What do you get a photographer for Christmas?

  No, this isn’t a joke. The last shopping weekend before Christmas is on us and maybe you're panicking. Photography is so technical these days that trying to find Christmas presents for a photographer is no laughing matter.
  Here are a few straightforward ideas, suitable for photographers of all levels ...

A polarizing filter
  These things don’t come cheap, but a they’re a great accessory. A polarizing filter screws on to the front of a lens and cuts reflections from water, glass and other shiny surfaces. It also makes the sky a deeper blue, can cut haze in landscapes and generally enriches colours.
  The points to watch out for when buying one are:
  1. Make sure your photographer can use one. Most compact cameras can’t take them because polarising filters screw in to a shallow thread at the very front of the lens, and compacts don’t have this. On the other hand, almost all interchangeable lenses – the sort used in DSLRs – do.
  2. Make sure you get the right size. Look inside the lens cap and you will probably see a marking giving the diameter of the lens (in millimetres). If not, measure it. Remember, different lenses have different diameters so, even if your photographer already has a polarizing filter, he/she may appreciate another for a different lens.
  3. If your photographer owns a digital camera make sure you get a circular polarizing filter. No, this does no refer to the shape – they are all circular – but the type. (The other type is ‘linear’). The one you want should be marked ‘Circular Polariser’, or bear the abbreviation Cir, PL Cir, or CPL. If in doubt, ask an assistant.

This photo of the famous Jet d'Eau in Geneva, Switzerland, was taken
using a polarizing filter to make the water stand out against the sky.

An extra memory card
  Photographers, particularly the serious ones, can never have too much memory. And with Christmas celebrations offering photo opportunities galore, your photographer will appreciate some extra storage.
  The only question is, what sort of card? There are a number of types on the market, SD (Secure Digital), SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity), MMC (MultiMedia Card), XD (eXtreme Digital), CF (CompactFlash) and Micro SD. So check before you buy.

A second battery.
  A camera is totally dependent on its battery. And, as a photographer, nothing is more frustrating than have it go flat just as a brilliant photo opportunity unfolds in front of the lens. By the time the battery has charged again the opportunity has long gone.
  With a spare battery your photographer has no problems. Slot it into place and carry on shooting whilst the first battery is re-charging.

A tripod
  Any photographer can use a tripod, just so long as his/her camera has a socket to take it. Look underneath the camera to find out. There should be a threaded hole on the base-plate.
  You can get tripods in all sizes, from little tiny ones that fit in your pocket to hulking great things that weigh a ton. Choose appropriately. A compact camera looks a bit daft on a tripod built like the Eiffel Tower.
  The great thing about tripods is that they let you take photographs that would otherwise be impossible – long exposures, self portraits, close-ups, slow shutter speed images. A professional photographer I knew used to say the first thing you should do with a new camera is to weld it to a tripod – they’re that useful.

Camera cleaning equipment.
  Dust is the photographer’s Number One Enemy. It gets on the lens and degrades the quality of the image ...

This is what too much dust on the surface of a lens does.

... and it gets on to the sensor inside the camera and causes unsightly spots (see here).
  For dealing with dust on the lens you can get your photographer a microfibre lens-cleaning cloth, a soft brush or a blower. Just don’t bother with those diddly little blower-and-brush-combined jobbies. They’re not worth it. Buy a big one that looks like a hand-grenade with a point sticking out of the top. They’re the business.
  The big blower can also be used for puffing dust off sensors. In addition, for sensor cleaning, you can get special static-charged brush sets (the brush is whirled around to charge it and then lightly brushed across the sensor to pick up the dust). Finally, for really stubborn dust, a swab set is useful. It comes with a number of specially shaped swabs and bottle of cleaning fluid. make sure you get the right size swab for your photographer’s camera (ask the assistant).

A camera bag
  As with memory cards, a photographer can never have too many bags. A backpack for treks in the hills, a shoulder bag for town work, an individual camera case – all photographers need bags, not only to carry the camera, but also all the spare memory cards, batteries and filters they just got for Christmas.

Last but not least ...
  ... one of my books will make a great gift for the photographer in your life.

  If you’ve got time The Greatest Photography Tips in the World can be bought from any good bookseller, or online through Amazon.
  If it’s a last-minute present then my ‘LowDown Guide to Family Photography’ is an E-book and is available to download instantly from here and will give loads of good advice.
  And if you’re a photographer, and this has given you some ideas, you may want to leave hints around the house, or direct your loved ones to this page.

  Happy Christmas.

Now's the time for family photos

Statistics show that more family photographs get taken between December 24th and January 2nd than at any other comparable time of year.



Okay, so I made that one up. But it sounds good, doesn't it? And I suspect that it's true. After all, Christmas is a family time, when people travel thousands of kilometres to be together with their family. And being together they naturally want to take photos of the occasion. On top of that, many people get a camera as a Christmas present - and what better way to try it out on than than to take family photographs.

That's what prompted me to write my latest book ...

In it I cover pretty well all you need to know to get great family photographs including:
  • Photographing family groups in a variety of different ways, from formal groups to candid photography
  • Portraiture
  • Self portraits (because who photographs the photographer of the family?)
  • Children
  • Pets (because they're part of the family too)
  • Lighting techniques
  • Getting sharp, well-exposed shots (with trouble-shooting examples to help you identify what may have gone wrong with a shot)
... and much more.

You can find out more, and take a peek inside the book, here. (Please note: this is an E-book, in the form of a PDF file, which you either read on your computer or print out at whatever size you want and put into a conventional, stationery-type file.)

And, as a special Christmas gift to my faithful followers (all 24 of you) I'd like to offer you a copy free of charge. Just shoot me an e-mail, or leave a comment requesting your freebie.

Happy Christmas, and here's to getting some truly great family photographs that will be heirlooms in 50 years time.

Breaking the rules

As we approached the jetty a crowd of kids converged and hung about in that nervous, expectant way that kids have when they're about to do something they suspect may be naughty.

It was last summer. I was standing at the stern of a Swiss lake steamer, cruising up the Lac de Neuch√Ętel. The sky was filled with fluffy white clouds. The scenery was breathtaking. I had my camera out, and was looking for photo opportunities.

