Posts Tagged ‘how to’

I have always been fascinated by lightning storms. I love the blindingly bright instant of each strike – and particularly love the patterns of each fork as it staggers its way across the sky towards civilisation and the Earth.

Capturing this beauty is a little more tricky than viewing it though. I currently live in Singapore, which has been reported in some sources as having the most lightning strikes of any country in the world. I do have a little moment of amusement when I see folk here trying to capture one of the many, many lightning strikes – by pointing their camera skyward, holding their breath and then pressing the shutter button as soon as they see a bolt, usually swinging their camera round to the strike area at the same time. The man (it’s always a man) then looks at their camera screen immediately, shakes his head and mutters under his breath, before repeating the process. Needless to say, he won’t get the shot with 10,000 or more attempts.

Lightning over the Bay

A purple tinged lightning bolt is reflected in the water of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

The trick is to accept that you cannot react faster than lightning. Don’t try to capture it when it strikes; you have to be aware of where it will strike, and then shoot the empty space in anticipation of the bolt.

This is where a camera with a manual mode is vital. Depending on how dark your scene is, you need to close your aperture down as small as you can get away with (high f-number), and leave your shutter open for as long as you can get away with. A tripod and a remote shutter release cable will be your bestest friends here. Once you’ve got the right combination of aperture and shutter speed (a minimum of 5 seconds, but preferably 30 seconds if it’s dark enough) you just need to compose the shot and fire away on continuous mode until you see a strike within your frame. As soon as you get a strike within your shot, release the shutter and review the image. If you need to recompose or re-expose, do so and repeat. Then, it’s very much a case of luck – but as all photographers know: you have to make your own luck, and without the preparation and patience, you won’t get the shot.

The shot above, of the lightning strike over Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, was captured after around 15 minutes of watching two storms approach from opposite directions. The tripod was setup on the deck of a small boat on which I slept for 3 days, and though the seas were calm and flat, there was still enough motion to prevent me from keeping the shutter open for long periods – even with the tripod. I watched the storms and deduced that most of the strikes were taking place over an area spanning roughly 90 degrees. So, using a wide angle lens to cover as much sky as possible, I pointed in that direction and simply shot frame after frame until I got lucky.

Lightning close by

A bolt of lightning strikes the apartment block opposite, clearly visible at close range.

This shot took around 5 minutes to capture, and was taken from my living room as I ate my dinner. With a minute or two to set the correct exposure (aperture and shutter speed combined), I simply munched on my pasta and kept an eye towards where my camera was pointed as my camera did the hard work of continuing to fire from my $20 remote cable. When I saw a strike that was within frame, I stopped and checked and saw I’d hit lucky with this bolt appearing to hit the apex of the block opposite mine. Had I bothered to remove the mosquito net from the window I may even have a shot worth tidying up and selling – such is the clarity and closeness of the lightning.

The point is, you will never be able to predict, control or react to lightning. So don’t bother. Notice where most of the strikes are happening, set up for that zone and let your camera fire away. Sooner or later you will capture a strike, and if you’ve planned your composition and exposure, it will be a clear and useable shot! My shots here were taken purely as afterthoughts, and without much time spent at all – so if I can do this and eat pasta at the same time, you can do this and capture a stunning landscape too, without much extra thought.

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.

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.

It’s a basic of using your camera, but there’s nothing wrong with a little help in making a good shot become a little bit better, if not unique.

It’s all about your shutter speed. You’ll need a camera with access to the shutter speed, but this isn’t just fancy SLRs: my wife’s new point and shoot compact camera has a manual mode, and a shutter priority mode, and fits in the mysterious little pocket inside her handbag flap (Nikon P7700). Even an iPhone camera can be made to use slower shutter speeds (take a look at Slow Shutter Cam app for iOS).

