Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Trio of Pics

Ok, so there are tons of photo techniques and everyone has there likes and dislikes. Personally, I've had a thing for HDR for a while and now I'm keen to get the ND10 working a bit better. Actually, I think that the wide angle is the problem as it makes everything in the distance so small. Therefore clouds and distant hills etc seem tiny and this screws up the composition a bit.

Anyway, I thought you lot could decide what you like out of the three types of shots I would normally take.

First up is the "normal" shot. This was taken on a tripod on aperture priority at f10 and the camera chose to shoot at 1/50th of a sec. It was set on Matix exposure and you can see that it's done a not bad job of exposing everything quite well. However, it was still quite early in the morning and the sky was much brighter than the foreground and the detail in the rock is lost and even with fill light (in Adobe Camera Raw) I've not really been able to save the shadows. This can be a major issue with photography as I'm sure you might have noticed - shadows become silhouettes and bright parts of the photo can become almost white so all detail is lost in the highlight. You can manually "lock" your exposure when taking the picture in most DSLRs now using a button that says "AE-L" somewhere on the camera. Once you've focused on the main subject of the picture you can then press and hold the AE-L button to lock the exposure on that object and the camera will expose that correctly. Other options include using "spot metering" or "centre weighted metering" modes which will be in your manual. They are a bit tricky to use and if you've ever read Ken Rockwell's blog you'll know that he's a big advocate of just shooting in Matrix mode and nothing else. I guess it's the exposure version of "auto" mode.

Next up is the ND10 filter. This is a bit of black glass that blocks out 99.9% of light and therefore even in strong light you can coax the camera into keeping it's shutter for a really long time. This shot was a 30 second exposure. Over that length of time the movement in the water smooths out and the clouds can end up looking like they are streaming across the sky (not really happening in this one as they were moving too slowly). The other advantage of this style is that people and other moving objects disappear as they are not in the same place for long enough to register their photons on the sensor. Would you believe that a swan cruised past the front of this shot without leaving a trace. Cool eh? The main advantage of this type of filter is that it allows you to take long exposures and that gives you the sort of effect that you would get at night. However, at night time there isn't enough white light around to give good colour and that's when the ND10 comes into it's own. I'm still after that "special" shot with this filter but I'll keep at it.

Finally, my favorite, the HDR shot. High dynamic range is a real love-hate thing. Many of the photographers out there hate it and think that it's a cheats way to turn a badly exposed and poorly composed picture into something that has a real "wow" factor. I'm more and more tending to agree that HDR can be a cheap fix however lately I've seen more and more examples of HDR being pushed to the limit. People have started to ignore the purists and have mastered all aspects of traditional photography and then HDR has allowed them to add something to the shot that makes it fly out of the screen/frame at you.

Regardless what you think, it still has some advantages. This shot (compared to the other) has more detail in the shadows and it has also make the picture a bit more eye catching. I agree that this can sometime be horrid but I think the skill of HDR it to make it subtle in a way that the haters end up going, "Hey, that's a great shot... wait a minute! That's HDR. How dare you."

To each their own, I suppose. Anyway, hope you like seeing the difference in these shots and perhaps trying several versions of the same scene will help you decide what style you like.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Home Studio

So this shot here looks like one of those fancy brochure pictures but actually it's quite simple to do.

This is something that puzzled me for a while - how do you make the background and the table disappear from the shot? I'd tried loads of variations of curved paper and home made soft boxes but nothing gave the result I was looking for. I'd also played about with the exposure settings and various other software tweaks but I really wasn't getting anywhere. Then I spotted a picture of how this is carried out and gave it a shot. The answer? Well the glass is resting on a sheet of perspex with a white backdrop and various forms of lighting cause the "white" elements to fall away.

So here's a pic of my set up. Simple enough? It should be but B&Q don't seem to stock perspex so I used a sheet of glass from a picture frame. Gave the same effect but I wouldn't want to use it too often in case I dropped something on it and smashed it. The light for the shot comes from one flash set to slave mode and I was using the onboard flash as a commander unit (one major plus for Nikon over Canon which can't do this on most of their cameras). There is a reflector to bounce back some light and there is also a workman's light which is pretty cool as it'll clamp onto most things and most angles.

There are some issues with this set up, namely a white wall would be far better as there was lot of wrinkles in the sheet that showed up before processing. Also the lamp I have is only 120W and most studios use 400 - 500W lamps. An probably the most important issues is CLEAN THE GLASS!!! This glass was boggin' and I didn't notice it until I zoomed in on the pic. Then had to spend ages editing out my grubby finger prints etc.

So hope that gives you something to try with the camera indoors when it's raining outside - which is frequently the case in Scotland.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

More Leading Lines

This post is just a quick follow on from the previous "Leading Lines" post. In all honesty I just really wanted to post this shot as I totally love it. In fact, it's already in a frame on the wall in the kitchen.

This is the Palacio Da Pena in the hills of Sintra in Portugal. It's an incredible place to visit and I totally recommend it. I could have spend weeks in this one spot taking pictures of the palace's crazy architecture. Also it's a real HDR-users paradise: interesting skies, wonderful foreground and complex structures. It's just awesome.

Anyway, the point of this post was to show how the wall leads the eye into the main part of the picture which is the palace itself. Another example of leading lines. What I have noticed though is that the lines seem to work better if they start in one of the lower corners of the picture instead of the middle.

