Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Another addition to the 'friends' project. This was a simple grab shot while out for lunch. It was shot under a wide, bright yellow umbrella in Key West. The light was very even but with a bit of a strange colour cast to it. A bit of tweaking with the 'photo filters' in Photoshop brought it back close to normal then I treated it with the same partial desaturation toning that I'm using for all of the pictures in this series. When I started out with this, I wanted to use a consistent treatment to tie the various portraits together visually, as well as them being related through the subjects being friends of mine. The partial desaturation is interesting to me as it is really a tonal palette that is only available in the digital world and not something that was particularly common with film.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mallory Square artist

Just got back from a great weekend in Key West and Miami, Florida. We went with some friends and drove down through the keys for a couple of days in the southernmost town in America. It is pretty wild down there, a lot of partying going on all year round. I didn't take a whole lot of pictures, though we did go to Mallory Square for the sunset celebration, one evening. This is a mix of art faire, buskers and hawkers, all trying to get some of the tourist dollars. This one particular lady stood out for me, with her amazing red glasses. I talked to her for a few minutes about her art and life in the keys and then she was kind enough to let me shoot a couple of frames. That little bit of interaction made things much easier, than just approaching and asking if I could take her picture without anything before. The light is from the setting sun just behind me. That's almost an entire handful of people I've approached and none of them have said no!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Embrace the blur

Just submitted my first entry for publication in JPG magazine. The magazine looks pretty good, inspirational photography and plenty of it. The theme is for the submission is 'embrace the blur' and I've entered the picture above. I was shooting high school football and the light was terrible. Eventually I gave up on trying to get crisp stopped action and embraced the blur and started panning the action. I love this particular photo, for the way the quarterback is sharp, with his face, helmet and the ball in focus, with the chaos of the other players flying around him. I always seem to forget to use long exposures and motion in my photography, but every time I do try it, I'm really intrigued by the results. You can vote for my picture here. Go on. You know you want to. Please ? :) It will only take a few seconds. But you will have to sign up for an account for the vote to count. But I'll be really thankful. and it is thanksgiving, here in the US.

Monday, November 20, 2006


As I've pushed myself more towards portraiture this year, I've noticed one common theme. The subjects can now talk back. They care if the picture looks good and they'll tell you if they don't like it. Flowers and mountains don't do that! So that adds some pressure into the whole experience for the photographer. But there is a more important aspect to this. The subjects also need to be engaged in the photo making process. A good portrait is a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. If the subject is bored, or worried that you don't know what you are doing, it'll come across in the picture. Too much fumbling around with the camera means that your subject is being ignored. I've found a couple of things that seems to work well for me, to make taking a person's picture go a bit more smoothly and really let me capture something of the subject. The first is using a prime lens. Getting rid of the zoom lens means just one less thing to fiddle around with. I can move myself and the camera if I want to change the composition, but I'm not zooming in and out while I'm taking the shot. The second thing is to set the camera up before getting the subject involved. Have the camera in the right mode, and the right ISO, right aperture, focus mostly set, memory cards formated and ready to go - everything ready to just meter, set exposure, focus and go. Quick and easy - and you look like you know what you are doing. Also, when it is all set up, you can then be talking with the subject, explaining what you are looking for and what you are trying to achieve. And that's the really important part - talking to the subject and perhaps more importantly, listening to the subject. Keeping that dialog going keeps them engaged and builds that connection that you want to see in the images. I try to get them to do most of the talking, get on to the topic of their favourite subject (which is usually themselves) and they'll forget about having their portrait taken, get animated, look alive and that's the time to capture expressions, gestures and anything that you really feel shows something about who they are. But when you see that gesture, or the way they touch their hair and you really think it is somehow 'them' don't be afraid to ask them to repeat it. Again. and again. and again! I almost always try to shoot portraits on a tripod, with a cable release now. This lets me get my head out from behind the camera so I can make eye contact and keep that dialog going. I'll make small suggestions for posing changes, shoot that, make another change and so on. All the time I'll try to be keeping that conversation going. When I do well at this, it shows in the picture. When I just hide behind the camera and mumble 'great', then the concern shows in the subject. The key seems to be to keep talking!

