A Beginner’s Guide to Aperture Values

Numbers. Yuk. I don’t know about you but I’d be lost without a calculator. Okay, I occasionally resort to working things out on paper, but only as a last resort if my phone isn’t handy. (Or even my 20-year pocket calculator that otherwise sits in a drawer for months and gives an audible squeak of surprise when it sees daylight.) When I left school I was so relieved that I’d never have to do long division ever again that I almost wept.

Shutter speed affects how movement is rendered in a photo. The longer the shutter speed, the more that any movement in a shot will be blurred.

And then I took up photography and numbers came back with a vengeance. Numbers are everywhere in photography. Admittedly no long division is required (phew!) but occasionally you have to indulge in a spot of mental arithmetic. Fortunately, shutter speed was fairly easy to understand. Shutter speed is just a division of time. And even I could understand that 1/500 was twice as fast as 1/250 or half as fast as 1/1000. No need to dig out a calculator for that. Well, not often.

However, when it came to aperture values (or f-stops), crikey, I thought, what on earth is this all about? An aperture is a variable iris inside a lens. Make the iris bigger and you let more light inside the camera, make it smaller and less light reaches the film. (Yes, it was film in those days, but the concept of aperture values is exactly the same with a digital camera.) It took a while but that sunk in.

Fun fact! The aperture is made up of a series of blades. Cheaper lenses have fewer blades so the aperture looks less round. Generally this doesn’t matter, but it does affect the quality of out-of-focus highlights. These nice, round OOF highlight were created with a lens with nine aperture blades.

And then it came to the aperture values on the aperture ring of my lenses. (Yes, my lenses had aperture rings, I really am that old.) At first (and second) glance they made no sense whatsoever. Who on earth came up with a system that uses values like f/2.8 or f/5.6? And then I started to whimper softly when I discovered that an aperture value of f/4 created a bigger hole in the aperture than f/16. But, I thought, f/4 is a much smaller number than f/16. That’s completely illogical. Are camera manufacturers doing this deliberately?

Fortunately, I had a very patient photography teacher who carefully explained what was going on. An aperture value is actually a fraction. They start to make a wacky sort of sense if you put a 1 in front of the / – So 1/4 or 1/16. Suddenly it was easier to see that 1/4 is a much bigger number that 1/16, and why f/4 is a much larger aperture than f/16.


A reasonably typical aperture range of f/4 through to f/22 is shown on this lens. A faster lens – one with a wider apertures available – would add f/2.8 and possibly even f/1.4.

Okay, so an aperture is a fraction but what’s it a fraction of?

This is where you can zone out for a paragraph. This is useful stuff but you don’t necessarily need to know this to enjoy your photography. Right then, here goes. An aperture value will tell you the width of the aperture opening in millimetres when the focal length is divided by the aperture value. So, for example, if the focal length of a lens is 50mm, at f/4 the lens aperture will be 12.5mm across (50/4) but at f/16, the aperture will only be 3.125mm across (50/16). (It’s not long division, but yes, I did use a calculator to work those figures out…)

Aperture values work in the similar – if less apparently logical – way to shutter speeds. An aperture of f/4 is twice as ‘fast’ as an aperture of f/5.6. It there lets twice as much light reach the film/sensor. Or, to look at it another way, f/5.6 is half as ‘slow’ as f/4 and lets in half as much light.

You often need front-to-back sharpness when shooting landscape so a relatively small aperture – f/11-f/16 – is usually required.

Other than controlling how much light reaches the film/sensor, what else does the aperture do? Well, I’m glad you asked. It also controls depth of field. This determines how sharp a photo is. The less depth of field there is, the less sharp a photo will be. Now, there are a number of factors that determine depth of field so it’s not entirely straightforward. However, the simple rule to remember is that a large aperture (f/2.8 say) will produce less depth of field/sharpness than a smaller aperture (like f/8).


Another factor that affects depth of fields is subject-to-camera distance. The closer the camera is to the subject the less depth of field there will be at any aperture.

So, numbers are important. Even I can see that now. Though I’ll still not going anywhere near a long division if I can help it.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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A Beginner’s Guide To Shooting Autumn Colours

Every season has its charms, but autumn (or fall if you insist) is particularly special. What’s not to like? The weather is often unsettled and therefore interesting photographically. (A clear blue sky is boring, a sky that changes from one moment to the next is far more compelling.) And then there are the colours of autumnal foliage, the reds, yellows and oranges that make the season a visual treat.

As I write this, here in the northern climes of the northern hemisphere, autumn is beginning to take effect. From my office window I can already see trees that are shedding the greens of summer for the golds of autumn. In fact if I wasn’t typing this I might be tempted to sneak out right now and expose a few pixels. Obviously you’re under no constraint to hang around, but before you head out you might find these hints and tips useful…

Deciduous trees provide the colour, but they don’t have to be the primary subject. Here I shot the reflections of trees in a pond, creating an abstract wash of colour.

