What Would A Judge Say?

Today's post was inspired by a question posted on my local camera club forum. The image below was shot by Diane Arbus and limited edition prints are currently up for auction in the neighbourhood of $100,000.

With tongue planted firmly in cheek the question was asked - what would a UK club photography judge have to say about this image? 

I decided to go one further and see if I corrected the "flaws", does it improve the image?

Here's the base image

Here are the "faults" that a judge might pick up -

  1. Distracting highlights around the edge of the frame
  2. Black-clothed people at the edge of the frame
  3. Person growing out of young boy's head
  4. Tree growing out of young boy's shoulder
  5. Not enough space in the frame along the bottom edge (toes too close to edge)
  6. Branches at top right
  7. Leaves & trash on the pavement

Into Photoshop we go! Here's a 5 minute blitz-job -

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the original vs the "fixed" version with some contrast, sharpening and vignette tweaks.

The question is... Has it improved it? By following the photography judge textbook to the letter, have we actually created a better photograph or does the original have a quality that makes minor "faults" irrelevant.

Very keen to hear what you have to say, leave me a note in the comments!

How To Write A Photography Book - Part 2

I'm writing a book! Join me as I share everything... how to write, photograph, market and publish from start to finish!

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The Premise

Time to start getting into the nitty gritty :) 

In this post I'm going to cover more of the specifics of the book and show you some of the work I've done so far. 

  • My book will be an absolute beginner's guide to photography
  • It will cover everything a new photographer would be able to do with their first camera
  • It will be targeted at both adults and children
  • The style & tone of the writing will teach fundamental techniques of photography in a fun, easy to understand way without being patronising
  • Technical jargon will be minimised wherever possible
  • As well basic principles it will include examples/how-to guides for the most common questions I get in my teaching workshops
  • It might cover things like composition, colour theory etc. but I'm not sure - I don't want to overcomplicate things
  • It will cover the basics of camera technology but not gear - remember, basic principles!

That's what it will be, but where did it come from? What's my inspiration?

My Muse

A very, very dear friend of mine bought a camera, the venerable Canon S100. She was not a photographer but knew she had a good camera and wanted to know just a bit more, to get the best from their camera. She asked me to go through the basics, explain the different setting then set her up with a "cheat-sheet" she could refer to later.

This was quite a few years ago, back before starting teaching. Let's just say that my explanation of pixels, collecting light, aperture & ISO didn't work. Too techie, too dry. Boring. 

You can explain how a modern digital camera has a sensor, how that sensor creates an image when light hits it, how we as photographers control the light to produce the image we want. How the lens interacts with the sensor, how shutter speed controls or causes blur. ISO, f-stops, focal-lengths, aperturrrraargh!  No, just no. Needless to say this was just a hopeless way. In other words, I took the convoluted, years long process I took to learn and tried to condense it down. 

Learning this lesson taught me how best to  tailor your teaching to the student. I think the way I taught THIS student might just appeal to more and the idea for the book was born!

The McGuffin

To teach my beginner friend I replaced all the electronics, physics and jargon inside a camera with... a pixie. 

Abstracting away the technical side of things teaches the underlying concept in a very easy-to-understand, relatable way. You can always explain the techie jargon when someone understands broadly how they can take a photograph and understand how it came out the way it did.

What's Next?

This post has basically brought us bang up to date. Everything I've described so far is stuff I'd already started over the last couple of years. From here on in, everything is new. Every page I write, every photo I take will be brand new...

I'm really excited with how it's going so far. I've poured more time and energy into the book in the last few weeks than the last two years!

Join me next time when I go into more detail about how I am designing the lead character for the book. But for now, here's a quick preview...

Click here to see all posted parts of this series.

 

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New site feature - Monthly Newsletter!

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My Top 10 Tips for Portrait Photography

Portraits are all about people. Whether it's a studio shoot, fashion feature, family snapshot or street candid, you are photographing people. Although solid technique, inspiration & an understanding of lighting is hugely important, understanding people is the key to getting great portrait photos. Portrait tips are extremely common online & loads of other websites will tell you that using specific settings is a guarantee of success or they focus too much on gear and technique - frankly, they're wrong! Most other sites downplay the important of communicating with your model and focus instead on what photographers are comfortable with - gear, lights, settings. They have it arse-about-face, you don’t get better portraits by tweaking one button on your camera.

Here are MY top 10 tips for getting great portraits.

I do try to keep my tips short & succinct (honest) but some of them just warrant a bit more explanation. I'd rather spend more time to elaborate an important point than just give you a list of pointless, click-bait garbage :)


Talk to Your Model!

The number one, if-you-do-nothing-else-do-this rule is to understand the person (or people) you are shooting. Get to know them as best you can and build as much of a relationship as possible in the time you have. In a controlled, studio situation make time to sit down beforehand with them and don't even pick up a camera, just chat to them. Grab a coffee, talk about anything but the shoot. Once you've established the beginnings of relationship, move onto the shoot. Describe what you want to achieve, how you want to achieve it & invite them to help. It's especially important to restate any expectations of nudity, actual or implied, and to completely put the model at ease. Better to rectify any potential misunderstanding now than later. Never touch your model unless expressly given permission, even to tweak a pose.

If you lack confidence, join a group photoshoot and watch how more experienced photographers do it. Join in when you feel relaxed.

