Our Photography Workshops

Backlit grass

Backlit grass

The woods are an absolutely beautiful place.  Despite my photo course lasting almost 3 years, I took most of the photos for the assignments there, and it struck me quite early on that the woods would make a wonderful location for photography workshops.  Regardless of the weather, there are opportunities to learn the basics of photography and in the summer, the opportunity to look at macro and insect photography too.  It seemed the ideal opportunity to fuse my interest in nature and conservation with my passion for photography and to use the teaching experience I had built up over the years working at the University, albeit in a very different subject area.

This last weekend we had a fantastic day with our introductory workshop.  It is a bit different to many other workshops in that we don’t start with technical elements of photography at all.  There is no mention, during the morning, of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, white balance and so on.

Oak leaf on table

Oak leaf on table

None at all.  The reasons for this are two-fold;  first of all, people tell me that as soon as you mention technical stuff they glaze over and then forget everything else they have been told during the day;  second, I think there is very little point in attending to the technical elements of photography if you aren’t taking the “right” picture in the first place.

So, I divide the day into two parts:  taking the right picture (artistic) and taking the picture right (technical).  Starting with the artistic elements seems to me to bring about improvements very quickly for the students.  It helps with confidence, which is a major factor limiting what people can achieve.  Once you see improvements, you are much more likely to believe you can learn, and therefore grasp the technical elements too.  It also helps you take a good photo no matter what type of camera you have.  There are lots of cameras about, and most of them are extremely competent, and therefore about 95% of the time, it is the photographer, not the camera, who is responsible for a good, or not-so-good photo (obviously in some highly technical areas, such as birds, wildlife, insects, you need the right kind of kit).

Oak leaves on metal

Oak leaves on metal

We run through the “rule of thirds” – what is is, and how it can help with composition.  We look at leading lines/visual pathways, diagonals, symmetry and balance, lighting (direction and quality), and textures and patterns.  It is amazing what a small amount of attention to composition can do to photography, and how much confidence this gives people.  What is most exciting is that people try something different, something they would never have tried before.  It also gives people a toolbox to use in future to think about why a picture did, or didn’t, work.

In the afternoon, we move on to exposure and that magic button, the exposure compensation button (the button that has +/- on it, but that seems to be so rarely used).  Learning how to use the camera to check exposure, and then how to correct it, really opens the mind to possibilities and puts you in control of the camera in a very creative way.  We also look at those old chestnuts, aperture (depth of field) and shutter speed (control of movement), and briefly a bit about ISO.

It isn’t a complete photography course, but it DOES get people off the creative modes and intelligent auto settings, and taking control, and thus taking unique, special and individual images.  Some of the pictures the students take constantly surprise me.

Through the photographer's eye

Through the photographer’s eye

The macro workshop is a bit different, in that we require people to be already competent in elements of composition, exposure compensation, control of aperture and shutter speed,and therefore we deal with technical elements first, and how these relate to macro.  You really have to deal with this first.  We then use the afternoon, particularly the late afternoon when the light is lovely, to learn fieldcraft – how to approach insects and  make opportunities for macro photography out in the wild (as opposed to in the studio).  Hopefully, there are opportunities to make macro images that are not strict technical records, but bring out something of the beautiful, the unexpected, the surprises inherent in nature.  That stir the emotions, that make you gasp, make you think, draw you in to a new and different world.

Why do I do these workshops?  The answer is to help people to be creative.  Photographs have two purposes:  to make a technical record of an object or location, person or place and second, to convey a feeling, emotion, sensory experience, memory…in short, to put the viewer into the eye and mind of the photographer.  Both have their place, but the images that stand out for me are those that do the latter.  All too often people tell me about, or show me, photos of places they have visited that disappoint.  That don’t really do justice to the place they have been and the things that they have seen.  The aim of the workshops is to show them how to recognise what they are really looking at, and what they are feeling, and what is drawing their attention and then take quite different pictures.  They may not show the whole of a stately home, or a person, or a landscape.  What I hope they will do is get images that actually induce the feeling they had when they were in that place, picturing that thing.  And then to move on beyond satisfying themselves, and making images that evoke emotions in somebody who has been there and seen that, to taking images that can truly guide the viewer to experience the same emotions, the same experience as the photographer had when the image was taken.  Or even to a new place, a new experience, that is unique to the viewer, but is still guided by the photographer and the images that they have created.

