How to see more photographs – video

Here is a very short video which I have produced as a bit of an experiment. If there is a positive response to this lively way of getting across information, I will maybe do some more. But we’ll see how things go for now.

The idea is to show you what and how I am seeing things from behind the camera and how I think pictures through from the time I spot their potential to the time I press the button. So bear in mind that to do this, the movie camera is on the move and not stationery on a tripod – you are seeing what I am seeing. The aim is to help you see more photographs everywhere.

Of course this could have great potential for the way I post on the blog. Let’s see.

Just click the arrow in the middle of the frame below to see this 3 minute clip.

Photography student’s success

Photograph by Margaret Laurie
It’s always a huge pleasure for me when I hear that I have been able to inspire someone and set them on the right track. 

Margaret came to one of my weekend workshops here in Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland earlier this year. The other day she emailed me hardly able to contain here excitement because one of her photographs had been accepted for publication in the Scotland on Sunday newspaper. This is what Margaret said:

“You helped a lot to inspire me to take more photos, and give me some confidence to send my photos into the paper.

“This photo was taken a couple of Fridays ago at the beginning of May. We live in Ferryhill, Aberdeen and I’d woken early with the sun streaming in through the window, and out of the window saw this fantastic sunrise. I went across the road and that was the view from our street at 5.30am! I took loads of photos while my husband, and daughters were tucked up snugly in bed. The view looks over the rooftops towards the River Dee as it flows under Victoria Road bridge to the harbour then out to sea. The smoke on the right is from an offshore supply vessel. The cranes are all at the docks and the tiny dots are notorious Aberdeen seagulls! I loved the way the cranes and the aerials were leaning towards each other.

“My camera is a Nikon D80, exposure set on manual at 1/1600sec, f7.1, ISO 200, WB set on ‘Cloudy’. The focal length was 112mm.

“The weekend workshop in Kirkcudbright with yourself gave me the oomph to do something with my photos. As you can see I now use my camera in manual, and that’s pretty much 99% of the time, and experiment with the white balance, and still take B & W.”

Very well done, Margaret. You have every right to be very proud of yourself. I can still remember the buzz I got from my first publication – and that’s a very long time ago.

Might I have done things differently? Well, perhaps I might have used a slightly different exposure setting, but Margaret has achieved such a beautiful result that any alterations would only amount to fine tweaking.

By using the ‘Cloudy’ White Balance (WB) setting, Margaret has added to the yellow/orange glow from the early morning sun. Great idea. With so much light available, I might have used a ISO 100 for maximum image quality, stopped the aperture down for extra depth of field (this part depends on what Margaret was wanting to capture; maybe she wanted limited depth of field), and used a slower shutter speed. This would have given an exposure of roughly 1/500sec at f11. 1/500sec should be quite fast enough to eliminate camera shake when using a lens with a focal length of 112mm – which on the Nikon D80 is equivalent to about 180mm.

Keep ‘em coming, Margaret. Very well done!

Learning how to print black and white

When I visited the Focus on Imaging show at the NEC in Birmingham last week, I happened to be attracted to the Ilford stand. Now I can say with pride that I have won many awards in what used to be the Ilford Print of The Years Competitions in the past, so naturally, I took a close look at some of the winning prints.
I saw one print that was definitely out of focus in the enlarger and the quality of the print left a bit to be desired. Perhaps it’s because so few photographers are competent with film printing these days. Standards must have fallen.

Now when I was a lad…

I don’t suppose many professional photographers have started their careers on their hands and knees, but that is what happened to me. My first job after leaving school clutching my solitary ‘O’ Level in art – the only examination I ever took – was to print the photo-sales for a local weekly newspaper. For this mammoth task (there were hundreds of black and white prints to do every day) I was given a suitably elephantine piece of equipment – a gigantic, old-fashioned horizontal enlarger.

If you have never seen a horizontal enlarger, and in this day of digital, there is no reason why you should have, you’ll have to imagine a 19th Century lantern slide projector running on rails about 6 feet long. I blame this obstinate colossus – all mahogany, brass, and leather bellows, for my permanent stoop and stunted growth.

The inventive and sadistic chief photographer had mounted this enlarger against the wall, vertically, to save space. A large hole had been sawn in the ceiling above to accommodate the lamp house that housed a light bulb the size of a football. Even so, the brute was still so long that in order to print anything bigger that a whole-plate, the baseboard had to be put on the floor. It needed to of us to heave the lamp house up the rails to print a 10 x 8. That bulb got so mad hot that smoke would filter though the ceiling into the typing pool upstairs.

Oh how I wished that dreadful thing would go up in flames.

