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Orca at sunset, a snapshot of wildlife photography technique: decision making.

Orca at sunset, a snapshot of wildlife photography technique: decision making.
A large male orca glides through the water at sunset.  Photograph by Colin Munro, available as a fine art print or wall art at Colin Munro Images https://www.colinmunroimages.com/Prints-for-Sale/i-2Bp3WgP
Male Orca at sunset, New Zealand South Island, East of Stewart Island.

I think wildlife photography technique is often best discussed through examples. Orca are hugely impressive animals. They have come to symbolise power, intelligence, grace and – sometimes – ferocity. Often known as killer whales, largely due to the way they would attack harpooned baleen whales, or harry and gradually wear down larger whales in a similar fashion to wolves on land, they are in fact large dolphins. Few of us will not have seen the BBC footage of orca powering on to beaches in Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia to grab unwary elephant seals. The power of these animals is quite awe-inspiring. Large individuals may weigh up to 11 tonnes, and females may life to be at least 80 years old. We now think of orca as a highly variable species, or species complex, with up to nine different types recognised. Advances in science may eventually split these into sub-species, or possibly separate species.

I took this photograph a few miles off the coast neat the southern tip of New Zealand South Island. We were sailing from Stewart Island, the small, rugged island to the south of South Island, heading towards the city of Dunedin. It was a perfect evening in mid-November, summer in the southern hemisphere, around 8.30pm. The sun was already almost touching the horizon, creating deep shadows in the troughs of the ripples pushed along by the light breeze. The orcas approached our bow from the northeast, then passed close by on our port side. This was going to be the best shot I would get, before he disappeared towards our stern. However the low sun was directly behind him, casting his curved back and giant dorsal fin almost in silhouette. I had a couple of seconds to decide. I could ramp up the camera ISO and expose my shot to bring out the details on the orca’s back, but doing so – shooting straight in to the sun – would blow out all detail in the water around him, or… I could do the opposite. I could aim for silhouettes and shapes, patterns and texture on the water. If this were a studio shot it would be termed ‘low key’; but of course this was not a studio, there would be no posing, no running around with a hand held light meter, no test shots. I dialled down the ISO, ramped up the shutter speed, quick check of the viewfinder light meter …. focus… and click, click, click. And that was it. I watched as the dorsal fin slipped beneath the water, to reappear several minutes later, far behind us. The sun was dipping beneath the horizon, and the light was gone.

I find wildlife photography is often like this. Animals don’t appear on cue, they don’t appear when you’re standing waiting with your camera gear all set correctly, they don’t appear in the right place or the right conditions and often they don’t allow you time to think through your choices and your settings. This is where practice and experience comes in. After years of taking shots in all sorts of conditions, you learn to instantly recognise situations, and dial in settings almost with muscle memory. Not that you can ever become complacent. Camera technology is constantly improving; that means that the rules that you automatically followed three years ago may no longer be the best way. Advances in technology may mean that the settings you used last year may now be improved upon by turning them on their head. So successful wildlife is a continual process of learning, practice, relearning, practice..repeat. Wildlife photography technique is not simply a question of reading a manual, or a blog like this; like every art, in the end it comes down to practice and learning from what doesn’t work as much as from what does.

Fine art prints of this orca photograph

The orca picture shown here is one of my images I have selected to make available as fine art prints. It can be ordered directly from my www.colinmunrophotography.com website here.

Prints if you are in North America

If you live in the USA or Canada, These prints can be ordered directly from my www.colinmunroimages.com website. They are available as fine art prints, and on a range of other media, stretched canvas, canvas wraps, flat canvas, dye-infused aluminium prints and acrylic on alumimium in a range of sizes and crops. They can be ordered directly from my website colinmunroimages.com. Default printing is my Bay Photos professional fine art printers in California.

Image editing services; People added, people removed.

Image editing services; People added, people removed.

A picture editing service that can all be done by email.

One of the commonest image editing tasks I get asked to do is to add a person to a picture or remove someone from a picture.  Often this is a group shot from a wedding, presentation ceremony or some other event that can’t be re-shot quickly or easily.  Maybe you’ve just received those award ceremony shots you paid dearly for only to realise there are two people in the shot who have nothing to do with your group; or maybe you’ve just realised that the host of the event is not any of the key group shots and he just has to be there.

Sometimes a scene can look too crowded

Sometimes a scene can look too crowded

Sometimes you get the shots back only to find that the best shot has one person sneezing, or looking in the wrong direction.  If only the image of him from one of the other photographs could be lifted and placed in this shot.  If any of this sounds familiar to the sort of problem you’re facing right now then shoot me an email or give me a call.  Most of the time I’m able to sort these problems quickly and in a very cost effective manner.  Check out the image editing service page on my website for details.