Project: try taking a picture of some tram lines or rail way tracks and see if the end result is better with the lines in the middle of the picture or off to the side.

Flash antics

I'm told that the most important things in photography (apart from talent and skill) are...

  1. The camera

  2. The lenses

  3. The lighting

At least that's what the counter monkey at a local camera shop told me when he was trying to get me to spend a voucher I had on a flash gun. I don't know that they necessarily go in that order but he was probably right although I'm sure I could think of a few other things that are more important like "Did I remember to bring a packed lunch with me?" and, "are there toilets near the shoot?"

Seriously though, flash guns are really worth looking into. They take a bit of getting used too and I'm still pretty poor at using mine. Have a look at the link to "The Strobist" on the side bar and see just how versatile and useful they can be.

What I suggest is the following --> Set up a wee studio like this...

One tripod is for the flash and the other is for the camera. On top of the table is some black paper and I've set up a little still life that contains some random coins and notes (which, alas, are now defunct thanks to the Euro!)

Have a bit of a think how you would like the ambient light to hit the scene. I've got this placed in such a way that the light from the window isn't really a factor in the picture. The reason for this is that I want the flash as the main source of light and I want control over that. If it was a ridiculously bright day outside I'd have it miles from the window, perhaps in another darker room for this experiment. Sadly, it's grey and raining outside.

So the next thing to do is start playing about with all the settings on both the camera and the flash and see what effects you can achieve. I also have a few attachments that I've built for the front of the flash like a diffuser (made from cardboard and a folded up opaque sandwich bag) and a grid-spot (made from cardboard and straws). There's plenty of websites that can show you how to make these for pennies.

Just a quick dig at the Canon users out there... Most of the Nikon DSLRs work as commander units for flash guns and can fire them remotely without the need for a cable - Canon can't unless you have the top end models. Just set the flash unit to "slave" and the camera's inbuilt flash to "commander" and you're laughing (although remember to also set the camera's own flash to the "--" position or you'll have 2 flashes going).

Here are a series of shots using various changes to the flash (although all taken at 1/16th power). The effects are subtle but if you were to translate these to shoot portraits etc then they can become quite dramatic.

This shot has no flash. The ambient light is diffuse and there are no harsh shadows but it lacks focus and makes the image quite poor. Also the wrinkles and folds in the black tissue paper I've used are very obvious and quite distracting especially in the background. You could probably rescue this by reducing the power of the flash but mine only goes down to 1/16th so I'm stuck. A bit of Photoshop work might also have helped here.

This shot has the flash pointing down from the left of camera at about 45 degrees. The flash has pretty much ruined the shot. The shadows are harsh and this is particularly noticeable on the tissue paper crinkles. Also the metallic nature of the coins means that they are reflecting a lot of the light in the form of glare.

Again the flash is pointing down from the left at about 45 degrees with the diffuser on. You can see that the shadows are less hard and also there is now less available light (due to the thickness of my sandwich bag) so the black paper is less "lit up" and now the focus of the picture is moving more to the money.

This shot is the same as the others but I've put the grid-spot on the flash. It makes a huge difference by narrowing the light that comes out of the flash and focusing it on the center of the picture. The black paper is almost completely black now and the eye is drawn to the object of interest instead of the rest of the frame.

Click here to see a great blog post by QH Photography on how the grid-spot works and the amazing affect it can have on your pictures.

So was the guy at the camera shop correct? Probably. However, flashes are really tough to get to grips with. I would suggest that you probably shouldn't be using a flash gun until you understand the "manual" setting of your camera. Having said that you can always put it on the horse shoe and set everything to TTL (through-the-lens). That means that the camera will make most of the lighting decisions for you and won't let the flash over expose the image. Pretty nifty.

Project: buy/borrow a flash gun and try some stuff on a little home made studio like the one in the first picture. Once you've done that, hang a black sheet on a wall and get a willing volunteer to pose for some shots and see if you can get anywhere near the impressive quality of QH Photography or The Strobist.

Good luck!


So your back's against the wall and the lens you are using won't go any wider but you really want to capture more of the scene in front of you.

What are your options?

1. Buy a wider lens
2. Knock down the wall and take a few more steps back (probably not practical)


3. Take more that one picture and join them together.

Please excuse the fact that I've used my cluttered kitchen but it's pouring outside today so it'll have to do... but here is a pic taken with the 35mm f1.8 lens.

As I'm sure you realise, this lens has no zoom function and is a "prime" lens so it is fixed at 35mm and can't give you a wider shot (unless I was to take a few more step backwards).

So instead I took 9 shots (3 top, 3 middle and 3 bottom) making sure each one over lapped with the next one. Then I went to Photoshop Elements 8 and did the following...

  1. Goto "File" --> "New" --> "Photoshop Photomerge"

  2. Click "Browse" and select your pictures. As I said, I used 9 here but you can use as mew or as many as you like. I saw a 57 image photomerge once!

  3. Click "OK" and Photoshop should start trying to piece everything together.

Here is the result...

Instant wide angle! OK, so it's not instant and takes a wee bit of processing. Also you have to crop the result too as Photoshop will create weird shapes with each pic to try and keep the perspective correct. The whole thing works best if you have at least 20% overlap so bear that in mind when you're lining up your shots.

Anyway, give it a shot but just start with two or three pics before you start trying some crazy 100 image of the Himalayas.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Leading Lines

There's always some blurb in photo mags and web sites about this. Often you'll post a picture on and someone will post "nice leading lines" but to start with I had no idea what they were on about.

