It is all about the background…

I am constantly striving to make my images better reflect the beauty and wonder of the natural world around me.  People often ask me what camera settings I am using to take the photos that I take.  To me that is missing most of the point.  Of course it is nice to be able to take a picture that is correctly exposed and in focus, and without that, the image is less likely to reflect the natural beauty you are trying to convey.  It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have a technically correct image.  Much more important is how the image displays the subject in its environment.  It is important to consider all the stuff that is in the frame but that in itself is not the subject – stuff like colour, light, shade, distractions, shadows, bright spots and so on.  If it doesn’t enhance the subject of the image, then how can you alter the picture in some way so that it does.  Most importantly, can it give the feeling that you get when you are viewing the subject.

In short, you need to disengage the technical side of your brain and engage the artistic side and tie the image you are taking into the emotions you are feeling.  What are you feeling and what is it about what you are seeing that makes you feel like that.  What makes you gasp, draw your breath, say “Wow!”.

I can’t claim to have mastered this, but these images give some idea of how I am thinking when I take a picture.

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The first image (above) is wild carrot flower in our meadow.  This is a plant that I love, so it was important to show not only the delicate nature of the plant, but also the way in which it blends so gracefully with the meadow.  I did this by ensuring that the depth of field was sufficiently small to blur the background but not so narrow as to make it completely free from texture.  There is the feeling here of something, and the angle of the shadows reflects the angle of the wild carrot plant, as if they are all moving in the same breeze.  The lighting is warm evening light, and that was important, but the wild carrot itself stands out because I have placed it in front of an area of shadow.

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This image is of rosebay willow herb in our woods near sunset.  I loved the way in which the sun picked out and backlit the flowers, making them seem lit up from the inside.  However there were a lot of trees in the background which could have been very distracting, so I made sure the depth of field was very narrow, and this led to a nice circular bokeh.  Placing the bright part of the flower by the bright part of the background really draws the eye to this part of the image.

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This little damselfly is perched on a reed stem by one of our ponds.  I have many pictures of damselflies with a nice green background, but here I noticed that other plants in the background gave a variety of colours – green, yellow, red=brown and blue.  By placing this out of focus, it looks as if I have applied a rainbow filter of some kind to the image – in fact this is a completely natural look.  The only editing done here is the usual slight adjustment of the RAW image for white balance, noise, sharpness and minor tweaks to the exposure.

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Here my eye was drawn to the amazing sparkles on the pond behind the dragonfly.  The dragonfly is perched on a fairly ordinary piece of dead reed stem, but the sparkles behind make it look like it is sitting in front of Christmas lights.  It is a completely natural effect due to the way in which the image was taken.

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Sometimes pulling away from your subject makes it stand out more.  This is a dragonfly perched on a reed stem at one of our ponds.  What I have done here is make use of the backlighting to make it stand out, but also use the lovely patchwork of colour produced by the evening light on the foliage in the background to enhance the image further.  It looks a bit like an impressionist painting.  Again, this is a natural effect, with only minor routine editing of the RAW file.

These aren’t perfect images by any means, just a set of pictures I took in the last week or two.  I can criticise each of them.  But I hope it illustrates what I am thinking when I take a picture, and how the background can make the difference between a pretty ordinary image and one that stands out a bit from the crowd.

Photography – remember these few things

Meadow Path - leading lines

Meadow Path – leading lines

We had a very successful photography workshop at the woods this weekend, and everybody seemed to enjoy it very much.  I split the day into two sections:  the first called “taking the right picture”, which was about composition, the second called “taking the picture right” which was about technical elements of photography.  We did lots of practical exercises, working round the frequent heavy showers of rain, and we looked at lots of examples.

At the end of the day, as we were doing the final exercise, I got to thinking that there is a lot to take in on some of these days.  What would be the five points that I would sum up with to help beginners move away from snapshots and towards taking photos that reliably look the way you want them to look.

So here they are:

1.  Remember the rule of thirds

Dividing the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, and placing subjects, horizons, or natural breaks in the image on those thirds produces nice, well-balanced images (at least it does most of the time).  Lots of cameras provide you with a nice grid to make this easy.  Practice until this becomes automatic and then, if you do decide to break this rule of thirds, at least you know that you are doing it, and why you are doing it, and for what reason.

2.  Use leading lines

Leading lines, or visual cues, or visual pathways – whatever you like to call them – are things that lead the eye of the viewer through the photograph.  They help you, as the photographer, to lead the viewer on the same visual journey as you took when you composed the image.  In short, you are helping the viewer to see through the photographer’s eye.  The picture tells a story, becomes more dynamic, and excites the imagination much more when you are guided through it, than when you are left confused as to what, exactly, you are supposed to be seeing (unless creating that confusion is part of the purpose of the image!).

Ox-Eye Daisies

Ox-Eye Daisies

3.  Check the relationship between subject and background

It is SO easy to be so intently focused on the subject that you lose sight of what is around it.  Very small adustments in your position, the subject’s position, and the use of lighting, shadow and colour can make the difference between an OK picture and a very special one.  Look at how the subject is framed, the balance between the subject and the space around the subject, and the balance of light and shade, dark and light, and colours, across the frame.  Getting rid of distracting shadows, highlights, colour patches, or objects can really help the photographer to direct attention to the subject, and make it stand out.

