Remember the sequence of photos showing a mourning swallow'?

The commentary with it gushed all sentimental about a bird crying out in grief at the death of its 'wife' (sic ... and sick) when any half-way competent ornithologist could tell you that, in fact, it showed exactly the opposite - a deadly territorial battle between two males.

Such interpretations annoy me because there are genuinely extraordinary things that happen with wild animals, events that don't need us imposing our human views on them.

Here's one - a truly remarkable collection taken in the wilds of Canada's Hudson Bay. The photographer, Norbert Rosing, said that when the polar bear appeared he was sure he was going to see the end of his huskies ...

Extraordinary! And moving. I have no doubt that these are genuine. In the first image the dogs are aggressive (flattened ears) and the bear is wary. But, by the 5th image the bear appears to be grooming the dog. And in the last one - unbelievably - it is in a submissive posture.

Just a couple of things puzzle me. It looks like there are two bears shown here. Note the difference in shape and colouring of the muzzle between the bears in the first and second images.

Also, all the images appear to have been taken on the ice pack except for number 3 which has lots of grass.

An incredible sequence. But let's not get too sentimental about it.

I'd guess it was a well-fed bear (or bears).

We need darkness.

That may seem a strange thing to say in the depths of a Northern Hemisphere winter, just a few days after the shortest day of the year. It may seem even stranger, coming from a photographer. Photographers need light. Usually lots of it.

But I've been thinking about it these past few days.

I'm writing this from the depths of a valley in rural Wales. The valley is so deep that I cannot get a signal on my mobile phone unless I drive up the side and out. And at mid-day the sun can barely hoist itself above the treetops. At night, when I walk the dog, it seems to be pitch dark. But ...

Many years ago I was camping with my family in the depths of the Namib Desert. There was no other dwelling for hundreds of miles in any direction - probably no other people. Before crawling into my sleeping bag I lay on my back on the sand and gazed up at the sky. It was breathtaking. All around me, right down to the horizon, were billions of stars, swirling galaxies and constellations. Meteors streaked through the darkness. Planets wandered their own unique paths. There was even a comet. An infinity of other worlds. It was like some awesome presence surrounding me. It made me feel very humble and small.

When I look up into the night sky from this Welsh valley I can see many more stars than I can from home, but it's still nothing like the the Namib was. Lights from a farm on the hill, from a distant highway interchange, even the lights of Swansea town, 50 kilometres away, all spill up into the sky, ruining the view

There's almost nowhere we can go in Europe to see the true splendour of the night sky - just one place at the moment.

I'm glad my children have been in the Namib to see it properly because, if they'd grown up here, they would not know.

And it's something everyone should see. We need more darkness at night.

Star trails above Gland, Switzerland.
A long exposure taken over a period of more than 2
½ hours ...
and the light pollution shows.

This is it!

At the dead of night of the 11/12th December, 1602, a French army, led by the Duke of Savoy, tried to invade the Swiss city of Geneva.

They didn’t get away with it.

Some alert guards raised the alarm and an old woman on the ramparts, who happened to be cooking vegetable soup in a cauldron, poured the boiling mix of carrots and potatoes and heaven-knows-what all over the attackers. Apparently she managed to kill one of them, and the rest fled, further raising the alarm.

Ever since then, on the weekend closest to the 12th December, the Genevois celebrate the ‘Escalade’ (as it is called) with the largest military re-enactment in Europe. They don 17th century costumes and march about the old town of Geneva to the sound of pipes and drums. They fire cannons and muskets, drink cups of hot vegetable soup (trying not to pour it over anyone) and break chocolate cauldrons, called ‘marmites’, filled with marzipan vegetables to loud cries of "Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République!" (Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!)

It is a very photogenic event.

And I was there, taking photographs of the festivities ...

But I was also watching the spectators. Two little girls were sitting on their daddies’ shoulders, high above the crowd. And then it happened. Their fathers moved off in different directions and ...

I consider it the best shot I got all day.

Capturing instants like that are what makes photography special for me.

Sometimes you get lucky

The prizewinning image in the previous blogs was one I worked at.

In fact, I have identified other places along this autoroute where it may be possible to photograph interesting traffic trails in different patterns. When the weather conditions are right I'm going to go back to them.

In landscape photography you have to work at it. Consider yourself lucky if you find yourself standing in front of a stunning view with the light ... and the clouds ... and the season ... and everything else, just right.

A few years ago, on a bitterly cold and icy winter's day, I was with family, walking around Cradle Mountain lake, a Tasmanian beauty spot. We passed a photographer with his camera set up on a tripod.

A couple of hours later, on our way back, we passed the same photographer, in the same spot. He hadn't moved a millimetre.

"Hasn't he taken a photograph yet?" someone asked in astonishment. "What's he playing at? He must be frozen stiff."

It turned out the man was a professional, with a large-format camera, who was photographing for postcards and calendars. He explained to us that he was waiting for the light, and the clouds, and the ripples on the water to be just right.

"Geez!" my brother-in-law said. "I prefer my office."

An even longer time ago, before digital cameras ... or personal computers ... were even dreamed about, I was walking around Piraeus harbour. I looked over the wall and ...

I turned the camera a fraction to get the diagonal composition. But that was all.

That 'snap' shot has won me two prizes. Overall first in a national competition, and highly commended in an international one.

Sometimes you just get lucky.

But don't count on it.

(Technical note: This was taken with a film camera, on 35mm colour slide film, and has been scanned to digital)


Regular readers will know that, from time to time, I bang on about over-zealous police and security guards who seem think anyone taking photographs could be a terrorist planning an attack, even a 16-year old boy in school uniform, doing a school project.

