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Category: Photography Blog

Post about photography, either my own or other peoples, along with techniques and thoughts on the art.

Occam’s light razor

OK, so it’s an odd title for a blog post, and most people won’t have a clue about Occam’s Razor, I guess I had better start with an explanation of what it actually means!

A wee bit of history(and some philosophy thrown in for good measure)

William of Ockham was born in England at the end of the 1200’s, he became famous as a logician. He never actually used the phrase that now bears his name, but the principle that it implies is used throughout his writing; simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones. Or to put it another way; Keep it simple, stupid. There are quite a few justifications for using this method in most things in life, it’s a nice philosophy to apply to everyday situations.

I’m always wary of people who use more words than necessary, there’s a good chance they are trying to hide something amongst the torrent. Politicians fall firmly into this category!

But this is a photography blog….

So how can we apply Occam’s philosophy to photography? I think this applies to anyone who has reached a certain point in their photographic “career”, that point is when you have acquired a fair selection of lenses, lighting and other miscellaneous equipment that you have options for how you can light and compose a shot. There is a temptation to throw the kitchen sink at it, to use flash where ambient would be more appropriate or break out the tripod and cable release when you can get the same result handheld.

Learn how to use the tools at your disposal

Then learn why you shouldn’t use them. One of the hardest, but probably most important, things I have learned is that flash has it’s place. Don’t try and use it in every situation. Don’t try and throw to much light at a scene, just because you have five flashes, doesn’t mean you should actually use them all. Some of the most effective shots come from a well placed single light creating an interplay of light and shadow.

How many men does it take to dig half a hole?

So with the idea of keeping it simple, you may think that shallow depth of field is the ultimate expression of Occam’s Razor. What could be more simple than that millimeter thin slice of focus? But shallow DoF should just be another tool in the arsenal, knowing when and where to use it to great effect is the same as knowing when to use hyperfocal.  Shallow DoF(and bokeh for that matter) purely for the sake of it isn’t great photography, yes, I know this is contentious and but it will remove all of those “Wow, great DoF” comments on Flickr in one quick, clean bullet to the head.

Guilty as charged

I’m guilty of all the “crimes” above. I’ll hold my hands up and say that. I’ve used FAR more light in a shot that it actually required, I’ve used shallow DoF for no other reason than I’ve got a lens that goes down to 1.8! Am I proud of this, no, I’m certainly not, but photography is a learning experience and I’d like to think that I’ve put aside childish things and developed from resorting to the cheap tricks of the trade.

Look and then look again

If you only take one thing away from this post, then make it the following: Simple is better. Taking two seconds to re-evaluate how you are lighting or composing and removing unnecessary complexity as a result is a good habit to form.


I had intended that my next blog post would be a review of the Canon 17-40 L I purchased recently to replace the 24-105 for landscape shots, but as the UK weather has not been co-operating I haven’t actually at the opportunity to use it for anything other than silly portraits!


The Flickr Lovefest

“Are the comments on Flickr normally such a love fest?”

The above is is a direct quote from a (non photographer) friend of mine, I’d sent her a link to my photostream as we’d been out for the day and she wanted to see some of the shots I had taken. It got me thinking, dangerous I know, about Flickr and the nature of comments and favourites. I’m going to try and be as non-offensive as possible with this post, I’m not going to set out to rub people up the wrong way but I’m going to be covering some fairly contentious ground. As also feel free to agree or disagree, but if you feel strongly either one way or the other then please use the Comments box to let me know!

I also realise this may reduce the number of comments and favourites my own images receive, but I would hope that you lovely readers of my rambles can find it in your hearts to forgive a poor sinner. 😉

Flickr – The Anti-Social Network?

This is a question that Kyla and I have discussed a few times; Is Flickr a social network? I’m firmly of the opinion that it isn’t, while there is undoubtedly a social element to the site, I don’t think it’s primary raison d’etre is to be a platform for the mindless gibber of Twitter or the business networking of Linked-In or the “I had toast for breakfast” Facebook\G+ spam.

Flickr’s self stated two main goals don’t really have anything to do with social networking, yes they mention sharing(a lot!) but that isn’t the main goal of a Social Network either. I guess you could argue that the main goal of a Facebook and G+ is to generate money via targeted adverts, the  saying “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product” is true , but that really is a subject for a whole other blog post.

A bone of contention

So this is the (probably) contentious part; More than 95% of the comments on Flickr have nothing to do with the quality of the image that the comment is made about.*Hides behind wall*. I’ll come clean at this point and say I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

How many times do we see “Fabulous, nice DoF”, “Wow, gorgeous bokeh” or “This is stunning, I love the tones” in the comments of a shot?How many times have we looked at that shot and thought to ourselves “Well this is a particularly ordinary shot, if I’d have taken it I probably would have deleted it from the camera, it certainly would never have made it through my Lightroom workflow let alone get sent out, blinking and afraid into the wide wide wonderment of Flickr.”. But yet we still feel that we should comment on it, because it’s from one of our contacts.

