Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Best Way to Improve?

So you can take a decent photograph, but how do you move up a level?

There is one single thing that can really improve your photography - here it is. Good quality, honest feedback.

But be warned if you take offence, make excuses, find yourself saying "ah, but that's because", or if you think people don't know what they are talking about, you won't benefit from this. Every bit of feedback is valid if it's honest because photography is about 2 things
1) whether you like your image;
2) whether others like your image.
I'm guessing if you are letting others see them, then you've nailed the first of these. The hard one though is getting others to see an image they way you saw it.

Every picture we take, we are invested in to some degree - because it was difficult conditions, we had to walk a long way, we were in danger when taking it, it carries memories and emotions. And so, instantly we cease to be able to remain objective.

Here is an image I am fairly proud of - it was a grab shot, street scene, outside my comfort zone and style, taken in really difficult lighting, on the spur of the moment, while reacting very quickly to a changing scene. And I was very pleased with it! I was seduced by the edge lighting by a setting sun , the architecture, the subject and how clever I had been spotting this, and being able to react to it in time. But, it never does well in competitions and I didn't know why.

By getting strangers to tell us about our images, we finally start to see what is strong and what is weak in our images, and only by doing that do we learn. But it's not easy to get people to be open and honest - generally people don't want to hurt our feelings. It was for this reason that I started a group within the New York Institute of Photography's forums called "Rhino Hide" - for those with thick skin ie you didn't need to worry about offence being taken - all members were aware of what was coming at them and critics could let RIP! The only rules were that you had to post your own work too, you had to say at least ONE positive thing and some  constructive things, and you had to back up your opinions with reasons. The group was surprisingly popular (although with the passage of time it seems to have ceased to be public and has also softened up a bit now).

Where do you get good critique, if you don't want to start up a group? Well, here are a few thoughts:
1) Enter competitions where feedback is given (not just a score) - camera clubs are good for this.
2) Post images online (but it's hard to get comments that go beyond "nice", so choose where you post carefully
3) Join forums for industry peers - I am a member of a few linked in groups - you can get some great feedback there if you just ask people what is wrong with an image, not if they like it.
4) Take your images to a gallery or a pro togger and ask their advice on how to improve.
5) and of course, send me a message, I'm happy to tell you my opinion - I'm honest but gentle!

The key to this is to respect everyone's opinion, ask for their advice, consider the responses in an emotionally detached way and then, and this is key, make a decision on whether to take advice or reject it - you cannot please everyone and it is still YOUR image.

Here is the result of feedback that I got on LinkedIn for the Urban Florist - I was advised to crop out the foreground, remove the pillar growing out his head, make him less shadowy, boost the brightness of the plants he is carrying and reduce the brightness of the road. The florist needed to be bigger in the frame too. There was other advice too, but this was the stuff that hit a chord with me when I considered it objectively. I don't "remove" items in Photoshop, it's against my personal code, but I certainly could make that pillar a little darker and remove the contrast of it from it's surroundings, which has the same effect without compromising the integrity of the image.

What do you think, did all this improve the image? I think so (or I wouldn't have done it - the feedback is there to be taken or ignored) . I'm grateful for the feedback, the image is hanging in my living room, I'm invested in the memory of taking it, but by listening without taking offense or being overly protective of my image, I now have a stronger picture, and I have learned a few things to consider for next time.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Landscape Toggers App Toolkit

I'm often asked how I manage to be so lucky, getting on location at the right times of day to capture nice light or interesting weather. There are a couple of factors in this - one is blind luck (which is the single most important thing for a photographer to have - but you CAN make your own!), another is being prepared with
the right equipment in the bag, ready and waiting. But mostly, getting good light and all the other elements of a landscape photograph line up, comes down to planning. I actually enjoy planning. I'm a list writing, bullet pointing, checklist ticking sort of guy. And I love maps.  So this post is about the tools I use to carry out my planning.

1) Subject - what to take. Well, I'm a landscaper, specialising in coasts. So I need a dramatic stage, preferably with something arrestingly exciting in the middle of it, like a lighthouse, a sea stack, or the promise of wildlife. Sometimes the stage itself is enough, if the light and the weather are exceptional . 
You can always look at Flickr or 500px to see what others are photographing but, to find your "own" locations, there is no better tool I know of than Google Earth , which you can use on your PC or tablet. The iPad App is great and I spend many a happy hour browsing on it. Best of all you can see photographs of the locations actually on the maps if a bit of coastline looks promising.

 2) Composition. Yup, before I even know where I'm going, this is being thought about. Nearly every bit of land in the UK has been photographed and posted to the internet. Once I know where I am going, I google it, look up flickr or 500px or PBASE or other photographers web sites and try to see it from every angle possible. And all these sites have iPad apps too! I start to get ideas of what worked well for others, what suits my vision and my style the best, and I try to work out what would make the images better or would put my "stamp" on it.  If I can't imagine taking a better picture than I've seen on the internet I generally abandon that location and look for another - there's little point in just copying an image. So how do you improve on what you find on the net? As well as the angle of approach and composition, I consider weather, time of day/time of year, exposure length, exposing to the left or the right, tide for seascapes. And guess what, there are apps and sites to help with all of these too!

3) The weather. There are so many apps that tell you the weather, wherever you are in the world. The key though is to consult a few of these and try to find some sort of concensus - it's amazing how often they differ. When the align, that's the best chance you have. I use the Met Office's app and a number of others, but a really important one if you are going u into the mountains is the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) . Mountain weather can be very different to weather at more inhabitable altitudes and this is a great site. I also tend to check webcams  - there are more and more of these. A good example is the web cam at the Kings House, which looks out across the Buachaille and lets you see if there is a clear road to get there, but still enough snow on the mountains for good images.

