Photography for Free

This isn’t so much a blog post as a summary of my talk on 20th March 2014 to TOGSQuad, a new-ish Derby photography group founded by Victoria Wilcox, the Picture Editor at the Derby Telegraph. The group has photographers at all levels of ability and here I aim to be an antidote to the notion that spending hard-earned money on fancy equipment is a sensible way to make better pictures.  So here are the images and captions, and below is a summary of the points made:

Post processing isn’t inherently unnatural or dishonest
In the good old days of film you had to choose a the contrast level and the exposure in the darkroom. It was also normal to crop and to dodge and burn to deal with highlights and shadows. You still do. You may find Photoshop intimidating (it’s beyond me), but iPhoto on the Mac, the camera manufacturer’s software of Picasa (Mac and PC), and Snapseed (iOS and Android) will provide a simple and free introduction.

Is your camera good enough?

  • Probably – look at the Flickr Camera Finder – find your own camera – and see what others are achieving with it.
  • Are you making the most of it? Do you know how the features work? Have you gone through the menus?
  • And practice, practice practice! Do you know which way the dial moves to open the aperture or do you fiddle? If you use auto exposure can you deal with tricky lighting quickly?

Learn from your rejects
Some typical faults:

  • Dull, boring pictures
  • Tilted
  • Chopping off legs and arms
  • Funny faces
  • Smiles
  • Intrusions
  • Not close enough
  • Negative space
  • Technical fault (focus, movement)
  • Backs
  • Overlaps
  • Burned out sky
  • Timing
  • Verticals
  • Distracting background

Less that 5% of my rejects would be fixed with a better camera.

Analyse your rejects and apply suitable remedies, for example:

  • Get closer
  • Select moment
  • Change position
  • Shoot square
  • Engage, direct the subject
  • Further away
  • Up the ISO and if need be
  • … hide noise in B&W
  • Find out how the camera works!
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Check in camera
  • Get up / down
  • Get closer

Always carry a camera:
Lots of fun things happen every day in the street. It doesn’t need to be a fancy camera – you may not want to cart a bulky DSLR round all the time. Magic juxtapositions don’t just happen. You need to find element 1 and wait for element 2 to appear.
Keep your eyes open, look up and learn to see what the camera will see, not what you see.

Light is magic and free:
Low light is generally more interesting. With high, soft light black and white may work better. Know how the sun moves with time (left to right in the Northern hemisphere, 15 degrees per hour) and the seasons. If you want, play with The Photographer’s Ephemeris to see how a favourite place will be lit. When you see lovely light, keep the camera in your hand. Shooting by candle-light is possible – crank up the ISO.

What do YOU want to say?
Once you’ve mastered the camera’s operation, lighting and composition then what’s your project? What I did on my holidays? Life in multicultural Derby? A year in the garden? Something that will give you, say, a dozen images to show.

And finally – Artists Statements:
I don’t understand them either. Make your own at

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Somebody mentioned they were going to photograph a wedding for a friend. Not formally, but all the same I’m sure they want to do a good job. So on the basis of having photographed two weddings, one in 1978 using a Zenit E and one this year on digital, I’ve set down my thoughts, not so much on how to do it, but more on the things to think about. I’m going to assume a white wedding here as that’s almost the hardest. And while I’m going to point out the pitfalls, if you’re doing this as a favour for someone, don’t worry I’m sure they’ll be delighted with the results and doubly delighted at not being ripped off by some of the comedians who are charging six hundred quid for a day’s shoddy work and not so much as a crop in post.

Why do people get married around midday – the light’s awful. Bright sun from above casts horrible shadows. And that’s not the worst of it – in such lighting the contrast between the detail in the bride’s dress and the groom’s suit is far more than the nominal eight stops that a jpg can record or a monitor or a print can display. OK, the following example was shot on contrasty slide film in 1978, but digital will struggle too.

Bishopbriggs146 (1)

It looked even worse when printed

If on the other hand you set the exposure to cope with the shadow side of the faces, the detail in the dress be burned out and it will look like a Bri-nylon short. The bride will not thank you.

What can you do about it? Obviously the best thing is to persuade people to get married at a more photogenic time of day – in high summer say 05:00 or 21:00. Failing that, you’re going to have to do battle with the light. The professional or well-heeled amateur will use fill-in flash to brighten the dark areas and bring the contrast under control. You can’t do this with a pop-up flashgun – it needs to be a big, separate job costing £100-£300 which I’m assuming you don’t have. So you need to be clever.