But billions of photos have been taken of that Swiss lake with its azure waters, and the clouds, and the sky, and the mountains, and the quaint little chalets and churches.

Even as we came to a halt alongside the jetty and mooring ropes were thrown, cameras were raised to eyes and several hundred more photos of mountains and clouds and chalets and quaint little churches were taken. Was there anything different to photograph?


The kids. What were they up to? I tried to read their minds, and flicked my camera setting to 'burst mode', where it fires off like a machine gun. Normally I don't like this setting as using it often means that you miss the peak of the action. I still believe that human reactions and the human brain are quicker and more intelligent than any camera, so I have a personal rule not to use 'burst mode'. But sometimes you need to break your rules.

I was right. As the steamer pulled away the kids leaped up on on the mooring bollards and, with shrieks of joy, hurled themselves off into the roiling, foaming water that the boat left in its wake.

I fired away - Pow! Pow! Pow!

Then, disappointment. I looked at the images on the small screen (yes, I 'chimp' with the best of them) and they were all out of focus. The shutter had been quick enough but the autofocus hadn't. Damn! I was about to erase them all to save memory space when something stopped me.

When I got back home and was gazing at the sequence on my computer screen, still annoyed that I hadn't thought to switch off the autofocus and pre-focus by hand, it occurred to me that they may ... actually ... just possibly ... work.

It's another personal rule of mine: one part of any photograph, at least, must be in focus. Photos that are all out of focus look like mistakes.

But, as I was breaking rules ... what if I put a sequence of 4 together as one image (what's a triptych when you have 4 images?). It might work.

So I did. What do you think?

Protecting our precious liberties

Steve Bell in the UK's Guardian newspaper:

Copyright  Steve Bell, The Guardian, UK

Be careful. Be very careful.

I'm sitting here in a cold sweat. Boy, oh boy, have I been lucky.

I bought my Nikon D3 about a year and a half ago and, after an initial 'scoot' through  the manual, I haven't really looked at the little booklet since. But this evening I dug it out to find a specific bit of information.

As I flicked through it I suddenly noticed the 'For Your Safety' warnings, written prominently at the beginning. The third one states:

Using the viewfinder diopter control
When operating the viewfinder diopter control with your eye to the viewfinder, care should be taken not to put your finger in your eye accidentally.

Sheeeeesh! I didn't read that when I got the camera. Glad I haven't poked my eye out.

Got targets to meet?

Plod's still at it.

A few days ago BBC News photographer Jeff Overs was stopped and questioned by the police for taking photographs of a sunset over St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Here's an interview with him on The Andrew Marr Show, the programme for which he takes photographs.

Listen carefully. In the middle of the interview Overs quotes the policeman as telling him, "We've stopped lots of people along the South Bank this afternoon ..."

Aha! Sounds suspiciously like his guy's got targets to meet. He can go back to his station at the end of his shift and report that he's 'cautioned' (or whatever the term he uses) 'n' people that afternoon. Looks great on his record. What a busy bobby he's been.

But does stopping people photographing London's tourist attractions protect the city against terrorist attacks?

Or does it just make the police look daft and overbearing?

Note to any police officers reading this:
Please, please can you try to understand that, should a potential terrorist want to photograph a potential target (already a highly questionable assumption given the free availability of detailed maps, Google Earth, Street View, etc.) they're hardly going to stand in full view of everyone, pointing a bloody great camera at it.

Two footnotes:
  • Here (thanks to D-L Nelson, The Expat Writer) is a good article on this subject.
  • During 2008, in London, 170'000 people were Stopped and Searched. (S&S). To put that in perspective, that's 466 people every day. From news reports, posts on internet forums, etc., a number of these were photographers pursuing their hobby or business quite legally. As a result of these 170'000 S&S, 65 people were arrested. That's a success rate of 0.038%.  Is it an effective method of controlling crime and terrorists? The Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Metropolitan Police were all unable to say whether anyone had successfully been charged or convicted for terror offences as a direct result these Stops and Searches.

    (Incidentally, there is no data on how many of those arrested were subsequently convicted of an offence. But it will almost certainly be lower, making the success rate even more abysmal.) Source here.

It takes more than an hotel ...

... to keep an elephant from its mangoes.

Mfuwe Lodge, in Zambia's magnificent Luangwa Valley National Park, is a popular tourist attraction. It was built next to a grove of wild mangoes that one family of elephants have always visited when the fruit ripens. The regular visits of the elephants during November's mango season thrilled the guests.

But the lodge management didn't realise just how set in their ways the elephant family were. One year, when the management decided to extend their accommodation facilities, they unwittingly built the new lodge right across the herd's path to their beloved trees.

So, when the elephants, led by their matriarch nicknamed 'Wonky Tusk', returned for their annual feast they found a building in their way. What did they do? No problem. They walked straight through it:

And, over the years, the hotel staff, visitors and elephants have grown used to each other. The family group stays some four to six weeks and they gorge on the mangoes up to four times a day.

Andy Hogg, the lodge director, has lived in South Luangwa National Park since 1982. But in all his years  there he has never seen such intimate interaction between humans and wild animals. "This is the only place in the world where elephants freely get so close to humans," he says.

According to Andy the elephants are not aggressive if they're just left to stroll through the lobby. "It's their choice to be here," he says. "There are other wild mango trees around, but they prefer ours. The lodge was unwittingly built in their path. It wasn't a design error, we just didn't know. They get reasonably close to the staff, as you can see in the pictures," Andy explains. "But we do not allow the guests to get that close. Guests can stand in the lounge but only as long as there is a barrier between them and the elephants. These are still wild and dangerous animals, so there must be enough time for people to get away."

A rare and magnificent sight, and an authentic one too, too. This is not faked. I visited and worked in the Luangwa Valley over a period of 20 years from 1970 to 1990. On a number of occasions, when sleeping in a thatched hut, I have woken in the middle of the night to the sound of a rustling-ripping coming from above. Peering out of the window revealed a pair of gigantic kneecaps, mere centimetres from my nose. An elephant was calmly eating the thatch.