Great Britain can be a misty old place in autumn. Even when there is no mist it can be overcast and a bit gloomy. Fortunately, this is no bar to photographing woodland. In fact, it’s often the best time to be out shooting woodland. On bright sunny days woodland can be a chaotic mess of bright highlights and dense shadows. Exposure can be tricky in this kind of light as the contrast level often exceeds the dynamic range of cameras. This is not a problem on a misty or overcast day. Contrast levels are lower and therefore it’s far easier capture the entire range of tones in the scene. The only problem is typically the sky, which will be far, far brighter than the woodland scene you’re shooting; this will create patches of white wherever sky can be seen in your shots. The most elegant solution is to carefully frame your photos so that the amount of visible sky is minimised, or – even better! – is not visible at all.


Long lenses – 85mm or longer – make it easier to exclude sky and concentrate on the  purely on the trees themselves.

The light levels in woodland are naturally lower than those in more open environments. This means that shutter speeds will often be long, particularly if you’re using a smallish aperture to maximise depth of field and/or a low ISO to keep image noise low. The problem is exacerbated if you then add light-sapping filters such as a polariser (of which more in a moment). All of this means that using a tripod is a necessity. However, this is no bad thing. A tripod will slow you down and so make you think harder about composition. You can even use long shutter speeds to your advantage. Wind-blown foliage will blur during a long exposure, helping to create a sense of movement in the final shot.


Woodland isn’t just about trees. Also look for other subjects like fungi that are commonly seen in autumn , or plants such as bracken that have their own take on the change in the season.

If the sun is shining then forget woodland and concentrate on single trees that stand alone, such as in a park setting. Red/yellow and blue are complementary colours so the combination of autumn foliage and a cloudless sky works well together. Shoot when the sun is at 90° to the tree and you can use a polariser to deepen the blue of the sky too. While we’re on the subject of polarisers…

Wet or naturally shiny leaves pick up the reflection of the sky above. This has the effect of washing out their colour, making the colour less intense. A polariser will help to remove some of the leaves’ shininess to reveal the colour beneath. It won’t entirely fix the problem (not all the leaves will be at the optimum angle for the effect to work) but it will go a long way to make the colour of the tree pop more in your shots. This technique works even when it’s overcast so don’t forget to pack your polariser even when the weather is less than perfect.


Woodland can be chaotic places. If you find it hard to find a pleasing composition try looking for details to create clean, simple photos.

Picking the right White Balance is key to making the most of autumnal. Shoot Raw and you have the option to tweak this later. With JPEG you really need to think about this at the time of shooting. Auto WB can work, but it’s not an option to rely on – the warm colours of the autumn foliage can fool Auto WB into artificially cooling your shots down. Try experimenting with either Daylight or Cloudy. Daylight will produce slightly cooler images than Cloudy, but it’s largely a matter of taste. Personally, I find Cloudy produces images that look a bit syrupy unless the weather is particularly grey and dank so I tend to stick to Daylight. If you’ve time and plenty of memory card space try shooting with both options to see which you prefer.

Do you know something, the call of the wild is just too much. It’s time to go out and shoot some trees. That’s the one thing about autumn, it doesn’t last that long in the scheme of things so take every opportunity you can to get out and enjoy yourself.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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10 Tips to Make Better Macro Photos

Are you looking for a few tips to improve your macro photography skills? Look no further! Here are 10 tips written by professional photographer (and regular Telephoto.com contributor) David Taylor.

Size Matters 

Many DLSRs and mirrorless cameras have a Macro scene mode. This mode configures the camera settings, such as shutter speed, that help you get sharper macro shots. However, it doesn’t change the magnification factor of the lens fitted to the camera. You’ll still need a macro lens to shoot macro!

Back to Front 

Any lens can be turned into a macro lens by reversing the way it mounts to the camera. Of course, this makes it difficult to keep the lens attached to the camera. This problem is solved by using a reversing ring. These are bought to match the lens mount of your camera and the filter thread size of the lens.

Ring Around 

Ring lights attach to the filter thread of a lens. They can be used for any lighting purpose, but are particularly suited to macro. They’re especially useful when shooting subjects that are difficult to illuminate with conventional flash or studio lights. The most distinctive quality of ring lights are the circular highlights they produce.

Hold Still 

Clamps designed to hold macro subjects still are useful accessories but can be expensive. Clothes pegs are a cheaper alternative. The important thing is to keep the clamp or peg out of the shot!

Size Matters 

The focal length of a macro lens determines its working distance, which is the distance from the front of the lens to the point of focus. The longer the focal length of the lens, the great the working distance. This makes longer lenses better suited to subjects that are easily disturbed, such as insects.

