Monday, December 29, 2008

Star Trails

It has been, yet again, an unfortunately long time since I've been out taking photos. Finally, the night before last, I went to West Clare to try and get some photos of star trails. I've tried this before, but never with much success. This time was definitely better. I think the main thing I have learned about taking pictures of star trails is that it is very important to have a strong foreground. I like the photo with the trails moving around the North Star, but the photos with stuff in the foreground have more potential, I think. I'm going to have to try this again.

Technically the photos were fairly simple. You need to have a remote release for your camera. The first two of this set are single exposures, of about 30 minutes long each. The photo with the more complete trail is a combination of five exposures of varying lengths from five to thirty minutes. This is because the camera can only take exposures of up to half an hour, but also because it's apparently bad to leave the shutter open for too long. I tried combining the exposures in the GIMP without much success, I had much better results with a program available here.

We had a rare perfectly clear night, and also a perfectly clear sunrise the next morning. I'm starting to realise just how much of photography, for me at least, is dependant on the quality of light. In the early morning, with the golden light grazing off everything, creating wonderful texture and colour, I felt like a photographic Midas. Anything I photographed seemed to look wonderful, no matter what the subject. My favourite examples of this are below, the reeds and the stone wall; two subjects that could have been extremely boring in any other type of light. It really pains me to think how rarely we get days like this in Ireland. I can't imagine what it would be like to wake up to this beautiful, textural light almost every morning of the year.


Star Lines B&W

Star Lines

Sun and Brambles

Frosty Bramble


Stone Wall

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Just some quick photos of the ice we've been having in the mornings recently:




Wet Web

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Splish Splash, redux

I've been meaning to do this for a while. Then I did it. Then I was meaning to blog about it for a while. Which I'm doing now. Anyway, what I'm ranting about is my wish to try getting photos of high-speed splashes of water and milk. I've done this before, but I wanted to try again using the same lighting scheme as I did for my pictures of smoke. Although I don't have the setup shots here, I did take some, but you'll have to use your imagination for the moment. It's a very basic setup: a snooted Vivitar 285HV diagonally behind the water pointing towards it, and then opposite that, on the other side of the water, a piece of white card to reflect back some of the light. This gives a very 'low key' image, as the picture is outlined by light, but is mostly black. You'll see what I mean in a sec, if you don't already...

The actual taking of the photographs themselves is essentially a numbers game. I took about one thousand shots in total, as there is basically no way to tell whether a shot will be good or not until you look at the camera screen, and if you did that after every shot you'd go completely insane and throw the camera out the nearest window. So I put the camera on fine Jpeg and just let it fire away as I was making drops of various sizes. I'll outline quickly the process to get to this end result::

First you need to have a container for the water into which the drops will fall. A glass does the job just fine here. It's also a good idea to have another container (a shallow bowl, say) under the glass to catch all the water - saves cleaning up afterwards which is always good!

The next thing you need is to set up your camera. It needs to be on a tripod because you will be prefocusing and then switching to manual, and the camera cannot move while this is happening or else everything will be blurry. So set up your camera and tripod fairly low, so that the camera is pretty much in line with the top of your glass. I use a Nikon D50, which works pretty well, although I could have done with something with a faster frames-per-second. You definitely need a DSLR for this, as you will need to manually focus. I also used a macro lens, the Sigma 105 f2.8, but you don't necessarily need a dedicated macro lens - one with a decent close focusing distance will do.

Next you need to focus, and this can be pretty tedious. I used a pencil, which I stuck in the water, as close to the middle of the glass as I could. Half-press down your shutter, focusing your lens, then take a picture. Check the screen to make sure it's perfectly in focus. Here's my picture of a pencil:

Pen in Milk

You now need to switch to manual focus, and make sure you don't move the camera or the lens for the rest of the shoot. Although this doesn't mean everything will be in focus, as you won't get all the drops directly in the middle, it will make you have the best chance of getting a high proportion in focus. Which is the best you can hope for really.

Now on to taking the photos themselves. There are a huge amount of variables here, and getting any one of them wrong will probably spoil your photo. Hence the need to take so many. I'll go through any I can think of now.

