Photographing reflections – part 2

I try to persuade my students not to get too hung up with the importance of depth of field (dof) – photography books and magazines always seem to do their utmost to make it sound as difficult and as complicated as possible.

Reflections of a stained glass window in Lincoln Cathedral

Reflections of a stained glass window in Lincoln Cathedral

The effect of all this brainwashing is that many photographers become completely obsessed with it and get its value and importance out of all proportion. However, a basic appreciation of depth of field, and how it affects your pictures, really is a vital factor to consider if you are photographing reflections; on these occasions you often need to get the image sharp from near foreground to far distance – maximum depth of field.

For maximum depth, the smallest possible aperture should be used. It is not just the object reflecting the image that needs to be in focus, but the reflection itself, which could be some distance away. For maximum depth of field, focus on a spot about one third the way between the nearest (the reflector) and the furthest (the reflected images) points which need to be sharp. The depth of field preview button on your camera can be very useful for checking that everything will be in focus. However, if you own one of the latest DSLRs with ‘Live View’ facility this is an even better option for checking whether everything is in focus.

Top photograph
This mirror was positioned so that visitors to Lincoln cathedral could see the roof without craning their necks. I preferred to photograph the stained glass windows through it. I used a small aperture, f16, which meant I needed a slow shutter speed of 1/4sec. The camera was put on a tripod. Using the centre-weighted exposure mode, a light reading was taken from the window’s reflection, this has underexposed the interior of the cathedral – just the sort of contrast I wanted


Maximum depth of field was needed to keep both the mirror and the shells in focus

Maximum depth of field was needed to keep both the mirror and the shells in focus

Middle photograph
Maintaining maximum depth of field is very important with pictures like this. I could afford to have the mirror itself slightly out of focus (it was very close to the camera) but definitely not the pile of scallop shells or the clouds and sky reflected in the mirror. So I focused on the shells, used the camera’s Auto Focus Lock (AFL) function, then re-framed the picture. Exactly the same result could have been achieved by using the Manual Focus mode and focusing on the shells – you really don’t need automated functions all the time… there’s nothing wrong with ‘finger power’.

Lower photograph
The reflective surface of the water is so still in this picture that is almost impossible to tell which is a reflection and what is the real thing. Add to this the complicated structure of the salmon stakes and the image becomes an intriguing puzzle. The seagull brings a sense of scale. The stakes are sidelit, with light on one side and shadow on the other. This has helped each stake appear as a round pole – the illusion of that third dimension again on a two dimensional photograph

Salmon fishing stakes in Galloway

Salmon fishing stakes in Galloway

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Photographing reflections – part 1

The ‘reflection’ theme is a regular subject for camera club competitions, and rightly so. It’s a theme that’s wide open to all sorts of imaginative interpretations – from the wildest abstract ideas to perfectly symmetrical mirror images.

Mirror image

Mirror image

The idea of including mirrors to reveal an aspect that might well be out of the framed picture itself is far from new – artists have been using it for hundreds of years in portraits and interior paintings. The effect can be to bring a powerful illusion of the third dimension to your two-dimensional photograph. Done well, it can also inject a sense of mystery, compelling the viewer to look more closely – and so be drawn into your composition.

Simple reflections can virtually double the amount of colour, form and interest within your picture. They can reveal the most amazing abstract shapes by breaking up the form into waving patterns of colour and shape.

In town, reflected images seem to be everywhere we look, even more so in our modern cities with their glass-sided office towers. There are reflections in shop windows, pools and puddles – even the polished paintwork of cars can reflect interesting images worth photographing. Intriguing contrasts can be created when new glass office blocks reflect older architecture. Perfectly still water can mirror buildings, people and landscape, but lightly rippled water can sometimes produce even more interesting photographs – back to those abstracts again.

Hong Kong reflections

Hong Kong reflections

Top photograph – round mirror
By including the mirror and giving the viewer a glimpse of the reflected view behind the camera, an extra dimension has been created. This convex mirror has contorted the real world and given an odd perspective to the photograph, increasing the sense of distance between the surface of the mirror and the furthest part of the scene. It definitely falls into the abstract category

Middle photograph – Hong Kong
Each pane of glass in this tower block has distorted the reflection of the building behind the camera., creating an abstract design. The window cleaners’ box has helped bring a sense of reality to the picture and added a focal point to the pattern

Lower photograph – Turkey
A polarising filter has been used to take away the ‘film’ of white reflected light on the surface of the water. This has intensified and deepened the colours of the reflected image. Slight under exposure ( by ½ a stop) has helped saturate the colours even more. Remember – a polarising filter will not take away the image of the reflection – only that ‘film’ of reflected light. Very useful!