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I was listening to a lightsource podcast with David Hobby who runs I'd recently gone through his excellent site so was keen to hear what he had to say. One thing stood out for me from the great interview. That was the idea of having a catalog of great backgrounds in your local area, shot and ready to go next time you need to pose someone. Different themes, different light and so on, ready to just go to with the right person at the right time and shoot away. Also in that was the idea of having a few high, open west facing sunset locations, that you could tell someone to meet you at the right time, cross light with a strobe and have a great shot in a few seconds. I'm going to try and get one of those google maps put in here, so I can start adding to a database of Austin backgrounds. I'll see if I can work out how to make it public and have y'all add to it as we go on, too. I'm also going to start shooting 'clean' versions of these backgrounds, to catalog and also as a drop in for other shots, as needed. But the real idea is to have pre-scouted a whole lot of great portrait locations ahead of time, so that you can pick the feel & mood that is going to suit the person you want to shoot.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The right background

One thing that I notice again and again in the portraits that really work for me is that the background works for the subject. Nothing worse than a background that doesn't fit. The classic problem is the lamppost growing out of the head, but other elements in the background can distract from the subject. Areas that are too bright, or too jarring and different a colour. Add shapes that point out of the frame or lead the eye away, or just strange breaks in the scene that don't flow with the posing of the subject. For the shot above, I'd seen the fantastically coloured fish on the wall while out running. I really wanted to use them as a background and was thrilled when Amanda had a top on that really fitted in well with the colours and would be complimented by the blue watery walls. I framed her in this shot with the fish to act as something of a halo, with the blue providing the outer parts of the frame for a really bright, colourful result. This was shot fairly late in the day so the warm sunlight, filtering through clouds was low and even but warm enough to add even more to the scene. Shooting with a wide open aperture has softened the background enough to give some separation with the shapes and colours and I think leads to a really effective frame. I keep trying to keep my eyes open for effective backdrops for portraits. As I'm trying to get up the courage to work with more people, I think having a great concept in mind and telling them about it will be a great 'in' rather than walking up and announcing straight away 'I want to take your picture!' The second shot is with a lensbaby, with the second most stopped down aperture ring thrown in. I wanted to use the leading lines of the bricks and the fish for a foreground splash of dramatic colour. Amanda was obliging enough to pull her best 'fish face' to fit into the bizarre theme!

High Key Amanda

Took some more available light pictures with Amanda yesterday. Again this is just beside a bright window. This time though, I exposed a couple of stops above what the meter said, to go for a really high key, bright feel to the shot. I'd asked Amanda to wear a white shirt and balanced a bit of white board behind her to keep the background in theme. Then I was shooting down, standing on a chair, to get a slightly higher angle. I like how looking up has gotten some more light into her eyes. I've had some mixed reactions to this shot. I really like the bright, airy feel and the great smile. Some people don't like the really sharp fall-off in depth of field between the two eyes. I need to experiment more with different apertures - I tend to shot a lot either wide open or only a stop or two down from there. This was shot around f2 and perhaps f5.6 might be more appropriate at this distance from the subject, with this lens (85mm, 123mm effective)

Monday, November 13, 2006

After the Storm, Death Valley National Park, California

This is the fifth and last image that I'm going to submit for the Texas Photographic Society Members only show. This particular image was shot right at the end of a workshop, in Death Valley National Park. I'd spent a productive morning shooting the sunrise on the dunes. We'd hiked out through a sand storm, battling the wind and stinging sand to get high into the dunes. Because of the sand and how it treats a camera, we'd left most of our gear behind, picking just one lens and a tripod. There wouldn't be any opportunity to change lenses out there, without getting sand inside the camera! The sunrise that morning was stunning - the sun would catch the blowing sand and make it glow in the most amazing way. Deep shadows and golden orange dunes combined to make an electrifying colour landscape to shoot. The illuminated sand storm was just an amazing piece of luck on top of that. Often these dunes are covered in footprints, but the blowing sand wiped the slate clean. But eventually the sun rose, the light turned flat and cyan and we started the hike back to our cars. This shot was taken just then, as we'd turned back, finished for the morning, weary and ready for breakfast. The wind had died down, everything was calm and the light was 'terrible' for colour landscape photography. But that sort of light can be ideal for black and white - with lots of contrast in texture still available Oh, those clouds! This is composed to balance the creosote bush shapes and the clouds. There's a rhythmic relationship between those elements and also the dark hills playing off the sunlit dunes, creates a lot of dynamic balance. Several people have commented that the lower cloud bank almost feels like a huge wave about to crash down on the sandy beach. It is one of my favourite images from that trip - shot right when I'd packed up and was finished. Got to keep your eyes open...

