Tuesday, March 03, 2009

9 Photography Tips You Won't Read Anywhere Else

First things first: I've moved my blog. It's now at blog.photosandponderings.com. I'd really appreciate it if you update your bookmark, link or subscription to my site. I've been meaning to do this for a while, and I finally got around to it. I now have a proper wordpress blog, with all the endless possibilities for customisation and more likely screwing up that goes along with that. There's a few teething problems, but I hope I'll get them all sorted soon enough. To celebrate, I've spent most of the day writing my longest ever post! What's that smell? Ah, it must be the sickening aroma of college deadlines coming up again...

Though I love other types of photography as well, landscapes are what I started out with, and while only you can decide whether or not I’m good at them, I can at least say I’m prolific. I definitely take more landscapes than anything else, and because it’s fun to share, I’d like to give a few tips on landscape photography that I’ve picked up or discovered myself in the last couple of years.

There are literally hundreds of sites with endless amounts of information on the fundamentals of taking landscapes; everything from choosing your aperture to composition, and there are probably much more important things to read than this post, stuff like the rule of thirds and leading lines and the right type of light to take photos in is written on constantly because it’s more important to know about than anything else. I’m not going to try and repeat these things here, firstly because you’ll probably have read it before, but mainly because people with much more talent and experience than me will explain that kind of thing much better. What I want to do is simply give a list of random tips I’ve picked up that can make a difference to your photography, but most importantly, are a bit different from the ones you see in countless blog posts every day. I’m not saying these are breaking any new ground, but they are certainly a lot less common. They're not in any order of importance either, in case you're wondering.

You’ll probably already need to have a grasp of the basics before you get any use out of these, and if you’re very new to all this I recommend the Digital Photography School as a brilliant starting point. If you have any more of these type of tips, let me know in the comments!

1) Your clothing and footwear can be as important as your camera gear.

My favourite landscapes usually involve taking photos from places that are dirty, muddy, wet or freezing cold, and often a mixture of some of the above. While it’s important to have the right camera gear for the right photos, it’s almost as important to have the right clothing and in particular the right footwear. A good rain and wind-proof set of clothing will keep you warm and give you a much better chance of getting into the right places to take good landscapes. A good pair of waterproof boots, such as my Meindl Island Pros, or something else with gore-tex waterproofing, will allow you to wade through mud and stand in water, and more importantly, as good landscapes take time and patience, they’ll allow you to stay there for a long time without getting disheartened or sick.

2) Don’t be afraid of the big, bad telephoto lens!

While the ‘traditional’ focal length for landscapes is usually wide or even ultra-wide, some of my favourite photos were taken with a telephoto lens, the Sigma 70-300 f4 - 5.6. A long focal length allows you to compress distances, giving you overlapping lines, and isolate subjects. Also, as you don’t need fast shutter speeds (you’ll be using a tripod for all these - I hope!) you can get away with a cheap telephoto lens like I have. Here are a couple of examples of photos taken with focal lengths of 200mm+



3) Good weather is not necessarily the best weather.

While I love sunny days, particuarly here in Ireland where they’re rarer than hen’s teeth, they don’t necessarily make the best landscape photographs. Often, stormy or partially cloudy skys can give impressive and more interesting results - this is one of my favourite ‘ominous sky’ photographs - it had been largely a miserable and wet day:


While completely overcast days are likely to be useless to you, check the weather forecast for mixed rain and sunny spells, and just wait around for a sunny period to take photos.

4) Forget the ‘Rule of Thirds’.

This one will have many photographers shaking their fists angrily at their computer screen. A very basic rule of photography is to place points of interest along lines dissecting the photo into thirds. It’s a great rule, and if you google it you’ll find countless information about it. Basically, in Landscape photography, it often boils down to having 1/3 sky and 2/3 land, or the other way around, rather than placing the horizon in the middle. When I say “forget the Rule of Thirds”, I’m not advocating putting the horizon in the middle, but rather taking this rule to new extremes. I have found that many of my favourite photos have, for example, 1/4 sky and 3/4 land, or even 1/5 land and 4/5 sky. It works particularly well if one of these two elements are much more interesting than the other. Again, I give you a couple of examples:



5) It's all about the foreground...

