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Photography Fundamentals. A beginners guide to photography: Image Exposure, Shutter Speed and Aperture.

A beginners guide to photography, looking at the key elements of a camera; how the relationship between shutter speed and aperture size determine exposure, and the relationship between stops and exposure value (EV).

For pretty much any photographic image, there are two features it must have. Firstly it must be in focus, at least somewhere in the image, and secondly, it must be correctly exposed.  Okay, okay, I know there are lots of ‘arty’ images out there that don’t conform to either, but for most of us in the real world, those are the rules.  I’m going to leave focus aside for the moment and concentrate on exposure: what we mean by this, how we achieve it, how we control it and modify it.  Now of course, if you leave your camera on auto, it will do a pretty decent job for you.  But that’s not very satisfying, and it’s not very creative.  It’s a bit like buying a painting; it may look great on you wall but it doesn’t make you feel like a painter.  So if we want to be photographers, not just a ‘guy (or girl) with a camera’ pressing the shutter button, then we need to have some understanding of what is actually going on inside the camera in order to take the ‘autopilot’ off, and take control ourselves.  The second consideration is, if you want to produce a standard image with textbook ‘correct’ exposure then leave it on auto and your camera will do that for you, at least most of the time. However, if you want to create something more interesting, more individual, then you need more control over how the camera captures the image, and that requires you to take the wheel yourself.

One of the biggest problems nowadays, for people new to photography, is that cameras are so damn sophisticated.  There are so many controls, settings, menus and sub-menus that it can feel like learning to drive in a fighter jet.  Just where do you start to take control?  in order to help understanding, let’s pare back our camera to its simplest form.  Every camera, whether it is the latest top-of-the-range, full-frame, mirrorless, or an 1839 Daguerreotype, is fundamentally a light-tight box with a hole (the aperture) on one side to allow some light in, and some light sensitive material on the opposite side, and a means of blocking the from light reaching the light sensitive material (the shutter) .

A beginners guide to photography, Photography Fundamentals.  Camera diagram showing aperture, sensor and light path. Colin Munro Photography
A camera is basically a light-tight box with an aperture at one end and light sensitive material at the other.

The light-path between the aperture and the light sensitive material is periodically unblocked (the shutter opened) allowing light to reach reach the light sensitive material. This material is then altered in some way by the light, and this begins the process of creating an image. What exactly that material is, has changed many times.  The 19th century Daguerreotype used copper plate coated with silver; early 20th century cameras mostly used glass plates coated with silver salts; then of course film took over; and now we have solid-state sensors that convert light in to electrical signals, but the the basic design is exactly the same.

So we talk about ‘exposing’ the plate, or film, or sensor, to light in order to create an image.  I’ll stick with sensors from this point, as that is what we use now. The amount of light hitting the sensor determines the lightness of the image.  The more light hitting the sensor, the lighter the images, the less light, the darker the image.  We talk about images being correctly, under- or overexposed.  By underexposed we mean that the mid-tones are too dark and we start to lose detail in the shadows. I’ve taken an image of mine of a tokay gecko and changed the exposure of it to illustrate this.

Beginners guide to photography. Photography Fundamentals. An example of an under-exposed image. Colin Munro Photography
Underexposed image of a tokay gecko on a wall

By overexposed the mid-tones are too bright and we start to lose detail in the highlights.

Beginners guide to pphotography. Photography fundamentals. An example of an over-exposed image. Colin Munro Photography
Overexposed image of a tokay gecko on wall

So we control the degree of exposure primarily by controlling the amount of light hitting the sensor, and we do this in two ways.  We can vary the length of time that the sensor is exposed to light (i.e. the duration the shutter is open) and we can vary the size of the aperture allowing light to reach the sensor.  So let’s look at those mechanisms in turn.

Shutter speed

The shutter is a pair of metal curtains, located in front of the sensor.  They act to block light passing through the aperture from reaching the sensor, except for the period the shutter is opened.  This is the same mechanism used in film cameras. However, today most mirrorless cameras, and some DSLRs, have an electronic shutter, where the sensor is switched on and off to produce a similar effect.

