Last Day for PhotoActive Photo Challenge

Today is your last chance to submit your pictures for the March PhotoActive Forum Photo Challenge.

The deadline for entries is midnight tonight. The theme is ‘Bridges’.

I’m going to have a devil of a difficult job choosing three top favourites because there are some fantastic pictures among the entries.

My three favourites will be put to a poll of forum members who will choose their top shot.

The top three pictures will be featured here in the blog and I will give a full, professional, and constructive critique aimed at helping each photographer take even better pictures.

You will need to subscribe to the forum to enter the challenge, but that is very simple.

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Level horizons in photographs

Photography rant coming on…

Fact – horizons are reasonably level in the natural world.

One of the oldest, most hackneyed and least imaginative ways to try to inject life into an otherwise lack-lustre picture is to tilt the horizon at an angle. It is an over-used and tiresome gimmick. Photographs with tilting horizons are irritating, and really cock-eyed ones I find an insult to my intelligence.

Sometimes it might work. Most times it does not.

For those of you trying to get a level horizon – and failing – don’t worry, you are not alone. It is not always easy to get the horizon absolutely level. This is often because you are concentration so much on the main subject, which may be moving, that you simply don’t have time to check that your horizon is level before you press the button. Sometime you simply forget to check.

Mostly the horizon can be levelled very simply in post production.

If you are having trouble getting your horizons level it may be because your eyes are not suited to your viewfinder or you suffer from a slight stigmatism in your viewing eye. I have always had this problem. In fact I see my horizons as level when in reality the camera is tilted slightly. I solve this by framing the picture then pointing the camera down a little until the top of the viewfinder frame comes down near the horizon in the picture. I check the top edge of the frame and the horizon is parallel, then raise the camera again to re-frame the shot. This can only be done when you have the luxury of time and the subject is not moving.

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PhotoActive Camera Settings Quiz

Here is a short photography quiz about camera settings. I have devised it to get you thinking about your photography. I thought it might be fun.

All you have to do is fill in a name and answer the 10 questions correctly. If you get over 75% of the answers correct you can download a Pass Certificate.

Now how about that!! Let me know what you think – if you enjoy it I’ll post some more and expand the idea.

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Seeing the way the camera sees

I’m off to the Girvan Camera Club on Tuesday to give one of my talks. The original idea was for me to talk about travel photography and my work with magazines and The Sunday Times.

Then I got to thinking how pleasant it would be for me to talk about someone else for a change. So I suggested that if each member of the club brought along a photograph, I would try to go through as many as possible and offer constructive critique and advice during the evening. The idea went down well, and that’s what I’ll be doing on Tuesday evening.

This is a formula that can work extremely well for club talks. However, to be really successful it is not just a one way process and I do like to get involved with the people who took the pictures. I like to find out what they were seeing at the time they pressed the button, and if they feel that their finished photograph actually represents what they thought they had captured at the time.

The ability to 'see the way the camera sees' is a skill that comes with practise and good tuition

The ability to 'see the way the camera sees' is a skill that comes with practise and good tuition

Any photographer, no matter how experienced, can have those pleasant surprises – or disappointments – when they see their finished pictures. The photograph doesn’t always match precisely the vision the photographer had at the time.

That’s really one of the joys of photography

But it is the mark of the experienced photographer to be able to cut down these surprises to the absolute minimum. This is comes with the ability to see in exactly the same way that the camera can see.

That needs a mind shift and a lot of practise. But when it starts to happen – it brings real satisfaction and much better photographs.

As an example, I have posted a photograph taken in the fascinating graveyard here in Kirkcudbright. The first time I spotted the possibility for this picture, the light from the sun had moved just past the skull on the grave in the foreground. With this in shadow there was no picture to be had.

I simply went back a little earlier the following day when I reckoned the light would be illuminating the rather macabre carving in the foreground.

When framing the picture, I knew that if I let the full glare of the sun hit the camera lens the picture would suffer from too much flare, so I simply let the sun peep around the archway to cut down the flare. I only needed enough light to get that sparkle.

Paying close attention to all these seemingly minor details – without actually thinking too much about them – can only come with experience and practise – and good, sound tuition, of course!.

The ability to ‘see the way the camera sees’ is covered in depth in my DVD Light and Composition, which is available to buy online.