First, know you enemy. Case the joint at about the same time of day as the wedding. See where the light will be. Pick a spot for the formal photos that doesn’t have a distracting background and where the light will be a bit diffuse – perhaps through trees. Diffuse mind, not deep shade. If you can’t get to the venue then try a solar calculator like The Photographer’s Ephemeris to see where the sun is going to be (a bit geeky, should be fine for blokes under fifty). The Adobe Air version is free for Mac or PC, there’s a charge for the iOS or Android version.

You can diffuse the light yourself for portraits, or rather your lovely assistant can by holding a diffuser between the happy couple and the sun. That’s probably the limit for a simple hand-held diffuser. A similar bit of kit is the reflector which your lovely assistant can use to bounce back into the shadows. Look on eBay for ‘photo reflector’ or tap up one of your photographic mates.

And finally on exposure, keep an eye on the histograms. Set the camera display to ‘flash’ burned out highlights. Don’t lose highlight detail although if you shoot RAW+jpg there’s more that can be done to rescue you.

Shoot RAW+jpg

Straight out of the camera jpg will be better and will do for most of the shots. However if you get a priceless shot that isn’t quite exposed right or with wonky colour balance a TOGSQuad chum or other photographic friend will rescue you. Yes you will probably need a second memory card. There’s no benefit in using uncompressed RAW, use lossless compression (probably the default. If you have the choice 12-bit is fine, you don’t need 14-bit.

The Lovely Assistant

You are taking a lovely assistant, aren’t you? Not just to hold the diffuser / reflector, but also to carry a back-up camera. A compact will do fine and of course be bagging all the good candid shots while you sweat blood over the formal ones.

Candid (1)

They’ll like the candids more than the formal shots. Tough.

On that subject, the lovely assistant will also tick off the shots the bride asked for when you ran through it in advance. If she wants a picture of her with Aunt Dolly and Aunt Daisy DO IT. If Aunt Daisy and Aunt Edna must never appear in the same frame because of what Aunt Dolly’s cook told Aunt Edna’s parlourmaid find out. Family feuds matter.

The lovely assistant will also arrange people for the formal shots while you are tearing our hair out trying to work your new camera. And when you have the brilliant idea of posing the bride in a tree, the lovely assistant will bring the white towel or sheet to protect the dress from dirt.


List the shots in advance

Oh, I’ve already done that.

Don’t upset the Vicar
No, really. If they say ‘no photographs during the service’ they mean it. If the vicar stops the service to tell you off the bride will be unhappy. And it does happen.


You have been warned

You’re going to have a lot of photos. Pick the best plus the essentials from the list and sort them out from the ‘also rans’. People might want to see 50 photos; they don’t want to sit through the 200-2000 you might shoot. Put them in a separate folder.

You now have a workable number of photos if you are going to be doing any tweaking. On that subject establish the extent to which the bride wants her complexion softening. If she has a plook on her neb (a spot on her nose) she may want it airbrushing out. She may not. Don’t waste your time making a forty year old look fourteen if that’s not what she wants.


So the Just Do Its

- speak to the bride and get a list of must-have shots

- sus the light in advance

- sus where you’re going to do the posed shots

- watch the highlights and shoot RAW+jpg

- most importantly, take a lovely assistant and if you don’t have one it’s a jolly good chance to ask

- and remember, they will be delighted anyway!

Good luck!

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How to fix a Nikon GPS cable

If you’ve got one of these you’ll soon find (at least my son and I did) that the cable design is woeful – it’s far too long and catches on stuff and bends. What’s worse is that the strain relief is far too rigid and it just snaps rather than bending. (I’m specifically talking about the CA10 that joins the GPS to a 10-pin camera like the 300, the principle holds good for others I suspect).


Camera end on its last legs


This is the GPS unit end under stress

A quick Google finds somebody offering the cable for GBP260, Grays have them for about GBP50. Mine lasted a fortnight in India. Yes you can get a replacement from the shop under warranty but they’re not going to do that every two weeks for the next few years.The solution is simple if you have access to someone with an electronics lab – you need to put some flexible rubber sleeving over the transitions to better take spread the stress. Here are a couple of ends – one almost gone, another brand new so treated. You can guess it’s better to fix the cable when it’s new or as soon as possible.

Hellerman 4

Repaired ends – top one was ready to fail, lower one protected before it got the chance.

