Making ... 'Play With Me'

Getting good photographs of dogs isn't easy. It's almost as difficult as photographing children.

Dogs ... especially those that like to play ... won't sit still for long. They can also get twitchy and nervous if they're put in unfamiliar surroundings and have a lens pointed at them.

What's more, you'll get the best shots by getting down to their level or lower. This usually involves lying on the ground. And that's a further invitation either to play ... or become more nervous. Few humans, in the general course of events, lie on the floor in front of their pooch.

Earlier this month Jasra came to stay. She's a beautiful all black Dobermann/Labrador cross-breed. And she loves playing with balls.

In my mind's eye I could see a photograph of her as a dog imploring her owner to play. So I set about trying to achieve it.

I cleared the furniture and rolled back the carpet from one end of the sitting room, and removed pictures from the wall, to create a 'studio'.

I used two flash units, one to illuminate my subject and the other to illuminate the background and cut out any shadows. The flash to illuminate the dog was used indirectly - i.e. not pointed at the subject but relying on reflected light. This was also the one connected to the camera (though not on it). The second flash, to illuminate the background, was operated by a slave unit.

I needed to set the exposure manually as the dog is all black and the wall behind is white. If I relied on the camera's automatic features it would average out the two and I'd get a featureless dog, and a grey wall. As it was, I didn't care if the wall was over-exposed. I wanted it pure white.

Normally you shouldn't use a wide angle lens for portraits - whether human, dog or whatever. It will distort your subject. However, I deliberately used a 17mm lens here to give a degree of distortion and add a touch of drama. I set it at f11 to give me a reasonable depth of field. Any smaller and the imperfections on the wall may have come into focus and, anyway, most lenses perform less well at smaller apertures.

Then, technicalities sorted out, it was a question of getting all the components in the right place at the right time.

I deliberately arranged the ball so that the string would lead the viewer's eye into the picture. Jasra was another matter. She was a puzzled dog, and preferred to sit behind me, looking over my shoulder at the ball.

When I did get her in front of the lens, she'd usually pick up the ball and carry it behind me ... usually to the far end of the room. There was a fair degree of getting up and lying down again, and I got an awful lot of dud shots ... dog half out of picture, looking the wrong way, too close to the wall so that shadows showed.

But, in the end it all came together in a way that was close to the image I'd envisaged in the first place.

It's very satisfying when it does that.

P.S. I hadn't intended the slightly diagonal angle - where wall joins floor, but I think it works well. It gives a more dynamic feel to the image.

Can't afford image stabilization?

Yes, cameras with Image Stabilization (IS) are a whole lot more expensive than bog-standard ones. What if you can't afford the super-duper technology?

Get a chicken ...

... and strap your camera to its head.

Seriously, this just goes to show that we're really not quite as clever as we think. Many of our wonderful technological developments have already evolved in nature, long ago.



I’m sorry to report that the wife of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe – Grace – has just had her overseas holiday ruined.

Apparently, as she emerged from the Shangri-La, a $3000-a-night Hong Kong hotel, Mrs. Mugabe had her picture taken by Richard Jones, a photographer from the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper.

For some reason this threw Grace Mugabe into a rage. According to witnesses at the scene, she ordered her bodyguard to attack the photographer and then joined in the assault.

“The man held him while she hit him again and again in the face with her fist,” said Werner Zapletal, an Austrian tourist who saw it happen. “She was screaming, completely crazy.”

According to a medical report by Dr Raymond Ng, a general practitioner in Hong Kong, Mr. Jones suffered cuts, abrasions and bruises to the face and head caused by the heavy, diamond-encrusted rings Grace Mugabe was wearing.

Meanwhile, back at home, cholera has claimed the lives of more than 2’100 of Mrs. Mugabe's compatriots, inflation has risen to over 231 million percent and the Government has just issued a Z$100 trillion banknote.

I’m not sure how much 100 trillion Zimbucks is worth as I’m not very good with figures. I begin to lose track of zeroes at that level. However, to put it in perspective, as I write (morning of 19th January) a million Zimbabwe dollars are worth 5 US cents. Last time I shopped in Zimbabwe, one of their dollars was about the same as one US dollar.

But does Grace Mugabe let these small discomforts get her down? No. As Zimbabwe's First Lady she has to keep up appearances. Once, when asked why she spent thousands on expensive Ferragamo shoes while her people starved, she replied, “I have very narrow feet, so I wear only Ferragamo.”

So, with such a sense of style – an important attribute for a First Lady – I’m astonished that she objected so strongly to being photographed.

You can read more on this story in the Zimbabwe Times.

