The Mog Tog: Photographing Cats and Kittens

Let’s face it, the furry little fiends are not the easiest subjects to photograph well. They don’t listen when you are telling them how to pose and they’ll wonder off bored long before you have the perfect shot set up. So, whilst there is no such thing as a bad photo of your favourite felines, here are 20 quick tips for getting snap you’ll be proud to share on social media, or even put on you wall, mouse mat or coffee mug. The models for this tutorial are Dido, Harold and Maude.

1. If you ignore all the other tips, remember this one: patience!

dido loves her pig
dido loves her pig, but if I put her on it she would jump off straight away; so, patience…

2.Get low down and shoot from their height, not yours!

harry a few months old
harry a few months old

3.Get in close and make use of complimentary textures.

maude in amongst the cushions
maude in amongst the cushions

4. Have your camera ready to capture some unexpected humour from your intrepid feline explorer.

dido covered in something she found somewhere
dido covered in something she found somewhere

5. Get in real close for dramatic pet portraits.

harry was made for black and white photography
harry was made for black and white photography

6. Cats are not fond of having cameras thrust in their faces; a telephoto lens can help you get close from a distance.

maude was on the garage roof, hence the "mouse eye view"
maude was on the garage roof, hence the “mouse eye view”

7. Dark fur can be tricky to expose; try spot or centre-partial metering and check the review image and/or histogram after shooting.

dido has always been a bit of a scruff
dido has always been a bit of a scruff.

8. Play with unusual perspectives; I used a wide angle lens to get this shot of Harry.

my paws don't normally look this big, it's wide angle lens distortion
my paws don’t normally mook this big, it’s wide angle lens distortion

9. Did I mention to get in really close? Cropping tightly during editing can also work; the general cropping rule is “crop in, then crop in some more!”

maude's eye and whiskers

10. What are the key physical characteristics of your mog? Use them to add personality to their portraits.

look into my eyes
look into my eyes

11. Is your mog camera shy? Distract them with a favourite toy and get them well into the play before the camera is brought out.

hmmm, catnip mouse, my favourite!
hmmm, catnip mouse, my favourite!

12. To snap the little tykes in mid-play you will require a fast shutter speed and a high ISO; use manual or shutter priority mode on your SLR, or one of the “sporty/action” modes on your compact digi.

let's dance
let’s dance

13. Think about the composition of the entire scene, not just your model.

dido through the serving hatch
dido through the serving hatch

14. Give kittens something to play with, or place them where they can investigate some strange new wonder.

a floral puss
a floral puss

15. Sometimes a prop or two can come in handy; if you’re going to add amusing props to a scene work quickly before the wary mog notices something is afoot!

only one of us is smiling
only one of us is smiling

16. Sibling kittens will interact in ways that adult cats are unlikely too – take such opportunities when they come.

brother and sister
brother and sister

17. Ok, so I couldn’t decide between this photo and the previous one, so you get both. It is worth saying that you won’t always get perfect composition, exposure or focus, but sometimes that doesn’t matter as much as capturing the moment…

yes, your breath does smell of fish
yes, your breath does smell of fish

18. Clutter-free backgrounds are best for any portrait; using a wide lens aperture can help blur the background to make it even less distracting.

harold and maude
harold and maude; yes, after the film

19. Whilst cats are notoriously difficult to direct, kittens can be more pliable; Harry and Maude loved jumping from dining table to serving hatch; I laid in wait with the camera whilst my better half encouraged them to leap.

shouldn't we have capes on?
shouldn’t we have capes on?

20. The general rule of portraiture is focus on eyes / face, but rules are made to be broken…

maude’s paw


To chat about your photography requirements, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

Or check out some more examples of my human portrait photography.

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Focus Stacking with Open Source Software and Photoshop

The object of focus stacking is simple – combine several near-identical shots of a subject to create an image with a greater depth of field than could be achieved in one photograph.  The only change between each exposure is a subtle shifted of focus – everything else (lighting, composition etc) remains static.

It is not as scary as it may sound, so rather than an in-depth tutorial, this post simply describes my very first personal experiment with the technique.

Why do it?

There are a variety of simple methods to maximise the zone of sharpness in an image:

  • use a prime lens with a short focal length
  • choose a narrow aperture
  • move the camera further away from the subject

Each method has limitations, or may compromise other creative requirements; aperture is worth special mention in this regard. It can be tempting to dial in the smallest available aperture setting, but this can be a mistake. Any aperture smaller than f11 can actually reduce sharpness or resolution throughout the image (including the focal plane). Surprised? Google “lens aperture and diffraction” to learn more.

Focus stacking is most commonly used with macro photography, where zones of sharpness are typically very shallow, and changing lens or distance to subject are not an option.

Setting up

I wanted a subject that would easily show the success (or failure) of my experiment, so placed a desiccated flower (the button-hole from my wedding a few years ago) on a windowsill that received indirect (therefore diffuse) sunlight.

A 60mm macro lens was attached to a Nikon D7100, which was mounted on a sturdy tripod to keep the camera perfectly still throughout shooting.

A few test shots established the exposure settings required: ISO 200, f/8, 1/8sec shutter speed. Of course, using window light for multiple shots requing the same exposure was risky as the strength of sunlight can change rapidly, but the sky was heavily overcast so I figured fluctuations would be minimal.


Connecting camera to laptop via USB cable, I booted up a nifty bit of software called Digicamcontrol. This open source tethering program has focus stacking functionality built in.

