NEW Photo Challenge and poll

The May PhotoActive Photo Challenge attracted another great set of entries.

I have now chosen my six favourites from these and now it is up to Forum members to vote for their top pictures. The poll will be open for ten days after which I will give an in-depth crit on each photograph here on the PhotoActive blog.

If you’d like to join in you need is join for the PhotoActive Forum

The subject for the JUNE PHOTO CHALLENGE has just been announced – ‘HANDS’

Lots for you to go at there so join the  Forum now and join in the fun.

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Monopod for Macro Photography

There’s not always time for tripods – Philip Dunn used a makeshift monopod to capture the shifting light and get a needle sharp photograph

The desire to capture photographs never leaves you – at least it has never left me. Even after 45 years in the profession, I still love taking pictures, and the urge to capture images can grip me at any time when I see something that attracts my eye.

macro photography close-up with monopodThe other evening I was walking down the garden after a heavy rain shower. The low sun was peeping though a slot in the clouds and I noticed it was spot lighting the water drops of a plant at the side of the garden path. The light was gorgeous and the subject attractive – each drop of water was like a jewel, and the hairy surface of the leaf was creating the most extraordinary patterns in the reflections.

I simply had to photograph those leaves. The light would not last more than a couple of minutes before it clouded over – just enough time to take a picture or two. Ideally I would like to have set up the camera on a tripod, but their was no time for that.

Instead, I found a rectangular-shaped wooden stick a couple of feet long in the garden shed and used that as a makeshift monopod.

When moving in as close as this – macro photography – it is important to remember that your depth of field is very limited indeed. The slightest movement towards or away from the subject after the autofocus has locked on it will almost certainly throw the subject out of focus.

The trick with my makeshift wooden monopod was to rest the camera firmly against the side of the wooden stick – but I made sure that the ‘leg’ of the stick pointed slightly forward towards the subject. This helped prevent camera movement fore and aft – so throwing the subject out of focus.

Of course, resting the camera against the wooden monopod also helped prevent camera shake.

macro photography makeshift monopodThe result was a needle sharp image.

I was carrying my little Canon G9, which I set on Macro mode.
I put the camera on Aperture priority at f5.6 – this gave me a shutter speed of 1/100sec
–1/3 Exposure Compensation
ISO 80

The lower picture shows how I simply rested the camera against my wooden ‘monopod’ – but notice that the leg of the stick is pointing slightly forward to help prevent fore and aft movement

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Buying prime lenses

I never get to see who buys what on the PhotoActive Camera Shop. Amazon guard that information carefully and keep the names and details of customers to themselves. However, I can see what items have been bought, and this morning I notice that someone has ordered a Nikon 50mm F1.8D AF Nikkor Lens.

Nikkor 50mm f1.8 fixed focal length lens

Nikkor 50mm f1.8 fixed focal length lens

Good for you whoever you are. That is one superb piece of kit – and all for just over £100.

Prime, or fixed focal length lenses seem to have fallen out of favour over recent years, and I can understand the reasons why. For one thing, the quality of most zoom lenses these days is excellent, and with just a couple of zooms in our camera bag, we can cover a huge range of focal length that can enable us to capture just about any subject we care to point the camera at.

That’s fine, I think most of us prefer to keep down the cost and weight of the gear we carry, so reducing the number of lenses makes good sense. And let’s face it – the flexibility of zoom lenses really is so very useful.

However, there is a price to pay with most zoom lenses, and that’s the size of the aperture. Big apertures in zoom lenses can cost a great deal of cash due to the optics required. Fixed focal length lenses, like that Nikon 50mm, do not have the same optical constraints, so that beautiful little 50mm ‘standard’ lens comes with a maximum aperture of a socking great f1.8.

That’s a fast lens. Very fast.

I was brought up on fixed focal length lenses. At one time, my basic travelling kit consistent of:

3 – Nikon F3 bodies
1 – 24mm f2
1 – 35mm f 2
1 – 50mm f 1.4
1 – 85mm f1.4
1 – 180mm f2.8

I rarely carried anything longer than a 180mm lens unless I had a particular reason.

