Three photography techniques

Three very different styles of photography were demonstrated by just one of the photographers who joined the Photography Weekend last week.

Photography by Stewart McLaren

Photograph by Stewart McLaren

At the start of these Photography Weekends, I ask everyone to show some of their photographs. This is a great way to get people sharing and break down any inhibitions. It also gives me a good idea of exactly where people are with their photography and how I can best help them improve. I often adjust the entire weekend to best suit these needs after I have reviewed the photographs people bring.

Last week I was really impressed by the wide variety of photographs. There were some simple family snaps from a lady who was just starting in photography and wanted to learn how to use her new Nikon D40 before she went on a holiday to Sri Lanka. There were some really ‘way-out’ images from young lady with an extraordinary eye for abstract (more of her’s pictures soon), and there were some fantastic close-ups from another lady – one of my regular students- who positively refuses to look at anything unless it is in fine detail and just 12 inches from the lens.

Photography by Stewart McLaren

Photograph by Stewart McLaren

Stewart McLaren (that’s him in the picture below), on the other hand, demonstrated an ability to tackle a wide variety of subjects – and produce great images from them all.

Stewart is secretary of The Girvan Camera Club where I’ll be giving a talk about Travel Photography on March 24th. Just take a look at these three pictures. Each has been expertly captured to create real visual interest and appeal.

Car racing
Stewart’s panning technique here has created a really interesting effect. But instead of panning by following the cars nearest to the camera, which would been the normal way to do things, Stewart has panned with the cars further away. This a has produced a very odd and effective result that really makes you look twice
Nikon D70

Photograph by Stewart McLaren

Photograph by Stewart McLaren

Yes, we all see lots of sunsets – remember NABS – Not Another Bl**** Sunset? Well, yes, we do see a lot of sunsets, but this one has something special. The intensity of the orange colour, the stillness of the water and sky, and the ‘aerial perspective’ effect of the dark foreground rocks compared to the paler colours in the distance. The large mound of rock is in fact the volcanic island of Ailsa Craig, also known as Paddy’s Milestone, out in the Clyde off the Ayrshire coast
Nikon D70

Blue tit
A totally different photograph and technique from the other two. Stewart used a telephoto lens (not sure which), a hide and a lot of patience to capture this lovely picture of a blue tit in his garden. The wide aperture and telephoto lens has insured minimum depth of field to throw the background totally out of focus and concentrated everything on the subject. A great shot.
Nikon D70

A range of Nikon cameras and lenses is available from the PhotoActive Camera Shop

Photo students on Photography Weekend

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Getting BIG photographic prints

It’s great when you feel you want to tell the world about some really first class service you’ve experienced from a company. Well, that’s exactly how I feel after receiving the poster-size prints I ordered yesterday afternoon from Big Poster Prints.

big photographic prints

These are the big prints -A1 size - that arrived in the post this morning.

These prints are to brighten up our PhotoActive stand at the at the Focus on Imaging Show at the NEC Birmingham, next month. They are quite literally intended as posters, and I made them up from my images and added some text – the name of the PhotoActive website, for instance. For such a small order, getting photo quality prints like this proved a lot cheaper than going to a traditional printer to make up the posters.

Initially I had a problem with the online upload – at least I was suspicious when the uploaded preview looked distorted and stretched. I emailed the company in the late evening and got a reply almost straight away to say that this is a known problem and not to worry about it – the prints would be fine.

So yesterday afternoon I uploaded 6 images to be printed on semi-gloss 150gm paper (they are going to be mounted on card).

Imagine how chuffed I was this morning when they arrived. The prints were spot on.

The cost worked out at about £13 per A1 print and I reckon that’s a bargain – especially as they are so good.

My students are always asking me where they can get good quality big prints done – now I can tell them - Big Poster Prints of Hull.

When I want really top quality professional prints, I will continue to send my pictures off the Peak Imaging, a company that has privided me with excellent quality service for many years, but for this type of work I could not fault Big Poster Prints

So you’ll all get the chance to see these prints for yourselves at the Focus on Imaging My son Christian and I can be found on stand L47 and we’d love you to come over and have a chat. We will be directly opposite the big Sony stand.