If you are a member of the Girvan Camera Club I look forward to meeting you on Tuesday evening – don’t forget to bring one of your photographs.

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Photo Challenge Top Favourites

Photo Challenge – OPTIMISM – Top Favourites

‘Twitcher’ by Cathy

PhotoActive Challenge top favourites 'Twitcher'

45% of members’ votes

I really like this photograph – it has most of the ingredients that sum up the theme… that woman is seriously determined to find what she’s looking for. The fact that there’s not a single bird in sight adds to the visual narrative that she is optimistic about seeing one.

The stance, the towel over the head, the wellie boots. The very fact that she is stood on a wall looking across an empty landscape, all add the story the picture is telling. The flat light and the gloomy aspect of the far distant background also emphasize the notion that the woman is full of optimistic despite it all.

If Cathy had just bent her knees, even by one inch, the woman’s head would not have the white line of the river touching it. This would have added more depth to the photograph. It is sometimes less easy to gain an inch or so in height when taking your photographs, but this might have been another option to help separate the woman’s head from that white line.

I suspect Cathy might have been a tiny bit heavy-handed with the burn tool across the top third of the photograph. Darkening this area has certainly given the effect of lightening the lower part of the picture, but I think it has also deadened the brightness of the towel on the woman’s head.

Very well done, Cathy – a worthy favourite indeed.

Saving for Holidays by Ken

PhotoActive photo challenge top favourite - Ken

35% of members’ votes

Okay – it’s contrived. But then so is all studio photography. That’s why we have studios and studio lighting – to create pictures in a controlled environment.

I think Ken has conjured up something really special here. He has taken the theme Optimism and his picture conveys the essential message. He has also injected animation into what could easily have been a very stilted subject despite the jolly expression on the pig’s face. It has been achieve very simply by dropping a coin and capturing it in mid air.

I’m not sure what method Ken used to get the translucent quality on the £20 notes, but whatever it was, it has added to the impression that savers are definitely optimistic that their savings will grow.

Composition troubles me a little with so much of the right side of the picture being blank white. I would also try to persuade Ken to be a tiny bit less ‘enthusiastic’ with his lights. Be gentle Ken – that light over on the left is a bit powerful and is degrading the edge of the pig’s backside.

Well though out, and very well executed Ken.

Bowling by Siobhan

PhotoActive photo challenge top favourite - Siobhan

19% of members’ vote

This picture gave me all sorts of trouble. The boy’s feet are cut off. I don’t like the black thing in the bottom left corner. The bowl has been allowed to get just a bit too far away before the shutter button was pressed. The coloured lights are distracting. Sorry Siobhan, but you have to know.

Yes, Siobhan’s photograph is open to all these criticisms – and so am I for choosing it above other very well-captured and more considered photographs.

However, this photograph conveys, sums up and captures the very essence of the theme of this particular challenge – and it’s that ability that I want all the members of the forum to aspire to. Above all else I want all of you to be able to ‘tell the story in a picture’. This picture does exactly that.

The boy’s position bent over with his hands on his knees tells you he is just waiting for the moment of impact when the bowl hits the skittles. He is desperate to know if all the skittle will be bowled over – he is brimming with optimism. I look at this picture and almost hold my breathe waiting for the moment when the lad jumps up in joy… hope you captured that moment, too, Siobhan.

And, just like Cathy’s picture, this is all achieved without even being able to seethe subject’s facial expression.

It is a lovely moment, and I love the picture. Super, Siobhan.

Well done everyone. I was seriously impressed by the pictures entered for the February Photo Challeng.

Don’t forget, the March Photo Challenge ‘Bridges’ is now open for entries. Don’t leave it too late.

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Cameraman Christian to wed DVD model

Italian model Carlotta engaged to marry film cameraman Christian Dunn

Italian model Carlotta engaged to marry film cameraman Christian Dunn

My son Christian Dunn, who filmed my latest photography DVD Portraits in Natural Light, has announced today that he is engaged to be married to the model who featured in the DVD.

Christian popped the question while on a windswept mountainside with Carlotta in the Lake District.
Carlotta is the lovely Italian model who features in the DVD. Christian edited the DVD with Carlotta’s assistance.

Norene and I are absolutely delighted with the news.