I could have tried manual focussing to create a series of shots with small, consistent adjustments in focus, but Digicamcontrol simplified the process. Rather than reinventing the wheel, here is the exact method I followed to capture the images that would form my stack:

If you did not follow the link, it essentially describes the process of setting the parameters required to generate component images for the stack:

  • number of images
  • focus step size
  • interval between each shot
  • near & far focus points

Specifying the near and far focus points was relatively straightforward. For the step value I took a punt on “35”, but there are far more scientific methods of determining this value, such as online step size calculators and tables. For the shot interval I selected 1 second, but that value would have been higher had I been using flash.

The software used these parameters to determine the number of shots required: 11.

Stacking the shots

Once Digicamcontrol had instructed the camera to fire off the 11 shots I switched to Adobe Bridge and loaded the first image into Adobe Camera Raw.

Since this was primarily a test exercise I decided to apply all tone and colour edits here rather than Photoshop, and then apply those changes to the other 10 images via Bridge (Edit -> Develop Settings -> Copy/Paste Camera Raw Settings).

The first image shot was loaded into Photoshop CS6, then each subsequent shot was opened (in the order the images were shot) and copied to a new layer in the first file. This produced a single working image file of 11 layers with the first shot at the bottom (“background” layer) and the last shot at the top of the layer stack.

Blending the stack

Selecting all the layers in the stack, I then ran the following commands:

  1. Edit -> Auto-Align Layers
  2. Edit -> Auto-Blend Layers

Finally, I flattened the image and cropped it slightly, then compared the resulting composite image to a single shot with the same settings and composition; here they both are:

focus stack comparison full
Top image is the single shot, bottom image the merged “stack”.

Here are the same two images cropped in to better demonstrate the difference between their respective depths of field:

focus stack comparison detail
The “stack” is at the bottom again. Maybe I should have done some dusting first…

Ideally I should have shot the single comparison image with a smaller aperture, but the difference between f8 and f11 or f16 on a macro lens a few inches from the subject would be extremely minimal!

In Conclusion

I am not 100% convinced of the more general artistic merits of focus stacking, especially when software is shouldering much of the burden – but that is the subjective opinion of a tog who appreciates the use of out-of-focus elements within imagery. I am also sceptical about HDR photography (which has similarities to this technique) and often wonder whether the ends justify the means… but then I did enjoy playing with another ‘stacking’ technique:

I can, however, envisage scenarios where creative interpretation of a subject requires greater depth of field than available from a single shot. I also see this as a useful technique in commercial product photography, so will continue to experiment….

To chat about your photography requirements, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

Or check out some more examples of my product photography.

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The Northern Lights

What do photographers get up to on holiday? They snap hundreds more photos of course – just ask my better half after the three of us (me + wife + camera) spent a couple of (mostly) happy weeks in Norway.

Gone are the days of abusing friends’ patience with endless slideshows of “us at the newly discovered 8th natural wonder of the world” – that’s what Social Media is for – but it occurred to me that some of the images captured on that trip might form the backdrop to a brief tutorial. One of the highlights of our holiday was witnessing not one, but two amazing Northern Light shows  – something every tog wants to bag, given the opportunity – but which kit and camera settings are going to do the job?

northern lights over svolvaer

Apart from your camera, the most important bit of kit is a tripod. You will be wanting to expose for longer than you can hold the camera steady.

A small torch may also be handy. To see the night sky clearly you want to find a location unpoluted by street lighting, so a torch will help you find camera controls and prevent you tripping over your tripod. That’s not a joke by the way; I didn’t have a torch in Norway and consequently trod on and snapped one of the legs of my flimsy telescopic travel tripod. All was not lost, however; since I was pointing my camera upwards, I merely placed the shorter leg to the rear to help provide the elevation required.

In terms of exposure, there is no single combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed that will do the job, but the settings used for the first image here will give you a good starting point:

  • ISO 400; ideally I would have gone higher with the ISO, but the old D300 I took to Norway doesn’t handle high ISO noise very well, and I wanted the best quality images possible
  • aperture f3.5; this was as wide as my 18-105mm zoom would permit; aperture is probably the least critical setting for the Northern Lights since they are a ‘soft’ subject anyway, so will not suffer greatly from a shallow depth of field
  • shutter speed 30 seconds; combined with the other two settings, this made the Lights look lovely and bright and even captured some detail in the mountain

northern lights over svolvaer

When working with long shutter speeds a useful feature on some cameras is the self-timer delay. Set this to 2 or 5 seconds so as not to jog the camera when taking the shot.

Probably the trickiest thing to control is focus. Your autofocus will struggle to find anything to lock on to. Mine did manage to focus on the mountain a couple of times, but you can waste a lot of precious time listening to it struggle. Another option is to switch to manual focus and focus on infinity – as mentioned earlier, the lights themselves are not sharply defined objects (they are constantly moving, albeit not always noticably), so ‘infinity’ should be fine for both Lights and any landscape visible on the horizon.

My first evening shooting the Northern Lights was on terra firma (just outside Svolvaer); a few nights later came a mini cruise through the fjord that bisects the city of Tromso. The boat allowed us to escape urban light polution and the skipper turned off the on-board lights of course. The challenge was that the boat provided a moving platform.

northern lights over tromso

Ideally I would have pushed up the ISO and reduced the shutter speed to deal with the gentle motion of the boat, but knowing my D300 would throw a good deal of ugly noise my way if I did that, I limited myself to ISO 500 and cut the shutter speed to 15 seconds. The maximum aperture was f4 on a 12-24mm wide angle lens. As you can see, the movement blurred the city lights at the base of the images, and the Northern Lights, which were much more mobile that night, are blurrier too – but I still liked the overall effect, and definately prefered it to noise.

northern lights over tromso

Whatever else you do, turn off the built-in flash; unless you are photographing someone with the Northern Lights in the background, flash will do absolutely nothing for you.