Well, you'll be interested to know that the security services aren't always on the ball ...

Here's what the photographer writes ...

Today in BOS (Logan International Airport, in Boston), I arrived to find a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agent sound asleep in a Spirit Airlines wheelchair, on the outside of security. After mentioning it to a ticket agent, she stated that he had been there for almost two hours. So I go back, and take a few pictures of it, one of which is great. There is nothing in the pictures that is security related at all, it is just him in the wheelchair against a wall.

A co-worker of his came over, woke him up, and told him that someone had just taken his picture. He asked who it was and I responded that it was me. He told me that the picture better be deleted, to which I responded that not only is it not going to be deleted, it is going to be copied, a few million times over. Next, he makes some slang remarks, and walks over to his co-workers that are at the security checkpoint.

I see them looking over, pointing, those kind of things. Eventually, the manager comes over and inquires about the picture. I told him that I had it. He leans into me and in a strong tone says, 'I hope you do the right thing with that picture, and we won't have anything to worry about'. My response was that I will do the right thing, and those involved should be very worried.

Fifteen minutes or so pass, I go through security to go to work, and am immediately intercepted by the manager already mentioned, and two people in suits. Only one person spoke to me, one of the suits. She asked about the picture, I confirmed it. She tells me that the individual has been reprimanded, and then inquires as to what I am going to do with the picture. I told her that I will do anything I want, it is my picture. She asks why I am getting hostile (which I was not). My last statement to her was that unless I am being detained, I have a job to do, and you can find me on flight #xxxx, and then I walked off. They did not come to the aircraft.

To touch ...

... or not to touch? That is the question.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments about my winter motorway image. I appreciate them.

One that I found particularly interesting came from someone called 'mollieb' ...

I love the touch ups you made on this photo. Especially making the signs the same neon color as the road, and highlighting the snow with the fence posts. Overall contrast made it work. Takes a good eye and lots of practice to see what can be done to a photo to enhance it's qualities. Right?

Do I detect a hint of scepticism there? Or am I misreading an electronic communication, which is easy to do?

Well ... yes, I did do some post-processing. All photography involves post processing. I was doing it years ago, in darkrooms, with film and the fumes of hypo getting up my nose, dodging and burning with strangely-shaped bits of paper on wire, under the dim glow of an enlarger.

Post processing is necessary because, no matter how good your camera and film/digital sensor, it's not as good as the human eye.

How much did I do with this image? Well, no 'touch-ups', that's for sure. I listed the processes in my reply to mollieb.

But, so as you can see for yourself, here are the two images side by side. The first one is exactly as it came out of my camera. All I have done is convert it from RAW to JPG, and reduced the size so that it will fit on this page. The second is the result after processing ...

But, it's an interesting question. How much post-processing is valid?

In my opinion, some photographers do go way over the top, producing images that bear little relation to reality.

However, I believe in getting it right in the camera, as far as I can. (It's also a lot less work.) What's more, if you start off with a lousy photograph, no amount of post-processing will make it better. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Any others' thoughts on this matter?

Way- HEY!

Quiet celebrations at Château Scott.

I've been awarded first prize for the Landscape Section in the Charnwood Arts 2008 Photographic Competition, with this image ...

It was taken one winter's night, on the outskirts of Geneva, near the airport.

For those interested in the technical details: I used a Nikon D70s, mounted on a sturdy tripod, with a 19mm wide-angle lens. The exposure was 1/30sec at f5.

I was standing on a footbridge that crosses the highway, and I spotted its possibilities for a 'traffic trail' shot whilst I had been driving along this stretch a few days previously. (I know, I should have been concentrating on the road, but I find my 'photographic eye' a bit difficult to turn off sometimes.)

However, I suspected that there would be a problem getting the light right as, in winter, the trees are all a uniform brown so there would be little differentiation between the road and its verges. Maybe try the spot in spring?

Then, when it snowed, I realised the problem was solved. There was just enough snow to give an 'edge' to the bare trees and roadside, but not enough to bring traffic to a standstill. I jumped in my car, found my way to the footbridge access, and spent a freezing hour 'making' pictures. It was very icy.

At one point a man walking his dog passed and, from the look he gave me, he obviously thought I'd taken leave of my senses.

In the end the cold got too much, my batteries (both camera and personal) started to go flat. I retreated to sort out what 'd got - and I had quite a few photographs - back at home.

Apparently the competition attracted hundreds of entries from over 40 countries so I'm pleased with the result. You can read more details, and see the other winners, here.

Celestial spectacle

If the sky is clear in your part of the world, look south west just after sunset on November 30th or December 1st.

Two bright planets, Venus and Jupiter, will be having a stunning encounter with the crescent moon - a rare sight. (December 1st will be the best.)

And if you want to photograph the encounter, do it about half an hour after the sun has set.

If you take a picture any earlier, the sky will be too light and they won't show up very well.

Do it any later and the sky will be too dark. The planets will just look like dots of light on a black background and the moon will probably over-expose.

About half an hour after sunset is the 'Goldilocks time' - not too light and not too dark - when the sky is still a rich blue.

This was a close encounter between Venus and the Moon, one evening two years ago ...

============== There's a bonus for those in Europe ==============

If you live in Europe, and the sky is clear, you'll see the Moon pass in front of Venus, completely blocking its light. Astronomers called this a 'lunar occultation', and it is a rate event.

The sight of our neighbouring planet, popping out from behind the dark edge of the crescent Moon will be a remarkable one.