The duration the shutter is open is known as the shutter speed.  There are a range standard shutter speeds we see on most modern cameras, e.g. 1 second, 1/2 second, 1/4 second, 1/8 second, 1/15 second, 1/30 second, 1/60 second, 125 second, 1/250 second, and so on.  You will notice that each is (with minor exceptions) half the duration of the previous one.  Half a second allows in half as much light as a one second shutter speed; 1/125 allows in twice as much light as 1/250 of second. So changing from one ‘standard’ shutter speed to the next nearest either halves or doubles the amount of light hitting the sensor, depending on the direction of change.  Having or doubling the amount of light reaching the sensor is known as changing it by one stop.  Understanding the concept of stops (and exposure equivalent values, which I will explain further on) is fundamental to photography.

Aperture size

We also have a second means of regulating the amount of light reaching the sensor; we can change this by changing the size of the aperture. If we make the aperture twice as large, then twice as much light will hit the sensor (if the shutter is open for the same duration) if we make it half as large it will allow half as much light to reach the sensor.  This is preety self evident, I’m sure.  And this modifying the aperture by halving or doubling is known as changing it by …. one stop. Whilst the shutter speed values are pretty intuitive, aperture values are not.  They are known as f stops, and commonly values range between f2.8 and f22 (sometimes f1.4 – f32).  These f stops also change in standard increments, but at first glance they are quite meaningless: f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22.  Even more puzzling, the largest number denotes the smallest aperture.  The simplified answer for this is that the f value is not a physical measure of the diameter of the aperture, it is a ratio between the focal length of the lens and the aperture: f value = focal length/aperture diameter.  From a practical stance, none of this theory matters to the photographer.  What does matter is knowing that each f stop allows in half or twice as much light the next full stop to the left or right, and that the smaller the number, the greater the aperture diameter, the greater the amount of light reaching the sensor.  Most modern cameras work on a click-stop principle.

A modern lens showing the aperture wide open
A lens showing the aperture stopped down to smallest size

So that the size of the aperture, rather than smoothly variable from smallest to largest, changes in a series of steps.  So when we change aperture on our camera, either by rotating a ring on the lens or, more commonly nowadays, a dial on the camera body, we feel a series or positive clicks.  These steps correspond to the f stop values listed above, plus (on modern cameras) 1/3 of a stop intervals.  So, for example, on our camera we might find f values of F2.8, f3.2, f3.5, F4, f4.5, f5, f5.6. The figures in bold are full stops, the figures in lighter text are 1/3 and 2/3s of a stop up or down.  The beautiful symmetry of the stop system is this.  Say for example, our image is correctly exposed at a combination of shutter speed 1/250th and aperture size f8.  If nothing else changes, then we know that if we change the aperture to f11 (one stop smaller) then the image will be underexposed by one stop. Equally, if we change the shutter speed to 1/500th, the image will be underexposed by one stop.  If we change the shutter speed to 1/500, and simultaneously change the aperture to f5.6, then the exposure stays exactly the same, because the former acts to half the amount of light reaching the sensor, and the latter acts to double the amount of light, thus the combined effect is that the total amount of light reaching the sensor is exactly the same.  The obvious questions are: why have two separate mechanisms to achieve the same control over the amount of light, and why would one alter two controls in order to produce exactly the same exposure.  There are several considerations here, and to detail them all would distract from the main purpose of this blog, so I’ll most of those for a future blog.  However, a key consideration is motion blur. If we have an aperture of fixed size, we can still achieve correct exposure by changing the shutter duration; this is in fact, exactly how a pinhole camera works.  The problem comes with photographing moving objects. The faster a subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed needs to be in order to freeze the motion and stop the subject appearing blurred.  This explains how, in some pinhole camera photographs, streets can appear empty of people or vehicles. because the aperture is so tiny, the shutter speeds often need to be very long (many seconds).  Fast moving objects move across the aperture too fast to register on the image. But even modern DSLRs, if we set the shutter speed too slow, then a fast moving object (e.g. a bird in flight or a sports player) becomes blurred in the image produced.

Exposure Values

The final concept I want to talk about here is Exposure Value (EV or sometimes Ev). As explained above, different combinations of shutter speeds and aperture sizes will still produce the same image exposure. Exposure values assign one value to all the combinations that produce the same exposure.  In practical terms, exposure values are mostly interchangeable with stops.  Underexposing an image by one EV is the same as underexposing by one stop.  We tend to refer to stops when taking about shutter speed of aperture.  When we want to vary exposure in automatic or semi-automatic modes (not something I’m covering here) then we start to refer to EV and vary it using the Exposure Compensation button; but that’s all for another blog.