Okay, this one isn't exactly a state secret, but it's something that helped my landscapes enourmously and I want to pass it on to other newbies. When I started with landscapes, I assumed that the most important element of the photo was the background. This makes sense, because usually when you're looking at a beautiful scene you're casting your eyes to faraway elements: the sky, mountains or lakes, for example. However, when I took photos that just concentrated on the background, I was constantly dissapointed by my results when I looked at the shots on my computer. I think it's because the 2D image created by the camera can't capture the scene in the same impressive way your eyes can. Now the landscapes I'm happiest with are those with a strong foreground element, with the background being almost relegated to secondary importance. At the very least, a strong foreground will draw you in and lead you to bring your attention to the impressive background you originally wanted to capture. So, frame something in the foreground (and if there's nothing there, move, or move something in!). Two of my favourite photos are almost exclusively about the foreground:



6) Landscapes can be portraits too!

I mean this in two different ways. First, I would say that all of the best landscapes I've taken, and most of those I've seen, are really portraits of a single element in a landscape. This 'single element' can be a number of things: A physical element like a mountain peak, or something less tangible like a particularly strong pattern of light. There are exceptions to the rule: Ansel Adams' photographs impress me because of the beautiful range of tones, amazing technical ability and strong overall composition, but I think that the rest of us mere mortals need to simplify things in order to get great photos. A question I often ask myself when critiquing my own photos is: "what is this a photo of?", and if I can't answer the question in one word or line, or the answer is just "a view of ___" then it's probably not an interesting photo. I like the following photo because it has one strong element: the rock:


Secondly, and this is a much simpler tip - don't forget that landscapes can be taken with your camera in portrait orientation too! As you can see, many of the photos above were taken in portrait. I find it works particularly well when you have very strong vertical leading lines, and if you really want to place the emphasis on either the sky or the land, and not both.

7) Sometimes, just don't bother.

Well, this is one tip that you definitely won't see very often! I know it sounds a bit depressing, but I find that if learning what type weather or viewpoints definitely won't give you good results will actually save you from being disheartened in the long run. There have been occasions when I've specifically set apart time and effort to go and take landscape shots, maybe even driving or walking for a good deal of time, only to find out that the conditions are just no good. Rather than spend hours taking shots, trying to squeeze something from scene only to go home, look at the results and become depressed, I think it's better to give up, go home straight away, and take what you can from it. If the weather was bad but the location was good, you can think of it as scouting for your next attempt. If the location was bad, console your self in the fact that at least you won't waste a beautiful day there by going back another time.

8 ) You have to post-process your images.

Well, I hate saying "you have to" about anything, but I think it's an important point. To put it simply: I would say that very close to one hundred per cent of your favourite landscape photographs have been post-processed - whether that be a simple contrast or saturation adjustment, dodging and burning, or a complicated HDR. When I started taking photos, I didn't realise this, and thought I could never even come close to the photos I saw around me by seemingly ordinary photographers.

I would say, at the very least, you should be adding a decent bit of contrast and adjusting the saturation. I also find myself fiddling with the colour hues in pictures with extremely strong colour elements - the camera is stupid and my our eyes have a much better idea of what a scene actually looked like. Also, I use Graduated Neutral-Density Filters in almost every landscape photo I take now: I highly recommend getting a set. Although this is done in-camera it is technically altering the scene so I include it here. Remember: you're not cheating - you're just levelling the playing field.

9) A photograph doesn't have to be what you 'saw', just what you 'remember'.