The exact time this happens depends on your location. Here in Geneva, Venus will disappear behind the Moon at 17:01h (local time), and will spring back into view at 18:23h.

If you are in a different place, you can find the approximate time from this website. Choose the location nearest to you and it should be accurate enough. Just remember, they give the times in Universal Time (UT) - which used to be the old GMT. So, to get the correct times for your place in Europe, you'll also have to allow for your timezone.

New! Improved!

Regular readers will notice a new addition to my blog, over there to the right, a new little box headed PHOTOTIP.

In it I’ll give a series of simple tips – changing with each post – to help you improve your photography.

These tips are based on my book The Greatest Photography Tips in the World – 200 pages of non-technical advice, fully illustrated, to help you get the best from your camera.

Sometimes the smallest of changes ... shifting viewpoint, adding a filter, using a different setting ... can have a dramatic effect on a photograph, lifting it from a ‘ho-hum’ one to something great.

So, try using these tips and see how they work for you.

10 to 60 in six images

Take a look at this sequence of images from the French edition of Vogue magazine.

The same model, same photo shoot ... clever make-up artist.

Is it convincing?

Pain and suffering?

It’s all down to interpretation.

A friend has shown me a remarkable series of photographs under the heading “The suffering of a poor bird”. (N.B. I copy the captions and final comment exactly as I received them) ...

1. Here his wife is injured and the condition is very appalling

2. Here he brings her food and attend her with love and compassion

3. Brings her food but shocked with her death and try to move her

4. He is aware that his sweetheart is dead and will not come to him again he cries with adoring love

5. Stand beside her and scream saddened of her death

6. Finally aware that she would not return to him and she departed him, stand beside her body with sad and sorrow

Photos of two birds said to have pictured in the Republic of Ukraine.

Millions of people cry after watching this picture in America and Europe.

It is said that the photographer sold these picture for a nominal price to the most famous news paper in France. And all the copies of that news paper were sold out on the day of publishing these pictures.

The photos are great. Note the narrow depth of field of the telephoto lens. The photographer has got the focus in just the right place. And the featureless surroundings, coupled with the low viewpoint, add to the drama. But ...

Am I just a cynical old curmudgeon?

These two birds appear to be two male Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica). I say male, judging from the length of their tail streamers, though this is not easy to see. And this looks like a deadly serious territorial fight.

In pictures 3 and 4 the uninjured one seems to be in particularly aggressive postures.

So, could the ‘...scream saddened of her death ...’ actually be a cry of triumph?

I don't think we do ourselves any favours, sentimentalising the natural world.

The English poet, Tennyson, wrote:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law

Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

Those were the days.

The world’s going faster and faster.

Is your computer taking more than 30 seconds to boot up? And what are you doing? Drumming the table in exasperation?

If you send someone an e-mail and they haven’t replied in 24 hours, what do you think? Do you wonder if they’re still with us?

And just try pootling along any road at the legal speed limit. Within minutes you have someone behind you, all flashing lights and trying to drive up your exhaust pipe.

Oh for the good old days, when the pace of life was slower.

Okay. Okay. Am I just being old-fogeyish and rosy-tinted here? Wasn’t it just as pressured for time in those so-called 'good old days'?

No. And here’s the proof ...

It’s a photograph of a road sign from the 1930s - a weight restriction on a bridge over a railway line in the UK.

Now that requires pause for thought ... doesn’t it? And deciphering.

P.S. To get this sign to shine out, given the angle of the light and the dark background (look at the trees and their shadows) I used a fair degree of fill-in flash.

Stop thief!

Pity the poor photographer.

On the one hand he/she may get hassled by the police for pursuing a perfectly legal activity in a public place.

On the other, she/he can have images stolen or used illegally, with limited powers to do anything about it. The police certainly aren’t going to help. :-)

Yes. It’s an unfortunate fact of life, and I’ve mentioned it before (here). Image theft is rife on the internet.

I’ve just found another photo of mine that’s been posted without my knowledge or permission ...

It appears on a free image hosting site called Image Donkey and the photo was taken off this blog entry of mine, back in April.

How do I know the picture’s come from here?

The size. It’s exactly the same as the image I posted, down to the last pixel.

I’ve contacted Image Donkey and requested that they remove it. But, so far, the silence has been deafening.

Okay ... so this one is no big deal. No one’s trying to sell it. At least, I don’t think so. But it would be nice to have some credit.

What can you do to protect your photos when you show them – in a blog, on Flickr, or through an agency, for example?

Not a lot. Anything that appears on a computer screen can be copied.

You can watermark your photos, which is what most agencies do. That works fine for them, because people are going to buy the real thing, watermark-free. But who wants a picture on their blog with text across the middle of it? Apart from anything else, it looks pretentious.

What I do is only post low resolution versions. This particular one is 600x399 pixels, which is a touch under 2.4 megapixels. On top of that I save them at low resolution. So, while they may look okay on a monitor, they’re not much use for anything else.

Take a look. Here’s close-up detail from the original and the blog version, side by side ...

The low-resolution one is still good enough to be posted on the web. But there’s not a lot else can be done with it.

Ah well ... I suppose I should console myself with the knowledge that some people regard my images as good enough to be stolen.

(Oh ... and if you’re the reader who took this photo and posted it on Image Donkey, maybe you can send me a comment explaining why. I’d really appreciate it.)

Do you chimp?

Want to know a secret? Though Serious Photographers pour scorn on the habit, say it is degrading – the mark of an amateur - and will never publicly admit doing it, they’re lying through their teeth.

They’re all chimping.

