Sea shells close up

A close-up of a dark grey scallop shell amongst smaller white shells, on a beach of shells in Eastern Tasmania.

This close-up image of a scallop shell sat amongst countless others on a beach in Tasmania is currently leading the view stats over on the Flickr feed.

This beach was simply amazing. The entire beach was made of shells. And it was a big beach – with shell dunes, shell ridges, wet shells and dry shells all sweeping round in a shell bay. It was a surprise to see no sand or pebbles beneath the billions upon billions of shells. And the best bit? Like most Australian beaches, there was no-one else on it!

If you want to hang this image in your space, and be inspired by the natural coastal scenery, and the connotations of space, calm, fresh air and solitude that it brings, head on over to the Wall Art website to place an order. Use the code 25launch before September ends to enjoy a generous 25% discount.

Thanks for looking!

I’m talking about a new addition to – this Black and White of a single tree in a freshly cut rural landscape:

Black and White tree under dramatic sky

A filtered black and white image, with a solitary tree in a recently harvested field, set against a dramatic sky of white cloud reaching into inky black.

I created this image purely by accident. The photo was shot in colour, and that is how it remained in my library until yesterday, when I clicked an option I had no intention of clicking. I was struck by the result – which turned a nicely composed, but with weak colour in the sky image into something I am happy to put my name to on the Wall Art shop floor.

Moral of the story? I will be revisiting a lot of images in black and white now: it really does remove the distraction of colour, and provided the elements in the shot are composed interestingly, will enhance the impact significantly.

Here’s the original image, that was ruled out of being offered for sale:

Lone tree in field - colour

The original file: the sky wasn’t blue enough for me, and there was a little too much yellow in the foreground field. The wonky horizon was also fixed.

Receiving a lot of attention lately is this shot, representing the root and vine-like creeping of exposed iron bars in a very urban setting of decay and destruction.

Exposed twisted iron bars

Twisted and exposed iron bars, with remnants of concrete and an out-of-focus concrete block in the background.

What is RAW?

Many cameras now offer this option: once the reserve of expensive SLRs, it is now available on mid-range compacts too. It is basically the setting that captures all data that the sensor ‘sees’ without processing or compressing into an alternative file format, such as JPEG. When shooting in a JPEG (also called JPG) mode, your camera takes all the data from the sensor and processes it before saving the file. In order to save on file size, this process cheats with colours, by merging adjacent similar colour pixels together into the same hue, saturation and brightness. Here’s 5 reasons why I use RAW, plus one reason why I occasionally don’t!

1. Edit the exposure, as though you were at the scene

Because the RAW file includes all data captured by the sensor, you can change the exposure on your computer at any time without degrading the quality of the image. When changing the exposure settings on JPGs, you are actually losing quality – especially if increasing the exposure. When doing so on a RAW file, you are effectively overwriting sensor information (on a copy of the file – not on your camera!) pixel by pixel, ensuring that degradation does not occur at post-processing level.

2. Edit the white balance, as though you were at the scene

If you’ve ever looked at a photograph and wondered why the colours were not how they appeared in real life, or that the deep blue sea has turned out a pale grey dishwater shade, or the snow is dull and flat – you were either looking at the original scene through eternally optimistic rose-tinted glasses, or more likely – you had the white balance wrong. Most modern cameras are pretty good at automatically guessing the white balance, so you can be absolutely forgiven when they occasionally get it wrong. If you shoot RAW – you can edit this later on the computer as though you were editing it at the scene. The beauty of doing it at your computer rather than at the scene is that you can take your time, and are not relying on the inferior camera preview LCD (which is often displaying a temporary JPG anyway).

3. Non-destructive editing

When you open a JPG and re-save it, you are also degrading the image a little bit. If you make changes to that JPG, the changes themselves degrade the image quality, and of course cannot be undone once the JPG is saved (copies of files aside). With RAW files, any opening, saving and re-opening does not result in any quality loss – and any changes you make to the RAW file don’t actually overwrite anything on the original file; they are simply instructions on how the next export to JPG or whatever should be handled. At any time, these changes can be reset to revert to the original file.

4. Finer colour handling

RAW handles many more colours than JPEG – with many more levels of brightness within each tint. For each colour tint in JPEG, up to 256 levels of intensity can be applied. With RAW, there can be up to over 16,000 levels of intensity. This means that banding and streaks (called posterisation – often seen in low quality skies) are far less common, and certainly infinitely easier to treat, with RAW. This is a hugely important consideration when printing images.