Friday, November 10, 2006

Positively Sixth Street

Went to downtown Austin after work this evening. I was initially planning to shoot some architectural pictures as the sunset and twilight kicked in. I walked around with my tripod and a backpack with some lenses in it for a while, looking for compositions. I kept walking past interesting looking people that I'd have liked to take their picture, but those barriers were still there. Then after about half an hour of this I realised that I didn't want to take pictures of buildings at sunset at all. I wanted to take pictures of people. Strangers. But not from across the street - I wanted to be engaged with them. Not voyeuristically capturing them from afar. So I put the gear back in the car and just took out the camera and one 85mm lens. Then I walked around the bar district in Austin. For about an hour. I kept seeing people I'd want to shoot, but didn't approach anyone. Just walked passed, nodded, said hello, kept on walking. Then eventually I got fed up of doing that too. So I asked someone. They didn't say no. I explained what I was trying to do and they said 'sure' Then I asked the next person. Same thing. and then one more. Three for three. Nobody said no. Nobody really seemed bothered - maybe amused and that's about it. Easy. Yet for me, a huge adrenaline rush. I was shaking after taking three stranger's pictures. Talking to them for a bit. The first two people I shot 3 frames in total. Didn't really look at the results, just shot and left. Messed them up - wrong shutter speed, bad composition. But I'd at least asked them. The third person I talked to for a bit longer, made some different compositions, actually didn't mess up the exposure, or camera settings. Was able to frame him off center, noticed some car headlights in the alley that would play off his cigar glow. That's the shot above. It isn't going to win any awards. It isn't one of my best. But I think it marks a real breakthrough, for me. I haven't got over the barriers that make this so hard for me, but - nobody said no. I can do this. I was going to wait until next year to start trying to do this sort of portrait work, but it just seemed something I needed to do. Twilight buildings can wait.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What's your ratio ?

Was listening to a lightsource podcast this morning and one of the interviewees made an interesting comment. He described himself as 40% photographer 60% photoshopper. It made me think about what my ratio was in my photography. I started out 100% Photoshop, in the early 1990s. Learned tons about image processing, studied it at University, wrote software plug-ins and designed hardware accelerators for Photoshop. Slowly I discovered photography and took more pictures, that I processed a lot in the computer. I'd fix mistakes, tweak problems, adjust and improve the images. I was probably 20% photographer, 80% photoshopper with those early photos. Fixing bad exposures. Repairing sloppy compositions, making it all after the fact. As I've gotten better with a camera and because I really focused on getting better with the camera, I've moved on to be maybe 60% photographer, 40% photoshopper. I spend less time infront of the computer, fixing things. I try harder to get it right in the camera, get the best light, the best colour, framed properly. Partly this is to spend less time working in Photoshop, but also because I believe it helps you get better results. If you have the best possible file to work with at the start, then you can take it a lot further without quality issues. So with the camera, I'm looking for the best possible starting point to then work in the computer. This means I can spend a lot less time fixing and only a bit of time optimising or making a picture sing. I'm still pushing harder on the photographer side though - trying to get better at seeing what I want and getting that from the subject up front, rather than creating it digitally later. Maybe my lack of interest in the Photoshop side of the world comes from having experience in it for so long, but I don't find it particularly enjoyable to create the final image in photoshop, if the starting point looked totally different. The good thing is I've just about stopped fixing things at all. I edit heavily and throw away most things that aren't pretty much exactly what I wanted from the camera. So any photoshop time now is spent being creative and realising the final result. Least that's the goal and the hope. Maybe some day I'll be 80% of a photographer. I think 100% is a never reachable goal!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Journaling - early days