Yes it's obvious that they are talking about a "line" or "lines" in the picture and that they "lead" somewhere, but what's the point of them? Well they really can add something to a picture. They provide depth and 3-dimensionality to a shot and should act to draw the eye into the picture. Often this is from the foreground to the background (or to the main object in the shot) and this makes the picture more interesting.

This picture of the Tomar aqueduct in Portugal shows how the foreground part of the picture catches your eye and then the line or the aqueduct leads into the picture and almost forces you to look deeper into the frame. It's one of those composition things that the people in the know go on about but to be honest I've noticed that loads of folk use this in their shots without even realizing. I guess that's testament to how much they can improve a photography.

Project: Try it with roads, fences, railings, logs, railway tracks, etc.


Monday, July 5, 2010


This is just a quicky!

Sometimes you take a picture and the lights or the sun in the picture form a star like shape. How does that happen? Well my understanding of it is that if you use a very narrow aperture (f22 or higher) then the light "sprays" through the small gap caused by the blades of the lens. It's almost like the opposite of what you are trying to get with bokeh and a wide aperture (which gives you blurry round lights in the background of photos).

Anyway, this shot was taken at 15mm f20 1/125th sec. The high f-number causes a narrow aperture and the light from the sun sprays out like a star. It's quite a nice effect but bear in mind the following...

1. Narrow aperture requires bright light or a tripod (for slower shutter speeds)
2. Depth of field lost with high f-numbers
3. Looking through the view finder at the sun is just stupid. Use Live View instead.

You can see here I've used some of the dappling from the trees to reduce the light coming from the sun or else I would have ended up with completely silhouetted trees and hand.

Go and have a shot just now. Try it on some spot lights first at f 5.6 and then f20 and see the difference.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nice day for a... wet wedding!

So I was shooting a wedding last weekend and number of issues came up that are worth mentioning and what I did for each of those situations. To set the scene, it was supposed to be a fully outdoor wedding in a large open space which really is a dream come true for the photographer - loads of room to move around in, reportage-style, candids etc would have worked amazingly for the whole shoot. However, by 4pm the heavens opened and everyone ended up indoors in a narrow converted barn which posed a few photographic challenges...

Problem: Rain

This is the photographer's worst enemy as it can not only ruin your equipment but can also spoil the shots. First you can get water on the lens and this needs to be moved post production in PS etc. But worse for the wedding party/guests, their outfits/mood/patience etc can be hampered and it makes the shots difficult to create.


I always have an umbrella in the car. An assistant sometimes helps with this although I can wedge it into my backpack and it keeps me and the camera dry (plastic bags and elastic bands help with this too). Use your lens hood which may stop a few drops hitting the lens. Always point the camera down when not using it. Use the cap in between shots. Do the portraits etc quickly and slickly (but at the same time try not to look rushed). Have your shot program to hand to facilitate the speed of the shots. Finally you might have to accept that things need to be moved in doors so have a backup shot plan if that happens.

Problem: Poor Indoor Lighting

This is always an issue so you have to be aware of your camera's limitations and what you can do to get the most out of it and what you can and can't fix in post production. High ISO, large apertures and slow shutter speeds all generate further problems.


TRIPOD!!! This is a must. It keeps everything steady and reduces shake at slower shutter speeds. I also use a remote to activate the camera without having to touch it. I try never to go about ISO 1600 as I know that the noise the camera generates above this becomes difficult to remove in post production. Large apertures are worth trying but can cause "soft" images and aren't as sharp wide open so try not to open them fully and accept that the shutter speed has to be slower to counter this - which may result in blurry pictures from moving/animated subjects. To get around this pay close attention to your subject and wait till you think they are about to hold still then fire off a burst of shots. It's not an exact science but you should get one or two usable images each time.

Using a Flash Gun is also worth thinking about. However, don't buy today and shoot tomorrow (as with all equipment) as you'll just get frustrated when you realise you don't how to work it. I personally hate flash images but I reckon that's because I'm not very good at them. I do have one setting that works well...

35mm (prime) at 1/60th sec f4 and ISO 400 with 1/8th power on the flash. Seems to give good shots each time. But remember to "bounce" the flash off a white wall or ceiling or use a diffuser to try and stop harsh shadows. Also a tripod is not really possible as you need to be mobile so remember to "tripod" yourself on a wall or knee to steady the shot.

Problem : Distance to Subject

Sometimes you can end up so far from the people you are photographing that you have to be quite inventive to get anything worth using. At one point at this wedding I was about 40ft from the top table and there was no way to get closer due to the other tables. Being so far away requires long focal lengths and the amount of shake is mental. The distance is not the only problem here but also the lighting because you can't use flash beyond certain distances.


See my points about having a tripod and then scrap the one you were going to buy and buy the best one you can afford. It's probably going to last longer than any other bit of kit you have so it's worth investing. I shot quite a few pics at 200mm and it took a good few seconds for the shake/vibrations to settle down each time I moved the camera. Also bear in mind that loud speakers/amplifiers will cause vibrations and shake will take place in your pictures so try to take your shots in between rounds of applause etc. Again use a remote.

Also scout the location in advance so you at least have an idea about where you will and won't be able to get to with the camera. If needs be, get set up way before the speeches and wait it out until they start so you can get the interesting shots.