Clearly this can’t all be done in a day.  But I do try and start people along this path.  It is very easy to find stuff that is written about technical elements of photography – it is all over the place, on web, in camera clubs, in books, in magazines – but much harder to get those creative light bulbs illuminated, and bring out the artist lurking behind the viewfinder of the camera.  We do charge a small £20 fee for the day-long workshops, which goes towards the maintenance costs of the woods (for sustainable wood fuel cutting, maintenance of paths and meadows and ponds, insurance for the public to visit and so on).

If you’d like to come along, see www.alvecotewood.co.uk – or the link on this blog.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

Bird Photography using a Chair Hide


If, like me, you are keen on wildlife photography, or if you like just sitting and watching the birds and wildlife, then a small, portable hide can be really useful.  The question is which one to get, and are they any good?
I love photography, and in particular taking pictures of the birds and other wildlife in our woods.  Even with good long lenses, it is difficult to get close enough to the subjects without having to crop the images, thus losing definition and detail, even with the best of cameras and lenses.  With a good, fast 300mm lens from Canon or Nikon costing upwards of £5k, and longer lenses costing considerably more, the realistic solution for most of us is getting closer to the subject rather than buying a longer lens.
There are a wide variety of hides available.  You could build a semi-permanent hide using camo tarps and a wooden frame, or even from straw bales, and we considered this.  The problem is, at least in our woods, that the feeders are close to the building (for obvious reasons) and any semi-permanent structure is an invitation to people to come and do harm.   It also isn’t portable – but a lot of the birds don’t come to the feeders and we have to go to the birds, rather than having the birds come to us.  Many birds are territorial, so you have to be able to move around the different territories in the woods, particularly if one breeding pair has decided to nest in a location that is hard to photograph.
There are a range of portable pop-up hides available, similar to lightweight pop-up tents.  Although they are portable, unless your knees are made of steel, you will also need a chair to sit on to make use of them.  Added to the not-inconsiderable weight of photography gear (camera, lenses, tripod), this can make quite a burden.
So I ended up looking at the pop-up hides based around a chair or chairs.  Stealth Gear supply one-man and two-man hides.  The advantage of the latter is that you can either have somebody in there with you, or you have some extra space for your clobber.  But it is bigger and heavier and more complicated too, and since I am usually the only person who is daft enough to sit out in all weathers trying to get that one wonderful shot, I opted for the one-man hide, costing around £85 online.
The hide is based on a standard folding canvas chair, with canvas arms and the usual drink holder in one of the arms.  To this has been attached a clever folding canopy, which can be unfolded a bit like a slinky toy to give a chair with a camouflage covering.  In the covering are various windows of varying sizes.  Each window is covered with camo netting, so you can observe without being seen.  The window can also be unzipped to allow you to poke out a lens, binoculars (or even an air rifle if you are after rabbits or squirrels). The front also unzips to give a much larger field of view, but with the disadvantage that you are much more visible.  The canopy can be pinned down with tent pegs to minimise flapping, reduce drafts (very important in winter!) and stop it blowing away. The lower front opens to allow you to crawl in, but I have found it easier to flip the front up, sit down, then pull the front back down again and secure the pegs from the inside.
It isn’t completely waterproof – there are little gaps here and there where the zips have been stitched in – but it is a million times better than standing out in the open, or trying to stand under a camo net or tarp that you have erected yourself.  It is pretty windproof unless you open the windows, although there is a bit of a draft underneath, which can make it pretty cold around the feet and your bottom after a while.
The chair is quite small – you wouldn’t want to be a very well-built person – but large enough.  I am only 5ft 2ins, but it seems to have enough room for my husband who is larger.  However you can’t store stuff underneath it, so you need the room at the front of the hide to put your camera bag down.  The problem with that is when you use a conventional tripod, there isn’t a lot of room for the tripod, your feet, your camera bag and a nice flask and box of sandwiches.  I have switched to using a smaller tripod that has a large central column and takes less floor area (made by 3-Legged Thing), and this is great – I have room for my feet, a camera bag and my lunch.