Relationship cultivation

To understand why I think we come back to my old friend Explore again, we all know that the magical formula for a Donkey Ride is something in the number of views, comments and favourites an image receives. The easiest way of getting those much valued tokens for the ride is to develop and nurture a reciprocal comment\favourite relationships with as large a group of contacts as you can manage to deal with on a daily basis.

In addition to the Donkey, there is always good old human nature. We all need to be loved and to have our work adored, it feeds something deep within the human psyche. At a basic level we all like to think that we operate on the “One good turn, deserves another” principle, so we will do our best to respond kindly to those that are kind to us.

I swing between those two reasons depending on just how jaundiced my world view is on a given day!

Love Fool

There is also a negative side to this group love fest; No one is willing to give honest critique in case it endangers those carefully built relationships. I think this is a REALLY unfortunate state of affairs. The number of times I have seen “Wow, this is PERFECT” on an image and I look at it and think, “Well it’s OK, but it could have been so much better if only the photographer had done THIS”. The quickest way to learn is to make mistakes, but how do we know we are making mistakes if every comment we receive drowns us in a wave of adoration?

Recently I was browsing through my contacts shots, as I do most mornings, and I came across this image from Linda(I’m sure she won’t mind me mentioning this here, she’s a very lovely lady and you should go and check her stream once you’ve read this paragraph, then come back and finish reading). Because Linda is such a lovely lady I thought I would bite the bullet and say I found the bag of poo distracting(you’ve now clicked the link again, haven’t you) and that I thought the whole image would work better as a square crop. The next day Linda posted this, is it a better image than the original? For me it is and the comments from others indicate they feel the same(beware of the cultivation trap here!).

Destructive Non-criticism

Probably not the best heading in the world, but I hope it gets a point across. I certainly don’t want to advocate everyone changing to flat out critique, but I do think it would help us all develop and grow if there could be a greater degree of honesty in the comments we make.

I’ve got a couple of contacts who offer real constructive criticism, I find that refreshing. I also find it helpful. Very often I have gone back and tweaked an image based on their comments and it has been a much better one as a result. When those same contacts praise an image it also carries more weight for me, as I know they must actually like it, they aren’t just “blowing smoke up my ass”.

A confused man writes….

This is a new one for me, when I write a blog post it’s normally with the desire to pass on some knowledge or to provoke thought. Today’s post is caused by bewilderment, it’s not an angry post, I want to make that clear right from the start. It’s also not meant to be misogynist, although the subject will be the female of the species. This is me, as a 30 something man asking a simple question of “WHY?!”

The question is…..

Why are there so many female orientated flickr groups? Everyday there seems to be a new one. Shutter Sisters, Mortal Muses(Winner of the most pretentious group name in the history of the world), The Shutter Divas, I’m “That” mom – I could go on but I don’t want to labour the point too much.

In the eye of the bewilderer

I genuinely don’t understand why there are so many, this isn’t an attack on why they exist, you’re free to create any group you like and people are free to join it. It’s more asking what the attraction is, clearly men don’t feel this desire. I don’t know of any male only groups, well apart from the nude model ones, but they aren’t really the same!

Minority report

Do the women of Flickr feel like they are some kind of minority group? In my experience people form mutual support groups when they feel they are under represented and so band together to gain a stronger voice. Flickr doesn’t seem to have any public data on it’s  demographics so all I can go on are my contact list which has a ratio of 2:1 of females to males. Obviously not the best source for data in the world, I’d be interested in your own ratios if you’d care to post them in the comments? But in my experience women do not form a minority on Flickr.

Girls on film

There are a lot of very good female photographers. There are also a lot of very mediocre ones. But the same is certainly true of the men. I would guess that my own contacts ratios show that there is something interesting and vibrant going on for most female photographers – I tend to remove the boring and staid contacts, the people who churn out the same old tired shots again and again and again.

Humming the same old tune

If the groups were offering something different I’d understand the desire or the niche they fill. But as far as I can see the only thing they care about is that you happen to have been born without a Y chromosome.

So I return to the question I asked at the top of this blog – WHY?!

When does “taking pictures” become a photo session?

[flickr id=”6135319777″ thumbnail=”small” overlay=”true” size=”medium” group=”” align=”centre”]  This post was inspired by a comment made by Kyla on one of her pictures she took of her twins and then posted to Facebook. The comment was “Did a photo session with the kids – trying out some high-key”, it got me thinking about when does simply “I took some pictures of my kids” become “I did a photo session”? Is it going in to the exercise with a set outcome in mind? Or is it having a certain level of equipment? Or a certain level of experience? Or some mystical combination of all of them? Or is it just an attitudinal thing “I believe I’ve reached a point where I can call this a shoot”. I’ve not asked, but I would guess that Kyla’s comment was made without any real thought about the words she was using.

