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.

Have a heartbeat

My family roll their eyes in exasperation each time I call out - "Just stand there a moment. I need human interest."

But it's important ... to a photographer.

Getting a 'heartbeat' (or two) in an image can change it from being a plain 'scene' ...

To something special ...


Sometimes, when I'm photographing 'on the fly', I get that shot that's so close, and yet misses out in some annoying way. Does it ever happen to you?

One sunny afternoon at the end of last summer I was watching agility trials for dogs - the dogs racing against the clock to jump over bars, run through tunnels, across bridges and over see-saws. Using a 300mm lens I managed to capture this beautiful interaction between dog and owner in the heat of the competition ...

I love the way they are clearly communicating with each other.

Unfortunately my eyes didn't communicate so well with my hands and trigger finger. I managed to cut the woman off at her knees, and the dog off at its paws. How much better that would have been if, at the very least, I'd got the whole dog in.


Isolated on white

Burned out highlights are a photographic blight ... a blight on too many of my photos, anyway (see preceding post).

But sometimes you want large areas of blown-snow-white, usually in the background of commercial photographs. The reason is that it isolates the subject, which can then be dropped on to a page (most pages are also white) to blend in perfectly.

Of course ... the universe being made the way it is ... when you want pure white, it's fiendishly difficult to achieve.

One way to do it is to photograph your object ignoring the background. Then, using something like the pen tool in Photoshop, carefully draw a selection around the object you want to isolate and extract it from the background. (If you want the best results don't waste time with fancy things like the 'magic lasso' or whatever. They don't give accurate enough selections for commercial purposes.)

Here's one of my examples. It's a poisons bottle that I found in a Victorian rubbish dump that was being excavated near the town of Luton, in the UK.

What was I doing rooting about in a Victorian rubbish dump? That's another story, but my father is an amateur archaeologist and in my late teens I got bitten by the bug too. I went through a phase of collecting old glass bottles. This particular image features on the front of my book of poetry (shameless plug, please take a look) and there's a poem about the bottle inside - a poem from which the title of the book is taken.

This technique is relatively easy if your subject has nice straight lines or regular curves. The only tricky bit in this case was ensuring that the bottle was lit in such a way as to make the embossed 'NOT TO BE TAKEN' stand out.

If it's a more complex subject with folds of clothes to contend with or, worst of all, hair, then isolating with the pen tool is just about impossible.

In that case what you need to do is place your subject against a white background and throw enough light on the background to burn it out completely.

It ain't easy. Get your subject too close to the background and light will spill around the edges giving a weird 'halo' effect. And you need to make sure that whilst the background is way, way, over-exposed, the subject is not.

Here's one I did that, I hope, tells a tiny story. The background was a white projection screen with two flash heads, operated by slave units, top and bottom.

Even then I got grey corners which had to be eliminated in Photoshop. But, provided the subject is isolated on its own patch of white, that's relatively easy to do.

The difficult bit is getting the subject isolated in the first place.

The importance of viewpoint.

Ansel Adams, one of my photographic 'inspirations' said:

A good photograph is knowing where to stand.

Here are two images ...

... same subject

... same place (I just turned around from one to the other)

... same time

... same camera and lens.

It's also knowing which way to point your camera when you're standing there.

Off topic.

But I make no apologies for it.

Having lived in neighbouring Zambia all through the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war, and having had an occasional, minor, first-hand experience of that war, I'm appalled by what's happening in Zimbabwe now.

This Friday, 18 April, marks the 18th anniversary of Independence. We've all read the papers and know the story. But one single statistic says it all:

Life expectancy for men is 37, for women is 34 years.

Mugabe isn't going to listen to anything we say. But he might listen to one person - Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa. And Thabo Mbeki may be more receptive to public opinion.

An on-line petition here, addressed to him personally, has already been signed by over 130'000 people. I know it's not much, but it's something.

Please add your name to the petition. Please help show the people of Zimbabwe that the world is with them.


I seem to have got right up someone’s nose.

Back in February I rambled on about Flickr, the photo sharing site and finished by asking the question ... “What’s the point?” (You can read the post here.)

I didn’t think anyone read that far back. But, to my surprise, this morning I received a comment from Josephine who writes:

What's the point? What a silly question. What's the point of showing your art? What's the point of sharing information with the ones with the same passion as you? What's the point of learning? What's the point of knowing amazing people? What's the point of taking photographs anyway?

Such frustrated and sad people....

Okay Josephine, at risk of making myself look even more frustrated and sad, let me try to reply.

Flickr isn’t the only way of ‘... showing your art ... sharing information ... learning ...’ etc. I think there are far better ways; ways which are a little more -- dare I say it? -- discerning.

It’s not easy to find the statistics, but in 2006 there were 300 million photographs on Flickr. This morning, at the moment I checked, 3’670 ‘things’ had been uploaded in the previous minute. So, there are probably a few more than 300’000’000 photos on Flickr now.

