All Posts Filed in ‘Photography Tips

While I was learning about photography from a very talented photographer friend of mine I figured it might help others if I wrote down everything I knew. So here it is!

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Photography Tips 10 – Always Keep Your Eyes Open

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This is the tenth 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 things photography has done to me is make me look at everything. Until I started taking photographs whenever I’d walk somewhere I’d pretty much be looking at the road / path / bracken in front of me all the way there. I’d take the odd glance around me from time to time to look out for cars / cattle / bracken but that would be about it.

But going out taking photos means looking for something to take pictures of. This is an incredibly obvious statement but bear with me. Instead of looking at what’s in front of me I now look at every little detail. I don’t just see a hill in the distance and a river in front of me, I see the way the light falls on the hill in the background, the shadows, the texture of the grass in the middle ground, the reflected scene in the river, I look for any possible leading lines, anything in the foreground I can use as a point of interest and a host of other things that might make for an interesting picture.

When I started out I’d wander around pointing my camera at random things and really struggle to get anything decent. However after a few trips with my friend Ade I learned the great lengths he goes to to make a great picture out of what he can see. He’ll crawl around on his hands and knees searching for different angles, make inanimate objects you’d usually ignore into the centrepiece of a beautiful shot and even when driving along a road he’s looking in every direction for a picture (I pity anybody stuck behind him as he has a tendency to throw the car off the road and go taking snaps with no warning).

This habit has rubbed off on me to the point that when I walk down a street I’m automatically looking at all the buildings, the roof lines, the pattern of the pavement (if there is one) and if any street furniture lines up. If I’m on the hills I’m looking for leading lines from fences, ruts made by tractors, trees, sheep, anything. And I’m always on the lookout for good light – which can turn an OK shot into a great shot. Even if I’m out with my camera feeling uninspired I challenge myself to make a shot out of what I can see – even if it’s just a dry stone dyke and some weathered trees. Especially when it’s a dry stone dyke and some trees!

For example, I went out the other evening just before sunset as I could see the light was really good. With tripod and camera in hand I walked along the canal from my house and tried to get something interesting. The light was indeed great but the large number of pylons sort of spoiled the view so I only got a few OK shots. But as I walked back along the road to my house – eyes everywhere – I noticed the sun line up with the top of a barbed wire fence and snapped this shot, which I rather like:

Barbed Wire

There’s no particular technique to looking out for something to photograph – it’s just about persistance. I find that if I make a point of keeping my camera out, ready to take a picture of something, it encourages me to keep looking. If it’s packed away in its bag over my shoulder there’s that bit more effort getting it out and setting it up so I tend not to bother.

So go out with your camera, it doesn’t have to be anywhere interesting and could be somewhere you’ve been a hundred times before. But try and take a picture you’ve never taken before. Try and make something interesting out of what’s in front of you instead of just putting the camera to your eye and clicking the shutter. Take your time and look around all the time. It means you have to walk slower but that’s fine, photography isn’t something you should rush.

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Photography Tips 9 – Black and White or Colour?

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

Black and white photography can be amazingly powerful. Flickr’s Explore is filled with highly-saturated, strongly coloured pictures and these tend to be extremely popular. But it takes a lot more than strong greens and reds to make an interesting picture in my book, which is why I find a good black and white photo much more impressive. To produce a compelling photograph without the aid of colour takes no small amount of skill in my book and is something I try from time to time with varying degrees of success. I just want to stress here that I’m no expert on black and white – I’m just putting down some of my thoughts on the subject!

In the pre-digital days you’d load your camera with black and white film and go looking for shots. You’d have to try and imagine how the scene you’re viewing (in full colour) would come out in black and white, take your shots and hope for the best. Well, a decent photographer would have a better idea of what they were doing but I’m talking about me here! When looking at your prints you’d only be able to see them in black and white and appreciate them for what they were. But in these digital days, there’s little point shooting in black and white.

I always shoot in RAW mode on my camera. If you take a photo in one of the JPEG modes, the camera processes the picture for you and stores it. If, when you get home and look at it on the computer, you want to make some changes (maybe lighten it up a bit) then you’ve already shot yourself in the foot (ahem, pun intended) as some of the detail will have been lost when the camera processed the shot. Shooting in RAW mode however doesn’t give you this problem. The camera won’t process the picture, it will simply store all the information it captures on the sensor and when you get home you can process the picture as you like – perhaps into a JPEG image. This means you can make more changes such as increasing the exposure, changing the white balance and rescuing any photos you screwed up. There’s no notion of shooting in black and white – for your camera to do that it would have to process the image, discarding the colour information and like I said, with RAW you do that yourself.