Just look at the sizes of those apertures. Fast lenses give a great deal of freedom in poor light conditions – we seem to be losing sight of that benefit with the ability to increase our ISO so easily with digital cameras. But it is a great advantage and one that can lead to much better quality photographs if used correctly.

There is another advantage with a fixed focal length lens: it tends to concentrate the visual senses and make us concentrate of what we CAN photograph instead of what we might be able to photograph if we zoomed in or out.

In other words, it simplifies the visual thought process. And that is often a big help when we are trying to learn about framing and composition.

Oh, and whoever you are who bought that 50mm Nikkor lens – assuming you are not using a camera with full frame sensor – you have bought a cracking little portraiture lens with an equivalent focal length of around 80mm.

I’d be interested to see some of your results.

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Photographing craftsmen – the Sailmaker part two

Continuing his photo shoot of the craftsman, Philip Dunn explain why it is important to look for more than just a portrait of your subject – still-life for instance

With a set of portraits and action photographs of the sailmaker in the camera, it was time to look around the location to gather still-life photographs that will tell more about the story and help set the scene. Gathering these still-life pictures can be easily overlooked in the heat of the moment and the desire to get good portraits.

photograph 1

photograph 1

Certainly if you hope to sell a set of photographs to a magazine, these pictures are vital. They will bring pace and interest to the magazine page, and help the deigner to create a lively, more interesting layout.

So keep you eyes open for interesting objects and colours – and don’t be afraid to move something if it will help make a better photograph or tidy up a composition – if in doubt, ask. It is a perfectly normal thing for a photographer to do, and the usually craftsman will be only too happy to help

Photograph 1
My final still life picture was of the electric wall clock and the old chair surrounded by various discarded bits and pieces. The wall was lit almost entirely by florescent light and the AWB setting has coped extremely well in producing a natural result

Photograph 2
I was really spoiled for choice, but was attracted to the jumble of cloth and tapes next to the old Singer sewing machine

Photograph 3
One of a sailmaker’s most vital tools is a tape measure, and I spotted this one on the wooden floor. I liked the colour of the reel of purple thread and placed this next to the yellow tape measure. Don’t be afraid to move things in order to improve your composition – the world is your studio

photograph 2

photograph 2

photograph 3

photograph 3

I’ll post part three of this article very soon.

Go back to part one

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When was the first digital camera made?

Philip Dunn looks at the beginnings of digital photography, how the digital revolution affected newspapers and magazines, and asks – who invented the digital camera?

There was talk of a new-fangled digital camera way back in the mid 1980s. Then I was a staff photographer with The Daily Express in Fleet Street, London. It was said that this new camera would revolutionize the way newspaper photographers worked. Prophetic words. I could hardly wait.

In fact the first prototype digital camera was built in 1975 from various camera bits by an Eastman Kodak engineer called Steve Sasson. The camera weighed 8 pounds, recorded black and white images on a cassette tape, had a resolution of 0.01 megapixel (10,000 pixels), and took 23 seconds to capture its first image. The prototype digital camera was no more than a technical exercise and never intended for production.

Steven Sasson holds the prototype digital camera he built in 1975 at the Eastman Kodak Co. headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. It recorded a black-and-white image on a digital cassette tape. Photograph: AP

Steven Sasson holds the prototype digital camera he built in 1975 at the Eastman Kodak Co. headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. It recorded a black-and-white image on a digital cassette tape. Photograph: AP

Newspapers were very quick to embrace the new technology when it finally arrived in the form of an affordable and useable production camera. The first commercially available digital camera was the 1991 Kodak DCS-100 which had a 1.3 megapixel sensor and cost around £8000 in UK – when you could get them.

For me, though, although I was very keen to embrace the new technology, it would be a long time before I would make full use of the digital revolution.

I left the hurly-burly of hard news coverage when I resigned from the Daily Express in 1986 to cover a gentler, more creative style of  feature photography for The Independent and The Sunday Times. This meant continuing with film – mostly black and white, while my hard news colleagues in Fleet Street were issued with the new digital cameras.

I continued to process my own film and print my pictures with chemicals in a darkroom. National daily newspapers stripped out their darkrooms, sacked their printers – they were no longer needed – and saved millions of pounds when they stopped buying film.