Technical note:
If you ever meet an elephant, walking through your hotel lobby, it can be a tricky photographic subject. The difference between the bright outside light and the dim interior is huge. If you're not careful your camera will meter from the bright light and the elephant will come out as black mass. Not what you want. So use fill-in flash to give detail in the beast, as the photographer of these images has done. Most wild animals are not too bothered by camera flash. It is brief, soundless and scentless and I guess that they just take it as a flash of sunlight through the trees.

Oh ... and this advice also applies to situations that don't involve elephants. Use fill in flash whenever photographing situations where there is a huge difference between the light and dark parts of the scene, your subject is in the dark part and you want to bring out some detail.

Always check your gear ... and ...

A well-known international magazine that specialises in amazing images of natural features wanted to show some of the heroic work of the fire fighters as they battled the wildfires in the western US last year.

A photographer was assigned to cover the story and, as well as having him work on the ground, the magazine also wanted him to take a selection of shots from the air to show the extent of the blaze. So a light aircraft was chartered to fly the guy over the area. He was told to report to a nearby airfield where the plane would be ready and waiting for him.

The photographer, running late, arrived at the airfield and saw a plane warming up. He jumped in with his bag and shouted, "Let's go!"

The pilot swung the little plane into the wind, and within minutes they were in the air. The photographer told the pilot, "Fly over the flames and make two or three low passes so I can take some pictures."

"Why?" asked the pilot.

"Because I am a photographer," the guy snapped. "And photographers take photographs."

The pilot was silent for a moment. Finally he stammered, "Y..y...y..you mean you're not the flight instructor?"

Another Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, one of the world's great photographers, is famed for his breathtaking photographs of American landscapes - Yosemite in particular. He was a man who loved the wilderness and nature, and that love shines through in his images.

But there was another side to him. What is less well known is that, during the Second World War, he took a stand against what he believed to be the unjust treatment of the Nisei, American citizens of Japanese descent who, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, were suddenly uprooted from their homes, farms, factories and businesses and placed in an internment camp at Manzanar.

Ansel Adams decided to use his skills to draw attention to their plight. He went to live in the camp which was, as he described it in his autobiography:

"... a dry plain on which appeared a flat rectangular layout of shacks, ringed with towering mountains. These shacks were not relieved by the entrance gate and its military guards."

View of Manzanar from a watchtower

He went on to describe how these camps came into being:

"With the military's advice President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. I am sure he had no realization of its tragic implications; thousands of loyal Japanese-American citizens were denied their basic civil rights. Unfortunately this decision had the support of a great number of Caucasian citizens throughout the West, who racially disliked the Japanese-Americans as social and economic competitors."

Adams recorded his experiences in Manzanar in the way he could best do it - through photographs ...

Roy Takeno (Editor) and group reading Manzanar paper

Nurse and patients in front of hospital.

Children in the orphanage

Despite what was happening to them, the Nisei remained patriotic

Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Tsurutani and baby Bruce

Ansel Adams was profoundly moved by Manzanar. He wrote:

"As my work progressed I began to grasp the problem of relocation and the remarkable adjustment these people had made ... With admirable strength of spirit, the Nisei rose above despondency and made a life for themselves, a unique micro-civilisation under difficult conditions."

And, as he captured that life in his photographs you can see how his skill shines through - the choice of composition, the way in which he has used lines and diagonals, the way in which the human figures feature.

He went on to write:

"It was very disturbing to witness the arrival of the young army-uniformed Nisei when on leave for a visit to their families. It must have been most difficult for them to be confronted by their parents, incarcerated American citizens - a severe contradiction of the principles for which they were fighting the war."

After his stay at the camp, Adams wrote a book about the plight of these people. Entitled Born Free and Equal, it:

"... met with some distressing resistance and was rejected by many as disloyal. I could tolerate the narrow opinions expressed verbally or in the press, but it was painful to receive a few letters from families who had lost men in the conflict; they were bitter and incapable of making objective distinctions between the Nisei and Japanese nationals."

This was the image Ansel Adams used for the title page of his book:

We know, from notes written on the negative sleeve, that the young man's name is Tom Kobayashi. But we don't know any more about him.

Judging by his age and the cut of his shirt he may well have been one of young army-uniformed Nisei, on leave for a visit to his family.

Ansel Adams donated his images from Manzanar to the US Nation.
They are now in the public domain and the full collection can be seen here

I have just discovered that Ansel Adams's book about Manzanar - Born Free and Equal - can be read, in a full digitised version, by following the link on this page.

Are you a real photographer?

Ask yourself these 10 questions

  1. Do you roll your eyes in exasperation when you see a blizzard of tiny photo-flashes twinkling amongst the crowd at some humongous great sports stadium?
  2. Do you know what ‘bokeh’ is?
  3. Do you genuinely wince in pain when an elderly relative asks you if you’ve taken any good ‘snaps’ lately?
  4. Do you always carry a spare battery? Charged?
  5. Do your friends hand you their cameras when they want a good photo taken?
  6. Do you own a tripod? Not one of those diddy little things that slip in your pocket. A real tripod. That weighs a ton.
  7. And do you carry it about with you? And hang your backpack from it? And know why you’re hanging your backpack from it?
  8. Has your spouse/partner given up groaning in exasperation when you climb out of bed at 4am on a frosty morning?
  9. Did you start asking what shutter speed and aperture was used for a photograph ... and now given up asking?
  10. Do people look at you as if you’re crazy when you point your camera at a chunk of rock or similar, apparently featureless object?
If you can answer yes to all these questions – congratulations.

You’re a real photographer.

Madeleine McCann

Madeleine McCann, aged 4, disappeared without trace 2½ years ago whilst on holiday with her parents in Portugal.

Here's a message about her from the UK police.

She will be 6 now and their video gives information on what she may look like:

There is further information here.

Please spread the word as widely as you can ... e-mail friends, post this video on your blog, Tweet it, Digg it, Facebook ... use the 'viral' nature of the Internet to get this information to as many people as possible.

Someone, somewhere, may be able to help her.

Flipping heck!