With digital, I find myself deciding which photos are going to end up being black and white after the effect and in front of my computer. Quite the opposite of the film days. Take the following example:

Lead Out To Void

This shot was taken after sunset in Ilkley last year and I really liked the colour version. I found it hard to go mono with it (mono’s quicker to say than ‘black and white’ so I’ll stick with that moniker if you don’t mind). The trouble is that when I compared the same shot in colour to mono, I ended up concentrating on the lack of colour in the latter. The colour shot works for me because the stepping stones are dark and yet there’s the reflected light in the water giving you something to focus on. But when I stopped thinking about the orange light I realised that the mono version was much better as it concentrated you on the fact that the stepping stones lead you into the darkness. The lack of colour makes you use your imagination more.

One shot rescued by a mono conversion is the following, taken near Whitby:

Point to Point

It was a pretty grey, dull day and the light was flat. When I looked at the shot on my computer I was tempted to delete it but started experimenting with mono conversions (it doesn’t always have to be black and white) and finally came up with this one. The dullness of the scene didn’t matter once I’d gone down the sepia route.

I guess my take-home point about black and white photography in the digital world is to take a colour photo, play around with it and see what you like but try not to let the original prejudice you against going mono. It’s very easy to not bother trying a mono conversion and move onto your next shot but quite often it’s worth lingering a bit longer and giving mono a go. One really handy tool (which is free) is the Virtual Photographer plug-in for Photoshop (although sadly it’s Windows-only). This allows you to try a list of pre-canned conversions quickly to see what you like and then you can fine-tune it all you want. The key – as always with photography – is to experiment.

When converting to mono, there are myriad options other than simply opting to ‘gray-scale’ the image – you can decide how much of each colour to use when you remove the colour. If you want to go for a grainy look you might opt to go mono using predominantly the blue channel (which you can do with the ‘Channel Mixer’ in Photoshop) – looks great on portraits as the skin tends to look much more rough and aged. Alternatively using the red channel will make it look softer. Look at the following examples of using the channel mixer to go mono with different results:

In Colour This is the original colour picture (obviously).
Blue By choosing the blue channel her skin looks darker and grainier.
Red Using the red channel gives her a softer and lighter look, much more sympathetic!

And of course there are countless other ways you can do a mono conversion, which is what makes black and white photography so interesting. You may be theoretically restricted to two colours – black and white – but there are so many shades of gray in between! Heck, you can even mix colour and black and white like this to good effect:

The Door Is Blue

Anyway, that’s some of my random thoughts on black and white photography, I hope you’ll give it a try the next time you’re looking at some of the photos you’ve taken! And if you need some inspiration as to what you can achieve with black and white, have a look at these photos on Flickr taken by ‘dooda‘ – one very talented photographer – they certainly inspire me.

Next: Always Keep Your Eyes Open.

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Photography Tips 8 – Everybody Loves Waterfalls

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

The photo that started my interest in photographyThere’s a single photograph that sparked my love of photography and it’s pictured right.

My father had a book called ‘The Complete Kodak Book Of Photography’ published back in 1998 that I used to look at which captured my imagination. I say ‘had’ because it’s now sitting on my bookshelf and has done for some years (sorry dad!).

It’s a book that masquerades as an information resource for budding amateur photographers but frankly it’s just filled with amazing photos taken by photographers whose lenses I’m not fit to clean. I look at it now really appreciating how good some of them are but also understanding what makes them so good. I’ll admit I was initially drawn to the nude photography section but it was the photo above that really piqued my curiosity (and I’m sticking to that story!). It is in fact a long exposure (probably just a couple of seconds) and that’s why the water has that ethereal look to it.

When I first took my photography to the next level by heading out with my friend Ade and learning from him, I really wanted to recreate a shot like the Kodak one. Luckily I live in Yorkshire which has more than its fair share of rain and therefore waterfalls. And everybody loves waterfalls! Here’s what I’ve learned about photographing waterfalls…

The best conditions to take pictures of waterfalls happens to be dark, cloudy and preferably miserable days. It just so happens that Yorkshire has a surprisingly high proportion of such days. My aim when photographing a waterfall is to create a long enough exposure (in the order of several seconds) such that I capture the flowing, soft look of the water without it burning out – i.e. the water appearing completely white and therefore devoid of detail. This is why sunny days are no good, the water is so brightly lit by the sun that if you expose correctly for the water (which I’ll mention in a moment) the background will be far too dark. Firstly, here’s probably the best shot of a waterfall I’ve taken and it wasn’t difficult to do:

Scaleber force on a miserable day

This is Scaleber Force near Settle and it was a truly miserable day. It was cloudy, dark, raining on and off, the ground was muddy and slippery underfoot and nobody else was within miles of us – they were either at home or in the pub. Perfect waterfall weather! Since it was so dull and the light flat I was able to get the smooth flow of the water and have a long enough exposure so that the background was also bright enough to make out.