During the shoot, never forget that your model isn't a piece of gear. It can be easy to get caught up in the act of shooting but take breaks, pause occasionally to show your model the photos so far and invite them to make suggestions. Even if you have a professional, experienced model resist the temptation to just stand there and shoot while they pose. Trust me, if you are engaging & enthusiastic people pick up on it and your photos will be a LOT better!

For candid/unplanned portraits try spending time watching a location to understand how people move through it. You can fire off stealthy shots using a long lens but this is hugely unreliable and the results rarely work out. If you take the time to choose someone you want to photograph instead of snapping wildly, build the courage to speak to them. Say hello and ask to photograph them. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't but unless you're practicing ambush/paparazzi style photograph speaking to someone first will yield better portraits.

Finally, although for family & friends the relationship-building part isn't needed - if you don't have one you're doing it wrong - if you are "acting the photographer" can ruin your chances of a natural, fun image. By this I mean if you're the photographer of the family & are asked to take a photo, don't mess about with settings or blowing an informal snapshot out of proportion. Your best bet is to work fast, keep it short and sweet and use your relationship to get the most natural expressions from your friends.  

Planned It then Candid

This is especially important for studio or fashion shoots. Everyone involved needs to know what the goals are & you should get your key shots in the bag as soon as possible. As photographer a lot of the inspiration & ideas for the shoot are expected to come rom you so make sure you have a clear plan in mind. After that, go with the flow! Change your angles, lighting, poses, expressions… sometimes you catch nuance of expression or position that just makes your image pop! Keep shooting even when chatting, when a model stops posing it totally changes their look. You don't need to go full spray-and-pray, just practice to catch candid moments.

  Although it's a shame her eyes are closed, you can tell the photographer has caught a genuine emotion here and it makes for a better image    penfold -Flickr

Although it's a shame her eyes are closed, you can tell the photographer has caught a genuine emotion here and it makes for a better image

penfold -Flickr


"Say Cheese" Sucks

These days pretty much everyone is conditioned to smile whenever a camera is pointed at them. This is especially true for family portraits, just ask yourself how many times the "fake smile" look people adopt results in photos that look stiff & lifeless. If you want a smile, do something funny to get a genuine one. Keep your camera on-hand to get candid moments. Anything except “say cheese”.

If you're shooting a stranger, ask them NOT to smile - I love doing this because it's so contrary to what we typically do it catches people unawares and you get a much more interesting look.

Experienced models tend to avoid this and will change pose & expression as a matter of course with each shutter click but don’t rely on it – remember to ask them to get what you need but also stay relaxed.

Bear this tip in mind and you can get portraits that are "(s)miles better than smiles"!

Urgh, sorry… 

Know Yo Pose

For studio shoots especially you need to understand the basics of posing. It’s a huge topic, bigger than a tip-guide and there are hundreds of books & articles online. I can recommend this book for beginners and it can be a good resource for photographers and models who are just starting out. But the important tip here is to know the basics, do you research before you start and this is especially true when working with inexperienced models who rely more on the photographer. Don’t assume your model will miraculously adopt the pose you want. 

  Although I like the expression, lighting and mood of this portrait I think it's ruined by "THE CLAW"... her hand looks like it's growing out of the wall!

Although I like the expression, lighting and mood of this portrait I think it's ruined by "THE CLAW"... her hand looks like it's growing out of the wall!

I always make notes & take my “Big Book O’ Poses” on a shoot, then sit and point out specific ones. Just make sure you do your research too!

Some quick & easy checks you can run through include -

  • Have you chopped off any hands/feet/fingers?
  • Avoid limbs leaving then re-entering the frame
  • Are hands/feet attached to arms? Or coming out of nowhere...
  • Limbs look better angled rather than straight - but not extreme angles!
  • If the pose means we can't see their eyes, make sure the model is doing something else to attract our attention

Try To Tell A Story

A good portrait is more than a simple picture of a person. You can have a technically excellent passport image but it’s still a boring portrait. The challenge in shooting compelling portraits is that you need to tell a story. The “tell a story” tip may sound trite but it’s true. It needs to convey something about the person but unlike other genres it can be harder to achieve – this is why good portraits are always eye-catching and bland ones are so forgettable. 

  She looks exhausted, filthy but sort-of happy - and it makes the viewer want to know more.    Sadly I'm not entirely sure where this image is from - I think it might be the Israeli Army but I can't find a source to link back to!

She looks exhausted, filthy but sort-of happy - and it makes the viewer want to know more.

Sadly I'm not entirely sure where this image is from - I think it might be the Israeli Army but I can't find a source to link back to!

Conversely you don’t need to have some kind of sweeping epic storyline – just keep in mind that making a portrait say something more than “this is a person” will yield stronger results. You don't need to oversaturate the frame with details, or over-the-top expressions. Just include enough to hook your viewer and their imagination will do the rest.

Finally, telling a good story does not mean photographing an old person then turning the picture into contrasty black & white to accentuate their wrinkles. Old people have better stories to tell than “I am old, look at my old face”.

  I bet this guy has some stories to tell... like how he got that metal rod going through his head ;)   Rodrigo Butta - Flickr 

I bet this guy has some stories to tell... like how he got that metal rod going through his head ;)

Rodrigo Butta - Flickr 

In The Frame

Posing is how your model positions themselves in the scene - framing is how you position the camera to capture the scene. Both need to be considered carefully as they hugely impact the way your portrait is presented.

