Going Wide – Making the Most of Wide Angle Lenses

Landscape photographers would be a bit stuck if they were banned from using wide-angle lenses. The wide-angle lens – and we’re talking about anything with a focal length of 24mm or less on a full-frame camera, or 16mm or less on an APS-C – is probably the go-to lens for most landscape photographers. After all, they’re ideal for capturing the epic sweep of a landscape and help to convey a sense of space. However, it’s all too easy to create boring, empty shots with a wide-angle lens, so they do take a bit of mastering. So, as a public service to the cause of good photography, here are five ways to use a wide-angle lens with confidence…

Get up Close and Personal

Landscape photographers need to have reinforced knees thanks to all the kneeling that’s required. But getting in close to your subject is important with wide-angle lenses.

One important visual characteristic of wide-angle lenses is their distortion of space. Every element in a shot will be smaller, and appear further away and farther apart, than they looked to your eye. (With the effect increasing the wider the lens you use.) This is usually what causes those boring, empty shots mentioned above. The simple solution is to keep things simple, decide what the main subject of the shot is and get in close. In landscape this would be something in the foreground – an interesting rock, plant or tree stump. The background is just that, a background to your main subject. That doesn’t mean the background is unimportant but its main role is to give your subject a sense of place. Often you’ll need to get down low, way below eye-level, to get in close to your subject. Wide-angle lenses can be used for more than just landscape photography of course, but the ‘get in close’ rule still applies, with the possible exception of portraiture. Really, you don’t want to shoot your portrait subject up close with a wide-angle lens – they really won’t thank you for it. However, wide-angles can be used to show your portrait subject in the context of their surroundings.

Be Careful With Your Polariser

This is one time that I really shouldn’t have used a polariser. Clear skies aren’t ideal for one thing as the ‘banding’ is more obvious, exacerbated here by the use of a wide-angle lens.

Polarisers are great for adding a bit of ooomph to a sky, deepening the blue of the sky and helping clouds to pleasingly pop out more. (With the camera pointing at the right angle of course, approximately at 90° to the sun.) The problem with using a polariser on a wide-angle lens is that you often get a lot of sky. And this often creates a banding effect, with part of the sky polarised and part well, not. It’s a weird visual effect that doesn’t look natural at all. The more cloud there is, the more you can hide the banding, but generally just take it easy with your polariser.

A Flare for Photography

A lens hood won’t stop flare when the light source is within the image frame. Hiding the light source behind a convenient object will help, or you can just do what I did here and accept flare.

Lens flare, seen as coloured blobs and a loss of contrast across an image, is a common problem when using wide-angles. The most common problem is flare from a point light source, from just outside the image frame, sneaking into shot. This problem is exacerbated by wide-angle lenses that have protruding front elements, particularly if they’re slightly dusty or have greasy fingerprints on the glass. By far the simplest solution is to use a lens hood, which often come with wide-angle lenses. However, lens hoods really aren’t compatible with filter holders and do make fitting screw-in filters a bit more tricky to put on or take off. Personally, I’m not keen on lens hoods for this reason. My solution, with the camera mounted on a tripod, is to shield the lens with my hand, or even body. It does mean being careful not to get hand/body in the shot, but it’s a quick solution that doesn’t interfere with filter holders or other accessories.

Deep Thought

Careful focusing and an aperture of f/13 was necessary to get the foreground and background elements of this shot in focus. Focus peaking was a useful tool to ensure that everything was sharp throughout the frame.

Another visual property of wide-angle lenses is the amount depth of field available even at relatively modest apertures. The one drawback to this is that it’s difficult to isolate your subject by throwing the background out-of-focus. Leave that to telephoto lenses and embrace sharpness. Generally, unless your subject is mere centimetres from your camera, you won’t need to use the smallest apertures on a lens. This is good as optical quality tends to drop off a cliff once you start to use the likes of f/18 or f/22. Careful focusing and using mid-range aperture (which is where a lens is at its best optically) is usually sufficient. Hyperfocal distance focusing is one technique to maximise depth of field for a given aperture. The old-fashioned way of doing this was to use the depth of field scale on a lens. Sadly, modern lenses, particularly zoom lenses, tend not to have depth of field scales. Fortunately, there are plenty of apps that you can use to calculate the hyperfocal distance and where you need to focus. 

