Monday 21 December 2020

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

 2020 has been a very difficult year for everyone. Some of you, like myself, will have lost a loved one during the year and little bits of encouragement can help in keeping your spirits up until better times return. I'm an amateur photographer and Covid-19 has restricted my ability at local fairs and exhibitions to get my photography viewed in print on the Wirral Peninsula so I rely on this blog to talk about my photography instead.

This small blog has been a lifeline during Covid-19 and the visitor stats showing the very healthy numbers of monthly visitors reading about my photography has provided me with that little bit of encouragement to keep going as we approach 2021. 

2021 offers us hope for a better year than 2020 and I'm a positive person by nature, so I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a .....

🎅 Happy Christmas And A Healthy New Year 🎅

Thank you all for supporting my blog. 

Sunday 6 December 2020

Painting With Light

Covid-19 has curtailed the photographic opportunities of most photographers, as movement has been restricted, venues have been closed to the public and events have been cancelled. Luckily here in the UK we were blessed with an unusually dry and sunny Spring followed by a long, warm Summer to ease the pain of lock down and I've enjoyed my time spent working and relaxing in my garden with much of the time spent photographing flowers. 

Autumn came along with the prospect of shorter, wetter days as the night's drew in and here we are still in lock down as we come into Winter. To cope with the gloom of Covid and Winter together I was looking to improve my still life skills at home by viewing some Youtube tutorials on photographing flowers and I stumbled across a video on light painting some orchids with a simple torch. The result was really beautiful and I'd found myself a new project for the long dark Winter months.

Now I must admit that I'm not entirely new to painting with light. In 2017 I was on a photo club long weekend in Blencathra in the Lake District during October when we were given a light painting tutorial by a member of the club. 

Hoylake Photographic Society - Light Painting Tutorial

As you can imagine, trying to get everyone on the same page with camera setting and the technique when using different camera brands and menus in total darkness wasn't easy. People shining a torch at crucial moments because they'd either lost their remote cable release or had accidently kicked their tripod in the darkness resulted in some chaos. Still we managed to get a few shots of the burning wire wool twirled around on a rope with our brave host peppered with burning embers inside the light sphere. Don't try this at home without the proper precautions. At the time I marked it down as something else in photography that I'd tried and which I probably wouldn't do again.

Burning wire wool on a rope

Back now to the present and the light painting of flowers in the warmth of my dining room. By chance we had an arrangement of plastic orchids that were gifted to us which were perfect for me to practice the Youtube single torch technique, but first I invested in a portable clothes rail from Ikea for £7 to use as a background stand to hang some black cloth. The clothes rail is the perfect size for still life or head and shoulder portraits.

Plastic Orchids - torch lit, f16, 15 sec, ISO 100

With the camera set on a tripod, pre focused then switched over to manual focus in a dark room it was a simple case of keeping the small torch moving on the subject where you wanted the most light to fall taking care to keep the light source of the torch pointing away from the lens. Trial and error with the total time spent lighting the flowers and vase gave me this photograph which I'm pleased with.

I started searching Youtube for more light painting tutorials and it opened up a whole new World of fibre optic brushes, perspex blades, light swords, Katas, electroluminescent string, coloured gels, strobing torches and empty plastic drinks bottles that I never knew existed. Starting with a few cheap torches bought in supermarkets, some rescued plastic drink bottles and battery operated Christmas lights, I soon discovered that there were certain specialist tools available on the internet to make the art of light painting much easier.

My basic light painting kit

Torch, rubber universal connector and black fibre optic brush

Torch, rubber universal connector and perspex blade

Torch, rubber universal connector and plastic drinks bottle

You can use the cheapest torch available from a supermarket for light painting but a piece of kit that I'd highly recommend buying is a rubber universal connector to connect your torch to your chosen tool. Push a piece of coloured gel inside the universal connector and you change the colour of the light emitted from the torch. It also makes changing tools very quick as they just push on and it's cleverly designed to fit a standard plastic drinks bottle. A clear plastic bottle can either be filled with coloured gels or lightly spray painted in different colours. 