Bribery is the key

I’ve done lots and lots of pictures of my kids, some of them have been multi strobe setups that wouldn’t have been out of place in a proper studio, but at no point have I ever thought about them as photo shoots, in my head I have just been taking pictures of the kids. Each of these times have been with a theme or a result in mind, something I’ve wanted to achieve or a technique that I have wanted to try and I’ve managed to convince them to play along(mainly using that favourite parental weapon – bribery). I’ve built up a reasonable set of lighting gear and I *think* I know how to use it at a little bit beyond the basic level, I’m not David Hobby, but I can usually get the result I’m after with a bit of chimping. [flickr id=”6088212107″ thumbnail=”small” overlay=”true” size=”small” group=”” align=”right”]

Line ’em up, knock ’em down

So, for me, that’s theme, gear and experience out of the window, which just leaves us with either the mystic zen combination or attitude. I’m not swayed by that combination idea it just doesn’t seem right, I know the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, but i’m pretty sure in this case that it doesn’t apply. So that just leaves us with attitude. There are two sides to this; am I under valuing my ability or is Kyla right and I should be thinking about calling those times when I take pictures as “Shoots”?

It’s only words, but words are all I have

Of course there is the point of view that it doesn’t actually matter if you call it a shoot or just call it taking pictures. In the words of Voltaire “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”, words are what make a civilisation, how we describe what we do sets our place in the world in other people’s minds. For the average Joe in the street the words “Photo shoot” or “Photo session” conjure up images of expensive studios and America’s Next Top Model, even if they couldn’t identify any of the equipment in use by name they would know it was being used by a professional.

Walk the walk, talk the talk

[flickr id=”5988013179″ thumbnail=”small” overlay=”true” size=”small” group=”” align=”left”] Back to that idea of attitude, and the idea that is the centre of this post; Am I undervaluing myself as a photographer? I’d like to think that it’s just because I don’t have delusions of grandeur and I can only be pretentious when it’s done in a very OTT or tongue in cheek way. I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of calling myself a professional photographer, this would be why I don’t think of shoots or sessions when I am taking pictures. Perhaps now that attitude needs to change, I’m now selling images reasonably regularly and this is certainly something I am seriously thinking of expanding as much as possible. I’ve got a couple of ideas for growing shutterview and some other outlets where I think there is money to me made, above and beyond the work that is available via Red Bubble and Getty. Food for thought! Comments as always, welcome!

BlackBerry PlayBook: Mini Review

What’s this? A blog posted entirely unrelated to photography? Why, yes it is!

For my day job I work in IT management in a organisation that uses BlackBerry devices for its mobile comms(anything but those filthy, dirty iOS devices!) so when news of the PlayBook reached our ears we were keen to give them a go. We were especially keen to try them as they were meant(see below) to feature out-of-the-box multi-user video conferencing, something that no other tablet provides with a native app. Facetime doesn’t count here, it’s purely designed for one-to-on video conferencing and anyway, see previous comment about iOS.

See the shiny, shiny

First thing to say is that RIM know how to present a package, the device has a nice weight and feel to it. It doesn’t feel too flimsy or too heavy, the rubberised back makes gripping the device easy – you never feel like it’s going to slip out of your fingers. RIM thoughtfully provide a very nice little cloth case with an elasticated top that holds the PlayBook very nicely. It also provides some protection when you drop it, as I did when three days into owning it I was juggling a load of small items out of the car and the PlayBook somehow launched itself from about waist height onto concrete. I was expecting to pull it from the sleeve to find a shattered screen, anyone who has dropped an iPhone will know how those screens tend to shatter, but apart from a small dink in the metal on the corner that had hit the floor first the PlayBook was entirely unharmed.

The PlayBook itself is fairly minimalist, apart from a grey metal bezel around the screen the entire device is black. There are no buttons or connections on either side of the device, along the top there is a (very small) power button, and the now standard volume up, play\pause and volume down buttons at the far right end is a 3.5mm audio jack. Turning the device the other way up reveals a docking station port, a mini-usb and a mini-HDMI. There are front and rear facing cameras and a speaker grill on the front left and front right.

The User Interface experience

The UI itself is clean and slick, the device is touch sensitive outside of the screen area, so the 1/2 inch black band around this is not entirely wasted real estate. Dragging your finger up from the bottom towards the centre of the screen opens the home screen from within an app, it also gives you a preview window of all the apps you are running and switching between these is just a matter of swiping left or right and tapping the one you want. This makes multi-tasking on the PlayBook a breeze. RIM have obviously worked VERY hard on getting this part of the user experience just right. Transistions are smooth and silky, I couldn’t get the device to slow down no matter how many apps I opened or how hard I pushed it.