Wafer Thin

Shooting macro means dealing with very little depth of field. It’s often necessary to shoot close to the minimum aperture of the lens, and even then depth of field can be vanishingly small. This makes accurate focusing far more important than when shooting ‘standard’ subjects. Use pinpoint AF focus or, if focusing manually, zoom in to the live view image to check focus.

Morning All

Insects are great – if often frustrating! – macro subjects. Insects are at their most sluggish when cold. This makes early mornings the best time to shoot insects, before the warmth of the sun fully wakes them up.

Take the Tube 

Extension tubes fit between a camera and the lens, allowing for closer focusing than would normally be possible. (At the cost of the loss of infinity focus.) Typically primes lenses work best with extension tubes. Counter- intuitively The shorter the focal length of the lens, the greater the magnification possible.

Softly Does It 

Flowers benefit from being shot in soft light rather than direct sunlight. Shoot on days when there is light cloud cover or when the flower is in shade. Alternatively, use a large reflector to cast a shadow over your subject.

Shaky

Macro lenses not only magnify an image, they also magnify any movement you make during an exposure, so causing camera shake. Either use a tripod when shooting macro, or be prepared to increase ISO in order to maintain a fast shutter speed – particularly if you stop down the aperture to maximise depth of field.


This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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10 Tips to Make Better Portrait Photos

Are you looking for a few tips to improve your portrait photography skills? Look no further! Here are 10 tips written by professional photographer (and regular Telephoto.com contributor) David Taylor.

Softly Does It

An out-of-focus background will help to focus attention on your subject. Use a fast prime lens set to its largest aperture to maximise blur. Lenses longer than 85mm are particularly good for creating this effect. Take care to keep the eyes of your subject pin-sharp though, as depth of field will be limited.

Contextual  

Portraits don’t alway need to be just the head and shoulders of your subject. Use wide-angle lenses to shoot body portraits to show the subject in the context of their surroundings.

Bounced Light 

A reflector, held below your subject’s face – but out of shot! – will help to soften and reduce any hard shadows under their chin and nose. Reflectors come with different finishes. White reflectors are neutral in colour and are subtle in their effect. Gold reflectors bounce more light into shadows and add warmth to the light too.

Did They Blink? 

People blink roughly 15-20 times a minute. The odds are that your subject blinked when you pressed the shutter button. After shooting, check that their eyes were open in playback and re-take the shot if necessary.

Step Back 

If you do use a wide-angle lens don’t be tempted to get in close to your subject. Get too close and their facial features will be distorted. They won’t thank you for it later…

Speed It up 

Use a relatively fast shutter speed whenever possible. This will help to freeze any movement your subject may make as you shoot.

Stressed Out 

Some people really don’t like having their picture taken. Try to help your subject relax before you begin shooting. Explain to them what you’re going to do and how they can help achieve that. Be friendly and don’t criticise if they don’t pose exactly how you’d like.

Background Check 

Take care to check to see what’s behind your subject before you shoot. A classic mistake is to shoot so that your subject appears to have a tree growing out of their head. Find a background that is relevant to your subject, and isn’t too distracting.

Flashy 

Flash fired directly from your camera is a frontal light and isn’t ideal for portraiture. Frontal light tend to flatten a face, making it look less three- dimensional. If possible use off-camera flash, moved to produce a more flattering effect.

Do It Yourself

The problem with portrait photography is that you always need a willing subject for you to photograph… and sometimes it is just not possible to find one available at a a time which is convenient for you. Fear not, you are always available when required so why not try out some creative self portraits shots like the ones featured in this article.


This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Indoors Abstract Photography

Abstract photography is the art of creating a non-representative photo that relies on texture, colour, shape or lighting for its effect. Ideally, it should not be immediately apparent what the subject of the photo is (though it can be fun for the viewers of the photo to eventually work out what they’re looking at). The great thing about abstract photography is that all you need to create striking images can often be found in your own home. With a bit of imagination and the following tips, it won’t take long for you to be shooting abstracts like you’ve being doing it for years.

Equipment list

A lightbox is a useful source of illumination when shooting translucent subjects, such as these beads.

Abstract photography doesn’t necessarily require much in the way of equipment. Abstract photos can shot handheld if need be, though a tripod does help keep the camera steady if ambient light is low. I often just find a flat surface to rest the camera on when shooting indoors. A pile of books is quick to assemble and, with care, just as steady as a a tripod.

