Yearly Archives of: 2006

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They’ll Be Putting Chips In Our Heads Next

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Passport 10 years ago and nowMy passport finally expired and I was forced to get a new one. After much time spent meaning to fill out the form and apply for one I got around to it last weekend and incredibly my new one turned up this weekend. The first thing I noticed was that it now sports a much more up to date photo of me in it – you can see right what ten years does to you!

However, that wasn’t the most interesting thing I found about my passport. It turns out that I have one of these new-fangled biometric passports I’ve been hearing all about on the news. Apparently my photograph and the details on the photo page (my name, date of birth and so on) are written onto the chip so that you can wave the passport across a scanner and that information will just magically appear on a screen. The chip looks like this:

A biometric passport chip

As an anti-fraud device it’s probably pretty good. The data is stored in an encrypted format (according to the leaflet) and can’t be written to again, so no changing the details. This means if someone steals your passport, while they may be able to put another photo on it, they won’t be able to change the details on the chip. Sounds cool.

But then I read the leaflet some more and came across the following section:

“From autumn 2006, we will interview all adults (people over 16) applying for a passport for the first time. In line with new European Union standards, we are also considering including fingerprints in biometric passports in the future.”

Now the first part is interesting as it’s likely to be an administrative nightmare and increase the time and cost of getting a passport. However, the second part unsettled me a little. If you want to live in some futuristic world where there’s no crime and everybody wears spandex, then you probably need the authorities to have everybody’s details: fingerprints, DNA samples and so on. This means that if a fingerprint is found at a crime scene, they can immediately tell who it comes from (since everybody’s prints are stored when they apply for a passport), then arrest them and freeze them in some high-tech prison facility. If you’ve got nothing to hide then you shouldn’t have a problem with it so the argument goes.

But for that the authorities would really need to have people’s best interests at heart, and as anybody who studies history knows, that is very seldom the case. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But hey, I’ve got nothing to hide so maybe I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Until it’s too late!

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Photography Tips 6 – Change Your Angles

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This is the sixth in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

I’m not good enough to look at a scene, decide what the best possible picture of it is, take the shot, go home, upload the photo somewhere and wait for the “Best Photo Ever Taken” award to turn up at my house. Instead I have to rely on the tried and tested technique of taking lots of pictures from lots of different angles, go home, look at them on the computer and see which, if any, I like.

Quite often I’ll see a picture that I’ve just taken on the camera and think “this is a great shot, I can’t wait to get home and look at it”. But when I do it turns out to be a nothing photo that I delete straight away. Sometimes I’ll take one, barely glance at it, get home and think “hey, that’s pretty good!”. So I’ve learned that there’s no point paying too much attention to the photos as you take them (other than to check the exposure – which I’ll talk about in the next article). You (well, I at least) can’t tell which ones will work and which ones won’t so take as many as you can and sort it all out when you get back. This is one of the wonders of digital photography, it doesn’t cost anything to take 20 shots of the same thing from different angles – so there are no excuses!

Here is an example of some of the different shots I took of the same scene along with what I was trying to do:

Bridge 1 I wanted the railings to act as the main leading line to the bridge – which is the focal point of the shot. The river acts as a secondary leading line. I attempted to line up the top horizontal railing with the bottom-right corner of the photo but couldn’t quite manage it without pushing the bridge too low in the shot.
Bridge 2 For this one I used a slightly lower angle which has the effect of taking the river out of the equation (since it’s broken up by the railings it no longer acts as a leading line). I was trying to line up the middle horizontal railing with the bottom-right corner of the photo but I don’t think it came out as good as the first photo.
Bridge 3 See the pattern? Now I’m lining up the top horizontal railing with the top-right corner of the photo. Again the railings act as a leading line, the river doesn’t, but I don’t think the shot works as the bridge is broken up completely by them. Looked good through the viewfinder but didn’t on the computer when I got home.
Bridge 4 This is just the railings on their own. I was going for a vanishing point effect and again it looked better through the viewfinder than the end result. Although I rather like it, the shadows also lead you to the vanishing point. But the point is you don’t know until you get home and have a proper look.

I took many more shots with wider angles, portraits and such like that day. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. The key is to not be afraid to try different things and keep at it. I’ve often found myself wanting to pack up and go home because it’s too cold, too hot or I’m tired and / or hungry, but it’s often worth persisting a bit longer and experimenting as you might get the odd gem or two.

Next: Getting Your Exposure Right.