Right, so the objective is to have as long an exposure as possible (well, longer than a second or two). This means as low an ISO as you can get (for maximum quality) – 100 in my case. You need as narrow an aperture as you can get without losing quality to cut down on the light entering and maximise the depth of field – f16 is probably the best compromise unless you have a really nice lens although I usually just go with f22 – I’m not doing A1 prints! A circular polariser cuts down on the amount of light reaching the lens (they’re great on a bright day for cleaning up light but that’s irrelevant here) and any other filters you can fit on to cut down on the light help too. I had a 3 ND grad on for improved darkness. Then it’s a matter of composing the shot – you may need to remove the filters so you can see through the viewfinder! The composition is up to you, it depends on the waterfall, the surroundings and many other things – it’s best to try as many different angles as you can and see which works when you get home.

Posforth GillThen you need to take a meter reading and set the exposure time. As I mentioned in my piece on exposure the best way to set your exposure is with spot metering (or partial metering if your camera doesn’t have it). So  zoom in to the waterfall itself, point at the brightest part and take a reading, adjusting the exposure time until the meter reckons it’s 1/3 – 2/3 of a stop underexposed. That way you’ll know you won’t burn out the highlights of the waterfall. I prefer shots to be underexposed so I can dodge them later in Photoshop if they need a bit if brightening, I find that over-exposing and trying to darken them later yields lesser results, but that’s just me.

Click the shutter button on your cable release (you don’t want to move the camera and blur the shot by pressing the button on the camera do you?), step back and look around while the shot’s taken. Maybe you could look for other interesting angles to pass the time (it can be quite tedious standing around for 30 seconds while a shot is taken). Have a quick look at the histogram on the camera and the preview to make sure it looks properly exposed and carry on! Don’t delete any if they look terrible though, those preview screens are no good at measure quality, it’s not until you get back and look on the computer that you know if you have any crackers.

A tight shot of Scaleber Force

Technically waterfalls are pretty straightforward to photograph if you have dull lighting conditions as long as you take your meter reading from the brightest part of the water. The tricky part, as always, is composing a picture that makes people wish they were there and fires their imagination. Just like that photo from my dad’s book did all those years ago for me.

Next: Black and White or Colour?

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Photography Tips 7 – Getting Your Exposure Right

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This is the seventh 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 dreading writing this article because you can write an entire book about exposure. And in fact many people have, some I would recommend are:

If you really want to master the art of exposure, you should pick up a book and read it as it can be complex and subtle subject. I’ll give a brief overview of aperture and shutter speed, then I’ll talk about why I always use manual mode on my camera and how I use it to get the exposure right. Following articles will build on what I discuss below.

First of all, the two main components of exposure are aperture and shutter speed (I’ll not get into the others at this point like ISO as it’s just going to be confusing). Generally, a wide aperture is going to let more light in (think of a big window in a room – a lot of light will be allowed in on a sunny day, whereas if you have a port hole instead of a window, not a lot of light will get in at all). However, to complicate things, the wider the aperture, the shorter the depth of field. If you want to take a photo of someone where they are in sharp focus and the background is very blurred, use as wide an aperture as possible. If, however, you want the background and the person in the foreground in sharp focus, use a narrower aperture.

The same composition taken with a narrower aperture will need the shutter to be open longer to let the same total amount of light in as before. So you can take two photos of the same scene with the same amount of light being captured by the camera, but in one the aperture is wide and the shutter speed fast, whereas in the other the aperture is narrow and the shutter speed much slower. In the former the depth of field is short and in the latter the depth of field is much greater. You still with me?

One more confusion is that a wide aperture is denoted by a low f-number on a camera (such as f1.8) and a narrow aperture has a high f-number (like f22). If you want the full run-down on f-numbers, check out this Wikipedia article.

As I mentioned when I talked about ND Grad Filters, the human eye can capture huge differences in brightness from the reflection of the sun on a rain-soaked road to the darkness of the ground under the shadow of a tree – and all at the same time. A camera is nowhere near as good, only being able to resolve a few stops of light (remember that 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). This means that the brightest and darkest things in your picture don’t want to be more than a few stops apart. But how can you tell?