This is how it works, ignoring the other two points of the exposure triumvirate – aperture and sensitivity:

Your camera’s shutter can be open for a given length of time, ranging from extremely fast (maybe 1/8000th of a second depending on your camera), to extremely slow (30 seconds, minutes, hours – potentially as long as you want). Simple physics means that the longer a shutter is open, the more light enters into the chamber, or onto the sensor. So a slower shutter speed makes for a brighter exposure. But it also means that the sensor (or film) will “see” any given photon of light in every location it is present whilst the shutter is open. In simpler terms, any object that moves will imprint its movement onto the sensor for the duration of the shutter being open. In baby terms; motion is blurred. The longer the shutter is open, the more movement is recorded, so the more blur.

Using long exposure to include motion blur into your image works best when there is also something static in the image to contrast with and further highlight the motion. This can be pretty strong contrast, like when photographing waterfalls:

Motion Blur in Waterfall

Slowed down, flowing waterfall tumbling over large rocks and granite, with a fallen tree and other debris in this Tasmanian river.

Or it can be a really subtle contrast, like this night shot where everything is in focus, but a moving plane creates a light trail:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night with light trail from moving plane

The world-famous sails of the Opera House puncture the night air, with a passing jet leaving a trail overhead as it approaches Sydney Harbour Bridge.

This contrast between the sharp static objects and the blurred moving ones is key. But because your shutter will allow every moving object to record its blur, it’s vital that you don’t allow the static objects to move. In short, you mostly need to USE A TRIPOD! A previous post talks about the huge impact of the inexpensive polarising filter: the tripod is a similar piece of kit that will have a huge impact on your images. An easier-to-carry option is the Gorillapod, which can stand or wrap itself around whatever is handy at the scene, whilst still fitting in a coat pocket or a carrier bag. For very long exposures, or night shots, you’ll need a cheap cable shutter release button to prevent your button-pressing on the camera from shaking it and causes unwanted blur. Using the self-timer option is another way round this.

There are times when you don’t have to use a tripod of course. Inverting the motion blur effect so that everything but the moving object is blurred requires you to track the object as the shutter is released, like this:

Saigon Motorbikes

Tracking Shot of two motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. Night shot, with motion blur background and frozen-in-action bikes.

Using a tracking shot like this means a tripod is likely to get in your way.

Whilst the classic long exposure shot blurs running water in rivers and waterfalls, you can also use it to capture light trails, moving vehicles, the stars – in fact, anything at all. I’d love to hear of your exploits with long exposure, especially if they’re different.

Surfer Looks On In Envy

A surfer in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard, runs toward the water as he watches fellow surfers ride impressive waves off shore.

The most vIewed Image of the last few days is…

So from time to time – as often as I can – I will poll my photo views on Flickr, and give some background info on the most viewed shot of the last week or few days. Today, such a look at the stats shows that ‘Surfer Looks On In Envy’ is getting a lot of hits. Now this actually comes as a surprise for me, as I had only taken this image off sale from a few days ago as I thought it wasn’t good enough to be displayed. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but first – the story behind the shot:

Cape Bridgewater Beach

I’d been driving for a few hours on the coastal road between Adelaide and Melbourne, in Southern Australia – before it comes to the official ‘Great Ocean Road’. This road is stunning. This whole coastline is stunning actually, and I’d managed to get quite a few decent images before the tedium of inland roads behind a tractor took over. When the tractor finally pulled off the road into a field, the crest of a hill appeared in front of me. As I very quickly reached the top of the hill, one of the most spectacularly beautiful scenic sights unravelled before my eyes. A deep and endless blue sea stretched towards me from a clear but distant horizon, wrapping itself around unfolding green-topped craggy rocks. In between two of these rocky headland points, a stunningly beautiful golden sand beach swept across the landscape, offering a great contrast between the deep blue and the luscious greens.

The huge, empty expanse of fine sand, blue sea and sky, and approaching wispy cirrus cloud at Cape Bridgewater, Australia, was a real tonic after hours of driving.

I drove down to the beach and found it almost completely empty. That’s the thing that gets me most about Australia: they are blessed with not just one beach that is amongst the world’s best looking, but thousands. Thousands and thousands of huge, golden fine-sand beaches that seem to cover 99% of the vast continent’s coastline. And 99% of these have nobody on them. There were so many of these really pretty beaches that I had all to myself.

