A walk in the park

Fairly near to where I live there is a massive park with several soccer fields and play areas. Since my girlfriend’s feet are still in terrible shape from walking 26 miles last week,  we went for only a little walk through here yesterday to take advantage of the nice weather. I saw this as an opportunity to take some daytime shots and see if I can improve my eye for interesting shots.

Here’s what we have available:

  • trees
  • dogs
  • grass
  • sky
  • families
  • trees

As I’m not entirely comfortable walking up to strangers and shooting them, I opted for trees and dogs.

Let’s start with dogs.

I am not good at photographing dogs. I knew I wanted a fast shutter speed, but I didn’t go nearly fast enough for the speed those little guys run. All of the moving shots have some blur, except for the first one where he’s kind of trotting.  I had some issues framing the shots, as I only had a split second to get them. In general, I think you want the dog to be running into the frame, with lots of ‘room’ for him to go…which they don’t have. None of these are candidates for editing or anything putting up for show, really. They are cute, though, so there you go.

The trees were a little better. I had less issues keeping up with the trees.

So, how do you shoot a tree?


There’s the basic shot. It’s certainly…there. Technically speaking, the sky’s blown out, but really I just find this a bit boring. I went for a small crop and toned down the brightness a bit and came up with this:


It seems a bit dark once uploaded, but hopefully you can see more of the sky. I upped the saturation a bit just to make the sky and grass pop out a bit more. This is just, a bit boring, though. There’s no mood, really. It’s a tree.


I also got some shots like this, which is an option. This is part of a tree! It’s a bit more interesting than shooting it straight on, but the macro shots aren’t really my thing.


There, we found a more interesting tree. It’s deadish and has some spooky cavernous bits. Shot straight on, though, it’s still boring. It looks like the tree’s posing for a graduation photo.

So, I tried my luck with some close ups at odd angles. Here are my favourites:


They still suffer from the technical problems of the first, though. The sky’s blown out. I like the angles a bit more, and so I had a go in rawtherapee bringing some interest out of these.


Colour didn’t do a whole lot for this one, so I put it through a black and white filter and fiddled with the brightness. I still felt that this one was a bit boring so I tried increasing the contrast a bit:


What do you think? I think the contrast gives it a bit of a spooky vibe. Definitely more interesting than the straight on shot.



For this one, I kept the colour in as it had some nice contrast anyway. The clouds make an interesting swirl around the top, and I darkened it to give it some more drama. Not sure I’d use this in a portfolio, but it’s an improvement.


I really enjoyed this one. Bringing the exposure down a bit shows the dramatic bits of lighting in the sky. It creates a kind of halo around the tree, and comes across like some kind of obelisk.

As always, the image you think will be the best is rubbish.


I missed focus on the text by a tiny bit, and it kind of ruins the image altogether. I adjusted the levels and used photoshop to sharpen the card only, but it doesn’t help much…


Perhaps I’ll go back and re-take the shot another day and get the focus right. It’s an interesting shot, and it’s probably the most interesting subject in the park.

I continue to struggle with finding the right line with editing. I don’t like overdoing it, but I want to bring out the interesting parts of the picture. I think I accomplished that for a few of these, and I am happy with how my intentional change of perspective created some workable images.


Feeling it out

Photography, for me, is a hobby. I don’t have hours to spend travelling just to take photos, so I take what I can get. It’s a kind of creative restraint that I try to get some decent shots in the down time whenever I go to a new place. Luckily, my camera is tiny and I kind of just have it with me all the time.

This weekend I took a train into London to meet up with my girlfriend who had just finished an event. The plan was to go out for breakfast and take the train back. Since her event finished at 7AM, I had to be there on the first available train. Being an early bird, this was no problem. I arrived at my station about an hour early.

And then it started to pour rain.

Soaked from top to bottom, I managed to get into the cover of an awning and wait for the next train, a half an hour later. It was a perfect time to get some shots.