On the Straight and Level

Tilting the camera upwards is often necessary when there is no space to move backwards, such as this location here. In this case I just went for it and tilted the camera upwards to create the most dramatic shot possible.

Tip a wide-angle lens up or down and you’ll quickly see a visual effect known as converging verticals, particularly when shooting architecture. This is when your (vertical) subject appears to be falling forwards or backwards, rather than looking as though its parallel to the camera. One solution is keep your camera perfectly vertical and horizontal and therefore parallel to the subject. (Using a spirit level on your tripod head, or built-into the camera as an aid.) This avoids the problem of converging verticals, but may mean that a tall subject is no longer framed correctly. You could of course step back, but this means that your subject will then diminish is size. You could use a tilt/shift lens, but they’re expensive. Or, you could just embrace converging verticals and use them to create visually-interesting images. Oddly, there’s probably no in-between. You either avoid converging verticals altogether or just go for it. A bit of converging verticals will look odd and a bit half-hearted rather than striking. 

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Simple Panoramic Photography

I remember the day well. It was a damp afternoon at the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, and I had just finished taking an (admittedly poor) shot of the glacier reflected in the mirror like waters of the small kettle lake known as Peters Pool. I was in the process of packing my gear away when I noticed someone walking towards me pulling a large flight case and, apparently very heavy tripod upon a luggage trolley. Now, by my very nature I am quite an inquisitive person – especially when tripods are involved. So, we said our hellos and I couldn’t help but ask the gentleman what he was pulling within a flight case to a small backcountry lake. He answered with a simple explanation, it was his camera! And he proceded to open the box and let me see what was inside… and it was a thing of pure beauty. Sitting within was a Fujifilm GX617 medium format panoramic film camera, a behemoth of a letterbox shaped camera designed to capture a large panoramic image on a piece of film measuring 6 x 17 centimetres. To put this in context, at the time I was shooting on 35mm film.

The weird thing about that random encounter is that it made me start to notice more and more the panoramic posters, cards and calendars that were being sold in New Zealand at the time (back in the year 2000!). I slowly found myself becoming hooked to the format but the chances of me ever being able to afford a dedicated panoramic camera were extremely remote. And even if I could, the logistics of backpacking around the world with a camera that required a flight case would be preposterous.

There was a problem however… the seeds had been sowed and I found myself being more and more pulled towards panoramic images. A chance visit to the Peter Lik Cairns gallery in 2001 probably didn’t help matters! So, when I did finally return to the UK towards the end of 2001 (just 18 months on the road(!)) it probably shouldn’t surprise you that I started looking at what my different options were for shooting panoramic images. And believe me when I tell you that it has never been simpler to shoot panoramic images than it is now!

Essentially you now have three different ways to create panoramic images. You can either choose to use a dedicated panoramic camera, crop your digital images to a panoramic format or stitch a sequence of images together to create a large panoramic format. But which one is the best?

Using a dedicated camera

So, jumping back to my life memoir(!), when I was commissioned for my first book in 2002, I was fortunate enough to receive a payment for the use of my photos, (now this may sound strange but generally book publishers now give you a royalty payment based on sales and not a fee for use of photos, anyway, I digress) and with this payment I finally purchased my first panoramic camera – The Hasselblad X-Pan. The shot above was taken using this camera.

The main advantages of using a dedicated panoramic system is that it is very easy to compose your shot and you are maximising the quality of your final photograph by not having to crop into your image in any way. However the main problem with using a panoramic dedicated camera is that they generally all use film. Now, as I discussed in this recent article, shooting film can actually drastically improve your photography. However, it can prove to be an expensive pastime especially if you wish to view your film captured images on your computer via the processing of scanning. Back in the days of film, it was always expensive to have panoramic film scanned simply because it wasn’t that common a format. Considering that we are now in the digital era, it is hardly surprising that it is even more uncommon and, consequently, still quite expensive to have scanned.

Keeping on the subject of cost, panoramic film cameras are also now surprisingly expensive compared to the more standard formats. For example, the X-Pan and 45mm lens which I used for the above shot cost me £1500 secondhand from a dealer. It would now cost you approximately £3000 on eBay.