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 www.colinmunrophotography.com. 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.

Photography in the digital age: what’s changed?

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. © Colin Munro Colin Munro Photography

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. Photographing light coloured fish against blue water is one of many situations where you don’t want to use auto settings. Image taken with a Nikon D610 and Nikon 20mm in an Aquatica housing, while free-diving around Nuie Island, October, 2019.

When I was young, both the World and photography was much simpler. The changes that have occurred in the World would take more than a blog to describe, so I’ll stick to those that directly affect photography. Back in the 1980s photography was film, and cameras were electro-mechanical machines – and so fairly simple to understand how they worked.  In fact, I started out in underwater photography before ever seriously using a camera on land, and the camera I started with (a second-hand, mid-1970s vintage Nikonos III) was entirely mechanical, to all intents and purposes a slightly tweaked version of the Calypso-phot designed by the Belgian engineer Jean de Wouters for Jacques Cousteau’s La Spirotechnique  company.  Incredibly simple by modern standards, my Nikonos III had the great advantage that if the camera flooded during a dive, one simply took it apart – a very easy process – washed it with fresh water, left it to dry, and put it back together.  Good luck doing that with any modern camera!  A second advantage of my mechanical Nikonos was that taking pictures underwater wasn’t that easy, especially so in the dark, turbid waters of the Firth of Clyde where I was based at that time. That may be counter-intuitive, but if you actually wanted to make money from taking photographs, then you definitely did not want it to be something that could be done with little or no skill or training.  There was no light meter, so you had to base settings on experience.  Flash lighting ( a necessity in such waters) was manual only, so you needed to know the power of the flash, estimate the total light path distance and set your camera aperture accordingly.  Add to this that a film roll contained only 36 frames, and of course film could not be changed underwater.  Once the 36 frames were used up, that was it. Dive over.  The end result of this was that there were far fewer underwater images around in the early 1980s, and a pretty low percentage of these were actually useable.  Nowadays there are estimated to be around 6 Million active SCUBA divers Worldwide (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, 2019) and a fair percentage of those are taking underwater photographs.

Many of the changes in underwater photography over the past few decades have been replicated on land. Cameras have changed from being (relatively) simple devices for creating images on film, to hugely sophisticated instruments that convert light to electrical charge and so create and store digital images.  A modern digital SLR will produce images that are sharper and contain far more detail than the best 35mm film images of just a few years ago. They are also created at a far greater rate.    A total of somewhere around 25 thousand million photographs were taken in 1980, a vast number that is true, but compare that with 2017. Around 1.2 Trillion photographs were uploaded in 2017.  Gizmodo estimates that 300 million photographs were uploaded on to Facebook alone in 2019.  This creates two immediate problems for any serious photographer. Firstly, almost all of the millions upon millions of images that are online can be viewed freely, so why should someone pay for your images?  Secondly, even if they want to pay for your images, how on earth do you get people to find them within this staggery vast array of pictures?  These are the key problems facing pretty much all photographers trying to sell images nowadays.

The problems do not end there. Most images are licensed through stock agencies to print companies, newspapers or magazines (e.g. a licence is granted to use the image for a limited period of time or set publication or print run).  Back in the 1980s this could generate a serious income.  But now, not only are there many, many more images to choose from, but the newspapers and magazines no longer make the same profit from advertising as they too have lost out to the online world.  Almost all newspapers nowadays lose money, so they are looking for the cheapest images possible much of the time.  It is not possible to come out with a scientifically robust figure, but from personal experience and talking to lots of friends and colleagues, I estimate that – for similar levels of effort – the income generated from stock image sales is between a 1/10th to 1/20th of 1980s levels.   That does not mean you cannot make money selling images through stock agencies (or directly) but it does mean you will need to work hard at it and are unlikely to make your fortune doing so.

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Monochrome for landscape is very much a personal preference. Generally it works better with high contrast images.  Nikon D610, Nikon 20mm, polarising filter. Aitutaki, October 2019.

One of the great things about modern DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of setting controls, functions, custom-settings, menus and sub-menus that allow the photographer enormous control over the appearance of the final image.  But the awful thing about modern DSLRs and mirrorless is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of settings and controls ……  so you get the idea.  Picking up a modern DSLR or mirrorless for the first time can be a very daunting experience.  Our cameras have never been better equipped to capture images that are incredibly faithful to real life or to create stunning artistic images, and yet the overwhelming majority are rarely used other than on auto mode. Fortunately, many people are motivated to get to grips with more of the full potential of the high tech piece of very expensive hardware they have paid good money for.  As a consequence many professionals, myself included at times, have made the shift across from solely taking photographs to teaching photography.

