Lessons from above 

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This photo reminds me that trees are to kids as flowers are to bees. It’s a simple snapshot of my friends’ children, however it does illustrate nine brief but useful points:

The bad points

1) The sky is blown out (overexposed, pure white). However, it’s a snapshot rather than fine art, and this case it doesn’t bother me too much. There wasn’t a lot of time before the girls moved on so it was best to make the most of the opportunity, even if that meant losing the sky: family members will probably just look at the faces and be oblivious to the background.

2) I used fill flash and overall that gave a very nice result. The one thing that a camera’s built-in flash is good for is fill light, but if people are wearing glasses you’ll often get a reflection, as in this case. I have tried cloning out such reflections, with mixed results. In this case grabbing an external flash and extension cord would have meant missing the shot, however that is often the best solution (if you hold the flash away to the right of the camera the reflection coming from the glasses will go off to the left, where the camera can’t see it).

The good points

3) You’ll notice that I’ve placed one foot in a corner of the photo, with a roughly equal amount of space to the left of and below the boot. A diagonal that runs to a point near the corner of the frame usually looks odd, but one that runs to the actual corner will usually look pleasing. In the case it’s almost as if she’s resting her foot on the edge of the photo, and that plus the diagonal running to the corner results in the edges of the frame becoming a contributing part of the image rather than some sort of hanger-on messing up the scene.

4) If the bottom of the photo was bright would tend to pull your eye away from the faces, but instead the area below the main branch is fairly dark and forms a nice solid base.

5) The centreline of the girls’ torsos and faces are roughly aligned with the verticals of a thirds grid (the rule guide of thirds).

6) Fill flash has raised the brightness of the faces to a point that matches the surroundings well, and there are nice catchlights in the eyes.

7) Generally you need to include the ground in order to give a sense of height, but in this case looking up a steep angle towards the girls has the same effect. Adults aren’t used to looking up at kids, and this unusual view of a common subject adds interest to the photo.

8) The diagonal of the branch that the girls are sitting on adds life to the photo. Lines affect the mood of photos.

9) There is a vertical branch between the girls and such an object has the potential to break any sense of relationship. However, they are both holding the branch in such a way that the branch in fact ties them together and makes it clear to us the viewers that these two are friends.

This was a situation where I had a few seconds in which to get a shot. The girls know me well and chose to strike a pose, which thankfully was a nice one: the fact that I didn’t give any direction makes the result look fairly natural and relaxed. With snapshots of family and friends the people are the most important thing, but it’s also good to look for snapshots in places where the environment adds to the image.


Five tips for photographing waterfalls

Two days ago I went to the Hunua Falls and was inspired to write this post. Waterfalls aren’t my favourite subject and it’s easy to make dull photos of them, but a few simple techniques will give your photos a lift.

Click here to see more photos from the falls.

1: Include a person for scale

Put your thumb over the man in the photo below and your sense of the waterfall’s height disappears. Part of telling the story of your visit to a waterfall is showing viewers how high the waterfall was and the simplest way to do this is to include a person, preferably one who is the same distance from the camera as the waterfall is. Including people in landscapes also gives viewers an emotional connection with the image.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

2: Get wet

If you have a waterproof camera or an underwater housing such as a Dicapac you may be able to get close to base of the waterfall and make a photo that is different enough to arouse the viewer’s interest. For the shot below I was one step away from swimming and about ten feet away from the waterfall. There was so much water in the air that I was looking around for the soap.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

3: Frame it

Vegetation can be a nice soft frame around your waterfall. Having some in the foreground gives the photo a sense of depth.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

4: Include interaction

When people stand and point at the waterfall there is interaction between the people and the scenery which ties the elements of the photo together. This is much more interesting than having people who are just standing there (compare with the example above at “Include a person for scale”).

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

5: Experiment with motion blur

If your camera will allow you set the shutter speed you can experiment with differing amounts of motion blur: having the shutter open for longer increases the degree of motion blur. You’ll need the Manual camera mode (you set the aperture and shutter speed. M on a mode dial) or Shutter Priority (you set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture. S or Tv on a mode dial). Generally you will need to use a tripod and the two second self timer in order to avoid camera shake.

