by Harry Flashman
Believe it or not!
One of my friends sent me the following link
thinking that I would be flabbergasted at the images captured by a
smartphone. I was sorry that I had to report that the images were not
demonstrating how advanced the smartphone was, as they were all “record”
A “record” shot in photography parlance is one where the photographer
does nothing other than trip the shutter. The image is one which is
there in front of you - all you have to do is record the image for
If you go to the link, you will see that whilst they are all very
pleasant images, there is no use of depth of field, for example. In
other words, no input from the photographer. Forget the fact that these
were taken by a smartphone, they could have been taken with a box
Brownie or even a pinhole camera.
To get better images than the smartphone “record”, remember the ‘Rule of
Thirds’ (place the main subject one third of the way in from either side
and one third of the way up or down from the top or bottom of the
picture). This is a tried and true rule of thumb and you can try it out
so easily with digital photography. It may feel ‘wrong’ initially not
having the subject slap bang in the middle of the frame, but try it and
you will find you are getting better, more pleasing pictures.
While still on the subject of the overall image, don’t forget to take
each shot two ways - in the landscape (horizontal) format and the second
in the portrait (vertical) format. Again it sounds strange to shoot a
landscape in the vertical format, but it gives the viewer a different
emphasis, which can improve an otherwise ‘ordinary’ shot.
With most digitals having reasonably good zoom lenses these days,
experiment with different zoom settings and distance from the subject. A
‘tele’ setting can give you a very different photograph from the ‘wide’
setting taken closer to the subject. This ability to experiment, at the
time of shooting, is one of the biggest plusses for digital photography.
One of my standard tips is “Walk several meters closer”, and by doing
this you will find that you can make the subject fill the frame (to even
overflowing) and get rid of horrible distracting backgrounds.
You can also see the difference in the backgrounds between shooting at
f2.8 as opposed to f16. The larger aperture (f2.8) gives a blurred
background, which is exactly what the ‘portrait’ mode does. Many of the
tricky settings are just automatic combining of different
apertures/shutter speeds, and a general knowledge of first photographic
principles will always help your photography too.
The position of the subject, relative to the sun (the celestial lighting
technician) can make or break your photos. The amount of contrast in any
scene can also baffle the digital sensors so they will try to balance
out the contrasts which can spoil the effect you were trying to create.
If your camera shows you those dinky little histograms, you can soon see
if the light is biased in any particular direction.
What you have to do is try and balance bright or dim light. In low light
conditions, try using your camera’s night shooting mode, or lower the
ISO to 50 or 100 to get some detail in low light. Also look at trying to
use a tripod.
In bright light, try your camera’s Beach or Sunshine mode, or go to
manual mode and choose a fast shutter speed to control the amount of
light that comes in.
Be careful if you place your subject in front of a bright window or they
will become a silhouette. Try placing them off to the side of the window
instead, or facing a natural light source.
For better photographs indoors, turn your flash off. Try to maximize the
light by pulling back the curtains, opening doors and turning on the
incandescent lights in the room. Sure, you will have slower shutter
speeds and you may have to look at using the tripod, or even just
holding the camera firmly on a table, but you will get more natural
Fun with Filters
“New” photographers tend to splurge on filters, happily screwing on the
latest filter purchase, no matter whether the subject matter will be
enhanced by the addition on the front of the lens.
Now, before discussing the different filters and what can be done with
them, there is one step that should be done beforehand - and that is to
standardize the diameter of your lenses. This is done with stepping
rings, and in my case I selected 62 mm. This then means that my filter
collection (62 mm) will screw onto any of my lenses. Being larger, it
also means I am less likely to get a vignetting effect (losing the edges
of the image), even with stacking two filters on together.
So here’s what I think you should have. The first one is called simply a
Skylight 1A. This filter does make the sky a little deeper, but the main
reason to have it is as a sacrificial piece of glass, so that your good,
expensive lens does not get scratched. Skylight 1A’s are very cheap.