When I moved on from newspapers to magazines, I was again unable to change over to digital because most magazine art editors insisted on pictures taken with transparency film. Many of these Luddites were so ‘precious’ they looked down on the new technology as being somehow inferior – not real photography at all.

Eventually, it was the photographers who forced their hand by simply refusing to supply images on film. Magazines had to catch up fast.

I am often asked if I miss film and if I would like to return to it. The answer is definitely not. Although I still to get a hankering to use black and white film on occasions. The benefits of digital photography are tremendous. I no longer need a fully equipped darkroom with all its plumbed-in sinks and dryers; I don’t need to mix chemicals – and I certainly don’t need to buy expensive film.

Yes, producing an image and interpreting that image in the darkroom is a skill I possess that will be lost if I never use it again – but just think how many new skills we have all learned by embracing digital photography.

More reading about the first digital camera:

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Photographing craftsmen – the sailmaker

In his latest PhotoActive blog Philip Dunn demonstrates some of the professional tips and tricks used to photograph skilled craftsmen in their workplace.

I have always enjoyed photographing people at work – craftsmen in particular.

Everything about William Leitch’s sail loft is designed to inspire photographers – and that includes William himself, a big, gentle, bear of a man with a great bushy beard and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The moment I met him and saw his sail loft, I knew I wanted to photograph him at work in there.

Photograph No 1 - The overall photograph

Photograph No 1 - The overall photograph

William is the third generation of sailmakers to work from the old sail loft in Tarbert on the West Coast of Scotland. William’s grandfather was sailmaker on The Cutty Sark and rounded Cape Horn many times before settling down ashore and starting the business.

Opportunities to photograph highly skilled craftsmen and women at work are not just open to professional photographers. The people who do these jobs have a right to be proud of the crafts and abilities that might have taken a lifetime to learn. Most are very willing to help any photographer – amateur or professional – record a set of pictures showing them at work in their own environment.

A positive response to your request to take photographs very much depends on the correct approach. Of course it would be impossible to take pictures without the total co-operation of your subject, and it is important to understand that you are not dealing with corporate-minded ‘yes men’ here, but independent, highly skilled people who have a business to run. A patronising or cock-sure approach will certainly have you shown to the door or ignored.

Photograph No 2 - The portrait

Photograph No 2 - The portrait

So be absolutely honest and tell your subject right at the start what you would like to achieve and ask when it would be most convenient for you to come and talk things through and take some photographs. Ask about the process involved; how it works, and how you might get the photographs you need while being as unobtrusive as possible.

Above all else show real interest in how your subject does the work he or she does. This will be interesting anyway and you are bound to learn something, but, more importantly, it can give you lots of clues to picture possibilities and opportunities.

As a keen sailor myself, this was very easy when I was talking to William – I was able to show genuine interest in what he does, but the knack of ‘being interested’ in the people you photographs should come naturally to any photographer. It’s not difficult and starts by simply asking questions about the process and the person you are photographing.

If possible, on your initial visit, ask your subject if you can take a good look around the workplace before you start to take pictures. This should give you an idea of the sort of lighting you are likely to have to deal with and any extra gear you might need to bring along for the actual photo session. For instance, after seeing the loft, I asked William if I could take the pictures in the late afternoon when the sun would not be shining through the east-facing windows.

Next time, I’ll explain more about the best approach to people at work when I explain how I photographed the fishermen landing their catches on the quayside at Tarbert.

To photograph sailmaker William Leitch I kept my gear dead simple – just one old FinePix S3 Pro DSLR with 17-35mm f2.8 lens and a tripod. I was using a brand new Manfrotto 190MF3 Magfibre tripod fitted with the simplest ball-and-socket head – the only sort of head I ever use. This sort of simplicity means less time fiddling with kit and more time paying attention to your subject.


Photograph 1
My first task was to set the scene with an overall view of William at work. He was making a sail that, fortunately, was not pure white, but slightly cream coloured. This picture shows the sort of light I hade to deal with. There was strong daylight, but not sunshine, coming through the windows, while the back of the loft was lit by florescent tubes. Not the best combination. I set the White Balance (WB) setting to AWB and this has coped extremely well – notice the difference in colour of the sail from one side of the picture to the other.