The on-screen keyboard on the PlayBook can be accessed at anytime by swiping a finger diagonally up from bottom left to the centre of the screen. The keyboard itself is fairly well laid out and responsive, although different to those found on Andriod and iOS devices and this takes a bit of getting used to. I also couldn’t find a way to switch on predictive text, although it may be hidden away in some secret menu option that I have missed.

Bridge over the river Berry

The PlayBook does not have a built in SIM, so to access the internet while on the move it needs to be tethered to a smart phone, if a BlackBerry is used for this you also get the option of using the Bridge software. This gives you access to some of the BlackBerry functionality directly from the PlayBook, for example you can read and write emails, create and updated calendar events and even access files across the “Bridge”. This makes the PlayBook a very handy tool for composing longer emails that would cause your thumbs to be worn away to little stumps if they were composed using the BlackBerry’s own tiny keyboard.

And now for some FAIL

The first big failure we ran into is that the version of the device that is shipping at the moment does not support multi-user video conferencing, 1-1 works fine and is really quick and responsive, but this isn’t what we want the device for. Our support company tells us that RIM are working on an update for the PlayBook that will bring the multi-user access “Very Soon”(TM), if you’ve ever been involved with software development or even if you’ve waited for a patch for an app or game you’ll know that this is a random amount of time somewhere between 1 day and 15 years.

But that fail is insignificant compared to the issues I’ve had with Bridge, the PlayBook and my 8520 Curve. It seems that if you take the devices out of bluetooth range of each other, then Bridge dies in a huge heap and refuses to reconnect. This is a massive pain in the backside when you consider that the PlayBook has no way of communicating with the Internet on it’s own. RIM acknowledge this as an issue (See “Unable to connect BlackBerry Bridge with BlackBerry smartphone” error appears when attempting to pair with the BlackBerry PlayBook” KB) but the workaround is massively complex and involves a hard reset of both devices.


If RIM fix the issues above in a very speedy timeframe I think they will be onto a real winner with business users, the device itself is very nicely put together and is let down by the buggy and underdeveloped software. Is it an iPad killer? No, but then I don’t think it’s looking to be a toy, it’s looking to be a serious business tool and it’s certainly seems to have the grunt and look and feel to perform that role admirably.

Dirty knees


You’ll be forgiven for wondering why I’m writing about getting your knees dirty in a photography blog, you might wonder if I’ve taken leave of my senses and started to think about getting into the dry cleaning business. But this post IS related to photography and it is all to do with points of view, about getting the angle, about getting down and dirty.

The title was born out of the fact that I never, ever seem to have any clean jeans anymore. All of them have big dirty patches on the knees. Even when they have been through the laundry the grass stains and mud(and probably bird poo if I’ve really not been paying attention) are still there.

Another point of view

As photographers I think our job and our whole raison d’ĂȘtre is to record the things that go on around us, to preserve forever both the beautiful and the ugly. But sometimes we forget that in order to see those beautiful and ugly things we need to stop looking at them as the rest of the world looks at them. We need to look at things, from another point of view(someone should write a song…), and often that means getting your knees dirty.

The world is watching

When I first started taking pictures I was very aware of the eyes that seemed to be everywhere, of making myself look an idiot by contorting myself into odd positions. I should say at this point that I am not a small person, I’m probably more than a little bit overweight and I’ve always been on the large-ish size. I’m also fairly shy and self conscious, I don’t like public speaking and I would rather sit at that back and not draw attention to myself. One of THE most important lessons I have learned is that it does not matter what people think as long as you are not blocking people from getting where they need to go or making people step over you, then ignore them and they will ignore you. Even if they do glance your way as soon as they see a camera they will lose interest in you. In fact most members of the public will be more interested in getting out of your way.


Think on your feet, but don’t shoot from there

We spend our entire awake adult lives on our feet or sitting down, we normally observe the world from a height above about 3 feet, this means that pictures that are shot from low angles are often more appealing to the eye because they offer a view of the world far removed from the usual. When you are composing a shot, think about shooting it from a kneeling position or even from laying flat on your stomach.

Your three legged friend

A good, solid and stable tripod is essentially for many forms of photography and most will be able to get down low with you. If you need to shoot from a tripod on a regular basis, then one that will allow you to get the low PoV shots is pretty essential and is something that should be high on your list of requirements when purchasing. Some tripods offer reversible centre columns, this means you can shoot upside down, with the hotshoe touching the floor if you need to get really low these are ideal all you need to do is flip your image in post processing and you can get some interesting results.

Your washing machine may not thank you

But people who view your images certainly will. I think getting the shot is far more important that the odd dirty knee and increased laundry bills, hopefully when you’ve tried it, you’ll agree!