One last thing – bag your shots, but don’t spend the whole evening with your face glued to a camera. The Northern Lights are not static, they perform a celestial ballet – graceful with sudden bursts of spectacular action – so be sure to enjoy the show, maybe with an arm around your loved one.

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition for absolute beginners, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Photographing property: Tips for vendors and landlords

Most people rent or sell their property via letting or estate agents, and in a competitive market there is great service to be had – some agents using freelance photographers like myself to market their properties. For those preferring to market their own property here are a few guidelines to help you create attractive images of your house or flat.

What Equipment will you need?

Most cameras are suitable for photographing properties; you do not need gazillions of mega pixels for an image that will be displayed on the web. However, if you want to show as much of a room as possible in a photo, a dSLR camera will enable you to attach a wide angle lens (usually purchased separately).

I find a tripod invaluable for interiors. Photographing rooms in naturally light frequently requires fairly slow shutter speeds (around 1/4 or 1/8 second) to ensure the room is nice and bright.

A flashgun can be handy, especially in properties with small windows. More on working with flash later.

For the classic exterior shot with blue sky and fluffy white clouds, try a polarising filter. Be sure to get one that fits the lens you intend to use.

What shots should you aim to get?

At least one of each room – and two or three images of key rooms such as kitchen, lounge and master bedroom.

You may also want to shoot interesting features – a beautiful (lit) fireplace, wooden beams, built-in kitchen appliances, unusual design elements etc. I once nearly put an offer in on a house just because it had a door disguised as a bookcase – so be sure to grab people’s attention with anything out of the ordinary.

At least one shot of each garden is required, and consider attractive views that may be had through windows.

Corridors connecting rooms do not need to be photographed exhaustively, but capturing a hallway or landing that leads through to a lovely bright space can give an extra sense of what it is like to live in the property.

Which camera angles are best for rooms?

Shoot from a low angle – between waist and chest height – so you do not see lots of boring ceiling. An exception is when you want to show chandeliers or other features that are higher up.

Try to keep the camera level with the floor. Tip it up or down and “converging vertical” distortion (the sloping wall look) will increase.

Shooting from corners can create a greater sense of depth than shooting straight down the middle of a room. But don’t be afraid to centre and square beds and other prominent features. For smaller rooms, you may not have much option but to shoot from the doorway to show as much of the space as possible.

Arrange tables, chairs, sofas etc to make rooms homely and inviting, but also to frame your shots. The back of a sofa in the middle of an image will not look inviting; try framing the shot with the back of the sofa in the bottom corner, facing in.

What about lighting?

Shoot exteriors on a sunny day and try to capture front and back gardens in direct sunlight.

For interiors, the aim is usually to make rooms look light and airy. When using natural light, mid morning or mid afternoon are often considered the best times to shoot interiors, but in reality there is no “ideal” time for any given property, as this will depend on when and where your rooms receive sunlight. Perhaps counter-intuitively it can be easier to shoot interiors in overcast weather. Cloud cover diffuses sunlight, reducing harsh shadows and lighting rooms more evenly.

Opinions differ over the use of house lights in photographs. Some people think they should all be on, others think that is indicative of a house that does not receive much natural light. My personal preference is to keep room lights off, except:

  • where the glow from chandeliers, lamps, wall lights, ceiling spots, etc adds charm
  • where a room has no windows, such as some bathrooms or en suites
  • when you turn on lights in adjoining rooms to avoid dark sinister doorways

If a large television is present in the scene, turn it on to avoid a large black space in your photo.

Flash can help you light a room evenly, reducing deep shadowing. Do not use the built-in camera flash unless you really have to. It produces harsh, unflattering light, and may add more harsh shadows. Flash guns (available for many dSLR cameras) are a much better option as they can be diffused and their heads adjusted so light bounces off walls or ceilings – further softening the light. When “bouncing” flash light off surfaces be careful that the chosen surface is not too colourful, otherwise your pictures may take on some of that colour. Generally you use flash to supplement natural light, so try not to fire it on full power. You want it just strong enough to balance and enhance the light coming through the windows.

A final little lighting trick for suitable for rustic kitchens on sunny days: boil some water and waft the steam around so that it catches the sun beaming through the window.

What props should you use to ‘lifestyle’ your images?

Less is more with interior photography; nobody wants to see clutter. Be sure to tidy as well as clean thoroughly before shooting. If things are poking out from under beds or the tops of wardrobes you are sending a signal that there is not enough storage space. Rooms cluttered with too much furniture can also look smaller.

Remove “personal” items such as slippers, spectacles and family portraits – you want your audience to visualise themselves living in the property, so avoid strong personal stamps.

That said, some carefully placed props can make a house feel more homely:

  • glasses of water next to the bed
  • books or vases for coffee tables
  • flower arrangements on tables

Doors are best left wide open when in shot, especially in smaller rooms to avoid the feeling of a cell. Open windows too, where practical, to make the room look inviting and fresh.

Is that everything?

Nearly. I tend to retouch all property images in Photoshop; handy for adjusting light levels and correcting some camera distortions. You may not have time to do this, but do be sure to only upload low resolution images to the web. Any image editing software can reduce high resolution (printable) images to resolutions suitable for fast web browsing. If you do not edit images at all, consider using low resolution jpg settings in your camera. Web images rarely need to be over 1mb in size, and larger images may take ages to load in web browsers, making people skip on to the next property.

