On visual style

Photography is the perfect mix of creativity and technical detail. As I am very left-brained I have always understood how to shoot something more clearly than what I should shoot.

To balance this up, I recently got the chance to spend an afternoon at the National Gallery in London. If you’ve been to Trafalgar Square, you know where the National Gallery is. The art on show is stunning, and I was particularly keen on looking at technique and visual style.

We started with renaissance art, which I would summarise as being very detailed depictions of biblical scenes. (My wife would add “scantily clad” to my description.) After an hour and a half, I was feeling a bit uninspired and I went with my (now bored) wife to get a latté and a slice of cake, and as they had carrot cake, carrot cake it was.

I headed back up to look at more modern art, and headed into the 16th and 17th Century art and came across Rubens‘ paintings. A beautiful landscape, with gorgeous use of colour and shadow. The painting next to it had very similar style, and I looked at it and decided it was also by Rubens. I was satisfied to read the card and find it was another Rubens landscape. The third painting along afforded the same satisfaction.

Behind me, I saw another painting, another landscape, but this was different. Trees and sky and the rest, but different contrast, different colours, different shadows. It couldn’t be a Rubens, and I was satisfied when I read the card to find it was a Jordaens (no relation).

Some (perhaps more right brained) photographers have already developed visual styles to the point where people recognise their photographs before knowing who took them. My goal over the next few months is to take photographs of a style that I want to shoot, and I’ll be letting you know a little more in the near future.

Engagement shoot with Matt and Jemma

About a week or so ago I was up at Wittenham clumps with Matt and Jemma for an engagement shoot. Seeing as I get asked a lot, I’ll explain what an engagement shoot is and why we include it for every couple. I want to give every couple fantastic wedding pictures, be it posed portraits or candid shots. One of the most important ways to get better pictures is to get the bride and groom to be comfortable around a photographer, and an engagement shoot ticks that box in a big way.

Because I got to set the date of the shoot, I chose Wittenham clumps at golden hour on the day of a full moon. It’s a picturesque area with fantastic views, and we were very lucky with the light. There was a bit of cloud around which helped when I wanted the light to be more diffuse, but also golden and direct when that’s what we wanted.

I went with three images in mind, and came away with two as I wanted and we adapted another, as I’ll explain.

When we got there, the light was stunning and I was really excited to get started. The first image I had in mind was a natural light portrait with the grass in the fields as negative space. The result you can see below:


Nice and simple, naturally posed. With the sun behind them however, I couldn’t keep any detail in the sky. To do that, I climbed the hill a bit so the background was south, that way the sky stayed blue.



The light here is gorgeous with the sun playing detail light on the hair and some side light, plus we’re bouncing that light back in with a reflector. We shot quite a few like this, but this is concept one covered and done. We varied the posing a little, varied the position, but they are all natural light plus reflector.

Concept two was moonlit portraits. I knew the moon was coming up at 9:20, so at about 9pm we started setting up the light. The concept is as follows: the moon isn’t bright enough to provide a decent rim light, but I was going to emulate that with a bare flash behind them. Front light was to be provided by an umbrella, up and above them. Two flashes, cross lit, then exposed for the moon. All we had to do was wait for the moon, so while I was waiting:


More of a head and shoulders crop on this one. You can see the flash in the background in Jemma’ hair, and if you look really carefully, on Matt’s neck. I wanted to lift them off the background. The front light with the umbrella gives good details and soft shadows on the skin.

We also did this cute picture of Matt and Jemma holding hands across the flash which looked great as well: I did have to edit out my light stand but otherwise it looks fantastic.


This turned out to be Matt and Jemma’s favourite shot, so well worth doing.

After this, we waited a bit for the moon to rise in the east, not getting nervous at all (!), and eventually through the layers of cloud and atmosphere a pink lazy moon slowly rose. We applied exactly this set up with the moon in the background:


Great, except the moon wasn’t sharp. I was using my 70-200mm, and I tried everything but I was just asking too much, even at 70mm. If I’d had my 50mm lens with me, I might have gotten away with it, but I couldn’t get that moon sharp with Matt and Jemma sharp as well.

By this time, it had gotten pretty late, and we’d spent almost two hours taking pictures. I had another concept in mind, but I ditched it when I got something else instead. I wanted to try  sun flare in an image that was flash lit, and it turned out better than I could ever have expected, which was a nice surprise:


I have that third concept in mind for another time.

What was great for me was to be able to relax around Matt and Jemma, and to notice how they relaxed as well. On the wedding day, we will all be rushed, moving from one place to the next, and the pressure will be on. I don’t get a chance to meet and know the bride and groom in that environment, so if I’ve only just met you, we have a tough job on our hands to create a rapport, an ambience where we can make beautiful photographs. The engagement shoot is about taking that pressure away, creating a time and space to relax in and make some great pictures. The couples relax, and the time flies.