What is useful is a macro lens, or telephoto with a decent close-focusing capability. The trick to abstract photography is excluding details that make the photo more representative. Wide-angle lenses generally make it more difficult to exclude visual clues, unless you get so close to your subject that you’re almost touching it. (Or unless your subject is huge…)

Flash is useful, but not essential. It’s possible to press bedside lamps – or better still, an Anglepoise lamp or similar – into service as a source of illumination. (Setting the white-balance to match.) White card is useful to ‘bounce’ light into shadows to even out contrast, or to block light to create interesting shadows across your subject.

The direction and quality of lighting is arguably more important than the source. Window light is one readily available source in a house. A north-facing window will create soft light all day long (except possibly at either end of the day in summer). A south-facing window will create a more direct and harder light, particularly midday when the sun is more likely to be shining in through the window. Side-lighting will help to reveal texture, so this works well for rough or detailed subjects. Backlighting is ideal if your subject is translucent or if you want to create silhouettes.

Finding the subject


Cheese graters are grate, er… great for creating abstract imagery. To add colour to this chrome grater I held a colour photo above it, out of sight of the camera.

Kitchens are great places to look for abstract subjects. You don’t have to look too far to find a piece of equipment or utensil that, from a suitably close distance, will look abstract. Think how odd something as familiar as a fork would be if you could only see a small fraction of its surface area. Bathrooms are another good source of potential subjects, from close-ups of toothbrush heads or water running from a tap.

Rain on windows


Raindrop-covered car sunroofs are best shot from below. This can be uncomfortable when the gearstick jabs into your back, but it does mean that you can use the sky as a backdrop…

Raindrop-spattered windows are great for abstract photography. However, you have to be quick as raindrops generally don’t hold their shape for long as they tend to run downwards thanks to gravity. Use a relatively high ISO, a large aperture and a fast shutter speed to freeze any potential movement. The use of a large aperture also limits depth of field, helping to keep the world outside the window out-of-focus. The longer the lens you use, or the closer you can get to the window, the better. A window that isn’t vertical will retain drops for longer. Roof windows that follow the angle of the roof are great, the sunroof of a car is even better.

Lights. Camera. Action!


A 30-second exposure was more than long enough to slowly turn the zoom ring to create an effective zoom burst. 

Now that the longer nights are on their way (at least here in the northern hemisphere) the more opportunity there is to use artificial light sources to create abstract photos. The simplest option is to de-focus your lens so that your light source is out-of-focus.  This works best when you have a number of light sources clustered together, such as a string of Christmas lights on a tree. This also works with street lighting, particularly when using a telephoto lens. (A wide-angle lens will tend to push the apparent distance of the lights further apart, a telephoto will bring them closer together.

Another option is to zoom burst. This is when you alter the focal length of a zoom lens during an exposure. The shutter speed needs to be relatively lengthy – at least two seconds or more – in order to give you time to turn the zoom ring on the lens. However, shooting lights is most effective when the ambient light is relatively dim, such as at dusk. At this time of day, the use of a low ISO setting and a mid-range aperture is generally enough to achieve the right shutter speed. If not, use an ND filter to achieve the right exposure. When shooting, turn the zoom ring as smoothly as possible from one extreme of its range to either. Ideally you want to time the turning so that it takes the same length of time as the exposure. A few practise runs is generally all it takes to get it right.

Getting a wiggle on


Use post-processing to further push the abstract nature of your shots. Here I simply shifted the Hue slider to alter the colours from orange and blue to purple and green.

Similar to the zoom burst is intentional camera movement (ICM). This is when you deliberately move your camera during an exposure. (And so also requires a relatively long shutter speed.) There is no right or wrong way to use the ICM technique – try moving fast or slow, jerkily or smoothly. Varying your technique will create a wider variety of images. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you could even combine the technique of zoom burst with ICM for more crazily abstract results.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Colour Harmony

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy and appreciate black and white photography. It’s just that colour photography has long been my preference. (A sentence to make my first photography tutor weep.) After all, the world is in colour and it makes sense to me to celebrate that fact. However, it is useful to understand a bit about colour, in particular about colour harmony. We’ll come back to colour harmony in a moment, but first let’s cover a few basics…

Colour in a digital image is created by mixing the three primary colours of red, green and blue in the right proportions. (Primary colours are colours from which all other colours are derived. Primary colours aren’t always RGB, and will depend on the device or media used. The primary colours in print are cyan, magenta and yellow, for instance.) Mix two primary colours together at their maximum value and you create a secondary colour. So, for example, mix red and blue together and you produce magenta. The simplest way to see the relationship between primary and secondary colours is by using a colour wheel, which is also useful when thinking about colour harmony.

A simple colour wheel, showing the relationship between the digital primary (red, green and blue) and secondary (yellow, cyan and magenta) colours.