Boat reflection using a polarising filter
Boat reflection using a polarising filter


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A career in the visual arts

If you are looking for a career in photography, or any of the visual arts, you probably already know how difficult it can be to find a job these days. There are an awful lot of would-be professionals out there looking for the same thing. So the better-informed you are about what’s going on in the visual arts field, the more likely you are to succeed.

My PhotoActive blog has just been listed in the top 100 blogs in a feature on Art Career, a website that covers all the visual arts including photography. The site is certainly worth a visit. It could prove to be a useful resource.

The article on the 100 Must-See Blogs can be found at

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Fake photograph?

With a little skill it is a fairly simple matter to create a fake photograph these days. But I’m hurt. I’ve been accused not only of creating a fake picture, but, by inference, of telling big fat lies – I stated very clearly that the picture was genuine. It is.

The original photograph posted some while ago - Lyla says it is a fake

The original photograph posted some while ago - Lyla says it is a fake

Lyla commented about my picture of the ‘two headed camel’ which I posted and wrote about some while ago: “That is the stupidest picture that I’ve ever seen. You can totally tell that this picture is fake. Oh well…. I guess it’s pretty funny!”

Well, Lyla. I have added a comment myself to that post in reply, but I thought I’d make absolutely sure that everyone knows I’m an innocent man. Not guilty. I have posted here a photograph taken just seconds before the one you feel is so suspect. Now one fake picture of that particular subject would certainly take a deal of time to produce – but two? No Lyla, take a close look – I have posted an enlargement of the area between the two camels’ heads so you can do just that. The pictures were taken on Fujichrome 100 transparency film and these images have been scanned from the originals.

This picture was taken just seconds before the first one - above

This picture was taken just seconds before the first one - above

What these two pictures demonstrate is that I had spotted the likelihood of an amusing picture and worked at it to make sure I captured it. That’s what I meant when I talked about good timing. You have to make your own opportunities in order to capture the moment. This first picture – with one camel looking upwards – did not work as well as the second one when the two camels were looking in exactly opposite directions.

So take a close look at the enlargement Lyla – click the image to see a larger version. Fancy trying to clone and match all that camel hair in Photoshop?. No thanks, it would take more time than I have available.

Click this close-up to see a larger version

Click this close-up to see a larger version

One of the reasons for the camels standing so close together is that they were hobble-tied in the back of a small truck. Although in this sceptical world of ours it would be nice to think they might just have been fond of each other.

Any more comments Lyla?

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How to use a polarising filter

Using a polarising filter in front of your camera lens can help create deeply saturated colours. Yes, I know you can increase the saturation of your image’s colours in a post production programme like Photoshop, but as far as I am aware there is no way that these programmes can remove the reflective sheen from the surface of water or other objects. This can only be done at the time of taking the photograph by using a polarising filter.

I used a polarising filter to remove the reflection on the water and intesify the colurs of this picture taken in Eastern Turkey

I used a polarising filter to remove the reflection on the water and intensify the colours of this picture taken in Eastern Turkey

A polarising filter can do much more than deepen and intensify the blue of a sky. Simply by removing the reflective sheen of light that covers most surfaces – such as grass – the true colours of these subjects are revealed. That white sheen will be hiding colour. The filter cuts it out and reveals more colour.

For example, take the picture of the Turkish woman I put up on the home page yesterday. The sun was quite high in the sky and slightly behind me when I took the picture. That means it was roughly at right angles to the direction in which the camera (with its polarising filter attached) was pointing. With the sun at this angle to the camera, the polarising filter works at its maximum capabilities and cuts out most of the reflected light.

Notice just how blue the water is – the reflective sheen of white on its surface has been cut away to reveal more blue. That green silk carpet was also quite shiny – again the reflected light has been removed to reveal more colour. The same goes for the woman’s pink scarf. However, a polarising filter will not remove the shine of metallic objects so bear this in  mind.