How much motion blur is good? That’s a matter of taste. Personally, I don’t like the cotton wool look but I do like to have enough to make it obvious that the water is moving. For the photo below I used a shutter speed of 1/160, but this is only a rough guide because the same shutter speed will give different results when the speed of the water changes.

Note that the mono version of this photo give a stronger sense of motion than the colour version above does. This happens because mono emphasises light/shadow, shape, and texture: shape and texture convey motion blur, so mono often strengthens the message that motion blur gives to the viewers.

Mandeno Moments: Hunua Falls &emdash;

Winsome, wacky, and wonderful: the ACE Brass Trio

The ACE Brass Trio is capable of playing demurely at a wedding reception, yet I have seen the members wearing horned helmets and playing tunes on a 30 foot garden hose. Who are these people, what are they smoking, and what did they do in front of my camera?

Who are these people?

Huw Dann, Emma Richards, and John Gluyas primarily play the trumpet, French horn, and trombone, respectively.

What are they smoking?

Nothing, probably, because when you play wind instruments you need all the puff you can get :-).

What did they do in front of my camera?

The usual image of musicians playing classical music is a bunch of old fogeys getting up on stage and playing wordlessly. Huw, Emma, and John can impersonate such people, but they are clearly happier giving a mixture of performance and education that has a dash of theatre. They not only played for the audience, they also told us about the themes in the music, what makes brass instruments work, and some of the instruments’ history. The talk was directed at the numerous children present, but was interesting for adults and very funny. What makes it work so well is their personalities and their ability to engage the audience. When did you last go to a brass performance that had audience participation? This participation was a great photo opportunity, and I’d like to the thank the trio for allowing me to make photos.

Click on any photo to enlarge it, then click again.

What better way to illustrate the hunting theme of Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto?

She doesn’t bite 🙂

ACE Brass

First we learnt about the three essential ingredients of a brass instrument, then Emma showed that combining those ingredients also allows her to play a tune on a garden hose (i.e. brass isn’t essential in a wind instrument, but control of air flow is). The kids were having a ball, and I was too.

ACE Brass

ACE Brass Trio

Note the girl holding the hose to her ear.

ACE Brass Trio

Finally, the trio assembled a “marching band” who played the air brass (modelled on the air guitar). The adults lined the “street” and prepared to clap the beat in lieu of a bass drum.

ACE Brass Trio

The bandmaster is horned.

ACE Brass Trio

The adults clapped the beat. Sadly this was the end of the children’s careers and the end of the ACE Brass Trio’s very memorable educational performance.

Warbirds and the art in the plane

I was given an opportunity to photograph some Warbirds, which are historic aircraft. I didn’t want to create a bunch of boring record shots, rather I wanted to make photos that even people who aren’t interested in planes could enjoy. Planes are often curvaceous creatures that have all sorts of interesting shapes and patterns, so they have great photographic potential. It’s impossible to precisely describe my methodology, but it goes something like this: forget that it’s a plane and instead look at light and shadow, shape, colour, patterns, and reflections. When we can see those things we can see the art in the plane.

Click on the photo to see more art in the plane.

What does the Time breastfeeding cover tell us about photography?

time breastfeeding cover Jamie Lynne GrumetWhen I saw this cover mentioned on TOP I wondered what it told us about photography (the actual cover is not pixellated). This photo of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old reminds me that photography can be an artistic medium (i.e. making a photo when the primary intent is to create something that is aesthetically pleasing), a tool used to achieve an end (e.g. when a photo of a cracked engine part is made), or both.

In this case photography is being used as a tool, i.e. it is intended to sell magazines by creating a lot of talk on the internet and catching eyes on magazine stands: any artistic component is secondary to that purpose. The function of this photo reminds me of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and of newspapers that put large photos of crash scenes above the fold. This Time cover is a variation on “if it bleeds it leads”.