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NEW PhotoActive FORUM

New PhotoActive Forum starts today

This is a brand new venture for me and I hope you will join in and get involved. The idea is to create a really friendly and welcoming community of photographers. The forum will be open to all photographers, no PhotoActive Forummatter what their particular interests or experience.

I hope to welcome in particular – members of the photoactive_photographers Yahoo Group. This group was started and moderated by Maria, one of my former students. Maria’s successful idea for a monthly Photo Challenge is coming across with her to PhotoActive. Maria has kindly offered to help with the new PhotoActive Forum.

Each month the Photo Challenge will have a new subject for you to get your teeth into. All members will get a chance to vote on their favourite picture of the month by choosing from three top images. I will give a full critique on each of these three pictures. The shot that tops the poll will be featured here on the PhotoActive Blog.

So this will not be a community just for people who like to sit at their computers – you’ll be encouraged to get out there and take photographs.

Of course, the success of the forum depends entirely on you – it will be your input, your photographs and your involvement that will enable it to grow. I will certainly do whatever I can to offer advice and guidance whenever I can.

Meet the team







There are separate sections for general photography discussion, photo critiques, camera gear, lighting techniques, and much more. Film photographers, and post-processing are not forgotten either, and there’s even a section where you can share inspiration and ideas.

So, come on, please do get involved. Click the banner below and all you need to do is register with a name and valid email address. You could be posting your first pictures and comments in minutes.

Go to the PhotoActive Forum now

Photoactive Forum

Photography in New Zealand

It’s always great to hear from photographers in other parts of the world. Brian Prendergast from Aukland, New Zealand has just commented on a post of mine about taking a couple of my students to photograph the New Zealand light on mountainslocal lifeboat here in Kirkcudbright. Your can read that post here but I’ve pasted Brian’s comment below as well.

Well Brian, you may be in a position to help me indentify the subject of a photograph I took in New Zealand’s South Island some years ago. The photograph shows a mountain bathed in the most extraordinary light shining through great slots in the clouds. It was taken from a small airport where we stopped off very briefly on the way down to Queenstown.

Can you possibly tell me the name of that tall mountain over on the left of the picture – and the name of the lake?

I’d really like to known because I do get enquiries about the picture from time to time. Is it Mount Cook by any chance?

The moral of this story of course is to make notes when you are taking pictures. Truth is, I did make notes at the time, but lost the notebook!

For anyone looking for the most fantastic landscape – you will find New Zealand almost impossible to beat, and if you get even half a chance to get out there with your camera – take it!

Anyway, here is Brian’s very pleasant comment…

Hello and Greetings from Auckland (Onehunga) NZ. Have looked and admired a number of your photos. I am in the Intensive care/Rescue business including working Offshore, which is why and how I happened upon your site on the NET via google. Thank you and Best Wishes for 2009 Thank you Brian C Prendergast (Prof)

The photograph, by the way was taken on a Nikon F3 with a 180mm f2.8  Nikor lens

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Photography in Natural Light

Light is your most important photographic tool. You can’t take pictures without it.  There, I’ve said it again.

Owning an expensive camera and sophisticated flash system does not automatically make a good photographer. Yes, I know, that’s something else I’m always banging on about.

With this  deeply ingrained philosophy in mind, it’s hardly surprising that my eyes ‘lit’ up when I read the  comment Carl Dania wrote in answer to my post about the new PhotoActive Camera Shop. Carl was one of the first customers to the Camera Shop when it started just about a week ago. He bought Darrell Young’s book  ‘Mastering the Nikon D300′. I’m pleased to say it arrived very quickly and Carl is happy with it, but he said something else in his comment which really caught my eye.

Carl got my DVD ‘Portraits in Natural Light’ for a present. After making a positive remark about the DVD’s wide appeal, he goes on to say:

“I confess that I thought that portrait photography required a studio with very sophisticated (and expensive) lighting – but apparently not. So one of my resolutions for 2009 will be to give this a go – natural light is free!!”

That, Carl, is precisely why I wanted to produce an instructional DVD about using ‘natural’ light. It’s FREE!! You really do not need expensive gear to capture and manipulate it, and once you have an understanding how to use it, it can be found  almost anywhere. Novice or pro – that natural light is just there begging and waiting to be used.