Are they all done by ‘amazing’ photographers? Are they all ‘art’? You’d be forgiven for thinking so.

I’ve just done a very quick and dirty survey, selecting photographs completely at random.

In my opinion, 1 of the photos I found was excellent - a portrait of a little girl eating a doughnut. Maybe 3 or 4 were total crap and the rest were average. Most were clearly snapshots.

Not much ‘art’ there.

Out of 10 photos I looked at, 8 had one or more comments.

I scanned through those comments – some photos had dozens – but I didn’t find a single one giving any sort of constructive criticism.

Not much ‘learning’ there.

What I did find was the same words coming up, over and over again - ‘amazing’, ‘awesome’, ‘fabulous’, ‘cool’ (sometimes with dozens of ‘o’s) ‘gorgeous’ and ‘brilliant’ kept appearing ... and re-appearing ad-nauseum.

And the number of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Some samples:

Love this one... really, really cool! For two out-of-focus people running down a street.

Simply fabulous. A rather muddy-looking picture of a sunset over the sea with a sloping horizon.

Lovely lovely portrait! Spot-on. For the little girl with the doughnut. But the comment is still not very useful.

WOW! GREAT PHOTO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO BEAUTIFUL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (sic) This thermonuclear explosion of wonder was for a totally average shot, taken out of the window of an aircraft over London, and looked to me to be pretty flat and boring.

Am I -- sad and frustrated in Josephine's eyes -- missing something here?

Yeah ... well ... I guess I am. I suppose there is a point to Flickr.

It’s pretty good if you think you're creating 'art' every time you use your shutter finger, and you want your ego stroked.


I needed an image for my book, that's being published later this year.

I needed something showing 'converging verticals' ... the sort of thing that happens when you try to photograph a building from ground level, and it comes out looking as if it's falling over backwards.

But I needed those 'converging verticals' exaggerated - the point I was trying to illustrate being that, if you can't overcome a problem (and it's not easy to photograph a building from anything other than ground level) then make a feature of it. Play on it. Go over the top.

This morning the sun was shining, the sky was blue, so I set out to find some strong converging verticals.

In the end I found them - a beautiful old red-brick chimney beside a modern office block. A lovely contrast. I got down as low as I could, as close as I could, with the widest-angle lens I have, and ...

But, as I was wandering in search of this image, I came across something else.

In the wine-growing village of Féchy, where I was trying this technique with the church steeple, I spotted an inconspicuous little sign ...

Vines of the world', 35 metres.

I followed it and found a delightful little garden, on the hillside beneath the church, containing specimens of vines from all over the world - France, Australia, Roumania, Chile, and others - each vine carefully labelled with its name and country of origin.

At this time of year they're just pruned stumps - nothing much to look at. But in late summer it will be fascinating to go back there and see the different varieties of grape ripening.

That's the great thing about photography. You can set out to take a photograph on one subject, and then find all sorts of other interesting things on the way.

It's probably because you've got your eyes open.

Be careful out there.

A few days ago I advised watching out for photographic competitions that take all rights to all entries (here). My advice is, if you value your work, stay away from them

But it isn't only competitions that do this.

Adobe, makers of Photoshop, one of the most widely-used image editing programs, are making a free, online version available – called Photoshop Express. They describe it like this:

Free Online Software Brings Photoshop Technology to Anyone Taking Digital Photos

Photoshop Express has taken much of Adobe’s best image editing technology and made it simple and accessible to a new online audience. Photoshop Express allows users to store up to 2 gigabytes of images online for free, make edits to their photos, and share them online in creative ways. (There’s more on it here.)

This sounds wonderful, and very generous of Adobe.

But if you’re tempted to use this online program, I suggest that you read the Terms and Conditions first.

I know ... we usually skip over these boring legal things. I often do. But they are important. Take Adobe’s paragraph 8, for example:

8. Use of Your Content.

Adobe does not claim ownership of Your Content. However, with respect to Your Content that you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Services, and unless otherwise specifically agreed in any Additional Terms that might accompany individual services (such as, you grant Adobe a worldwide, royalty-free, nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform and publicly display such Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate such Content into other Materials or works in any format or medium now known or later developed.

I would suggest that you consider the implications of that paragraph very, very carefully before you make any decision about using Photoshop Express.


A reader has just sent me this stunning photograph of sunset at the North Pole, with a crescent Moon hanging in the sky.

Wow! What an amazing sight!

But ... hang on a minute. Which planet are we on here? Certainly not Earth. There's something wrong; several things wrong in fact.

First, if this is the North Pole, how come there's water? I know we're suffering from climate change, but I didn't think it had got that bad. And where have the mountains come from? The North Pole is covered by relatively flat sea ice.