But, before you think I have totally abandoned the idea of using a dedicated film camera, I still have a secret hankering for a Fujifilm GX617. There is just something magical about viewing a 6 x 17 centimetre slide. However, the preferred alternatives of my bank manager are below!

Cropping your image to a panoramic format

This is actually now my preferred method but this is entirely due to the fact that I have used a Fujifilm GFX 50S Digitial Medium Format camera for the last couple of years – and it just so happens to have a 24 x 65 mm crop function a.k.a as the X-Pan crop. This doesn’t happen to be a coincidence as the Hasselblad X-Pan was actually designed by Fujifilm (and marketed as the Fujifilm TX-1 in Japan) so it kind of makes sense that Fujifilm would want to incorporate some of their medium format heritage (OK, so the X-Pan / TX-1 actually used 35mm film but it had this nifty trick of being able to expose across two frames giving you a 24×65mm image captured on film) into their digital medium format cameras.

As the Fujifilm GFX 50S is a mirrorless camera, it means that you can preview and compose your images via the EVF in your desired aspect ratio – be that a rectangle, square or panoramic. This effectively makes the GFX a digital X-Pan although it comes at a cost to your wallet and your back. It is undoubtedly a large camera and the lenses are, quite frankly, huge. And as for the cost, well, lets just say that the original, film based, X-Pan almost starts to look a bargain! However, as the GFX 50S is digital, there are no running costs as such.

Of course, we are still looking at a lot of money for the above options but the ability to compose a panoramic in camera is unsurprisingly useful. Furthermore, you can re-crop your image during the post-processing stage (as long as you shoot in RAW) meaning that you can recompose your shots if required after the event. Of course, you can crop any image from any camera to a panoramic format during post-processing and it is a viable option for a simple panoramic workflow.

The lighthouse shot above is a good example of why both the dedicated camera and cropping option are preferable to the following, more common, method of creating stitched panoramics. Movement in stitched panoramics can be a real issue but the cropped image above was as simple as taking a regular, non panoramic image.

Creating a stitched panoramic

Now whilst the above two options are probably my preferred methods for creating panoramic images, there is no denying that stitched panoramas have their advantage especially in the final resolution of the resulting image file. Simply put, you can create far bigger prints using even the most modest of digital cameras.

The method behind creating a stitched panoramic is relatively simple. You need to capture a sequence of images, with the framing of the shot slightly over lapping the previous one, and then you combine the images using post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom to create a final large panoramic.

Of course there are some technical considerations to be kept in mind when taking the shots; every image has to have the same exposure and be focussed on the same point, effectively dictating that you shoot in full manual mode with fully manual focussing. Keeping exposure in mind, you need to determine the best exposure for all of the frames and you also need to work very quickly or the light (and required exposure) may change during the sequence. Luckily the post processing side of things is now actually really simple with a number of software packages being available which can stitch your images together with relative ease.

To give you an idea of the image size you can expect to achieve when shooting stitched panoramas, the above shot was captured using a 16mp, fixed lens camera but the resulting file was the equivalent of a 60mp camera. It would produce a lovely 44 inch wide print!

As for the actual number of images you require to take a panoramic image, it all really depends on the orientation of your camera at the shooting stage. I would really recommend that you always shoot your camera in a portrait format and capture approximately 9 frames (of course your choice of focal length will depend on the scene but I wouldn’t be going wider than using a 35mm lens). This will probably be more frames than you actual require but it does mean that you will have a little bit of scope to change your composition during the post processing stage. It is probably of no surprise that I recommend that you use a tripod for taking this sequence of shots.

The image above was captured using a slightly different method, which happens to be my preferred method when shooting for stitched panoramics. This shot was stitched from 3 separate, horizontal (landscape) orientated images which were taken using a specialist architectural lens known as a tilt-shift lens.

Generally these lenses are used to control perspective distortion however in this instance I used the shift function to move the lens 3 times, taking a shot at each setting. First it was shifted left, and then moved to the middle before finally shooting an image with it shifted to the right. The advantage of using such a lens is that the shifting process of the lens is far quicker that turning a camera on a tripod, and the resulting images will stitch together perfectly – every time! I also find it far easier to compose panoramic images using a tilt-shift lens as opposed to the vertical, camera turning method.