Flickr Explore – Why the Donkey is an Ass

So before I get started I’ll come clean and say I dislike Explore. I dislike it a lot. Please read this blog post with that in mind, hopefully by the end you’ll understand why. Also feel free to disagree with me, but if you do then add a comment explaining why you think I’m wrong or with your reasons for liking Explore(in its current format). If you think I’ve made a mistake in the theory, or would like to add something to it then please get in touch!

What is Explore?

It’s the most Interesting photos on Flickr. There isn’t a lot more definition to it, that I can find from Flickr staff, there is a definition of Interesting. What it contains is the 500 most Interesting pictures “found” in the last 24 hours. There seems to be a shift within this, so things can drop into and out of Explore within the 24 hour window. There is also a seven day window, after which things stay lodged in Explore. I use the word “found” rather than “uploaded” because it appears that pictures can make their way in days after they have been added. We’ll come to some maths in a bit and it’s worth bearing that little factoid in mind for the adding up section. The Flickr description of Interesting also mentions it being  “Beautiful, amazing, moving, striking – explore and discover some of Flickr’s Finest.”

What does being in Explore mean?

Well, normally what it means is a big boost to the number of views and comments that your images will receive, for the period that you are “in Explore”. I defy anyone to say it’s not a massive boost to the ego as well. If you are looking to make money from your photography then it is also a large chunk of free exposure for your work, companies that sell images seem to trawl Explore looking for artists to approach for a license to sell their images.

Having seen some of the images that makes their way into the top 500 the only one thing I can be certain of, apart from the above, is that it doesn’t mean you are a good photographer or that you take good pictures. Saying “My picture must be good, it got into Explore” is therefore a delusion of fairly epic proportions. Unless you agree that all the poor pictures are equally as good as yours as well of course.

Some VERY quick maths

There are roughly 7 million image uploads to flickr per day, this means that Explore is 0.007% of those shots, if you take into account the fact that images can get a ride days after their upload then that percentage shrinks even more.

The mystery of the Donkey Ride

I’ve seen pages and pages of things written about how Explore picks it’s candidates. One thing is pretty certain from the evidence of I have seen; There is not an individual combination of views\comments\favourites\galleries that will trigger the ride. There doesn’t seem to be a combination of groups, tags, sets, or geo-locations that will do it. It’s also obvious that there cannot be any element of human intervention in picking the 500, it must all be done by automated systems, unless Flickr have a couple of thousand staff hidden away in a bunker looking at images all day everyday. What a depressing job!

An automated system must have rules and criteria, if Explore was a product of an random number generator then people would quickly notice that images with no comments were making their way in,given the size of Flickr and the maths I mentioned above the rules have to be fairly simple. A system that had too many criteria or was too complex would be expensive to implement, lets not forget that Flickr was an independent company before they were consumed by the Yahoo! leviathan, and would also be difficult to maintain and adapt.

A theory

My current theory is that there is a “sum total” of Interestingness across an individuals stream, there is a lower and upper limit for this total if you are outside of these limits then you will not get into Explore regardless of the quality of the images you produce. There must also be a global “Explore Score”, this is the Interestingness rating that an image must achieve to be eligible for a ride on the Donkey. It’s widely known that every image has an Interestingness score, there is a Greasemonkey script that can show you this as a ranking against all the others in your stream. Adding up all your Interestingness scores would give you the sum total for your stream.

To summarise, there are (at least) two factors at play that judge whether an image is Explored:

  1. Whether your stream is above or below the Interesting “Sum Total”
  2. Whether the image meets the global “Explore Score”

There also appears to be a window that the sum total counts for, so images older than X months no longer factor into the calculation, this would account for why there seems to be patches of time where you can suddenly get a shot Explored, then go back to not having anything. To back this bit of the theory up; my first image to be Explored had it’s Donkey Ride on September 30th 2010, I then had random rides through October and November and then a period between December and January where I had a shot in everyday, on the 23rd January this stopped and I didn’t get anything until March 30th. This was exactly six months after my first Explore, of course co-incidence and random chance could be at play here, but I’ve never been a believer in co-incidence, especially where automated computer systems are concerned. A shifting time window would make sense, it reduces the overhead on the systems that calculate the Interestingness score and also offers the chance to “get back in” to Explore as older images drop off of the end. This would account for the feelings that the “algorithm must have changed” or that certain individuals are banned from getting into Explore.

Disclaimer: This theory is the result of conversations with other Flickr denizens and my own observations of the process, I could be 100% wrong. I don’t have any insider knowledge of Flickr or how Explore actually operates. If you bet the ranch on the above and lose, don’t come crying to me, also if you are silly enough to bet on it – send me some cash via paypall!

Why Explore is bad(Danger, here be dragons!)