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Photography Tips 5 – All The Gear, Some Idea

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This is the fifth in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

I used to wonder why photographers always seem to lumber around with heavy bags full of equipment when all they do is point a camera at things and take pictures. I mean, you can buy a point-and-shoot digital camera the size of a credit card and it’ll take amazing shots. Why all the kit? Just to look cool? Well it turns out that it’s not. Here’s a picture of the kit I bring with me wherever I go:

My photography checklist

  1. A sturdy tripod – you can’t take landscapes without one – I don’t care how steady you think you can hold a camera. An essential piece of kit.
  2. A plastic bag – if it rains, put it over the camera (which is of course attached to your tripod), saves it getting wet.
  3. A cokin P filter holder with circular polarizer – it attaches to the front of your lens via an adapter ring (not shown) and allows you to attach such items as ND grad filters (my favourites).
  4. A flash gun with diffuser – forget about the in-built flash, it’s useless. You can use one of these to take all kinds of photos – even outdoors and in daylight, or produce soft, natural-looking light indoors by bouncing the light off things (like the roof). Although it’s a skill all of its own!
  5. A wide-angled lens – this is a Sigma 15-30mm. If you want to get a lot of landscape in a shot, or get a super-closeup of a cow, this is a must. I don’t use it that much but there are times when I’d be gutted if I didn’t have it.
  6. A quality camera bag – you’ll need it to carry all this kit around. The one I use slings over one shoulder, has separate compartments for all the lenses, memory cards and so forth and has an in-built all-weather cover. Never leave home without it.
  7. A cable release – when taking a photo on a tripod, a cable release means you can click the shutter without risking moving the camera and producing shutter shake. Also essential for long exposures over 30 seconds.
  8. A flash gun stand – if your friend has another flash gun, you can use one as a master to trigger the other. This lets you do neat things like put one flash on the camera and another on the ground to produce natural lighting conditions outside or inside – or some other clever effects.
  9. Spare batteries for the flashgun.
  10. A long lens – this is a 50-200mm Canon and is handy for taking pictures of things further away when moving closer isn’t an option. You can also use it to shorten the perspective on long views.
  11. A landscape lens – this is my prized Canon 24-85mm lens and is what I use for most of my shots. The range is ideal for landscapes and buy the best one you can – quality counts!
  12. A USB Compact Flash adapter – you’ll need this to speedily transfer your photos to a computer. I always have it as you never know where you’ll find a computer.
  13. A spare camera battery – my camera already has 2 in it, but you always need a spare!
  14. A remote shutter – quite handy for self-portraits and where your cable release is lost / broken / sitting in the boot of your car when it fell out.
  15. A multi-tool – handy for all sorts of random things, like opening bottles of beer.
  16. A lens pen – one side has a brush for removing dust from lenses and the other end has a foam pad for polishing them clean.
  17. A lens cloth – handy for polishing lenses and drying spots of water off things.
  18. Some filters – I only really use ND grads but there are a few others in the for special occasions like sunset filters and tobacco grads.
  19. A digital SLR with battery pack – the battery pack helps as you can rotate it to portrait orientation and there are controls and a shutter button in the right place. Try it, you’ll never go back!
  20. A fixed 50mm f1.8 Canon lens – the best value for money lens Canon makes. You won’t spend £70 on anything better! Super sharp and very useful to have in the bag.

So there you go – the 20 things I never leave home without along with reasons why they’re there. So if you want to take photography seriously, I’m afraid you’ll end up spending a fair bit of money on it. Believe me, I started by thinking “right, I’m not buying anything unless it’s absolutely necessary – I don’t want to end up being a gadget freak”. And that’s where I ended up!

The absolute minimum for me, if I had to choose, would be items 1, 3, 7, 11, 17, 18 and 19. All you need to start photographing landscapes!

Next: Change Your Angles.

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Robin Hood’s Bay For The Weekend

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I spent the last Bank Holiday weekend of the year (this weekend) camping above Robin Hood’s Bay over on the east coast of Yorkshire. It’s a really lovely little village (see below) in stark contrast to garish, tacky, commercialised resorts like Scarborough (which is my idea of a holiday in hell).

Robin-Hoods-Bay-Path-To

We’d just bought a new 3-man tent as my good lady thought the previous one was a bit small, oh and that since it leaked when it rained it wasn’t really up to the job. Just as well we did since we were pounded by strong winds and rain both nights – and we managed to stay dry! Although with the noise we didn’t get a huge amount of sleep.