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition for absolute beginners, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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The Quick and Dirty Guide to Cleaning your Camera

Cleaning your camera may not be the sexiest subject for a tog’s blog, but it is something we all need to do once in a while to ensure maximum picture quality with minimum hassle – by which I mean avoiding having to retouch dark fuzzy blotches from our otherwise fabulous images. We will look at cleaning the whole camera: body, lenses, sensor (for those who can access it), before looking at how to keep your equipment in tiptop condition.

Caveat #1: If you own an SLR, the manual probably recommends that you visit a professional to get the sensor cleaned. Fair advice, but if you are very careful you can save yourself a few quid and still enjoy blemish-fee photos.

Caveat #2: This update features some of the least exciting images you’re ever likely to see outside of



 A quick shopping list to start with:

  • lens pen
  • soft microfibre cloth
  • camera wipes
  • bellows-style manual air blower (e.g. Giottos Rocket-Air or Matin Silicone Jumbo Blower)
  • lens cleaning fluid
  • OR a complete lens cleaning kit

All are easily available via a range of outlets, and are relatively inexpensive.


Dirt Detective

Before cleaning, check if dust is causing dark fuzzy blemishes on your photos. They are usually most visible in areas of an image where there is little colour or contrast – such as a clear blue sky – but you can double check:

  1. Selecting a narrow aperture, take a picture of an evenly lit sheet of white paper. Be sure to fill the frame with the paper.
  2. Examine the photo on your computer, zooming in to identify blemishes.
  3. If you see dust and blemishes (dark fuzzy spots), it may be time to clean the sensor.

image of paper being opened in Photoshop to check for dirty sensor

To make the blotches caused by dirt on the sensor stand out more I have adjusted the RAW settings to increase the tonal range in the image. You can see quite a cluster of telltale blotches on the left hand side. The ‘X’ drawn in the middle of the paper helped the camera autofocus.


Body First

Cleaning the camera body first helps keep dust from getting inside your camera if and when you clean the sensor.

Wipe the exterior of the camera body and lens (not the glass, yet) with a soft microfibre cloth or camera wipe. Do not use a household duster, or you will probably end up with more detritus on the camera than you started with.

Be sure to clean around the lens mount, so trapped dirt does not get in when you clean the sensor.

Do not forget to clean the inside of lens caps, where dust can easily collect.


Spit & Polish

Clean your lenses next. This might remove all blemishes, and avoid the need for sensor cleaning.

When cleaning the glass at either end of a lens, start with an air blower to remove loose particles. Do not use compressed air.

Place a small amount of lens cleaning fluid on a microfibre cloth and wipe the lens in a circular motion, starting from the centre, to remove more stubborn dirt. Do not put the cleaning fluid directly on the glass or you may damage the lens. Use a dry section of your cloth to wipe off excess fluid.

A lens pen is a great investment for location photographers. They boast soft bristles that shift loose specks, and a small non-abrasive pad for cleaning more stubborn dirt from your glass. I usually breathe on the lens and then apply the pad in the same manner as the aforementioned cloth. It will fit in your pocket, so even if you’re not taking a camera bag, you can still clean your lens on location.


The Scary Bit

You may be able to avoid cleaning the sensor altogether if your camera has an auto sensor cleaning function. It usually only takes a second or two, and may do the trick.

You can check by taking another photograph of your piece of paper and comparing it to the first. If you still see dark fuzzy blotches in the same locations as before then you still have some work to do.

It is only the fuzzy blotches that are of interest – the sharper spots are part of the grain of the paper. In Photoshop I created a new blank layer above the image layer and used a thin red brush to highlight the blotches . Clearly the auto sensor cleaning function in the camera did not do the trick this time.

If sensor cleaning is required, ensure you are in a light, dust-free room and roll up your sleeves so fibres from your clothes do not get into the camera.

Ensure the camera battery is fully charged, or connect the camera to a mains adaptor. You are going to be sticking things into the belly of your camera with the mirror locked up, and do not want that mirror to come crashing down mid-operation!

Mount your camera on a tripod if you have one, and angle it face downwards so gravity works in your favour: the dust falls out and no more dust falls in.

Remove the lens from the front of the camera (remembering to place caps over the glass at either end).

Follow the instructions in your camera manual to put the camera in sensor cleaning mode (this raises the mirror up).

Carefully blow air onto the sensor using a bellows-style (squeezable) air blower.

Do not touch the sensor with the air blower.

Do not blow air from your mouth incase you accidentally spit on the sensor.

Avoid compressed air; it can damage the sensor.

There is not usually any need to clean the mirror; it is fragile and does not impact image quality.

When you think you have done enough blowing, remove the blower from the front of the camera body and follow the instructions in your camera manual to take the camera out of sensor cleaning mode (this drops the mirror back down). Then replace the lens you removed earlier.

Check your progress by replacing the lens and photographing the same piece of paper and comparing the results to the image you shot previously. It is fairly obvious if there is stubborn dirt as the blotches will be in the exactly the same place as before, even if you have not lined the shots up 100%.

After a bout with the blower I took another shot and added this image as a new layer above the original image layer and beneath the layer of red brush mark. This enabled me to see where my blowing had been effective, and where it had not quite done enough. If you do not use image editing software, or are not au fait with layers then perform a manual comparison of the images.


Sometimes it takes two or three goes with the blower to remove all the dirt. If the sensor is still not clean enough, you have two options:

  1. Wipe your sensor with a sensor cleaning brush (risky)
  2. Take it to a pro (much safer!)

I only recommend option #1 if you are completely confident that you know what you are doing and have the steady hand of a surgeon. If so, a sensor scope or magnifying glass will help you examine the sensor in more detail. Option #2 will be expensive, but not as expensive as replacing a damaged sensor.