In her comment to my Bad weather,good photos post, Livia asks if it is " ... possible to get your fisherman on the left side."

Easy. Just flip horizontal in Photoshop (or similar).

But is it ethical?

And is it a better image?

I'm not sure. As, in our culture, we read from left to right I feel the photo is better with the man facing into the image from the left side. What do readers think?

"I will break your f*****g camera!"

A couple of days ago, during their lunch break, Troy Holden and Stuart Dixon were taking a walk ... on public property ... through the financial district of San Francisco.

They stopped in front of number 555 California Street (formerly known as the Bank of America Center) to take some photographs. It's a pretty impressive building, being 52 storeys high and the second tallest building in the city.

What happened next, together with a photograph, is recounted by one of them, here.

Oh dearie me. What is it with police and security guards? This happens all over. It happened regularly to me, and to people I knew, when I was living in Zambia.

Are they lacking some critical part of their brain?

Or maybe they have an extra bit of brain that ordinary people don't have, making them honestly believe that any terrorist, before carrying out an attack, is going to stand in front of his/her target, in full view of everyone, get out a camera ... often a big one ... and sometimes a tripod too ... and take photographs. Take photographs in full view. Not hiding. Or anything.

Having an altered brain ... that sounds plausible.

I was reading yesterday about a parasite of cats called toxoplasmosis. It spends part of its life cycle in rats. But the problem it faces is that rats naturally fear and avoid  cats. So the little parasitic beastie could have trouble in getting passed on. To overcome this it has evolved a strategy whereby it alters its host's brain, and infected rats lose their fear of cats. So they get caught, and the parasite moves on. Clever, huh?

Could a similar thing ... sort of in reverse ... be the case with police and security guards? Could something-or-other have happened to their brain making them dislike and fear photographers?

And that raises another question - does this whatever-it-is that changes their brain make them more prone to becoming police and security guards? In other words, does it happen before, and they gravitate towards those sorts of jobs? Or do they catch it as a result of taking up that particular profession?

Medical research is needed.

Bad Weather, Good Photos

If, like me, you live in the Northern Hemisphere, then the bad weather’s a‘coming ... frigid winds ... driving rain ... mist ... snow.

Maybe it has already hit you.

And even if you live in the southern part of the world, with the days lengthening, you’re certain to get some bad weather in amongst it all.

So, when the mist rolls in off the moors, is it time to settle down with a good book in front of a blazing fire?

Definitely not.

Be brave. Get out there into the elements. Bad weather is a time when the vast majority of other photographers pack their equipment away and break out the beers. They don't know what they're missing - opportunities for beautiful and dramatic shots. An approaching storm, a bank of fog, a sudden rain squall, an unexpected rainbow, can all transform the most mundane scenery into something beautiful.

I’ve already blogged about photography in the rain, and ways of protecting your camera, here.

What about mist and fog? There’s a lot of it around here at this time of year, and certain scenes lend themselves particularly well to it. What would fishing be without a bit of fog on the river ...

This shot wasn't intended as 'artistic'. It's deliberately framed to be 'saleable' with space for text to the right. And I chose a position which included the two buoys in the background to give some depth. I used a 300mm telephoto, with the camera on a tripod. The telephoto has accentuated the effect by focussing in on the fog and the subject, causing detail and colours to soften.

Here’s another shot of mine, taken in the depths of winter, up in the Jura mountains behind where I live.

One difficulty with mist is that light levels are much lower so a tripod is essential. You also need to be careful with the white balance as fog can look unusually blue. Set it to ‘cloudy’ for a more natural effect. I feel that the bluish tone in the fishing shot enhances it. But had the tree shot been too blue it would have looked un-natural.

Finally, when photographing in mist and fog, check the front element of your lens regularly as water droplets can condense on it, ruining the clarity of your images.

When the weather turns bad don’t cower inside with your camera idle.

Get out there and get those great shots

Your camera could save a child’s life. A true story ...

One Friday in 2007, Maria and Remo Pezzente were spending a quiet evening sorting through some photos of their children that they’d taken earlier. They were looking for good shots for the family album, and maybe some to send to grandparents.

As they flicked through the images they noticed, with a touch of annoyance, that they hadn’t been careful enough with the camera settings. They'd forgotten to switch to the 'red-eye reduction' mode and their kids were showing the annoying, devilish red glow in their eyes (see ‘What is red-eye?’ to the right).

But then they noticed something odd. Whilst their other children had this effect in both eyes, 4-month old baby Leo was different. His right eye was glowing red, his left came out milky white.

They examined him and, although they couldn’t see anything wrong, it was still slightly worrying.

So they did a quick search on the internet and found that this ‘white eye’ effect was called leukocoria. A further search on the word leukocoria brought up the possibility of a retinoblastoma – cancer of the eye.

Now they were really worried. The next morning they decided that this was too important to wait until Monday. They took baby Leo to hospital where he was examined by a paediatrician.

The paediatrician agreed that the photo was odd but, after examining Leo’s eye, couldn’t find anything amiss either. He suggested that perhaps something was wrong with the red-eye reduction feature on the camera. Nevertheless, he felt that it was worth getting a second opinion from an ophthalmologist.

To their shock, the ophthalmologist diagnosed a large malignant tumour in Leo's left eye. Retinoblastoma.

And by Monday morning, Leo had been checked in to the hospital for surgery.

The treatment was successful – the cancer had been caught in time. But that was not the end of Leo’s story. A short while later he lost his vision completely as a malignant brain tumour was found pressing on his optic nerve.

As a result of this Leo had to endure many cycles of chemotherapy. He even had a bone marrow transplant in the week after his first birthday.

But, through their vigilance, Maria and Remo had caught the problem early. The treatments that Leo had to undergo were successful. The tumour shrank away from his optic nerve, Leo regained his vision and is now a happy, energetic boy who is fast approaching his third birthday. (In the centre of this photo.)

And all this  because Maria and Remo spotted something unusual in a family photograph.

So, be aware. If you are taking photographs of a child and one or both eyes come out abnormally white, it is worth a medical check-up. White-eye doesn’t necessarily mean a problem. But it could ... and it could be life-threatening.