4.  Find and use the exposure compensation button on your camera

Cameras on auto give bland, average exposures.  Even ones with clever “intelligent” metering, spot metering, centre-weighted metering and other fancy backlight compensation buttons.  Auto exposure works pretty well on simple subjects with uniform lighting across the frame.  It doesn’t work well if, say, you have a light subject on a dark background, or vice versa, or in situations where the subject is backlit, or situations of high contrast.  You decide whether it is the highlights or shadows that are important in your image, and then set the exposure accordingly.   You might need to compensate a lot, a little or not at all.  Check your exposure (by the mark one eyeball, or histogram, or both), then compensate.  Learn how to do this without looking.  It really does make a difference.

Small Heath Butterfly

Small Heath Butterfly

5.  Get off auto and use the aperture and shutter speeds creatively

Get off the button marked Auto, iA, P or whatever it is on your camera, and start using the Aperture-priority (A or Av) and Shutter-priority (S or Tv) modes.  This will give you instant control of depth of field (how much of the frame is in focus – using Av), and of how motion is portrayed (freeze or blur – using Tv).  Honestly, it really makes a huge difference.  Virtually all cameras come with these features.  They are there for a reason.  If you don’t have Av and Tv (or A and S) on your camera, then try using the “creative scene” modes – like Sport, Macro, Landscape, Portrait.  Again, they are there for a reason.  Just don’t be frightened to get that button off Auto.  You can always put it back again if things go wrong.

Marsh Orchid

Marsh Orchid

6.  Visualise the final result and then set about getting that result

This is probably the hardest bit to get, but once you do get the hang of it, you change from a snapper into a photographer.  You are then in charge of what you are recording, rather than the situation around you.  It sounds like it takes a bit of time to do this, and often it does.  Quite often it takes ages to visualise and then create the image you want.  But it doesn’t have to, and with practice, you can visualise, even when you have to make a rapid judgement and take a genuine “snap shot”.

The first thing you need to do is learn to figure out what it is in a scene that catches your eye, catches your interest, makes it something you think worthy of photographing.  The human eye doesn’t record things like a camera does – that is, with equal weighting to every pixel on the sensor.  The eye darts around, picking up lots of different small details, and the brain stitches that together into a whole.  That is why when 20 people look at the same scene they will see 20 different scenes, or interpretations of that scene.  That is also why, when you get home, you are often disappointed in the photo you have taken.

Barley in the wind

Barley in the wind

Perhaps you are in a woodland and you take a few photos of the view around you – the trees, the paths, the undergrowth.  But that doesn’t actually capture the feeling of being there.  That is because your eye wasn’t looking at all that stuff all at once.  The experience you had wasn’t a result of the sum of the whole, but what your brain made out of lots of little details.  You need to work out what is drawing your eye.  In a woodland it could be the shapes of the trees, the colours of the leaves, the wonderful colours of the highlights where the sun comes through the shade.  Work out what it is and then take a picture of that.  It might not show the viewer a general woodland scene, but it will show the viewer what held your attention.  It will probably mean much more to you as well.  It also helps to work out what you are feeling:  is it fear?  magic?  happiness?  sadness?  You can tailor your images to fit your emotions, and tell a story much more effectively if you can work this out.

Once you have worked out what it is you want to show, you have to work out how to show it.  That is sometimes hard, but you are well on the way if you can visualise the result you want.  Think about whether it will look better if the picture is fundamentally dark, or fundamentally light.  If it is colourful or monochrome.  If it is sharp or soft.  You can control most of these things when you take the picture, or with simple processing.

Visualising the final result, and then going about getting that result using the first five points should help you become happier with your pictures.

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 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 3: Post processing is not good or bad, it is the final result that matters

  1. A lot of people are “against” image-processing software because the results it produces are not “real” and because you couldn’t do that sort of stuff with film.  I have no problem with wanting to take an image that requires no post processing, and am quite happy for people to work in the minimal/no processing way.  Many images produced this way are astounding.  Most people don’t process their images using software.

But just think about this for a bit:  we oldies who used film used to do many of the same tricks that software does, it just took a bit longer and you had to do it yourself.  If you never processed your own film, but just sent it off to the lab and got back their results, then you may not know this.  But when I processed my own film, I used to do lots of things:  crop the image, dodge and burn (alter the exposure over part of the image to allow for high levels of contrast on the original negative), create a mask to process different parts of the print differently, alter the colour balance (in those days, using filters in the enlarger), push the film to get more grain (processing low ISO film to get a high ISO effect), add a border or vignette, cross-process (use a process designed for one film on another one, thus getting a creative effect), bleach-bypass, use a toning process to get a colour-hued black and white image, airbrush imperfections or to add a colour-pop such as pink lips and cheeks on a monochrome image, combine two or more negatives to get a composite image…the list goes on.  The point is that much of what software does, we could always do.

Software also allows us to do much more, and makes it easy for us to do it cheaply, without wasting rolls of film, or chemicals, or paper.  In my mind, the use of software is called “progress” and is just one in a large list of things that is made easier by modern technology.  Others may call its use, and the use of similar techniques with film, cheating.

To my mind, cheating is something different:  it is deliberately setting out to mislead a viewer, for example, by placing the head of one individual on the body of another one, so it appears they were present when they were not.  Of course it is not simple:  when does editing an image become cheating?  Making a model appear slimmer?  Removing a spot from the face of a bride on her wedding photos?  Is this mis-representation?  I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that most photographers don’t set out to mislead:  rather, they set out to convey their impression, emotions, feelings, interpretations of a scene.  If software helps you do that, then fine.  I have no problem with it.  If you prefer not to use software, that is also fine – there are other ways of achieving a creative effect, with or without subsequent use of software (filters are an example of this).

Post-processing is not “right” or “wrong”.  It is just a method of expression.  Whether you choose to use it or not is up to you, and whatever decision you make is fine by me.  However, I hope you will also respect my decision to use, or not to use, processing software.

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.