5. Raw is Power!

For two reasons. Which is cheating slightly, I know – but 5 was a nice round number. Firstly, if you hold the RAW file and only display and distribute exported JPEGs or whatever other image files in public, you have a clear ownership claim should you ever need to – special software is required to view RAW files, and so they cannot be used as images embedded within a webpage. Secondly, if you are lucky enough to be selling the rights to your image to a publication – a picture editor may wish to use your RAW in order to get the best output for the page they want to print. If you’re selling the exclusive rights to an image permanently, the RAW files are kind of like the title deeds to your house. Your buyer will certainly appreciate the raw sensor data rather than yours or your camera’s interpretation of how that sensor data should be processed and presented.

1 Reason not to use RAW

OK, I am being a little biased here, as there are a few reasons why you would not want to use RAW, but then there are a few other reasons why you would want to, so there.

RAW takes up a lot of room on your SD, CF, HD, SSD or whatever other acronym you’re using to store files. Because it takes up a lot of room, it takes longer to deal with them; from how many shots per second you can fire off on the camera, to file transfers, to loading an image to tweak on your computer. Because RAW files have to be processed using software before they can be shared or displayed on the web, there is another necessary step in the workflow. If you are taking lots and lots of shots in a day, or need to quickly get the images to a client (I’ve had weddings where I am leaving the country the following day, and so simply did not have the time to process RAWs) – JPG may be the only possible option.

Unless I’m firing off tons of action shots, or need to turnaround a large number of images extremely quickly, I shoot RAW – and you should too.

I took a look at the views on my Flickr photographs the other day, and saw that this shot was particularly popular:

Cold, cramped space in the roof void of St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The main dome of St Peter’s Basilica – an imposing landmark on the skyline of Rome – is actually composed of two domes: one inside the other. The cavity between the Catholic Church’s public image and its inner workings is a cold, shadowy and cramped space.

Although shot and digitally developed in full colour, there is a naturally occurring grey-blue tint amongst the shadows that give an almost monochrome feel to this shot.

The Story Behind the Shot

The Catholic Church is an immensely huge institution, with over 1 billion followers worldwide. At its headquarters in the Vatican City in Rome, Italy, the Basilica at St Peter’s Square forms the focal point for worship, pilgrimage and sightseeing. At the top of this sacred building is an enormous dome, visible across Rome as the centre of Roman Catholicism.

After a long, meandering hour or so up from the sprawling piazza at its base, I climbed through the tight walls at the edge of the dome (‘cupola’ in Italian) to find myself amongst the mosaics and frescoes that make up the fine artistic interior. A quick skirt around the edge of this very high vantage point – overlooking the main altar and entrance to the tomb of St Peter – and I was back inside the dark, twisting interior of the main cupola.

Dark, narrow, twisting staircase inside the bowels of the Vatican

The twisting, dark staircase that winds up through the narrow void towards the top of the main dome at St Peter’s Basilica.

As the dome reached its apex, the passageways became ever more horizontal, diagonal and cramped. Eventually, just before I emerged onto the roof of this Roman landmark, I came upon the sight of the wooden bars at the top of this post. This cold, cramped space fills the void between the inner dome that contains the frescoes and mosaics inside the Church, and the separate outer dome that projects the status of the organisation upon the outside world.

What this shot says to me

The imaginary lines formed by the tops and bottoms of the wooden bars lead the eye naturally through the image and around the curve of the dome, through the blue space before disappearing in an apparent infinity. The infinite coldness, and the prison-like claustrophobia of the bars add to the darkness around the image’s borders to create a sense of the inhospitable workings of the Church – in much contrast to the opulent interior and grand exterior image of the institution. Given recent controversies with the Catholic Church, I am quite intrigued by how the underbelly of the Church’s central headquarters can be a direct representation of the murky world that sometimes pokes through the slick public image. The bright circles of the skylights offer a useful shape that draws the eye in at a glance, as well as offering the only light in the image.

What are your thoughts on the shot? Can you see the leading lines (actually, both shots used in this post make use of this technique)? Would the use of more saturated colours, or even a clearer lean towards monochrome have affected your interpretation of the image? Let me know your thoughts!


Carrying the Dead - Photography Wall Art

An art installation at the Gallery of New South Wales depicts the voiceless masses living on helplessly through a violent regime.