Shutter speed: Pretty much irrelevant. My photos are lit entirely by flash. If I took a picture with the same settings and turned off the flash, there is nothing but darkness. So your shutter speed just needs to be fast enough to cut out all available light. When your photos are lit entirely by flash, they will be frozen perfectly, as the flash duration is at most about 1/4000, and I think at 1/16th power it's about 1/16000th of a second. So doing this is incredibly more efficient than trying to use shutter speed and ambient light to freeze the action. My shutter speed for most of these photos was somewhere between 1/15 and 1/60, chosen pretty much arbitrarily. If you use a very slow shutter speed, so that ambient light gets in, you might start to see a 'dragged' image - a clear image lit by the flash followed by a blurry one lit by the ambient. It might look cool, I haven't tried it yet!

Aperture: Pretty small. You want to give yourself the best chance to get in-focus pictures, so an aperture of at least f16 will allow you to be slightly off and still be in focus. It also helps to cut out all ambient light, which, as explained above, is what we want to do. A side-effect of this small aperture is that you get cool starburst type effects in your photos, like this one:

Little World

Grooveh huh?

Flash: External flash is fairly necessary here, although I suppose you could use on-camera flash to freeze the action if you wanted, but you'll probably end up with quite flat images. I use radio triggers to fire mine, from ebay. You'll probably want the flash on a low power, 1/16th or less, so that your recycle times will be high and your batteries won't die - again, so we can take as many photos as possible in a short space of time. The manual for my Vivitar 285HV says that after about 20 pops in quick sucession the flash needs a break for a couple of minutes, so keep that in mind before you abuse your flash. Don't blame me if it explodes!

The drops: Now comes the fun part. I tried various methods to get the best drops, and probably the best one was out of a small jug with a thin spout. I tried a dropper, but it's no good as you need a constant stream of drops rather than the ability to control a small number of drops. If you could set up some system that constantly and slowly drops liquid with no human intervention you would be laughing. Fill up your jug just a small bit and aim it, or whatever implement you've decided to use, at the centre of the glass of water and tilt it just enough so that drops come out. Try not to get impatient and tilt it loads, it's best to wait and hope the drops come! Once you have a steady stream, start shooting, and vary the height and distance from the centre to ensure that some of them are in focus. There's no point trying to anticipate the drops falling, just shoot as many as you can and hope for the best. After about twenty shots, check the back of your screen to see if any of them look good. Remember to zoom in to check for focus because if it's a tiny bit out it'll look crappy when you view it on your computer screen. Armed with the information you have now, alter your camera/drop maker settings until you get it just right.

When you're finished with water, try other stuff. Milk works really well, probably better, and it's amazing how different the drops look to the water ones. I also tried dropping objects in, but I didn't manage to catch any on camera. I might try it again though.

If anyone actually made it though that lot, here are some pictures I took from my latest drop-related adventure. I hope this is of use to someone.

Bigger on Top

Glowing Water

Curved Splash





Monday, October 20, 2008


I went to Kerry for the weekend with the UL Photo Society. Unfortunately, the weather was atrocious, but I got a couple of images I am reasonably happy with. I wish I had the skill to be able to take great photos no matter what the weather.

Torc Rocks




Ladies' View

UL Living Bridge

The Living Bridge, if you don't know, is a new pedestrian bridge in the University of Limerick that gets its name from the fact that it (purposely!) sways up and down when you walk across. It cost sixteen million and was built by the same company that built the Eiffel Tower - although I suspect that most of the engineers on that particular project were unlikely to have contributed to this one. I've been meaning to take photos of this for ages, it probably should have been on my list. Anyway, I finally got around to it, and here they are:








Wednesday, October 15, 2008

56 Photography related things I want to do

I was going to make a simple list of photography stuff I wanted to do - just for myself, to have something to motivate me and work towards. However, as this is essay time which means I will do anything but what I am supposed to, I wrote this. I'd love to hear other suggestions in the comments. The list isn't meant to be exhaustive: this is stuff that I want to do, rather than think that everyone should do. This list isn't in any order at all, it's completely random. The headings are probably a bit iff too, I just wanted to break up all that text a bit.