Soft romantic effects can be produced in many ways, and here are a few
tried and true methods, and the first is super inexpensive as well. Just
gently breathe on the Skylight 1A filter just before you take the shot.
Your warm breath will impart a “mist” to produce a wonderfully misty
portrait, or that early morning mist look for landscapes. Remember that
the “misting” only lasts a few seconds, so make sure you have the camera
pre-focussed and ready to shoot. If you have control over the aperture,
try around f4 as well.
Another interesting result is by smearing Vaseline on the same Skylight
1A and seeing the different effects you get. Do not smear the Vaseline
on the end of your lens. It is impossible to get off without washing in
hot soapy water, something you can do with a filter, but not with your
One of the nicest filter effects is what is called “center spot soft
focus”. Now this just means the center is in focus and the edges are
nicely soft and blurred. This effect is used by portrait and wedding
photographers all over the world to produce that wonderful “romantic”
Now to use this filter. If you have an SLR (single lens reflex) camera
or a digital, you actually look through the lens when you are focussing
and what you see is what you get (the WYSIWYG principle, mentioned many
times in this column). Set your lens on the largest aperture you can
(around f5.6 or f4 is fine). Focus on your subject, keeping the face in
the center of the screen. Now bring up your magic soft focus filter and
place it over the lens and what do you see? The face is in focus and the
edges are all blurred! Try some different f stops as well (it makes the
center spot larger or smaller) and record the details in your trusty
You can also use these filters with any compact point and shoot camera,
but it is a little more hit and miss, as there’s no WYSIWYG with
compacts. What you have to do is position the center of the filter over
the lens and, while keeping it there, bring the camera up to your eye,
compose the shot and then shoot. Takes some fiddling and manual
dexterity and take a few shots as you are really flying blind.
The next one is the polarizer. I have mentioned polarizers before, but
the difference between polarized sunlit shots and unpolarized is
incredible. The depth of color when you polarize is fantastic. As you
rotate the polarizing filter, the reflections on any shiny surface, be
that grass, trees, water or whatever, just disappear, leaving the
undiluted bold color.
There are many more filters, colored effects, graduated effects, star
cross and more. Filter photography is fun.
And yes, I know that your favorite post-production Photo-Shop or
whatever can give you electronic filter effects, but it isn’t as much
fun as looking through the viewfinder, deciding on the effect wanted and
the filter to do it, and knowing what you are going to get. WYSIWYG
Drone aerial shot.
I was reminded about helicopters this week when I overheard a young lady
saying accusingly to her male partner, “You not butterfly, you
helicopter!” To which the quick-witted young man replied, “And you
However, in the life of the pro shooter, you sometimes have to face your
greatest fears to get the shot that the art director wants. For me that
was any height greater than that experienced by standing on a chair.
Needing the fee, I took the job.
The brief was simple. I had to shoot a vacant allotment where a hotel
and resort was (hopefully) going to be built. The client had the ground
and an architect’s model of the proposed resort. My job was to end up
with an aerial shot showing the hotel in position, relative to all the
other buildings, as if it had been there for some years. Just another
example of why you should not believe everything you see.
Technically, shots like these are very difficult, as you have so many
factors which have to be taken into consideration, lighting being just
one of them. It is a situation that requires a notebook and pen, just as
much as a camera.
Working on the principle that we would need some nice warm lighting and
good shadow definition, it was decided we would do the aerial shot at 3
p.m. and a helicopter (with doors removed) was booked for 3 p.m. for one
hour. Helicopters are not cheap to hire, and since the photographer is
paying, I took the one hour minimum.