This is a habit that arrived with digital cameras, and some of the older Serious Photographers, especially those who were raised with the rigours of film, even pretend that they do not know what it means.

But watch them carefully. You’ll probably catch them doing a ‘stealth chimp’.

Do you chimp?

Go on ... be honest.

Do you check the images on your camera’s LCD immediately after taking them? Do you make strange simian noises as you look at your photos on the tiny screen - Oooh! Oooh! Aaah! - bob up and down, and excitedly show your photos to others?

Look around you, wherever there are people taking photographs. You’re sure to catch someone chimping – often complete with actions.

And here’s a video that shows just how common the habit is, even with top professionals. (The second half shows you what a ‘stealth chimp is, too, though the sound is out of synch.)

I’ll admit it. I chimp (though without the sounds and actions).

Being able to view an image immediately, and maybe re-do the shot, is one of the huge advantages of digital photography.

There are disadvantages. If you’re photographing fast-changing situations such as sport, children or wildlife, and you chimp too much, you can miss a moment of crucial action. Also, the LCD screen on your camera uses large amounts of power. Chimp too much and you could find your battery going flat much sooner than expected.

But, apart from that, forget what the Serious Ones say. There’s nothing wrong with it. A carpenter checks the straightness of planing and the angles of joints as a cupboard is built. A potter checks the roundness of pots on the wheel. A chef tastes food as it is being prepared.

So chimp away!

Just leave off the funny noises.


I'm a little nervous. I could have got into trouble with my camera.

Last week a 15-year old schoolboy called Fabian Sabbara was Stopped and Searched by UK police officers for taking this photograph of Wimbledon Station, in south London:

He took it, with a little point and shoot camera, as part of a school project for his GCSE (a UK national examination) and he was dressed in his school uniform at the time.

You can read the full story here.

When I read it I did a double-take because ...

About a year ago I was standing outside Wimbledon Station, waiting for my daughter, and I took almost the same photograph:

In fact, he and I must have been standing in exactly the same place. Look how the 'n' of the small name 'Wimbledon', on the canopy over the doors, lines up with the right-hand bar of the middle window above it. The only difference seems to be that I was using a wider angle lens.

This image is now on sale with various agencies (e.g. here).

I guess I was lucky no police officer saw me.

But are there any reading this blog? Or any husbands, wives, children, other relatives or friends of police officers?

If so, can you answer the following two questions (or get answers from a police officer if you are a relative, friend, etc.).
  1. Why do you (the British Police, and security people) have the idea that terrorists are going to photograph a location before committing an atrocity?

  2. But, given that you seem to have this idea (and don't seem to realise that Ordnance Survey maps can be bought legally in UK, and Wimbledon Station forecourt is shown down to individual cars on Google Earth - which is also legally available on the internet) why can you not see that any potential terrorist is going to obtain photographs unobtrusively? He/she is unlikely to stand still in full daylight or ... even more attention-drawing ... set up a tripod.
Sorry to harp on this point, dear reader. And please don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-police. They do a difficult and dangerous job.

But what often gets overlooked in all this is that the terrorists don't commit their evil and murderous acts for the hell of it. They have a reason.

For many of them, the overriding reason is that they hate and despise our society. They hate the freedoms we have. And they hate the way these ideas are spreading. (Women's rights is one example.)

It could be said they want revenge. But there could be more. They may want to stop these ideas spreading. They may even want to impose their laws and beliefs. Listen to some of the recordings these people make before carrying out their acts.

One of their aims is to weaken our society. There are many ways in which they have managed to do this, quite successfully, in the past decade. Think about the splits that have grown, the extreme reactions, the losses of freedom that have taken place, some of them carried out at the highest level, shocking and way beyond the rule of law.

Hassling innocent people, going about their own business quietly and legally, is one more tiny straw on the camel's back.

Another question for my hypothetical police reader ...

Do you think this schoolboy and his family will respect you or fear you after this incident? What about the guy hassled outside a nightclub (here)? Or Jane Sweeney with her tripod (here)? What about the readers of the newspaper articles?

Here is a quote from the newspaper article, " ... the matter had also sparked fear at Fabian's school, where trips had been banned over concerns that pupils could be stopped by police for taking pictures."

People have certain freedoms in our society and these freedoms need to be guarded jealously.

So, does anyone know a police officer? I would dearly love answers to my questions.

Hot off the press ...

At last!

After nearly 2 years work on it, my new photography book has been published today ...

Hardback, 200 pages, fully illustrated in colour ... I think it's a bargain at less than £10 (even cheaper on Amazon). But them I'm biased.

Judge for yourself. If you click on the image above you can take a peek inside.

The idea was to write a book that imparts good, solid information in a light-hearted and accessible manner. It is part of a wider series on all sorts of topics - from Tax to Sex - published by the UK publishing company "The Greatest in the World Ltd."

The production of this little handbook has involved a long gestation period ... but was worth it. Producing specific photographs to illustrate the techniques was, itself, an interesting challenge. And a learning process for me, too.

My book is currently on sale at Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon France. Just the Christmas present for that keen photographer you know.

I should soon have copies for sale here in Switzerland - at a heavily discounted rate. Signed, if you would like.

Watch this space for further details.

The power of a photograph

A recurrent accusation levelled at the American Democratic presidential candidate, Barak Obama, is that he is a Muslim.

Why should it matter? After all, the US Constitution states, "... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (Article 6, paragraph 3.)

Unfortunately it matters in this particular election because certain people in the USA are assiduously associating being a Muslim with being a terrorist. And other people are believing them.

