Thursday, 28 November 2013

Holiday Snaps Part I - Monochrome Italy

This is the first part of my rough guide to holiday snaps. There is nothing especially technical here - the last things most people want to think about on their hols are ISOs and f-stops - it's more a collection of ideas that can help you create more interesting travel memories that will fascinate your friends and family back home.

The locations featured here are the picturesque mountain-hugging village of Limone on Lake Garda, Italy, and the Dolomites (Dolomiti).

Mountains make for attractive photo opportunities, especially if you have a wide angle lens stuck on the front of your SLR - but look for foreground interest too - to give the landscape depth and perspective.

Look for subjects that help tell the story of the area, such as this statue of a cycle racer (many of whom you'll be able to wave to from the comfort of your vehicle as they sweat their way up the Dolomites).

When photographing statues, icons and the like, consider the surroundings - can they be used to tell a story, or add a bit of drama? Think about potential black and white conversions too; I always shoot in colour and convert later (as you can't recreate the colours if you shoot b&w), but here I knew that polarising the sky would create a nice deep blue that would convert to a dark dramatic grey using Photoshop's black and white tool.

Enjoy the grand vistas but don't forget to get in close and focus on some details too, or as above, make the background more abstract and moody.

When framing a shot, an object isolated on the horizon can make a good focal point. The tree in this shot also adds some perspective to the scene.

Backlit subjects can look pretty dramatic, but may test your camera's exposure meter. Take the camera out of 'auto' mode to be sure you're exposing as you wish - the camera could get a scene like this very wrong, depending on whether it exposes for the bright sky or the shadowy mountain side. Bracketing is a good idea for this type of scene - you can then pick the best shot later, or maybe merge elements of the different exposures together (if you keep the camera very still between shots i.e. use a tripod).

The courtyard above is nnother high contrast scene that might cause your auto-exposure mode to throw its hands up in the air. Shooting RAW allows you to reclaim shadow and highlight detail that JPG would lose - though even RAW has limits to how much can be saved.

Eveyone has their own 'signature' holiday pic - the type of quirky image you somehow manage to take wherever you go - mine is rooftops and aerials. Don't ask.

These last two images were shot through a coach window. I needed a fast shutter to avoid blur, but wanted to reduce reflections in the window too. I couldn't risk a polarising filter to remove the reflections, as I would lose too much light. Placing the lens very close to the window kept reflections to a minimum - just mind your glass!

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Kitten's Tale

If anyone had told me years ago that I'd be photographing kittens with flowers I'd have told them they were mad... and yet here we are. Thing of it is, animals - and small, highly mobile ones in particular - present a special set of challenges to the photographer.
Humans don't always like sitting for a portrait, so an important part of any portrait photographer's job is to relax their sitter and help them enjoy the session - it will result in better portraits. Animals are the same, except you can't unleash your best jokes on them and expect them to fall about laughing.
So, rather than a bagful of witty one liners, approach a pet portrait session with a suitcase full of patience. Have your camera ready and watch your pets play, waiting for just the right moment to shoot. The noise of the camera may well attract their attention. If so, snap another quick shot for that 'eye contact' look.

When photographing small animals, get down to their level, and get in as close as you can without distracting them from their fun. Think about what is in and out of frame; try to include elements that help tell a story - after all, for 32,000 years visual art has been all about telling stories. If something makes for a distracting or irrelevant element, whip it out of shot, or crop to exclude it.
One of the biggest distractions in home-shot images can be the background. Houses tend to be cluttered with furniture, ornaments etc. If you are planning a photoshoot with your pets, have a bit of a clear up first. But you cannot clear away everything, so try setting your camera to a wide aperture - maybe f5.6, or even wider - f3.5 or f2.8 - to blur out the background. Depending on how close you are to your pets, you may blur parts of them too, so make sure you are focussing on the most important part of them, usually their faces.
A wide aperture will have the added benefit of allowing you to use faster shutter speeds. This can be very handy with kittens, for example, who rarely stay still except when asleep. The faster shutter speed will stop or reduce motion blur. You might also consider setting your ISO higher to further increase shutter speeds.

If your camera offers a range of metering options, and lighting conditions are contrasty (lots of very light and very dark areas), try the spot metering mode. Make sure you are metering from (i.e. focussing on) your pet, rather than the background. That way your pet will be exposed correctly, and if the background is too light or too dark, it doesn't really matter - it can even look quite nice, as over- or under-exposure of the background will remove more unwanted distractions.

 A word about light sources. Natural is best. Your camera's flash can do a job, but will distract your pets, and also flatten the image. The image will probably be sharp as the flash will freeze motion, but it will also lack character. The image below is an example. Harold and Maude still look cute, but the other images in this set possess a lot more character, I hope you agree.

If your home is not the lightest (as many are not at this time of year), you could put your house lights and lamps on to supplement any window light. However, be aware that in most cases this will introduce colour casts to your images, and they can be tricky to remove entirely when you have different types of light in the same image.

Lastly, don't get frustrated if your pets don't strike the pose you were hoping for, or if you just miss some 'money shots' - it happens to the best of us, but if you remain chilled your pets will too, and they'll be sure to present you with another opportunity for a cutesy classic.