Don’t Do It Again (For as long as possible)

  •  Keep your camera in a bag when it is not in use, and when it is dangling from your neck, keep the lens cap on!
  • Vacuum your camera bag regularly to keep dust out. If you have been to the beach, vacuum again – that sand gets everywhere.
  • Wipe the area around the lens mount regularly to decrease the chance of dust getting inside your camera.


To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition for absolute beginners, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Five Quick Tips For Photographing Fireworks

I happened to be photographing a local firework display last week and it occurred to me that plenty of people approach firework photography with trepidation, when in reality it is quite straight forward.
The two images in this update are snapshots taken from a hotel balcony near Lake Garda, Italy. I’m not going to pretend they are competition-winning firework masterpieces – they’re not – but they are an example of what you can achieve very quickly and easily. I didn’t know the display was going to happen… until it happened! I then had a minute or so to get the camera onto a tripod, compose the images, and choose some settings before firing off a few shots – and then the display ended. It’s easy for anyone to do this if they just keep the following 5 guidelines in mind.

fireworks over Lake Garda

1. The right kit can help you. Fireworks usually require long-ish (greater than 1 second) exposures, so consider investing in a good tripod and (if your camera supports it) a remote shutter-release button. If the remote release is not an option, see whether your camera offers a self-timer / release-delay function. A two second delay between pressing the release and the shutter opening should prevent camera shake whilst still enabling you to capture some spectacular bursts of light.
Whilst not essential, a wide angle lens can help capture foreground interest to give the display some context. This also helps with focussing. Rather than trying to focus on the fireworks themselves, it is easier to focus on something in the medium-distant foreground and dial in a narrow aperture (around f16) to achieve a deep zone of sharpness that should include the fireworks themselves. Whichever lens you use, a lens hood will help reduce the lens flare that can be quite pronounced with long exposures.

2. Experiment with different exposure settings in manual or shutter priority mode. Since the camera’s meter can make a right mess of exposure settings for fireworks, I recommend manual exposure mode. Set a low ISO (100-200) for the best picture quality, and a narrow aperture (f11-f16) as described in tip 1 above. The shutter speed will then be your main variable; start somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds and check the camera’s LCD screen or histogram view (if available) before varying the shutter speed for subsequent shots.

3. An alternative to setting a precise shutter speed is to use bulb mode. This is where you press the shutter release once to open and again to close the shutter – counting the seconds in between (or just waiting for the firework bursts to fade). A remote shutter release button is pretty essential if you want to avoid camera shake with this method. Not all cameras will offer bulb mode, but most SLRs should.

4. Your built-in flash or flashgun are not going to do anything for you here – unless you want to light something in the foreground – so turn them off!

5. Layer up! If you like to edit your images using software such as Photoshop, shooting multiple images with the exact same composition allow you to build up the bursts into a spectacular single image using lighten mode for layers you add to the first image. If the foreground becomes too light or blurry, simply mask it out from the additional layers.
You might also like to play with black and white conversations – not the most obvious approach to take with a subject that is so colourful, but personally I rather like the look it can create.

fireworks over Lake Garda - black and white

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition for absolute beginners, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Fundamentals of Photography: Optimum Exposure (Part 3)

Ready to take control of your camera? In the previous two tutorials we touched on the settings that contribute to photographic exposure – ISO, aperture, shutter speed – and the relationships between them. In this concluding part we will explore various ways you can control exposure and be sure you are creating exactly what you want to create.


Shooting Modes


health spa pool at night


Stepping in at the deep end, manual exposure mode requires you to set ISO, aperture and shutter speed to achieve your desired exposure. So you control everything – but the camera’s inbuilt light meter can still guide you – check your manual to see how exposure information is displayed on your camera.

typical camera meter display
A typical camera meter reading will look something like this. Under-exposure or over-exposure may be indicated in increments of 1/2 or 1/3 of a stop.


Some people will find manual the most creatively satisfying shooting mode to work with. The beauty of digital is that you can shoot away until you get the settings just right –  but if you are inexperienced you might take time finding the best combination and risk missing the shot altogether!  Back at the paddling end of the pool, fully automatic exposure (possibly augmented by a range of specific scene options such as portrait, landscape, macro, snow, action etc) may do a good job some of the time, but may also get it wrong – and if you’ve read this far these are the very modes you are seeking to escape!

Between auto and manual many cameras offer two modes that allow you to alter ISO and either aperture or shutter speed creatively whilst the camera still determines the exposure by adjusting the other setting for you.


Aperture priority is the mode of choice for many photographers. I use it for most location photography since depth of field is usually of primary importance to me. If your subject is stationary this is usually the mode to use.

a nut
This nut was shot at an aperture of f8. Note that distance between camera, subject and background also influences depth of field.


Shutter priority comes into play when you are shooting moving subjects such as the local fun run, your dog bounding across a meadow, fast flowing water etc. You will want to control the amount of motion blur in the image – using the shutter speed.

Blur can also occur when your hand moves whilst shooting – this is called camera shake. You would think that holding a camera still for one second wouldn’t be difficult – try it and look at the resulting picture on a computer. A tenner says its blurred. Even with VR (vibration reduction) lenses you will likely need shutter speeds of under half a second to avoid camera shake. So use shutter priority mode to be sure of a fast shutter speed when shooting hand-held (or, better still, purchase a monopod or tripod to support the camera).


panning street scene
A long exposure during which the camera was deliberately moved to create motion blur.

In manual, aperture priority and shutter priority you normally adjust the aperture and/or shutter speed via the camera’s command dial(s) – details vary with camera make and model, so check your manual for precise details of how to work in these modes.