Cape Bridgewater beach wasn’t entirely all mine that day. There were a smattering of surfers in the water, and one more on the beach, sat on the sand struggling to pull his wetsuit on. I watched him looking forlornly out at the waves, feeling every missed ride, as he bumbled and fumbled to get himself out there as fast as he could. After one failed attempt to run towards the water without his board, I snapped him on his second attempt, managing to capture him looking out to see another surfer getting the waves he was missing, as he ran out to enter the water away from the submerged rocks.

Why I took the photo off display

There are many basic “rules” in photography. None of these “rules” are really rules – they are merely guidelines. But one of them is that objects in the foreground shouldn’t be out of focus, as it distracts the eye. I’ll paste the photo here again, so you can see what I’m talking about without having to scroll up and down:

Surfer Looks On In Envy

A surfer in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard, runs toward the water as he watches fellow surfers ride impressive waves off shore.

My decision at the time was to highlight what the surfer was looking at, so the breaking wave and second surfer riding that wave, is in focus (and further highlighted by the sun making it the brightest part of the image, thus further drawing in the eye). I could have used a smaller aperture (bigger f-stop) to increase the depth of field and have them both in focus, but this would have slowed down the shutter speed so much that the main surfer’s motion blur would have been so much so that he’d have morphed into an unidentifiable splodge of ink.

So my reason for writing off this image is the foreground main object being distractingly out of focus. I was then pretty surprised for this image to get as many views as it did, leaving me asking the question: am I being too rigid with these “rules” of photography?

I’d love to know your thoughts on it!

OK, so you have some shots that you love. I mean, you really are proud of them, and proud of the reactions you get from people who see them. Or maybe you’ve got a nice setup going shooting people you know, their families, maybe amateur sports or drama productions. Maybe you have a way of monetising these images and assignments already, maybe you don’t and are looking to. Maybe you spend a couple of hours sifting, ordering and burning one afternoon’s work to CD or DVD, before shuffling down to the post office or driving over to someone’s house/office/nearest coffee shop to hand it over. If you haven’t yet got your act together and set yourself up with a photo-commerce site I really think you should.

I’ve been playing around with a couple of options (not including Flickr, which is a useful sharing and buzz-generating service, but isn’t geared to handling orders) for hosting and selling images, and I’ll share with you my thoughts on both: Photoshelter and Zenfolio are reviewed below.


First attempt, though not completely disregarded yet, is a bit of a heavyweight in terms of features and price. For the mid-range standard account it’s US$30 per month, which allows you to use your own domain name – e.g. instead of and gives you a bit more storage (60GB as opposed to 10GB). There’s a further tier at $50 per month which includes free shoulder massages on demand (if it doesn’t I can’t see why you would pay that, but I’m sure it suits some). I went for the Standard, middle-of-the-road account and so far have been using it for about 2 months.

Photoshelter Organiser

The web-based image organiser. Not rocket science, though a little ugly.

What I like about Photoshelter

It is pretty easy to set up, if a little ugly. It works great with both Lightroom and Aperture, which makes organising, keywording, titling and all the other really boring stuff nice and simple (I will post some more advice about all that stuff soon, but for now: you MUST keyword and caption your photos!). For those of you who tend to or want to license your images out for editorial and commercial use, the inbuilt access to Fotoquote is a godsend: your potential clients can tap in their usage details right there on your website and you get paid without ever having to speak to (or more importantly negotiate endlessly with) someone who is trying to get a £5,000 image for free. For me however, whilst I won’t say no to a fair license deal, I’m really into prints, canvas wraps and framed stuff for people to hang on their wall. So the physical product section was of the most interest to me. They integrate seamlessly with a handful of labs, and semi-seamlessly with about a billion others. I want to concentrate on taking photos, not fulfilling orders, and so I wanted total integration, and for all orders, printing and delivery to be handled by Photoshelter. Here, I am a little disappointed, I have to say.