And it's another topic that could be a blog post in it's own right! 

Normally we try to avoid central compositions, for instance placing our points of interests on thirds, but this isn't a hard & fast rule in portraiture. Headshots are perfectly fine centred in the frame for example.

  The classic headshot, cropped just below the shoulders to make sure the head is "anchored" in the frame.     Teymur Madjderey - Flickr

The classic headshot, cropped just below the shoulders to make sure the head is "anchored" in the frame. 

Teymur Madjderey - Flickr

When you're photographing a model in the environment then generally it is better to fall back onto more tried-and-tested compositions but always remember that the model is where people want to look. Keep your model prominent and the central focus point of the photo and limit distractions. 

  Lovely lighting, pose and expression but the photo is marred by the huge green blob of front bokeh that distracts the viewer and hurts the overall image    LBY - Flickr

Lovely lighting, pose and expression but the photo is marred by the huge green blob of front bokeh that distracts the viewer and hurts the overall image

LBY - Flickr

Backgrounds & foregrounds are something you need to be super-careful with. On the street, pay careful attention to what is behind your model so they don't have streetlights sprouting from the head, or cars going in one ear and out the other. Make sure your background compliments the model and not the other way around.

  Here I think the background draws too much attention from the model. For an edgy, raw fashion shoot with a brash/bold model, the in-your-face background would work. However her pose and expression is at odds with that mood    Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

Here I think the background draws too much attention from the model. For an edgy, raw fashion shoot with a brash/bold model, the in-your-face background would work. However her pose and expression is at odds with that mood

Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

  This is a wonderful advert for a cherry blossom tree that also features a girl.    Sachie Nagasawa - 500px

This is a wonderful advert for a cherry blossom tree that also features a girl.

Sachie Nagasawa - 500px

Some rapid-fire framing tips -

  • Check your background - is anything growing out of the top/sides of your model?
  • Are the highlights behind your model adding or removing from the image? Do they distract from the model?
  • Shoot portrait & landscape - mix it up
  • Shoot at different angles, tilt your camera, vary your height
  • For headshots, get in close. Fill the frame, leaving a small border, but with slightly more above the head
  • If a model is not looking at camera, leave space in the frame in the direction they are looking
  Here Kim has plenty of space on the left to match the direction she's looking

Here Kim has plenty of space on the left to match the direction she's looking

  Gianluca has captured a candid moment here and used the background to frame the couple. The colour provides a great contrast with her hair too - with "normal" hair colour this may not have worked so well.    Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

Gianluca has captured a candid moment here and used the background to frame the couple. The colour provides a great contrast with her hair too - with "normal" hair colour this may not have worked so well.

Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

Lenses

Your choice of lens & aperture has a huge impact on the end result and covering all possible options is far too much to do justice in a tips guide. This tip is to again do your research on how lenses & aperture impacts your portraits - experiment to see what effects are possible. There is no hard and fast rule, only what works for YOUR story.

  In this case, the background isn't adding anything to the story and is distracting - here a shallow DOF would have helped    Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

In this case, the background isn't adding anything to the story and is distracting - here a shallow DOF would have helped

Igor Gorshkov - Flickr

The standard advice is you simply must shoot with a wide aperture to blur the background. This might be true if you’re photographing someone in a jungle & don’t want the trees to be distracting but shoot someone on the street like this and you lose all context about the scene. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell but you need to choose the depth of field, not blindly follow a generic instruction. A better rule of thumb is to ensure your images are sharp, especially the eyes, so shoot with a shutter speed that eliminates motion blur. That’s not to say you can’t shoot blurred portraits but it needs to look deliberate & part of the aesthetic, not a mistake.

  Here the background adds context - clear enough to set the scene but without being distracting    Evgeniy Pilipenko - 500px

Here the background adds context - clear enough to set the scene but without being distracting

Evgeniy Pilipenko - 500px

It's crucial you use a depth of field that means you get the eyes sharp - if you fail at this, it looks like a mistake and can hurt the overall portrait. Viewers go straight for the eyes. On a related note, it's always worth spending a little more time sharpening eyes in Photoshop - enough to make them pop a little but without going full-Barbie.

Viewed large, the eyes are out of focus. In this example I don't think it's killed the portrait but it's still a shame!

Laurent Lavi Lazzersky - Flickr

Focal length is important too. As a general rule, wide-angle lenses exaggerate features, making things like noses & ears disproportionately sized compared to normal. Longer lenses are generally better at giving true-to-life features because they flatten perspective. Both have their uses but generally speaking you will want to use anything from 85mm upwards.

  A wide-angle lens has been used to serious accentuate features here to produce a very powerful effect.    Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

A wide-angle lens has been used to serious accentuate features here to produce a very powerful effect.

Gianluca Romeo - Flickr

Lighting

Whether you are using studio strobes, reflectors or 100% natural light, knowing how to light your model is another skill you have to master. Personally, I found it one of the most fun, rewarding skills to practice!

There are countless guides & resources online to learn about lighting theory, technique and tools - believe me, the variety of lights & modifiers you can buy is astonishing - but I found that the best approach to get started was a couple of flashes, some remote triggers and practice, practice, practice. Start simple, get the flash off the camera and light from an angle instead.

  One of my earliest attempts at off-camera lighting, I also used gels to change the colour.

One of my earliest attempts at off-camera lighting, I also used gels to change the colour.