What I’ve missed out

In order to keep things fairly simple, I haven’t talked at all about the third factor in what is often called the exposure triangle, namely ISO.  That will be the subject of another blog soon.

Photography workshops, online classes, one-to-one tuition

This blog is an excerpt from my beginners photography teaching. You can learn more about my photography lessons, online and one-to-one tuition and photography workshops at my main website During the current restrictions due to covid-19, I am mostly running online one to one teaching. The good news is that these can be accessed anywhere in the World. You can find out more about them here.

Shutter speed control on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

The LCD Display on a Digital SLR camera showing the shutter speed (here set to 1/30th of a second). This diplay may be on the top or back of the camera, depending on model. Colin Munro Photography

About a week ago I put up an article looking at looking at what the ISO control on a camera does, so it seems logical to cover the other camera controls that determine image exposure. So logically the place to start is with the first, most basic control, the shutter.  The shutter is basically light-proof barrier placed between the camera’s sensor (or film frame, if you’re old school) and the aperture through which light passes in to the camera.  But, and this is the key aspect, it is a barrier that can be opened for precise durations of time.  Now image exposure is determined by the amount of light hitting the sensor: too much light and the image is overexposed, too little and the image is underexposed, the correct amount and the image is just right (think of Goldilocks and the three bears).  So one way we can control the amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor is by controlling how long the shutter is open and light is allowed to pass through and reach the sensor, rather like controlling the flow of water in to a glass with a tap.

So what does a shutter look like?  various designs have been used over the years with different camera types and as cameras have evolved.  Digital SLR cameras (and film SLRs for that matter) use what is known as a focal plane shutter, that is a shutter placed directly in front of the flat area where the camera sensor (or film) is located.  These consist of a series of overlapping blades that lift and fall as the shutter opens and closes.  Compact, point and shoot, cameras generally do not have a mechanical shutter (as the focal plane shutter is) rather they have an electronic shutter.  Electronic shutters are an integral part of the camera sensor and primarily work by ‘turning off’  reading of the light hitting the sensor.

Focal plane shutter in a film SLR, showing mechanism.  Shutter CLOSED

Focal plane shutter in a film SLR, showing mechanism. Shutter CLOSED

Focal Plane shutter mechanism in a film SLR. Shutter OPEN.

Focal Plane shutter mechanism in a film SLR. Shutter OPEN.

Shutter speed. When we talk about shutter speed that we are actually referring to is the duration the shutter is open and the sensor exposed to light.  In most general photography these durations are only fractions of a second and, despite the spread of decimalisation, we still tend to use common fraction rather than decimal fraction notation (e.g. 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15th of a second).   Setting the shutter speed on a camera serves two purposes: firstly it determines how much light hits the sensor, and secondly it freezes or blurs movement across the image.

Shutter speed control on a film SLR, showing standard shutter duration increments. Colin Munro Photography

Shutter speed control on a film SLR, showing standard shutter duration increments.

The LCD Display on a Digital SLR camera showing the shutter speed (here set to 1/30th of a second).  This diplay may be on the top or back of the camera, depending on model. Colin Munro Photography

The LCD Display on a Digital SLR camera showing the shutter speed (here set to 1/30th of a second). This diplay may be on the top or back of the camera, depending on model.

Motion blur. Not everything we photograph remains perfectly still. So, the duration the shutter is open will also influence how sharp a moving object is, or whether it is blurred due to it moving across the field of view whilst the shutter is open.  This can be a person, an animal, cars, flowing water etcetera.   Mostly we want our images nice and sharp, with objects frozen in time, but sometimes we will deliberately allow (our induce) motion blur for artistic reasons or to give the impression of movement.  A further consideration here is that motion blur comes not just from objects in front of the camera moving.  If we hand-hold a camera (as opposed to mounting on a tripod) there will always be a slight amount of ‘hand shake’.  At faster shutter speeds this is not noticeably in the captured image but with very slow shutter speeds the camera will wobble slightly in our hands whilst the shutter is open. This results in everything in the image being slightly burred.  A general rule of thumb is to shoot at 1/60th or faster when hand holding your camera, for non-moving objects when using a standard lens (i.e. not a telephoto lens).  When shooting using a telephoto lens, or shooting fast moving objects (maybe motor sports) you will need a significantly faster shutter speed to freeze motion, maybe 1/250th of a second or possibly up to 1/1000th of a second depending on factors such as the focal length of the lens, the speed the subject is moving at and how close you are to the moving subject.