On this particular occasion I shot most of the speeches at 150-200mm with ISO 800-1600 and 1/40 - 1/30th and just had to accept the limitations of the equipment and resort to post production "fixes" which, although not ideal, seemed to work out OK. Beware again how noise reduction software can make your pictures "soft" and they lose sharpness.

Anyway, I hope that's useful. It's certainly worth considering all of this in advance of an important shoot as you often only get one chance to get the "must have" shots.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Colour Selection

This is something I get asked about a fair amount. It actually is really quite easy and only takes a couple of minutes to do. There are several ways but here is the easiest (I think). Here's how...

1. Open your picture in any photoshop program
2. Right click on the layer in the right hand palate and select "duplicate layer"
3. There should now be 2 layers in the palate.
4. Make the top layer Black and White
5. Use the eraser tool to "rub out" any bits that you want the colour to show through.
6. Goto "layer" and flatten image then save your work


ND10 Trickery

So you know how much I love my ND10 filter. Well I've discovered another thing it does brilliantly - it makes things disappear!

Confused? I'll explain. The next shot shows a shot of the Bass Rock off the Coast of Scotland (click on the images for a larger version).

Nice enough eh? I mean, I guess some of the charm of the Bass Rock is all those seagulls and gannets swirling around it and it's lovely white colour from all the guano! Well what would it look like without the birds? Have a look...

Voila! They've all gone. The second shot is a 30 second exposure with the ND10 filter. Everything that's moving doesn't stay in one place long enough to create an image on the sensor. "Ghosts" can be created by slow moving things or things that stop for a bit before moving on but these are easily removed by the clone or heal tool in any processing software.

Neat trick though!

Adobe Lightroom 3.2 beta

Adobe has released it's latest version of Lightroom in beta test format which is free to download until the full commercial version is available... and it's brilliant! It has all the usual RAW editing stuff but one of the things that I personally think is awesome is the gradient facility.

Bright sky is usually about 2 stops of light brighter than foreground and that makes it difficult to expose for both in the same shot. One of the best ways is using a graduated filter stuck to the front of the lens. What that does is block out some of the light from the upper portion of the picture and brings sky's exposure to that of the foreground. Therefore when you take the shot you can retain a lot of detail in the sky that would normally be washed out (or "blown out highlights" as those in the know call it). If you have a look at some of your previous pictures with sky in it (where the sky is not the major feature) you'll see that often that portion of the picture is completely white and over exposed.

So what do you do if you haven't got these filters?

Personally, I under-expose the shot slightly and then in Lightroom drag down the gradient filter effect. This means I can pull back some of the details that would have been previously lost. This shot is prior to using the gradient.

After application of the filter...

Makes quite a difference doesn't it? The icon is on the right hand side of the "Develop" module underneath the histogram and I hope you get the chance to try it out.

Monday, May 24, 2010

ISO and Noise

ISO in a nutshell is how sensitive your sensor is. In days gone by it was a measure of how sensitive your film was. ISO 100 was for shooting in bright light and ISO 800 or 1600 was for shooting in darker conditions. Point-and-shoot cameras often don't let you play with this and the camera chooses for you but it is an integral part of DSLR settings.

The main purpose for increasing ISO is usually to do with camera-shake. If conditions are getting darker then increasing the ISO makes the film (or sensor) more sensitive and therefore it picks up more light at a faster rate and therefore the shutter speed can be reduced - which helps prevent camera-shake.

Sounds great? Well yes, but there is a trade off as always and that's "noise".

Noise is something people don't really notice until it's pointed out to them... certainly, I didn't. After reading this go and have a look at some pics you've taken in low light conditions and you'll see it when you zoom in. In some cases it can be quite obvious.

Here is an example. These pictures were taken in a restaurant under relatively low light without a flash. The first picture was taken at ISO 200 with f3.5 and a resultant shutter speed of 1/10th of a second. The picture below that was shot at ISO 3200 and f3.5 and allowed a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.

Obviously the shutter speed of the second picture in much faster and so it's less likely to show camera shake as the chances of you moving the camera much in 1/250th of a second is highly unlikely. However if you compare the 2 close-ups of each picture you will see a grainy artifact on the ISO 3200 picture. That is noise.

Personally, I try to shoot in the lowest ISO possible. Normally, I have the camera locked at ISO 100 or 200 but I never let it go above 800 as the noise on the D90 is quite noticeable above this. There is software to remove noise but the results vary. Therefore my advice would be use as low an ISO as you can and add a flashgun if need be.

Or carry a tripod/monopod with you everywhere to prevent camera shake!!!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

35mm f1.8 vs 50mm f1.8

So I love my 50mm lens. I've told you before why it's a great purchase but essentially here are the reasons in a nutshell...

1. Cheap
2. Wide aperture and great bokeh
3. Good in low light
4. Weighs nothing
5. Superb for portraits

However, the problem with the crop sensor is that it magnifies the 50mm to 75mm which really is quite zoomed in and I found that at parties and nights out (where this lens should come into it's own) the pictures were too close and I was having to stand miles away which can be an issues in a busy restaurant etc. Also, in properly low light the lens would struggle unless the ISO was boosted - sometimes to unusable levels e.g. 3200.

What were the choices (aside from buying a flashgun)?

Well I decided that the 50mm f1.4 was prohibitive from a cost point of view (>£300) and it still didn't solve the problem of being too close. So I had a rethink and decided to go for the Nikon 35mm f1.8 for about £160.