I guess they haven’t seen this photograph:

Elsheba Khan at the grave of her son, Specialist Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan.
Copyright: Platon

This was the photograph that moved President Bush's former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to publicly endorse Barack Obama. On a TV programme, Meet The Press, Powell stated that he was troubled by members of the Republican party insinuating that Obama is a Muslim and therefore associated with terrorists (see the full interview here).

This is what Colin Powell said:

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afganistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was a mother in Arlington Cemetry, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian Cross. It didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American.

A major dust-up

So there I was, late one winter’s afternoon on the Lac de Joux - a lake in the Jura mountains that freezes solid - when this guy in a balloon comes in to land on the ice.

Everyone rushes forward to watch. Great composition! I take a couple of steps to one side to get the sun behind balloon and fire away.

But, when get home and look at the images ... what’s that far off in the sky? Above the silhouette and to the right. A second balloon?

No, it’s the dreaded sensor dust.

This is a problem that particularly affects digital cameras with interchangeable lenses.

Some people get very stressed about it. They change lenses as little as possible (which rather defeats the object of having such a camera) or they buy little lens-changing bags.

I’ve seen these bags on sale in photographic shops. You put the whole camera and replacement lens into one, zip it up, put your hands into sort of glove-like things and change the lens. Then you take the whole lot out again.

Meanwhile, whatever you were going to photograph has long since vanished. Oh ... and every time you open the bag, dust gets inside, anyway.

Face up to it. Dust on the sensor is inevitable. Even if you don’t change lenses, a zoom lens acts like a giant air pump, sucking air (and dust particles) into the body every time you shift from wide angle to telephoto. Then the shutter mechanism wears with use, producing microscopic particles.

If you want to see just how much dust is on your sensor, try this. (Warning. This is not for the faint-hearted.) Set your camera to aperture priority and stop down to the smallest aperture possible (probably f22). Take a picture of something completely plain and light-coloured – a clear blue sky is best, but a white door or wall will do. Don’t worry about the shutter speed. It will be horrendously slow for hand-holding, but that doesn’t matter. What you’re looking for is already sitting in the camera, jiggling about as you do!

Examine the image in your image editing program. If you’re feeling really, really brave you can apply the ‘Automatic Contrast’ setting to the image. That’ll show up every last speck.

But maybe I shouldn't have told you that. Provided your sensor isn't like Miss Havisham's wedding table it's not so important. Most of the time the spots will be invisible and the few times that they do intrude (like above) you can easily remove them with an image editing program.

In fact, dust even used to be a problem back in the old darkroom days. You had to be sure your negative was spotless before printing, but that was well-nigh impossible in the red-lighted gloom ... coupled with the fact that most of the darkrooms I've worked in were not exactly the most dust-free environments.

Then, when the spots and hairs showed up on your print as little white dots and squiggles you had to remove them with a camel-hair brush and some retouching pigment.

It's a whole lot easier nowadays.

PC Plod pounces again

Remember my blog about Jane Sweeney, the well-known travel photographer who got hassled in London for using a tripod whilst taking photographs. (Here, if you don’t.)

You’ll be glad to know that the ever-vigilant British Bobbies never drop their guard. Here is a another potential terrorist ... or maybe voyeur ... or maybe child-molester (unfortunately Plod can’t quite make up his mind on this point) being stopped in his nefarious tracks ...

A fair cop. Whatever the guy was doing, it can’t be good if he’s carrying a camera.

I’m so glad that Plod is on the ball. Makes me feel much, much safer when I visit the UK.

  1. In the UK it is perfectly legal to take photographs of anyone or anything in a public place, provided you are not causing an obstruction. You do not need a licence (despite what this police officer is implying).
  2. Only a police officer with a search warrant can confiscate your camera or demand to see photographs you have taken. And no one, not even the police, can force you to erase photographs you have taken. That would require a court order.
As a matter of interest with regard to point 1, if you are in the UK you will probably be photographed, without your realising it and without your consent, dozens if not hundreds of times each day by ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

A more complete account of photographers' rights in the UK can be found here. And click here for details of those in the USA.

Despite what they looked like ...

... the olives were delicious.

Mind you, I ate them before I looked at the photograph I'd taken.

All right ... I'll admit ... they didn't look that bad. But they didn't look terribly appetising, either, did they? And food photography is all making things look so appetising that the viewer's mouth waters. The object is to get the customer to buy the stuff.

It's a tough call.

There's a saying in photographic circles - "If you can photograph food, you can photograph anything."

Hot foods grow cold, succulent foods dry out, ice cream melts, cereals get soggy, vegetables wilt, and fruit turns brown.

Here are a few tricks the professionals use to overcome this problem:

- A quick burst of spray deodorant gives a nice frosting to a bunch of grapes.

- When photographing breakfast cereal, professionals use PVC wood glue (or white emulsion paint) instead of milk. The cereal flakes float on it and don’t go soggy.

- To make a glass of champagne look beautifully fizzy, add a pinch of powdered asprin.

- A roast chicken will look deliciously browned if brushed with old engine oil.

And here’s one freelance food photographer’s description of the process photographing lasagna, for a picture on the box...

Lasagna is a real pain to shoot. It just collapses. One way round this is to build up layers, using foam board about 5mm thick, cut slightly smaller than the layers of pasta. Once you've built up the layers you pipe in the meat and bechamel sauce around the edges, to hide the board. You brown the top layer of pasta with a blowtorch, and pour over fresh tomato sauce.

That's what intrigues me about photography.

It's an art form that captures everything from the gritty reality of war to a luscious lasagne (that's actually foam-filled), from a milk-drop coronet to the moon rising over Hernandez.