Check it out. Your camera can save a child’s life.

Do NOT try this at home ...

Nothing to do with photography ... other than the fact that a camera was used to make it ... but it's had me laughing all week.

And please don't try it for yourself. I want to keep my readers.

Eyes wide open

I’ve had my eyes opened, and I’ve seen what lens designers are up against.

A few days ago I went to the ophthalmologist. She needed to peer deep inside my eyes so she put some magic drops in them. My pupils dilated ... wide ... wide ... and wider.

Because my eyes could no longer select a smaller aperture, the light became painfully bright. The pain was not helped by the fact that the good doctor had thoughtfully decorated her surgery all in white. Furnishings too – white leather – so stylish.

But as I tried to fight off the white, there was something else that puzzled me. Everything had a wide fuzzy halo around it, something like this:

Before the magic drops ...

... and after ...

Then, when, finally, I set off home, car headlights, shop displays, and other points of light had become indistinct starbursts. (I was on my bike, and finding my way was an interesting exercise.)

I knew that, with pupils wide open and I wouldn’t be able to control the amount of light entering my eyes. Hence the painful brightness. But why the halo and starburst effects?

Then it dawned on me. My eyes were working at full aperture and their lenses were showing up all their optical shortcomings. They obviously hadn’t been created by a particularly intelligent designer. There were quite a few faults – reduced resolution and chromatic aberration for starters.

The Japanese are better at it with their lens design computers.

A couple of hours later the effects of the drops had worn off and my pupils could open and close as normal. My vision returned to its usual hawk-like acuity ... well, clear and halo-less, anyway ... and I could move about without feeling I was in some sort of weird, over-lit fog.

The moral of this story?

The performance of lenses gets worse at full aperture. Lens designers go to huge lengths to overcome these faults and, with a good camera lens they are hardly noticeable (it’s a different matter with cheaper lenses).

But, even so, whatever lens you use, try to avoid shooting with it full open. The only reasons to shoot at maximum apertures are if you deliberately want a shallow depth of field, or if the light is so dim it’s the only option.

Outside those situations, shoot at around f8. Almost all lenses – including those in your eyes – give their best performance at middle-range apertures.

The RAW Truth - Part 3

So, I’ve been singing the praises of RAW files. But ... come on ... there must be a downside.

Well ... yes ... I have to admit there is.

For starters, RAW files are larger than JPEG ones, sometimes much larger. As a result you’ll get fewer photos on your memory card. For example, I use a 4GB card. If I set the camera to take JPEG files at the highest quality I can get 375 images on it. If I take RAW photos I can only store 155. That’s fewer than half. A big difference.

But, set that off against the fact that spare memory cards are pretty cheap nowadays and it doesn’t look so bad. And you can buy little portable hard disks that will store photos. I have one, it’s smaller than a paperback book, runs off batteries and can store 40GB. So, when I’m travelling and likely to run out of memory in the camera I simply transfer my photos to the portable drive and wipe the memory card clean.

You could do the same using a laptop computer. In fact, I do both – transfer the photos from my card to my portable hard disk and on to a laptop. I do it every evening. I know it sounds like ‘belt and braces’ stuff, but it greatly reduces the chance of precious photos being lost or corrupted. I always have a backup.

It also stops my memory card in the camera getting too full, with the attendant danger of everything being corrupted (see todays’s PhotoTip).

The second disadvantage of RAW is that you have to work on the files to ‘develop’ the image. And you need some sort of specialised software to do this – Photoshop, Lightroom, a RAW converter supplied by your camera manufacturer, or something similar.

A RAW file is like a digital negative but, instead of working in a darkroom, with the stink of various nasty chemical solutions, you develop your digital image sitting in front of a computer.

And some of the work is quite easy (compared to darkroom work). For example, sometimes I forget to change my camera settings from a previous session and get some horrible results.

On one occasion I’d been taking photographs inside and had the White Balance set to incandescent light. When I stepped outside I forgot to change it ...

I took a whole lot like this before I realised what I'd done. No problem. When I was working on them back at the computer I simply clicked on the ‘White Balance’ tab on my RAW converter, switched it to ‘Daylight’, and hey presto ...

Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance.” If he’s been photographing today he would have said ‘RAW file’ instead of ‘negative’.

So ... to continue with his analogy ... what do you want to do? Turn the musical score into a performance by twiddling the handle of a barrel organ? Or would you rather learn to play it on the piano?

The RAW Truth - Part 2

Interesting ...

I’ve just discovered a Flickr Group called “I Only Shoot In JPEG!!! 99% of the time Raw is Useless

They have this as their 'credo':

Raw is for amateurs! If you can't shoot the photo right the first time out of the camera, then your in the wrong game! ... AMEN!!! This group is for photographers that understand this. and only shoot In JPEG.” (sic)

Ah well ... each to their own I suppose. But would you buy a yacht and never raise the sails? Would you buy a sports car and never change into fifth gear? Would you buy a set of the finest sable paintbrushes for painting by numbers?

So why buy a camera that can shoot RAW images and not use the facility?

RAW files contain the data that has come straight from the sensor, without any processing at all – hence the name RAW. Something has to process, or 'develop' this RAW file into an image.

You can have your camera do this immediately. It will probably use the manufacturer's settings for things such as sharpening and noise reduction. These will have been incorporated into the camera software. Sometimes you can control them a bit, but not much. Then you will get a JPEG file. If you want to make any further changes back at home in front of your computer, such as exposure compensation, you'll have to do it to this already-altered file. A pretty destructive process.

Alternatively you can process the RAW file on your computer, using a conversion program. There you will have complete control over aspects such as sharpening, colour temperature, noise reduction, exposure compensation and so on. What's more, no matter what you do to the file - even if you save it in between - you can always go back to the original.

In the past the RAW-haters had a point. The files were not terribly user-friendly. For example, image viewing programs couldn’t handle them. As a result, most cameras had a setting so that a photo was saved as two different files, one RAW and the other JPEG. The JPEG files enabled you to sort and select the images with your image-viewing program, but the RAW file was the one you ‘developed’ to get the final image.