Torches with the on/off button on the base are most useful and a strobe effect makes things interesting. My basic supermarket torches costing £3 are 80 lumens in power which is good enough for close work and portraits. Grease proof paper makes a great light diffuser on the end of a torch. I've now purchased two specialist torches of 150 lumens and 300 lumens with variable power settings and strobe effect for outdoor use and more flexibility.

So what can you get up to indoors on a cold Winter evening of light painting. My first attempt was using a book, a glass sphere and a willing model.  A cheap torch was used to illuminate my granddaughter Bess and the book. I finished off using the black fibre optic brush and red gel on her hands and arms. 

Magic Hands

My second attempt was another concept. Southern Comfort, a glass of cold tea and a plastic firefighters helmet. A torch was used to quickly illuminate the bottle, glass and helmet for a few seconds. The black fibre optic brush with a red gel was then used to create the hot sparks and a torch shone through some blue Christmas tinsel created the background. 

Hot Stuff

Balancing the brightness of your light sources is the most difficult task added to the fact that you're working in darkness. It's hard to remember where on your canvass you've already painted. With the shutter set to "Bulb" mode the best way of adjusting the brightness is to adjust the aperture. A good starting point is f8 at ISO 100, then open or close the aperture if your image is too dark or too bright. Once the shutter is open on Bulb mode you have plenty of time in the dark to paint your subject. If you're wearing black clothing and keep moving you won't be recorded in the final image. Trial and error and patience is the way, and it will take a few efforts to get the image that you want. 

I've lost count of the times I've lost a tool in the dark half way through a shot. Putting a tea light next to them on a small table is a help. I initially used an IR remote to start /stop the shot but I constantly lost it when I put it down so I've switched to a cable release with a single button taped to the tripod leg.

Crying Light

My next session used the black fibre optic brush on it's own without any colour. The black fibre optic brush only emits light at the tips of the fibres and you can create some interesting portraits using that tool alone. Both portraits of my granddaughter were taken at f8 for 6 seconds. That was just enough time for one pass of the brush across the face and body. The results are very unpredictable, hence the tears of light which were unplanned. A white light was used below but the torch used was made of blue plastic and the fibre optics have picked up the blue light pollution. Something to consider. 

Black Fibre Optic Brush.

My most recent light painting session was another concept and far more adventurous. I found a toy Darth Vader mask in the loft and placed it on a hair styling head which was clamped to the dining table. Two rolled up bath towels made up the shoulders with black cloth used as a makeshift cloak. Two torches, one blue, the other red were used to illuminate either side of the head. The black fibre optic brush with a red gel was used to create the background and blue electroluminescent string moved quickly in the foreground to create a blue mist.

"May the light be with you"

As I became more confident with the results I switched the red fibre optic brush for the perspex blade and red gel with the torch set to strobe mode. This is my favourite photograph from the session.

Darth Vader

I've viewed a lot of Youtube videos from excellent light painters between these sessions. There's a lot of resources on the platform about light painting. My recommendation is to watch Patrick Rochon's 8hrs of free tutorials where he will take you from the basics through to light painting portraits. Denis Smith has his "School of Light" channel on Youtube with dozens of tutorials and interviews with professional light painters. Twenty Cent Light has the most amazing artwork for inspiration and it's hard to believe he's only been light painting for two years. 

I've only been light painting for two months this Winter and it will get harder to find the time as the days lighten into Summer but you don't need 100% darkness to paint with light. You can use the blue hour before dusk and include the landscape and the stars in your images. Eric Pare' is an expert in this type of painting and his work is also on Youtube to view. 