Lighting can be a powerful tool to tell your story but it always, always needs to be balanced against the human interest. Bokeh balls might be pretty but they can't tell a story by themselves! 

  You can see how the light coming in from the left is not only soft, complementing her features, but also creates appealing shadow on the opposing side of her face.    Steve Tulk - 500px

You can see how the light coming in from the left is not only soft, complementing her features, but also creates appealing shadow on the opposing side of her face.

Steve Tulk - 500px

  Here the model has been lit from above and below - you can see that from the catchlight in her eyes - and this causes a butterfly-like shape under the nose. Useful for lighting the whole face while still adding depth.   Steve Tulk - 500px

Here the model has been lit from above and below - you can see that from the catchlight in her eyes - and this causes a butterfly-like shape under the nose. Useful for lighting the whole face while still adding depth.

Steve Tulk - 500px

There is no trick with lighting - how effectively you can use it in portraits really comes down to your experience & what you are trying to achieve. If I was to give one single tip for lighting portraits it would be how I started - find a portrait you like and study it. Learn how the photographer setup the lighting and try to reproduce it yourself.

Just try to avoid using on-camera flash unless you're competing with bright sunlight and need it for some fill-lighting!

  Backlighting, such as this example caused by a small nuclear explosion, can produce great results but you need to be careful it doesn't overpower the image.    JiKang Lee - Flickr

Backlighting, such as this example caused by a small nuclear explosion, can produce great results but you need to be careful it doesn't overpower the image.

JiKang Lee - Flickr

Get Help

Photography is often a solo activity and it can feel a bit strange looking for help - take my word for it though, any planned shoot definitely benefits from extra sets of hands! Even if we ignore the benefits of a make-up artist, just having a friend or assistant who can help set flash powers, move stands, pick up said stands when they fall on the floor, aim reflectors... the list is endless!

Even in family shoots, having someone to distract the child/puppy for long enough to take a photo can be a lifesaver.

You could also enlist a friend to act crazy in the street to photograph candid, bewildered responses of passers-by but that might be asking a bit too much...

Get In The Frame

And finally... as you've seen above there are a huge number of things to get your head around when it comes to portrait photography. It can be daunting to know where to start.

For my final tip? Get a basic set of gear, including a couple of cheap flashes, find some inspiration and setup the scene. Then get in it. 

That's right - selfies are absolutely the best, cheapest practice you can possibly have. You can shoot tethered to see a live view of yourself then practice endlessly until you have the experience and confidence to move to the next step.

I know, a lot of people hate being in front of the camera but think of it this way. Everyone sees the same you whether it's a photograph or you are standing in front of them - same person, you look just like your photo. Weird that. Anyway, these people don't really think its a big deal seeing you in a photo because it's you - they are used to seeing YOU.

The only person who gives a shit about a photo is you.

So get over yourself, get in front of the camera, get some practice then go take some cracking portraits!

 

All images used either author-own or under CC licence, linked to authors (where I could find them!)

 

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Stock Photography - The Face of Fake News?

The BBC has posted an unusual article today about stock photography.

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39217548

Although it does poke fun at some of the more clichéd stock photography tropes - the "hands glued to head" and "Diverse business meeting" did make me laugh - the article seems to try to kickstart discussion about whether stock photography is the cause, or at least a willing partner, in the modern world of post-factual, click-bait, Trump-tastic fake news culture that has emerged.

 The BBC uses this example from Getty to highlight how absurd and artificial stock can be.  

The BBC uses this example from Getty to highlight how absurd and artificial stock can be.  

The problem I have with the article is it asks a question but then doesn't do anything to answer it, while itself using cherry-picked stock images to support the author's argument. It feels like it's trying to be clever and subversive, undermining the power of photography by pointing out just how absurd  stock images can be.  I think it falls wide of the mark in its premise. 

The photography isn't the problem, it's the motive behind it. Just because you can find a stock photo to support a position or denounce a rival doesn't mean that stock photography is the cause of post-fact propaganda. It's a tool, just like any other illustration used since time immemorial. Uncle Sam Needs You is just as exaggerated and prosaic for its time as a stock photograph.

IMG_0815.JPEG

As anyone who has ever shot stock photos will attest, it's a strange market to work in. Exaggerated, unusual, eye-catching images sell because every website is trying to differentiate itself and catch consumer attention. It's also an extremely boring genre, requiring you shoot many variations of the same scene to give as much variety as possible - media types are very picky when it comes to images to support their brand and a "shotgun" approach of issuing thousands of similar, eye-catching images is the best way to ensure a sale.

What I find ironic is that in trying to show how stock photography is a key part of the post-fact era the author has themselves used a selection of images chosen to back that up. He conveniently ignores the fact he could have chosen any other images to back up any point he wanted to make! In trying to prove stock photography supports fake-news his entire article ends up being a polarised, fake view of the subject. 

When the final use for any visual asset (image, drawing, video) is propaganda you will always be able to find or create something to support your point of view. 

Stock photography is not supporting or fuelling post-factual news, it is simply a modern-era tool for people to make their point. Had the author stuck to showing just how crazy-looking some of the images are it would have been a much funnier, light-hearted look at one of the strangest photography genres. By trying to implicate it as a driver for reinforcing stereotypes or misrepresenting women he is placing blame for the cause of our exaggerated, attention-seeking social media cultures onto the icing, rather than the cake itself.