Snap 'n slim

Do you want to lose weight? Get slim and sylph-like? Then take photographs of your grub before you stuff it in your mouth.

Apparently, one of the techniques for losing weight is to keep a 'food diary'. That is, you write down details of everything you eat. Then you can go back and ...

"Yikes! Did I really eat all those chips/cream cakes/chocolate biscuits!"

... you shock yourself into slimming.

Trouble is, not everybody writes down everything accurately. And after a substantial meal accompanied by a few glasses of wine it can be difficult to remember exactly what has passed your lips.

Now researchers have found that a more effective technique is to take photographs of your food. They say that taking photographs seems to concentrate your mind at just the right time, before consumption. You can read more details of the research here.

Yes ... well ... maybe. But there could be another side to it. Food photography is a highly specialised field. Unless you know what you’re doing (and use all sorts of weird tricks) the finest haute cuisine can come out looking disgusting.

By way of illustration, here is a photograph of a dish of olives that I've just, this moment, been given as an aperitif. They are delicious olives - spicy, with herbs, garlic and a few small cubes of cheese

And I've photographed them exactly as they are.
The only thing I've done is to place the dish on a piece of white paper out of my printer, to simplify the background, and I've bounced the flash off another piece of white paper held above the dish, to diffuse the light. Other than that it's a straight shot, taken as they sat on the table in front of me ...

Do they look yummy?

Another possibility is that the would-be slimmers simply couldn't face eating their food when they saw it as a photograph.

I nearly gave up my Nikon.

Did you ever take the fancy for an ex-treme telephoto lens?

This has got to be the largest one ever made for a standard camera ...... and it was for sale on E-bay (see here).

It's focal length is 5200mm.

And how would it fit on your camera?

Look closely at the red arrow. There's your camera, already attached.

A snip at $55'000? You bet. With this you'd be able to get pictures of a tiger's teeth at 2 kilometres.

Unfortunately, the seller's just withdrawn it.

Drat! And here I was, about to sell my Nikon gear and switch to Canon.

It takes time.

Last weekend, at an altitude of 2’300 metres in the Valaisan Alps, I found a strange little chariot.

It’s Halley’s Comet, one of the sculptures on the Footpath of the Planets (Sentier des Planetes). This is the entire Solar System, laid out to scale in the mountains high above the village of St Luc.

Within a minute’s walk of the Sun I came to Mercury. Then, shortly afterwards Venus, the Earth and Mars. At an average walking pace I was ... to the same scale ... travelling at three times the speed of light. Jupiter takes a little longer to reach ... then Saturn ... Uranus ... and, after several hours walk, Neptune.

I didn’t reach Pluto. To some other members of my party, a hot chocolate at the Wiesshorn Hotel was more alluring than the outer reaches of the Solar System. Anyway, Pluto isn’t a planet any more – according to the International Astronomical Union. (Though, for what it’s worth, I disagree.)

Halley’s Comet is just past Neptune, in the same position in this model as it really is at the moment. (I’ve checked.) Someone ... I don’t know who ... moves it across the mountainside regularly.

Unfortunately, although the first photo I took shows the surroundings well, the sculpture is rather lost against the background.

So I put the flash on my camera and, to the consternation of a party of passing hikers, lay flat on the ground. This image is the result ...

And whilst it shows the sculpture well, it gives little idea of its environment.

Which is better? And would it be possible to show Halley's Comet and surroundings without the sculpture getting lost in the background?

I don’t know. That would have taken some time, and hot chocolates were calling. Not many people want to hang around whilst a photographer scrabbles around trying to find a perfect viewpoint. It takes time.

I love photography, and coffee. But ...

... this may be going a little too far.

Gizmodo, the gadget website where I found this, describes it as 'nerdy cool'.

Yeah. But with that ridged lens hood flange around the lip, surely you'll get coffee all down your front every time you take a sip.

What is Art?

All hell’s broken loose in the watercolour world. And some photographers are hopping mad.

To begin at the beginning.

‘Hyperrealism’ is an artistic movement that has become established over the past decade in which paintings are painted to look exactly like high-resolution photographs.

This movement embraces watercolours too. Gone are the soft washes of cloudscape or bucolic riverine scenes so beloved of the old school. The winner of the American Watercolor Society’s 2008 prestigious Gold Medal Award (with a $4’000 top prize) was Ms Sheryl Luxenburg with her gritty, edgy work entitled ‘Impermanence’:
Amazing! Looks exactly like a photograph, doesn't it? At least, on my computer screen it does. I didn’t know you could paint like that in watercolours. And I would guess the amazement deepens when you come face to face with the original because this is how Ms Luxenburg once described reactions to her paintings:

I enjoy watching people walk up to my watercolors, take a step back, and then move up to the glass to make sure they are paintings, not photographs.

And this his how she described her methods:

I spend a lot of time deciding on the time of day, the exact angle to view the scene, the total perspective scope of the picture, and the best combination of animate and inanimate objects ... I put a lot of thought and emotion into my choices of subjects and compositions.
(from, 'Moments Frozen in Time', By M. Stephen Doherty, American Artist, May 1 2005. See here for a copy of the article.)

But ...

... hang on a minute ...

... this particular painting looks startlingly like a composite of two photographs that are for sale through the Shutterstock microstock agency:
(Copyright Kuzma)

(Copyright IKO)

And this is what has caused so much controversy in the worlds of painting and photography. The American Watercolor Society has acknowledged this controversy and has withdrawn the work from view stating, among other things: “In question are the ownership of the image, the originality of the piece and even the authenticity of the medium. ... [F]rom the time we received the first allegation we have been working to determine the truth ... and will bring the matter to a final solution based on a careful consideration of the accusations and the facts as we can determine them. ... We … welcome any pertinent information that can assist us in fairly, professionally and constructively resolving this matter.