We’d invited some friends and their 4 children along which was certainly entertaining. A friend of mine once said that children suck all the energy out of you and into them and now I know exactly what he meant – we were completely knackered by the time we got home on Monday and were in need of some rest and relaxation! I feel so much sympathy for my parents when they took us away anywhere – I have no idea how they managed to cope with our constant demands for attention without beating us to within an inch of our lives! (The black ruler aside dad 😉 ).

Oh, and just to show that Scarborough isn’t all amusement arcades and Ferris wheels, here’s a view walking between the north and south side of the town:

Scarborough-Shore-Front

Of course, we were greeted by amusement arcades and Ferris wheels at the far side but the pretty coastline was nice while it lasted – as was the weather!

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Photography Tips 4 – How To Hold A Camera

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This is the fourth in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

This may seem like a stupid thing to write about – I mean you hold a camera in your hands, end of story. Right? Well not really. How you hold your camera has a great influence on how sharp the photo you take will be, how well composed it is, and if you’re taking a picture of something that’s moving (like a bird) then you have to be comfortable and be able to react quickly – and proper handling technique will make that a lot easier.

Like holding a rifle, you need to be able to hold the camera steady for extended periods without it causing you any strain. If you’re taking a picture of a scene, you want to be able to concentrate on composing it through the viewfinder without the feeling that you can only hold the camera for a few seconds. Here’s the standard way that I hold a camera:

Me holding a camera (taken by Ade)

Basically, I’m holding the camera’s weight entirely with my left hand while the right hand is just steadying it and using the controls to change the exposure. By keeping my elbows close to my body I’m providing a stable base, my arms won’t get tired and I can hold the camera in that position for ages feeling quite relaxed.

If you’re not relaxed and steady when you’re taking a picture you’ll rush the shot, won’t compose it properly and most likely produce slightly blurred results and inevitable disappointment.

Most of the photos I take are landscapes so are taken on a tripod. This means I can take as long as I like to compose the picture, make sure everything is lined up, then take the shot on a cable release without moving the camera at all. But when I do take a hand-held shot I want to try and reproduce that solidity and stability offered by the tripod and the best way to successfully do this (without a mono-pod or a wall to rest on) is to use the technique above. Watch paparazzi taking photos of a celebrity or at a football match and you’ll notice this is what they do – and loath them as you might, they know how to handle a camera!

Next: All The Gear, Some Idea.

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Photography Tips 3 – ND Grad Filters

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This is the third in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

Imagine trying to take a picture of a hillside on a sunny day. The sun is high in the sky, the clouds are fluffy and white, the hill in front of you is dark and rocky towards the summit and lush green grass as it approaches you. There are a few trees near you casting shadows too. Lovely.

You take the shot but when you look at the picture it’s nothing like what you see. Most likely the sky will be completely burned out (i.e. totally white) so you can’t see the nice fluffy clouds and blue sky. Alternatively you will be able to see the sky but the foreground will be so dark you can’t see any detail. Or you’ll just get a “somewhere in between” where the rich textures and colours from the sky and foreground will be gone leaving a flatter, less interesting picture.

The problem is that while the human eye can easily resolve massive differences in light – from the very bright sun to the very dark foreground – the sensor on a camera can’t. Your eye can resolve around 10 stops of exposure in a scene but a camera can only really resolve a couple. Note: a one-stop increase in exposure equates to double the amount of light, so 2 stops is 4 times the light, 3 stops is 8 times and so on. To save the maths, basically your eye is one hell of a lot better than a camera!

Yet when you see a landscape photo taken on a bright day, it looks exactly like it does to the human eye. So what’s going on? Well take a look at this photo taken on Ilkley Moor:

Blue Haze

Notice that for one thing, it’s taken directly into the sun, which is clearly very bright. If I took this shot with a compact digital camera it would realise how bright it was, close down the aperture and set a very high shutter speed to cut down on the light. The end result would be pretty much blackness with a very much darkened down sun in the top corner. Not ideal.

For this I used a couple of Neutral Density Graduated Filters (called ND Grads for short). You can see what they look like below:

ND Grads

They graduate from clear to a dark shade (left) and fit onto a filter holder that you attach to the lens (right). The idea is you line up the horizon with the barrier between clear and dark on the filter and that tones down the brightness of the sky. The brightness of the sky is now much closer to the rest of the picture (within a couple of stops as I mentioned above) so the camera can now take the picture and pretty much recreate what you see with the naked eye. You can double up and use more than one filter at a time to cut down the brightness even more, as I did on the photo above.

A cokin p ND grad kit (which will do for most SLR digital cameras) costs around £30 including the filter holder so it’s not an expensive piece of equipment – but for landscape photography it’s probably one of the most important!

Next: How To Hold A Camera.