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PhotoActive Forum Photo Challenge entries

The PhotoActive Forum’s first Monthly Photo Challenge got off to a really good start last month (Feb) with some cracking photographs entered for the theme ‘Optimism’ . Tomorrow the poll to choose members’ favourite picture closes.

Meanwhile I have given my comments and observations on the rest of the entries and these can be found on the Forum

Two pictures in particular stand out among these entries – both posted below. My comments on them are on the Forum

I will try to post the three winning pictures here tomorrow together with my comments and crit on these.

PhotoActive Forum photo challenge entrant - Fraser

Next Spin I'll win - by PhotoActive Forum member Fraser

 DON’T FORGET – the March PHOTO CHALLENGE is now open and the theme is BRIDGES.

Gateway to the Future by PhotoActive Forum member Russell

Gateway to the Future by PhotoActive Forum member Russell

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How to compose better photographs

When I wrote in Amateur Photographer Magazine some time ago about why photographers MUST understand light, I suggested that having this understanding is a bit like having a monkey on your back – you will never get rid of it once you got it. It never stops twittering in your ear and drawing your attention to the way light falls on the world around you, and that’s just great.

photography better composition

Installing the Light Monkey is one of my first tasks with all my new students.

But there’s another monkey – a rectangle monkey. He will always be helping you see in rectangles and enable you to see the way the camera sees.

And THAT is the key to all good photography.

The human eye is a wonderful piece of kit – and most of us have two eyes connected to a brain of some sort. A camera has one eye and no brain. It might be technically sophisticated, but despite what the makers would have you believe, it’s as thick as mince; it’s only a machine.

Your task as a photographer is to come down to your camera’s level of intelligence and start seeing and thinking the way it will record things. It will not see or compose pictures for you no matter how sophisticated and expensive it is.

better photography composition

For instance, human eyes see a huge circular area of almost 90 degrees to either side and up and down. The camera can only put a limited rectangular frame around  the view depending on the focal length of the lens.

Our eyes also have the best filtration system ever devised. Just think of it – we can stand in front of the most magnificent view on earth and not even notice the telegraph pole or white van spoiling the scene.

The camera is totally indiscriminate – it will record the whole scene with all its defects and unsightly details unless we organise things within our frame – our rectangle.

Composition in photography is really all about what we include in that rectangle, what we leave out of it and how we arrange all the elements within it. This is what makes some photographs worth looking at and others not worth bothering with. It is what brings individuality and art into photography.

Once he is taking a firm grip of you, your Rectangle Monkey is going to make sure you look at the world in rectangles and I’m afraid you will never get rid of him once you’ve got him. He will NOT blinker you, but offer tremendous freedom because he will make you see more pictures (framed in rectangles) everywhere you look.

better photography composition

You do not need a camera to practise this – it can be done anytime, anywhere just by placing an imaginary rectangular frame around the scenes and people around you.

With a little practise, seeing in rectangles becomes second nature and you’ll have a pretty good idea of your framing even BEFORE you bring the camera up to your eye.
As an example of how your Rectangle Monkey might help you see more photographs, just look at the three pictures here. These are not cropped prints but photographs that have been  re-framed at the time of taking. First I saw the band line up Photograph No1, then I noticed the instrument and the man’s dark face Photograph No2. Finally I re-framed the rectangle completely and moved right in on the instrument and the bandsman’s hands  Photograph No3


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Printing black and white photographs

I learned the craft of printing black and white photographs when I was a 15 year old apprentice on a local newspaper. Darkroom printing is second nature to me. A task which in the world of photojournalism was often accomplished in the most difficult conditions imaginable – often in strange darkrooms no bigger than a cupboard (in some cases it was a cupboard) and always against the clock.

The other day I was handed a selection of black and white prints for judging in a club competition. Of course most of the prints now are extruded through an inkjet printer attached to a computer. Now, while I love digital photography – and can’t imagine going back to the days of smelly chemicals and brown finger nails, I just cannot get to grips with these printers and some of the results they produce. I send all my images to a professional who does them for me (Peak Imaging).  This is not expensive if you take into consideration the saving on buying a good printer, inks and paper.

Anyway, this got me thinking of the time I was offered the job of working for The Sunday Times as their travel photographer. I made one stipulation before accepting: I would print all my own photographs in my own darkroom and send only the prints to the newspaper. My reasoning was simple. I did not want anyone else tampering with my pictures. I would interpret the negatives myself, thank you very much.


