I settled for a coastal map just to give a hint at land and sea. I also needed that to drop way back in terms of the lighting so that it became a subtle backdrop.

Staging: I wanted to have the bottle raised and tried setting it on an elevated glass platform so that I could light from below, but I just wasn’t happy with the results that was giving me. I settled for a small wooden crate type box which I had bought a couple of years ago in Ikea s a potential prop. It would become very significant for one aspect of the shot – more on that later.

Lighting: I tried different set-ups using Godox strobes but while I could generate some degree of the dark mood I wanted, I still wasn’t happy with how things were looking though felt I was getting close. I then decided to pop a small LED light behind the bottle to create some inner glow. The magic worked when I decided to make that the major light source and powered the strobe way back so that it’s more like ambient daylight creeping in from a window. You can see the highlight of this on the bottle neck. Now we were getting there but one vital element was missing.

Back the staging: By now I felt I was getting dark and mysterious bt what about the smokey? Well, I just happen to have some peat cones, and a peaty flavour is one of the notes of Ardbeg. Those peat cones are meant to burn slowly in a room to add a peaty aroma – I’ve been known to do that of a winter’s evening while savouring a wee dram. I remembered that these things give off a little smoke as thy burn so I popped one under the box I was using for staging. That had some gaps between the wooden slats and was small enough to allow the smoke to accumulate without putting the cone out and then to seep gently through the gaps in the box.

And so the elements came together to produce this photo. There was some post-production editing in Lightroom, but it was very minimal. The camera was tripod mounted for stability and locked-off composition. It also allowed for an exposure of 1/8 sec at f8 with an ISO of 200.

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.

Scottish montage

I thought it might be of interest to pick one of my favourite images and explain what it means to me as well as something about how I created it.

Firstly, the title. I called this Scottish montage mainly because it is composed of elements that are distinctly Scottish. I don’t often do composites mainly because I can find myself constantly working on them and never getting to a point that I’m happy with. When they work though, as this one does for me, I find all the effort and tinkering worthwhile.

This image feels very Scottish to me and speaks of some of the things about Scotland that are very important to me. So, let’s take it apart and, in doing that, I will try to explain why it means so much to me.

There are four key images blended here to create the overall composite.

Background: This is Leven beach. Leven happens to be where I first lived and where I have now returned. Interestingly the shot was taken some years before the prospect of returning to Fife, let alone Leven, was even a vague idea. It therefore speaks to me of home but perhaps more importantly, it reminds me of the wide-open spaces of Scotland. Apart from the border with England, Scotland is surrounded by the sea and includes many islands so this also reminds me of the fishing heritage and that from these shores, throughout generations past, Scots have gone all over the world making a mostly positive impact. Although we feel attached to home, we Scots are instinctively curious and prone to exploration. The open spaces of Scotland appeal to me, so much more than the busy haste of city life, offering a sense of freedom and refreshment. Filling my lungs with either the sea breeze of the coast or the chill air of the mountains is simply exhilarating and life giving.

The overall image was built in Photoshop and the background is an unedited layer within the composite.

Foreground subject: This is a small sculpture found in Balbirnie Park at Markinch. It’s in the shape of a Celtic knot. In fact, it’s only the upper part of the sculpture and it is in the form of the Trinity Knot or Triquetra. The points on this three-fold knot are said to represent the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit but this can’t be verified as historically accurate. Most information relating to Celtic knots is dated after 450 A.D when Christian influence on the Celtic civilization began to take hold and these knots are complete loops with no start or finish and are generally said to represent eternity be that in the form of loyalty, faith, friendship or love.

The strong feature of the knot sculpture in the image reminds me of the deep cultural heritage of Scotland and of important values throughout Scottish history. We’ve always tended towards community as a people and been ready to welcome the stranger to our land. It also reminds me of the historical importance of faith in Scottish life.

The sculpture is a separate level in Photoshop. Because the sculpture itself is a consistent colour and has clear edges it was an easy job to cut it out from the background of its original photo and leave it on a transparent background. That was then placed above the background layer and I applied a mask to it. Working on the layer mask I was able to fade out the lower section of the sculpture to render it as a “faded shadow” which when added to the background makes it look like it is sitting on the sand.

Writing: The writing is from a photograph of a sculpture in the Scottish Parliament building called Travelling the Distance by Shauna McMullan. It features quotes from various women commenting on other women. The extracts shown in the composite are:

Selected on merit, she ended 450 years of an exclusively male High Court Bench. (Alison Closs on Hazel Cosgrove)

Best of Scotswomen, lifelong socialist, pacifist, grassroots activist, modest, eternally open-minded, an ordinary, extraordinary mother. (Liz Lochhead on Helen Kay)

A wee lady always loving caring, determined, and generous, devoted to her faith and family. (Morag Ross on Elizabeth Dyce & Jean Campbell)

Her passion for equalities shines through in her voice and in her eyes. (Ruth Black on Irene Graham)

Thanks to Scottish Women who made the difference. Always stay on the equality path (Jane McKay)

She makes me continue to believe that the fight for a more just world is the right road to be on…. (Elaine C. Smith on Helena Kennedy)

When her friends visited, you never knew whether to bring out the silver or lock it away. (Hilda Smith on Chris Grieve)

This element of the composite reminds me of the number of strong and influential women in Scottish history and in Scottish life. So much to be appreciated and valued.

The words are another layer in Photoshop. The layer is simply the original photograph of the sculpture but I reduced the layer opacity to 60% which diminished the background enough to allow the writing to stand clear and retain something of the natural shadow from the writing which is in relief on the sculpture.

Trees: This is the final image layer and it’s a rather more subtle one. Just above the centre of the image and to the left of the sculpture there is what appears to be some trees on a hillside. In fact, these are the branches of one tree. More on that shortly.

I included the trees to remind me that Scotland is not barren across its wilderness spaces. The “trees” are there to remind me of the productivity of the land be that through nature’s provision or agriculture. I wanted the “trees” to be bare – winter plumage – as that worked better with the overall feel of the composite image and also reminds me of the fragility of things in these days of climate change awareness. It reminds me of the responsibility we have to the place we call home – from our own locality where we live, up through our countries to plant Earth itself.

The “trees” layer is, as I mentioned, one tree which I rotated through ninety degrees to make the bare branches appear as trees themselves with the trunk standing in for the ground. Fortunately, the background on the original tree photo is nice and clear so it was a simple job of positioning the layer as I wanted it in the final composition and then applying a layer mask and gently removing all that I didn’t need. Within the final composition it has the effect of creating the impression of a landscape beyond the water which I quite like, and I think works reasonably well.

In summary, this composite image reminds me of at least some of the things about Scotland and being Scottish that I hold dear.

While there are four images making up this composite, there are a total of eleven layers involved in creating the final image. In brief, and in order from bottom up, they are:

  • Background image – unaltered.
  • Celtic knot sculpture – transparent background and layer mask applied
  • Brightness/contrast adjustment layer
  • Trees – positionally adjusted and layer mask applied
  • Words – opacity reduced to 60%
  • Curves adjustment layer
  • Texture brush adjustment layer
  • Photo filter layer
  • Selective colour adjustment layer
  • Levels adjustment layer
  • Another Brightness/contrast adjustment layer

All of the adjustment layers were making individually minor and subtle changes, nothing heavy handed, so that the cumulative result is what I was happy with. It’s in those minor adjustments that you can get trapped in continual tweaking. I didn’t complete this work on one sitting. It took a good number of “visits” to work through interrupted with periods of leaving well alone. It’s an example of making sure you can see the wood for the trees!

This image is available to buy from my website as prints and wall products.