So how do you get those rubber supports on? You need the fiendishly-cunning Hellerman three-pronged pliers:

Hellerman 1

You slip the sleeve over the prongs and expand it so:

Hellerman 3

then slip the smaller end of the cable through. Slacken off the pliers and withdraw them from the sleeve.It takes a certain amount of force and dexterity and be careful not to impale yourself on the prongs, but it does the job. If you haven’t got a chum who can lend you the tool and a few sleeves the tool costs only GBP35 so would be worth it if you plan to use the GP-1 a lot.

Finally, as you can see I’ve used a combination of medium and large sleeves to taper the strain relief.

My first and last article on DIY!













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Strobism – not as easy as it looks

It all seemed so easy. That nice David Hobby (Strobist)’s videos show him wandering round Howard County, Maryland lighting anything and everything with a handful – at most – of Nikon strobes (or flashguns as we say here in Britain). So when I had a minor op on my hands and was provided with a couple of splints to keep my palms flat during the night it reminded me of the appliances the Victorians used to stop boys, ahem, ‘touching themselves’. A photograph of my hands encased in these things and entitled ‘Tales from a Victorian orphanage’ seemed like an idea. Had I known what lay before me… Anyway here’s the photo.

Tales from a Victorian orphanage

Tales from a Victorian orphanage

and yes I know that the Victorians painted institutions green not orange and didn’t have Velcro. But it all started as a five minute project to provide some amusement on Facebook. Two people and three and a half hours later…

Let’s start with what went right. I used a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod on which the centre column can be bent out sideways so the tripod is of to my left out of the way. A 10-24mm zoom on a Nikon D300s was pulled back to 10mm to allow me to be behind the camera and stick my hands up in front. My wife focussed using live view and pressed the shutter. It might have been better to have used a Triggertrap to fire the shutter and used the multipoint AF rather than the rather slow contrast detection AF in live view – lots of wasted shots.

Now the strobes. Five! The problem was trying to light the stairwell. The SB-900 upstairs couldn’t see the master downstairs. So the master on the camera is zoomed out and pointed at a flash just out of sight half way up the stairs and at zero power – it in turn relays the signals to the one on the landing. There’s a brolly behind me and another flash clipped to the cord of the pendant lamp by the kitchen door on the right. The time was spent iterating that setup. Oh and the splints came out too bright so I tried using a polariser to turn them down. Did it work? I don’t know, I was past caring. But it did mean two of the flashes were on full power just to get f/5.6 (and I only went to f/5.6 because the focus was so chronic. Perhaps a brighter way to tackle it would have been to have exposed the house using ambient and to have gelled the flash to match the compact fluorescents and then shot at 1/30. We live and learn.

But at least I’ve justified that fifth strobe to SWMBO. And when I go and try to shoot an interior I won’t make nearly such a fool of myself in front of the client trying to light it!

If you’re wondering about the medical side, Dupuytrens Contracture is when cords grow in your hands and pull it into a claw. Mind had progressed to the point where I could only just get my hand around a pint pot, so time to get it sorted. The operation consists of a local anaesthetic which has to be partial as you need to scream if they hit a nerve. Then the surgeon simply inserts a syringe needle and breaks the cord with a series of punctures. Sounds horrid – it wasn’t. Here in Derby (UK) it’s done as a one stop shop – you’re in and out in half an hour. Making the splints takes longer. And I was using my hands fully as soon as I got home. Three cheers for the NHS!

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A year on

A year ago I went into the garden, fired up with the notion that a real photographer was someone who could make an interesting photo within a couple of metres of his back door and fairly quickly concluded that I wasn’t a real photographer. With the aid of several effects filters I managed to produce something that wasn’t too dull. I made a note in my diary to try again in a year’s time. These are the results, not perfect, but I’m rather pleased that they’re straight off the sensor.






What’s changed? I think I’ve learned that the light shining on the scene is key; there are some things you can’t ‘sort out in post’. Light is number one, depth of field is number two – the rejects from this lot were the ones with either too little, or more often, too much.

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I’ve been quiet lately…

I’ve been quiet for a bit. In the library, reading about photography, its history and art criticism. It’s been quite interesting. And I haven’t actually taken a photograph with a DSLR since March. Although I snapped this on the iPhone.


Which makes me wonder.