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. I prefer longer lenses for people shots.  It makes obtaining a shallow depth of field so much easier, but just as important, it provides some distance, so the subject is more likely to be behaving naturally rather than posing for the camera. Nikon D610 and Nikon 80-400mm 4.5-5.6D lens.

Teaching photography can be a rewarding process.  For one thing their is nothing like teaching any subject to make sure you really understand it yourself. Secondly, this is far from a static field.  The techniques I teach now have changed radically from those I taught  ten years ago, because cameras themselves have changed radically in that time.    Photography is a constant learning and re-learning process.  When digital photography began to supplant film based photography I deeply resented it.  Digital was precise, more automated; photochemical changes in silver halide crystals were not precise.  Film was ….. well, magic.   But the more I learned as a (initially) reluctant convert to digital, the more I appreciated that many of the skills I had learned in the previous 25 years were not redundant but actually quite transferrable and highly useful still in the digital era.  More than that, the limitations of my early mechanical cameras and the photographically challenging environment of the dark waters of Southwest Scotland meant that I was forced to really learn the basic principles of photography and how light behaved.  These basic principles still underpin photography using todays latest digital camera systems.

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. © Colin Munro www.colinmunrophotography.com

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. A wide-open lens helps isolate the subject from the background. A long lens allows nice tight shots without encroaching close on the subject and possibly disturbing her.  The arrival of a fallback on the beach was completely unexpected, but her slow progress across the sand to above the high water mark where her eggs would be laid allowed plenty of time for multiple shots to be taken.  I like this one because of the eye contact.  Nikon D610, Nikon 80-400 4-5.6D lens.

 

Despite all the advances, photography still remains the manipulation of light in order to obtain a sharp (mostly) and correctly exposed image on light sensitive media. The control we have in order to achieve that has expanded almost out of all recognition, but the fundamental variables: shutter duration, aperture size, ISO, lens properties and sensor dimensions are still fundamentally unchanged since the days of George Eastman’s Box Brownie developed 120 years ago.

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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ISO setting on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

ISO setting on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

This is part of an occasional series looking at the basic controls on a camera. It’s here primarily to supplement, and as a taster for, my beginners photography classes and one-to-one sessions. Some of the controls on a camera are fairly intuitive. Zoom, for example, controls the focal length of the lens and so the degree of magnification of the image (we zoom in, or we zoom out). Shutter speed controls the…er…speed of the shutter; well accurately it controls the duration the shutter is open, and so the amount of light allowed to pass through the shutter and impinge on the sensor, which in turn directly influences how bright or dark the image is. But ISO? Knowling that the acronym stands for International Organisation for Standardation doesn’t help that much either, and yes, I know it should be IOS not ISO (there are reasons but truthfully that would simply be too much of a digression to go there now, ask me after class :)). So if we simply accept that the name, ISO, tells us nothing about what the control actually does – then what does the ISO control on a camera do? Essentially the ISO setting works rather like the amplifier on a radio or CD player; it varies the signal gain to produce a brighter (for higher iSO values) or darker (for lower ISO values) without any changes in the amount of light hitting the sensor. Typically ISO values range from 100 (low) to 3,200 or 6,400 (high) on some cameras. These numbers are derived from film; with film cameras the film had a set sensitivity to light. Film that responeded quickly was termed fast film; film that responded slowly …. you’ve guessed already ..slow film. The film’s sensitivity could not be changed, so once it was loaded into the camera the ISO value of that film was then dialled in using the camera ISO control, allowing the film’s sensitivity to be taken in to account when exposure was evaluated by the camera’s light meter (or it would be dialled in to the meter if a hand held light meter was used). The ISO sensitivity in a digital camera is created very differently to in a film camera, but the same numerical values are used and they approximate closely to the changes in sensitivity to light that occurred in film. Essentially, the steps between each ‘standard’ ISO value represents a doubling or a halving in senstivity, depending on whether one goes up or down. So ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100; ISO 400 is twice as senstive as ISO 200, and so on. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if a particular scene was correctly exposed at a shutter speed of 15th of a second at ISO 100, then (all other settings remaining unchanged) the same scene would still be correctly exposed at 30th of a second at ISO 200 (a shorter time the sensor is exposed to light, but a more sensitive ISO value) it would also be correctly exposed at 60th of a second at ISO 400. Okay, so what would the correct ISO setting be if the shutter speed was changed to 500th of a second?
Hopefully this explains how the ISO values influence image exposure, but why do we want this control? Well there are a few situations where it is useful but the fundamental one is that a higher ISO allows us to use faster shutter speeds. If we go back to my first example, a shutter speed of 15th of a second at ISO 100. A 15th of a second is very slow and likely to produce a blurred image, a) due to the slight shakiness in everyone’s hands and b) as people (or animals, cars etc.) move. By selecting a higher ISO value we can then change to a faster shutter speed where these problems will be greatly reduced (for the sake of simplicity I have not considered aperture values and have assumed they remain unchanged).