1. Photograph the Northern Lights

Northern Lights_253 by ru_24_real (

This is very high up my list of things I want to photograph. I’ve always been fascinated by the amazing colours and patterns of the Aurora Borealis. Some of my favourite photos are of this natural phenomenon.

2. Photograph the Grand Canyon

Great patterns, great texture, great light. What’s not to love?

3. Go to Yosemite, home of Ansel Adams

El Capitan Yosemite National Park, by Jim's Outside Photos (

I can take or leave a lot of the ‘famous’ photographers, but I love a real master like Ansel Adams. A lot of his best work was taken in Yosemite, and I think it’s pretty much a compulsory pilgrimage for landscape photographers. I’d probably have to try and re-create some of his more famous works, then be depressed when they inevitably pale in comparison

4. Photograph from Space

OK, I realise this one is probing the edges of reason, but as space tourism takes off, there’s got to be some kind of chance it’ll be reasonably affordable during my lifetime! Surely this would be the ultimate landscape photography destination.

5. Photograph the Icazu Falls

These waterfalls are incredibly impressive. They’re so big that it would hopefully be possible to get some original shots, unlike most waterfalls

6. Photograph Antelope Canyon

Some of the most spectacular photos I’ve ever seen have come from here. The light is amazing.

Upper Antelope Canyon - by Mandj98 (

7 Take photos at Glendalough

Images of this place were some of the first that inspired me to get in to photography. It’s serene, there are lakes, and there are mountains. A landscape photographer’s dream come true.

8. Take photos at the Giant’s Causeway

Another place I have seen many incredible photos. It’s just so far away...

9. Do a long exposure with people at the Iron Man in UL

This won’t mean anything to most people, but every time I pass this statue I think to my self that it would be cool to do a long exposure of, with the statue not moving and surrounded by blurry people. Someday I’ll do it.

10. Go to Prague and take photos

Fascinating historical architecture, beautiful winters, famous bridges.

11. Go to New York and take photos

Crazy people, crowded streets, non-stop action, fascinating architecture, huge buildings. Oh, and some of the best photo stores on the planet. That enough?

12. Go to Bombay to take photos

Any big city in India, really. The colour and energy of these places fascinates me.

13. Venice

More history than you can shake a stick at, lots of water, and lots of fog.

14. Take photos of New England in Autumn

Gotta love those colours...

15. Go on Safari

This is another one high up the list of photography destinations, for almost any photographer. I think it’s pretty obvious why. I’d love to get some stunning black and white photos of wild animals, like these.

16. Spend a day in a hide

Not something I really have the patience for, but it would be a great experience to try it once.

17. Go to Fota Island Zoo

I’ve been here before, as has pretty much every kid in the South of Ireland. I’d like to go back with a camera. It’s slightly more open than most zoos – should be good for photography.


18. Do more drop/splashes, using the lighting I used for the smoke photos.

I’ve taken some photos of drops and splashes using off-camera lighting, but I always had difficulty darkening the background enough. Using a snoot to direct a narrow beam of light through the drop, as I did with these smoke photos, should produce better results.

19. Get good photos of star trails, with the northern star in the middle

This is something I’ve been trying to do since I took up photography, but never succeeded. It’s always too cloudy, or there’s too much ambient light, and my only wide-angle lens doesn’t have any infinity mark on it – stupid cheap kit lens... I really want to get a good photo of star trails, with the northern star in the middle of at least in the frame, and the trails making circles around it.

Star Trails @ Fusoshan by Fishtail@Taipei (

20. Get one nice street shot or environmental portrait

This isn’t something I ‘m good at, but I’d love to take a good classic black and white street shot, or maybe a wide-angle environmental portrait of some interesting subject. I’ll never be Cartier-Bression, but I’d like to try every technique at least once.

21. Use off camera lights to get that cool film noir effect.

Come and get me coppers, by intsjustanalias (

Been meaning to try this for a long time, if only because it’s quite simple.

1. Shoot hard light through window blind at person wearing a hat.

2. ???

3. Profit.

22. Make a good time-lapse film

I’ve tried this, and like most things I try, it’s harder than I thought. I’d love to do a whole day, from sunrise to sunset. My main problem is finding somewhere interesting I can leave a camera for a whole day!