What I don’t like about Photoshelter…

So, incase you skipped the bumble above, I want physical products on my photo website. I want to sell framed prints, canvases and the like. Photoshelter’s seamless integration partners, at least through Photoshelter, are really geared towards prints. Which suits a lot of photographers, I’m sure. But my business is geared towards busy people who want nice images on their wall, and don’t have the time or the knowledge to faff about getting it framed in their own town, nor who want to spend hard-earned cash on top quality art work, only to shove it in a cheap Ikea frame because it’s simple (sorry Ikea, but you really are to human beings what the devil is to Catholics). So unmounted prints aren’t cutting it for me. The other thing is, I’m complicated. I’m from the UK, and a lot of my business network is in the UK, but I am currently based in Singapore, and have potential clients in many more countries I’m sure. This is the 21st Century – countries are starting to become irrelevant (controversial!). Photoshelter offers one integrated lab in the UK, and none in Asia. In fact, international business is pretty difficult, unless you deal mainly in digital downloads or simple prints, which I’ve already explained why I don’t. Canvas wraps are somewhat do-able, but shipping outside of the US is prohibitively expensive and potentially dangerous to the product.

Another thing, which I do believe will be sorted out in due course but has annoyed the hell out of me in the meantime, is the Beam themes they’ve recently introduced. They look great; simple, clean, semi-intelligent to the browser they’re currently being viewed in. But not one of the themes works right. My preferred theme looks like this:

Photoshelter Beam

Looks good, doesn’t function 100% as it should… and where do my customers buy an image?

Starting slideshows from any of these albums is easy, but buying an image is not intuitive. To buy the image of the fluorescent tubes on the screenshot above, I have to click through 6 different links to get to the point where I can see products for sale. And the first 5 clicks are nothing at all to do with buying, adding to cart or anything similar. In fact, I have to provide detailed instructions on how to view an image and buy it on my ‘About’ page, which in itself isn’t the most obvious place to find instructions on how to buy an image. Verdict: useful for showing off a small number of images, useless for selling any.


Cheaper than Photoshelter, but packing a punch, I’ve gone for the ‘Premium’ plan at US$120 per year, though be careful as they then also charge up to 15% commission on anything you sell through them, which Photoshelter don’t do. On paper, they appear to offer less than Photoshelter: no RAW support; maximum 64MB per file (36MB on the cheaper plans); no Fotoquote integration. But they work just as well with Lightroom and Aperture, and whilst their website stock designs aren’t as smooth-looking as Photoshelter’s, they actually work as they’re supposed to and are massively customisable.

What I like about Zenfolio

Ease of use. Coming after 2 months of using Photoshelter’s interface, I did spend about 15 minutes looking at my computer screen and sighing a lot when I got my account up and running with Zenfolio. But, after those 15 minutes, the rest of the site was done, dusted and customised in about 3 hours. That includes uploading 400 or so images. T H R E E   H O U R S. For a whole website to be up and running, accepting orders and flicking through slideshows. Their organiser is still a little more function than form, but it’s a whole lot easier than Photoshelter’s to use.

Zenfolio Organiser

It’s nice having all options visible, though some of the text editing on webpages aren’t where you’d expect them.

As I’ve mentioned, my business is all about physical products that customers will hang on their wall. I’m also pretty international. Zenfolio offers a much improved experience for me on both fronts. Their total-integration partner labs offer much more in the way of framed and mounted options, and will deliver without their logos all over my stuff (in most cases). Setting up options to mat and frame a photograph took me a couple of minutes, as opposed to a day and a half per product with Photoshelter (as they all had to be self-fulfilled orders there). And they have these totally integrated labs in more countries too – with shipping to the rest of the world embedded in the checkout process. With Zenfolio, I can finally set up a single price list that is intelligent enough to send to one lab if the customer is in one country, and a different lab if they’re in a different country – this simply isn’t possible in Photoshelter.

Oh, and if a customer sees an image they want to buy, there is a ‘Buy’ button above the image. Photoshelter: take note.

What I don’t like about Zenfolio

Licensing images isn’t really an option here. They have the option to do so, but it’s pretty static. With Photoshelter, if a buyer comes in looking for a 1/2 page, 1 million impression licence for ‘Bins Monthly’ magazine in Azerbaijan and Minnesota, they select those options within your site and get an instant quote, with instant payment and instant file delivery too if they want. On Zenfolio, they can pay for a license, but it’s pretty vague: Printed 100,000 copies; or online-only. You can add further licenses manually, but you’d never get to the level of detail Photoshelter and Fotoquote offer without a few years spare. So the licensing aspect of your business would really need to remain as an ’email me and negotiate’ process (though Fotoquote is available as a standalone application, you’d still need to communicate directly with a buyer or editor).