So are the birds fooled by it?  Amazingly, yes, provided you have sited it such that the camouflage works.  Set it against the light, and it will be a looming object that the birds don’t like.  Set it into an existing bush, or so that the light shines onto it from the perspective of the bird, and it blends in surprisingly well.  Indeed, I have had a robin sitting on top, singing away (quite deafening), and lots of blue tits and great tits perching on top of the hide too.  It is worth putting the hide up a little while before you go into it, so the birds can get used to it.
You DO have to keep quite still.  This means largely keeping your hands on the camera for the birds can see your hands move rapidly up to the camera if something interesting comes along.  You have to move slowly, and not swing the camera too quickly either.  Opening the side windows also lets light in, and lets the birds see you, so it isn’t a bad idea to wear camo gear inside the hide.  Keeping still inevitably means you get cold, and in the winter I took to wearing ski gear to keep warm (as well as a flask of coffee).  I also found that a gimbal or ball-and-socket head on the tripod was much easier to control than a standard pan and tilt head as you made less in the way of movements of your hands.
And when you want to move, it folds up and clips together such that it fits into a bag that you can carry like a rucksack.
And it works.  It is a relatively cheap way of getting closer to your subject, massively cheaper than buying a long prime lens, and massively more convenient than making your own.  You are somewhat limited in the viewpoint you take (all your pictures are from sitting height).  You definitely get much closer than you can just sitting there with your telephoto lens on the camera.  Indeed, I have been too close on occasion, a few birds coming within the minimum focal distance of my lens (1.8 metres).   It may or may not be robust – I have yet to use it for a whole year, so can’t comment on that – but I think it has already proved its value.
Some tips for taking good photographs from the hide
  1.  Site the hide about an hour before you get in it to let the birds get used to it.
  2. Site the hide where it blends in, and doesn’t give a looming presence from the perspective of the birds.
  3. Try and site the hide where there is a good background (not too confused), and where the lighting is good (I find side or sometimes back lighting is good for getting definition on the bird’s feathers, rather than flat straight-on sunlight)
  4. Go for places where there are birds (do your homework).  Either where you know birds are hanging out or alternatively put up feeders.  If you do the latter, you will find it almost embarrassingly easy to take pictures of birds on feeders.  Try and observe where the birds are approaching from and what intermediate perches they are using.  Then you can get pictures of them on the way to or from the feeder, in a more natural setting.
  5. Use a good tripod with a ball or gimbal head.  A gimbal head allows you to move the camera naturally as if you were holding it by hand, but provides all the support you need, at least up to 400mm.
  6. Unless your camera has very good autofocus, go for manual focus and pre-focus on the favoured perches.
  7. Use exposure compensation – your birds will often be backlit, or appear against a bright sky, and you will need to over-expose by usually 1 to 1 1/3 stops to avoid the birds appearing as dark little bird-shaped silhouettes.  Learn how to use this feature on your camera without looking at the controls.  You won’t always be able to check the exposure on the screen, so use a best guess or bracket the exposures.
  8. Try and get the birds doing something interesting:  fighting, flying in or out, in a natural pose (such as the head-down pose of the nuthatch), about to take off, with a seed in their beak , or even with a dynamic pose or interesting expression.
  9. Enjoy the common birds as well as the rare ones and take lots of photos of them – that way you will get use to photography in the hide, and won’t mess up when the rare bird makes a fleeting appearance.  I must have taken thousands of photos of blue tits, but I love these little birds, and could watch them all day.  It means when a reed bunting, or yellowhammer, or willow tit flies in I’m on the ball and used to taking photos, and can get a decent result, rather than an over-excited, under-exposed blur.
The photos in this article were all taken in a single afternoon using a Canon EOS5D Mk III with 100-400 zoom lens, and a Three Legged Thing tripod with ball head.  Before buying the hide, it would take weeks to get just one shot as good as some of these.  My verdict – if you like your photography it is worth the money.

Photography Part 6: Criticism should be constructive, whether of your own work, or that of others

  1. I have suffered hugely from destructive criticism in the past, which led me to withdraw from photography completely for years.  It is very easy to point out the flaws in an image, but much harder to genuinely help somebody to improve through constructive criticism.

What do I mean by constructive and destructive criticism?  By destructive, I mean simply telling somebody they think a photo is not good (very frequently expressed less politely on photography web sites).  Or voting “Dislike”.  Or rejecting an image from a group of which you are a moderator without giving a reason.  This is destructive because it is wholly negative feedback without any hint to the photographer as to what the viewer doesn’t like, or how they can improve.