Whatever the shooting mode, ISO can be left on auto-ISO although I only use that in situations where light levels are changing very rapidly – such as a live performance under theatrical lighting.

Under most circumstances, you check and (if necessary) adjust ISO manually when you start shooting a scene, then leave it alone until the light level changes significantly (for example, when moving outside from indoors).

Set the lowest ISO you can, as that will render the best quality image. In low light environments where a tripod cannot be used you may need to increase the ISO.


noisy low light environment
Click on the image to see the ugly “noise” that resulted from a high ISO setting.


Exposure Compensation


You have probably noted that the camera still exerts some control over exposure in every shooting mode apart from manual.

What if the camera gets it wrong?

What if your interpretation of a scene does not correspond with the correct exposure determined by the camera?

In other words, how do you achieve your optimum exposure without switching to fully manual mode?

There is another feature that overrides the camera’s choices in automatic or semi-automatic modes, and that is the exposure compensation button.


high key frozen beauty


With this function you force the camera to increase or decrease overall exposure. This can usually be done in increments of 1/3 or 1/2 stop. Adjustments of up to plus/minus 3 – 5 stops can be made, but each stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light hitting the sensor – so this is a control that usual responds best to a gentle touch.

In automatic modes you don’t know which setting (aperture or shutter speed) the camera will alter to affect compensation. In aperture priority the camera will change the shutter speed when exposure compensation is invoked and in shutter priority it will alter the aperture. In manual mode it does nothing at all.

It is important to remember that exposure compensation remains set until you physically unset it. If you forget to do this after shooting, and then just switch on and start shooting a few days later, you will probably end up with some very badly exposed shots indeed!

Check your manual again to see how you implement exposure compensation on your camera.


Viewing Modes


When playing back the images you shot there are two further features digital cameras provide that make achieving optimum exposure easy for creative photographers – the highlights view and histogram view (names may differ on your camera; rotate through viewing options until you find the functions described below; very basic cameras may not offer these features).

If you over-expose a scene the brightest areas may be reduced to pure white. The highlights view shows such clipped highlights as flashing areas in the LCD display. It will, however, not tell you when there is shadow clipping (where dark areas are under-exposed to pure black). This is probably because clipped highlights are generally considered to be more undesirable than clipped shadows.

The histogram view is a more sophisticated tool. It takes the form of a graph depicting the range of tones (shadows – mid-tones – highlights) within the image.


The histogram in Photoshop’s levels tool is essentially the same as the histogram your camera displays. Both show the dispersal of light, dark and mid-tone pixels.

If the graph bunches at the far left of the horizontal axis, or does not reach the right edge, you may have under-exposed the scene. If it bunches at the far right, or does not stretch to the left edge, you may have over-exposed the scene. Adjust ISO, aperture or shutter speed to compensate, and shoot again – unless such under- or over-exposure was your intent. This tool is just a guide – there is no such thing as the perfect histogram.


This has been a very small introduction to a very big subject. Until you put things into practice it will probably remain a bit of a blur; learn to control exposure by playing with the functions described above. Shoot a scene (any scene, but ideally one where you do not immediately achieve great results) with a variety of settings and compare the results – it will all start coming into focus.

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Fundamentals of Photography: Optimum Exposure (Part 2)

Last month we examined the elements that influence photographic exposure: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. These are they keys to photographic creativity, so it is helpful to understand:

  • how they interact with each other to create an exposure
  • the other effects each element has on your imagery

Why bother“, you might reasonably ask, “if my camera can do all this for me?”  Three reasons:

The camera won’t always get the exposure right – it can be fooled by a variety of scenarios – and if you don’t know why it is under- or over-exposing you will not be able to fix it. For example, we have probably all shot portraits outside where the subjects’ face is in shadow whilst the background is nicely exposed.

In the previous post I talked about correct and optimum exposure – the latter stems from your interpretation of a scene, and may differ from what the camera determines to be correct. In other words, you may want the camera to get it ‘wrong’.

Lastly, when you proudly show off your next meisterwerk and envious friends ask which camera you used, you can tell them “the camera didn’t create this, I did”.

The Relationships

gratuitous cute kitten shot
Gratuitous cute kitten shot representing the idea of cozy relationships.

From here on in I will be employing standard photographic ‘jargon’ that was introduced in the previous tutorial; if you are unsure what a stop is then take a quick look back at that post.

ISO, aperture and shutter speed combine to create an exposure. Whether your picture ends up too bright, too dark, or just right is determined by all three elements together.


Change one of those settings and make the image lighter or darker.

e.g. widen aperture from f8 to f5.6 = exposure increased by 1 stop


Change two settings by the same amount but in opposite directions and the exposure stays the same.

e.g. widen aperture from f8 to f5.6 + increase shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/60 = no change to exposure


Change all three settings by equal amounts, and you change the exposure again.

e.g. widen aperture from f8 to f5.6 + increase shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/60 + decrease ISO from 800 to 400 = exposure decreased by 1 stop


The combinations, clearly, are manifold, but why might you want to fiddle with any of these settings at all?

The most obvious reason is that the current exposure does not look pleasing to you – it is either too light or too dark. That may be the overall exposure, or it may be an important part of the image is too bright or dark.

Remember also that each of these settings also has ‘side effects’ (again, see descriptions in Part 1).

To freeze or blur a moving subject the shutter speed may need to be changed. Freezing the freerunner below required a shutter speed of 1/500.


parkour frozen mid air


To reduce noise or to shoot hand-held in low light the ISO may need to be adjusted. The LED lights at the venue below were not particularly powerful, and I needed to hand-hold a particularly heavy lens, so an ISO of 1600 was required to facilitate a fast shutter speed of 1/200. The aperture was also wide open at f2.8.


high iso 1600


To make your subject stand out from the background or to achieve front-to-back sharpness you may need to alter the size of the aperture. The Portuguese Squill below was shot twice in rapid succession, once at an aperture of f36 and once at f3.2.