I had no idea what this would turn out like when I took it. I knew I wanted to be in the middle of the tracks, which is fairly easy since there’s a covered bridge over them, but I’d be lying if I said I knew it would look as eerie as it does now. It wasn’t until I brought it into rawtherapee and brought the blacks up and fiddled with the white balance that I realize I had a shot that actually had some…atmosphere to it. This was a bit of a eureka moment for me, as up until now I had just been trying to get my shots to be somewhere near decent on a technical level. Is it a perfect shot? Certainly not, but it’s got something which I hadn’t even realized I was trying to get, which is a sense of atmosphere and emotional connection.

Most of my shots look like this.


Which is just…why? What’s this saying? What’s the mood? Oh, it’s a nice sunny day..  Wow. There are some nice lines.. Almost anyone could walk out their door and take a shot like this. It’s boring.


This is a shot from the reverse perspective. Train tracks are cool, there’s some blue stuff. Whatever. This sucks.


This is a shot of that camera in the bottom right of the last picture, shot through a bit of fence. I really like this picture, but I had no idea I would at time. I do find CCTV cameras a bit creepy, and all the fences and security measures in this country can be a bit cold and impersonal at times, but I definitely wasn’t thinking that when I shot this. It was only upon editing it – with very little I might add- that I realized it looked like a still frame from a dystopian film.

These are the kind of shots I want to take. Ones that express a feeling, a mood, or a story. This is kind of hard to do. I don’t even know if it’s worth focusing on taking shots like this, and explaining what you like about them makes you sound like a douche. But, here we are. There’s no guarantee that it’ll have the same meaning or message to anyone else, but at very least I find it satisfying to make something that clicks with me.



This is a shot I took this week that I was really excited about. I loved the colour in the sky, and I thought it would turn out brilliantly. I wasn’t too happy with the result since the foreground turned into a silhouette, and trying to bring it back resulted in massive amounts of noise.

So far I have been using a combination of Sony’s Image Data Converter to edit my images, and it’s had mixed results. The advantage is that it lets you edit the actual RAW files, and export them as a TIFF into photoshop. I am not sure if the TIFF loses some detail, but it seems like it was limiting what I could do.

I had some free time so I decided to try out rawtherapee which was recommended by Tony Northrup on his youtube channel. I was put off at first because of the massive amount of options the program features, but I gave it a go and, after some tinkering, managed to get some nice results. There is definitely a learning curve, but the program is much more powerful…


Through a bunch of tinkering with noise reduction and exposure, I was able to recover loads of the foreground detail, making this into a much better image. There are way too many little tweaks I had to do to mention here, but I do plan on posting some step-by-step photo editing stories once I get a firm grasp of the program. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially if you don’t have the cash for lightroom.

Shots at Dusk

A few nights ago we finally got some nice soft light making it through the clouds. I had to wait until 8:30 and drag myself out of relaxation mode, but I haven’t shot many pictures at a time I know the light will be nice, and I was hoping to get some good results.

Setting my shots up properly is an ongoing concern, because I’m still not getting the results I want. A week ago on a similar walk (on a cloudy night) I took some fairly grainy shots with ISO set to Auto which I thought would yield reasonable results. I got some shots like this…


And also some shots like this:


Which at this size aren’t too bad. It definitely could use some editing, but it’s passable. At the time, though, I was not happy with the amount of grain I was getting in my shots. Based on my (little) knowledge of how things work, I assumed if I set a lower ISO I would get less grainy pictures. This is true, but upon further research and experimentation I’ve found in low light settings, the real problems come from a low ISO, and higher ISOs can actually reduce the grain you get.

So, when I went out to get some pictures of the nice light, I set my ISO to 400, assuming that it was high enough for the light conditions, and I went to work.



I shot these with ISO 400, in aperture priority mode. I am not happy with these images for two reasons. First, they are either too dark or too bright. I lost lots of detail in the dark areas and some of them are just too bright. Some of them were very grainy. I assumed that I could get the detail back in Photoshop because I shot in RAW, but that just made everything a muddy mess. The detail just wasn’t there; I had buggered up the exposure. My favourite shot of the night…


Is nearly black in the bottom half. The sky is beautiful, but the foreground is solid black. This creates an interesting effect, I think, but it’s not what I wanted.