Then the Moon's all wrong too. It's way, way too big here. Despite the fact that the Sun is millions of times bigger, their different distances from the earth make them appear the same size in the sky. This is the case wherever you are on the Earth's surface.

Finally, the Moon shines because of reflected sunlight. If it was in this position you'd be lucky to see anything of its crescent. This is New Moon (when the Moon is almost exactly between the Sun and the Earth) and you can't see it for 2-3 days on either side of that phase.

Sorry to disappoint you, but this photo is a complete fake.

The Moon is a popular subject for fakery in photography. If you know just a teeny bit about astronomy - and it's basic common sense - you can pick up false Moons in all sorts of photographs.

Now, if it was just the Moon, pasted in to some landscape photo on a calendar, it wouldn't matter much. Unfortunately 'fauxtography', as it's called, pops up in other more dangerous places - photojournalism, for example. It's not unknown for photographers and image editors to 'tweak' images in order to make some incident look more dramatic. And ... gasp ... it's even used for propaganda purposes.

Photographers provide us with a stream of amazing images. Viewers - keep a critical eye open.

I've got a new lens!

I've no idea what its focal length is. Nor do I know its aperture, though it's pretty small. And it won't win any prizes for elegance either ...

No, this is not an April Fool. It is a real lens and it will take photos. I am making a pinhole camera for World Pinhole Photography Day on April 27th.

The beer can is attached to the camera body by means of an old lens mount I have (though I could also have used the plastic cap that sealed the camera body when I bought it) and is held in place with a length of electrical insulating tape. Then there is a minute pinhole at the far end. That's all there is to it.

I'm going to have to experiment with the size of the hole, and the length of the lens. I'll post some of the results when I have them.

In the meantime, why don't you participate in World Pinhole day too? Full details here.

And remember what I wrote back in February? It's not your equipment that's important. It's the eye behind the lens.

Go for it!

My contribution to road safety

So, there I was, standing beside the main road between Geneva and Lausanne, trying to capture an image illustrating the technique of panning. I needed one for a little photography book I've written (due out later this year).

The technique is useful for fast-moving subjects, creating blur to enhance the impression of speed. The way to do it is to choose a slow shutter speed - no more than 1/125 sec - and swing around, following your subject, firing the shutter as you do so.

Get it wrong and everything's a blur. Get it right and your subject will be clear, but with strategic parts (e.g. the wheels, the background) blurred.

In order to increase my chances of getting it right I'd mounted my camera on a tripod.

And so many motorists slowed down as they passed.

I wonder why?

They must be reading my blog.

I'm honoured (sort of). The Swiss supermarket chain, Coop, must be reading my blog.

Remember my challenge last month - Stuck for ideas? I challenged you to take a familiar subject from a completely new viewpoint.

Well, this month the Swiss Coop is running a photo competition with precisely that theme ... Angles Insolites is the theme (translates as 'Unusual angles').

First prize is a neat little 10 megapixel Sony camera, with several other cameras as runner-up prizes.

No entry fee. A challenge. Sounds great!

Just be aware of one of the conditions of entry ...

Les participants s'engagent à accepter que Coop jouisse d'un droit d'utilisation et de valorisation illimité sur les photos transmises s'ils remportent le concours. Coop peut ainsi disposer librement des photos des lauréats sans que ceux-ci ne puissent prétendre à une compensation supplémentaire.

What this says (if my understanding is correct) is that the Coop takes all rights to prizewinning photographs, for an unlimited time, without any further compensation due to the photographer.

Fair enough. You get paid for your photograph in cameras, so to speak.

This is better than some other photo competitions that take all rights to all entries, whether they win or not. They're to be avoided like the plague. You enter your best photograph (which could be worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars with an agency), it doesn't win, but the company can still use it as and how they wish. What a rip-off.

Anyway, if you've been inspired by my blog, have taken some unusual images and want to enter, the entry details can be found here - in French. Closing date is 2 May.

Good luck. And I'd be interested to hear if anyone tries their hand at it.

Back home again

After two weeks touring around Tasmania I'm back home again.

What an amazing island! What contrasts! There's the desolation surrounding Queenstown ...

... where the hills have been stripped bare by decades of mining so that it looks as if you're on the surface of the Moon (except a tarmac road winds through it).

Whilst, at the other extreme, Wineglass Bay is breathtakingly beautiful...

... and is classed as one of the ten great beaches of the world.

This photograph, by the way, required a 5-hour hike, up and down a very steep mountain - so steep that at one point I wondered if I should have taken a rope for safety. Luckily the weather cooperated and I got perfect views from the top.

Aaaah, the Tasmanian weather. The Tasmanians say that you can get all four seasons in a day on their island.

And they ain't kidding. In my two week visit I had everything from a tropical 35 degrees centigrade, to a wintry downpour ...

I took over 1'700 photographs. Now to select the usable ones, process them, keyword them and put them up for sale.

A long slog. I wish I was back touring that hugely varied land.