23. Make just one decent HDR image

Mine all looked over-cooked. How do you do it properly? Evidently half of The Internet doesn’t know either. There’s a lot of truly awful HDR imagery around. But when it’s done right, it can look spectacular.

24. Take one of those long exposure in a moving car at night photos

I think everybody has to do it at least once; it’s a law or something.

through the tollbooth....again, by Ben Mcleod (

25. Take photos through a microscope

I’d love to try this just once – I don’t think it would hold much interest for me in the long term. I’m always extremely impressed by the Nikon competition that happens every year though.

26. Take photos while scuba-diving

This is something I imagine takes a lot of gear in order to get results that are anything but awful. The combination of terrible light and sticking some thick waterproof plastic over your camera and lens can’t be good. If I ever do this I’ll need to rent some gear.

27. Learn how to use Photoshop

I know Lightroom inside-out, but I’ve never gone near Photoshop. I downloaded the trial and felt a bit ill – there are way too many buttons. However, in this digital age, it is an essential skill.

28. Get a great photo using just rim lighting

Just one light, and a black background. Just enough light to get the outline of a person or thing. Here's another cool example:

Frame Work, by Auzigog (

29. Spend a day with a fixed lens

Everyone says this, but I’ve never tried it. Shooting with a fixed lens makes you much more careful about composition. You can always zoom with your feet.

30. Get some great pictures in the fog and trees

This one is filed under ‘I’ve tried and failed’. I love good fog photos – the sense of mystery and the minimalism.

31. Make a very long exposure photo of the sea at night

I’ve seen some very cool shots like this, particularly at Photoblog 2.0

32. Photograph a fireworks display

The web is swarming with ‘how to photograph fireworks’ tutorials for some reason, and I think I’ve read just about all of them. Someday I’ll actually have to put this knowledge to practice.

33. Make a short film

There’s always been a strong link between photography and moving film, and with the ability to shoot video on the new Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D Mk II, the two disciplines are going to be closer entwined than ever before. I’d love to give it a go. The thing that has always put me off trying a digital camcorder is the huge depth of field: everything is in focus, severely limiting creative effects. With these two cameras, with their huge control over depth of field and manual focus, digital video just got much more appealing to somebody like me, who values the aesthetic of film as much as the narrative.

34. Do one of those transparent computer screen things

You know, like here. Cool eh?

35. Make a large print and frame one of my photos

Apparently making high-quality prints from digital images is an art unto itself. Also, it would be nice to actually have physical print of something I’ve taken. Everything I do is in ones and zeros.


36. Photograph a new-born baby

Black and white, on a black background. It’s a cliché, but it works.

37. Shoot a gig with a fish-eye lens

I’ve done some gig photography, and enjoyed, but it looks a bit ‘samey’. The best stuff I’ve seen has been through a fish-eye lens, extremely close up. I’d love to give it a try (and try not to get killed by the band at the same time)

38. Do a portrait session with a band

You know, the train tracks, walking across the road, all that highly original stuff... Really though, there’s a lot of room to experiment and be creative taking portraits of bands. And hopefully they’ll become rich and I can sell all my photos for lots of money...

39. Spend a day in a kitchen, or some other high-energy workplace.

This would be fun. I’ve worked in kitchens in restaurants, in the highly prestigious position of wash-up man. A kitchen is home to a huge range of emotion, from hilarity to rage, and swings from one extreme to another, many times in a single night. I’d love to try to depict this through photography.

40. Photograph a wedding

OK, so risking the most important day of somebody’s life just so I can say I’ve done a wedding might be a little selfish, but I’d really love to try this one day, at least as a second shooter. It’s a great mix of professionalism, high-adrenaline, and artistry.

41. Get a photo of an ‘interesting’ face

face - old man, by china.sixty4 (

You know, one of those wrinkly people whose face ‘tells a thousand stories’.


42. Buy a Sigma 10-20mm or other wide-angle lens

I’ve been ogling the Sigma 10-20 for about a year and a half. I love landscape photography, but I really want to get wider. I really think an ultra-wide-angle lens would push my landscapes to the next level.