These are very different things: The first is objective (to a certain extent) and the second is subjective. Without wanting to get to philosophical about the whole thing, I personally don't see why a photo has to necessarily bear much relation to what was actually there, within reason. If I'm remembering a scene, and a feeling of warmth or cold or fear comes into my mind, then representing this in the photo through tweaking things is arguably at least, or perhaps more accurate a reflection of the scene I witnessed. After all, the scene doesn't exist any more except in my memory - so shouldn't it be that I attempt to recreate? Somebody said that the only truly objective photo would be taken from space with a camera with a very quiet shutter. Every photo is subjective: embrace the fact rather fight it, and ignore those (generally non-photographers!) who look down on your photographs because they believe otherwise. The following photo probably wasn't quite so blue - but, you know what? I don't care. I like how it looks and it's how I envisage the scene in my head. That's good enough for me.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Slea Head Statue

On the Cross

I think Religious statues and monuments are fantastic photographic subjects - I find many of them 'kitsch' but in a good way. And they're often in photogenic and strange places. I always seem to make them look ominous and bleak though...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Dingle Peninsula

I went to Dingle with the UL Photo Society at the weekend. The weather almost invariably decides to become an evil villain and toy with us in any way it can: producing spectacularly un-photogenic weather. This trip was no different, but we did manage to get in some shots on Friday night. Here's one:

Mountain Peaks

I'm in a bit of a dilemma as to what to do with my blog, design-wise. I like being able to write a bit and show a few photos in a row, as I do now, but I also like the idea of having one of those proper photoblogs with just one photo per post. This would allow me to 'showcase' my photos a bit better, as they always look more impressive when they're bigger. I've just got a year's free hosting through digiweb, on account of being a feckless student-type, and if I ever manage to actually get it running, I'll have a proper Wordpress-powered blog, with all the thousands of themes and designs available to me that goes along with that. So stay tuned, there should hopefully be big changes on the way...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Doolin Pier

I sort of feel like I'm finally coming into my stride as regards landscapes. I finally have all the gear I've been lusting after for the last couple of years: an ultra-wide angle lens, a decent tripod, a remote shutter release and a set of filters, but more importantly, I can, to an extent, pre-visualise a scene. I think I'm beginning to look at a scene, and immediately see whether the conditions make it worthwhile dropping everything and taking out the camera (and risking the wrath of your better half!), or just driving on and coming back another day. This Saturday in Doolin was definitely one of the former. There was a dark, brooding sky, lots of movement in the sea and great colours from the sunset. It was one of the rare occasions in the year when the stars align and I find myself at the coast, in the right weather conditions at the right time. Even though I hadn't planned anything, when I saw it I knew I just had to forget about everything else - I had been driving for 2 1/2 hours and was starving - and see if I could get some shots. In the space of less than an hour I had taken some of my favourite shots of the year so far. Here are two, and I'll probably post a few more over the coming days:

Doolin Pier


Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Living Bridge

The Living Bridge again, taken from the other side of the river, and during the day.

Living Bridge at Dawn

Busy People

Friday, February 13, 2009

Killaloe Time-Lapse Video

Here is the video I was talking about the other day. Just a quick note on how it was done: I set my camera on a tripod on my balcony and set it to fully manual exposure(you don't want the exposure suddenly changing in the middle of your movie) and fully manual focus (obviously enough you don't want the focus to change half-way through either). I also used a small aperture and a ND Filter to give a long-ish shutter speed. A long shutter speed is preferable because you want a little bit of motion blur in your shots, so that they will blend together a bit when you combine them. Then I connected the camera to my laptop via USB, and using Nikon's Camera Control Pro in timelapse mode, I set it to take one picture every ten seconds. I left it run until the battery in my camera died, and it took 1700 pictures.

When I had all the photos, I imported them into Lightroom, made some small adjustments, and synched all the photos up so that they looked the same. I then used a piece of software called VideoMach to put them all together, at thirty frames per second, which gives a smooth video. That's about it!