(Photograph: Associated Press)


One of the big headaches faced by photographers is the theft of their images. Digital images can be copied with ease. Anything that appears on a monitor can be copied.

One way around this is to make sure that any images that you publish on the internet are of low quality so that they cannot be printed or enlarged to any size, but of sufficiently high quality to look good on a screen. I've discussed that here.

But what if you need to send someone a high-resolution image? A potential customer, for example. The way around this is to watermark your image. Here's one of mine that I've watermarked:

And how do you do that?

If you have Photoshop, a quick and relatively easy way of doing it is to create your own watermark 'brush'. Then you can apply this like a stamp, again and again, to a whole series of images.

Here's how you do it ...

Creating your watermark brush

1. In Photoshop, create a brand new empty document with a white background. Don’t make this too big, otherwise you won’t be able to save it as a brush. 3000 pixels wide by 2000 pixels high is a good size. Choose ‘greyscale’ and ‘background colour’ as options, making sure the background is white.

2. If you want the Copyright symbol in your watermark ( © ) open the Custom Shape Tool – the bottom choice in the menu that pops out when you select the menu of Shape Tools, immediately below the Text tool.

3. Go up to the Options bar at the top and select the ‘Fill Pixels’ button – it’s the third choice from the left (it’s a little square). This creates your custom shape with pixels rather than vectors – important.

4. Press Enter and a menu of shapes appears. You’ll find the Copyright symbol in that. Select it, then click and drag out the symbol somewhere in the middle of your blank document. To ensure that the symbol comes out perfectly round, hold down the ‘shift’ key as you do this.

(If you don’t want the Copyright symbol, leave out steps 2-4)

5. Switch on the Type Tool, select your font and its size, draw a box where you want your text to appear in relation to the Copyright symbol.

6. Then type your text. Make sure it is black. For best-looking results select ‘Centre Text’. You can change the font size as you work to match your Copyright symbol. You can also select Bold and/or Italic if you want. Play with it. Don’t worry if the text doesn’t line up exactly with the Copyright symbol at this stage.

7. When you’ve finished typing your text, click on the Move tool (the symbol top right of the toolbox, with four arrows). Select your text and align it exactly as you want it in relation to the Copyright symbol.

9. Select the Rectangular Marquee (top left of toolbox) and draw a rectangle close around your watermark.

10. Go to the Edit menu and select Define Brush. A dialogue box will pop up. Give your brush a name and ... voilĂ ! ... it’s done. (N.B. The preview on the Brush Tool menu may make your brush look all squashed and deformed. Don’t worry. It won’t come out like that.)

Applying your watermark

1. Open the image you want to watermark.

2. From the ‘Layers’ palette, create a new layer (icon at bottom, second from right).

3. Making sure that you are in your new layer, select the Brush Tool and choose your personal ‘Copyright’ brush (It’ll probably be at the bottom of the list). Stamp it wherever you want. You can adjust its size to fit your image. You can stamp it once big across the centre, like I’ve done, or several times, smaller, all over.

4. Reduce the opacity of this layer so that the watermark becomes transparent. Reducing it to 30% works well, but you may wish to do more, or less. See how it looks.

5. Flatten the image (i.e. join the layers together) and save it with a different name from the original ... unless you want to ruin the original.

And it’s done.

P.S. Really, really tough question. Can you spot the bad tangent in my watermarked photo?

A bad tangent

I didn’t hang about after I’d taken the photo of Sir Nigel Gresley coming around the bend (here). I packed my gear, hared down the hill and drove off in a cloud of dust.

I wanted to get some photos of the venerable old gentleman coming in to the terminus, further down the line.

The timetable showed that he stopped at several stations on the way and I’d worked out that, if I was quick, I could make it to the final station before Sir Nigel did.

In fact, I was quicker than I thought – it was a good downhill slope to the car – and I overtook him just before a spot where the road went under the railway.

Sensing another photo opportunity I pulled in, leaped out and slammed on a medium telephoto lens. I was just in time. Sir Nigel roared past, and this is what I got ...


First, there’s no impression of speed at all. The engine could be standing still.

Second, the composition is boring, with the horizon cutting the picture in half.

But, most annoying to me, is the bad tangent, where the horizon runs precisely through the top of the chimney.

You get a bad tangent when two unrelated edges or lines in a composition just touch one another. Most viewers don’t notice it. But, although they can’t explain why, they find something annoying or displeasing about a picture with a bad tangent.

Ah well ... lousy photo but learning experience.