As I've mentioned before, I didn't really pick my camera up at all between February and October this year. Going to Kate's wedding got me back on track, but I think more I was inspired by Craig Tanner's podcasts at the Radiant Vista on creativity and in particular, journaling. This is something based on the book, the Artist's Way and I've been trying the daily morning pages ritual to see how it works for me. The original approach suggests writing long hand in a journal each day, for 12 weeks. Being techie I decided to pass on the handwritten aspect, as my handwriting is terrible. Instead, I've started a private blog that I write in each day. The goal for each day is '3 pages' and I struggled with what this meant in a blog. I've found that '3 pages' is just 'a significant amount' of writing. Not something that can be dashed off in 5 minutes, but not something so onerous that you don't get it done in half an hour or an hour. I'm also suspicious that it has aspects of flow involved in it, where in general working in a concentrated way for at least 15 minutes is required to reach that engaged state of mind where time slips away and you become much more productive. In many ways for me, the morning pages seem to be a daily reaching out to engage that flow state of mind, which tends to stay with me for the rest of the day. Sort of mental yoga to get in touch with that creative side. So each morning, I type and talk to myself for 20 minutes or so. Hopes, fears, some creative ideas, some whinging about aches and pains and the state of the weather (you can tell I'm British I suppose). It is all free form, stream of consciousness type of writing. Nothing particularly profound or literate. But, I've been doing this for the past week and suddenly I find I'm making progress on a personal photo project that had been stalled, writing more in this public blog and addressing fears head on. I'm approaching people and asking to take their portrait. They aren't saying no! It seems that things that would bother me and fester in my brain seem silly and easy to address when taken out, dusted down and written on a page. So once I've pulled the idea or fear, or fear of an idea, out and there for me to see, I come up with ways to make it happen. I think the attention makes me realise it is something I want to do, then I take the time to work out what the next step to realising that idea is and make it happen. Doing that day in, day out helps move things along. I'm still nervous about a lot of the things I'm reaching out and trying to do, but I'm actually doing them now. Rather than just being too blocked up to even make the attempt. Powerful stuff, for just typing for 20 minutes a day. I'm also finding it makes me much more willing to write other things, such as long, rambling blog posts like this. I'm more inspired to pick up my camera and go see. I think the act of writing, or creativity encourages more creativity. I'm excited to see where the next 12 weeks lead.


Randy Kerr taught me just about everything I know on taking portraits in natural light. I might only just be starting out but everything I know came from Randy. So it was with not a little bit of nervousness I asked to take Randy's picture! He was gracious enough to give me the opportunity and we found a great natural location in Austin for the shoot. We were in a sort of limestone cave/ overhang, with lots of green ferns and dripping water. The light was soft and really wrap around, flowing into the shaded area, but still with enough direction to give some character. Perfect for portraits. I think I might use that location again. In a lot of ways it is similar to what I've been trying to achieve with window light - soft, directional side light, without any illumination from directly above. As I met Randy through shooting at the Wildflower Center and the majority of his work is taken outdoors, the setting was even more appropriate. This tight headshot doesn't show much of the location but the even light is very visible.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, Tuscany, Italy

This one was taken in an Abbey in Tuscany. The light was beautiful in the old church and there was chanting drifting through the air. I shot this entirely out of focus to focus in on the shapes, colours and light that was in the place. This is the fourth image I plan to enter in the TPS MOS. I like how this captures the 'walking into the light' religious feel of the abbey and some of the airy, openness of the space. The muted tones and hues reflect the very austere styling of the Abbey. The shot was also part of a shoot where I took all of the pictures from one spot in the church, making 30 out of focus compositions from within a 1 meter square of ground. It was certainly an interesting constraint to work within and really slowed me down and forced me to think about the shapes of the things I was pointing the camera at, rather than the details of what they were. It is a useful exercise to help break down compositions into just colours and shapes. I'm really happy with this image but I'm not certain if that is just my memory of the experience of taking it rather than something that's really in the picture.