If, and I admit it’s a BIG if, my theory is correct then Explore is very bad. Actually even if my theory is wrong then I stand by the first two reasons for Explore being bad. It’s bad for new photographers just starting out “Why can’t I get my shot into Explore?” with a low sum total, I know when I was first starting out that I found the whole thing deeply demotivating. It’s bad for genuinely good photographers for much the same reason but with the added downside of not getting the easy access to the exposure they need to advertise their work. It’s also REALLY bad for 365’ers, the sum total of Interestingness is going to be much higher on their streams, making Explore a vanishingly small likelihood.

I also feel that Explore pushes people into a niche, they find a shot type(landscapes, macro’s, portraits, whatever) that gets them onto the ride and they stick with it producing the same old shots over and over again. This is fine if you are happy with doing that, I’d find it exceptionally dull both for me and the people viewing my shots. I’ve removed people from my contact list for being boring!

There is also a risk that the exposure and ego boost from Explore makes people think they are more skilled at photography than they actually are, the old “My picture must be good, it got into Explore” comment above is a prime example of that. I’d be the last to stand in the way of someone who wants to grow and develop their photography skills, but it’s important that people remember that learning a skill takes time and that your haven’t reached the end of the path as soon as you get your first Explore, or even your fiftieth come to that.

Testing the theory

An interesting(should that be “Interesting”) way of testing the theory would be to create an entirely new Flickr account, only use it for your best shots and restrict the number of images in your stream to say twenty, deleting old ones as you upload new. As long as your contacts are aware that you have this account and comment in the same way and you add it to the same groups my guess would that you could bingo Explore pretty much every time.


So I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I hope I have outlined why I feel Explore is a flawed concept. I’m not going to offer any ways of changing or improving it, there is enough in that for a whole new blog post. If you are looking to get yourself into making money from Flickr(something that goes against the Terms of Use, if you read it closely), I think it’s best to keep your options open, Explore is the best way of getting the exposure you need, but it’s far to fickle and restrictive to be useful as a marketing tool. I can recommend RedBubble as a damn good site for sharing and selling your work, the standard is MUCH higher than the Flickr average, I know this isn’t saying much.

I think it’s also important to remember why we as photographers take pictures – for the love, the joy, the beauty that we see through the lens and capture for eternity. It’s good to remind ourselves of this every now and then – especially when look at Explore and splutter “What the f**k, how the hell did THAT get explored?!” at the screen.

Smoke and mirrors

This blog post details how I take and post process smoke images. Taking this kind of shot is pretty frustrating at first, capturing the small ethereal wisps can be quite tricky and it takes a bit of fiddling to get the correct light setup where you just illuminate the smoke and not the background. As always with photography blog posts, this is just a guide and a starting point for you to try your own ideas, your own mileage may vary with the set-up and processing.

What you’ll need

There are a few things you will need for this, most of them can be cheap\free however.

  • An off camera flash unit
  • A wireless trigger system for the above
  • A Snoot(Barn doors work as well)
  • A large(ish) reflector
  • A lamp or other permanently on light source
  • A black background (I use a king size flat bed sheet – don’t get a fitted one!)
  • Incense sticks + something to hold them vertical
  • A DSLR with a lens (I use a Canon 50D and a Canon 24-105)
  • a draft free room that can be easily ventilated

To tether or not tether and tripod or handheld

I’ve seen plenty of conflicting opinions on both of these subjects. Some people like to be tethered to a PC\Laptop so they can instantly see the results of the shot, some like to shoot from a tripod so they have the advantage of stability. My personal preference is to shoot without being tethered and handheld. I like the freedom of movement this gives me around the smoke, this movement is usually also enough to generate the interesting patterns and whirls that make smoke photography such a fun subject. I also like to shoot with a zoom rather than prime as I can change my focal length quicker than I can move!

The Equipment setup

The shot below is an example of how I will usually setup. Clicking the image will take you off to flickr where it is annotated with key features.

Smoke setup

As you will see, I don’t have an expensive studio or even a dedicated room for photography, this is actually my living room! The black background is just visible on the left, the flash on a stand is in the foreground and the reflector in the background on another flash stand. The small green item on top of the footstool is a vitamin bottle lid full of small marbles, I poke the incense stick into this and it does a pretty good job of holding it up straight and not being obtrusively in shot. Heath Robinson had nothing on me! I would be shooting from just out of the edge of the right of the frame. You can also use two incense sticks at once, the combined heat they give off will create interesting whirls in the smoke, I usually only shoot one and gentle waft the smoke around however

The flash is normally set to 1/2 power to start with and  has a snoot fitted to keep the light concentrated in a beam aimed roughly across the top of the incense stick, the reflector is positioned so that it angled slightly away from the background as well. The idea is to keep the background as black as possible by not allowing any light from either to  fall upon it. I use a building site light to illuminate the smoke, they are relatively cheap, widely available from DIY stores  and produce A LOT of light, although the do get hot enough to burn skin and care should be taken around them, as with the flash and reflector the light from this needs to be carefully directed to ensure none is hitting the lens or the background. You could also use a desk lamp or anglepoise, as long it is bright enough to allow the camera’s AF to focus on the smoke, it will do the job.