Despite the size and power of the bulb, by the time its light had travelled down to the lens through the enormous condensers, it barely had strength to trickle onto the printing paper. Exposures of quite extraordinary duration were called for and these had to be timed by counting the seconds in my head. There was no darkroom clock, and I couldn’t afford a watch on £3 a week. I dreaded orders for multiple prints.

These long exposures and the monster’s instability in its unnaturally upright position, meant that if anybody in the building slammed a door while I was counting, the condensers would get the shakes, the print would blur and I would have to start again and make a fresh one. This terrible state of uncertainly shredded my youthful nerves and, to help me relax after work my older colleagues would sneak me into the local pub, where they taught me to drink pints of strong beer, several years before I was legally entitled.

I was only allowed out of the darkroom for tea breaks, and then I would come out blinking like a bat, to brew-up for an ill-assorted bunch of dissipated press photographers. The tea was so strong that if stripped the glaze off the mugs. During these tea breaks I destroyed my taste buds and learned a great deal about bad language and photography.


Timing your photographs – 2

Following on from my previous post about the importance of good timing when taking your photographs, here are a couple of pictures that illustrate another aspect of timing. 

Good timing is not only vital in order to capture the precise moment the action is most interesting, but it can also have a profound affect on the composition and atmosphere of the picture.

Compare the two photographs taken of racehorses exercising in the Staffordshire countryside very early one winter’s morning. I was delighted to capture the shot of the horses though the trees and against such strong backlighting. The bare trees, the snow on the ground – everything adds to the atmosphere of that winter morning. The horses are walking quite slowly, not galloping, but still the timing is important. In the photograph above, there are more horses than in the shot below, but less is often more in photography, and by waiting until some of the horses had passed out of shot to my left, the composition became cleaner, and because of that the second photograph, below, has more impact.

Also, the silhouettes of the horses to the right of the first picture (above) are not ‘clean’; they are partly obscured by the trees. This has created a degree of confusion and has become distracting. By waiting until fewer horses can be seen more ‘cleanly’ between the trees in the second shot (below), the visual appeal has been heightened rather than reduced.

After taking the first shot, I did not give way to the temptation to follow the horses in the viewfinder in order to make sure I got them all in as they moved to my left, but, as you can see from the foreground, which has hardly changed, I simply waited until some horses moved out of shot and kept the framing almost identical.

Timing your photographs – 1

No matter how interesting your subject might appear, you will not get the most from it unless your timing is just right. Good timing needs lots of practise and is not something that can be mastered overnight. Sure, if you take lots of photographs and set you camera at 5 frames a second or more, you are going to get lucky some of the time. But if you want the satisfaction of capturing exactly the moment that matters, then anticipation is the key.
I think I may have said before that the best sports photographers are those who have a passion for the sport they are photographing, and who know from constant practise and observation what is likely to happen next. They are literally ahead of the game.
Come to think of it, there can be few better ways to hone the ability to time your shots than to spend some time photographing sport. Most local amateur football teams will welcome a photographer who asks to take pictures of their games. This can be a great way to get started. If, though, you are like me and loathe football and everything about it, maybe you should try something else. Even a sport like crown green bowling, which may seem pretty sedentary, needs very precise timing to capture worthwhile pictures.
The photograph above was taken at the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, England, and was one of many pictures I took for a magazine feature. The boy in the cloth cap flicked water onto the horse several times. After he did it the first time I realised that the best shot would be just as the water was in the air and about the hit the horse. A fraction of a second later was too late. I almost always use single shot for this type of picture simply because I prefer the picture to be taken when I press the button and not when the camera wants to take it. You really can miss pictures that happen between those 5 frames a second.
The strong ‘toppy’ back light has also helped emphasize the splashes of water and enabled a very fast shutter seed to be used to ‘freeze’ the action. Backlight always lights up water frome behind and makes it shine white.

Front or backlight?

I’m always reminding my students about the different properties of the direction of light and how important it is to understand what’s going on. Frontlight (light behind the camera and front-on to the subject), I tell them, takes always the shadows and can make the subject look flat and two-dimensional. However, I am quick to point out, frontlight does have a trick up its sleeve: there may be colour hiding in the shadows, and by removing them by using front light you will of course see more colour. So a colourful subject often looks even more colourful when lit by frontlight.

Well, as always, there are exceptions to the rule, and photographing flowers and leaves is one of them. Depending on the thickness and translucence of the flower or leaf the thinner and more translucent the better – you can often increase the intensity of its colour by placing the light behind the subject and letting it shine through the leaf.

The photograph above is a good example. This is a very simple picture which relies on its colour for its visual appeal. The sunlight is almost directly behind the leaf and is shining through it; and so illuminating the green like a projector lamp.

In this case, the backlight has shown up the veins of inside the leaf and brought more detail and interest. Frontlight would have shown the colour of the surface of the leaf, but none of the depth of colour and shapes inside it.