Colour can be thought of in a very precise and mathematical way by assigning a number to a particular colour. (Or to be more precise, three numbers – one for amount of red in a colour, one for green, and one for blue.) However, the true power of colour isn’t its numerical value, but its emotional impact. Colours can stir feelings, both good and bad, which – you’ll be pleased to learn – you can exploit to give your photos more impact. Red, for instance, is a warm, stimulating colour associated with love and energy. Less positively it is also associated with anger and aggression. Green is natural, peaceful and balanced, but also passive and associated with jealousy. The last of the primaries, blue, is serene, cool, efficient, but, more negatively, also emotionally cold and associated with depression.

Harmony is a concept generally linked to music, and is when two or more different notes sound pleasing when played at the same time. A colour harmony is similar, and is occur when two or more colours are in close proximity and create a visually pleasing effect. There are number of different kinds of colour harmony, which are all useful to know, understand, and actively use in your photography.

Monochromatic colour scheme


A monochromatic colour scheme shot, with the only colours essentially just variations of red-orange.

Strictly speaking this isn’t a colour harmony as such, but it’s still a useful colour scheme to know about. A monochromatic colour scheme is one where the various colours in an image are all just variations of one colour, varying only in either their brightness or level of saturation. Think of a green landscape, with no other colours just lots of different greens, and you have a monochromatic colour scheme. This may sound a bit boring, but images that use an MCS will never be jarring and will generally be balanced and pleasing to the eye.

Analogous colour harmony


An analogous colour harmony of orange, yellow and green.

An analogous colour harmony is created when an image uses three or four colours that are next to each other on a colour wheel. Orange, yellow and green would produce an ACH, for example. As with monochromatic colour schemes, ACH images tend to lack dynamism, but ACH is ideal when you want to create a restful effect. A particularly effective way to use ACH is to have one colour as the dominant factor in a shot, supported by one of the analogous colours in a lesser role and the other colours used more sparingly still.

Triadic colour harmony

Use three colours in an image that are at an equal distance on a colour wheel – such as the three primaries – and you’ve created a triadic colour harmony. (Well done!) This is the first colour harmony that is considered visually interesting. Images created with a TCH in mind are generally vibrant and stimulating. However, you do have to take care and get the balance right between the various colours. Avoid using an equal amount of all three and try using one dominant colour, with the other two colour giving lesser but equal support.

Complementary colours


Warm and cool complementary colours work well together. However, warm colours are more visually ‘heavy’ or dominant than cool colours. Generally you can get away with more cool colour across an image than warm, but still have the image feel balanced.

Complementary colours are those colour that are on opposite side of a colour wheel from each other: orange and blue for instance, or magenta and green. Complementary colours reinforce each other, with no one colour overwhelming the other. Complementary colour schemes add energy to an image, with a high colour contrast. What complementary colour images are not is subtle. They demand attention so should be avoided if you want to create a more subdued, restful image.

Split-complementary colours

Split-complementary colours are superficially similar to complementary colours. The difference is that split-complementaries involve three colours rather than two: a base colour and two other colours that are adjacent to the complementary colour of the base. (Sounds complicated, so take a look at the table below.) As with a complementary colour scheme, split-complementaries are bold, though with arguably less impact than a complementary colour scheme

Base Colour Split-complementaries
Red yellow/green and blue/green
orange blue/green and blue/violet
yellow red/violet and blue/violet
green red/orange and red/violet
blue red/yellow and red/orange
violet yellow/green and yellow/orange

Warm and Cool colour harmonies


Images dominated by colour from the warmer end of the spectrum – yellow, orange, or red – are described as having a warm colour harmony. Images dominated by cooler colours – green, cyan, or blue – have a cool colour harmony. Both types of harmonies have their place. Warm colour harmonies will grab your attention, but can be too strident depending on the subject. Cool colour harmonies are less dynamic and more muted.


Two shots from roughly the same geographical location. The ‘warm’ shot taken at sunset, when light tends to have a lower colour temperature. The ‘cool’ shot on a sunny afternoon, when the colour temperature of the light was more neutral.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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Playing With the Sharp End – How to Photograph Sharks

There is one golden rule drummed into every new scuba diver: ‘never hold your breath’. Now in an article about photographing sharks you may have thought I’d start with something about Jaws, but I’m not one for clichés and by far the most important way to photograph sharks successfully is to break diving’s golden rule.

It’s a misnomer to believe you need to travel far to photograph exotic sharks. This basking shark was photographed just off the Cornish coast.

Unlike the preconception levelled at sharks, they are generally shy creatures who would rather swim away than take a bite of a juicy leg. Bubbles from scuba gear scares the living daylights out of them and it took several unsuccessful years before I realised the only way to get good shots of sharks while scuba diving is either photograph a tiger shark or do not breath out.


Swimming with and photographing supposed dangerous species like this tiger shark have come a long way over the last decade. 