What is much harder is to work out why you think a photograph is poor, or you don’t like it.  Even harder still is to help the photographer work through what they were trying to achieve, work out why in your mind they haven’t achieved it, and then help them to work through whether they could have done anything different to make the image better, and thus achieve what they wanted to.

You may think you are doing the latter.  However, it can come over very differently to the recipient, particularly if they are not familiar with technical terms, or are just looking for some general pointers and receive an essay on all the shortcomings of their picture.  Blinding somebody with science is a form of destructive criticism because it doesn’t actually help them achieve their aims.

There is a point to all this:  if you can learn to constructively criticise the work of another photographer, you automatically become able to develop a technique of self-criticism which will help you to improve your success in helping others to share your experience.  There is no right or wrong, good or bad, but there are always things you could have done differently.

Here’s an example:  You may not like an image that has a pink cast.  You could say “I don’t like the pink cast to this image”.  That is destructive criticism, and offers no insight to the photographer, or method by which he or she could improve.  Or you could ask the photographer “why did you give the image a pink cast?”  That is a constructive comment, because it makes the photographer think through why they did it, and perhaps will help you to see things through the photographer’s eyes.  It may also help the photographer to convey what they really wanted to better next time.  Or you may just agree to disagree.  Or it may turn out not to be a colour cast, but a natural coloration.  The point is, it will generate a positive discussion, and not make the photographer go home, sell their camera and give up.  And believe me, criticism can do that to a photographer.

So please keep your criticism of yourself, and others, positive.  Don’t tell yourself or somebody else that you, or they, are a bad photographer.  Instead, look at the image and ask yourself why it doesn’t meet your, or their, criteria of success.  That way, you, and they, will improve, and we will all be able to share our visual world.  And isn’t that what photography is all about?

Photography Part 5: Having an idea what you want in advance, and making the most of opportunities are not mutually exclusive

Most photographers are opportunists.  We walk around with our cameras or mobile phones and take picture when we see something.  Almost everybody takes snap-shots.  Some of my best pictures have been snap-shots (by which I mean I saw something, grabbed the camera, and got a picture).However, a lot of photographers also spend a lot of time visualising what they would like to see as their final image, and then go about achieving that.  A lot of fashion and product photography is done this way, and often takes hours of setting up for one or two final images.

There is, however, a spectrum between these two extremes, whereby there is an element of pre-visualisation, and an element of opportunism, and the relative contribution of these to the final image can vary.

What matters is that you get the image you wanted.  Sometimes, that is a result of very rapid decisions, and sometimes of prolonged work.  Sometimes you have to make up your mind very rapidly about what image you want, and what you want the final result to look like, and this process may be almost simultaneous with taking the photo.  So, for example, I may spot a butterfly resting in our meadow.  I think quickly about the background and lighting, how I can approach the insect, what depth of field I want, whilst at the same time, approaching, setting up my camera, and hopefully capturing the shot (most of the time the butterfly has moved, or gone, but that is the charm of wildlife photography).  Other times you may need to set things up in advance:  we set up seed feeders for our birds so that we can get images with the light that I want, and the background that I want, for example.  I will also wait for the right weather or lighting conditions to get an image of a particular local landscape.  This can take months, or even years, if you want snow coverage and it doesn’t snow that winter.

Most of the time, there is some time after you’ve spotted the opportunity, to think about what you want the image to be like.  Is it the colour that attracts you?  Or the pattern of light and shade (in which case, you may see the final image in monochrome and adapt what you shoot accordingly)?  Do you want to convey an emotion?  In which case, what post processing would you like to use?  Is the lighting right? If not, can you improve it by using flash or reflectors?  Do you want the water to look blurred, in which case you may want to use a tripod?  Do you want good contrast in both sky and foreground (maybe you might use a filter?)?  Finally, what equipment have you got with you, and what can you get, given the things you have available (I often have the “wrong” lens on my camera, but manage to get something acceptable despite that)?  The permutations are endless, but the point is that photography is almost always a combination between pre-visualisation and opportunism.  Making the most of both is one of the great skills a photographer can have.