And ‘development’ is a good analogy. RAW files are digital ‘negatives’. You develop your final image from them ... but not in a darkroom. You do your development in front of a computer.

Back in the days of film I don’t recall anyone shouting, “Negatives are for amateurs! If you can't shoot the photo right the first time out of the camera, then you’re in the wrong game! This group is for photographers who understand this and only shoot Polaroids.”

The RAW truth - Part 1

Will your camera save files in RAW format?

Is RAW worth using?

Not if you listen to some people. Consider the photo expert whom Ralf quoted in his comment to my last post. "Use JPG format,” that so-called ‘expert’ wrote, “because RAW needs more memory and is rarely useful”.

Of course RAW needs more memory. That’s because the files contain more information.

JPG is a ‘lossy’ compression format – which means it discards information in order to make the files smaller. And, once information is discarded, you can’t get it back.

This doesn’t always affect the look of your photos, I agree. And if you’re just photographing for your album or to e-mail photos to family and friends you probably won’t notice any difference.

But sometimes that extra information makes all the difference.

Let me give you an extreme example.

Last Saturday I was photographing the launch of a literary review – Offshoots 10 – at the Geneva Press Club. And my flash batteries died …

Looks a hopeless case, doesn’t it? And it would have been, if I’d been following the advice of the ‘expert’. But I had my camera set to record both RAW and JPG versions of an image (I’ll explain why I do this in another post.)

This is the best I could do trying to recover something from the JPG version of the image …

Whilst this is the best I could do at recovery from the RAW file …

A side-by-side comparison of both images shows significant differences (click on it to see an enlarged version) ...

Neither image is brilliant. I’d be the first to admit that. But anyone would agree that the RAW file has given a better result, with more subtle gradations of colour and tone.

The limited information in the JPG version has caused the pixels to go ‘blocky’ (Look at the cover of the book she's holding, near the top, or her fingers). The pixels have had to go to either one state or the other with nothing in between.

All right. So I had spare flash batteries, the event went on for some time, and I was able to get lots of other photos. (You can see them here.) No big deal that I screwed up on one.

But what if this had been a one-off incident, so brief there’d been no time to take any more photos? Then I would have thanked my lucky stars that I was using RAW.

Is RAW for you?

That's impossible to say. Only you can decide that. But in my next post I'll discuss what it is, and its advantages and disadvantages.

Don't write off RAW because you think it's too complicated or the files are too big.

Wow! Am I chuffed.

I've just come across a wonderful review of The Greatest Photography Tips in the World - from Jacqui Marie Photography, a professional in the UK.

Jacqui-Marie says such nice things that I'm going to reproduce her review in its entirety ...

"This little book punches so much above its weight. It is a little A5-sized hardback and is less than 200 pages, but Alistair Scott is so economic with his words every page is packed with vital tips.

When I first saw the book I thought it was just another how-to-do-everything book for the person who has just gone out and bought themselves an expensive camera, but this is so much more.

At first I thought the title might have over-sold it, but these tips really are top-notch. The page that sold it for me was the one that told you to include a "heartbeat" in every shot when possible. By that Alistair means a human or an animal - whatever the size. To illustrate the point he has two identical shots of a great landscape, one with a tiny silhouetted man and one without. The one with was so much more powerful.

Understand why more mega-pixels isn't the whole story. Get great tips on composition, landscapes, portraits, sports, looking after your kit and making money from your photography.

Enjoy! This is a great little book for all levels. There's top stuff in here."

And these are words from a professional photographer too. I'm chuffed to bits.


It’s been a great summer for the fruit growers. The apple trees round here are groaning with fruit. Time to get a few photographs them before they’re picked.

But … hang on … photographs of apples ain’t all that interesting.

No they’re not.

So if you’re going to photograph the mundane, try to get a different angle on it.

I photograph apples on trees because there’s a market for such images. Not a huge one, admittedly, but magazines, brochures, books and guides sometimes want them. And the buyers are always on the lookout for fresh angles.

So I’ve been trying to oblige. I found a photogenically curved and laden branch, fitted a wide angle lens and got down for a low viewpoint. I also angled my camera slightly to get the branch swooping into the image, and include a little bit of the rest of the orchard in the background to give context …

Another approach is to make a story out of the image. Here it’s my hand in the picture. I had the camera on a tripod, reached up to pick the apple and fired the shutter with a remote release. And, no, the sky hasn’t been ‘Photoshopped’. I used a polarizing filter to make a deeper blue ...

Further technical note – Both photographs were made in bright sunlight. But that’s a very harsh light source. So I used on-camera flash in both images to fill in the shadows.

Photographic morality.

Sometimes it's a tough call being a photographer.

Frank Hurley was the official photographer on Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. When Shackleton's ship sank, crushed by the Antarctic icepack, the crew set off towards the open sea, hauling lifeboats over the ice. It was their only way out, but immensely difficult and dangerous.

As they laboured towards safety, some of them cursed Hurley as he took photographs. Why wasn't he lending his weight with the hauling?

Why? Because he was doing his job. He had been hired as the expedition photographer and, if he'd turned to hauling with the rest we would never have known what trials these men went through. We would never have had images like these. We may not have fully appreciated how remarkable Shackleton's achievement was - getting everyone home alive.

Now fast-forward to 14 August 2009 and an even more thorny problem. In Afghanistan an Associated Press photographer, Julie Jacobsen, is crouched behind a mud wall and under fire. She takes a photograph of a US Marine, dying in agony.

That's her job.

But ... then ... when she's done her job, and filed the photo, should it be published?

Apparently the young Marine's family did not want this, though they were not specifically asked.

The US Government did not want the image published either, but their reasons for this may well have been different from those of the family.

Of course, the family's wishes carry huge weight. But war is a violent, bloody, terrifying, messy, brutal affair. It has been all too easy for it to be sanitised from a distance (Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori).

The publication of this photograph presents a harsh and uncompromising truth about war. It will make some people realise exactly what it means - there's no glory. It is not sweet and fitting to die for one's country, and never has been.

Should that - bringing home the truth - override the wishes of the family?