I did not consider it worthwhile to take a Custom White Balance reading because each time I moved around to do another picture the colour of the light changed

Photograph 2
I admired the hand stitching of this red sail and asked William to sit and hold it. He was proud to do so and show off his skill. I chose a corner where he was lit by the light of the window on one side and the artificial light on the other

Photograph 3
William was keen to show me the sailmaker’s palm used by his grandfather and still in use today. This was the ideal opportunity to take a close-up of his strong, work-calloused hands

Photograph 3 - close-up of William's hands at work

Photograph 3 - close-up of William's hands at work

Photograph 4
A correct exposure on William’s face as he sat at the sewing machine has burnt out his hand where it is lit by the intense spot light on the machine.

Under-exposure by one stop has helped reduce this burn-out, but has not entirely eliminated it. The bonus is that it has cut down the daylight in the background, and his face is lit from below by the spot light

Photograph 5
That’s me trying to get the best from William as he works at his sewing machine in his sail loft

Photograph 4 - using tungsten light from below

Photograph 4 - using tungsten light from below

Go to part two

Photograph No 5 - Philip Dunn photographs William Leitch

Photograph No 5 - Philip Dunn photographs William Leitch

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April Photo Challenge poll results

April Photo Challenge

Here is my feedback on my favourite six images – and the results of the poll of your votes.

Please do remember that these comments are only my opinions. Everyone sees and appreciates pictures in different ways. There are few absolutes in pictures (one of those is getting the horizon straight). The comments are meant to be constructive and hopefully they will help you improve your photography.

Photo No.1 – B – 35% of votes
Photograph by Chris

photo 1 chris

A fantastic shot and a worthy leader in the poll. Simplicity, visual appeal and technical perfection.

If ever there was a demonstration of the PhotoActive ‘Rectangle Monkey’ at work, this is it. The blend of colour is effective, the framing is spot-on, the angle has been perfectly judged and the inclusion of the chalk-marked writing on the wheels has introduced both a sense of scale and proportion.

What more can I say, except to congratulate Chris of a cracking picture?

Photo No.2 – D – 23% of votes
Photograph by Gordon

 photo 2 Gordon

Again, this picture shows very competent framing. Gordon has moved in to isolate just the section of this machinery that attracted him most.

The result is an image with brimming with interest and impact, which I like very much.

Gordon has not fallen into the trap of shooting from an angle, but has chosen to look at the subject straight on. This has added to the appeal and simplicity.

I think the power might have been increased even more with slightly less exposure. I suspect he used an auto exposure mode and, because of the darkness of the tones in the subject this has give a slightly false light reading – resulting in slight over exposure and less colour saturation.

The actual exposure at ISO 100 was 1/60sec at f3.3, so there was lots of scope for stopping the aperture down a little or speeding up the shutter speed in Manual exposure mode. If Gordon was using Aperture Priority mode, he could simply has used an exposure compensation of around – (minus) 1/3 or 2/3

The results of a little less exposure would have resulted in deeper, more saturated colours and perhaps less ‘washout’ of the background seen through the wheel.

Photo No.3 – F – 18% of votes
Photograph by Jeanette (Sudds)

photo 3 Jeanette

This is just fantastic and Jeanette deserves full credit for a beautifully observed and exectuted image. It’s fascinating.

I liked it at first glance. At second glance, I did not much care for the horizontal band of the shadow beneath the shadow of the hand, but slowly I came to realise that it actually added to the narrative of picture.

In my imagination, this extra shadow has given a strange ‘conflict’ to the shot. Almost as if the arm is being grasped, held down, restrained, and the fingers of the hand are being spread in alarm – trying to break free. There is panic there, or terror. Whatever it is, the picture is very powerful.


Photo No.4 – C – 13% of votes
Photograph by Sandra Crook (Crookymonster)

 Photo 4 Sandra

The most striking feature about this picture is the colour – not rusty red, but blue – a real Mediterranean blue that seems completely out of context with the subject.