And to support my view that you can find any stock photo you want, here is a unexaggerated, unassuming, agenda-less stock photo of a cake. With icing. It is not, in itself, a lie.

IMG_0816.JPG

Cake image is free stock from Pexels. Business meeting used for education/discussion purposes, source Getty. No challenge to their status intended

MyGearVault - Photography App Review

My Gear Vault is an app designed to let you catalogue all of your photography equipment in one location. The idea is simple – you add data, images and serial numbers for all your cameras, lenses and other items via the app so in the event of a theft or loss you have all the insurance-relevant information you need in one place. I downloaded and spent some time with the app to see if it’s something worth investing time and effort in. It’s the brainchild of Jared Polin (he of “I shoot raw” fame on YouTube) and his team over at the “Fro Factory”.

I’m actually surprised that the “Fro-Factory” released an app like this – although the idea definitely has merit, I thought that Jared was good friends with the guys over at Lenstag (at least based on the numerous plugs for them on his podcast). Lenstag is the service I currently use to catalogue my kit. Evidently “the Fro” is so passionate about keeping our gear safe he borrowed the idea from his erstwhile friends! Before using the app I was actually curious what MyGearVault offers photographers that Lenstag does not; I’ll come onto this later but though the two are similar they aren't quite the same.

IMG_0824.PNG

From the outset, it looks and feels polished. You need to register an email address before you can start using the app but once you’re in and free to start adding your kit.  Before we go any further though we need to clear up some terminology. MyGearVault logs “gear” and “kits”, two terms that in general parlance are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. It might have made things clearer to use “gear” and “collections” or “sets” to make the difference clear. Once you get used to it’s fine but it’s a small part of the user experience that is at odds to the otherwise slick presentation.

IMG_0817.PNG

The crux of the app is the ability to lookup kit and add it to your vault. For most this will be their cameras and lenses but it also covers strobes, filters, stands, tripods, video gear – sorry, “kit” – and more. It’s quite a comprehensive database of items and in most cases you can pick exactly what you own, add it and then all you need to provide are serial numbers and maybe the odd photograph. You can even add photographs of the boxes, something I personally have learned is essential when making a claim, and add custom notes to each item. If you have the information to hand you can also enter the value of each piece of gear.

IMG_0821.PNG

With your gear added you can now create “kits”. Think of these as collections of gear, grouped together for a specific purpose with presets such as live-events, video, travel and so on. You can also create your own kits for whatever purpose you choose. Above and beyond having a list of what constitutes a “kit” on your phone I’m not sure what the point of this is. Personally I don’t pick and choose the kit I take on an assignment from a pre-defined gear list, I choose based on what I’ll need for that specific shoot. Nice idea, but not sure if I’d ever use it.

The final part of the application is their money-maker… insurance. Based on your gear list you can see just how big your photography investment is and then you can go direct to the MyGearVault insurance partners from within the app to get perfect cover for your needs. At least that’s the spiel! If you don’t live in the USA then this entire section of the app is unavailable to you, leaving you with the gear and kit lists only. This US-centricity ranges in inconvenience from not being able to price your gear in your local currency to not being able to take up an insurance product (the whole point of the app).

IMG_0819.PNG

nto some of the negatives…

urrently it’s limited to iOS only, although at the time of writing Android support is 3-4 months away.

 These disappear when internet is lost

These disappear when internet is lost

A big problem is that the app requires internet connectivity to function fully – all of the FAQ and help information is made available in the form of videos. If your camera is stolen overseas and you don’t have internet connectivity you will be at a loss over what to do until you get online. I’m sure this was spotted by the beta testers and it’s a conscious decision with the primary market being mainland USA but even US citizens travel this will hurt them too.

Actually the video side of things is a personal gripe for me. Putting this info in video format feels like an excuse to showcase the Fro team’s videography talents rather than being designed with usability first and foremost. The Fro is passionate about producing quality video and this definitely comes through but it feels unnecessary in this app. I don’t really want or need to watch videos of an FAQ – give me a list of bullet points. I’m not watching RawTalk, I want to know what to do when I lose my camera. If the videos were embedded in the app and easier to navigate I could forgive it, but as they are it’s an over-engineered solution to the problem.

The product database search algorithm feels poorly optimised and is also missing kit, like the Fuji X100S. For example, searching for “35mm f2 canon” for the lens brings back 14 cameras, including many that don’t even include 35mm or f2. Film cameras are poorly supported at present too. You can add missing kit but part of the appeal of the app is being able to add everything automatically and only add serial numbers yourself. I'm already lazy enough to not bother writing a list of my gear out from scratch and don't really fancy writing it out in an app. Flesh out the database and refine the search!

 It has an Instax but no X100S? 

It has an Instax but no X100S? 

 The big + sign in the middle of the graphic is not actually a button, it's at top right. I actually thought Apple's design guidelines forbade this?

The big + sign in the middle of the graphic is not actually a button, it's at top right. I actually thought Apple's design guidelines forbade this?

The interface is pretty, very much so, and generally well put together but it does have a couple of bugs/issues. For instance, if you use the + symbol on an app it universally means “add”. Not here... I clicked the + icon in the image a few times until I realised it didn't actually do anything. 

The UI problems, video notwithstanding, are really just niggles though. 