So, with all this in mind and your filter on the camera, the first thing to do, even before you raise the camera to your eye, is turn the front ring of the filter until its small white mark is aiming roughly in the direction of the sun. Your camera must be pointing in the direction of your subject when you do this. If you are going to take the picture in either landscape or vertical format, make sure it is oriented that way while you set the filter. If you move from vertical picture format to horizontal format, you must reset the filter.

Next raise the camera to your eye and make any slight adjustments to the filter by turning that front ring. The filter is set correctly when the colours of the sky and other elements in the scene look most intense.

A range of polarising filters is available of the PhotoActive Camera Shop

Some less expensive filters do not have that helpful little white mark on the front ring. In that case, you must raise the camera to your eye and make all the adjustments to the filter by watching through the viewfinder.

If you are using manual exposure mode, now is the time to check and set the correct exposure.

Just one tip here – and this is where many photographers slip up – when you don’t need the polarising filter TAKE IT OFF THE LENS. It will act only as a neutral density filter and do no good at all in many situations

Photoactive Camera Shop with Amazon

Which filters for a Digital SLR?

Which filters do you need with your Digital SLR? Well, the filter makers will hate me for saying this, but my answer is – not a lot. I now carry only a Polarising filter (PL), a Neutral Density (ND) and a Graduated Neutral Density (ND grad). Adjustable white balance means that many of the old ‘film’ filters are now obsolete for digital cameras.

I prefer circular polarising filters like this one from Hoya. Notice the small white mark on the outer rotating ring – very useful

I prefer circular polarising filters like this one from Hoya. Notice the small white mark on the outer rotating ring – very useful

Should you choose Circular of Linear filters?

Like all things, personal choice matters. I use circular polarising filters, but prefer linear ND grads because I can slide them up or down in the filter holder to suit the horizon in my picture. This is not possible with a circular ND grad because the transition between grey and clear runs across the middle of the filter – and so it is always across the middle of your picture.

I find circular polarisers much quicker and less fiddly to use, although it is said that they are less effective than linear polarisers. Using circular polarisers also means that the camera’s auto-focus (AF) and exposure metering works normally. Most digital SLRs these days use beam-splitting mirrors for their AF systems. Linear polarisers can interfere with these systems. So unless you are happy to use manual focusing and take your light readings without the filter over the lens (this leads to all sorts of complications with a polariser), the circular polarising system is best for your digital SLR.

For Gradual Grey filters, I prefer the linear filter system, like this one from Cokin

For Gradual Grey filters, I prefer the linear filter system, like this one from Cokin

Always try to buy circular polarising filters with the small white marker on the outer rotating ring. This white mark can be quickly aligned with the sun as a starting point for maximum polarising effect. Cheaper filters rarely have this white mark. It is very useful.

A selection of quality filters is available in the PhotoActive Camera Shop

Useful links
Cokin Filters
Hoya Filters
Lee Filters
Kood Filters

Book a photography course with Philip Dunn: one-to-one photography tutition, photography workshops and holidays

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Improving your pictures in Photoshop

How do I improve my pictures in Photoshop? My students often ask me this question and I have to explain that Photoshop is a massively versatile and useful tool but if you want to get the best out of it, you have to use it with care. Be subtle. Be gentle.

I use Photoshop in the same way I used my skills with film in the darkroom. In those days, even as I was bringing the camera up to my eye, I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do with that negative when I put it in the enlarger to make a print. I treat Photoshop in the same way – subtly. Now, of course, things are so much easier. I no longer have to spend many hours on each print, spotting out the dreaded white van with a fine sable hair brush and three bottles of different black inks. Now I can do the job in seconds and the changes can be saved on the original file. Believe me, that is bliss.

Alwyn's original photograph of the card players

Alwyn's photograph before Photoshop adjustment

My friend Alwyn sent me some of his pictures taken on a recent trip to Italy. They were really very good photographs of people. One in particular caught my eye – a beautiful photograph of a group of card players. One glance at the picture told me that I would love to make a few adjustments to get more impact from the shot.