This didn't solve the low light problem as the aperture was still only f1.8 max (or so I thought) but it did mean I would have a wider amount included in each picture. With the cropped sensor it still equated to 52.5mm but that was greatly improved on the adjusted focal length of the original 50mm.

That was reason enough but I'd also read some reviews saying that it had better colour and contrast than the 50mm so after it arrived (today) I decided to put it to the test.

Here is a series of pictures taken at different apertures in low light. I fixed the ISO at 200 and let the camera choose the speed (not much of a difference there).

I think the most immediate thing that stands out is in fact the contrast and the colour like that review said (and how consistent the 35mm is). At f4 there isn't much of a difference but at either extremes there is huge differences. Although the shutter speed is much the same for both lenses and probably won't help much in low light conditions there is a massive difference in how "usable" the pictures are.

I also noted (although it's hard to see on this blog) that the bokeh with the 35mm (especially at f1.8) is far superior and much more aesthetically pleasing. The 50mm blur is super soft at that aperture and, blown up, looks terrible.

A final point is that the 50mm needed a 35cm minimum distance from the subject to take the picture whereas I could still focus at 20cm with the 35mm which just gives a bit more flexibility.

So all in all I think it was a good purchase and I don't think I'll be using the 50mm again. Having said that, the 35mm is for DX sensors and the 50mm can be used with both a cropped and full-frame sensor so if I ever get round to buying a Nikon D3x or something insane like that then at least I'll have one lens I can use!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Circular Polariser

I'll not go into the optics of these and telling you how they work is a bit pointless - except that they work best at 90 degrees to the sun and reduce the light coming into your camera by about 2 stops.

What you need is to actually see the difference between a picture taken with the filter and one without. Both of the following pictures have been taken as JPEGs in camera with no post processing.

This is the original without the filter. It's OK but the sky is boring and the sea has a lot of glare.

This is with the polariser on. You can immediately see that the sky has changed to a more contrasty blue and the clouds are more interesting. The sea has lost it's glare and again becomes a deeper blue. The overall image is more pleasing and it's one of the very few effects that Photoshop has trouble replicating. If you are ever going to buy a filter this is the one.

One thing I would say is not to buy a cheap one as they don't work that well and it's a total waste.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Crop Factor

It's taken me a while to figure out what the difference between a full frame sensor and a cropped sensor is. There is loads of detail on line about these 2 types of sensor but I think what mattered most to me was to do with wide angle shots and zoom lenses.

A few months ago I bought the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and a mate of mine stated that actually it was 105-300mm on my camera. It took me ages to understand what he was going on about and it wasn't until I stumbled onto a picture like the one below that it finally made sense.

This piture was taken in Puerto Banus in Spain and shows the famous "La Concha" mountain. If you imagine that the full picture is what a 35mm film camera would take. It's also what a full frame sensor would take. Cropped sensors are smaller so the area of light falling on the sensor is less. The red rectangle is the 1.5 crop of Nikon's cropped DX sensors and the green rectangle demonstrates the 1.6 crop factor of Canons smaller sensors. As I said before the 200mm becomes 300mm on the Nikon DX sensors (this would be 320mm on the Canon - since 1.6 x 200 = 320).

You can now see how a cropped sensor artificially increases your zoom since if you were to print all three pictures at 6 x 4 inches they would all contain slighty different amounts of the view. This is great from a zoom point of view but at the other end of the spectrum it can be a problem.

When you have a wide angle lens you like the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 and you are using it on a cropped sensor it actually becomes 16-24mm which means you don't get as much width as you would on a full frame. It can be frustrating but I guess it's something you have to put up with.

Comments and critisisms always welcome.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Filters are a useful aid to photographers. They come in many forms and essentially sit infront of your lens to either colour, darken or enhance your photograph.

The ND10 is a bit of a speciality filter and really takes a while to master - which I'm nowhere near yet. ND stands for Neutral Density and it blocks light without changing the colour that comes through the lens onto the sensor. The ND10 blocks ten stops of light which there for only lets in 0.1% of the light.

What's the point of this? Well it means that in broad day light you can keep the shutter open for ages. Normally this would make your shot completely white but with the filter in front you can easily do a 30 second shot without this happening. This has two significant effects.

First, clouds will move in that space of time creating some interesting skies. Secondly, water smooths out to give surreal textures. If you compare this shot with the first one you will see how different they are. This one was taken WITHOUT the ND10 filter and its more of a snapshot in time where as the upper picture really demonstrates the crazy effects you can pull off with this filter.

It's a nifty bit of kit but there are a few issues you should be aware of. It is so black that almost no light goes through and the camera really struggles to focus in autofocus mode. Sometimes, if it's bright enough and your camera has it, you can use Live View mode to focus but realistically you have to compose your shot first then put the filter on and take the shot. REMEMBER to turn off you auto focus after setting up the shot or else the camera will start trying to focus which you press the shutter and most likely it won't take the shot.

Another problem is that due to the super-dark nature of this filter it can't really be used long after sunset without having to leave the shutter open for minutes or longer. That presents another issue as you may then require a remote to lock the shutter open for more than 30 seconds - the tech and gadgetry of photography never ends I'm afraid. There are weaker filters that you can use, but alas I don't have any of those yet, but as soon as I do I'll post the results.