Well your camera has a light meter built into it (I’m assuming you’re using a DSLR of course). When you point your camera at something and half-click the shutter, it’ll activate the light meter and it’ll show you something like this (which is the display from a Canon EOS 400D):

The light meter on a Canon EOS 400D

If you use spot metering (so the needle is telling you what the exposure is just around the centre of the viewable area) and point the camera at something and the needle is in the centre, then that portion of the picture is correctly exposed. However, that’s only a small part of the story. Say you point it at the brightest part of the shot (maybe the sky) and change the shutter speed or aperture until it’s just under the +2 marker. Then point it at the darkest part, say the ground. If it’s above -2 then your whole picture ranges across just under 5 stops of exposure (rather confusingly). It probably means it’s quite a dull day or you’re using ND grads like a good photographer! Take the picture and the shot probably looks pretty good. Now change the settings again so that the brightest part is at zero – so you’ve exposed for the sky. Now if you point at the dark ground you’ll notice it goes off the bottom of the scale. Take the picture and you’ll see that the sky will look pretty good, better than your first shot, but the ground will be completely black. The shot is underexposed. The histogram function of your camera can explain what’s happening.

A histogram shows the total number of pixels and ranks them by lightness – the dark pixels towards the left and the light towards the right. If you take a picture of a black cat in snow, there’s very little black and a lot of white – so you’d see a small spike on the left and a big spike on the right. If you take a well exposed picture of a landscape with lots of colours, you’ll see a nice curve going from low on the left, rising up in the middle and going back down towards the right again.

Three exposures with histogram

From the histograms above you can see that the left-hand one is perhaps a little underexposed, most of the pixels are towards the left. The right-hand one is over-exposed so most of the pixels are towards the right axis. The centre one looks about right and has a nice spread of dark-to-light. However I tend to prefer the left-hand one as although it’s a bit darker, the colours are richer (you might notice a lot of my photos tend to be darker for this exact reason).

There are hard and fast rules about how to expose correctly, such as finding the middle-grey in the picture and exposing against that. If you put a camera on auto mode it’ll take a sample of pixels across the image, average them out to middle grey (which is a particularly drab shade of grey) and set the exposure accordingly. This means it almost always gives you a wishy-washy exposure because it’s guessing and doesn’t know what you’re actually trying to take a picture of. If you go to the extremes like a black cat in a coal cellar, it’ll always over-expose the cat and for the counter-example of a polar bear in the snow it’ll always under-expose. For this you need to either use exposure-compensation or manual mode because only you know what you’re taking the picture of.

My friend Ade sets up exposure by assuming that -2 is black, -1 is soil, 0 is grass, +1 is sand and +2 is white. This means no matter what the lighting of the subject he’s taking a photo of, if he wants the grass to be perfectly exposed, he meters off the grass and adjusts his settings until it reads 0 (by metering I mean pointing the centre of the viewfinder at the grass, half-pressing the shutter button so the meter comes to life and adjusting the aperture or shutter speed until the meter reads 0). If there’s sand and he wants that perfectly exposed, he changes the exposure until it reads +1 on the meter. And so on.

I try to keep that in mind, but sometimes I just experiment and see what I get. The best way to tell how well exposed the shot is isn’t to look at the picture on the camera display, it’s to look at the histogram and see what the distribution looks like. More to the left leans towards under-exposure, more to the right is over-exposure. However, you don’t always want a perfectly exposed shot. Maybe you want to under-expose to draw your eye to something brighter than the rest of the picture. Maybe you want to over expose a background to give a dreamy look to the shot. It all depends what you’re trying to do and I could write a book on the subject and still not explain it fully! For example, the following two shots demonstrate that sometimes you want to underexpose and sometimes you want to overexpose:

Overblown By overblowing this shot (the meter was telling me it was overexposed), the details in the room are lost but the eyes really stand out. On automatic mode you’d have a more detailed and dark photo, but without much impact.
 Lead Out To Void Here I wanted to produce something dark and mysterious so your imagination fills in the black. If I’d gone on auto-mode it would have taken a longer exposure and brightened things up somewhat – which wouldn’t have had as much impact.

I’ve really just given a brief overview of the subject, but I urge anybody who wants to improve their photography to stop using the automatic settings. To use manual effectively you need to understand exposure, and exposure is one of the main keys to taking great photographs. It’s tricky to figure out at first but once you do there’s no stopping you.

Personally I never use any of the auto-settings on my camera. The one time that I tried was on a night shoot when I was curious to see what exposure it would set for the picture of a skyscraper I was taking. I half-clicked the shutter to see what it would do and the flash popped up which made me laugh given that the building was half a mile away! So no use at all then! 🙂

Next: Everybody Loves Waterfalls.

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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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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.