Because smoke is an off-grey colour shooting against black will help both you and your cameras AF to see it, we’ll come to how we change the background to white later on in this post.

Ready, aim, shoot

Once I get everything in position, but before lighting the incense, I normally take a couple of test shots to get the light right and to adjust positions if any is hitting the background. I try and shoot at ISO 100, 1/200 @ f8, it may take a bit of “chimping” to get the exposure correct. I know some people recommend shooting totally in the dark, I’ve never found this to be strictly necessary if you get your f-stop correct and your light(s) in the right place the background will be more than dark enough. I’ll then light the stick and take a few shots making sure that the smoke is exposed properly and that the AF is getting the majority of the smoke in focus, if the camera is having difficulty in obtaining focus you will need to look at moving your constant light source so that it illuminates the smoke more, remembering to keep it away from the background and the lens. This is usually the trickiest and most frustrating part of the shoot by far. With everything in position start shooting and wafting, I like to throw the kitchen sink at this, you’re not shooting film and paying for the exposures, you probably have a large enough memory card that taking over a 100 shots isn’t going to put a dent in it. I’d rather have 150 shots in Lightroom to look at than miss a good formation of swirls. I’ll easily get to “more than enough shots” long before the incense stick has burned down, so don’t worry about taking your time about the lighting positions either.

Heigh-ho it’s off to PP we go

Once I’ve finished shooting I’ll import all the pictures into Lightroom and start sorting through them. Be ruthless at this point, if you’ve taken my advice about not skimping on the shots you take you can afford to be, as a rule of thumb I generally keep one in ten of the images on the first pass through, the rest go straight into the reject bin. I’ll then do a second pass and eliminate any where the smoke is drifting out of frame or is otherwise not a “Stand out” shot, again you can afford to be tough here, I usually end up with four or five shots left by now.

Occasionally you will be able to see little specks in the shot, these are normally dust particles that have been caught in the flash beam, you can clean these up with the spot removal took in LR or using a black brush in CS5. Do this before proceeding with the PP.

I’ll then pick one of the shots and take it over into CS5, the image below is the original for the shot at the top of this page, as you can see it’s pretty drab and not very exciting, but it does have a nice swirl and the pattern of light is quite nicely defined. I already had an idea for an end result and this was the perfect starting place.So that’s white\grey smoke on a black background, how do we get to coloured smoke on a white background. Well, it’s actually pretty easy, but first the image could use a bit more cleaning up, I like to keep a bit of breathing room around the top of the shot, so get the paint brush and set it to black and about 700px and 50% hardness then “dab” it around the top of the smoke to take any smoke that is disappearing out of the top of the frame away, it’s also worth tidying up any stray smoke that isn’t integral to the main column away at this point by just painting black over the top of it. Now for the white background we need to Invert the image, you can do this by pressing CTRL+I on a PC(Command +I on a Mac), if you want to do this in a non destructive way, you can duplicate the background layer and invert that. You should now have some grey-ish smoke on a white background, which is still relatively unexciting, so lets add some colour. To do that we are going to use the Hue\Saturation adjustment layer, clicking it will give you a new layer and options to tweak the hue, saturation and lightness, but won’t appear to do a lot else, the magic button is near the bottom and is a tick box marked “Colorize”(don’t get me started on the missing “u”!) . When you click this you’ll notice your smoke goes a nice shade of red, adjust the Hue slider will change the colour and the Saturation will make it more vivid, I don’t touch the slider marked Lightness. Below is the tweaked version of the initial shot.You can increase the effect of the colour shift by duplicating the layer, you can also play with masking off areas of the adjustment layer using the black paintbrush, this has the effect of “punching through” the adjustment. Because you have a white background you can blend multiple images using the Blend mode “multiply”. The final incarnation of smoke shot can be seen below and is made up of multiple versions of the same smoke blended together.

High Speed

This blog posting is all about how I take the high speed shots I occasionally post on flickr, an example of which is below.


High speed photography usually involves freezing the motion in a shot either with a very fast shutter speed or by using speedlights\strobes to capture the movement. The issue with the former method is that it requires a lot of available light to get anywhere near the shutter speed required to remove motion blur, there are very expensive studio setups that can give enough constant light or you can try outside on a very sunny (but windless) day. Given the weather in the UK, where I am based, if I waited for a sunny day I’d be very old and grey before I could take any shots. My preferred method uses a couple of off camera flash units to provide a low power short duration burst of light, this combined with a long shutter duration can be used to freeze a motion in a shot.