Conclusion

So the big question… Is it worth it? MyGearVault is definitely a solution that will appeal to US photographers, particularly those who feel they need insurance. It did get me wondering about the audience though, will amateurs have so much gear that insurance is a necessity?  Will pros not already have adequate insurance cover?  I don’t know the answer to that but in my own experience my photography kit that has broken or been stolen has been covered under other policies without needing dedicated cover. Maybe that’s a difference between the US and UK markets.

What about the competition? Lenstag currently offers something MyGearVault doesn’t – the ability to lookup serial numbers, see if gear has been stolen and do something about it and StolenCameraFinder.com lets you search online images for serial numbers for your kit too. They may not be as slick and they don’t do quite the same job but until the localisation of MyGearVault broadens to outside the US, they are probably more useful to more photographers. That said, if you are religious about keeping your vault up to date then the data within might genuinely be useful in the event of an emergency.

In conclusion, it’s a good first entry into apps for the Fro team although until the localisation issues are sorted out the final product has limited wider utility and value for photographers living outside the USA.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it just yet but I'll be keeping an eye on it.

 

For more information, head over to mygearvault.com or froknowsphoto.com

Wet Rocks

Today's post features a couple of images taken in Cornwall. Appalling weather precluded more traditional coastal landscapes so I tried something a bit unusual for me and used my 10-stop filter for some seriously long exposures.  

My last experience of a 10-stop filter was a home-made one, built from a piece of welding glass. It worked but produced an strong green colour cast so the only image I produced with it, shown below, needed to be monochrome. Still, it was cheap at about £5 versus £50 for a dedicated filter!

The first two photos below are from Cornwall; compare that to the Scottish loch image shot on a welding glass filter.

Misty water, beach rocks and an abundance of fine-art filters are quite a common photograph. Now I've shot it I can see the appeal. It's a challenge to get an appealing composition because you are overwhelmed with options. When you have one thousand rocks to choose from how do you choose the best? 

It was also by turns a calming and exciting experience. It's relaxing walking along the beach looking for interesting compositions, arranging your tripod just-so, calculating your exposure times... it demands a much more patient style of photography I don't often have time for. 

The excitement starts when the tide starts to come in! It's a balance - you need to be close to the water to capture as much of the silky cotton wool effect as possible but not so close you end up underwater. Damn the tide can move quickly!

So far all my attempts at long exposure have produced modest outputs but it's certainly a style of shooting I enjoy. The trick will be finding meaningful/compelling subjects to shoot. Rocks and cotton wool water are OK for practice but there are millions of samey-looking photos. The challenge will be using long exposures in a unique and distinctive way...

 This was taken using a 10-stop filter custom made from welding glass.

This was taken using a 10-stop filter custom made from welding glass.

Share your thoughts and long exposure images with me on Facebook or in the comments below!

How To Write A Photography Book - Part 1

It all starts with a plan...

How do you write a photography book?

To be honest I don't really know yet! That's the point of this blog - I'm going to learn, and show you how I figure things out.

I've created my own photo-books before but they were always personal projects with a print run of 1. It's a passion project this time! What I will do with this blog series is show how I will plan, create, market and publish my first book. I was always taught to "show your working" when trying to figure something out and that's the idea here; I'll be showing you everything, all my successes, my errors and my plans. I also want - actually, I *need* - your input, ideas, inspiration and critique! I need your motivation! Don't hold back!

 I've always wanted to write a book. I don't think I have particularly had a story to tell before now, just a desire to "publish something" I created based on some incoherent ideas in my head and my net achievement to date is maybe half a dozen aborted novels. My personal best is maybe 100 pages of manuscript! So why now and what makes this endeavour different to any of the aborted efforts of the past?

Every time I've tried his in the past it has just been an off the cuff attempt, words splurged onto a page with no plan or even just a rough idea how to make it happen. I've always been good at starting things & coming up with cool ideas... seeing them through and actually completing them has always been my big problem so before I started writing again for the umpteenth time I've approached this project a little differently and done my homework.

 Oh how I wish my failed attempts of the past only amounted to two balls of paper... 

Oh how I wish my failed attempts of the past only amounted to two balls of paper... 

Enough waffling then, here we go.

 

The Plan

I've used lots of writing blogs for research and based on that I've come up with the following rough plan I intend to follow & blog about as I go.

 

Know Your Goal

  • What's the Story - define the audience/target market. Consider how the tone & writing style will feel. Define the subject and scope.
  • Skeleton outline - outline the backbone of the text, start > middle > end, key sections and major elements that need to be covered

 

Create Assets

  • First Draft - get words onto paper. Don't worry about editing, or if the order is correct, just write. Try to finish all major sections out have planned (from step 2)
  • Pictures - how will pictures accompany the text? Plan out each scene needed, list requirements. Include "b-roll" type filler images. Do images replace or compliment text?
  • First full draft & layout - combined manuscript with draft text and images, placeholders where needed

 

Editing

  • Edits & reviews - each iteration will yield a new manuscript. Murder your darlings!
  • Pros & cons of hiring a professional editor.
  • Do not underestimate how much time needs to be spent editing! 

 

Finishing Touches

  • Marketing strategy
  • Publishing & Printing
  • How to Sell

 

Although most of this needs to be executed in order - obviously I can't edit before I have a manuscript - some things can proceed in parallel. I'll probably start exploring the marketing & publish/print side of things early-on as they could have an impact on some of my design decisions.