PS - A circular polariser can block 1 - 2 stops of light and can come in useful when the light is getting too low for the ND10 if you don't have any other filters.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


This term is used a lot in photography and it refers to out of focus background of blur. It's tied quite closely to depth of field but is more interested in the quality of the blur. In fact, some people would say that you get "good" bokeh and "bad" bokeh. I've never been to good at telling the difference as it really comes down to personal preference.

The easiest way to see an example of bokeh is to take a shot of someone at night time with street lights in the back ground as bokeh appears really easily from blurred highlights and distant lights. You'll see it all the time on TV as movie
cameras seem to be excellent at producing this.

The ideal bokeh should be perfect circles but this is very difficult with lower end lenses. Often the blades of the aperture cause pentagons and hexagons - you can see how my 50mm f1.8 has created decent blur but on closer inspection the would-be circles are actually heptagons by the seven blades of the lens.

It's also worth noting that too small or too large an aperture will cause bad bokeh. I'm not going to tell you why quite yet. Try experimenting with f4, f10 and f22 and see the difference for yourself. Remember, you are aiming for as perfect a circle as possible.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Depth of Field (DOF)

Depth if field is a bit of camera jargon that crops up all the time. Essentially it means the distance from the lens that is in focus. You control this using the aperture - a wide aperture e.g. f2.8 gives a very narrow DOF (I prefer to use "shallow") and a small aperture e.g. f20 gives a wide DOF (again I think "deep" makes more sense). It's confusing but the smaller the "f-number" the larger the aperture i.e. the hole through which the light passes into the lens.

This is much easier to demonstrate with some shots I've taken. Here for example I've used f2.8 and you can see that only the first dice is in focus.

This shot has been taken at f8.0 and already you can see that more of the dice are now in focus (please no comments about my incorrect use of die and dice!!)

This final shot has been taken with an aperture of f20 (or f22 - I can't remember) and it's pretty obvious that much more of the shot has come into focus.

Once you stop using auto mode, aperture priority is probably the next mode to get to know on your camera. There are a few basics to remember though. Larger f-numbers let in less light and your camera will normally compensate by decreasing the shutter speed. Unless the available light is bright your shutter speed will be very low and the camera shake will be noticeable.

Conversely, too large an aperture may cause abberations and fringing of ojects so your maximum aperture should normally be avoided in all but top end lenses. I'll talk more about these problems in another post.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


This is a very simple post.

I have a small rickety tripod and while it's good enough for the odd picture it's pretty bad if there is even the slightest bit of a breeze. Pictures are soft and shaky and now that I've started to experiment with long exposure work the tripod is proving to be truely dreadful.

So a word of advice - you've got a DSLR with more mega-pixels than you can shake a stick at and probably several lenses and a bunch of other kit which you've paid a pretty penny for. So don't buy a cheap tripod. I'm now taking most of my pictures on the tripod so what's the point in having one that ruins every picture?

With tripods you definitely get what you pay for but there is an element of name brand price hikes e.g. Manfrotto and Giottos. However they do make bullet-proof stuff but if you're going to pay less than £60-70 you're going to be looking for a new one in a few months time. Once you're in the £150 range you should be safe for a while - remember you might need the head to go with it.

One other thing to note is that tripods are designed for a certain weight maximums and once you start buying top end cameras and large lenses the weight piles on. Keep that in mind if you've got ambitions of being more than a casual clicker.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Macro Extension Tubes

There is some amazing macro photography out there. For the lay person, macro is that super-close photography that people normally associate with insects and flowers.

However, macro lenses can be confusing because lots and lots of lenses say "macro" on them and when you use them the picture isn't as close as you thought it was going to be. That's because when it comes to the lens itself macro simply means that it will focus at a distance of less than 100cm. So if you want to do proper zoomed-in ultra close-ups then you have to invest in a decent lens that might cost several hundred to several thousand pounds.

Or do you???

There is, infact, a way to cheat. Ok, so the results aren't quite as sharp and the kit is a bit more fidgity than a dedicated macro lens but you can take super-close-ups for the grand total of £5!!!

I managed to find a set of these macro extension tubes online for £5 (although you can pay upto £150 for name brand ones). The ones I got really are "no frills" but they do allow for from decent pics. The way they work is that they fit inbetween your camera and whatever lens you are using (a 50mm works well). This moves the lens slightly further away from the sensor and thus vastly increases the macro ability of the lens.

It works in the same way that a magnifying glass does - get someone to hold the magnifying glass infront for their eye and slowly move it away from their face and you'll see the size of their eye increases dramatically. The same thing happens with the lens - the further it moves away from the camera the more the magnification.

They do have the disadvantage that you have to be very very close to get your subject in order to get it in focus AND the depth of field is super narrow.

So if you are thinking of doing any macro work I suggest using these first. At least that way you'll not have wasted much cash and once you've got to grips with the techniques you can invest in some proper kit. I took this picture when I first got them last year and while it's not a great photo it does give you an idea as how close you can get - and this was with just one of the tubes as opposed to all three that came with it!

Bordering Photos

A lot of people don't like the look of borders round photographs. I tend to use them and to those folk that don't like them I would say - at least you should know how to do them! Anyway, enough folk have asked me how to do them so here's some chat on the subject.

There are several ways to create a border including several free programs on line. I tend to use one of photoshop's methods and I'll explain that techique here. You can also do this on Elements. Here are the steps for a 15 x 10in pic with border...