Friday, November 03, 2006

All the world's a stage

I've lived here in Austin for 5 years now. Of and on for two years before that. This mural is hidden down in South Austin. I've been meaning to take a picture of it for years. Finally got off my butt and went and did it last night, but as part of scoping out locations for this year's Christmas card. Once upon a time, I'd be happy with a shot of something like this, but these days I see it just as a set, waiting for the action to happen. For years I took shots like that. Great stages, but somehow lifeless. I'd find a scene, set up my camera, take the picture and look at it at home. Almost all of my pictures didn't have any people in them. The world looked empty. The stage was set, but nobody had said 'action!'. Lifeless - literally. Just waiting for the people to appear in the frame and bring the picture to life. It is certainly easier to find those great shots without the person in it. Fewer time constraints, just find the light and the subjects and you are done. But for now and for next year, I'm looking to get the people into the picture, hopefully to take the results to the next level. No more empty stages. Let the play begin! And hullo y'all, from Austin, Texas.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fear of success

I know it is just photography. It isn't life or death. Being creative isn't going to radically change my life or, if I take a bad picture, it isn't the end of the world. So why is there so much fear involved in taking pictures or trying to do something new ? I've been trying to make some progress on this portrait project. But I find it really difficult to ask someone, face to face, if I could take their picture. I've been avoiding this for years in one way or another, since I picked up a camera. Amanda has always been a willing and beautiful subject, but other than that I have a real shyness about approaching someone and taking their picture most of the time. However, this seems really context-specific, this fear of mine. I was at a couple of weddings this year. For some reason at weddings, when shooting candidly, I've been really comfortable getting in close, shooting away - getting shots I've been really happy with. So this year I've seemed to make some progress in that respect. But I can't deal with trying to pose someone. Though perhaps I'm just rebelling at the formality of posing a subject - like a mannequin, rather than trying to capture the life and essence of what's happening anyway. More than that I still can't approach strangers. They might say no! But is that really what I'm afraid of ? So to get past that, that's why I started this project with my friends - after all, I shouldn't be afraid of them, now should I ? Yet I'm struggling just to ask people. It isn't really the fear of the rejection. Maybe it is just not wanting people to think the idea is silly ? Or maybe really, deep down, its fear they might actually say yes ? Then I'd really be in trouble. Suddenly I'd have to take an actual good picture. Expectations would be raised, opportunity to fail opening in front of me. Perhaps strangers would be easier after all. However, I'm pushing on through. I think that most of the best creative opportunities are when I follow the fears. It might not be fun, but it'll be a much more interesting ride than just doing the safe same old, same old. Most photographers seem to have this fear of approaching other people to take their pictures. At least, many of the photographers I've talked have all had this same issue with working with others. There's a sense of having to connect, a risk of failure that's much higher than if you take a bad picture of a flower or some other inanimate object. They don't answer back, or object to how you made them look. They don't even expect to see the pictures after you took them. But that starts to sound a whole lot less rewarding as well. No opportunity to connect, or share, or make someone's day by doing it well. Just got to keep plugging away at it I suppose. So I asked my friend Randy if I could take his picture. We are going to shoot it this weekend. One step at a time! It is just photography, not life or death after all.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Washing day, Montalcino, Italy

Another favourite image from last year's trip to Italy and the third that I plan on entering for the TPS MOS. This was shot hand held, walking around the town of Montalcino. Washing hangs out of windows like this all over Tuscany. I'd taken a few shots of just washing lines and buildings, but it never seemed to come together. Lots of interesting sets, just waiting for the actors to come along. This time I got lucky. The woman was looking out of her balcony in the shadow and I quickly ran up the hillside to frame her against the much lighter wall behind, to throw her mostly into silhouette and stop her head merging with the tiles of the roof behind. In many ways this sums up how the hill top towns in Italy felt. Tourists swarm all over them every day, but people live there, watching the world go by, doing their washing and getting on with their lives.