 

So we have our plan. In my next post I'll start going into more detail of each of the individual points.

*Click here for part 0 of this guide, where I give the background to my book project*

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my book project so far, all encouragement and critique is welcomed! Just drop me an email or leave a comment on my site or Facebook. 

Midnight Sun

In a week where almost the entire country witnessed clear skies and a lovely warm spell I managed to find the tiniest corner with the crappiest, coldest & cloudiest weather imaginable. So much for more astrophotography! 

Still, I did manage to get a couple of interesting pictures. Both shot on the Canon 6D with the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 lens.

It may not look like much but this is an ice halo, or  22 degree halo. It's caused by similar physics to a rainbow with light from the moon refracted by high-altitude ice crystals to form a huge but diffuse circle of light. I found a tree I could use in the foreground to try and give some sense of scale to the halo.

At first glance this might look like a normal beach scene but there are a couple of oddities. Would you believe me if I said it was shot at 11pm? It's true, and aside from stitching together 3 images, this is barely touched in Lightroom.

A couple of giveaways that not all is as it seems, the lights on the horizon are from the town of St. Ives and in the sky above you can clearly see stars, including the constellation Orion. Yet again the full moon showed just how effectively it can mimic daylight!

No more vacation plans for some time now so all future astrophotography efforts will likely be from horrifically light polluted London.

My Top 10 Tips for Travel Photography

Travel is a genre that has almost universal appeal; we all love going on vacation and "better holiday photos" is the joint top reason people have when I teach new photographers. It can also be tricky to give universal advice because everyone approaches holidays in a different way. I could do a top 10 tips for dedicated photography expeditions and still have some left over for a family vacation! With this in mind I've outlined the top 10 things I always do when I travel and keep in mind to maximise my chances of getting great shots. I hope they work for you too!

Note - this post doesn't talk about specific gear. Everyone shoots with different kit & different styles so it's pointless recommending specific lenses or cameras. Instead, in a later post, I will talk about some of my own must-have travel kit.

Research, Prepare, Plan

Do all the research, preparation & planning you possibly can before your trip.

This is flat out the best advice I can give, regardless of whether you want great travel photos or not!

I start by planning out the major places, people and sights I want to visit. I also keep an eye out for special events like public holidays or festivals that might be happening during the trip too - these can be great ways to meet locals and get some good street/portrait shots. Once I've broadly planned out my trip I go back & break things down, going into much more detail. The goal is to find the lesser known facts & features about where you are going. I look for things I can easily fit into my main vacation schedule alongside the main evemts. I look for landscape locations I can easily reach from my hotel and use an app on my phone to calculate blue/golden hours & sunrise/sunset times (The Photographer's Ephemeris - get it, it's great). I plan out everything I think might be worth my time in a little notebook and draft up a rough timeline.

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My award-winning fire-breather photographs (above) were 100% the product of forward planning & research! The visit to the Singapore Night Safari was the main event; investigating in more depth I discovered the fire-breathers would be performing. I then had time to pack the right gear & research how to photograph fire - this meant I was able to start shooting immediately without having to figure out how to expose correctly on the fly.

This has been a long first tip but it's because I think it's so important. Better planning means more time shooting, more keepers and better photos.

 Having a minimum of two cactii on hand is essential while planning a trip

Having a minimum of two cactii on hand is essential while planning a trip

Don't Pack Light - Pack Right

Most photography sites offer the banal advice to "pack light". This is crap to be honest - overly simplistic garbage :)

 Possibly underpacked for a Himalayan trekking expedition. 

Possibly underpacked for a Himalayan trekking expedition. 

The trick to getting the most from your travel is to pack what you need balanced with what your trip allows. This doesn't always mean packing every lens you own but sometimes it might! For example, I spent just over a week travelling around Myanmar, an 1800km round circlecovering Rangoon, Bagan, Mandalay and the remote Inle Lake. I packed almost my entire collection of cameras, lenses, cards, filters and a tripod. I wasn't exactly packing light but I knew I would definitely use each item and I was travelling in cars & vans. What's the harm in having your gear with you when you aren't physically carrying them? Had I been hiking around it might have been a different story but if you pack right you know that you will have exactly what you need, when you need it. Not packing your 600mm lens when you're on safari because it's a bit heavy is just stupid but carrying it around on a walking tour of the Vatican is just as stupid!

 Possibly overpacked for an afternoon at the beach. 

Possibly overpacked for an afternoon at the beach. 

Cut Out Clichés

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Silhouetted backpackers. A triumphant mountaineer pointing into the middle distance. Monochrome driftwood on a monochrome beach. Intense, contrasty, HDR portraits of old people. Anything to do with train tracks/rooftopping... 

 

All of these are tired, overused and in the case of the latter, idiotically stupid. Unless you're shooting stock photography, just don't do it. They are the types of image everyone has seen before and no one really bothers to look at.

Use your imagination... you're better than these cliches! :) 

Make More Than Postcards

Everywhere we visit has the classic scenes; the iconic landscapes, famous monuments and colourful characters. These vistas are  a large part of why we visit somewhere in the first place but don't focus all your attention shooting the textbook shots - unless you are supremely lucky, the light & conditions are unlikely to be better than the images you've seen already. Why waste precious time on your travels trying to replicate an image someone else has already made?

