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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Flower Power – Photography for Florists

Maybe it’s because I was born in the 1960s (just), but some of my favourite commissions have involved photographing flowers and floral installations for various Essex florists.

flower arrangement against off-white background

Weddings are a key component of any floristry business, and flowers for the big day can be displayed against a simple studio background or photographed on location.

wedding flowers in church

For competition floristry, I am happy to source models, make-up artists and hair stylists, or sometimes – as with the image below – the model is a friend of the client (actually, Mina of Minnie’s Henhouse fame is friends with both me and the client, Amy Curtis).

floral headdress on nude model

For e-commerce sites it is often best to keep it simple – a plain white background allows the flowers to do the talking. If you sell via 3rd party websites they will thank you for having professional imagery that readily fits in with their other product photography.

exotic flower in glass vase

If your gallery has capacity for multiple images of each product, getting in close can show off the beautiful detail of your floral creations.

detail of floral arrangement

Some designs even lend themselves to a more abstract approach.

artistic floral design for competition

The images above and below were created for Fusion Flowers international floristry competition a few years back. I photographed the designs of two florists (Amy Curtis and Amy Ford) for each of that year’s four categories. A good deal of planning and communication went into shoots that took us from studio to cottage interior to Alresford Creek and out into the middle of a field somewhere in East Anglia. Both Amys enjoyed successes in the competition.

floral art installation

Of course, sometimes you just need some simple studio shots of a lovely bunch of flowers…

bouquet of flowers against pure white background

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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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.

 

histogram
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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Restoring St Mary’s Church, Wivenhoe

Saxon in origin, the church that currently provides a hub (cultural as well as spiritual) in Wivenhoe is a primarily Victorian construction. Many photographers love snapping churches, and I was delighted when a representative of St Mary’s asked me to document some of the restoration work currently being undertaken there.

 

st marys Wivenhoe exterior colour

 

The main part of my work will involve before-and-after shots of exterior masonry, along with some wide angle contextualising shots. Most of the exterior restoration work is on the south and west sides of the building, and access to diagrams of the areas being restored allowed me to determine some of the more visually interesting sections to photograph. On the inside, it is sometimes quite obvious where some TLC is required, such as where the plaster work has fallen away below.

plaster missing from ceiling

 

The majority of shots here, however, simply show various areas of the church with the scaffolding erected. This is not a commercial commission, and there is some room for artistic licence above and beyond the documentary requirement.

 

stained glass window and ladder

 

One of the more obvious beauties of photographing church interiors is the light coming through the stained glass windows; I chose to rely entirely on ambient light to capture the interior scaffolding. Much of the window light was blocked out by the wooden boards that provided a platform for workinmg on the ceiling; a tripod enabled me to keep the ISO down to a relatively noise-free 400 by facilitating a slow shutter speed of around about half a second.

 

scaffolding near rafters inside church

 

Had this been a strictly documentary task, I may have used a bit of flash to brighten the interior of the church without blowing out the windows. However, with licence to play, I went for a high contrast look that relied on window light alone to really make the scaffolding stand out from the surroundings.

scaffolding and church pews

 

The tripod came in handy again when getting a view along the scaffolding,  level with the bottom of the window in the background. With the tripod fully extended and balancing on the pews a two second delay on the shutter release ensured there was no camera shake with the long-ish exposures still being employed.

 

scaffolding and window

 

I ended the afternoon with a bit of abstraction, contrasting the scaffolding with the stained glass. Removing the colour from a stained glass window may seem a little counter-intuitive, but it helped balance the elements in the shot.

 

scaffold and window abstract

 

To learn more about St Mary’s Church, including the ongoing restoration work, visit stmaryswivenhoe.org.

 

St Marys Wivenhoe exterior black and white

 

Some more examples of my location photography can be found here or to discuss your own unique requirements, just drop me a line.

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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.

 

depth-of-field-comparison
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?

Metering

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.

metering
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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Property Photography: Real Beauty is on the Inside – Part 2

Many of the concepts I touched on in the previous case study (residential property interiors) apply to photographing commercial property. However, there can be some extra demands, and more diverse environments whose inner beauty, sometimes more elusive, still needs to be captured. This study actually encompasses 3 different cases, each with different challenges and requirements.

hotel reception area

 

Sometimes photographing a commercial property provides more scope for creative expression than residential properties. For example, I allowed the shot of a Hungarian hotel reception area above to remain much more dark and dramatic than I normally would when photographing a property for an estate agent. A brief burst of flash from an off-camera flashgun lit the foreground flowers without impacting the overall lighting.

The shot below – another room in the same hotel – might be too clinic or minimalist for residential imagery, but in the context of a spa hotel communicates cleanliness, simplicity and a sense of style.

colour coordinated spa reception area

 

Some locations I am asked to photograph are not quite so grand as the hotel above, but the tone of the imagery is still required to one of aspiration.

 

boiler in outhouse

 

A series of images I created for a local supplier and installer of biomass boilers took in a range of challenging locations from garden sheds, through dusty workshops, to barns and out-houses where the boiler took up almost all the space in the room.