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The rules of landscape photography: The Golden Hour

Sunset creating a dramatic sky of pinks, purples and orange hues. Colin Munro Photography

The rules of landscape photography.  That’s a fairly ambitious title huh?  Maybe I’ll backtrack a little. As with all photography there are no absolute rules.  There are only guiding principles; and like all guiding principles they are there to be broken  – once you understand them and have a clear understanding of the effect you are trying to acheive by breaking them.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here…. let’s get but to the rules guiding principles.

The Golden Hour.

Just to make life that little bit more confusing, the Golden Hour is actually two hours each day.  It’s generally considered to be the first hour after dawn and the last hour before sunset.  At these times, when the sun is near the horizon, the light we see travels almost parallel to the land. This creates longer shadows, adding a more pronounced three-dimensional look to our images.  It also mean that the light passes through more air before it reaches us, scattering more blue light and creating a warmer more reddish hue.  i confess I am addicted to working during the Golden Hour(s).  In summer this means getting up at stupid times in the morning to be on location as the sun rises; in winter you get to stay in bed later but often have to brave sub-zero temperates.  But if conditions are right, the images are well worth it.

Low winter sun and breaking waves on Dawlish Warren beach, Exe Estuary, South Devon, UK. Colin Munro Photography

The Golden Hour can be very golden indeed. Late afternnon in early December.


By creating shadows and so releif, the low lighting that occurs during the Golden Hour enhances the three dimensional appearance of features such as pebble beaches.  Sunset, Axmouth pebble beach, beneath Haven Cliff.

By creating shadows and so releif, the low lighting that occurs during the Golden Hour enhances the three dimensional appearance of features such as pebble beaches. Sunset, Axmouth pebble beach, beneath Haven Cliff.

generally we want the sun coming in from the front-side of the image, creating shadows on the photographer side of the image.  If we place the sun closer to the centre of the image we create silhouettes, which can be interesting, but run the danger of large amounts of flare in the image.  One pleasing effect that can be created by shooting towards the sun is backlighting peaple or objects, creating a rim light around their edges.  Often with people this in the sun catching the hair of the person (in the similar way to the way a ‘hair light’ works in studio photography).  The image below, with the silhouette of a young boy (my son actually) juggling on the beach near sunset helps illustrate these effects.  The silhouetted girl below that shows how backlighting can be used to light features such as long hair.

A backlit image with the sun almost directly central in the image, creating silhouettes.  The low lighting picks out the texture of the sand clearly. Colin Munro Photography

A backlit image with the sun almost directly central in the image, creating silhouettes. The low lighting picks out the texture of the sand clearly.

Of course it doesn’t have to be people that are backlit.  A nice effect can equally be creating with animals as the subject, such as this highland cow I photographed in Perthshire on a summer evening.

A highland cow in semi-silhouette, backlit by the setting sun. Colin Munro Photography

A highland cow in semi-silhouette, backlit by the setting sun.


A girl silhouetted by the setting sun.  The backlighting from the sun catches on the edges of her hair, creating a pleasing backlighting. Colin Munro Photography

A girl silhouetted by the setting sun. The backlighting from the sun catches on the edges of her hair, creating a pleasing backlighting.

The other thing worth noting is that just after sunrise, or just before sunset, often produces the most dramatic skies.  Clouds are etched in stark relief due to the low light, and are often painted in varying shades from delicate pinks to blood reds.


Sunset creating a dramatic sky of pinks, purples and orange hues. Colin Munro Photography

Sunset creating a dramatic sky of pinks, purples and orange hues.

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Photoshop Elements: adding text and changing transparency in Photoshop Elements 11.

Working with Photoshop Elements 11.

Photoshop Elements is a hugely powerful tool for the price and one of the nice features of the lastest version, Photoshop Elements 11 making many image editing tasks very easy by introducing the ‘guided’ mode.  The ‘expert’ mode provides the greatest number of features and options, and most closely resembles the full professional version of Photoshop.  One of the most useful features only available in ‘expert’ mode is the layers feature (note, the layers menu is still visible in the top menu bar in both ‘quick’ and ‘guided’ modes, but all options in the drop-down menu are greyed out).

In this blog I’m going to talk about using the Horizontal Type Tool (symbol ‘T’) to create text layer on your image, and then how to modify the text appearance, making it semi-transparent, by changing the layer opacity.