 

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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 ..er.. 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 www.colinmunrophotography.com

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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Light and shadow

tara in light and shadow Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com

As a rule I don’t do standard portraits.  It’s not that I have strong feelings against them, they have there place of course.  It’s simply that they don’t interest me greatly.  I have always preferred working with light and shadow.  It’s about creating shapes and outlines, creating a certain atmosphere.  This applies also to many of my landscape images but is particularly true of images of people.  Simply put, images where the eye cannot see everything, and one must deduce what is there from a certain shape or pattern of light, are much more interesting to me.

with landscapes I am particularly drawn to combining colour and shadow; or maybe I am drawn to sunrises and sunsets, which naturally means colour and shadow.  We often think the quality of light is the same whether it is dawn of sunset.  It is not. At dawn the air is much cooler and generally less dust laden.

Sunrise over the Navua River, Viti Levu, Fiji. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com

Sunrise over the Navua River, Viti Levu, Fiji

This tends to produce more subtle colours, such as the pastel shades of sky and cloud in the above images from dawn in Fiji. The intense blood reds skies are more likely to occur at sunset, as blue light is scattered when the low sun’s rays pass through hot dusty air.

 

Pirogue fishermen at senset, Senegal, West Africa. Colin Munro Photography. www.colinmunrophotography.com

Pirogue fishermen at senset, Senegal, West Africa.

But it is the human face, and the human figure, where light and shadow are most compelling.  The curves, angles and textures that we all recognise so well are most strikingly captured in stark black and white, like pen and ink drawings.

The grace and elegance of a dancer, the beauty of youth, the lined and weathered face of experience are all best painted by selective shafts of light.  Photography is often considered to be painting with light; this is only half true for it is also the selective absence of light that differentiates an artistic portrayal from a passport photograph.

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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

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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

The rule of thirds for Photography

Image illustrating rule of thirds. Sunrise over mudflats, Exe Estuary near Cockwood Harbour. Colin Munro Photography

The rule of thirds is one of the first principles we come across if we start delving in to image composition. The rule was originally developed for paintings, but of course it applies equally to photographs. As a principle it has endured pretty well, it’s first description being attributed to an 18th painter called Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

So what is the rule of thirds?
Counter-intuitively, you do not divide the image in to thirds. Rather you divide the image in to nine sections with two vertical and two horizontal lines.

rRule of Thirds diagram Colin Munro Photography

Rule of Thirds

The idea is that objects of interest in the image should be placed either at intersects of lines or along the lines dividing the image. This, according the rule, creates a more pleasing balance to the image than simply placing the object of interest in the centre of the image.

Sunrise over mudflats, Exe Estuary near Cockwood Harbour. Colin Munro Photography. www.colinmunrophotography.com

Sunrise over mudflats, Exe Estuary near Cockwood Harbour.

Image illustrating rule of thirds. Sunrise over mudflats, Exe Estuary near Cockwood Harbour. Colin Munro Photography

Image with lines showing horizon lying roughly along upper line, sun near top right intersect.

In the above image, placing the horizon roughly along the upper horizontal line, and the sun roughly in line with the intersect of the upper horizontal and the right hand vertical, follows the rule. For me at least, it works here, creating a far more appealing image than if the horizon lay along the mid-line of the image, or the sun placed centrally.

 

As with all rules, rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes by breaking a convention one can make the image more arresting. When to do that is ultimately a personal decision, but it always helps to understand the rule you are breaking.

Heavy rain clouds above Teignmouth Pier, Teignmouth, Devon. Colin Munro Photography

Heavy rain clouds above Teignmouth Pier, Teignmouth, Devon, England, UK.

I will be running a series of One day Landscape Photography Courses in Devon. First is around the Exe Estuary on 24th of November, details here
You can find out about more of my Photography and Photoshop Courses here