Photography Part 2: It’s the Photographer, not the Camera

Following on from my previous post, one of my pet hates is the comment, “that is a good photo, you must have a very good camera”.  It is a bit like telling a surgeon they did a good operation because they had a good scalpel, or a chef that their meal was great because they had good pans.  A sharp scalpel, or good pan, helps, but it is the skill of the operator that makes the difference.  Many excellent images are taken with mobile phones, or the most basic of film cameras.  The best camera is often the one you have with you – a £30k Hasselblad  or a bag full of the latest SLR equipment is no good if you have left it in the car when the opportunity arises. 

Beyond doubt, having a camera that provides you with the tools to achieve your vision, the image you wanted, is helpful, and some images are not possible without the right equipment – distant wildlife, or very large prints being an example of this.  Nevertheless, for the vast majority of images, it is the photographer, and not the camera, that does the work.

Remember what I said about the brain: it is the creative qualities of the way in which the brain processes images that make the difference.  Our eyes are not cameras.  A creative photographer will see opportunities, and make it possible to create an image with relatively simple equipment.  Modern digital cameras are astoundingly cheap, and monumentally capable, and it is possible to get brilliant results with them.  Provided, of course, the photographer had the imagination in the first place.

Photography Part 1: There is no right or wrong

One thing I have learned, in studying photography over the past couple of years, is that there are a lot of strong opinions.  Things are right or wrong, and many opinions are polarised:  digital vs film is best, it is cheating to use Photoshop vs use it all you like, HDR is good vs HDR is bad, you have to have a good camera or the latest equipment vs you can take a great photo on a simple camera, you must shoot RAW vs it doesn’t matter, natural light is best vs flash is best etc.
I used to read all this stuff and get so confused.  Suffering as I do from low confidence in my work, I got very upset by all the debate, and felt I must be doing it wrong, somehow, because I didn’t agree with a lot of the strong opinions out there.  From what I’ve heard from clients while running photo workshops at our woods, I suspect that a lot of other people are put off, upset, or confused too.
Having got my head together, and thought things through, here is my philosophy on photography, the Universe and everything.
  1. There is no right or wrong
    What matters is whether the image you took is the one you wanted to take – the one that records your feelings, thoughts, creativity, visualisation or emotions.  Obviously, there are things you can do to improve the way in which you are able to achieve this end, but essentially, if it looks right to you, then it is OK, and it doesn’t really matter what anybody else thinks (unless you are working for a client who is paying, in which case, they need to like it too).

We all see things differently because the images we see are not those that appear on the retina of our eye, but rather those images that our brain processes and turns into information for our brain.  If a hundred people listen to a radio programme, they will all recall different bits differently, and probably disagree quite vehemently about the details.  Likewise, with an image, the brain of one person will process it differently to another.  A very crude example of this is that somebody with red-green colour-blindness will see an image in a different way to non -colour-blind people and probably other colour-blind people too.  But colour-blindness is not absolute.  We all perceive light, patterns, shade, colour, tone and depth differently.  That is why, when we take a picture with our camera, we are often disappointed because it wasn’t what we saw – the camera doesn’t process images in the same way our brain does.

Given that, what right does anybody have to say your image is “wrong”?  Thankfully we all see things differently, and are capable of producing a multitude of different interpretations of the same scene.  One photographer may see a particular detail, and focus in on that.  Another may love the wider angle.  One may be intrigued by the colour, another by the patterns of light and shade.  One may like the darkness and shadow, and another will see the brightness and light.

So, what matters is whether we can commit our own visualisation of the scene to our medium, film or digital, not whether what we have done is right or wrong, and the purpose of learning photography is to enable us to do that, not to produce an image that meets a tick-box or a particular convention.  The “rule of thirds” may help us compose our image, learning about exposure compensation may help us get the light and dark bits looking the way we want, learning how to render a monochrome image may help us concentrate on light and shade, using artificial lighting may help us get the lighting we want, post-processing (film or digital) may help us convey the feeling we got, or help put the viewer in our shoes, into our creative eye.  It is not right or wrong to use any of these, or not use them.  What matters is that you got the image that you wanted.  Some people will never “get” your images because they don’t see things the way you do – does that really matter?  I think it is great that we all see things differently, or our world and its wonderful photographic diversity would be poorer because of it.