Sticking with the composing of panoramic images, I tend to find that it is a more intuitive process compared to composing regular images. Whilst the rule of thirds, odds and leading the eye can all be useful I like to compose my panoramic images like the pages of a book… with the content based around the viewer looking at the final image in a left to right motion.

Whatever you preferred method of panoramic photography, I can assure you that it is great fun to experiment with different compositions that simply wouldn’t work with a regular format. And you won’t even need to use a trolley to transport your camera!

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Changing the Look of Your Photos: Picture Parameters

Oh, the good old days. When you could go to the cinema, have a slap-up meal afterwards, and then catch a taxi home. And all for a pound, with change left over.  

Actually no. I’m not that old. Honestly. But I do remember the days before digital, when film was the only way to make a photo. I’m not the nostalgic sort so I don’t get too misty-eyed about the demise of film. (Though of course reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It is still there for those who want to use it…) 

That said, there were pleasures peculiar to film that I do sort of miss. The sheer variety of different film types you could buy for one thing. Here’s a very short list of a few films I used when I first started as a photographer: Kodacolor Gold; Kodachrome; Ilford HP5; and not forgetting Fuji Velvia, the go-to film of anyone who wanted to be a landscape photographer in the early 2000s. 

Scanned black and white negative. I’m now not sure what the film was, though I suspect it was HP5. (I’m not even sure where the negative now is, but that’s another story.) Look at that grain, it’s marvellous!

The reason there were so many types of film is that each had its own particular quality. Take Ilford HP5 for instance. (Which is still available!) It’s a black and white negative film, reasonably fast so ideal for documentary or low light photography. It also has a wonderful grain structure, which adds a lovely texture to a print. Fuji Veliva on the other is a colour transparency film, renowned for its punchy greens and blues (which is why it was so beloved of landscape photographers). It was also very contrasty, so better suited to soft light days.

The high contrast of Fuji Velvia makes it difficult to use in certain light, but when conditions are right the resulting slides just glow on the lightbox.

You could be forgiven for reading this, shrugging your shoulders and thinking, ‘So what? What relevance does this have to me, with my cutting edge, 21st century digital camera?’ Well, lots actually. Your camera has different ‘film types’ actually built in! These are a camera’s picture parameters. 

This is where life gets complicated. Manufacturers generally don’t like to use the same terms for things, other than common camera functions such as aperture and shutter speed. I’m using picture parameters here as a catch all term for… Well, if you use a Canon camera then picture parameters is known as Picture Style. However, on Nikon cameras the equivalent option is Picture Control. Rather sweetly Fuji cameras have Film Simulation options. (Fuji made – still make – film, so Film simulation has options such as Velvia, Acros, and Astia which replicate the look of the Fuji’s film types.) Sony has Creative Style, and so on.

Canon’s Picture Style options on an EOS 5D MKIII.

Despite all these different names for picture parameters they all do essentially the same thing. They allow you to choose a particular ‘look’ for your pictures, including the contrast and colour saturation of a shot, its sharpness (or edge contrast, not the way the lens focuses), and a few more specific options besides, such as black and white (more commonly shown as Monochrome). 

If you regularly shoot Raw you could safely ignore picture parameters and just use the default setting. (We’ll come back to why you may not want to do this in a moment…) The picture parameter selected at the time of shooting can easily be unpicked later in post-production, even when you’ve chosen an option such Monochrome. (The colour information is still buried inside the Raw file, just not displayed when you view a black and white shot in playback.) However, shoot JPEG and it’s a good idea to think carefully about the picture parameter you use, if not necessarily for every shot at least for the duration of a shooting session. 

The effects of the various Picture Control options on one shot showing Flat (Fl); Landscape (La); Neutral (Ne); Portrait (Po); Standard (St); Vivid (Vi); and Monochrome (Mo)

Let’s do this using my camera, a Nikon Z6. If I skip to Set Picture Control on the Shooting menu I’m faced with the following options: Auto; Flat; Landscape; Neutral; Portrait; Standard; Vivid; and Monochrome. (There are other, more… odd, options such as Dream but I’m just going to ignore those for the moment because they’re, well… odd.) Because I like to be in control of my camera I’m going to ignore Auto. This picture parameter gives the camera the power to render colours and contrast the way it thinks fit depending on the type of scene it thinks you’re shooting. 