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Photography Tips 2 – The Rule Of Thirds

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This is the second in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

One of the basic rules of photography (and remember, rules are there to be broken) is the Rule of Thirds. I’ve never quite worked out why, but when you look at a picture of, say, a hill, and the horizon is in the middle of the shot – it just doesn’t look right. But if you put the horizon on the line of the top or bottom third of the picture, it just magically works – this means either the foreground or the sky take up two thirds of the shot respectively.

When you’re composing a shot, imagine a 3×3 grid overlaying what you see (some cameras actually have this feature). Then try and line things up with the grid lines, or put points of interest at the intersection of these lines. Here are some examples of shots I’ve taken that I’ve tried to apply the rule of thirds to:

Rule of Thirds 1 In this shot I’ve put the waterfall in the left third of the shot, the water in the bottom third and the back wall in the top-right two thirds. It’s not perfect but that doesn’t matter, the rule of thirds is just a guide – not a law!
Rule of Thirds 2 I’ve been even more rough here, I’ve just tried to put the hills in the background into the middle horizontal third and the tree in the top-right and middle-right boxes. I couldn’t have placed the couple any better – right on the intersection of two boxes.
Rule Of Thirds 3 Here I’ve aligned the horizon with the bottom third line (leaving the sky to take up the top two-thirds) and kept the post in the left-most third. In fact, I could have cropped the left column and made that into a photo of its own (since the post only fills the bottom two thirds).

Like I said though, it’s a guide not a law so don’t feel you have to perfectly line things up or not take a shot because you can’t fit it into a 3×3 grid. It’s a compositional aid and can help you balance pictures out. Looking through my own photos I notice that I don’t religiously stick to the rule, I mix it up depending on what I’m trying to photograph. If you look through the viewfinder and all you’re thinking of are a bunch of compositional rules rather than what you can see, you might not create half as interesting a picture!

Next: ND Grad Filters.

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Photography Tips 1 – Leading Lines

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This is the first in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

I’ve been taking photography more seriously for the last 6 months or so and I’ve learned a hell of a lot (mostly from my good friend Ade). I thought that while it’s all still fresh in my mind and hasn’t turned into “common sense” for me yet that I’d try to document some of the more important lessons I’ve learned. I’m still learning all the time and don’t consider myself an expert in photography in any way, shape or form so feel free to correct or shoot me down on anything I say (pun intended).

I’ll try to use photos I’ve taken to illustrate some of the points I’m trying to get across and what I did to get the shots. I’ll start with different aspects of composition and move onto more interesting things like the use of grad filters, flash guns, technique and anything else that pops into my head. I’ll also cover the kit I use, exposure, metering and a host of other things that come into play.

First up I’ll talk about leading lines and why they can give depth to a shot and make an average scene look a lot more interesting. Take a look at the following photo which is a pretty simple scene:

Walking Path

It works for me for several reasons, but mainly the leading lines. By leading lines I mean something that draws your eye through the shot – in this case it’s the path. As I look at the picture I’m instinctively looking at the part of the path nearest the camera and my eye is following it around into the distance – the fact that there are people walking along it draws me there even more. Since the path vanishes around the corner you don’t get to see where it’s goes so you’re just left to wonder. I was trying to get the picture to tell a story and make you want to walk down the path yourself in your mind and see what’s around the bend.

I’ve also deliberately composed the shot so that the fence intersects the bottom-left corner of the photo and the right-hand edge of the path is on the bottom-right corner. If you look at the photos below you’ll notice I have habit of lining up the leading line with a bottom corner – it just seems to balance the shot better than leaving space around it:

Leading Lines Montage

I’m always looking for something to lead my eye through a shot. It could be a path, a line of cones, even a moored boat pointing out to sea – just as long as it makes your mind move you through the picture! I like to think of a photograph as a window into a 3-dimensional world and a leading line is a good way to give it depth.

Next: The Rule Of Thirds.

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My Wedding Photos

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Here are a select few of the best photos from my wedding to my lovely wife Rachael. We were married at Comlongon Castle in Scotland and it was a beautiful day with great friends and family and was once-in-a-lifetime!

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The Happy Couple

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By popular request (I think mainly to laugh at pictures of me in a white suit) I thought it was about time I put up our “official” wedding photo, so here it is:

The Happy Couple

It was taken by my good friend Ade (who excelled himself as always in both his photography and his ability to drink a lot and handle it far better than me). He took around 400 shots which we’re going to look through, pick our favourites (which will probably be most of them as they’re fantastic) and print them out – when we get the chance!