I’m talking about a fixed lens here – otherwise known as a prime. I can personally recommend the Nikkor f1.4G 50mm – but the 1.4D is just as good, as I’m sure the Canon equivalents are. The wide aperture (small f-number) makes shooting in low light much faster than the cheaper 3.5s or 5.6s – and gives you strikingly shallow depth of field. So… Here’s my 7 reasons:

1. Prime lenses are better quality.
OK, not a 50mm only reason, but you do get sharper and clearer images out of a prime lens, compared with a zoom.

A 50mm lens doesn’t stick out like a male compensation tool, meaning more honest candid shots.

3. Light.
A catch-all zoom feels heavier and heavier by the hour. Pop a 50mm on and you’ll appreciate the lighter load. Lighter loads make for happier photographers, who are more inclined to stay out longer – and not miss the shot!

4. Forces Creativity.
While any prime lens forces you to move around to get the composition right, thus presenting new angles and opportunities you would otherwise miss, a 50mm is perfectly poised in between an easy wide that captures large swathes of the scene, and the telephoto that excludes all the fluff. It forces you to think about framing, and to move that little bit more often. And we all need more exercise, right?

5. Cheap!
My f1.4 50mm by Nikon is rated as one of the best lenses of any length/speed – and yet cost under £200. They are not expensive to make at high quality levels!

6. Perfect Focal Length.
This one feels like a swizz – like defining a word by using the word – but it’s true: On an FX or 35mm camera, 50mm is as close as you can get to the view of the human eye. Great for street shots, or other candids where you simply want to record what you saw. On a DX format camera, the 75mm equivalent is ideal for portraits – though to be honest I have gotten to really like using my 50mm prime on a DX for street photography. It forces me away from lazy shoot-what-I-see and also brings an immediacy that a slight telephoto offers.

7. Faster.
Whilst many prime lenses can offer fast apertures – down to f2, f1.6 or even f1.4 – the 50mm can do so cheaply. By having such a fast lens, I can shoot hand held in lower light, with the 50mm also forgiving more camera shake than its longer length cousins. More light into the lens + shorter lens = sharper and less noisy image. Double bonus!

As an example of using a 50mm in low light, inside a cramped museum space which forced me to really think about the composition, see the photo of the stone statues in this post.

Have I missed anything?

There are two types of photograph that catch the eye. The first type excludes almost everything, giving a blank canvas that the photographer then paints on with a single subject. Framing a neutral or blank background, with only a single, clearly identifiable object is so successful that the stock photo industry and advertising industry primarily uses such processes. Fine art photography also makes use of the exclusion technique, though not exclusively, of course.

So what is it about the exclusion technique that makes it so successful? It is one of those unwritten rules (that of course means it can, and should, be broken): the eye is drawn first to the part of the image that most in focus, contrasted with its surroundings, or simply brighter than the rest of the photo. Where there is one lone subject amongst a plain background, it is the contrast in colour, shape or brightness that draws the eye in.

Man in crowded street

A man in a yellow t-shirt stops to watch the world go by in this bustling street market in Hong Kong.

So we can apply this theory to images that either you don’t want to strip of all other mise-en-scene (literally the things in the scene), or can’t. Such as street photography. Now, when in a busy environment, it is of course possible to apply the exclusion theory by getting closer to your subject. But capturing the hustle and bustle is just as valid as excluding all from a shot. To draw the eye, simply follow the same rules. Take the image above – where is your eye drawn first? For most of you, it will be the man in the yellow t-shirt. In a sea of dark coloured clothes and hair, his shirt stands out by far. He is also facing the camera, as opposed to the majority of the crowd which is facing away. And he is in focus, which contrasts against the blurred heads in the foreground.

What about photos that don’t have a natural highlight? If there is a point you want your viewer to be drawn to, you can provide some subtle help. Digital photo software offers the ability to lighten and darken selective parts of an image using a brush (mouse) to select. This is called Dodging (lightening) and Burning (darkening), and can be found in Aperture, if you’re an Apple fan, and Photoshop if you’re an Adobe fan. Lightroom by Adobe doesn’t have this built in as of yet – you have to export to Photoshop.

Balinese Women Side Saddle on a Motorbike

In Bali, living is made possible with the motorbike. Friends and relatives share journeys; like this woman carrying groceries in a basket.

This image was originally difficult to focus on, as the brightness of the road was similar in intensity to the brightness of the woman on the motorbike. With selective dodging of the women and motorbike, and burning of the road and background, more of the viewer’s initial attention goes to the motorbike – particularly the woman sat side-saddle on it.