My first really successful shark photograph was shot in Sudan at a dive site called Sanganeb. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then it was the haunt of grey reef sharks by the dozen, but they would not come close. I stayed still and they avoided me, I swam slowly towards them and they turned and swam the other way. I spent several very unsuccessful days trying to photograph what should have been easy prey. They were, after all, everywhere.


I was the first UK photographer to photograph free swimming tiger sharks without a cage. The sharks were attracted to the site with drums filled with fish bits, which the sharks loved to toy with. 

I even knelt next to a cleaning station where the sharks came to have small fish eat parasites off them and all I got was a disgruntled shark swim at me menacingly until I moved. Back onboard the boat that evening I watched a documentary about a National Geographic photographer who was also trying unsuccessfully to photograph sharks and he used a diffuser to reduce the power of his scuba exhaust. It was one of those light bulb moments. My problem wasn’t me it was what I expelled into the water.


Some sharks, like this ragged tooth, look dangerous, but aren’t and are quite predictable as to where they will be, which doesn’t make photographing them easier, but it does allow you to find them. 

As an experienced diver it is second nature not to hold my breath. The reason is to stop your lungs exploding when you ascend through the water. As pressure increases so does volume and so if you come up and hold your breath you die from expanding air in your lungs. I though had a sandy seabed to kneel on. I wasn’t going up or down. I was staying still. So that’s what I did the next day. I stayed on the seabed and when I saw a shark heading my way I held my breath. And it worked. The shark swam right by me. I was amazed and forgot to take any pictures. But I did for the next shark, and the next.


No shark photography article can be complete without the great white. Conditions when I have photographed them have not been particularly great though. 

I was then hooked on shark photography and travelled around the world photographing sharks wherever I could.


Low visibility makes it hard to get dramatic shots

I have photographed Grey Reef Sharks in the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean (where they are called Caribbean Reef Sharks). I have photographed Bull Sharks, Black Tips, White Tips, Oceanic White Tips, Wobbegong Sharks, Cat Sharks (known as Dogfish), Ragged Toothed Sharks, Six Gilled Sharks, Whale Sharks, Basking Sharks, Great White Sharks and Tiger Sharks. My favourite are Tigers. They are better than Great Whites by a country mile. Great Whites are brutish, whereas Tigers are cunning and deceitful.


Not all sharks are illusive, dangerous or unapproachable. This is the close up of a catshark’s eye off the coast of Shetland. Catsharks are better known as dogfish, or rock salmon if you are in a fish and chip shop.

Most recently I have photographed blue sharks off the coast of Cornwall. The UK isn’t known for its shark populations. Up until fairly recently the only shark worth considering in UK waters was the large basking shark, but in summer our offshore waters are visited by the nomadic blues.


Oceanic white tip sharks are very inquisitive and can put the frighteners up new divers who encounter them for the first time. 

Like the grey reefs they are skittish and best approached with snorkelling gear where you have no exhaust. Unlike the grey reefs though, as opportunist hunters, they are inquisitive of everything, me included. They approach directly knowing they want to see what you are which can be a little unnerving, but it is an incredible privilege to get so close to a wild predator. The only terrestrial animal you could compare it to is running around with a wild wolf and I don’t recommend you try that.


There are hundreds of shark species. Some recognisable as they are seen and photographed all the time, others, like this six gill shark are elusive and only seen at a handful of places around the world.

Photographing some sharks is easy. The bottom dwellers such as the Angelshark and Wobbegong it is just a case of being gentle and calm.


Blacktip sharks are what most people know as a shark. They are bullet shaped, agile, yet pretty docile unless you are an injured fish.

Free swimming sharks takes stealth and cunning to get so close. Imagine trying to photograph a brown bear with a 20mm lens, that’s shark photography in open water. It is a humbling and awesome experience and I am so glad I got to do it so often in my career.

Puffadder Shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii) a species of catshark on a shall bottom of Gordon’s Bay South Africa.


Nurse sharks are common species who, because of being nocturnal, divers are able to approach them easily during the day. 


I like to add people into my shark images as it gives context to a picture and shows not all sharks are maneaters.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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How to Get Sharper Pictures

Do you want sharper pictures? It’s the holy grail of many a photographer who cannot work out how to do it. You see pin sharp pictures everywhere, yet have no idea how to achieve that level of quality. You might end up spending a fortune on new cameras and lenses, but still fail even by following all the rules. Well, I am here to help.

I created a Youtube video entitled ‘How to get tack sharp images for less than $5’ and it’s been viewed over 600,000 times. So you are not alone in trying to get sharper pictures. And I am talking about pictures which you know should be sharp, but aren’t.

I am going to assume you have no camera shake and your lens is clean even through these are the commonest reasons for blurry pictures. After you’ve discounted those, there are two areas to focus on (Sorry about the pun).