And is this Marine's tragic death given more meaning by the fact that, through the photograph, it will touch tens of thousands of people rather than just his comrades, family and friends?

Should the photograph have been published?

It's a tough call.

Sign of the times

Today I spotted this scene in a Lausanne industrial area ...

Okay - just an old factory being knocked down.

But I still found it a bit sad.

Rolls and rolls and rolls of my film have been processed in that building, back in the days when Kodachrome was the name of the game.

Darkrooms ain't dead

Time was when photographers spent a significant amount of their time in darkrooms, working in the gloom, bent over trays of foul-smelling chemicals, developing and printing their photographs.

Now, with digital cameras, those days are gone ... or are they?

Look at the image above.

The pink and the orange stripes on both sides are the same two colours. Yes?

Of course.

But what about the other stripes? Left and right, are they the same colour?

Scroll down for the answer ...













Yes. They're the same colour.

If you don't believe me, here's the same image with the pinks and oranges removed:

So, what's that astonishing illusion got to do with darkrooms?

It shows how your eye can be completely fooled. If you're at home of an evening, editing your day's photographs with the room light on, and you make some colour tweaks - a bit of enhancement, boosting the saturation a little, whatever - you're in danger of getting things wrong.

It doesn't matter if it's broad daylight outside, when you edit your photographs, do it in subdued light, or even darkness. To the puzzlement of family and neighbours, I work on my images with the blinds drawn.

It's ironic, isn't it? Photographers work with light. But a good half of the time they need to work in the dark - even in these digital days.

This is a bit steep

Swiss railways are legendary. Not only do the trains run to the minute ... the second, even ... but the Swiss have built their punctual lines in the most impossible places.

I've just got back from a train ride up to the very top of Mount Pilatus, a 2'132 metre high peak in central Switzerland. I wouldn't have believed it was possible to build a railway line all the way up there - but it's been done. In places the track seems to be ascending at an angle that is closer to vertical than horizontal.

And this is no modern technological marvel. The original railway was built in 1889 and was operated by steam engines. That must have been a hair-raising ride. Now it's all electrified, but still exciting.

Little boy stuff ... When the barriers opened I raced to get a seat at the front, just behind the driver and was able to look over his shoulder:

As a photographer, you sometimes have to do that 'little boy stuff' if you want to get the best images.

I used a 17mm wide-angle lens to get in both driver and scenery, and he very obligingly kept his hand on the wheel. (Actually, I think he needed to do that to stop the train careering out of control back down the track.)

Although it was grey and misty outside, and the light looks dim, there was still a huge difference between that and the light inside the carriage. So I used flash to illuminate the inside of the cab, pointing it upwards to bounce off the carriage roof. Without it the difference in light levels would have been so great that the driver would have come out as a silhouette and the controls would have been lost in the darkness.

And, by bouncing it, I avoided unsightly shadows, or a burned out flare of reflection from the windscreen.

The driver, fortunately, seemed unperturbed by all the flash action going on behind him. I dread to think what might have happened if he'd been startled and taken his hand of that wheel.

I've got to speak out

This is not photography (again), I know, but I've got to speak out ...

I'm a Brit and I'm not particularly proud of my country at the moment. We've not had a lot to be proud about over these past few years - becoming embroiled in wars that we should have stayed out of, electing a self-serving, duplicitous Prime Minister who took us into these wars despite massive public resistance, and a swathe of British politicians have had their greedy little noses in the trough. Britain also has a transport system that is a shambles.

But one thing I am proud of is the British National Health Service. Of course, it's not without its problems. What health service is perfect? But it provides high-quality health care to anyone who needs it, regardless of their age or ability to pay.

My 89-year old disabled father lives alone in an isolated cottage in the Welsh countryside ...

He gets house visits from his doctor if needed, and his medicines are delivered to his door within hours of him phoning for them, at no cost to himself.

So I am shocked and disgusted to hear of the blatant lies and distortions that are being fed to the American people about the NHS.

Some of these distortions are outrageous - gutter journalism at its worst - and offensive to us Brits ...

I find it vile to suggest, on a major US news channel, that the UK's National Health Service is a 'breeding ground' for terrorism.

Who will believe nonsense like this? Could it be the people who would benefit most from some form of fair and equitable health service?


I thought I knew pretty well every technique there is in photography ... bleach bypass, solarization, lomography, cross processing, HDR ...

I was wrong.

I've just stumbled across 'redscale' photography (also known as 'redbird', apparently).

This is a technique used in film cameras, where the film is exposed the wrong way around. In other words, it is used inside out.

For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with it, photographic film consists of a light-sensitive emulsion bonded to an acetate base. Normally the film is wound through the camera with the emulsion on the side of the film facing the lens, so that the light falls directly on to it.

In redscale photography the film is reversed - a bit of a complicated procedure - so that the emulsion is on the side away from the lens and the light only reaches it after passing through the acetate base.

Because of the way in which the different colour-sensitive layers of the emulsion are arranged, this causes a very strong red-shift.

The result is ...

Why on earth would anyone want to do this?

It's all part of the lo-fi photography movement, which is a reaction to the apparent ease of taking technically perfect images nowadays. With modern cameras you can get an exact representation of a scene - pin-sharp, colour perfect, undistorted - with the push of a button.

Reversing the film, using old Russian cameras such as the LOMO (a camera that smelt strongly of machine oil), altering or omitting steps in the film processing, or replacing your expensive lens with a piece of pierced cooking foil, all give unexpected, unusual and sometimes highly graphic results.

It's one of the reasons why I dabble in pinhole photography.

Of course, you could do all this stuff digitally if you wanted.

But that's not really the point, is it?

A word in your ear

Usually I don't like photographs where the majority of the image is out of focus - they just look like mistakes.

But every now and again one works.

I was experimenting, trying to set up an image which said something like couch potato when I caught this one:

It doesn't say 'couch potato' to me, but it says something else. I'm intrigued by the way the kid on the television seems to be speaking into my ear, as if asking me not to turn him off.

If there's one thing I regret about the image, it's that the background on the TV is dark. It would have worked much better had it been a lighter shade. As it is, there is not enough contrast between the zapper and its background.