Give this technique a try next time you are photographing flowers. Sometimes you can get the best of both worlds by having the light source behind the subject and using a reflector under or beside the lens to bounce some light back onto the surface of the flower.

Learn much more about understanding and how to use light with my Better Photography DVDs

Better Photography DVDs

Photoactive Camera Shop with Amazon

Colour and light

This well-hidden corner in the old town of Cuitedella in Menorca must have been photographed countless times by different groups of my students during the photography holidays I run on the island. I just can’t see how a photographer could possibly walk past this place without raising a camera. It positively demands your attention because of those wonderful colours.

However, it is never easy to photograph. The first problem is lack of space; you just cannot get back far enough. This tiny little square is very small indeed, and even with a wide angle lens equivalent to 24mm, it is difficult to include as much in the composition as you would like. Use a lens any wider and the distortions completely ruin the atmosphere of the scene. The answer to this, of course, is to decide which particular elements of the scene you find most interesting, and concentrate on those. In other words, careful cropping in the viewfinder.

Then there is the difficulty of parked motor scooters and bicycles. On occasions these can add to the interest, but this very much depends on the type and visual appeal of the bikes that are parked there some are more interesting to look at than others.

The last problem is the light this photograph was taken around midday with the sun very high so that it shines down into the narrow square, which is surrounded by houses in a narrow back street. The downside of this type of light is the strong shadows and high contrast. But it does have the advantage of bringing texture to the wall, and addng shadow patterns across the cobles.

I like this subject best of all on a sunny day when the sun does not shine directly down on it in the morning or afternoon. Then it is very bright, but soft, emphasising the reds in the wall, and the green of the leaves and the wooden bench. You need to adjust you White Balance (WB) in these conditions using Cloudy, Shade or Custom settings.

Blue, red and green is a powerful colour combination at the best of times, and when those colours are combined with simple outline shapes the tree, archway and the bench. An interesting image should result.

Photography holiday video

Below is a short video I have put together of some of the photographers on my latest photography holiday in Menorca. It includes several of their photographs and also some of mine. La Mola is an extraordinary place. The old fortifications guarding the entrance to Mahon harbour. The whole place is just bursting with photo opportunities.
So enjoy the video and the photographs – The next holiday will be in September and there are still a few places available.

Photographing close-ups

I’ve posted several photographs taken by my group in Menorca over the last week, but most of the pictures have been of people and places. We also spent some time photographing close-ups and details wherever we went on the island, and I wanted to show you these beautiful shots. 

Without any question, Rosemary’s amazing abstract image of jelly fish, below, demonstrates that you do not need top-range SLR cameras to produce great pictures. Rosemary was using a Fuji FinePix bridge camera – and an old one at that. This photograph also shows that great pictures are there to be seen in the most unlikely places, and of the most unlikely subjects – if you LOOK. I like to call this ability to see pictures almost everywhere as ‘visual agility’ You can all do it if you try.

Ande’s two close-ups were taken on a Canon 400D. I confess I have looked at that loading mechanism on the big Vickers gun and never actually spotted its visual potential. Ande did – and a great picture is the result.

Okay, his picture of the door latch is a little more obvious and I would like to think that any photographer worth his salt would have spotted it too. But the fact is Ande not only spotted the picture but he made a cracking good job of capturing it in his camera; it i technically perfect and visually appealing.

Photographs by Rosemary Warnes and Ande Wick


Disgusting photography


I got an email from a reader about the picture of the naked man I posted yesterday. I thought I should share it with you….  

Dear Mr. Dunn,
As a long time supporter of Photoactive and its activities, I have to complain most bitterly about the appalling lapse in good taste recently demonstrated in your blog.
A man’s bottom indeed!
I am absolutely horrified!
Disgusted of Sevenoaks

Ah well, Disgusted, all I can say is that you would be even more horrified if you knew what an elegant, beautiful and seemingly pure-minded lady took the photograph of the man’s bottom. But my lips are sealed.

To more respectable photographic matters, here are some more people photographs taken by members of my group in Menorca over the last week. The shot of the little boy in the market, and the one of the lady in the apron, were taken by group member Laura during an excursion to the old town of Cuidetella. She was using a Canon 400D with a small telephoto. I love both photographs. The 

colour combinations and sense of animation in both pictures really brings them to life.

I also like Peter’s picture of the tough guy with the tattoos. Peter is getting so much reward from his photography, and it is a real delight to watch him improving every time we go out to take pictures together. That’s him taking candid shots from the cover of a bench in one of the squares in Mahon, the island’s capital city.

Oh dear, I’ve just realised – it’s another picture of a bloke. I’m going to have disgusted writing to complain again.