If you are not sure which image was shot at f36 and which f3.2, refer back to Part 1 of this tutorial – or better still, have a play with apertures on your camera.

But wait just a minute, as a novice lacking the finely-tuned nose for exposure of more seasoned snappers, what values do I set as a starting point?


Once upon a time no self-respecting snapper would be caught without his or her light meter. In fact these wonderful ‘old skool’ gadgets still find employment, especially in the studio. But your digital camera is a clever beastie and contains its own meter, plus it lets you see what you have produced immediately (jumping back in time again, the humble Polaroid used to serve this function for pros).

In auto and semi-automatic exposure modes the camera uses its meter to establish an exposure for you. Even in fully manual exposure mode the meter still functions and most digital cameras will indicate whether your exposure is correct (note I said correct, not optimum which is what you want it to be).

But as already mentioned, sometimes you want the whole image to be nicely exposed, and sometimes there is just one key area that needs to be exposed well. Digital cameras offer a range of metering options for different situations. The following terminology will vary slightly depending on the make of camera.

A generalised representation of metering options offered by many digital cameras.


Average / Matrix / Evaluative metering methods are the all-rounders. The camera uses information from most of the frame to establish correct exposure. Where lighting across the entire frame is quite even it will produce a balanced image with subject and background nicely exposed.

With Centre-partial / Centre-weighted metering, the camera again uses information from most of the frame, but gives considerable priority to the centre of the frame. The size of this central area can sometimes be modified via custom settings menus. This form of metering is frequently used for portrait photography where you are primarily interested in lighting your subject, the background being less important.

With Spot metering a very small area of the frame is metered. That area can be in the very centre of the frame, and sometimes a number of other selectable focus points as well. Use this to correctly expose the subject (or part of a subject) when the background is considerably lighter or darker.

Check your camera manual to see which of these metering options are available to you, how you select them, and which shooting modes they can be used with. Check whether you can take spot readings only from the centre or from various locations around the frame.

In the next tutorial, the final part of this intro to exposure, I’ll go through the various shooting modes and reveal how you can take complete creative control over your photography.

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Fundamentals of Photography: Optimum Exposure (Part 1)

Many of the people I tutor come to me because they know their camera boasts many great features to help them unleash their creativity, but they are stuck on the auto settings where the camera does almost everything. So this month (continuing over the next two) we’re getting back to fundamentals, looking at the things your camera gets up to when you use auto or preset exposure settings, encouraging you to grab some control back, and busting a bit of jargon along the way…


three exposures of the same subject
These photographs were taken within seconds of each other in the same location, but with different exposure settings. Which is the optimum exposure?

Correct exposure often means your principal subject and (maybe) its background are photographed such that detail is visible in both shadows and highlights.

This is not always possible. If you photograph a black statue against a white wall you will struggle to get much detail in both statue and wall.

Correct exposure may also not be what you want to achieve. Maybe you want to over-expose the wall to surround the statue with pure white.

Camera auto or preset exposure modes may produce either an over-exposed wall or an under-exposed statue – the camera will decide which you get.

So rather than correct exposure, I prefer the term optimum exposure, meaning the exposure that serves your creative intent rather than some objective standard.


tonal range


Ignoring colour for the moment, every scene you will ever photograph will feature a range of tones that will vary with the strength, direction and quality of the light. In camera (and Photoshop) speak, that tonal range is represented by 0 to 255 where 0 is pure black and 255 pure white, with greys in between. Photographs of many scenes will feature the entire range of tones – whether or not the actual scene did. This is because your camera is not as sophisticated as your eyes, and can only deal with a limited tonal range in a given scene.

If the tonal range present in a scene exceeds the range your camera can record you get clipping; detail in either (or both) highlights / shadows is lost. Commonly this is seen when shooting outdoors on a sunny day; if the sun is in or near the frame of your composition blue sky is bleached white – or the foreground may become a silhouette (common with sunset shots).


poorly exposed landscape


A lack of detail in shadow areas (blocking) is conventionally more acceptable than a lack of detail in bright areas (blown out highlights). But you might actually want a high key look where some elements are blown out – or lots of deep dramatic shadow. Once you understand the ‘rules’ you can break them and create your optimum exposure. But before we get on to the rule breaking let’s bust some of the most common jargon you will encounter.


Stops and Exposure Value (EV)

These are terms for the basic units of exposure – often used interchangeably, although stops is more common.

Exposure can be increased or decreased by adjusting the camera’s ISO, aperture and shutter speed. A change of plus or minus 1 stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light entering the camera.

Although camera manuals frequently employ this terminology, camera displays frequently do not, relying instead on numbers or graphic representations that relate to the three terms covered below.



ISO is the sensitivity of the media (film / digital sensor) recording the image. Low ISO settings require more light to render an image, and vice versa. Low ISO also produces ‘fine grain’ images, whilst high ISO produces courser grain (or noise) and reduced contrast.

Digital SLRs offer a range of ISO values, often between 100 – 3200 or 6400; the range can be bigger or smaller depending on make and model.

The scale is linear so ISO 200 is half as sensitive as ISO 400 and twice as sensitive as ISO 100. In other words a camera would need twice as much light to enter through the shutter to record the same exposure at ISO 100 as it would produce at ISO 200.