The second issue I have with these is the amount of grain in some of them. They look like they were shot in the dark with the ISO cranked way up, but it seemed like there was plenty of light when I was out and about. I have been researching the issue, and I think there are a few problems with how I’ve shot these.

Using aperture priority mode at night for shots that I have time to set up is a mistake. I should have shot fully manual and exposed for the foreground to make sure I was within a decent range. I could then check the histogram to make sure I wasn’t getting loads of pitch black parts. At very least, I could change from multi area metering mode to spot metering and pick a part of the foreground to focus on, expose for that, and then (while still holding the shutter halfway) re-compose the shot and take it. This would let me get the proper exposure and keep that precious detail.

Secondly, a tripod could help enormously. I am limited to a fairly quick shutter speed, so there are few things that I can do to get the shots I want. Exposure is all about trade offs, and if I want to have everything in focus (high aperture number), a fast shutter speed (to avoid camera shake) and a low ISO (to avoid graininess) then there is nothing that can compensate for any of these. A tripod would allow me to set a long exposure so that I can set the other settings to whatever I like (I think? I am not sure what the limits are) so that I can get clear shots of landscapes, even at dusk.

Oh, and here is a bird.


Light and dark

Yesterday some friends and I went for a walk around Thetford Forest, which was a great opportunity for me to take some shots in RAW. Seeing what I could get done with a JPEG got me excited to take a bunch of RAW files and edit them. It’s definitely a difficult process, especially because my monitor doesn’t have the best accuracy. I tend to make things a bit too dark, so getting things right is an ongoing learning process.

One of the first pictures I wanted to play with was one of a nice little clearing where the light was quite dramatically different from the surrounding area.DSC01069

On its own, I like this one. It’s got a kind of ethereal glow to it that makes it look almost like its been edited, but this is the file straight off the camera. This was the first one I had a go at editing, and I think it’s debatable whether I made it better or worse. There’s no crop, I just changed the white balance, curves, and brightness. It’s definitely a very different picture.


Again, as soon as I put this online it seems much darker than the file on my desktop. I like that there’s a lot more dynamic range, but I think it loses the sense of a glow. I went back and tweaked the brightness and I think the results are much better:


Next I had a snap with some actual subjects in it which was really nice.


What’s great about all these pictures is just how massive the trees are, and they really give you a sense of scale. I didn’t want to do a whole lot of cropping, but I also want to get rid of unnecessarily distracting details. I went for a bit of a crop, and added a cooling filter:


Again, it looks very dark compared to what I had, but I like the crop. I added a cooling filter, but in retrospect I think it’s too much. The original is already lovely, and I definitely need to cool it on my edits.

Next we have a fairly generic shot of some trees.


I didn’t expect much from this one, but it’s good practice anyways. I cropped a bit of the foreground out, and cooled it off.



Again, it amazes me how dark it becomes when I upload it. I think the crop helps a lot, as well as the cooling filter. The trees have more definition, and the original looks like it’s got this green tint to it that went away with a bit of tweaking. I am fairly happy with this one.

Lastly, a shot that looked incredible in real life. There are these lines where they’ve cut a line straight down of trees.


However, the final is washed out and full of unnecessary details. The sky is blown out as well, but that’s what it looked like. I went for a vertically focused crop, and I wanted to make that tree at the end the focus. I also darkened it, and added some soft lighting coming in from the top to give the lighting some depth. This is the most editing I’ve done on a picture, as I’ve actually added in a new element (a sphere of soft light in the top) which I really don’t want to do, but I think it helps.



Again, this one looks a bit overly sharp and dark in places. It’s working towards the effect that I am looking for, where it’s a bit more dramatic, but it’s a bit much.

It’s funny how the original shot, the edit, and the final uploaded pictures look so different from what you visualise throughout the process. As far as I am concerned, I am going to try and tone down the edits a bit to avoid having the aggressively dark pictures. I am happy with most of the results, but I may be revisiting a few of these later on when I’ve had a bit more practice.