The second semester of the FdA offered the opportunity to build up the techniques towards seeking to work with a professional in a or so dozen three-hour lessons, three of which were on B&W developing and printing. Interesting as this is – especially for students who haven’t done it before – I don’t see how it’s ever going to get me from say this (a grab shot, not a carefully composed setup note!) …

Burton Bridge Pie

… to something that might grace the pages of ‘Pies and Piemen’ or that the brewery might thank me for and put on its website. So I’m sitting down with a mind-mapper and am plotting how I can develop the skills I need using the library – open to all with ID – the Internet and cooperation with local businesses. TTFN!


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12/06/2012 · 16:10

Yet Mair Kulcher (Thijs Groot Wassink)

I went along to a talk at the Silkmill, Derby to see what Thijs had to say about his photography. First however there was a warm-up act. Katrina Schwarz gave a talk on ‘Neighbours as an art space’. ‘Neighbours’ turned out to refer to a soap opera popular in the UK. My interpretation of her thesis was that ‘Neighbours’ is a projection of the world according to the Daily Mail. She showed provided evidence of racism and middle-classness, but a sequence featuring a dog dreaming made it seem a little highbrow. What was my experience like? I found it rather surreal to be sitting in a darkened room surrounded by interesting photos, watching clips from the TV while out of the corner of my eye I could see happy people playing and running about on the Derby riverside in the blazing sun of an unseasonal March day. My mental image was of stepping in dog poo and trying to scrape it off my shoe. This is not meant to be derogatory, and I don’t know what brought it on. It is simply a reporting of my subjective experience as I drifted in and out of slumber on that very, very lovely warm day, sitting in the Silkmill, the site of the world’s first factory and the world’s first strike.

Thijs Groot Wassink woke me up. He and his photography partner Ruben Lundgren have worked together as WassinkLundgren since they graduated in 2005. According to the Telegraph they create ‘conceptual documentary works’ which seems an admirably terse summary. So some notes:

Two works, Duoperspectief and Tokyo Tokyo. The pair walked together throughout the city and took photos of the same person at the same time from different angles. This produced intriguing results and the ‘point’ was to portray two truths, a refutation of Cartier Bresson and the critical moment. An interesting idea indeed.

Another book, ‘WassinkLundgren is still searching’ was printed in China as an edition of 500 and edited by tearing out the pages that seemed less good whenever they were given to a recipient. Video. Each book is therefore more or less unique.

Wassink explained a little of the background to ‘Plastic bottles’. They were working in Shanghai with a viewfinder and placed a plastic bottle on the ground as a focussing aid, and before they could take the photo a scavenger picked up the bottle and made off with it. And so they made a book of photographs of people scavenging discarded bottles

There was a video of dogs left outside shops, the point of which eluded me.

Both of the artists are now doing Masters’ degrees, Wassink in London and Lundgren in Beijing. Lundgren has made a series of photographs celebrating his tallness, including wearing a measuring-tape suit.

Questions were invited. The greater part of the audience (four out of six) were Fine Art students from Derby University. They were most intrigued by the whole business of street photography and I had an interesting chat with them afterwards. But the really useful question was ‘Where does the money come from?’ Wassink’s answer was direct. ‘The usual. Prostitution.’ Books don’t make money but help promote; prints are a better source of income as are magazine commissions.

What of the photographs? Random seems to sum it up. The most interesting thing would have been to see their rejects too, which might provide an insight into what they thought was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. How naïve of me. An insight into what they chose to publish and what not to publish. A chat with Thijs might have helped, but he was still being monopolised by a rather vocal American half an hour later when I reluctantly left. But if you’re passing, drop in to see Thijs’s work and others from the Hijacked III exhibition. And take a sandwich for Thijs, he’s probably still stuck there.

At the end I was left with a question. What is art? Well here’s as far as I got. If the artist is not of independent means, it is that for which somebody will pay and which the purchaser is prepared to accept as art. Who buys art? WassinkLundgren’s website is pretty upfront about it. Commercial organisations can hang the art somewhere to demonstrate how wealthy or clever they are and art collectors can hide it away to demonstrate the same. And if you want to show how clever you are, do you buy art that anyone else appreciates or understands? Hardly – what matters is that you have it and they don’t, surely. Now, I pride myself on being a sceptic, but I try to avoid cynicism. On this occasion I’ve failed miserably. I trust I don’t write anything as cynical again for a few years.

On a more cheerful note, I then went and took a non-conceptual documentary photograph in Jack Rabbits, the excellent local deli. Nom nom nom.

Cake at Jack Rabbits, opposite Derby Cathedral

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