The entire statement can be read here.

I would like to believe that Ms Luxenburg’s work is a painting as she claims it to be, and I look forward to the ultimate findings by the American Watercolor Society. In the meantime, this story raises some questions.

Isn't a painting supposed to be the artist’s interpretation of a scene? (Think of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’.) If you want an exact representation don't you take a photograph? So, if someone paints an exact copy of photographs ... themselves exact copies ... what have you got? Is it art?

And a big question from the original photographer's point of view - if someone has bought the rights to reproduce your work, does that give them the right to make an exact copy (exact in as far as can be seen by the naked eye) in a different medium, put it together half and half with another image from a different person and then put their name to it?

What would happen if I, as a photographer, bought the rights to reproduce two paintings - for example, Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' and Jackson Pollock's 'Number 1'. What if I carefully set my camera and lights up in front of them, used all my skills as a photographer to photograph them, put the resulting images together half and half, and entered the final image into a photographic competition?

Update 28 November 2008

This story made the front page of the Vancouver Sun on 26th November 2008 and reporter David Baines called the artist to talk about it. You can read the article here.

Update 28 February 2009

The American Watercolor Society has now made a final ruling on tis issue. Details here.

Sun, sand, and ...

... some hope! Didn't get any of either.

Apologies for the deafening silence, dear reader.

It's been quite a summer involving some considerable bush-clearance, a head on car crash, no one hurt but subsequent legal action for injuries (Don't ask), an attempt to bend French veterinary regulations (Don't ask again. It was unsuccessful, anyway), and a panic over my book manuscript.

Unfortunately it involved rather less photography, though I did get some 'before' and 'after' shots.

This ...

... contrasting with ...

4 days work. And that was just one corner of a very jungly smallholding. There is, in fact, a brick building in the brambles behind the greenhouse to the left. I couldn't quite fight through to it. Ah well ... on the next visit ...

Thanks for your e-mails of concern, folks. Things are now back on an even keel (though the brambles are growing like fury again) and I'll get back to blogging. Greatly preferable to bush clearance.

Actually, I don't want to give the impression that I didn't manage to take any other photographs over the past months. One great thing about photography is that, if you keep your eyes open, you can grab shots wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

In Calais harbour, at one point in the yo-yoing between Switzerland and UK, I spotted this cheeky little character puttering in ...

at the same time as these guys were barrelling out ...

Another great contrast.


One of the downsides of selling photographs through agencies is that, unlike most other commercial artistic endeavours (e.g. writing) you never get told where your images are used.

As far as I am aware, no agency does this. Your images just fly off into mediaspace, end up on a magazine cover or something and, hopefully, you get paid a bit.

Photographers do look out for each other's work, and when I find a published image from someone I know (look for the tiny image credit beside the photo to tell you the agency or photographer) I generally forward the details. But it's a pretty hit-or-miss affair.

So how did I find my Chateau de Chillon image on the front cover of the Chinese magazine?

Enter TinEye.

This is a brand new search engine that aims to be the Google of photos. You put an image into the search box of their web site (or you can get a plug-in for your browser that allows you to right-click on a picture on your screen) and in seconds it can find places where it is being used ... even derivatives of it.

The program is still in Beta (i.e still being developed) and it only searches 1,040,054,438 images (only???) but the results are pretty remarkable.

I searched on one of my top-selling photos ...

... and came up with a number of place where it was being used. Two of them were using it illegally.

I contacted the offending parties, got an apology from both and had it taken down within the day. No money for the illegal use, unfortunately. But there's the perverse satisfaction of knowing one of my creations is good enough to be stolen ... twice.

As TinEye is still in its beta version you have to apply, by e-mail, to get an account with them. But that's not a problem. I received a response within 2 hours of my request.

If you're interested in tracking your images, I recommend you try Tin Eye (here). It's remarkable.

Sideways on

I've just done a very quick skim through a random collection of online photographs from different photographers, using the keyword 'castle'.

Interesting. There are approximately 3 times as many images in the conventional 'landscape' format as there are in the upright 'portrait' format.

It seems that a lot of people don't realise that you can turn your camera on its side to take pictures ... either that, or they're scared to. Or are they just lazy? I don't know.

But it's strange. You'd think that something like a castle lends itself to the upright format.

Why did I do this little survey? Because I’ve just found one of my my images of the Château de Chillon being used for the front cover of a magazine aimed at very rich Chinese ...

It's not the same image as I discussed two posts ago (here). Yes, it was taken at the same time, but as I photographed the castle and the darkening sky I regularly turned the camera from vertical to horizontal and back again. I got a whole load of images in both formats.

There were good reasons for doing that. The main one was that the majority of magazines are produced in the 'portrait' format and you greatly increase your chances of a cover sale if you have a photograph that fits.

On top of that, the 'portrait' format often fits better in to text too, especially if the text is in columns.

And, finally, because there are fewer photographs in this format the competition is less tough.

Remember ... you can turn your camera on its side and photograph landscapes in portrait format if you want.

And you can take portraits in landscape format too.

Sky high

I try to keep an eye on the sky.

(Wow! Listen to those rhymes!)

No ... but seriously ... what happens up there can make or break a photograph.