 

boilers in outhouses

 

Where space is plentiful I could use props to help tell the story – such as the wheelbarrow of discarded pieces of wood that would be chipped to fuel the boiler – but sometimes the lack of space required shooting through a doorway just to get an angle on the main subject. In the latter example (image on right above) I placed a flashgun on a small tripod inside the room to provide ‘accent’ light on the front of the boiler housing. By firing the built-in flash on my camera at very low power I was able to trigger the flashgun without actually lighting the subject from the on-camera flash.

As with residential properties, a bit of flash is sometimes required to supplement the ambient window light.

 

showroom display

 

Although the high building opposite blocked some of the sunlight in the image above, I didn’t want the displays to be entirely back-lit, so a touch of flash bounced off the ceiling threw extra light into areas that might otherwise be too shadowy.

 

Small spaces can be tricky to capture in their entirety with a single shot – even with a wide angle lens. The image below captured a room in one Essex University’s iconic towers of residence. The bedrooms on one floor had received a period make-over as part of their 50th Anniversary celebrations.

 

small room Panorama

 

Shooting through the doorway of this bijou dorm, it became evident that lens distortions from my favourite wide angle would be impossible to correct satisfactorily. Therefore I switched to a longer focal length lens (fewer distortions), put my camera on a tripod and shot two images – each taking in half the room, with a good amount of overlap. I later stitched these images into a panorama; there were still a few converging verticals (a very common distortion where walls appear to lean inwards), but they were much easier to deal with, and I was able to show three side of the room in a single image.

I also took a few ‘detail’ shots of the retro life-styling the students had undertaken in the rooms.

 

period university room

 

Other spaces, such as meeting or conference rooms, require a different compositional approach to the student dorms; key elements still need to appear in frame in order to ‘tell the story’ (i.e. show the facilities available in the room), but the overall feel will probably be much more formal.

 

meeting room

 

Sometimes, at the end of a long and demanding shoot, I get to enjoy some perks (no pun intended) of this fascinating and fabulous job, such as drinking the freshly created set dressing…

 

cup of coffee in cafe

 

Some more examples of my location photography can be found here or to discuss your own unique requirements, just drop me a line.

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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

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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Property Photography: Real Beauty is on the Inside – Part 1

I was originally planning to cover several cases in this study – including residential and commercial properties – but found there was more to say than I realised. So this first of two posts focuses on photographing residential property interiors for letting agents, estate agents and people renting out holiday accommodation.

lounge with wine and fire

Preparation begins long before any photographer turns up of course. If preparing holiday accommodation you might employ an interior designer. If preparing a flat for letting, you may refit kitchens and bathrooms or splash out on funky new furniture. But even if you are just preparing to sell one property as you move to another, a bit of ‘sprucing up’ will not go amiss:

  1. Keep it clean. Even ‘wide angle’ shots of rooms show up dust and grime.
  2. Keep it tidy. Clutter makes rooms look smaller, and is distracting and unattractive.
  3. Hide effects that are very personal (e.g. family photos) during the shoot.
  4. Consider a lick of paint if you haven’t redecorated for over five years.

twin attic bedroom

Most of the time it is desirable to make rooms feel bright and spacious (without distorting the reality of course). People assume wide angle lenses are used to make small rooms look spacious. This is true in the sense that wide angles capture more of a room than telephotos would.

bedroom with towels and lights

Another misconception is that photographers turn on room lights to brighten rooms that are too dark. Room lights do not generally light a room sufficiently for cameras to achieve an even exposure across the entire space. The same is true of window light – even large windows rarely light a room evenly. House lights are also not as powerful as window light (even on a cloudy day), so do not serve to create that bright airy look.

Besides, estate agents know that indiscriminate use of room lights may imply that a house is dark without them.

So, room lights are better off unless they are an attractive feature that deserves focus, or they help draw attention to another feature in the room. Our eyes are drawn to bright areas of images. With interiors, the brightest area is often a window; turning on a bedside lamp on the other side of the room won’t balance the light levels, but it can help lead the eye to that side of the image.

The simplest rooms to light are small windowless rooms that can be illuminated using just the ceiling light(s). A long exposure may be required to compensate for the relatively low power of household lighting, but with a tripod that is not a problem.

Most other rooms – that boast one or more windows on the world – are more complex – especially when the window is part of the scene being shot, as outside is invariably much brighter than inside. This often results in images where the room looks bright but the window area is ‘blown out’ (pure white), or where the window area is well exposed but much of the room (especially corners and ceiling) looks dark and dingy.

This is where flash can help. It brightens up areas the windows are not lighting adequately. At the correct settings you can achieve a perfect balance between the indoor and outdoor light levels (although I prefer to keep outdoor light a little brighter – it looks more natural).

window lit room

The flash built into most cameras is not suited to this purpose. Its light is harsh and unflattering, and can produce strong unnatural-looking shadows that distract the eye and ruin the image.