1. Open your pic
2. Decide what size you want - I tend to make all my pics 3:2 ratio (i.e. 6 x 4in or 15 x 10in etc)
3. Crop your pic slightly smaller than this e.g. 14 x 9in
4. Ctrl + A to select the remaining pic once you've cropped it
5. Ctrl + C to copy the pic
6. Choose the colour you want the border to be - on the bottom left of your screen there is a white square on top of a back square. The background one is the colour the border will be. Click it to change the colour BEFORE going any further as you can't change it later.
7. Then goto File --> New
8. In the new window that opens put 15 inches width and 10 inches height then click OK
9. Ctrl + V to paste the pic into the canvas
10. Goto Layer --> flatten image then save your pic.

You can also write in the border using the text tool etc.

Hope that helps.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

50mm f1.8

After buying a DSLR and playing about with the kit lens for a while people begin to ask the question "What should I buy next?" - at least I did.

Digital photography really is a gadget-fiend's paradise and if you are a bit geeky like me then you are in trouble. There is so many toys out there that you could go mental with choice. Camera bodies aside there are lenses, filters, remotes, tripods, monopods, SD cards, software, backpacks, flashguns and reflectors to name but a few of those toys.

My kit includes...

Nikon D90
Pansonic Lumix TZ5
Nikon 18-105mm VR f3.5-5.6
Nikon 50mm f1.8
Sigma 70-200 f2.8
Tokina 11-16mm f2.8DX
B+W ND10 filter
Hoya Circular Polariser

...and through these posts I'll tell you what I've bought and why. What I've bought might not suit you but hopefully some of my rantings might be of some use in helping you decide what to spend your pennies on. BEWARE - photography is very very addictive and can become very very expensive so try and put a great deal of thought into purchases before you spend anything. Most shops will let you try lenses etc before you buy them but you should also do some on-line research first.

Anyway, regardless of whether you use Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Sony (or any of the many other DSLR camera manufactures) most folk would probably agree that the first thing you should buy (after the camera itself) is a fixed 50mm lens. These are brilliant lenses for several reasons.

Firstly they are one of the cheapest lenses you can buy. This is of course dependant on the maximum aperture which can push the price right up e.g.

50mm f1.8 = £90
50mm f1.4 = £230
50mm f1.0 = £3000

Secondly, this is what's called a "fixed" or "prime" lens. That means it has no zoom function and keeps a constant focal length of 50mm. Your feet become the zoom and you have to move in close or walk far away to get the shot you want and that really teaches you composition. It's worth sticking this lens on for a couple of weeks and using nothing else.

Thirdly, because it has a wide aperture it lets in loads of light which means it performs well in low-light conditions. Also there is very little glass for the light to travel through which again helps make best use of the available light.

Forthly, because of the huge aperture you can get fantastic bokeh (background blur).

And finally, 50mm is equivalent to what they human eye sees and if you look through the view finder and then open the other eye you will see that objects are about the same size with both eyes. This means that shots with this lens look very "real". This is often referred to as a portrait lens probably because the results you get with it a aesthetically pleasing - perhaps on a subconscious level.

I'm sure there are several other reasons to buy this but I think most photographers will tell you that this is a great puchase and should be one of first.

PS - I also like it because it's tiny and there's always space for it in the bag!

Rule of Thirds

So this is a basic composition "Rule". I say rule but it's not really a rule, just some guidance. If you are stuck with the components of a picture then applying this guide can improve the composition - or so the folks in the know would say.

Here is a picture of the Lady's Tower in Elie in Fife. It's a reasonable example of this rule. Essentially you draw a grid in the viewfinder to create 2 vertical lines and 2 horizontal lines. You end up with 4 intersecting points and over one of those points you should position your main subject. Most cameras have grid that can be switched on and off in the view finder so that you don't have to guess.

Here's what the picture would look like with the grid switched on. You can see that the Tower is positioned over one of the intersections and some would say this makes for a better composition. These "rules" though, always come with the caveat that they are "meant to be broken". What you think looks best is really all that matters but keep an eye out for these tips and tricks as they can sometimes come in handy.

Hand Held HDR

Mostly HDR needs to be done on a tripod. That way the pictures perfectly align. Photomatix does, however, have the ability to be a bit forgiving and will do some aligning for you if the pictures don't overlap 100%.

So you see a great HDR opportunity but you don't have your tripod with you. What do you do? You can always balance the camera on something to keep it stead but sometimes that's not practical. However, if you have a relatively steady hand most DSLRs will let you do without a tripod.

They way to do this is to first set up the brackets - on the Nikon D90 there is a small button on the front left of the camera that says "BKT". You press and hold this and roll the dials to set the number of shots and how over or under exposed they are. I use 3 shots at +2, +0 and -0 which seems to serve me well.

Next you put your camera onto high speed repeat shooting. Make sure you have a flick through the menu section about this as the factory setting might be lower than the camera's maximum. Mine was set on 3 frames per second (fps) and I increased the value to 4fps. The object of this is to take all 3 pics in rapid succession. You are NOT a tripod and although you can brace yourself for the shots there will still be a small amount of movement between them. Using the fastest fps minimises this.

Next gently squeeze the button and click, click, click. You should have all three shots reasonably aligned. Stick them in Photomatix and you have your HDR result - hand held and not a tripod in sight.

On final point - sometime it's worth focusing first and then switching the auto-focus off before taking the shots. I've noticed that under certain conditions the camera will try and re-focus between shots and by the time it does you will have moved slightly and the shot's ruined.

Comments and chat as always appreciated.