The only limits to your creativity are in your mind. There are countless ways to use light sources indoors and out. Have fun.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Wirral Festival of Firsts

I really enjoy photographing people. Although I've photographed a couple of weddings for family members I'm not cut out to be professional wedding or portrait photographer. The bride and groom were always delighted with my results and so was I but I always told myself afterwards that I'd got away with it as so much could have gone wrong on the day. Wedding and portrait photography is an art form in it's own right and difficult to do well. It's also very stressful so I've never been tempted to go down that route with my photography. 

Everyone though has the opportunity to shoot street photography, but I have this uncanny ability to draw the subjects attention whenever I raise the camera to my eye no matter how long or short the lens is that I'm using or my distance away from the subject. I always feel as though I'm intruding in people's lives when I'm targeting some-one in the street. I'm a magnet for attention on the street with a camera in my hands and find it impossible to blend into the background. 

Strangely enough I have the opposite effect on Zoo animals who turn their backs on me whenever I raise my camera to shoot. My wife thinks it's hilarious. My own beautiful Blue Merle Border Collie "Luna" drops her head, turns and skulks away to her bed whenever I try and photograph her. She acts as though I'm going to euthanize her. "Don't shoot me", she's thinking. Only the temptation of a treat will provide the chance of a portrait.

"Luna - A rare portrait success

Being a club photographer, the lack of people shots in my portfolio was a constant problem when it came to the "People" category in the monthly competition held each season. 

By chance in 2012 two members of the club were volunteer organisers of a new local Wirral arts festival, the "Wirral Festival of Firsts" with local celebrity John Gorman as its patron and leader. John was a member of the 60's group The Scaffold and the TISWAS TV show and through his contacts a number of celebrities, musicians, poets and bands mixed with local Wirral talent took part annually in the tiny Hoylake based arts festival taking place over 9 days. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the Claire House Children's Hospice on the Wirral Peninsula and it continued until Covid struck in 2020.

John Gorman and Sue Boardman

Members of my photo club were asked to be volunteer photographers and I jumped at the chance to photograph live performances, poetry evenings, music day in the bars and cafes of Market Street, art exhibitions, street performances, parades and family galas. 

Now I'd never photographed a live stage performance before and all of the action was taking place in the local churches and village halls. This provided me with some challenges. 

As you can imagine the Churches relied on standard lighting plus some natural light streaming through stained glass windows with often cluttered untidy backgrounds. A high camera ISO and fast lenses were a priority and most of the early shots were taken with the Sony A77, Sigma 70-200 f2.8, Sony 35mm f1.8 and the Samyang 8mm f3.5.

The village halls had a standard small stage, simple cloth background and some stage lighting which helped to keep the image noise lower but no opportunity to move around and shoot anything creative.

The brief was to photograph the acts and the audience to show people enjoying the festival. I had access to all areas but obviously a flashgun was not allowed and I needed to be as discreet as possible so as not to disrupt the performance. 

Miraculously, wearing an official festival T-shirt and with a camera in my hand people would suddenly stop and smile at the camera for a photograph instead of glaring at me. I had suddenly become acceptable as a street photographer.

"Speeches" at Melrose Hall

"Access all areas" during many of the performances in tightly filled halls sometimes limited me to shooting from the back of the hall. In slightly bigger venues I was able to tiptoe down the sides and photograph from the side of the stage. To capture the performance and audience together I found the Samyang 8mm f3.5 fisheye lens useful and very forgiving of the poor light.

Wirral Ukulele Orchestra

Wirral Ukulele Orchestra

The local Churches provided the best opportunity to move around and gain a different viewpoint but care was needed when shooting because of the low light. Using the Sony A77 I daren't shoot any higher than ISO 1600 and it was important to know the limitations of my gear and how far I could push it. Camera low light performance has improved so much since 2012.

Soprano Barbara Ruzsics

Photographing a performance in the large poorly lit Hope Church in Hoylake can be demanding but I was fortunate with the natural light from a window falling on Barabara Ruzsics during her performance. I was equally fortunate with the natural light from the same church window falling on Ned Evett and grateful for the space to move to the side of the stage.