With all camera gear on board we reviewed the site from the air. I had
to decide from what height we needed to do the shooting, and 600 feet
seemed the best. We then circled the vacant allotment until the best
viewpoint was reached, as we also had to show the beach and some Pacific
Ocean, to show the locality of the proposed resort. At the same time we
noted the focal length of the lens I would use and did a couple of test
Polaroids to settle on the exposure details. The camera, by the way, was
a Hasselblad as we had to shoot in medium format, which with its
removable backs allowed for Polaroid test exposures.
Then came the first of the problems. It was a windy day and the pilot
could not hold the position to allow me to shoot from inside the
helicopter and I was going to have to go outside of my little cocoon of
safety to get the shot.
This meant wearing a harness with a rope attached and getting out of the
helicopter and standing on the landing struts while leaning into the
wind and don’t drop the camera! For someone dizzy at one meter above
ground level, this was a fearsome task. And did mean I had to trust the
photographer’s assistant implicitly.
In around 10 minutes of being buffeted outside the helicopter, I had
shot several rolls of film and I was pulled back in and we headed for
After processing the transparencies, the next part of the job was to
shoot the architect’s model in the studio. This meant replicating the
lighting direction and the warmth of the light. It also meant shooting
from a height in the studio that was the equivalent of 600 feet in the
helicopter. This was done by reading the architect’s plans and working
out 600 feet relative to the height of the proposed building and then
using that formula with the height of the architect’s model. There is
several hours involved in just doing that and then more hours in setting
up the lights and the camera position.
The following day we began shooting Polaroids, looking at the relativity
to the helicopter shots. These were the days long before Photoshop and
everything had to be in the correct scale before we would send
background and resort model shots to the retouchers.
Only after everything was right did we shoot the transparencies of the
architect’s model. In total three days of intense shooting. I earned my
money with that shoot.
These days? They just send up a drone. Another nail in the art coffin!
Ten tips for better pix
Photography is a continuous learning process. Even at the professional
level, photographers are experimenting with new processes, new techniques
and even shared knowledge to improve their images. To become a pro usually
means that the photographer has spent some time as an “apprentice” to a well
established pro shooter. However, you can get there on your own, with the
help of books (something I wrote about a few weeks ago).
Now, despite the advent of technologies such as auto-exposure, auto focus
and ‘instant’ review of shots, the practice of photography remains the same.
Follow the ‘rules’ and you will find your ratio of good images to bad images
Over the years, I have been asked many times to give out the “secrets” you
learn in the professional photography arena. I have written the basic ones
here, just keep reading. I should add that all these tips come from real
Tip number 1. Incredibly basic, but it is simply to read your camera’s
manual. Read the manual again. In the case of digital cameras, read the
manual again. You cannot do it too often. With digitals, you can see the
effect immediately. When all else fails - read the manual again. The answer
is all in there.
Tip number 2. Always carry one more memory stick or card than you think
you’ll need when on holidays. The shot of a lifetime will appear and you
will have already filled your card. When you are digital, you haven’t got
the time to sit there going ‘review-delete-review-delete’ with your digital
Tip number 3. Frequently check the exposure controls on your camera, that
they really are set on Auto, or Shutter priority, the ISO rating you want or
what your standard settings are. It is very easy to knock the controls and
settings when taking the camera in and out of the bag, or even when it has
been hanging round your neck.
Tip number 4. When you get back home, download the images into one
electronic folder clearly marked with information such as “Loy Krathong
2014” for example. Once again, very basic, but very necessary when you are
looking for one particular image. And by the way, download into a back-up
folder as well.
Tip number 5. When going on holidays with your camera, take spare batteries
with you - always. No matter how new the batteries, if there is a failure
while you are trekking in Mongolia, or just lazing on the beaches in Koh
Samet you will not be able to get the correct replacement. Remember also
that your camera may use more than one type of battery, another trap for
young players. Keep spares of both kinds. And just taking the charger with
you does not help when you are in the middle of a desert somewhere.
Tip number 6. I mentioned this next one a few months ago. Always check that
the camera neck strap is indeed tight and secure on both ends. If one end
lets go, the camera will hit the ground before you have time enough to catch
it. Cameras do not bounce well, if at all.