Eyes are the important things to focus on, so ensure you test each new lens you buy. 

1. Sweet spot: This is a term used to denote the aperture (or aperture range) where your lens is sharpest. It is a misnomer to believe lenses are equally sharp at all apertures, so when you are told to stop down for landscape photography and go wide open for portraits, what people are actually saying is use your lenses at its least optimum.

When light rays pass through glass (i.e a camera lens) they get bent and because not all light rays have the same wavelength they are bent in slightly different ways. Then some bright spark added another obstacle – an aperture – in the way. The overall result was the photographer can regulate the amount of the picture that is in focus. What you cannot do is turn focus into sharpness. The quality of the lens helps as do the special coatings on the front and back, but you cannot fix all the issues. Light hitting glass when the aperture is wide open refracts and you get chromatic aberrations which appear as soft focus. In bad instances you can actually see the different wavelengths of light separated in the fringes of objects. When the aperture is closed down you get diffraction. There are some maths and physics behind it all, but the important thing to know is these make your pictures look softer. In focus, but soft.


Of course, sharpness can be overlooked for exceptionally rare images. This shot, which received a specially commended in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition was shot on a cheap zoom lens and was grabbed late in the day on film at the widest aperture. The overall sharpness is terrible now I look at the image, but the lens did save me that day. 

The best way to beat it is to stick to a medium aperture. The rule of thumb is two stops down and two stops above f/22. If you want to be more precise then you can run a simple sweet spot test. The way I do it is to get my camera level and facing down. Then on another level surface lay out some coins or something else flat yet patterned.

Then, using a remote release (to avoid camera shake), I take shots at my lowest native ISO, and shoot from the widest aperture to the smallest. I then look at the results at 100% on a computer screen and compare. You will see quite a difference. You then select the best aperture range where you get the sharpest results.


f4.2 – this shot shows the coins photographed at f/4.2, the widest aperture this particular lens can achieve. Chromatic aberration and refraction are not too bad and the image is very acceptable 

f/9 – Shot at f/9, one of the mid-range apertures, this image is one of the sharpest apertures. Remember you are looking at a jpeg image on a computer screen so the full effect may not be obvious, but try it yourself and see the difference you get. 

This may mean you cannot shoot lush Bokeh portraits or back to front sharp landscape because the full range of depth of field is curtailed by the quality output of your lens, but what would you rather have? Pin sharp results or passable results?

2. AF fine tune: If you find your camera is not quite nailing the perfect focus position, it may not be your fault, but that will impact the overall look of your pictures.

Not all cameras have AF fine tune, but then not all need it. Mirrorless cameras, for example, don’t need it, but DSLR cameras shooting with a shutter and mirror do. This is because focus isn’t derived from the lens to the main sensor. It is worked out via a small focus sensor. Any slight error in calibration will cause the focus to be out. It may only be slight but when you need an eye to be in focus, but the end of the nose is or the ear, then you could have an issue with your sensor. That’s where AF fine tune comes in. It allows you to manually adjust the focus sensor so it produces the correct focus onto the main sensor.


Portraits often call for critical focus and if your camera’s autofocus system is slightly out you could get a lot of sharp ears and noses, but not eyes.

As far as my experience goes all cameras with this facility store the calibration for each lens so when you change lenses the fine tune changes with it. I have yet to come across a camera that you have to keep doing it each time.

There are special fine tune grids you can buy, but I prefer the run and gun approach which uses a ruler. You set your camera onto a tripod angled down slightly (about 45 degrees). Put the ruler so a discernible spot is in the centre of the frame. Defocus your lens and use the AF system to focus on the ruler. You can view this on liveview, although prefer to take a shot and see it at 100% on a computer screen. You can see if the camera is properly focused or if it is out. If the focus falls in front or behind the ruler point, you can adjust it in AF fine tune. Either + or – (depending on which side of the focus line you are) until you see the focus come right. You will need to manually defocus every time and refocus with the autofocus system. Once the focus is spot on press enter and that figure will be stored by the camera and you can move on to your next lens.


A diagram of how to set up the AF fine tune tester. You lay the ruler on a desk or another flat surface, angle the camera down and focus on a discernible point (60mm in this case). If the image focus is slightly forward or behind the central point use the AF fine tune to adjust. 

For zoom lenses I test at the wide angle end, the tele end and in the middle and take an average if it is out further at one end or the other. However, I have not found a zoom lens that is different at either end yet.

I do both of these techniques whenever I buy a new piece of glass so I know its limitations and strong points. I urge you to do that same so you can really nail that focus.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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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. 

The post Going Wide – Making the Most of Wide Angle Lenses appeared first on Telephoto.com.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Using Underwater Strobes

Underwater photography is a tricky thing to master, but one of the most important aspects is light. Water sucks the life out of light turning it a dull blueish hue within a couple of metres from the surface.