Ned Evett and his fretless steel guitar

Hope Church was the main venue for the bigger acts during the festival and I was delighted to be present to record memorable performances from the very funny comic and poet Ian McMillan and the renowned classical guitarist Craig Ogden. 

Comic and Poet Ian McMillan

Classical Guitarist Craig Ogden

My aim when photographing the performances was to try and capture the performers expressions, to show emotion and I think that's come out in my festival shots. One memorable evening at a local village hall featured the TISWAS team getting back together again to reminisce. Host John Gorman, Bob Carolgees and Chris Tarrant in front of a full house in the village hall talking about old times. 

Bob Carolgees and Spit the dog

Chis Tarrant

The TISWAS Team - John Gorman, Chris Tarrant and Bob Carolgees

I've had the privilege over the six years that I volunteered at the festival to be present during some quiet intimate "Audience With" moments when celebrities are talking about their lives and careers to an entranced audience. On those occasions it was especially important to be as discreet as possible, get a few shots in the bag then sit back and enjoy the rest of the evening. 

One such event was "An Audience with Andy McClusky" in a hotel lounge in Hoylake along with 50 paying guests. The front man of the band OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) is a proud Wirral man and had his small audience spellbound. 

Andy McClusky of OMD

Mike (McGeer) McCartney gave a similarly small audience a fascinating talk about life growing up with his brother Paul in Liverpool, to his early career with the 60's band The Scaffold and his work now as a photographer. 

Mike McCartney

Mike, who is a local resident turned up to show his support for comic and presenter Harry Hill when he previewed his artwork which hadn't been seen in public before. This was another coup for the Wirral Festival of Firsts and I was lucky to have been invited to photograph the unveiling of his exhibition.

Mike McCartney and Harry Hill

Harry Hill and his art

Over the years John Gorman has been able to persuade a number of top celebrities to give their time in aid of the Claire House Children's Hospice and "An Audience With Willie Russell" was a sellout at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Hoylake in 2013. It was a difficult venue to photograph as the host John Gorman and Willie Russell were backlit by a large window with blue voile curtains on a bright Summer evening and there was little opportunity to move around a packed room. Still I was able to grab a shot of Willie Russell in a pensive mood when reflecting on his career as a dramatist, lyricist and composer.

Willie Russell

My association with the Wirral Festival of Firsts ended in 2018. The headline act of that year were the brilliant jazz duo Jacqui Dankworth and Charlie Wood. In that year they gave a heaving West Kirby village hall three hours of wonderful music. By this time my camera gear had moved on to the Sony A6300 mirrorless with far better low light performance and auto focus making photographing live performance much easier.

Charlie Wood and Jacqui Dankworth

Jacqui Dankworth

I've done a lot of name dropping in this blog post so far because volunteering as an amateur event photographer has given me some great opportunities to get up close to celebrities but my most successful and enjoyable photographs in the "People" category of my club's monthly competition have been of ordinary members of the public and the local talent who have taken part in the Wirral Festival of Firsts over the years. Without them there would be no festival.

Music Day in Smooth Cafe

Music Day in Smooth Cafe

Music Day in Market Street

Ukulele Workshop for Beginners

The final Saturday of the festival was traditionally music day with buskers, local musicians and bands occupying the bars and cafes along Market Street in Hoylake well into the evening. A Jazz Band marching through Hoylake one year brought the traffic to a stop bringing a feeling of New Orleans to the small town. Luckily, we were blessed by good weather that week.

New Orleans Jazz Band in Market Street

And finally a reminder of why the Wirral Festival of Firsts was created in 2012. It was to draw the arts to Hoylake, encourage local residents to take part, to have fun and at the same time raise funds for Claire House Children's Hospice and I've had a lot of fun photographing the live performances and people over the six years that I volunteered.