Step 1.  Once you have opened up Photoshop Elements, select Photo Editor mode, then ensure you are in ‘expert’ mode.  Once this has loaded then open the image you wish to add text to.  As my example I have chosen an image of a black swan guarding her nest as the River Exe floods.  I am going to add copyright text to this image, something I often do to identify my images prior to placing them online.

Step 2.  Once your image has loaded, click on the Horizontal Type Tool ‘T’ (highlighted in grey on the lower LHS of the image below).

Adding text to an image in Photoshop elements 11, step one, select the Horizontal Type Tool (T).

Image 1. Adding text to an image in Photoshop elements 11, step one, select the Horizontal Type Tool (T).

You’ll notice that a sub-menu pops up beneath the image. Heer you will find options to change the default font, font size, font style, colour, leading and anti-aliasing. Leading (pronounced ‘ledding’) refers to the spacing between lines in a paragraph, should you be writing more than one line of text. Anti-aliasing (very briefly) smooths jagged edges that can occur around the edges of text; if you’re not familiar with anti-aliasing leave the box checked.

Sub-menu where text font and styles can be edited.

Image 2. Sub-menu where text font and styles can be edited.

Step 3.

Once you have select the style of text you want, move your mouseso the cursor is over the area of the image where you want your text to appear and left click.  You’ll notice that a new layer suddenly appears in the layer palette on the RHS of the image (see image below).  This is the text layer, by default named layer 1.  You can change this simply by going to the layer drop down menu and selecting rename layer.  This is useful if you are creating multiple layers and prefer to name them intuitively.

Text appears as a new layer Colin Munro Photography

Image 3. Text appears as a new layer

The next step is simply to type your text.  I’ve chosen to add copyright text to my image, something I tend to do before uploading any images.

dding copyright text to an image colin munro photography

Image 4. Adding copyright text to an image

Sometimes text can look very intrusive in an image.  One way of reducing this is to change the opacity of your text.  We do this by going back across to our layers menu and clicking on the arrow at the side of the opacity box, immediately above our layers.  This then displays a slider control whereby we can vary the opacity of the active layer (i.e. the one highlighted in blue) in this case out text layer, from between 1-100%.  As you can see in this example I’ve selected 41% opacity.  As an aside, you’ll also note that Elements has changed the name of the layer to the text I’ve typed.  This can also be helpful in allowing us to remeber which layer is which.

Image 5. Changing the opacity of your text

Image 5. Changing the opacity of your text


Image 6. Text with reduced opacity

Image 6. Text with reduced opacity

Okay, so we’ve got our text written, we’ve reduced the opacity to our liking, only now it’s there we suddenly realise it’s in the wrong part of the image.  Not a problem.  We simply select our ‘Move’ tool.  You should then see a bounding box appear around our text, as in image 7, below.

Image 7. Selecting text with the 'Move' tool

Image 7. Selecting text with the ‘Move’ tool

Moving our mouse over the text, hold down the left button and drag the text to the part of the image where you would like it to be.

Image 8. Our text has now been moved.

Image 8. Our text has now been moved.

 Our final steps and to flatten our image, reducing our two layers back to one, and then save our image.  To flatten our image we open up the Layer drop down menu in the top menu bar and select ‘flatten image’ which should be the option right at the very bottom of the drop down menu.  Once we  click on this you should see that our two layers become one, as in image 9 below.  We can then either save our image or rename it through the ‘save as’ option.

Image 9. Our final step is to flatten our image.

Image 9. Our final step is to flatten our image.


Colin Munro

How and why: creating a customised Copyright Logo in Photoshop

How and why: creating a customised Copyright Logo in Photoshop

A clear but unobtrusive logo helps identify the image as yours.