Aperture and f-stop (f-numbers)

f-stops express the range of lens apertures available. The aperture is the size of the lens pupil at the moment a shot is taken and (along with shutter speed) controls the amount of light hitting the sensor. Aperture size also influences depth of fieldthe area within a photo that is sharp – the subject of a future post.

Intuitively, a larger aperture lets in more light but the terminology can be confusing.

An aperture of f5.6 is larger than f16.

The scale is also confusing as it is not linear. f5.6 is twice as big as f8, while f11 is half as big as f8.

To add to the confusion, your camera may allow you to alter aperture by 1/2 or 1/3 stops. So, between f8 and f11 you may also see f9 and f10.

The good news is that you do not have to remember all this. Remembering a few of the most commonly used apertures (f5.6, f8, f11, f16) and the direction of travel (f5.6 wide – f16 narrow) is sufficient. It can help to think of the f-stop as a fraction (f/8, f/11, f/16 etc) where f is a constant.


Shutter Speed

More good news – shutter speeds are MUCH more intuitive than apertures. A slow shutter allows in more light than a fast one; and the scale is (more or less) linear, so a shutter speed of 1/30 second lets in twice as much light as 1/60 second.

However, your naughty camera may try to confuse you; many displays do not show the whole fraction, they just show the denominator, so 1/30 is shown as 30 and 1/60 as 60. Shutter speeds of 1 second or more may be marked by the symbol ” after the number (e.g. 10″ = 10 second shutter speed).

A fast shutter can freeze objects in motion, whereas a slower shutter may blur them.

The range of speeds available commonly stretches from thousandths of a second to 30 seconds. Some cameras also have a bulb setting that allows you to open the shutter indefinitely. Apparently a German photographer has achieved shutter speeds of several years… the mind boggles!


In the next tutorials post we’ll look at how ISO, aperture and shutter speed interact to create an exposure, and critically, how you can wrestle control of them away from your camera.

To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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Forget Pluto, Create Your Very Own New World

The wonder of modern technology means it no longer takes millions of years to form a new world – you just need a spare afternoon. Your world, or panosphere, requires a 360° panoramic image and a bit of brute Photoshop force. Let’s get straight into the technique…

wivenhoe panosphere on record

Gathering Raw Materials

You can create a 360° panorama with almost any camera. A tripod helps keep the image edges aligned; position the tripod head so the camera keeps the horizon level as you rotate round 360°. Check how the scene looks through the viewfinder, and ensure taller elements in the scene (e.g. trees, skyscrapers) do not rise out of frame. Shoot a series of images, ensuring at least 30% of the preceding image is included in the current one, and that the first and last images also overlap.

If your camera offers manual exposure, use it to produce uniform illumination across images. For those unused to manual exposure, set the camera to your preferred mode (landscape, aperture priority etc), make a note of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings, switch back to manual and apply those settings.

An alternative to manual exposure is the exposure lock function. With cameras that don’t offer manual exposure or exposure lock, try using exposure compensation if you notice shots are getting significantly lighter or darker (Photoshop can try to blend the tone and colour of adjacent photos, but they need to be reasonably similar to begin with).

The Stitch Up

Load the images into your computer and view them in Adobe Bridge. If shooting RAW, make RAW window adjustments to one image and apply the same settings to all the others in the set. Select all the images and merge them: tools->photoshop->photomerge

Or, from Photoshop: file->automate->photomerge and select the files or folder you wish to merge.

In the photomerge window select the options shown below, and take a tea break.

Photoshop photomerge panel

Photomerge results vary with the files input; if the above options do not produce a reasonably neat panorama with even illumination experiment with layout options and maybe de-select vignette removal.

photomerge results

Each source image becomes a layer with a mask created by photomerge to make the stitching seamless. At 100% magnification, scroll from one end of the image to the other using the hand tool (h) looking for areas where adjacent image elements have not lined up properly. These can often be fixed by manually refining the masks of relevant layers. To quickly identify the relevant layer/mask, select the move tool (v), check auto-select, and click on the problematic area of the image. Switch to the brush tool, and click on the mask before brushing. Remember that white reveals the current layer whilst black conceals it. You may need to conceal part of one layer before you can properly reveal the corresponding section of its neighbour, depending on which layer is on top. Once there are no more fault lines in your nascent world flatten the image and crop out any border.

cropped panorama

Squaring the Circle

Squeeze the panorama into a square: image->image size (cntl + alt + i), uncheck constrain proportions and set width and height to identical values. Photoshop may struggle with huge images, so choose a value between the two extremes – but closer to the original height. If your image is 16bit, reduce it to 8bit to speed things up & enable Photoshop’s distort filters (for later on): image->mode->8 bits/channel

example image size panel

The larger the dimentions you choose, the more likely you will need to take another tea break before ending up with something like the following (rather funky) image:

square panorama

Rotate the images 180°: image->image rotation->180°

Now for the magic dust: filter->distort->polar coordinates and select rectangular to polar and enjoy a final cuppa as your world is created.

Once the filter has done its work it just remains to tidy things up a little. You may wish to rotate your world so that the most interesting or attractive element runs across the top.

wivenhoe regatta panosphere

Examine the image borders for striping (from the Polar Coordinates filter). Fix with the clone stamp and healing brush, or by cropping. Next look at the centre of the world where there are more filter distortions. Select the area with the elliptical marquee tool, press shift + backspace and from the resultant fill menu select content-aware. In older versions of Photoshop, apply the clone stamp and healing brush again. Apply tonal and colour enhancements to taste, and your new planet is ready to take its place in the firmament…

wivenhoe in space


To chat about photography or Photoshop tuition, call me on 07757 259390 or send me a message via email.

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