4) The light. There's really only one app I'm aware of that fits the bill perfectly - the Photographers Ephemeris. Sadly no longer available on a PC, it has gone wholly mobile on Android or Apple devices,  and is no longer free. It's about a fiver, but totally worth it. This is the key landscape photographers tool. It lets you find anywhere in the world and stick a pin in it. It then tells you the direction of sun and moonlight at any given time at that particular location and you can plan shoots for any time in the future. It's simply an amazing app and to me, indispensable.  It'll save you a lot of wasted journeys and will get you in position at the right time. As you can tell, I like it.

If you'd like a free app that just simply tells you sunrise and sunset times I use "Sunrise Sunset Free" from the Apple App Store. The nice thing about this app is that it also tells you when there will be pre-dawn light and post-sunset light - the "blue hour". All very useful when trying to work out how obscenely early you will have to wake up and get going. I use these two apps in conjunction with Google maps which tells me how long a journey will take to get on location My best tip here is to get there early. If you arrive int he dark, it will ALWAYS take you longer to find your composition and get set up than you expect.

5) Tides. OK, this is a serious one - you might get good shots with this but more importantly this can keep you safe if you use it right. If you take shots at the coast, you will at some point end up with wet feet, but what you don't want is to be stranded on a rock or in a cave. Much badness. Always check the tide, especially if you are going to arrive or leave in the dark - it's so easy to focus through the lens and not notice that you are being cut off, while you fiddle with apertures and filters. There are warnings on tides at many popular locations, but for the remote ones use an app. There are lots of these too, but the one I use and have found to be reliable is the TidesPlanner app. It does what it says on the tin.

This picture on the right, shows a shot that is only available a) when the tide is on the way in, b) when the tide is at this height, at dawn, and c) when the dawn is over mountains to the left (just out of shot) - A lot of patient repeat visits to remote locations can be avoided by using these apps in combination with each other.

6) Depth of Field - yep there's even an app for this. You may have heard of hyperfocal depth of field - basically for every aperture setting and camera combination, there is a particular distance at which you can focus at that will maximise the depth of field - so sometimes you can actually get a better quality of detail on your image at f/8 than you would have at f/22. All you have to do is find the hyperfocal distance (the point where you should focus).

There are really complex formulae for finding this, and there are tables you can print, so long as you know the crop factor of your sensor (still with me?)...or... you can use an app which will work it out for you. I use's iDof Calculator eg it tells me that with my 24mm lens, so long as I focus 2.5 metres away, then any foreground as close as 124cm will be in focus and so will everything to the horizon - wonderful! Everything in focus, no lens diffraction from using too small an aperture, and 1 minute taken to look it up.  And if you are uncertain if it's working or not, just hit the DoF button on your camera to check it out.

This picture  looks sharp enough doesn't it? It was taken in relatively low light and I wanted to "freeze" the spray of the sea against the rocks but I also wanted it to be sharp front to back, from about 2 metres away. So  I needed to maximise the light getting into the camera. Up went the ISO to ISO 800 (anything higher would have been too grainy on my old 40D camera). But it was still far too slow. By making the aperture larger from f/22 to f/9, I was able to squeeze out a 1/40s shutter speed and get the shot I was after.

There are lots of great apps out there - I am not affiliated to any of the apps and programs mentioned above and don't take responsibility for their accuracy - I just use them a lot. I've used others, but these are the ones I prefer. If you have any that you use, why not share them here on this page.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Time flies - and beating the low inspiration barrier

November 2012. Seriously? I can't believe it's been so long since I last blogged - so much has happened since last I put fingertip to keyboard, which is why my posts are so sparse I suppose... Life has settled down for a little while at least though, so once more into the breach!

At what point do you say, yep, I really have the hang of photography now? Does anyone reading this think they can say that? If so, please post a link, we want to see great images! Personally I think you never stop learning at this, and if you've stopped learning... well, what would be the point in continuing to make images? Hopefully I've learned a lot over the last 18 months, I'll try to share some.

In the rather grey and somewhat boring winter of 2012/2013 skies were bland, my own get up and go had got up and went and inspiration was at an all time low. I had to get out of the slump. I needed to see things in a different way that I could transfer into a photograph. First stop, the easiest and probably the all too common method, was to buy new kit. I went and bought the rather amazing Canon G1X. Expensive but it beats an SLR from the point of view that I can carry it everywhere, it can practically see in the dark at high ISO, it generates bigger images than my DSLR and  the noise reduction blasts my 40D out of the water. Best of all (I didn't know this it the time) the accompanying basic software was hugely advanced on what I had done previously - even my older images that had failed to make the grade were rescuable! If you're thinking of getting one... do it! And lesson #1 - If you have old software, update it!

The second approach to beating the dulls, was to start taking pictures of different subjects - I opted for some urban and industrial landscapes. Still not my first love, but a great way of spending some quality relaxing photography time without needing a trip to the Highlands. I am often in Edinburgh city centre and there is a wealth of great architecture on offer. With the exception of the chimney, all of the images here are taken with that a little G1X . In addition to this blog I also started to run a facebook page where I post an image almost every day - and the image above of the Edinburgh skyline and saltire cross, was one of the first with my little Canon, taken on the way home one evening,  got  over 10,000 hits in a week! Lesson # 2 - always take a camera with you (I know it's old but it's true!).