For a long time I'd been meaning to photograph the Château de Chillon, one of the great historic buildings in this region. But most of the angles had already been done to death. There are only so many different photos you can take of a castle on the lake.

Then my astronomical sources told me that, one evening in May last year, the crescent Moon and the planet Venus would be low in the sky, in pretty much the right direction. So I packed my gear and was lucky. The sky remained clear ...

For the next two weeks the planet Mercury will be visible in the West, shortly after sunset. But tomorrow night (Tuesday 6th May) will better than the others. If the sky is clear you will see a beautiful and eye-catching pair - Mercury and the crescent Moon close together.

Mercury is less photogenic than Venus, being much less bright. But, as it is the closest planet to the sun we don't get to see it very often. You will be able to spot Mercury a little below and to the west of the Moon. There is a sky map here.

I don't know if I'll be photographing. But I'll certainly be looking.

Keep an eye on the sky.

Ironic (slightly)

A monthly newspaper Bonne Nouvelle ('Good News'), published by a branch of the Swiss Protestant church, dropped into my mailbox this morning.

I was idly thumbing through it and there, on the middle pages, I saw one of my photos ...

... bought from an agency in Canada.

It's of a pretty little church, nestling in the vineyards above the nearby village of Luins.

Why was I surprised?

Because, for the most part, when you sell photos through an agency you never know where they are used. The agency tells you each time an image is sold, but not where. So, it's pure chance if you (or a fellow photographer - people look out for each other's work) come across one.

It's always satisfying when this happens. Whilst flying to London last Christmas, I found another of my images had been used by the in-flight magazine.

But this occasion was ever so slightly ironic. One of my photos in a religious newspaper ... and here's me, a devout atheist.

So why was I reading the newspaper in the first place?

I wasn't reading it. I was looking at the piccies.

On the Origins of Life

A big topic, and I know it's not photography, but I just have to share this brief video with you.

I'll never look at a jar of peanut butter in quite the same way again.


World Pinhole Photography Day was yesterday, 27 April. Did anyone else try to take photographs without glass?

I experimented with my Heineken lens (see it here) and was startled when it turned out to be a long telephoto.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. When I thought about how the rays of light passed through the pinhole to hit the sensor it was obvious. But, somehow, I'd never considered it before.

That was the great thing about trying this. It made me think about a number of things that I had previously taken for granted.

Another example: the first photos with the Heineken lens were a total disaster - abstract swirls of light, but no recognisable image. Initially I wondered if I'd got the pinhole the right size. But then I realised that the inside of the can was silvered and the light was bouncing wildly around inside it. Lining it with matte black paper solved that problem.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Heineken isn't going to challenge Nikon, Canon, Tamron or Sigma just yet. I got some images, but they weren't much to look at. Part of the problem was that it was difficult to see what the camera was pointing at. The pinhole let in so little light that the viewfinder was dark.

I removed the can and stuck some duct tape with aluminium foil over the lens mount, making a pinhole in the foil. That turned out to be a wide angle lens and gave better results.

Another learning step resulted from me making the first pinhole too small. I was under the impression that it should be as small as possible. But that just gave a horribly fuzzy image due (I now know) to a process called diffraction. I also discovered that this applies to conventional lenses too. Stop them down to their minimum aperture and you lose picture quality. Same physics.

Anyway, in the end I found a suitable size for the hole and took some photos discovering, on the way, that a pinhole lens has the most amazing depth of field. Must experiment more with that, later. But, in the meantime, here's the image I've submitted to the international web site:

More contributions, from all over the world, can be seen here. Some are wonderfully inventive, or just plain bizarre. Enjoy!

Anticipate the action

Our local archery club has just moved to a new shooting ground and on Saturday they held open house.

I know very little about archery, but it sounded like a great photographic opportunity, so I packed my long lens and went along to see.

Fascinating. It is obviously a very 'mental' sport requiring a high degree of focus and concentration. Just like photography. They were offering introductory lessons, and I was tempted to try my hand at it. But ... I do enough already. I don't need one more thing on my plate. So I stuck with shooting through a lens.

I got all the images that I'd seen in my mind in advance - bowstrings being pulled back, views over archers' shoulders with the target in the distance, arrows in the bulls-eye - all good saleable stuff.

Then I set myself a challenge - to catch an arrow in flight. It wasn't easy, but in the end I did it ...


I used a telephoto lens to 'compress' the perspective and to get me close to the archer (we had to stand behind ropes for safety reasons). I set the lens to maximum aperture, partly to get the highest shutter speed possible, but also to minimise the depth of field. I wanted the background, and target to be sufficiently out of focus for the subject to stand out.

Believe it or not, I didn't use 'burst' mode, when my camera is on rapid-fire. It's capable of taking three pictures a second in that mode. So why not?

Because I think that would have reduced my chances of catching the crucial moment. Let's say that the instant when the arrow leaves the bow and is still in the field of view lasts for 1/100th of a second. I don't know if that's right or not, but it sounds pretty generous. Now, if I'm only taking 3 pictures in that second I only have a chance of 3 in 100 of capturing the moment I want. Not very good odds.

On top of that, when my camera has taken 3-4 pictures in burst mode it locks up for another few seconds whilst it writes the data to the memory card. That reduces the chances still further.

Instead, I watched how the archer shot . I saw that he had a rhythm: relax ... take a breath ... raise the bow above the target ... lower it ... fire. I tried to photograph in time with his rhythm, watching his small movements and anticipating the moment.

I got a lot of 'dud' shots, but I caught the arrow in flight three times, and another time when he'd released the bowstring but the arrow was half out of the bow.

When photographing, don't just look. See.