A pastel pink sky

Spectacular Sunsets

The weather has been quite terrible over the Christmas and New Year period, and Saturday was no exception.  We were dressed in warm and waterproof clothing in the relentless wind, drizzle and rain on our trip to the woods to unblock the ditch which was threatening to overflow onto our main path.  After a hard afternoon of raking and digging out the mass of leaves, twigs and silt that had become stuck in the ditch, and cutting some more wood for kindling and for our log fire, we were just heading home when the clouds cleared, and we were treated to the most spectacular sunset with the most beautiful of colours.

Here is a sequence of images, captured on my little Canon EOS-M that I keep in my bag when working, showing the beautiful, and most unexpected sunset across the fields opposite the entrance to our woods.

A pastel pink sky

A pastel pink sky

As the sun goes down, a golden line on the horizon.

As the sun goes down, a golden line on the horizon.

The sunset starts - apricot and orange sky

The sunset starts – apricot and orange sky

Gentle warm sunset sky

Gentle warm sunset sky

The sun sinks further

The sun sinks further

The sky is on fire!

The sky is on fire!

Photo of the Year – RESULTS!

Common Blue

Photo of the Year 2013:  Common blue roosting at dusk

Happy New Year, and thank you to everybody who voted in the poll for our photo of the year.  It was a very close vote in the end but we have a winner – and it is the photo of the common blue butterfly roosting at dusk.

Runner up was the sunset shot.

Spectacular sunset opposite our entrance

Runner up: Spectacular sunset opposite our entrance

And in third place was our lovely white bluebell

Photo Number 6:  Rare white English bluebell

Third Place: Rare white English bluebell

I’m hoping for another wonderful photographic year at the woods in 2014.

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.

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 4: A good photo helps you experience what the photographer experienced

I love nature, landscapes, the natural world.  Some scenes are truly breathtaking.  They reach you at a very deep level, they make you see the world in a different way, and generate emotions.  The scene becomes an experience, rather than an image.What I love about photography is the challenge of helping others to share that experience through the image I take, and that is not necessarily achieved by making a literal record.

What I like is to dissect the experience I am having:  what is it about the place I am in, and the things that I am seeing that is drawing my eye, and making me feel in particular way?  Is it the colours?  The light?  The temperature or humidity?  Abstract patterns?  Sight-lines?  The sky?  Detail or the whole picture?  The detail of a creature, or its place in the context of the landscape?  An emotion?  Do I feel light and bright, or sad and gloomy?  Does the place seem happy or creepy?  Is it real or unreal?

Thinking that through, I can then try and think how I can convey that to somebody viewing my image, so they cannot just see what I saw, but feel what I felt and experience what I experienced.

There is no right or wrong, just success or lack of it.  I will not succeed in conveying what I felt or saw to everybody, but if I succeed in making people catch their breath in the way I caught mine, then to me, that is a successful photograph, and that will usually be achieved partly in the image I took, partly through how I took it, and partly through how I processed it.

Thinking of it in this way, I become more convinced that an image is about how it makes you feel, rather than its technical quality.  Technical ability very frequently helps you achieve the effect you want to, and is an extremely useful tool.  Lack of technical quality can impair the experience and therefore, technique, and the quality of the final image is important.  Very important.  But a photo doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be successful by my criterion, and often isn’t.  Perhaps if we all lightened up a bit, and looked at what the photographer is trying to help us experience, or feel, we would all be a little happier with our own images, and get more out of looking at those of others?