However, the upside is that it seems to the sort of image you have to look at for a moment to work out what's going on. It doesn't immediately reveal its meaning to the viewer like a chocolate-boxy landscape, bundle of cute kittens or a bouquet of flowers does (do they have 'meaning'?).

Incidentally, I use myself as a model a lot. It's much cheaper and less hassles with model releases. I just need to be creative with remote releases or the delayed-action timer.

Extreme Sheepherding

Okay ... so this has nothing whatsoever to do with photography, other than the fact that a video camera was used to make it.

But as a Border Collie fan - and owner of this blog - I'm gonna pull rank.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Baa-Studs present

Extreme Sheepherding ...

They couldn't have done it without the dogs.

Border Collies forever!

Fruit Shoot? Shoot!

The California Rare Fruit Growers Association (CRFG) is running a photographic competition for images of rare fruit. They call it their Fruit Shoot 2009. First prize is $100, and the total prize money is $375.

But if you're thinking of entering, consider the rules very carefully. One section states:

All entries to this contest become CRFG property, and the contestant relinquishes all rights except the right of attribution.

In other words, whether you win or not, by merely entering you are giving away the copyright to your image(s).

Bear in mind that the vast majority of people enter their very best images for a competition.

That means, for a mere $375, the CRFG will be getting a selected photo library of rare fruit.

I guess that's a bargain from their point of view.

It's less of a bargain from the photographer's perspective. You may be able to sell a good shot of some rare fruit to an advertising agency (for example) for rather more than $100.

At risk of being boring I say again ... read the rules of any photographic competition carefully. There are far too many like this.

Spectacular sunset season

Watch out for spectacular sunsets over the next few days, and some wonderful photo opportunities.

Why now?

Because on June 12th the Sarychev Peak Volcano, in Russia, erupted and belched an enormous plume of sulphur dioxide and dust into the stratosphere.

(Copyright NASA)

This plume is now drifting around the world at northern latitudes.

It has already crossed North America and, at the moment, it is drifting across the North Atlantic. It will probably reach Europe over the next 48 hours.

When it does, if experience from other volcanic eruptions is anything to go by, the skies could show some astonishing colours at sunset.

Purple and violet are some of the colours you might see. They're caused by fine volcanic aerosols that scatter blue light. Other signs to look for include a bright yellow "twilight arch" and long sun-rays and shadows - all great opportunities for photographers.

So keep your eye on the sky!

(More details, and photographs, here.)

First Impression? Good!

Do you suffer from those computer programs that have every bell and whistle you could possibly imagine ... and then some?

How many of the bells and whistles do you use?

Here's a really neat program - a free image viewer that's so stripped down you've probably never seen anything like it. It's called First Impression.

No bells.

No whistles.

Not even a user interface, menu bar or toolbar.

In fact, no anything on display. Just the image. Here's a screenshot from my computer. I'm looking at a photograph of sunflowers that I took last year ...

... with Windows Explorer in the background (that's what all the junk surrounding it is). The image - nothing else - just sits in front of whatever other program you're using.

So, if there are no menus or toolbars, how do you do anything useful with it?

Everything is behind the scenes. You can move from image to image using the spacebar and backspace keys. And if you want to do something more exotic, like rotate, resize, or resample the image, all you do is right-click and a make your choice from the menu that pops up.

Without the bells and whistles it's very quick, and the program file is tiny - just 234KB. So it’s ideal if you're using a netbook that may be a bit short on memory. What's more, you don't need to install it, nor does it make any registry changes or add DLL files to your computer. It runs directly from an executable file, so you can carry it around on a USB stick if you wish.

Less is more!

You can download First Impression from here. I recommend it.

To Burst or not to Burst ?

Is 'burst mode' - when you set your camera to continuous shooting - the best way of catching high-speed action?

I'm not so sure.

Last weekend a big motor-racing championship race came to the tiny town where I live.

No, it wasn't Formula 1 (even though Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost live just down the road from here).

It was the 2009 European radio-controlled Buggy Racing Championships and, naturally, I went along to get some action shots.

The 'cars' were only about 40cm long. Their 'drivers' were in a stand beside the track. But, nevertheless, the racing was fast and furious. The buggies streaked down straights, skidded around corners, rattled over 'washboards' and leaped great jumps.

Now, the difficulty with any motor-racing photography, whatever the size of the vehicles, is getting a sense of action. Use too high a shutter speed and the cars will come out looking as if they're parked. Use too low a shutter speed and everything will be a blur. You want the shutter speed to be just fast enough to give some motion blur, but not too much.

Location is important too. A shot on the straight is generally pretty boring. To get an idea of the action you want to capture tyres skidding, smoke swirling ... something to give a sense of speed and drama.

I positioned myself where the buggies roared off a ramp an into a sand-pit. I wanted to catch the moment of landing at high speed, the sand flying.

I switched to 'burst mode', which gives me 9 shots per second with my camera (a Nikon D3), panned around to follow a selected buggy as it came into view, and operated the shutter button at the crucial instant.

This is the sort of thing I got, time and time again ...

Well, maybe my reactions aren't quick enough.

But also, I was panning with the car, then pressing and holding down the shutter button when I thought the action was about to begin.

Immediately my vision through the viewfinder flickered on and off as the shutter operated so it was more difficult to follow the buggy.

On top of that, do the maths. Let's be generous (and make the maths easier) by saying that my camera could take 10 pictures a second. That's one picture every 10th of a second. If the crucial moment of action lasts 1/100th of a second (which is not an unreasonable assumption) I only have a 1 in 10 chance of catching it.

Of course, I didn't calculate all that at the time. But looking at the images I was getting I could see I was doing something wrong.

So I changed tactics.

I switched off 'burst mode' watched where the cars tended to land and focussed on that spot. Then I still panned round smoothly with a selected buggy that was approaching, but only operated the shutter once, as close to the instant of landing as possible.

This is what I got ...

Now, I'm not saying that every shot thereafter was like that. I got a lorryload of duds. But I began to catch many more dramatic ones.

The human eye and human reflexes are still a match for modern technology.