Here's the video:

Thursday, February 12, 2009

UL in the Snow

One thing I love about being addicted to Flickr and a load of photo blogs is that any time anything happens, such as the snow last week, I get a steady stream of pictures of it, from almost every inconceivable angle and location. It's like having omnipresence! I was really jealous of the huge amount of pictures of snowy landscapes I've seen over the last few weeks, something I wasn't able to do myself because a)we didn't get anywhere near as much snow as the east coast and b) because I was too busy/lazy/cold to get off my ass and take more photos. I did catch one very thick flurry, however. Here are some photos of UL:

UL in the Snow

UL Iron Man in the Snow

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Killaloe at Night

This is a combination of a load of one-minute shots taken from my balcony last week. As you can see there's quite a lot going on. The reason it's lots of dots rather than a continuous line is because I left a gap between each shot. The reason for this was because I was actually taking these shots to make into a time-lapse video, which is below the picture. I have another, much more impressive one of these to post but I'll leave you in suspense because I only have a limited amount of stuff to post at the moment! If you're really interested just check my youtube account...


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Monday, February 02, 2009

No Snow - No Fair!

It seems at the moment that the Mid-West, and Limerick in particular is the only place in the entire Western Hemisphere that isn't covered in a lovely blanket of snow. I went out this morning and took some infra-red shots to compensate. Anything green goes completely white, particularly when converted to monochrome. I haven't had the easiest relationship with infra-red, but I think when it's done well it can be stunning (for example, Darren Greene). I think the trick is very stark, minimalist subjects and lots of sunlight. Some day I'll manage it.

Infra-Red Trees

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Toy

I was in Bristol recently, visting family, but while I was there I took advantage of the weak Sterling and treated myself to a lens I've been coveting for a long time: the Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6. I've led myself to believe that an ultra-wide angle lens is an indispensible tool for my main interest, landscape photography, but also one that will be great for other stuff like architecture and 'enviromental' portraits. My first impressions of the lens are good - the wide angle is very dramatic and different, just as I had hoped. Of course, paying such a reasonable price for a lens with such an extreme focal length means there will be certain compromises, and it does not seem to have anywhere near the contrast or sharpness of my personal 'gold standard': the Sigma 105mm f2.8 Macro, which puts everything else I own into the shade. I knew all this, however, so I'm extremely happy with my purchase.

I haven't had much of a chance to try it out yet, but while I was in Bristol I took a few snaps - unfortunately I wasn't in the city long enough to get too involved photographically. I love big cities, and the best ones have a certain character that makes them inexplicablly yet undeniably unique. Even with the advent of identikit high-street shops, and architecture that could be almost anywhere on the globe, places like Bristol somehow seem to exude a one-of-a-kind identity that can be picked up even on a passing visit.

I'd love to tell you that I chanelled some of this through the photographs I took there, but that is unfortunately not the case. It's partially due to the time constraints, but mainly because I have never been much of an urban photographer. I have never progressed past taking snaps of buildings which interest me aesthetically, or that I think would make an interesting photograph. A couple of these are below. The first is a random building and the second is part of Bristol University:

Bristol Building

Bristol University

Monday, January 26, 2009

Star Trails During the Day??

Just in case you were wondering, this is what happens if you take a long exposure at night, when there's an extremely bright moon in the sky, and set your ISO to 1600. Of course, I did this just to show the readers of this blog what would happen if they did it, to save them some embarrasment. I never would be so stupid to do this accidentally myself, oh no...

Star Trails During the Day?

Incidentally, somebody very kind out there nominated this incompetent old thicko's blog for the Irish Blog Awards 2009, heaven knows why - out of some misguided notion of pity, perhaps ;) But seriously, thanks a million to whoever nominated me, it's much appreciated. As I've said elsewhere, the knowledge that one person likes my blog at least enough to bother sending in my name for nomination is extremely satisfying. It's an honour to share the same page on an internet with what is an excellent list of photoblogs.

P.S: Expect lots of high-brow, well-thought out posts over the next few weeks, as I try to pander to the judging committee. It's like Oscar season for blogs.

P.P.S: Actually scratch that, I've had a better idea. I'm going to rename the blog to reflect the new content emphasis.