For travel photography, which is most of what I do, I believe it is crucial that the photograph represents what I actually saw at the scene. I don’t like using Photoshop or anything else to artificially create an impression of a scene that wasn’t what I actually saw. So, for me, any use of digital dodging and burning has got to be true. Keeping it subtle (exposure shifts of maybe a third of a stop) is key. I am happy that the refinements applied above bring that photograph back to what I saw when stood on the street – and are not creating a false view of something that I kind of saw. Of course, if I don’t have to refine on the computer, even better. The man in the yellow t-shirt at the top of the page is completely untouched: no digital enhancements whatsoever.

To sum it up – brighter points of your photo attract attention first. Try and achieve that in-camera first, and then give dodging and burning a shot as a Plan B.

Rows of Stone Men

An art installation at the Gallery of New South Wales depicts rows of stone figures marching onwards.

Our 10,000th image view last week! This came from a visit to the art gallery in Sydney, Australia. There was a room full of these life size stone statues – all naked – and all carrying bundled children. The room was lit in subdued, soft lighting from above only, and isolated to small pools which then reflected off the glossy floor – making the act of taking this photograph very tricky. In fact, I had been carrying round an 18-200 zoom lens for versatility in tight corners and for getting intricate details, but that only stopped down as far as 3.5-5.6 (higher number = smaller aperture = less light getting through = slower shutter speed needed/higher iso = camera shake/digital noise). When I saw this dark room with these imposing statues laid out in rows and columns (see this photo for a slightly wider view of this) I just had to capture the atmosphere. I had to go back to the bag check area and sign out my bag, rummage around for a fast 50mm lens (f1.4) that did away with my ability to grab the wide scene, but let in enough light to really do this soft scene justice. The fixed lens also forced me to be particular about the shot – they are great for forcing you to think about things!

The artwork had particular meaning to the original artist, and it had an impact on me too. But what does this image say to you?

Have you ever got home after taking some photos, really looking forward to seeing your images, only to find that they’re either really dark or almost white, with very little detail left?

underexposed flowers

Yuck – too dark

overexposed flowers

Eww, too bright

Bali Flowers

Just right! A correctly exposed pair of Balinese flowers

It’s a case of exposure

It really is that simple. Exposure. That term crops up a lot, in this blog and in others. There is a dedicated post on the three main points of exposure coming up to help beginners or those of you who are beginning to get serious about your photography, so I won’t go into detail about that yet. Just know that one of these images is too dark (underexposed), one is too bright (overexposed), and in the immortal words of Goldilocks, the last one is just right – though as a digression, this is entirely subjective: I tend to prefer my shots a couple of stops darker than the cameras’ suggestions, and so this one is perfect for me, but maybe not for you. Exposure is, simply, brightness.

So what is Bracketing?

This is the name given to hedging your bets when it comes to exposure. You take your shot, then you take another one a stop brighter, one a stop darker, or maybe 2 or 3 either way. The idea is that when you get home, you have multiple shots of the same scene, each with a slightly different exposure. You can then judge which one is correctly exposed and discard the rest. You give yourself more of a chance to get the shot right.

Auto Bracketing

Whilst anyone with any camera can bracket manually, simply by taking identical shots with different exposures, many digital cameras and most DSLRs now offer an Auto Bracket feature. Recent Nikons, such as the D800, even promote this feature to the top dial, putting it right under your fingertips. That’s how useful they think it is. You can select how many bracket shots the camera will take, as well as how varied the exposure compensation should be. Be careful when using this feature though – in single shot mode, if your camera thinks you’re taking 3 bracketed shots, then that’s 3 presses of the shutter. A bit of a pain when you suddenly see a different shot, or forget and come back to it later only to take an overexposed or underexposed shot without realising.

What’s the point?

Well that’s the question I’m asking here. Whereas I don’t doubt the usefulness of bracketing when taking High Dynamic Range shots (that’s HDR – several shots of different exposure layered one upon the other to improve visibility in bright bits and shadows together; I’ll post a separate guide about this), any other time is bracketing not just taking up valuable room on your memory card? And taking up valuable time out in the field? Here’s my reasoning:

Bracketing has been around as long as cameras have. In the days before digital cameras, there was no way of previewing a shot in the field. A photographer would take shots until the film was full, and not see those shots until the film was developed some time later. For professionals without previews, I accept that it can be too risky to rely on one shot that someone is paying for. But I (and most of you) have preview screens. We have light meters built into our cameras. I shoot RAW 90% of the time (reasons for doing so in another guide to come). With RAW I can edit the exposure on my computer, as though I’m changing it on my camera. That’s right – upping or reducing the brightness of an image doesn’t cost me any detail. Secondly, I have missed shots because my camera still wants to shoot the bracket shots for something I can easily change the exposure of later. Thirdly, my memory cards are precious. My time is precious. I don’t want to spend four times as long in processing at the computer, to get fewer shots at the end of it because my card filled up too soon. But mainly, I just don’t need to bracket as a matter of course. 90% of the time, I get it right before I press the shutter. That isn’t bragging, or indeed special in any way. I just know my meter, and know when not to trust it, and by how much. Most of my images don’t even need brightening or darkening in post-process because they were shot right in the first place. It has taken me time to get to this point, sure. But over the coming weeks and months (and hopefully longer), I will explain how you can too.

So, I have reached my conclusion. Bracketing: useful when you’re producing HDR; necessary when you’re shooting on an old film camera; a waste of time and memory anywhere else. Controversial? Please share your thoughts below!

Snow on Roof at Sunset

A roof-side view of the setting sun, with perfectly smooth snow sitting in the foreground of the roof.

Why am I posting a picture of a snow-covered roof in August, when it’s 32 degrees centigrade outside? Firstly, it’s because I long for the cool touch of snow and ice, and secondly; it’s snowing somewhere in the world right now.

Thirdly, this photo was recently ‘faved’ on our Flickr feed, and so I thought I’d give a little background on how the shot came about and was put together.

Story behind the shot

It had been snowing in this little corner of Lancashire, UK, for about a week. Being a semi-rural area, the landscapes were simply stunning under endless blankets of white carpet, which rolled and bumped with the steep valley and vanishing foothills. I took heaps of shots of snowy fields, snowy trees and snowy sheep – some of which made the grade for the Wall Art collection at – but I wanted a different angle on the pretty snowscape. Our house in Lancashire is an old stone terrace with fields front and back, and the loft has been converted into a bedroom, with a wide opening window in the roof – perfect for poking your head out like a meerkat from the middle of the roof. And so when I opened the window to have an unobstructed view of the snowy hills behind the house (and covered the carpet and bed in snow), I caught this angle by accident really, and was drawn to the perfection of the snow: level, even, crisp, with the low sun catching individual crystals of snow, transforming them into diamonds upon the tiles. Once I’d seen it, I had to get the camera and make the shot work, technically.

Getting the shot right

Shooting into the sun can be tricky. Your camera’s light meter will be overwhelmed and may result in a shot exposed for the sun, leaving everything else in the frame in complete darkness with no detail visible. There are two ways round this, but by far the easiest way is to ensure you are ‘metering’ for the area of detail you want exposed correctly. DSLR cameras have a little metering switch. On the Nikon, this is a little 3-way switch on the back (on most, near the viewfinder at the top), with 3 little symbols.

Centre-Weighted Metering

The setting with a little white dot with brackets around it will meter weighted to the centre of the frame – meaning whatever is in the middle is what your camera thinks you want exposed correctly, with other parts of the frame not completely ignored, but given less attention. The weighting is roughly 75% to 25% in favour of the centre area, whose size you can usually change.

Matrix (or whole-frame) Metering

The dot inside a rectangle refers to Matrix metering, which (simply put) tries to meter correctly for the whole frame by analysing everything and comparing it to a database of images – pretty useless in this kind of shot, where you have massive dynamic range (big differences in brightness within the frame).

Spot Metering

The third option on the metering switch, and the winner for the snowy roof shot, is the lonely dot. This dot setting denotes spot metering, and means that whatever is in the small AF square in the viewfinder (which can be moved around on DSLRs) is what the meter reports exposure for. Put the square on the bit that needs correct exposure, or focus and lock exposure on that bit and then recompose the shot, and you should be fine. It isn’t just DSLRs that have the ability to expose on a particular part of the frame – even the iPhone camera is able to expose on wherever you tap – if you tap and hold it will lock that exposure setting and let you move to reframe the shot. Magic.

The final piece of advice, or rambling – depending on your viewpoint, is to say that this shot came about as an alternative to the usual snow landscape shots you get. With anything – not just snow – there’s nothing wrong in taking what might seem like standard shots. But please do try to get a different perspective on something. This could be simply kneeling down, lying down, or standing on a chair. Or, like here, sticking your head out of a roof window. It might not work, but more often than not it gives something quite interesting.