Snip Snap

It seems like the most important skill in photography is editing. Looking through others’ portfolios and youtube videos, I have begun to realize that a big part of what makes photos look as great as they can is a little bit of editing. I have been researching and looking at the tools and techniques other people have used. For my purposes, these are my top three purposes for editing:

  1. Crop the image properly
  2. Fix exposure errors
  3. Add some drama

Since I don’t have the greatest camera in the world, my options for cropping seem a bit limited. I don’t have a very wide angle lens, so I have to try and work with what I’ve got. Still, there’s  almost always a better crop. For example, here is an image I took when I first got my camera:


Overall, I like this photo. It’s simple, has a clear subject, and feels natural. However, it’s also got a gigantic tree on one side and a telephone pole. Yuck. Let’s try a crop:


I also tweaked the contrast a bit, but in my mind it’s the crop that makes this a better image. It’s still a bit boring, but you can’t win ’em all.

To practice my edits I have dug up some old files from my Nexus-5 smartphone. Many of these are surprisingly good, but the amount of detail in them is limited. I wanted to see how much I could do to add some drama.


I actually really like this one of King’s college, and it’s one of my oldest. I tried a crop to ‘fill the frame’ with the important bits:


I am not entirely happy with this one, as it seems to have lost some contrast and range. It’s definitely got more going on in it, but it seems a bit same-ey. What do you think?

A second shot from the Nexus-5 comes from Oxford:


It’s a nice shot, but there’s so much going on. Let’s strip it down:


Again, still not entirely happy with this one. The first one seems to have more scale to it, even if it’s a tad blurry. Maybe it needs a bit more negative space, as the second is just full of objects and feels a bit cramped.

Fixing the exposure is also an important feature of editing. Anyone who knows anything about photography will tell you to shoot in RAW for just this reason (and others). RAW is a file format where your camera takes ALL the data from the image sensor and saves it to a file. Normally, cameras/phones/etc. will save to a JPEG file which may look nearly as good, but loses a lot of information and is more compressed. This makes it harder to correct errors afterwards.

I have not been shooting in RAW, because I am an idiot. All my pictures up until this point have been shot in JPEG, but I’m switching to RAW now because I am getting more comfortable with the edits. Here is an example of a JPEG from the Nexus 5 that I have tried to fix:


This is a shot of some ladies walking down the street of a rural French village. It’s hard to make them out, as the foreground is underexposed. I went for an aggressive crop and some layered brightness changes:


This one was the hardest to do. The crop already adds a lot to helping us make out the subjects, but the brightness was a challenge. I had to separate the sky and the rest of the scene from each other with masks and adjust the brightness and curves separately. The result is much clearer, but a little ‘washed out’. I definitely prefer this one, but I wish it had a bit more contrast. If I had been shooting in RAW (or on an actual camera) this would have been a lot easier.

Adding drama is something that is easy to overdo. It’s scary to me to do anything out of the ordinary, because I don’t want to be ‘that guy’. Filters, borders, text, etc. don’t appeal to me, as I want my photos to look like they haven’t been edited. There are a few things I am finding out that allow me to make little adjustments that go a long way, depending on the photo.

Take this shot from Newcastle, for example:


I was in a hurry to get it, as we were gone through town on an aggressive walk, and my friends up ahead didn’t feel like humouring me as I took tourist photos. In this shot, I knew I wanted to frame it with the arch, but it ended up off-center, and because the camera adjusted for the dark/light conditions, I lost a lot of the detail outside. It has a cool effect if you ask me, but I definitely want some of that detail back.


Here I went for three things. I cropped the image to look a bit more balanced, I lowered the brightness to  get some of the overblown bits back, and I desaturated the picture (made it black and white). Since it wasn’t a RAW photo, going with black and white makes the loss of detail much less noticeable, as the lines are still there. I am the most happy with this one. The crop worked out well, the contrast is nice, and I got the detail back. Most importantly, it doesn’t look like it was taken while falling down the stairs.


Are there any easy and powerful edits that I’ve missed that you use on a regular basis? Please share them in the comments.