Equipment required

The first thing you need is a room that is relatively dark, you need enough light to see by, but not so much that you could take a shot with your camera and see anything in the recorded image. Also required is an off camera flash gun and some way of triggering it, I prefer to use wireless triggers for this as it means there aren’t cables draped everywhere. I like to use two or three flash units for most of my shots as this gets enough light on the subject at a relatively low power setting on the strobes. A good solid tripod and head is also needed, along with a shutter release trigger. Lastly, and most obviously, you’ll need a camera and lens, you’ll need something that lets you set up in full manual and a lens that has a reasonably short minimum focussing distance, I’ll get to the settings I use further on in this post. You may also want to get hold of some backdrops, I like to use white, as I think the high key effect works well in this type of shot, but black and any other colour will also do.

The equipment I currently use is:

  • Canon 50D
  • Canon 24-105 L
  • YN RF602 wireless transmitter with 2 receivers(or slaved flashes)
  • Canon 580EXii Flash
  • YN 560 Flash
  • YN 460ii Flash
  • Giottos MTL9351B tripod
  • Hahnel wired shutter release

Faster baby, Faster!

So how does this work? The principle behind a slow shutter speed short duration flash shot is quite simple. It works because flash units  set to low power  only emit light for a very brief period, at 1/64 power the duration of the light is around 1/16000 of a second, this is double the fastest shutter speed my 50D can achieve. The camera shutter is opened and because the room is dark records nothing but black, when the flashes are fired whatever is happening in the shot is recorded.

Camera and flash settings

I usually opt for an aperture between F11 and F16, the aim is to get a reasonably large amount of the shot within the depth of field. I find a shutter speed of 5-8 seconds is best, this is long enough that you have time to get yourself set to drop\move whatever you want to capture, but not so long that you are waiting for a ages to view the results. I normally set the flash power to around 1/64. You will almost certainly need to juggle flash power and camera aperture to reach the sweet spot for a) enough light and b) enough depth of field. Increasing the number of flashes units will make the process of getting the light right much easier, 3 or even 4 units give a much better balance of flash duration and amount of light.

Bringing it all together

Get the camera on the tripod and positioned in the correct place, set the lens to manual focus and use Live View to compose and ensure that the subject is sharp. Put the camera in manual mode and set your aperture to F13 and shutter speed to 5 seconds. Plug in your shutter release and make sure that the cable is safely routed so that you won’t trip over it.

Get the flash guns and wireless receivers connected and mounted on feet or flash stands, I normally have one aimed straight up the backdrop to provide some fill light and the other above and in front of the subject pointing down at around 45 degrees. You will have to experiment with how this works for you to get the optimal position.

If you are dropping things into liquid I recommend at least one towel is close at hand, you WILL make a mess and this WILL end up on something expensive if you aren’t careful.

With everything in place and the lights off, open the shutter on the camera but DO NOT fire the flash guns. When the shutter closes, review the image to ensure that all you can see is black. If it’s not, try and make the room darker and\or go for a higher F-Stop, I would avoid going over f18 or you will start to get degraded image sharpness with most lenses. When you have made your adjustments, retake the image and repeat until it is totally dark.

When you are satisfied that the image is dark, open the shutter again and this time count in your head to 3 then fire the flashes, don’t drop anything in or have moving objects in the frame at this point. When the shutter closes review the image, you will want to make sure that you are happy with the focus on the subject and that the lighting is correct. If it’s too dark, adjust the flash power accordingly. Don’t make multiple changes to the setup at once, often you will find that you only need to change one thing to bring the image to where you want it. Repeat taking the image until you are happy with position, lighting and focus.

You should now be ready to take your first shot, you will probably need to make a few attempts to get the timing right. Review your shots between each attempt to determine if you are firing the flash units at the correct time.

I’ve included a setup shot below, this was taken when I only had one flash unit and was using my Sigma 18-250, I’ll be updating this the next time I do a high speed shot.

An alternative method

If the above seems a bit of a faff, then there is a quicker method that can be used. This doesn’t use a long shutter time, but simply flash sync speed(1/250). The setup for this is identical to the method above apart from the shutter speed and you will be triggering the shutter AND the flashes at the same time; when your object is creating it’s splash. This method can produce some good results, especially if the room is dark enough that without firing the flashes you get a black image, but there is often motion blur  evident which can compromise the quality of the shot. These also aren’t “true” highspeed shots.

The start of a New Year

Two 365’s at once? I must be mad! Well from now until the end of the 2010 365 that is exactly what I will be doing. So two shots for today. The first is a New Years Day recovery shot with a nice bottle of Gentleman Jack in the background. This is my first shot for the 2011 365

The second shot is part of the Cliche Saturday treasure hunt, I chose the theme Bare Feet as I had access to Sam’s feet, which are much more photogenic than mine!