And there lies the power of this shot, and the reason why I like it so much.

The sidelight on both the old tractor steering wheel and the blue corrugated barn wall has injected texture and shape to what might easily have been just a circular outline shape against a blue background.

I detected a touch of camera shake here – probably due to the use of a long telephoto lens hand held at a shutter speed of just 1/100sec. A faster shutter speed might have eliminated this.

Photo No5. – E – 8% of votes
Photograph by Russell
Pentax K100D
ISO 200
1/200sec at f9

 photo 5 Russell

I was actually quite surprised that Russell’s picture did not get more votes – but then the competition was quite stiff.

There as a slippery-slidy abstract appeal here. The simplest of treatments, the easiest of diagonal compositions have done their job very effectively. All Russell needed to do once he had spotted the subject’s potential and framed it nicely was expose the shot correctly – and he’s done that perfectly.

Photo No.6 – A – 5% of votes
Photograph by Billy

photo 6 Billy
There are good points and some less good in this picture, but overall the effect is very pleasing and rewarding to look at.

I enjoy the sense of depth created by the wall and stones with the distant background giving the viewer the impression that he might clamber over the rocks and look round the corner to see more.

It would have been easy to move in close to that rusty iron outlet and concentrate solely on that in order to fulfil the challenge theme of ‘Rust’, but Billy has chosen not to, and I think it works well. However, there was a close-up picture begging to be taken (of that outlet), so I hope Billy explored his subject and took other shots as well.

Slightly less pleasing to me is the fact that the background is out of focus. This may have been deliberate, but I think because of the simplicity of the composition,  greater depth of field might have added, rather than subtracted from the overall effect. A lttle straightening of the horizon is needed too.

I would also like to have seen the piece of wood moved out of the foreground. It is not needed because the rocks have sufficient interest and, as it is cut off at the bottom, it is a bit distracting.

Having explained all that – I still very much like this picture.
Well done, Billy – and everyone who entered pictures for the April Photo Challenge.

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Date Change Menorca TWO Photography Holiday

The dates for the Menorca TWO Photography Holiday in September have been changed. Due to personal circumstances we have had to move the holiday forward one week to September 11th – 18th.

Norene and I are very grateful indeed for the understanding and co-operation of those already booked on this holiday.

Thank you so much and we look forward to seeing you one week earlier in beautiful Menorca.


Photography Holiday forum

After a wonderful week with such a lovely group of photographers in Menorca, it occurred to me that it would be a nice idea to add a section on the PhotoActive Forum where anyone who has been on one of my holidays or courses could keep in touch with others and share their feedback.

Photographers on the photography  holiday in Menorca, May 9, with Norene and Philip Dunn (left)

Photographers on the photography holiday in Menorca, May 9, with Norene and Philip Dunn (left)

Many new and lasting friendships are forged on these holidays and weekends, so the idea is to help you keep in contact – maybe share some of your informal holiday photographs as well.

PhotoActive photographers really do keep in touch with each other – a couple of years ago one group who came to Menorca actually arranged their own get together on a Scottish Island. Photographers came from as far afield as Ireland and Kent for the reunion. And yes, they invited me, too!

This camaraderie  and friendship is something I am enormously proud of.

So, those of you who have been to us in Menorca – or anywhere else on a holiday or weekend – you’ll find the new forum section right here

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April Photo Challenge POLL open

PhotoActive April Challenge

My favourite six photographs from the April Photo Challenge are now in a poll on the PhotoActive Forum - so it’s now up to members to decide on their top pictures.

Once again the standard of the pictures has been tremendous and I am very proud of the fact that so many entries were forthcoming.

The subject of the May Photo Challenge is ‘CIRCLES’

So if you are not already a member of the PhotoActive Forum – now’s your chance to get in there and show what you can do. Each month I offer constructive and helpful critique of the top pictures – and I try very hard to also include and crit many of the other photographs, too.

The PhotoActive Forum is much more than a place to show off your skills – it is a friendly community of photographers of all levels who are happy to share their knowledge, and it is a great place to learn. I try to help whenever I can, but the forum is really all about it’s members – and there are now over 130 of them.