Tip number 7. Never keep your camera in the glove box of your car. The
temperatures that can be reached in the cubby hole reach as high as 50 plus
degrees Celsius in our blazing summers. The newer “plastic” bodied cameras
and camera backs can actually warp with the high temperature.
Tip number 8. Always put spare memory sticks or cards back in their plastic
containers, and keep them in the camera bag. I even suggest you tie them in
place, so they don’t get lost. When you need it in a hurry, it has to be
accessible. It will happen, believe me.
Tip number 9. When shooting children or animals for doting parents/owners,
get down to the subject’s level. You’ll get a better shot! Remember bacon
fat for cats and a box of matches for dogs!
Tip 10. Remember the Rule of Thirds. Place the subject one third in from one
side and one third down from the top edge for photos that appeal.
Now that was simple, wasn’t it. Now go and apply them.
Getting on stage
impetus for this week’s column came from the rock concert during the Burapha
Bike Week. This was the real deal in rock music, with our local musicians
playing with a current international (Guns ‘n Roses) guitarist (but not
Slash, I am sorry to say).
Now stage photography can be quite a specialized art form, with many stage
acts having their own photographers who tour the world with them, just to
get those iconic shots of the stars performing on stage. However, you can do
just the same though on a smaller scale.
For instance, Likay or similar Thai productions are good sources for stage
As opposed to portraits, with on-stage photography, you are not in control
of the model in any way at all. You also have some very difficult
composition and lighting problems to contend with. You cannot quite ask
someone in the middle of Caesar’s death bed scene to hold that pose and say
“Cheese”. Mick Jagger will also not stop for you to focus while running
frenetically from one side of the stage to the other.
The lighting, too, is quite different from that you normally experience.
Stage lighting is generally tungsten based and sharp (what we call
“spectral” lighting). Spots for the performers and floods for the background
are the hallmarks of the usual stage lighting. The use of spots in
particular is used to highlight the principal performer or action on stage.
Successful “stage” photographs have managed to retain that “stagey” lighting
feel to them, so that instantly you look at the image you know it is of a
performer on a stage somewhere. Remember, that as a photographer you are
recording events, people and places as they happen. You are a mirror of the
The secret of retaining that stage feel is in the lighting. Because it tends
to be dark, the first thing the average photographer will do is to bolt on
his million megawatt flash gun with enough power to light up the far side of
the moon. While understandable, that is not the way.
Do you use a telephoto lens? No. Because it gets you too far from the light
falling on the performers. Again it is the old adage of “Walk several meters
closer” for this type of photography too. Use a standard lens and get close
as possible. If needs be, find which row seat you need to be able to do
this. All part of being prepared.
Now in the good old ‘film’ days, you got hold of some “fast” film. 800 ASA
if you could, but 400 ASA would do. However, with today’s digital cameras,
you can safely dial in 800 ASA or even more. If the image breaks a bit,
don’t worry, it just adds to the “stage” feel.
So, what about lighting? Leave the flash in the bag, or turn it off at the
camera. Now I know it is dark, but you are trying to retain the stage
lighting effects. In other words, you are going to let the stage’s lighting
technician be the source of light for your photographs.
Now get a seat as close to the action as you can, and then select a lens
that can allow you to fill the frame with the performers. Funnily enough,
that will be, in most cases, the ‘standard’ 50 mm lens. Shots that show an
entire dark stage with two tiny little people spot lit in front are not good
stage shots. In fact they are not good anything shots! If all you have is a
fixed lens point and shooter, get as close to the front of the stage as you
can. You can still get the scene stopping shot - you have just to get very
There is no real ‘problem’ with white balance with digital cameras. You will
still get an image that says “stage performance”, which is what you want,
never mind the colors.
Next time you are getting shots of people on stages, turn the flash off, and
you will see the end result is much better.