The top photograph shows the original. The lower one is the same picture after I have lifted the impact a little. For me the main character in the group is the man on the right looking straight at the camera. He seems to be pleased to share the moment with the photographer. In order to place more emphasis on him, I have cloned out the distracting cars behind him and lightened his face slightly with the dodging tool. Light areas in an image tend to attract the eye, so I have also darkened the patch of light behind the ear of the man on the left.

After gentle tweaking in Photoshop - Alwyn's photograph has more impact

After gentle tweaking in Photoshop

I have also added a little magenta in the Colour Balance option to take away some of the over-green tint.

The finished result I think lifts the appeal of an already appealing photograph and very slightly shifts the balance of interest.

Great stuff Alwyn, thanks for letting me tweak your photograph. I’ll show everyone the other two pictures you sent me later.

New photography competition

Renaissance, is an international photography competition organised to raise money for the Lavender Trust at Breast Cancer Care.

There is over £5,000 in cash to be won and entrants will be judged by photographers, including Charlie Waite, Martin Parr and Eamonn McCabe. They will also have the possibility of getting great exposure in the press; last year’s winner was The Times’ Picture of the Day and has been published in numerous publications including the Evening Standard, BJP, Amateur Photographer and Vogue online. 60 finalists will have their work exhibited and sold at a week-long exhibition in London.

All money from entry fees goes to the charity which supports younger women with breast cancer.

Martin Parr, Eamonn McCabe, Charlie Waite and Magnum editor Brigitte Lardinois will award a total of £5000 in prizes to amateur and professional photographers. There are 3 categories – Emotion, The Human Body and The World Around Us. 60 finalists will be displayed and have the chance to sell their work at a private view in London in March 2009 and will be included in a hardback book of the event.

The competition is the brainchild of Fiona Gifford, a 35 year old lawyer and keen amateur photographer from London who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. This year’s categories capture Fiona’s personal experiences of breast cancer. Fiona explains:

“As a keen photographer I saw this as the perfect way to raise money and awareness, of the Lavender Trust which raises money to fund Breast Cancer Care’s services for younger women with breast cancer.
Last year’s Renaissance competition raised £30,000 for the Lavender Trust.”

So here’s your chance to make a name for yourself, win asome cash and help raise funds for a worthy cause at the same time. For more details

Welcome to Photoactive new website

A very warm welcome to the totally updated Photoactive website.

A special welcome for those of you who have joined me here from my old blog. All the old posts have been transfered and archived here, so nothing should be lost. However, there may be some slightly odd page layouts due to the transfer. The website itself should be a great deal easier to navigate and the new template will allow it to grow – and that’s my firm commitment. There are many plans for the future – and all will be aimed at helping photographers take better photographs.

You will see on the website that my new DVD Portraits in Natural Light will be available very soon – hopefully within the next couple of weeks.

Please do let me know if you have any comments about the new website and blog. Either leave a comment here or use my new contacts form to email me.

Thanks everyone.

Seeing photographs differently

It’s been a particularly busy period with one-to-one tuition. Some photographers have come as far as Brighton in the south of England and the range of their skills and experience has been very wide-ranging: everyone from an complete beginner who brought along her new compact camera, to an experienced pro from London who wanted to learn more about using portable studio lighting on location.

The one thing that all these photographers have in common is a keenness to learn more and to get more from their photography. The other common denominator is that they all see things quite differently. I have many options for different locations here in Galloway, and I try to suit a location and subject to each photographer’s particular requirements. Some, for instance want to learn more about photographing interiors, people or seascape. I simply take the photographer to the location that I believe will best suit. Even so, this means that I visit some locations more often than others – but always with different photographers.

The thing that never ceases to astound me is that each photographer will approach these subjects and photograph them in a totally different way. Yes, I know light conditions are never identical from one visit to the next, but that’s not what I mean. Take Neil Murray, for instance. We went together to a part of the coast where there is an old derelict stone building. I’ve been their dozens of times with other photographers but none has seen it the way Neil saw it.

What was one of the first things he did? He sat in the ruined fireplace and pointed his lens up the chimney.

Okay, the picture didn’t work very well, and as I watched him shooting away, I had a good idea that it wouldn’t. But no way would I tell him that. Far better that he kept his enquiring eye and learnt from the ocassional failure. That way he will definitely produce something very special every now and again.

That’s Neil in the photograph above