HDR - High Dynamic Range

I am a total sucker for HDR - Here's some of my attempts.

Since I started taking pics this has been the technique that most of my mates have asked me about. There are several tutorials on line about how to do this and most of them probably make more sense than this post but this is my take on it and hopefully you'll understand my ramblings.

So why do HDR? Well it's all to do with "Stops of Light" Here's a great tutorial on light stops and what they mean. So you see from that tutorial that a stop of light is just an arbitary phrase that indicates the amount of light you are allowing the camera's sensor to see. Increase your aperture by one stop doubles the light available to the sensor and decreasing the aperture by one stop halves the light available. You can also alter this using shutter speeds and ISO settings - but that's a topic for another day.

Anyway the human eye can make out good detail over about 20 stops of light - that's why on a bright day you can see the detail in the grass and the trees but still see the detail in the sky and the clouds. A camera sensor is a bit rubbish in comparison to the eye - your average point-and-shoot sees about 7 - 8 stops of light and a high end DSLR sensor sees about 10 - 12 stops of light.

If you go outside just now and take a quick snap of anything on auto mode and include about 30% sky you'll see that the sky goes completely white (or at least loses a fair amount of detail). You can compensate for this by using your camera's "exposure lock" function which should be in your manual - although the foreground may go dark. Also you can use a ND Graduated filter to darken the sky slightly which works really well. Here's some of Graham Stirling's work using Lee ND Grad filters (ND stands for neutral density incidently which means they block out some of the light without changing the colour).

There is normally about 2 stops of light difference between the sky and the ground and this might be even more e.g. on a bright day when you are standing in the shade. Your camera will try it's best to capture the middle ground and therefore dark bits might become silhouettes (also known as shadow clipping) and the lighter bits may become over bright (also known as blown highlights). These situatations can be a disaster and mean that you miss out some valuable parts of the whole shot. You can rescue some foreground detail and highlights but not if they are too black or over blown respectively - at least not without the end result looking weird.

So it appears that I've gone off-topic there but there was a reason - HDR!

As the name suggests High Dynamic Range is a technique that allows you to cover a high range of exposures or stops of light. This can increase that 10 - 12 stops I mentioned earlier to perhaps 16 or so. The concept is quite simple - you take several shots (usually 3) of the same scene - these are sometimes known as "bracketed" shots. Each shot takes a slightly different exposure - I normally take a +2 exposure shot which is over-exposed, a normal (or +0) shot, and a -2 exposure shot which is under-exposed.

This is the +2 shot. You can see that a lot of detail has been blown out in the sky. However, there is a lot more detail available in the darker parts like the water, the hull of the boat and the trees.

This is the normal shot or +0. This is the kind of shot that a point-and-shoot camera would take and what my DSLR took without and filters or exposure lock. You can see it's tried to make the best of the situation and keep come some of the highlights and provide some detail in the dark parts. This basically makes the best work with the mid-exposure range.

This is the -2 shot which is under exposed. The darker pasts of the picture as now almost black and clipped in some ares. This picture would normally be unusable but you can see that there is excellent detail in the sky and the brighter parts of the land.

This is where HDR comes in. You can use several programs e.g. Photomatix to then put all three pictures together. It'll take the useable parts from the three shots and create a final picture which looks like this...

Ok, so the purists out there will say that this is cheating and not a "real" photograph. To some extent I agree. It's a cheap way to give a mediocre shot a WOW factor that it wouldn't have otherwise. I certainly failed to work on composition etc when I started doing HDR. It's worth getting good at the basics first before taking this technique because it'll make an OK shot good but never great. All the other elements of photography have to be in use first to create that ultimate HDR shot.

Hope that helps you lot understand how to do this. Comments and critisisms welcome as always.

White Balance

So white balance is something you hear about and to be honest most of us ignore in the beginning. Most cameras have an "auto-WB" mode and for the most part that's pretty accurate and works. However, in extreme conditions e.g. indoors or night-shots the camera can get confused... badly.

So white balance? What is it?

Well my understanding is that different light sources (the Sun, street lights, indoor blubs) have different "temperatures". In other words, they emit a slightly different colour. Depending what colour the light source is you should set your camera to that. Alternatively, you can, and should, shoot in RAW and fix it later (but we'll cover that in another post). The point being that white bits should then still look white and not oranage for example.

However, that can be quite tiresome and so people often just leave it on Auto. But even with a decent DSLR your camera may still have a hard time decerning the white balance in auto-mode.

I took this shot last night near Glencourse Reservoir. As you can see there is a dreadful orange colour cast in the clouds - something I would have never have noticed a year ago. This light is coming from the street lights of Edinburgh - this is "light pollution" - something you can clearly see in the sky when you are driving into most cities/towns at night if there are some clouds in the sky.

Here you can see that I've corrected the white balance in Adobe Camera Raw and immediately there is an obvious different. You can see that the clouds are now the correct colour and also the sky has become a dark blue colour. Although the actual sight may have looked like the first image, your brain (or at least mine) seems to sieve out all the abnormal colours and what you're looking at just seems normal. It's not till you correct the white balance that you see the difference.

I should point out though that although you can do this after the event using a RAW file (instead of JPEG) by fixing it in post production, that's not a efficient use of your work flow and you should set your camera's white balance for each shoot. This saves a lot of time afterwards. Just don't forget to change it back afterwards! So hope that explains something that took me months to figure out.

Comments and critisicms welcome.