High Dynamic Range

I recently wrote a post about exposure and dynamic range in a scene. Well, sometimes, you can’t hold all the detail that exists in a scene in one picture, simply because the range of tones in that scene is wider than the range that the camera sensor is capable of registering.

To dive into that a little bit, a camera sensor is capable of registering a range of tones, in fact it registers 256 tones from black to white. Those are shades of grey on a digital sensor they’re registered as bits of information, as 0s and 1s, that a computer then interprets and shows on a screen. We often refer to the range of tones in a scene as contrast, and it is determined by the light that hits the scenes and the difference between the light areas and the dark areas.

Consider the photos below as an example:

Consider the contrast here in this scene

Consider the contrast here in this scene

This is the image as taken with no edits made. I took it because it made me laugh: whoever erased the VEHI from the sign left text that simply says “Police bums”. I want to draw your eyes here to the contrast in the scene. The bright area that is lit is well detailed because the exposure is good for the highlights. We still see detail in the shadows behind the signs, so detail is retained in the whole of the scene, despite the contrast being quite strong.

When I take an exposure, I am thinking about not letting the lit areas go to white, or the shadow area go to black. The reason this is important is because the tone and colour information is lost when something registers as pure white or pure black.

For example, the grey of the brick in the sunlight is a different grey to the brick in the shade, and the camera registers them as different values. If I overexposed the lit brick where it registered only as white, all the detail would be lost. The same is true if I underexposed and the shadow detail is lost.

If you’re interested, and you use editing software, the “best” way to shoot is to overexpose the image until you almost have blown highlights, then correct the exposure in post – this gives you an incorrect exposure in camera but gives you the greatest detail and lowest noise in the image.

So I was faced with the following scene, and this was the first exposure I created:

Correctly exposed picture

Correctly exposed picture

So this is the scene – the light is fading slightly and the sun is going down. I wanted to keep some of the colours in the sky, which looked gorgeous to my eye, but because I’ve had to overexpose the sky to maintain some detail in the shadows of the trees, neither the shadows or the lit areas are correctly exposed, and there’s nothing I can do about it in a single frame. (Technically, this isn’t true, but it’s the subject of another blog post).

So I want to be able to recover all that gorgeous detail: what can I do? Photoshop and other software allows you to merge two or more exposure into one, where more detail is retained. The technique is simple, in a scene, shoot a variety of exposure, depending on what you want to correctly exposed. I took three images. This was the first, I took a second one that was underexposed but had the sky correctly exposed, and a third image that was overexposed but was correctly exposed for the trees. I took that into my HDR software which is Photomatix Pro (there is a trial version which is free to use but adds a watermark to the image) and the result is below:

Now that's how I remember the sky.

Now that’s how I remember the sky.

As you can see, the scene has come alive! The greens of the trees are as I saw them and the rich oranges and blues in the sky are beautifully recreated. Overall, I think the saturation is a bit much for this image, but the technique is nicely demonstrated.

The sharp eyed among you will have spotted the ghost on the left, a gentleman who was in all three of the exposure and who I haven’t “deghosted” out, but I could spend some more time on that if I wanted. I’d also clone out the red traffic light on the right as it is distracting.

What HDR allows you to do is amplify the dynamic range of your sensor and reduce the contrast in the scene. It’s great for landscape and travel photos like this, and I like to use it to show what my eye could see rather than what the camera can capture.

Light fall off

I spent a long time thinking about exposure while I was on holiday, and thinking about why we like to avoid blown highlights and shadows.

As a bit of background, in a given exposure, you have highlights and shadows. The highlights are the bit that the light hits, and the shadows are, err, the shadow bits, where the light doesn’t hit. Or hits less.

When we look at a scene it can either seem bright or dark. But our eyes (and really, our brains) can keep detail everywhere. Unless there is a huge difference between the brightest and the darkest parts in our vision (like when you look at the sun), our eyes can usually see detail everywhere.

Camera sensors can’t do this as well as our eyes and brain do, so we need to help the camera sometime by removing very bright parts of the scene, or by adding light (flash) to the darkest parts.

I wanted to show you this photo, taken in Almería, Spain. It’s actually inside the building where my parents in law live.


The dynamic range here is pretty large. Light pours into the top of the building 11 floors up. and bounces around on it’s way down. The exposure here is spot on – any darker and I’d lose shadow detail to the black, any brighter and I’d lose highlights to white at the top.

This is an excellent example because you can see the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows, but more importantly, you can see how that the light falls away as it gets further and further down.

Notice also how you can see some detail in all of the wall stripes.