Shifting gears

I’ve had a few weeks off from writing since my last post, but I’ve been taking a lot of pictures. I’m trying to break my learning down into significant bits, learning one thing at a time, but that’s maybe not the best way to do it since it seems like there are just a million little things that you have to learn.

I was really excited to shoot in Manual, as I get more control over what happens, but my main motivation is to not be an auto-shot pleb who just coasts on the power of technology. The problem is, I am a pleb, and shooting manually without a viewfinder is difficult enough for people without any type of colour blindness (not me). The next step would be to get into the math of manually measuring exposure, but that still has the disadvantage




And for me, photography usually accompanies a social situation where either I have to keep pace with a few friends going for a walk, or I don’t want to stand awkwardly for 5 minutes in the middle of a busy street. The compromise is to use the camera’s powerful metering (how it measures and adjusts for exposure automatically) without shooting fully automatic. For me, the most useful modes are A mode and S mode:

M is for Manly.

So to understand why these are helpful, we need to understand what they are.

For most point and shoot cameras, the ‘full auto mode’ is the way to go for newbies. This is the green/orange i/camera icons in the picture above, although other cameras might be a bit different. These do almost everything automatically for you. They’ll usually take good pictures, but they can have problems if you have a scene that is unusual, or you want to go for an artistic effect. The M mode is where you control nearly everything – Aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO. The problem with manual is, you don’t always have time to fiddle with all three settings to get them right, and you may be wrong in measuring the exposure correctly.  You also may find that moving objects are too blurry/not blurry enough because it’s using the shutter speed to adjust exposure, not to capture motion, or you may not get a nice depth of field.

This is where the A/S modes come in. A stands for Aperture Priority mode, which is basically the same as AUTO, except you control the aperture, and the camera adjusts the other two. This gives you creative control over the depth of field, and the camera adjusts the other two settings. This is my favourite mode, as for most types of photo I want to to have control over how much of it is in focus, but I don’t necessarily want to fiddle with the exposure. In this mode, I set the aperture size and the camera does the rest.

For example, you can set a very low aperture number (it’s the most open the smaller the number is) which is great for close ups.


This shot is f/1.8, which is the lowest my camera will go. You get a great depth of field, with only a narrow range of objects being in focus. This makes you look like you know what you’re doing. However, this is not so good for landscapes, where you want to see all the detail possible. As an extreme example, here are some shots taken with f/11 (the highest my camera will go) so nearly everything is in focus.


I haven’t found that this makes as big of a difference (at least for my camera/lens) as a low aperture number does for close ups. Still, shooting in A mode and just adjusting it depending on whether you are doing portraits or landscapes seems to be a solid way of making things simple while still getting nice shots.

What A mode doesn’t let you do, though, is deal with movement. Prioritising the aperture allows the camera to adjust the shutter speed as it pleases to compensate for whatever aperture size you pick. If you pick a very small aperture (f/11…) it may want to keep the lens open longer to get more light in. This is okay when you are standing still, but when you are moving you may run into trouble. Take these car shots for example:

DSC00569.JPG That’s f/11, so the camera goes to 1/3 of a second shutter speed to compensate. It’s a cool effect, but you might not want that. Or you might want it even more extreme. You might want to have a super fast shutter speed so that you can take perfect (ish) landscapes from a moving vehicle (or…shots of moving people and sports, if you’re into that). S mode is Shutter Priority mode, and it lets you only control the shutter speed while the camera adjusts to the correct exposure by changing the aperture size.


You’re never going to get a perfect shot while in a moving vehicle, but I’m happy with these. If you wanted to take shots of sports, for example, you’d want to set the Shutter speed to something fairly quick (1/1000 of a second, maybe) which will make the camera shake less noticeable and, more importantly, will freeze-frame the action so you have basically no blur whatsoever.

So, I find Aperture Priority mode is the most useful. I’ll probably be  using that for the majority of my shooting. If I need to shoot something that’s moving, or I want there to be a bunch of blur (waterfalls, yay!) I’ll use S-mode. I consider these to be slightly less manly than full manual, but all that really matters is that you get some nice pictures.