Why add a copyright logo?
Posting images online is a great way to get your images seen but (there’s always a but) it does leave you open to image theft and unauthorised use. While there are various tricks around – disabling right-clicking, placing images in Flash displays etc., if someone knows what they are doing and are prepared to put a tiny bit of effort ito it they can lift your image. For a photographer it is not always desirable anyway to prevent people doing this; potential buyers may want to store a copy of some images to browse later or as a reminder. In this way photographs can be like business cards, and we don’t ask for those back as we leave the conference hall do we? But like any form of advertising we want the (potential) client to remember where the image came and, most importantly, who it belongs to. Now this can (and should) be done adding to the image metadata, however this is not immediately obvious and must be actively searched for (it can also be stripped out, unintentionally or otherwise, by some programmes). A simply logo has the advantage that it is immediately obvious so is like branding – the more your image is shared around the more people associate it with your name and or website.
What should it include?
There is more than one way to do so, this just happens to be my preferred way. Thekey information I want included are 1. my name; 2. clear identification of my copyright 3. a quickway the viewer can locate me, and 4. a quick way for the viewer to find more of my images. This obviously has to be done as succinctly as possible, no-one wants to look at an image covered in screeds of text. 1 and 2 are easy to combine as (C) Colin Munro Photography; it helps in my case that my business name includes my own name so there is no confusion as to exactly where the copyright lies and no need to repeat both seperately. With 3 and 4 I could include both my email and website, but as my email is very clearly displayed on my website I chose to keep things compact and just go with my website.
Ok, so to creating a logo.
These instructions apply to Photoshop, however the workflow is similar in other editing packages. You have you final image, resized for the web and suitably sharpened. Decide on the colour you want the text to be (generally white or black) and set this as the foreground colour using the set foreground and background colours icon in the toolbar. Click on the Horizontal Type Tool. The icon is a capital T, located in the toolbar. This will change the horizontal toolbar at the top of the window to change and display font, font size, formattint etc. Select the approximate font size you’d like (you may have to experiment here). Clicking on the type tool will also create a new layer (visible in the layers sidebar) which will be the active layer in which text will be created. Then simply position the cursor approximately where you’d like the text to start and begin typing. Once your text is all typed out it may not be ideally positioned, or it may appear slightly too large or too small. To rectify this click on the ‘move’ tool (the cross with arrowheads at all four compass points). This will make the text a selection which can be be moved, shrunk or expanded using the cursor. However if you do re-size you will need to apply the transformation (by clicking again on the move tool and then selecting ‘apply transformation’ in the pop-up box) before you can complete other tasks. Sometimes you may not want your copyright logo too prominent; one way to change this is to reduce the opacity, making is partially transparent. This can be done using the opacity slider in the layers dialogue sidebar. Once your text is suitably sized, positioned and has the right level of opacity, your final task is to flatten the image, merging your text with the underlying picture. Simply click on the layers tab; right at the bottom of the drop-down menu you will see ‘flatten image’. Select this, save and your image is ready to upload. Of course we can automate this process by creating batch processing actions in Photoshop, but that’s for another blog. For those based in Exeter, Devon, I am currently running Digital Photography classes later this month and will also be running Photoshop classes subject to demand.


Old Piers and simple pleasures

Old Piers and simple pleasures

Mussels, Mytilus edulis, and Obelia indivisa hydroids on an old pier leg

Mussels, Mytilus edulis, and Obelia indivisa hydroids on an old pier leg

I took my first underwater pictures bimbling about between the uprights and cross-members of an old wooden pier. That was with second-hand Nikonos III, a set of extension tubes and a Sunpak 28 strobe. I’ve probably still got it somewhere. Underwater photography has moved on a long way since then but I still love exploring old wooden piers and the opportunities they present for macro-photography. The uprights are normally festooned with filter-feeding life: hydroids and sea squirts often forming dense carpets. Dahlia and Sagartia anemones add a splash of colour. To me the beauty of macro-photography is that the basic skills can be learned quite quickly and sharp, colour-saturated images can be created even in our often quite turbid coastal waters. There is also the fun of exploring and discovering small creatures in crevices and overhangs; the joys of being a kid again for an hour or so. Each pier or jetty presents its own particular hazard. This can range from watching that a dropping tide doesn’t leave you trying to clamber up the bottom rungs of a badly corroded and rickety old ladder when trying to exit the water, to avoiding being knocked unconcious by the weapons grade halitosis of betching bull sealions as they lie flopped across the jetty cross members. But the pleasures tend to remain the same; hunting for that perfect patch of jewel anemones or symmetrical cluster of featherduster tubeworms.

The above pic was taken on the legs of a fairly tide swept pier in Southern Ireland. Large, fat mussels gaped in the rich feeding currents and between them bright orange Obelia hydroids swayed like tiny sunflowers. The trick with all macro-photography (and indeed much temperate water photography) is to slow down and look closely at what is literally just in front of your nose. The other pleasure that often comes from macro-photography is that one often discovers new things in the image that you never saw at all when composing the photograph. To take the above example; I was completely oblivious to the tiny crustacean scuttling about between the Obelia polyps, only noticing it once I had developed the film (yes, this is a film image), scanned the slide and viewed it on my laptop. This still applies with our current top-end DSLRs. Although lcd screens are improving all the time, small details are only revealed when the image is downloaded and viewed on a much larger screen.