Thursday 15 October 2020

High Dynamic Range Photography

Camera sensor technology has come a long way in recent years but the one thing a camera can't do is to record what the human eye sees. In terms of light's dynamic range, sensors fall short in their ability to record detail in both the whites and blacks of an image at the same time unlike the human eye. Estimates suggest that the human eye can see anywhere between 10-14 f-stops of dynamic range whereas a camera sensor is about 8-11 f-stops. Each yearly improvement in sensor technology brings the camera's dynamic range closer to human sight albeit very slowly.

It's for this reason that in high contrasting landscape shots depending on which exposure mode the camera is set to and where in the image you have the horizon, the result will be either a blown out white sky with no detail and a well exposed foreground or visa versa.

Exposed for the foreground - blown out sky

Exposed for the sky - under exposed foreground

Always shooting in RAW for the best image quality, once the highlights in a sky have been blown out there's no chance of recovering any detail but there is the possibility of recovering detail from the foreground of an under exposed RAW image to create an acceptable single shot image. The solution that I prefer while the camera is already on a sturdy tripod is to simply take an extra shot and create a three shot HDR (high dynamic range) photograph. 

The first two photographs above are unprocessed RAW images out of camera while the finished photograph of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia (below) is a three shot HDR with the exposure "averaged" out in HDR software. The result is dramatic with detail in both the sky and the shadows. The photograph has punch. 

Three shot HDR of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia

The other way of overcoming these restrictions in dynamic range is by using a graduated neutral density filter on a filter holder screwed onto your lens. The "Grad ND" is darker on the top half of the glass filter with the lower half clear and it's designed to balance out the exposure in landscape photography but there is a drawback. They're fine for straight horizons but what about when you're photographing a horizon which are undulating such as mountains, trees or a cityscape full of buildings?

I gave up on "Grad ND" filters many years ago for landscape photography because they're expensive, cumbersome and slow to use and I find the technique of taking multiple exposures and blending them together to be more convenient when shooting and flexible when post processing. If I take five or seven bracketed shots of a scene with the cameras multi metering set to 0 in the viewfinder I can choose in post processing to use a single image to process or any number of them together as a HDR photograph. Shooting a series in burst mode takes a split second and card storage is cheap. Any unwanted shots can be deleted when on the computer.

The biggest drawback to capturing multiple exposures for creating HDR images is movement within the image. Modern HDR software is very adept at correcting "ghosting" in post processing. Often a five shot series of bracketed images in burst mode will be over in a split second and the software can handle minor movement well.

Pseudo HDR - Below Aber Falls

Sometimes the movement between shots will be too much for software to handle. In that case a method that I sometimes use to overcome movement is to create a "pseudo" HDR from a single image.

Shooting in RAW, take a shot with a well balanced exposure. You can adjust the exposure slider in your RAW converter to overexpose the shot by 2 stops and save, underexpose by 2 stops and save, then blend the three images together as a pseudo HDR. This technique was used on Below Aber Falls (above) one of my first HDR photos and it's brought out detail in both the moving water and the rocks many of which were in shadow. 

The modern technique is tone mapping a single image in HDR software. Tone mapping is a technique used to map one set of colours to another to approximate the appearance of HDR images.

Three shot HDR - Tower of London

Creating a HDR image is an ideal way of dealing with difficult lighting in any setting. The photograph of London Tower (above) was taken in a very dark room lit only by the window. It was impossible to capture detail in the shadows of the furniture and the sun filled window in a single shot. This was achieved with a three shot burst bracketed at +-2EV either side of 0EV and processed in Photomatix Pro HDR software. The camera was hand held and braced against a wall for stability.

Three shot HDR - Dunham Massey

The same technique and settings were used to capture this photograph of Dunham Massey (above) with light streaming through a window. In fact I've used HDR photography to capture more interior scenes than landscapes due to them only being lit by natural light with a flashgun being barred from use or the building being too vast for flashgun light.