All the best underwater photographs are produced with the aid of artificial light (unless they are right at the surface). Land photographers know the kit we use as flashguns, but to use aquatic types, they are strobes… and they give life to our pictures.

Flash puts the light back into an underwater scene, so every underwater photographer needs to know how to use it effectively.

One of my favourite underwater photography techniques is to balance the ambient light with the light from my strobes.

Underwater flashguns are sort of like land flashguns, only they are waterproof of course. They have an on and off switch, and a power dial (not many have LCD screens as using displays with gloves on its hard, dials are better). There are a handful of makers and you can even buy housings for terrestrial flash units. They are though, all expensive. There isn’t really a ‘cheap’ way of using a flashgun underwater, so it’s best to understand that before walking into a shop and asking how much.

Makes to look out for include Sea&Sea, a Japanese company with a long pedigree of producing great underwater photo gear. Inon, who are younger, but have still be around a while and produce some great gear too. And Ikelite who like the previous two make great quality equipment. I have used and broken all three main makes and I would recommend them all. There are also a host of slightly cheaper makers which I cannot vouch for, but in my view you really do get what you pay for.


Without any addition light, underwater images look a bit flat and lifeless.

With the addition of artificial light from strobe units you can see how much more striking a shot becomes.

There are strobes with different power outputs and strobes with one flash head up to three flash heads, some have a sort of ringflash built in and it’s hard to say one is better than the other. Personally I love and still use the defunct Sea&Sea YS110 range which have three flash heads angled out in a triangular pattern. I love them because they give a consistent and broad light. So your choice should be personal to you.

The strobes are connected to your camera housing with arms. Arms can be fixed or flexible. I prefer fixed arms with joints which allow me to achieve different flash angles. There’s also the choice of having the strobes wired into the camera housing or fibre optically triggered. This system uses your camera’s onboard flash, which triggers the strobe through a fibre optic cable.


Shoals of fish show their true colour with the help of artificial light.

In use

These days you can put everything on auto and shoot away and get acceptable results, but if you really want to dazzle, then you need to flip over to manual and play creator. Most serious underwater photographers use two flashguns, positioned either side of the underwater camera housing. So you have three elements to play with: the light from each strobe and the ambient light around you. You control the first two and with your camera, controls how the third looks.


You can balance the daylight and artificial light to create much more vibrant images.

There are basically two ways to shoot underwater: wide angle and macro.

Wide angle: To get the better images with wide angle lenses use your strobes in combination with the ambient light. Set the exposure to keep some or all the detail in the ambient light. I actually prefer about a stop underexposed to push some contrast into an image, but whatever works for the look you are trying to achieve. Then the secret is to set each strobe to make the subject look naturally lit, even through it’s not. You could go for the same flash setting from both guns, but I often prefer a main light and a fill (lower powered) light. So I will swim around adjusting the strobes throughout the dive. The danger here is you forget on the most critical shot of the dive and mess it up.

Most high-end strobes have a number of power settings much like a terrestrial flashgun. You can dial in around 12 power settings to get the balance right. When you start off a lot of times it is hit and miss, so don’t expect award winning images to flood out of your camera (pardon the pun).


At night strobes allow a diver to light up subjects normally out of sight.

Macro photography: This is all about picking your subject out from the background. Tiny critters abound underwater and shot in close-up make beautiful images. Getting the light positioned correctly and at the right power when working with an animal the size of your little fingernail is not as easy as the pros make it look. And it’s the strobe position which will shape the light.


Even in quite turbid water, like this Cornish estuary, strobes balance out the light thus making the scene look more inviting. 

Positioning

Many photographers opt for the side by side approach which gives a good spread of light, which works well in most situations, although the lighting can be bland. When shooting reef scenes or what’s referred to a close-focus wide-angle, I like to lift one strobe above to mimic the light coming down from the sun. It adds a dimension to the images that flat light doesn’t have.

A word of caution though about strobe positioning. Light is refracted when it moves through different mediums. So objects underwater when viewed through a mask look larger and nearer. If you position the strobe to where you think the subject is, you may be positioning it it too near and the subject is actually further back. That’s why many strobes have small lights inside. They are primarily used as focusing aids, but are also good for aiming the light correctly. I always thought a small laser pointing type light would be good, but don’t know of a strobe with one.


You don’t have to be in the sea or a lake to make the most of flash light. This shot was created in a swimming pool with the sun streaming through a window above the pool 

That is just a touch of underwater flash photography. It’s very similar in principle to terrestrial strobe photography, but with a few added dimensions.

The post A Beginner’s Guide to Using Underwater Strobes appeared first on Telephoto.com.

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