Because I believe that the printing process is an integral part of photography. I always envisage the finished print as I am lifting the camera to my eye. I invariably knew exactly what I would do with the negative when I got it in the darkroom.

Nothing has changed except the process. Now, at the time I take the photograph, I envisage exactly what I will do with a digital image in post processing. The only difference is that I send that finished image file away to a professional to make a paper print and I don’t have to mess around in a darkroom. When I send that image file to Peak Imaging I have done my work in post processing on the computer. Provided the calibrations on my computer match those of the printer at Peak – the process should be straightforward and the print exactly what I expect.

With black and white photography I believe control of the image all the way from conception to paper print is absolutely essential. The trouble is that black and white is so little understood these days. Often it is used as a last resort to add something to an otherwise lifeless uninspiring image.

That’s not the way. Black and white photography needs deep understanding of tones, shape and composition if it is to be successful. It is not a fallback.

The picture below was shot in Rutland for The Sunday Times. It is a very simple picture and was used across half a page in the newspaper. When a pressed the button I knew perfectly well that I would have to increase the contrast of the finished print if the picture was to have any effect at all. Had I left it as it was on the negative, the result would have been little more than flat, grey and uninspiring. By increasing the contrast, the birds have taken on a series of abstract shapes. Grey detail is lost and the sense of movement in the flock of birds is increased.

black and white photography printing

If you’d like to know more about how I learned to print black and white photographs see one of my previous posts.


Photographing snowdrops – part 2

How to photograph snowdrops

My set up for photographing snowdrops - notice I am using backlight with a reflector

My set up for photographing snowdrops - notice I am using backlight with a reflector

Even when photographing subjects like flowers you should always be alert for unusual pictures and fresh angles. Flowers don’t move around much, unless of course they are being shaken or moved by the wind, so normally you have time to consider your subjects quite carefully.

If you are using a tripod, this, too, will help slow you down a little and enable you to take a considered approach to the subject.

Yes, I know, in the real world, the light is always about to change within the next a few seconds. In that case press the button and take photographs, get something in the bag.

Then slow down and think about your pictures. Stand back and consider. Study the light.

It was while doing this that I spotted the picture of the snowdrop’s shadows on my Lastolite reflector. I left the tripod exactly where it had been set up, removed the camera and took the picture.

I spotted the picture of the shadows while setting up the shot

I spotted the picture of the shadows while setting up the shot

Remember that the closer you get to a subject the less depth of field you will have. This can sometimes look unpleasant when large areas of petals are unsharp. Stop down to a small aperture (f16 or f22) to get as much depth as possible. This will of course mean slower shutter speeds so be prepared to get the camera on a tripod to keep it steady.

You biggest enemy then will be the wind if it makes you flower head move. Try shielding the flower with white card – this will also reflect light. Use dark card if you do not want this reflection.

If you are wanting to take close-ups shots of individual flowers, you must decide whether or not you can photograph the flower where it is. As I have a garden with literally thousands of snowdrops, I am perfectly happy to pick one and bring it to the camera. This can save a lot of groping about on the damp ground and enable you to get the light just right. Of course you would not do this with wild flowers.

With your flower picked the next task is to secure it firmly in the right place, with the right light and a suitable background. To do this, I simple tape the flower to a stick to make things easy. The stick can then be made secure in a convenient spot – you might even take it into the studio.

Oh, if you are going to pluck an individual flower to photograph – pick a pretty one. No brown petals or defects. My photograph of a single flower is very simple and straightforward. But use your imagination when you move in close and all sorts of spectacular photographs can happen.

Securing the flower for photography

Securing the flower for photography

And when you have finished photographing your flower – give it to someone you love. It will last for several days in water and bring even more pleasure.

Keep your eyes open for unusual angles and light
Slow down and consider your subject carefully
Try shooting into the light
Use reflectors – Lastolite reflectors available from the PhotoActive Camera Shop
Use small apertures when going in close
Try to shield your flower from the wind.
Pick a pretty one
Secure your individual flower in a convenient place to photograph it
Give the used flower to someone you love

If you need more help to get the most from every lighting situation, my instructional DVD Light and Composition is available to buy online for just £10.99 including p+p

A very straightforward way to photograph a single flower

A very straightforward way to photograph a single flower

Go back to part 1

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