Three shot HDR - Lady Lever Art Gallery

Three shot HDR - Lady Chapel, Anglican Cathedral Liverpool

When you have the ability to use a tripod as in the shots of Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral and the Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool then shooting in HDR is the way to go but how many bracketed shots do you need to produce a good HDR image?

I've read articles claiming that three shots bracketed at +-2EV is sufficient and this is the method that I've mostly used and that I'm satisfied with. I've also read articles that claim that the more bracketed shots you take the greater the detail in the finished photograph and I've shot HDR images using five, seven and nine bracketed images on occasion. 

Five shot HDR - One Careful Owner

The photograph of One Careful Owner (above) taken on the Dee Estuary at Lower Heswall is a five shot HDR bracketed at +-1EV. Is there any more detail compared to a three shot image producing the same dynamic range? It's very hard to tell.

So what software do I use to produce HDR photographs. In my early days I used Photomatix Pro which is available to try and purchase. My software of choice for several years has been Aurora HDR by Luminar. It's very powerful with a huge range of sliders to produce the HDR look that you prefer. 

Photographs produced as HDR's have a certain "look" which doesn't appeal to everyone. At worst they can look grungy, but at their best they will have punch and a wow factor but care is needed in toning down a processed image to make it look more natural as the colours can often be overpowering. Every camera has the settings to produce HDR photos. Some even have the ability to do it "in camera" All you need is a tripod or steady hand and the software. Have fun.

Sunday 27 September 2020

Brimham Rocks

I've been photographing in infrared for 15 years starting off with the Sony F717 bridge camera with an R72 filter attached and experience has taught me that the best infrared photographs are a combination of foliage and hard landscaping in the form of water, rocks, buildings, fences etc. to prevent the problem of wall to wall whiteness where there's no contrast and no focal point for the eye to rest on. Hard landscaping as a stage set to show off the white foliage of infrared is in my opinion the best look for landscapes.

With that philosophy in mind I enjoyed an afternoon at the National Trusts Brimham Rocks in October 2018. Brimham Rocks, is a 184 hectare biological site of Special Scientific Interest on Brimham Moor in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 8 mls north west of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. 

Lone Tree at Brimham Rocks - 720nm channel swapped

Brimham Rocks have been sculptured by the ice, wind and rain of nature for thousands of years but many of the formations could easily be mistaken for Henry Moore art work occasionally peppered with lone trees rooted in shallow crags. This makes them a wonderful subject for photography whether it's infrared or traditional colour photography. 

720nm infrared - channel swapped

720nm infrared - channel swapped

During this visit all of my shooting was done with a Sony A6000 which has been permanently converted to the 720nm standard wavelength of infrared. The 720nm wavelength produces weak colour in the red and blue channels only. With the correct white balance set to green grass, the colours straight out of camera have a brown sky. Some of these images have been channel swapped to produce a blue sky as above, one has been processed with the colours straight out of camera with a brown sky and many were processed as traditional monochrome images. My go to lens for these infrared photographs was the excellent Zeiss 12mm f2.8 Touit which captures very sharp images without any hotspots.

720nm infrared - out of camera colour

Traditional "fine art" infrared photography has always been in monochrome. Producing infrared images has alway been a creative post processing exercise and there are 101 ways to process any Raw image but I've been slowly moving away from false colour towards the more traditional monochrome since this visit to Brimham Rocks. Does monochrome work better? That's subjective and a matter for your personal taste. 

720nm infrared 

720nm infrared 

720nm infrared

The weak Autumn light wasn't perfect for infrared and I've had to do some dodging of the highlights as a result to brighten and enhance the white foliage but the bonus was there were very few visitors to the site on the day which gave me free reign to shoot without being disturbed. I'd love to return during the Summer months when I expect the results and the atmosphere captured in the images will be very different.