At the other end of the scale, if I were spending several hours getting shots of a single room for a high end property magazine, I might employ a number of portable studio flash units, each lighting a different part of the room or a different feature in the room.

That solution isn’t going to work for estate agents photographing a two-up two-down for their website. It might look fabulous, but few agents have hours to spend photographing a single room.

The compromise is ‘bouncing’ light from a flashgun off the walls and ceiling to supplement the ambient window light. Areas the window light doesn’t illuminate are brightened but because the flash is bounced you avoid the new (and harsh) shadows of direct flash.

It might be argued that this risks making a room look brighter than it really is, but in truth it is simply compensating for the fact that the camera is much more sensitive to varying light levels than are our eyes.

bathroom

Lenses – especially wide angles – are prone to geometric distortions, such as converging verticals where rooms can end up looking like a set from the 60’s Batman series – acute angles with sloping ceilings and walls. Some of these effects can be corrected with Photoshop, although it is not always possible to correct every distortion as correcting one can emphasise another. Sometimes you just have to make a call on which distortion is most innocuous.

The degree of lens distortion is effected by the shooting position; corners may provide the most expansive view of a room, but they also result in more distortion. Sometimes a central view is better – especially if there is something like a bed or dining table to provide a ‘centre piece’. I also keep the ‘horizon line’ level and avoid angling the camera towards floor or ceiling.

A final point on angles: shooting from a standing position may seem natural, but it will likely include more ceiling than floor in the shot. I prefer to shoot from around waist height; unless there is a particularly diverting feature high up, ceilings tend to be less interesting than what is beneath them.

dining room and lounge

Usually there are one or two rooms in a property that I want to make a bit more of a fuss over – the living area, kitchen or maybe a master bedroom. That fuss may take the form of a bit of life-styling such arranging books / magazines / flowers etc on a table or worktop. It may simply be taking some extra close-up shots of something like a roaring fire or quirky features like a built-in coffee maker. If a large screen television dominates a room I usually turn it on – preferable to a vast expanse of blank screen. Recently I even pulled out my macro lens to capture the details of a keyless front door, ingress through which was granted by finger-print identification.

keys - detail of property character

Where there are no ‘stand out’ features, a bit of light life-styling in the lounge or kitchen can help give an idea of a property’s character. And that, at the end of the day, is what most property photography is about. You are not simply showing the structure and space, you are inviting people to imagine what it would be like to stay or live in that property.

The next case study will focus on photographing commercial properties and few more unusual interiors.

Some more examples of my interior photography can be found here. However, due to the nature of the work I do not put many examples of residential interiors on my website; they may, however, be viewed on request.

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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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Baby Steps to e-Commerce Photography

Commissioning high quality product photography is neither affordable nor practical for small, independent businesses who trade on e-commerce sites like ebay, Not On The Highstreet, or Etsy.

So goes a common myth, but what is the reality?

unicorn wall plaque

This update features images created for Essex-based Fox’s Felts over the past couple of years, since they first started trading. Fox’s Felts create hand-made toys, decorations, clothing and accessories for babies and young children. As with all start-ups, they needed to budget for a whole range of up-front costs, but they knew that simple, attractive, professional photography would be crucial to their success in appealing to discerning mums and dads.

teether in gift box product shot

The first photo-shoot you ever commission can be daunting, especially when there is a lot of product to shoot. Regular communication with the client before shoot day enabled me to plan the lighting and set-ups for all the shots, and we were consequently able to shoot everything in one day. I never take the ‘throw it in a light tent and hope’ approach to photography; light tents are great for some surfaces, but each different product requires its own lighting set-up to make it ‘pop’.

product and packshot example images

For our first shoot I took a portable studio to Fox’s Felt’s premises. This allowed us to create classic ‘white background’ studio images of some products, as well as basic packshots.

The client could provide direct input to styling group shots, and relevant props were also close at hand, as the client was herself the mum of a toddler.

group shot and props

For example, we were able to utilize ready made ‘sets’ to show off products that needed more than the simple white background approach, such as the client’s range of fun mobiles.

owl mobile photographed with cot

After returning home to retouch the images, add drop-shadows, perform colour correction etc, images were sent for approval, before the final sets of web and print jpgs were delivered (all via Dropbox). I also adapted a graphic provided by Fox’s Felts for use as a watermark for their online imagery.

Since the launch shoot, I’ve returned to Fox’s Felts’ premises when they have large quantities of new product to photograph. When there are only a few new products, they post them to me along with a simple brief.

teether and bag product photograph

This simple, fuss-free solution doesn’t break the bank, and is made even more affordable by a special deal available to all my product photography clients. As with much product photography, the more you order, the lower the price of each image. I offer clients the chance to pre-ordered images, providing the advantage of bulk discount with the flexibility of having products shot as and when they become available.

Just as I was preparing this entry, Fox’s Felts phoned me to say that their mobiles recently featured in a ’10 Best Baby Mobiles’ article in The Independent newspaper. I love to hear client’s success stories!

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

Or check out some different examples of my product photography, featuring different materials and backgrounds.

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