Underwater Photography Workshop
For those interested I will be running a one day workshop, an introduction to underwater photography, in Exeter, Devon next month (6th March). This is intended for those relatively new to underwater photography looking to acquire a good grounding in the theory and practical skills, or possibly decide which system they are going to go for. There are still a few places left as I write this. For more info go to: Introduction to underwater photography workshop

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see

Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

I have just uploaded what is probably the worst whale picture you’ve ever seen, or are likely to. For a start it was taken with an old Nikonos III camera, without use of an additional hand held light meter. Those old Nik IIIs were purely mechanical, so no built in light meter; thus exposure was based on the ‘guesstimate then bracket like hell’ maxim. Secondly, it was taken with the only wide angle lens I owned back in those days, a cheap plastic supplementary lens of rather dubious sharpness. To be honest the lack of sharpness was not really an issue. I was shooting in turbid coastal waters, where horizontal visibility near the surface was between 8-10 metres (26-33 feet); pretty good for the area as it happens but lousy for shooting whales. On top of this strong winds had been blowing so the shallow coastal water was nicely loaded with suspended sediment lifted off the seabed. This made for a rather hazy 8-10 metres visibility. As if that weren’t enough, conditions were further complicated by this occurring around 7.30pm, so the sun was getting low and light levels below the surface were dropping like a stone. To cap it all I had no fast colour film with me (yes this was waaaay back in the pre-digital days). I had not gone diving to photograph whales. I knew the visibility was likely to be lousy so I had arrived armed with a set of extension tubes for macro-photography and several rolls of Fuji Velvia 50 slide film. This produces wonderful, detail and rich, saturated colours, But it is slow! Certainly useless for photographing something the size of a bus in turbid, low light conditions. Throwing everything out of my camera bag over the deck of our dive boat I fished out an old roll of 400 asa film. Now that was more like it; still going to struggle but at least there was a chance of a recognisable image now. Only problem was it was black and white negative film (so long ago I forget exactly what). Still, it was that or nothing. So I loaded it with shaking hands are rolled over the boats gunnel into the water. The slowest shutter speed available on Nik IIIs is a 30th sec, so I wound it right down and hoped for the best. Black and white negative film is more forgiving of poor exposure than slide, which was just as well really.

So I guess I was quite fortunate (and there was a lot of luck) to get any recognisable images at all. But apart from nostalgia, why hang on to them, and why publish them online? The pictures are nearly two decades old now and after all, I have lots of lousy quality pictures from years gone by. The main reason, apart from being able to waffle on about the difficulties of photographing large marine mammals in lousy conditions, is that, eighteen years on, as far as I am aware these remain the only underwater pictures taken of a humpback whale in British coastal waters. I can still remember my utter amazement as I peered over the boat’s rail into the water below, watching a dark shape slowly rise up. As it approached the surface not more than two metres from the boat I could clearly make out a long, white object. When it was around a metre below I suddenly realised I was staring at a massive white pectoral fin. ‘Bloody hell! It’s a humpback!’ I remember shouting (okay, it may have been slightly stronger than ‘bloody’). By the time it broke the surface I was already throwing dive gear together. I loaded my camera, threw my cylinder on and rolled over the gunnel faster than any time before or since, oblivious to what anyone else was doing. I settled on the bottom at around 10 metres. I peered around but he (or she) was nowhere in sight. What now? Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long. The humpback was intensely interested in the boats echo sounder transducer and kept returning to make passes under the hull. I floated up to mid-water and simply hung there, waiting for him to return then clicked away frantically changing aperture sizes as I did so.

A small population of humpbacks inhabits the Eastern Atlantic, migrating each year between their arctic feeding grounds and breeding grounds off Cape Verde. They are frequently spotted off the West coast of Ireland as they head North or south. This guy somehow made a wrong turn off Cornwall and headed East along the English Channel. After our memorable dive he was not seen again, as far as I know. Let’s hope he made back on track.

I continue to muddle away at underwater photography, so if anyone is tempted I shall be running a series of workshops from March 2010 onwards. More info at Colin Munro photography Main Index under Courses and Workshops

If anyone knows of other humpbacks photographed underwater around the UK I’d be most interested to learn about it.

Colin Munro 3rd February 2010.