The default is Standard. (Just like picture parameters, the options often have different names depending on the manufacturer too. However, there is likely to be an option like Standard on your camera too.) Standard renders colour in a pleasing, not too garish, not too muted kind of way. contrast isn’t set too high either, and sharpness is reigned in. Standard is a bit Goldilocks, which is why it’s the default. 

You can’t go wrong with Standard, which generally produces pleasing colours without the need for tweaking. (As long as white balance is set correctly, but that’s another story…)

More exciting are options such as Vivid and Landscape, which increase colour saturation and contrast, as well as sharpening a photo more aggressively too. This produces punchier images that have more impact. (If you think of Landscape as the digital equivalent of Velvia you can’t go wrong.) Portrait, in contrast, reins in sharpening and contrast, and tweaks reds to produce pleasing skin tones.

Neutral and Flat are the polar opposite to Vivid and Landscape, both reducing colour saturation and contrast, with Flat more extreme than Neutral. Monochrome, as mentioned above, produces black and white shots.

Picture parameters are presets, but you can go further with them as each option can be tweaked. By selecting the sub-menu for a particular option I can further adjust the levels of colour saturation, contrast and sharpening and then save these adjustments. You can spend hours just playing with these adjustments, honing picture parameters to your specific needs.

The Nikon Z6’s Picture Control sub-menu, with the various options – such as Contrast or (colour) Saturation can be subtly tweaked.

So, which picture parameter is best? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, just as there is no right or wrong film to use. A lot depends on your aesthetic preferences or the conditions you find yourself shooting in. However, if you intend to tweak your shots later – when shooting JPEG – you’d be better off avoiding picture parameters that increase colour saturation and contrast (Vivid or Landscape) in favour of Neutral or even Flat

I’d also avoid the contrastier options when shooting in high contrast light too, as this will make highlights more likely to blow out and shadows to block up. That said, a high contrast option is useful in low contrast light – such as a misty day – to add bite to a shot. Oddly enough, I’d avoid Monochrome if you want to shoot black and white too. You have far more control over the black and white conversion in post-production than you do in-camera.

As mentioned, this doesn’t really apply to Raw. However, it’s still worth taking a look at your camera’s picture parameters. I often select Neutral, as this is a nice, er… neutral picture parameter. This means that in playback I can see a picture that is close to the tonal range of the final Raw file, with a reasonably accurate histogram too. (Flat would be more accurate still, but I just prefer Neutral.) Shoot using Vivid, and the higher contrast might fool me into tweaking exposure to avoid losing the highlights or shadows.

Post-production software, such as Adobe Lightroom shown, generally has picture parameters options that closely match those found on your camera. 

So there you go. Your camera has a well-stocked range of films ready for you to experiment with. And without the 36 exposure limit or an expiration date. Now if only there was something on at the cinema this week that I really wanted to see…

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Product Photography With a Heart of Glass

Photographing glass is a pain in the proverbial backside. It reflects everything and not just the lights a photographer uses, but the camera, the studio and even the photographer. So when I picked up a commission to photograph some very posh English sparkling wine, not only did I have to get my dusty product photographer head out the box (random Worzel Gummage reference there), I also had to get creative with the method. 

These days the UK makes some of the world’s best sparkling wines in the champagne style. The vineyards though don’t have Moet and Tattinger budgets so haven’t turned to 3D computer generated graphics of their products, so they turn instead photographers who know how to photograph glass bottles properly. 

Not wine, but a similar theme. This is a modern sparkling mead drink (I love it), but the manufacturer wanted to convey a sense of timelessness (mead after all is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks). So I went about finding as many old tools and props as I could fit into the scene. I actually lit the bottle with a ring flash as that proved to be the most intense light.

Curved glass is horrendous to photograph well as it is so reflective. Depending on the shot required, I often refrain from using flash favouring natural light as I can see the reflections as they will look. Luckily my studio had a massive natural light source from a window along one side. So getting flat even light is fairly straight-forward with the addition of reflectors. I used, for this shoot, several white A0 artboards as they are oblong and not round, and are large enough to create a pleasing reflection. 