An old friend

When I was a kid, steam engines ruled the rails – roaring down the line to London trailing clouds of smoke and cinders over their train of carriages. I loved those massive monsters. When I grew up I wanted to be an engine driver. Yes, I know, that’s a clichĂ© ... but I did ... really.

One glorious day my Mum took me up to London by train. As we walked to the exit at Kings Cross Station we passed one of the fastest engines on the line - the sleek, streamlined ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’.

I stopped beside the gently hissing engine, the heat shimmering off it, and gazed up in awe. A coal-grimed man leaned out of the driver’s cab.

“Wanna come up, Sonny?” he asked.

I was dumbstruck. He was speaking to me. My mum lifted me up to the footplate and the driver showed me around. I peeped into the red-hot, roaring firebox, tapped the dials, twiddled a brake-wheel. He even let me sit in his seat and toot the whistle ... making everyone on the platform jump.

I’ve never forgotten it.

Last summer I was walking on the Yorkshire Moors, beside a railway line, when I heard a familiar whistle. I stopped ... turned, and around the corner came an old friend. Sir Nigel Gresley.

Now for the true story.

The whole first bit about my childhood experience is gospel. I have no idea what I did on the trip to London with my mum, but the details of my encounter with the Sir Nigel Gresley are etched indelibly into my memory.

The second part of the story is a little more complicated.

Last summer I took a ride on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a steam preservation society. To my amazement I discovered this railway was now the home of the Sir Nigel Gresley. I asked an official about the engine, and my luck was in. He told me that it would be pulling a train the very next day.

I immediately got out an Ordnance Survey map, scanned the route of the line and found an interesting-looking footpath that ran alongside. That afternoon we walked the length of footpath, my long-suffering family and I, looking for suitable vantage points.

The best one was high on a hillside, looking down on to where the railway line came around a curve and up a gradient.

I was up there early next morning, ready and waiting, with my tripod, cable release, and long lens on to compress the perspective a bit.

My only regret was that it was a warm summer’s morning. Had it been colder there would have been a very photogenic cloud of smoke as Sir Nigel Gresley chuffed up the slope.

But it was good to see an old friend again.

A little story.

A prominent photographer was invited to an exclusive dinner party in New York.

As he entered his hostess’s apartment she took him by the hand and whispered, "So good of you to come. I do so love your photographs. They're breathtaking. You must have a fantastic camera.”

The photographer acknowledged her greeting, but did not respond to the compliment.

However, as he was departing, he took his hostess by the hand, gazed into her eyes and said, “Thank you for a wonderful dinner. It was delicious. You must have an amazing stove.”

Good Resolution

So, you’ve made all your New Year’s resolutions?

You’re going to lose weight? Get organised? Learn a new language? Save more money? Cut back on the beer?

Good luck!

A recent study showed that only 12% of people who made New Year’s resolutions actually kept them.

Here's a way to get up amongst that 12%. Make a photographic resolution. That should be easier to keep. Here are some ideas:

  • Try out a new technique. You could have a go at pinhole photography for example – World Pinhole Day is coming up on April 26th. Or you could try your hand at macro photography, painting with light, or silhouettes. Stretch your horizons.

  • Set yourself an assignment - capture the atmosphere of your town or village, make a photographic record of the insects in your garden, or build a portfolio of emotions.

  • Enter competitions. Not all require entry fees, and you might win enough to buy that new lens you’ve been coveting. Photocompete gives up-to-date details of many competitions. But, do be careful to read the rules. Don’t enter any competitions that take all rights to entries.

  • Find a new perspective. Photograph familiar objects from down low, or up high. Photograph reflections on water, without the original objects, and then turn them upside down for unusual abstracts.

  • Photograph local sporting events, the more off-beat the better.

  • Learn more about the history of photography. Find out where we’re coming from, and marvel at images taken on film, often with heavy, unwieldy equipment. My daughter gave me the autobiography of one of my photographic heros - Ansel Adams - for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to reading it. How about Julia Margaret Cameron? Dorothea Lange? Frank Hurley? Eric Hosking? Weegee? Know who they were?

  • Make a photo-sequence – for example, the same tree in the same field every month of the year – and stitch them together into one big image. Or try panoramic photography. It’s not as difficult as you think.

  • Abandon colour and try photographing in monochrome. You can get some wonderfully moody effects.

  • Buy my book (shameless plug), use it, and if you like it, recommend it to others. Review it on Amazon, even.

  • Carry a camera with you wherever you go. You never know when that extraordinary photographic opportunity might arise.
Snappy New Year!

(Hmmmm. Maybe I shouldn't say that. The last thing I want you to do is take 'snaps')