Next time you take a picture, see how much contrast is in the scene, and if you can control it in one picture.

Simplifying the workflow

I’ve just arrived in Spain on holiday, and as a holiday, I actually don’t plan to shoot that much. Most holidays I go on I have a couple of places in mind where I want to go and take pictures. This time, I need a rest, and I definitely didn’t want to bring much gear. So I had to have a think about how I edit the few photos that I may take.

The last time I was on holiday in Spain my parents were still living here, so I could piggy back on their wifi, and also they even had a screen I could use with my mac mini. My parents have now repatriated themselves, so I didn’t have that option. My wife’s parents have wifi but no extra screen. In any case, I didn’t want to bring the mac mini, so I needed another option.

Last Thursday, we were at Blenheim Palace, and I posted this photo on my Facebook page. It’s a nicely composed but harshly lit scene of the river.

The lake at Blenheim Palace

The lake at Blenheim Palace

Now, as were in the middle of moving, I wanted to post a picture, but I wanted to recover the shadows, darken the overexposed sky and just add a little saturation. So I uploaded the picture (taken on the Sony a58) to my wife’s laptop, from there to the NAS drive we have. I downloaded it to the iPad, then edited in snapseed.

Snapseed is a great little app for editing on the fly, which I hadn’t used for a long time, and it took me a little time to get back in to, but the edit took me about 5 minutes and most of that was figuring out how to use it again.

I liked the final output from snapseed, after all this is just a snapshot that I wanted to edit before posting on Facebook, and we all know that what you post on Facebook belongs to Facebook. Also, there seems to be some jpeg artefacts in the sky, but otherwise I’m happy enough with it. I got to thinking about how I could streamline even further and post images to the web faster.

I have a Toshiba Flashair card that will transmit via Wifi to a phone, and fortunately my phone provider three recently added Spain to it’s list of countries where you can use your minutes as if you were in the UK, which is great as I have unlimited internet.

So, while shooting, I should be able to take a picture with the D-SLR, transmit to the iPad, edit on the bigger screen, then upload by tethering the iPad to the iPhone for the upload. If I wasn’t fussed about the big screen, I could send to the iPhone on Wifi and upload using the 3G/4G network.

I’ll probably take it out this morning for some street shooting and give it a go.

better light

Next time you take a picture of something, rather than just pulling out your phone and taking a picture of it from where you see it, take your time with it. By take your time, I mean if you have 2 minutes to change one thing, take the 2 minutes; if you have an hour, you can change everything.

Say you have two minutes, and you can change one thing: then change the light. Photography has to take a three dimensional object and compress it into a two dimensional image. Better photographs tell us more about the object through better lighting.

Here’s the trick: for better pictures, you don’t want brighter lights, you want bigger lights. Find the biggest window in your house, ideally south facing, and stand so one side of your face is nearer to the window than the other. Try changing the angle a bit to change the shadows on one side of your face, to give a gentle shadowy look. Try and keep the background as simple as possible and bang, better selfies straight away.

How to trigger an off-camera flash without using a wireless flash trigger (or a cable)

Imagine you’ve just turned up at your all important shoot where you’ll be using flash. You have your flash guns, your light stands and modifiers. All you’ve forgotten is the wireless trigger! So you go home, everyone is sad, and the world ends the next day.

If only there were a way to fix it…

Well, there is, and it’s a simple one.

Your manual flash has various modes, one of which is called “slave” mode. What slave mode means is that the flash will trigger as soon as it sees another flash. In traditional flash photography, when using two lights, typically you set one to be triggered wirelessly, and any others can be set to slave mode and they will trigger when the first flash fires.

So set your flash to slave mode, and we’re going to trigger it with another flash. Your pop-up flash.

“Yuck”, you cry, “no one uses the pop-up flash, the light it creates is hard and flat.” True, but we’re going to dial it back until we can’t see it. Go into the camera’s menu (read the manual if you need to) and dial back the flash power to minimum. You may find it helpful to lower the flash exposure compensation to the lowest it will go. We don’t want the light from the pop-up flash to illuminate the scene, just to trigger our main flash.

So, I demonstrated this with a shot of the Canon AE-1. From the test shot with the slave flash switched off, you can see that the only light is a reflection in the lens from the flash.

Pop up flash only shot

Now I switch on my main flash, set to slave.

With main flash on.

With main flash on.

So job done. Let’s go through it again, step by step.

1. Set your main flash to “slave” mode, and set it up as usual.

2. Open up the pop-up flash.

3. Set the camera’s pop-up flash to its minimum power.

4. Switch your main flash off, and check that the pop-up flash is barely visible.

5. Turn the main flash on again, check the exposure and fire away.