The first set of images were organoleptic, which basically means I added props to induce a mood depending on the tasting in the wine or the mood each wine evokes. Each bottle sat on a background and was surrounded by props, which made it less of a stress for reflections. 

This image shows the full range of sparkling wines with all the tasting notes moving through the image. It was great fun to create.

Each bottle was laid down and propped straight with balls of BluTack so they didn’t roll. I then set about creating a visually pleasing scene using the props agreed with the client.

Let’s look at the Brut Reserve first. The seaweed and oyster shells I collected from a nearby beach, the oysters came from a fishmonger, the limes were also needed in another shot, so I picked up a bag from a local supermarket. In fact all the props were found or bought fresh on the day of the shoot, so careful planning was required. 

This kind of bottle image is a joy to set up as it requires art directing, thought and ingenuity to craft a picture out of raw ingredients. The seaweed and oysters are real, the ice, droplets and even the wine inside the bottles is fake.

The ice below each oyster is actually acrylic. Being sat next to a window during the shoot meant real ice would melt, so I used fake. The water drops are also fake(ish). They are real drops, but normal water runs too much and evaporates over the course of a shoot, so it’s a mixture of 50% water and 50% natural glycerine which provides the look of a cold bottle straight from the fridge, but it stays looking like that all day. 

I wanted some interesting, but abstract reflections so set the camera up on a boom over the shot and made sure its reflection ended up where the label sat. Hence no camera in the shot. So I wouldn’t be in shot, I connected a remote release to the camera. 

I did several shots at around f/16 to get everything in focus. A long shutter speed was not a problem as everything was steady. From tests though I know my lens performs its absolute best at between f/8 and f/11, so with the f/16 shot done I selected f/8 and did a series of three shots: One focused on the deepest part of the background; another focused on the oysters; and the last focused on the label on the bottle. I then focus stacked them in post production to get the highest quality image. 

Each of these bottles was photographed separately and then bought together in post production. I set the lighting up using two side flashes bounced off reflecting boards and placed black baffles either side to get the dark outer edge of the bottle to make it stand out. The background, which provides the light inside the bottle, is there to create the white background. Lastly, I added a top light to just give a bit of lift to the foil tops. 

That, of course, is a good, but easy, way to photograph glass bottles. A bottle shot on white is a lot harder. The reflections are horrendous to control and clients want to see the liquid inside. In this case I always use flash, but I don’t like to overly complicate the set up with lights so instead use a lot of reflectors and baffles to control where the light is hitting and opt for a classic set up (see diagram below). The only addition I sometimes use, depending on the subject, is a top light to add something into a foil top or a metal cap. 

The hard work is done by reflectors and baffles placed around the bottle to bend and control the light. So to the side I use the A0 artboards again to control the reflection and create an even side lighting, but I also use black card baffles to create the dark sides of the bottles to help lift them off the white background. 

The shape of the bottle dictates where the reflectors and baffles actually go, and it takes a bit of trial and error. Generally, I take a shot, move the baffles a bit and take another until I get it right. 

The light coming through the bottle is provided by the light blowing the background so it’s even, but if you wanted a black background, just add a light pointing back so the bottle is between you and the camera. To soften the light try cutting white paper to the bottle’s shape and sticking it to the back of it. That way the light coming through the glass will not be so harsh. 

A slightly different image with liquid that had to have the correct colour. I set the shot up with a colour card to ensure the colour was correct while still maintaining a white background. 

Another tip, especially for beer and wine bottles is to remove the back label which can cause distracting shadows and unwanted flat areas in the glass. Lastly to give a bottle a lift, try a top light to create a rim on the cap or foil 

If you want to get into fiddly and challenging product photography, give glass bottles a go. It’s the challenge I love, but once you’ve nailed the shot, there’s a sparkling reward at the end of it to enjoy.

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The Desktop Camera: Using a Scanner to Make Photos

I’ve owned or borrowed a few cameras in my time, but there’s one ‘camera’ I’ve owned for longer than I can remember, and would be very reluctant to get rid of: my flatbed scanner. Okay, as a camera it’s a bit… sub-optimal. It’s not easy to take outdoors for thing, but at this present moment in time that’s really not a huge problem. And, admittedly there are a few restrictions on the types of photos I can ‘shoot’. But isn’t overcoming the various quirks of a camera part of what makes photography such a fun thing to do?