And just one more thought – professional studio photographers often spend a great deal of time and effort trying to make their sophisticated (and expensive) studio light look, well – natural. You just can’t beat the real thing.

So good luck with your resolution Carl – sounds as if that PhotoActive  ‘Light Monkey’ is getting very settled on your shoulder!

I should mention here that since launching the new Camera Shop last week, the shop has grown considerably – there is now a good selection of camera, lenses and gear – all of it selected by me and sold through Amazon. If you have recommendations about gear, photography books or any other kit, please do contact me and let me know. If it can be bought through Amazon, I will list it in the shop.

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More about action photography

There’s more to capturing action photographs than simply using a fast shutter speed and getting a sharp image. Anticipation and an understanding of your subject are vital when trying to capture exactly the right moment to press the shutter.

Action photographySo, following on from my previous post about the right way to photograph a walking person, take a look at the picture of the Arabian horses racing in the Jordanian desert. It was taken with a shutter speed of 1/1000sec – it’s frozen the action and rendered the horses and riders sharp. Fine, the easy bit was setting the camera and pressing the button, but that frozen moment in time could not have been caught unless I had planned my shooting position and anticipated the movements of the riders.

Of course the camera had to be just as well-prepared for the shot as I was, and as I used all manual settings for this picture that meant shutter speed and aperture set ready and the lens focused on the right spot. The point is that unless you are lucky, you simply have to think ahead if you want to capture the action. Anticipation is just as important as quick reactions and good timing.

The best sports photographers have an understanding and passion for the sports they cover – they know what their subjects are likely to do next; which way they will turn, kick the ball or shoot for goal. These photographers anticipate the action and are usually just a fraction of a second in front of the game.

I was never very successful as a football photographer because I had no interest in the game.

Of course with a subject like the Arab horse race, you are unlikely to have previous experience of what is going to happen next – so you will have to ask people who have seen it before. Find out what is likely to happen; what the participants will do. Get there early and take a good look at the lay of the land beforehand.

In this case, there seemed to be no rules at all and the race was a free-for-all, but I was told that the riders generally galloped around the rock-strewn course in one direction to practise before the start – that’s when this picture was taken. The best I could do was choose a good angle for background and light and watch with my finger ready on the button. When a rifle was fired into the air to start the race, the riders simply whooped away into the desert and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

You will often find that you have captured the moment just a fraction of a second after you thought you pressed the shutter button. The brain tends to think ahead. So be trigger happy and press the button a fraction of a second before you think you need to. It works. Perhaps it is the way the brain and fingers co-ordinate.

Of course, you could just set your shutter mode to ‘continuous’ and squirt a long burst of shots. Well, that’s fine, I just prefer to be a little more precise.

freeze_it_01aTop photograph
The old press photographer’s maxim of ‘arrive first and leave last’ paid off with this picture of a horse race in the Jordanian desert. I arrived well before the start of the race and was able to photograph the riders practising. They disappeared into the desert when the race started proper and I saw little of them after that until after the end of the race.

Very fast shutter speeds like 1/1000sec are essential for freezing fast action – but good action shots need more than just fast shutter speeds

There is more about freezing action in yesterday’s post How to Photograph People Walking

and also in an earlier post How to Freeze the Action

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Better Photography DVDs

How to photograph people walking

Good timing is absolutely essential if even the simplest photographs of people on the move are to be photograph people walking - the right waysuccessful. If you are photographing a person walking past the camera, for instance, you have to show that he is doing just that – walking and not doing a jig or standing on one leg looking silly.

You must time the strides and press the button when the legs are striding well apart. If you take the picture mid-stride, as one leg comes across the other, you will certainly make your subject look as if he is standing on one leg. It nearly always looks awkward and makes the subject look a bit odd.

The problem is that you know perfectly well that he is walking because you photographed him doing it. However, you must remember that the viewer of your finished photograph was not there when it was taken – all he sees is a man stood on one leg. So show both legs! Think ahead – think good timing – time the strides. Click – click – click at the end of each stride.

The walker’s arms will also look wrong mid-stride. People tend to swing their arms in time with their legs.

A speed of 1/250sec should be enough to freeze a person walking slowly across your field of view, but 1/500sec will make sure. These pictures were taken at 1/350sec.