43. Buy umbrellas, light stands and adapters and finally learn how to off-camera light properly

Another thing I’ve been meaning to get for a long time. It doesn’t take much of an investment, and it’s well worth it. I’ve been reading Stobist for the past year or so, and I’ve been inspired to try my hand at off-camera lighting. I’ve had a certain amount of success using bare flash and some DIY modifiers, but it’s never really been completely satisfying.

44. Borrow a Leica for a couple of days

Leica IIIf, by selva (

I’ve already said that I’ll never be Cartier-Bression, but borrowing a Leica (preferably an old film one) and swanning around town for a few days is probably the closest I’ll ever get. I would love to try out this legendary camera.

45. Get a graphics tablet

If I finally learn to use photoshop, or even just upgrade to Lightroom 2.0, one of these would hugely improve the speed and accuracy with which I could do things like dodging and burning.

46. Rent a studio and a hire a model for a day.

Another thing I’d love to try out at least once – see what I can produce with professional equipment and professional people.

47. Build a studio in my garage

Nothing fancy – just get some umbrellas and light stands, and a couple of backdrops. It’s amazing what can be done with very little money.

Learning & Improving

48. Make a photo essay

I’d love to do this – come up with an idea, take a load of photos with the intention of telling a story rather than just for their own sake.

49. Win a competition

Preferably one with more than one entrant. I enter competitions now and again, never with much success. The closest I’ve come was being shortlisted for the World Photography Awards last year, and that gave me a boost that lasted for months. If I actually won something I’d probably explode.

50. Write something about history and photography

I’m doing an M.A. in History – it’s my primary interest. There is a huge area of study around the history of photography, and also history as seen through photography. I’ve never really looked into it, but I’d like to.

51. Teach a class

I think that one of the best ways to learn is by teaching. I’m not an expert in anything, but I know I’d learn a lot merely by organising and planning a class. It’d feel good to give something back, too.

52. Read a fancy photography book

Perhaps On Photography, by Susan Sonntag. I really enjoy photography, but I’d love to learn more about the theory behind it.

53. Get a photo to number 1 in explore on Flickr

This wouldn’t be a particularly big compliment on my photography, judging by the some of the stuff that makes it to the top on Flickr. It would be kind of exciting though!

54. Sell a photo

Just one. For MILLIONS preferably...

55. Get paid to photograph something.

Different from selling a photo. I would really like to be commissioned to do some kind of photography job. Wouldn’t have to be fancy: Maybe taking photos of a house for an estate agents, a product for ebay, or even a family portrait. Doing something for money really focuses the mind – this would undoubtedly make me a better photographer.

56. Buy a fine-art print from an up-and –coming photographer

It’s great to support other photographers, even if you don’t intend on making a living from it yourself. Also buying something, with the intention of displaying it, really clarifies the mind on what one actually likes. There’s a big difference between admiring a photo on the net or in a gallery, and being able to put up with it every day.

So, there you go. Hopefully this will be of interest to somebody - you might even get some ideas. If I do any of these, I might start crossing them off, and posting about my results on the blog.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cratloe Woods

Forests, for me, have always been one of those subjects that should provide better photographs than they actually do. I think it's the chaos and clutter: it's hard to find order amongst the random scattering of trees. Good photos have a purpose, a subject stands out and turns a photo from a mere collection of pixels (or silver halide, if you're into that sort of thing...) into a photo of something. I have always found subjects hard to pick out in forests. I went to Cratloe, a nearby wood, this morning with the hope of finding trees shrouded in fog. By the time I hauled my lazy ass up there, the fog was inevitably gone. Faced with the prospect of yet another disspointing trip to a wood, I decided to try something different: I stuck my oft-neglected 50mm f.1.8 onto the camera. I was suprised how well this worked. At f1.8, or f2, this lens turns a seemingly chaotic scene into one with a single, well-defined subject. These aren't my favourite photos ever, but I'm happy enough with how they turned out.

Another thing that I find hard about photos of trees and woods is the post-processing. I tried fiddling around with the green and yellow channels in Lightroom, and this is what I came up with. I'm not sure if it's over the top or not.








Saturday, September 27, 2008