First though, a brief description of how a flatbed scanner works…

When you want to scan something –  a document say – you place it onto the scanner’s glass plate. Below the plate is an imaging head, that uses a CCD array to capture light to produce an image. (The light provided by a lamp inside the scanner.) Press the scan button and the imaging head is moved along a stabilising bar across the document, repeating this action as the stabilising bar and imaging head are moved incrementally along the document. This all takes time, far longer than it takes to shoot a typical exposure with a camera. It means that scanners can’t be used to shoot anything that moves, though their slowness can be used to create a nifty effect which we’ll come back to later.

If you want to shoot something that could potentially move – your own hand for instance – you’ll need to ensure that it stays completely still until the scan is complete.

Shooting documents and other flat subjects is boring though. More fun can be had scanning three-dimensional things. However, doing so reveals another restriction: limited depth of field, with no way to increase it.  Scanners weren’t designed to shoot three-dimensional things. Essentially the only bit of a scanned three-dimensional object that will be sharp will be the bit that rested on the glass. This is a drawback if you want pin-shape images, but sometimes a bit of softness is appealing.

It’s easy to get flat three-dimesional objects – if that’s not a contradiction – nice and sharp, particularly if they’re fairly geometric like this pair of pliers.

Scanners come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the most common is probably the A4 scanner, which has a glass plate approximately 22 x 32cm. This is another restriction that needs to be overcome: you can’t shoot huge objects with a scanner. (Though you could scan overlapping areas of a large object and – as long as you’ve scanned everything you need – ‘stitch’ the scans together later, rather like creating a panoramic photo.)

Practically, you also have to think about the weight of what’s placed on the scanner too. The glass plate is fairly tough, but it’s really not a good idea to put anything on it that’s too heavy; you really, really don’t want the glass to crack. It’s also a good idea to avoid scanning anything that could scratch the glass too. Before you scan it’s a good idea to clean any dust off the glass plate. This will save cleaning the image up in post-production later.

I cleaned all the grit and sand from these pebbles before putting them very, very carefully on to the glass plate of the scanner.

You’ll be presented with a number of choices when you run your scanner’s software. One is resolution. Typically I use 300 DPI for larger objects, or 600 DPI or greater for smaller objects (the smaller the object, the higher the resolution I use.). The key is to use only a scanner’s optical resolution. Some scanners boast insanely high digital resolution. However, this is a bit of a cheat as the scanner uses interpolation to achieve this resolution. (Essentially scanning at the highest optical resolution and then ‘blowing up’ the image to the required resolution in software afterwards.) Using a scanner’s optical resolution will always give sharper results. If you need to increase the resolution of your photo later you’ll get far better results using Resize in your editing software.

Another choice is colour depth. Which you choose will depend on how much editing of colour and contrast you think will be required later. If it’s a lot, choose 48-bit (or 64-bit) colour and save the final scan as a TIFF. The downsides to scanning in 48/64-bit colour is that the time taken to make the scan increases, and the resulting file will take up more room on your hard-drive. If you don’t think you’ll want to edit the photo scan using 24-bit colour and save as a high quality JPEG.

This image of rose petals required quite a bit of post-production. All the colours, including the black background, were inverted, and then the petals given a pale pink wash.

As mentioned above, a scanner creates its own illumination. However, scan a three-dimensional object and you won’t be able to close the scanner lid. This means that ambient light will leak into to the scanner, reducing the quality of the final image. One simple solution is to shoot at night, when you can scan in the dark. Or, put a box over the scanner as you scan. Use a box with a plain interior, black or white work well. (For a more interesting effect, try using aluminium foil as a lining for the box.)

Now, back to the fact that scans take time to complete. If you move your subject during the scanning process, you can change the shape of the subject. Move it in the opposite direction to the scanning head then you’ll compress its shape, or stretch it if you move it in the same direction and at the same speed as the scanning head.  The key is to experiment and don’t be put off if the experiments don’t succeed first time.

To create this image I placed an old print onto the scanner. Then, as the scan was being made, I gently moved the print from side to side.

So, why don’t you make it a ‘resolution’ to try using your scanner to make images? Stay safe.

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