I’m not really liking the commission idea. I’m already paying them a monthly or yearly fee to handle my sales, host my site etc, so I just feel a little aggrieved that I’m paying them again, on top of the base price for whatever product I’ve sold.

Maximum file size becomes an issue when you shoot at very high resolutions (36MP sometimes – hey, I am selling some very large wall art!).

In the interests of fairness…

Reading back, I can see I’m pretty critical of Photoshelter, and somewhat pro-Zenfolio. It wasn’t meant to be like that. I sure as hell am not getting any kind of deal or payment from either firm. Whichever service you go for – and there are others (Smugmug is a big one that I haven’t covered here) – my biggest piece of advice here is that you go for one if you intend to recoup any money from all that expensive camera gear you’ve got. Yes, it is another expense on the face of it, but hopefully you’ll break even by selling the odd image here and there, and you might even save up enough to buy a new toy. If nothing else, it’s a great way to keep your images backed up…

At the time of writing, I am currently still subscribed to both services. and Whichever link doesn’t work is the one I ditched! If you want to sign up for one of these services, use these referral codes: they get you 10-15% off your fee, and I get some credit towards my next renewal.

Photoshelter discount link:

Zenfolio discount code: TQA-VYA-ANE

Art Gallery, New South Wales

The neo-classical facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, looms out of the deep blue sky with wispy cloud.

One of the most valuable pieces of kit you can buy as a photographer is a polarising filter. If that surprises you, then I should let you know that it surprised me too. I’ve spent thousands on camera bodies, lenses, bags etc. etc. etc…. but the polarising filter used in this shot cost me £40. A polarising filter is probably the only ‘effect’ you can’t replicate in post-processing – even if you shoot RAW. What it does is weave some kind of witchcraft between the object and your lens, cancelling out much of the reflections of light that bounce off of haze, water vapour and other small particulate matter suspended in the air. It has a similar effect in minimising reflections in glass and surface water too for that matter, making seaside shots and through-glass shots an easy target for cheap but effective image improvement. You can get linear and circular filters: any camera that meters through the lens (i.e. any autofocus camera, or most made in the last 40 years or so) needs a circular filter, but they’re simple and flexible to use.

Once you’ve got a filter that matches the size of your lens (I use Hoya, not the most expensive and I’m happy with the results), screw it on the end – but do note that the filter itself needs to rotate once it’s screwed on. This is because you need to get the glare-cancelling witchcraft sorcerers at the right angle depending on the position of the sun relative to you. Best results (including the gorgeous deep blue sky in the photo above, and the ‘poppy’ vivid colour in the stone of the museum) are picked up at 90 degrees to the sun. This includes up and down 90 degrees, not just left and right – great when you live on the equator and take shots at noon! Rotate the filter to get the effect you want.

Some people caution about using polarising filters with wide angle lenses under 35mm or so. Rubbish. What they don’t like is that you get an uneven sky, as the polarising effect changes with angle from the sun, so a wide angle lens will pick up more of the sky, ergo more variance in the angle. Like this:

Rocks in the Blue

Coastal erosion at a fierce rate leaves the south coast of Victoria, Australia, littered with stacks of rock, collapsed arches, and isolated islands to be battered by the intense blue ocean waves.


You see where the sky is light blue at the left, goes darker and then lighter again as you follow it right? That’s the effect we’re talking about. Some people hate it, I love it – it’s up to you. It can be really effective when you line up a light bit in the centre of your image, surrounding the main subject; giving a natural halo effect that draws the eye into the bit of the image you want to focus on, tapering off into darker skies at the edges.

One other thing to bear in mind is that – as with anything you plonk between your lens and the scene/subject – polarising filters chew up a little bit of light: you will need to allow for 1 or 2 stops of exposure absorbed by the filter. For this reason, don’t bother using a polarising filter at night.