Journalism is not neutral or objective, it is coloured by the world view of the writers and is often overtly pushing a certain set of beliefs. You could argue that Time is using photography as a tool in an attempt to change generally accepted standards of decency, and/or to foster acceptance of fully exposed breastfeeding in public places, and/or to promote attachment parenting, but it would be very difficult to prove such intentions.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with using a photo to sell magazines, I’m simply saying that this photo is a tool and that when looking at a photo it is helpful to discern whether it is intended to be aesthetically pleasing, to be a tool, or both. Why is this helpful? Well, one of the interesting aspects of making a photo is that it is possible to manipulate the minds of almost all the people who look at that photo. Sometimes that manipulation is as simple as causing viewers to lock onto a certain part of the scene (directed attention). Emotional manipulation is also part of the art, e.g. this shot and this one. Emotional manipulation can also be a tool, and is commonly used in advertising. At other times photographers are trying to push an agenda: a common example of the latter is publishing a photo of an accused person standing in court which makes that person look mad or bad, and in such situations it’s good to identify what’s happening and decide whether or not you want to go along with it.

What does this magazine cover tell you about photography?

Using corners in sports photography

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Recently I made some photos of kids who were practising for the Weet-Bix Tryathlon, which is a light-hearted triathlon for kids. The kids were using the actual course, and before they got started I went to look for shooting positions. Today we’ll look at what I chose for the cycling and running.

It pays to be realistic and there was virtually no hope of creating “arty” photos in the conditions that I found, although I’m always on the lookout for such opportunities. My primary goals were (1) to get some nice snaps for the kids and their families and (2) to show movement in those photos.  Thankfully it was heavily overcast, which is much better than full sun.


Basically I wanted a corner with a plain background. When something in a photo has the potential to fall it adds life to a photo, and having the kids leaning into a corner would provide this even if they were too slow for motion blur.

Let’s start with a “bad” example. This girl’s family will probably like this photo, but it’s very static and it looks as if the bike is bolted to the ground:

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Let’s look at a three good examples. The driveway in the background gives a sense of depth, as does the layering caused by the shrub on the right. These shots deliver a sense of movement:

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This is a race of sorts, but the photos above don’t tell us this because they only show a single cyclist, and for all we the viewers know he could be out for a solo jaunt. See how having more than one cyclist in the frame makes the photo to tell a story that is closer to the reality of the situation:

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The kids had to run a loop around a sports field, then go over a low footbridge before turning hard left to the finish. They had to turn as soon as they came off the bridge and I figured that this turn would produce some interesting body positions. Also, the bridge was a choke point so I knew that every kid would pass in front of my shooting position. The background wasn’t ideal, but was okay when blurred.

I sat on the grass between the bridge and the finish. Sitting was a lot more comfortable for a long spell, and an unusual viewpoint adds interest to a photo (adults aren’t used to looking up at kids so when the camera is below a child’s eye line you have an unusual viewpoint). This position also meant that the kids would be looking towards the camera when cornering. When heavy rain showers came through I impersonated a mushroom by putting an umbrella up for the duration.

First, the “bad” example:

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Those two are running in a straight line and, although their families will probably like the shot, it’s nothing special. I do like the rain, which is hard to see at this size.

The contortions of cornering have a lot more visual interest:

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A final tip

Don’t switch off your brain and your camera when the sports is over. The athletes gathered at the gear dump point after they’d done all the hard work and I saw an opportunity for rounding out the story with candid shots of relaxed kids. In anticipation (a very important skill in photojournalism) I swapped the telephoto I had been using for a standard lens and this was the result:

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Street Sleeper

I do like a good juxtaposition, and they don’t get much better than this.

Street Sleeper

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A juxtaposition occurs when you place side-by-side two objects that wouldn’t normally be seen together. Doing so emphasises the properties of each object by contrasting it with the other. Imagine that you’re at a fashion show, watching (allegedly) glamorous models striding down the catwalk: after seeing the fiftieth fancy outfit they all start to blur together and none stands out. Suddenly, a car mechanic dressed in oily overalls appears in the middle of the line of models and strolls along with them. Now you are acutely aware of the fancy femininity of the models’ outfits because when they are juxtaposed with plain, dirty overalls your senses are awakened. Moreover, you notice the overalls far more than you do when you walk into a garage, and you’re likely to think about the differences between the lifestyles of models and mechanics. The juxtaposition has made you much more aware of the nature of models and the nature of mechanics, and done so on more than one level. If you made a photo that showed the mechanic among the models the juxtaposition would make the viewers engage with the photo, i.e. spend longer looking at it. To put it another way, the photo would be far, far more interesting than one of models on a catwalk. Successful (i.e. appealing) photos are ones that people emotionally engage with and spend time looking at, and a juxtaposition can make a photo successful.

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