Photograph B
Is he doing a jig, or just standing on one leg? If you press the button when one leg crosses the other you will photograph a man on one leg. This is very bad timing. Bin it!photograph people walking the wrong way

Photograph A
That’s better – striding out like a good ‘un. Time the strides and you will always photograph someone who really looks as though he is walking. It just needs a little practice

There’s more about how to capture better action photographs in the next post ‘More about Action Photography’

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New Camera Shop

The new camera shop is now open on the PhotoActive website.

I have teamed up with Amazon to offer you some great deals on the gear I have selected.

Okay, the shop is not exactly bulging at the moment, but I will quickly  expand it  so that it offers a wide range of cameras and the sort of gear I would be pleased to include in my own camera bag. The main criteria is that I am happy to endorse whatever kit is offered for sale. Yes, I get to choose  every item that goes into the store.

All of you will be aware of Amazon’s reputation. I have used them to buy many new cameras and an awful lot of gear over the past few years and I am happy to work with them now. Certainly, I have found their returns policy very fair indeed.

So if you are considering buying a new camera, or even just a new memory card, please go to the PhotoActive Camera Shop first and shop there though Amazon.

If you would like to see particular items included in the store, please let me know either by commenting here or emailing me.

Philip Dunn's new PhotoGuru DVD - Portraits in Natural Light

How to photograph trees – part 2

Trees make wonderful subjects and they are accessible to almost all photographers.

Tree against Galloway skyI said earlier that trees don’t get up and walk away, but that doesn’t mean they don’t move – and sometimes quite dramatically. Trees branches waving around in a strong breeze may need quite fast shutter speeds in order to ‘freeze’ this action. Sometimes shutter speeds of at least 1/250sec or more are required.

If you regularly use the manual (M) exposure settings on your camera, it will become second nature to have the approximate exposure set in readiness for the moment you see a likely subject – so bear these fast shutter speeds in mind when you are out with your camera on a windy day. There will be little need for a tripod with these fast shutter speeds unless you intend to utilise the swaying movement of the trees in order to create a ‘blur’ effect. This can, in some circumstances, look really interesting. But, again, experiment, try some shots with fast shutter speeds and some with the camera on a tripod with shutter speed as slow as 1/2sec.

Tree trunks with telephoto lensIt is also worth remembering that, on every single leaf there may be a little reflected light that can reduce and obscure the rich green or red colours beneath, particularly on a sunny day. Here is where a polarising filter really comes in very useful. If correctly adjusted, it will take away that reflected light and increase the colour quite dramatically. It can also have the beneficial effect of darkening the sky to a deep blue to add even more colour and drama. Read more about polarising filters.

Which lens?
There can be no ‘ideal’ lens for photographing trees. You’ll find yourself using everything from a wide angle to a long telephoto, and each will have its uses for getting the most from different situations. Beware of getting too close beneath a tree and shooting upwards with a wide angle lens – this will distort the shape of the tree. Fine if that’s the effect you are after, but I think it can look very unpleasant and the idea is hackneyed.

Photograph 1
It’s just a small thorn tree in the Galloway Hills, but in the right conditions of wonderful light and dramatic sky, it becomes a powerful subject deserving of a photographer’s full attention. The low angle has placed the tree against the sky, emphasising its shape, and the small tree in the distance has created a sense of depth

Tree silhouettePhotograph 2
There’s no focal point and it’s almost monochromatic, but I like the feel of this picture of silver birch trees in a Spanish forest. It was taken on a 180mm lens to compress the perspective and to render all the tree trunks a similar size

Photograph 3
Skeletons of trees outlined against a dramatic back-lit sky – I simply exposed for the sky and the trees appeared as silhouettes. I moved around and explored this subject from various angles, taking lots of pictures. Finally I settled for the wide angle lens to bring more power to the sky

Photograph 4
I love photographing the pollarded trees of Menorca early in the season before they start to sprout new leaves and branches. At this time of year the bizarre and eccentric shapes of the trees can be used as foreground layers to place over or across interesting backgrounds. This can create an abstract effect and add a sense of depth to the picture. It’s a technique well worth using nearer home – explore every visual possibility by looking through the tree’s branches at a subject some distance beyond

trees in Menorca

Philip Dunn's new PhotoGuru DVD - Portraits in Natural Light