Don't misunderstand - I'm not suggesting you go and ignore the highlights because they've all been photographed before. Get those shots in the bank quickly then spend more of your time looking for new angles and different scenes. Classic photos will be fine for friends, family and Facebook but if you want something that stands out and stands a chance of winning competitions, find unusual twists on familiar scenes or even better, find new & unique ones!

Try A Guide

Even before I was a photographer this was something I'd do as much as I could while travelling. Having a local expert with you in the field is the perfect complement to your pre-trip research. Not only does it make the travel experience more comfortable, especially in some of the harder to reach regions but local guides really come into their own though is helping you get off the tourist trail.

You need to choose your guide carefully and explain what you are looking for but once you find a good guide they can take you to places that the majority of tourists will miss. There is no substitute for local knowledge and a good guide will get you to locations and introduce you to people that give you the edge when it comes to having memorable experiences and producing some outstanding photographs.

It's also nice to contribute directly to the local communities too & supporting a local guide will do just that.

Talk To People, Photograph People

It's a good rule of thumb for any photography... people like looking at pictures of other people. Famous landmarks & landscapes can be interesting but can sometimes feel like little more than "I was there" images, even when they are technically excellent. If you can capture the culture & spirit of a place through the people you see & meet you will get better photographs and be able to tell better stories. Including people in your landscapes adds a sense of scale, especially if they feel like part of the landscape. When your picture can tell a story rather than simply "show a thing" you are onto a winner. 

Make Time To Explore - Get Lost!

You have done your planning, you've finished a long day of exploring with your guide. What next? 

I always make the time to go out and explore on my own, without any particular destination - except maybe a decent place to eat at the end of the night - and see what I find! Whether it's jumping on a tuk tuk, hopping into your hire-car for a drive or simply going for a walk, exploring without an agenda and watching daily life can be relaxing and awesome photo fodder!   

Stay safe and use common sense though, I generally do this only when I have a feel for a place and I know the neighbourhoods I'm exploring aren't dangerous. Another good reason to have a guide - you can ask!

Backup. Then Backup Again!

This one is simple and should hopefully be obvious - backup your photos frequently. Although I have never had cards fail while on an assignment I have had a personal card fail, thankfully AFTER backing up, and the though of losing gigabytes of images is enough t make any photography sick.

Nowadays I take enough high capacity memory cards so that I never need to wipe them before the end of a trip, generally four 64gb cards is more than enough. For backup, if it's a "safe" location where the weight of my gear is irrelevant I take my laptop which lets me backup direct to Lightroom and again to my cloud accounts. Where I can't guarantee my destination has decent internet, or I need to travel light, I use a WD Passport hard drive. This allows me to backup an SD card directly onto the drive and I can view the images from my phone. Even if I don't have my phone the system works a treat. 

Finally, I always keep one copy of the images on me at all times, especially while out-and-about, and usually have the SD cards in a small, discreet pouch. Simple solutions to avoid a catastrophic problem. 

Write a Travel Journal

Although posting your photos online can be a good way to share or memorialise your travel, personally I always create a photo-book for my major vacations. This means producing more than just photographs - every evening I make a few notes on things I've done that day, especially anything that has a good story to go with it. How did you feel when looking at a landscape, how does the place smell? Write down everything you can. Sometimes I don't get around to processing my holiday images for weeks or months later and being able to go back to notes can often help me choose the best way to process each photo.

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Take this example - flying home from Myanmar I knew we would have clear skies and little light pollution. I set out to try to photograph the Milky Way from a moving plane! To do it, I needed to create a cocoon of coats and blankets around the window & another around myself to remove as much glare as possible from the cabin lights. Next I needed to press my camera as hard against the window as I dared - even shooting at ridiculously high ISO it needed a shutter speed of at least 3 seconds. Using a bag as a makeshift tripod helped a little. With my little  setup in place I began shooting. It was very hit and miss, even the slightest motion of the plane or my hand would ruin the shot. I was also increasingly aware of the people behind me starting to get very curious and maybe even a little worried about what I was doing. I don't blame them, I looked pretty weird! I made a big display and loudly showed my wife the results so my fellow passengers and passing cabin crew could see what I was doing to allay any fears!

In the end it was pure luck I captured the Milky Way and a lightning strike in the same image but the story behind it is compelling.  

Write down your experiences; they will make good photos more compelling and make for better memories. 

Know Your Craft

This final point covers a number of things, all of which are important, about the art & craft of photography. 

Obviously the first is to know your gear inside out. Often your time spent on location is limited and you don't want to be faffing around with a new piece of equipment you have heard is just perfect for this type of scene... while the scene itself is passing you by. Use what you know to best effect and you will get better results. 

Next, understand what it is you are shooting and be sensitive to it. Naturally if you are shooting wildlife you don't want to running around bellowing like a stuck pig, or interfering with the natural world simply to get a photograph. This applies equally to interacting with people, especially during culturally significant events. You need to understand when it's appropriate to shoot and when to put the camera down - showing this kind of respect will often yield better relationships and opportunities than snapping constantly with no regard for others. Extend the same courtesy to fellow photographers too.

Finally, the very definition of travel means that you are guest of the place you are visiting. Even though you may have paid a lot of money for the privilege, never forget that it's a privilege and act accordingly.

 

i hope these tips are useful for you and I will follow it up soon with some gear recommendations. I would love to hear your own tips in the comments below/on Facebook or drop me a mail!

 

All images either free stock images or the author's own work.