What do you think of "Photos of Scantily-Clad Ladies and Ponderings"?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inch Rocks

This is the final image from the huge glut taken over one sunny weekend in Kerry. This is a particular favourite. It often transpires with my work that the harder a photo was to take the better the final image. This was definitely more difficult than most. I was balancing on some slippy rocks, as the tide came in around me. I took this photo and then had to grap the tripod and camera, and stick it in the air as I was worried it would get soaked! After one particularly big wave, the water came right in and I got spooked and decided to run for shore. Unfortunately the water was now at least up to my knees, and by the time I realised it was too late so I kept on wading back to the beach.

While wading through water as it slowly entered my boots isn't exactly what you would call fun, the experience symbolises everything I love about landscape photography; however cheesy or cliched the final image may be. To me landscape photography is about going the extra mile: going to the place no-one else could be bothered with, at the time everyone else with more sanity is tucked up in bed. It's about the sense of adventure and a unique sense of place, which I have only experienced through the viewfinder of my camera. Photography forces you to slow down, stop and really look, when the rest of your group has long given up braving the winds and retreated for a coffee or to the safety of the car.

It might, to an outsider, seem like perhaps one of the dullest hobbies on earth: standing around in the cold at ungodly hours of the morning doing nothing but adjusting settings on a camera and pressing a button now and again must appear to be akin to trainspotting or some equally inexplicable pursuit. For me, however, this type of photography at its best, on an astonishingly beautiful sunrise in unimaginable solitude, or a unique landscape discovered after a hike of a couple of hours, can give me butterflies in my stomach or make my knees weak with excitement. Landscape photography isn't trainspotting: it's extreme sports.

Inch Rocks

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Inch Again

"Hey, hey you - yeah you. The dude in charge of painting the day in the morning."


"Well, um, I mean, you did a really nice job on the near stuff like the trees and cars and houses, but, um, did you forget to paint in the background? Just sayin..."

Now that we're back to our regular service, impossibly grey skies streching into infinity, I begin to really appreciate days with actual sunlight. Here's another one from one of those rare days, last weekend in Kerry:

The Sea & The Rhythm

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I rearely post pictures of Limerick, so here are some:


Car Park


Christmas Tree Again


Bend the Light

The World's Ugliest Christmas Tree

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Just one today. I'm going to milk this Kerry trip for all it's worth, oh yes...

Footsteps to the Sun

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Kerry Sunrise..

...Two words I love to see beside each other. Actually, it was quite overcast, but I still took a couple of shots. Just like when trying to give up cigarettes for the New Year, sometimes I think it's best to have one last blowout before actually quitting. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. There's quite a lot more to come - this weekend was quite the landscape binge.

Kerry Sunrise


Misty Morning

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New Year

If there's anyone reading this, I'd like to wish you a Happy New Year. I trust that the hangover (in the literal sense at least) of 2008 has worn off by this stage. 2008 was, overall, a good year for me photographically. I didn't get any more gear, but I tried a lot of stuff and came away with some photos which I love. As my stuff is quite weather dependant, particularly the landscapes, the last few months have not been as productive as I would have liked. I think that the summer made up for that though.

I don't see myself as having any major breakthroughs or epiphanies in my photography this year - I think it was more a year of honing skills rather than learning new ones. The main skill which I have honed has been the ability to see 'photographically' - I've developed some kind of internal viewfinder which can be switched on in my brain. I have a fair idea without even bringing a camera to my eye the effect that various compositions and focal lengths will effect a picture. I can tell what will work in 2D and what won't, and how to give illusion of depth where none exists. Of course, I still have a huge, probably infinite amount more to learn, but this is an example of how I think I've improved.

What about 2009? Well I have a number of resolutions which I will try to follow. I'm going to try and be as consistent as possible with my photography, and take pictures very regularly rather than in big lumps as I often do now. I'll also try and blog more often. As for specific photographic subjects, I think it's time to slowly ween myself off landscapes, at least to a certain extent. I would like to get more photos of people, and maybe try and do some street photography, if I can get over the terror. Limerick is not beautiful, but it's real and vibrant and interesting, and the streets of the town could be a wonderful photographic subject. I'd also like to try and do some formal studio stuff, even if its just using my little flashes and some other cheap lighting equipment. As I said, last year didn't bring many new skills, so portaits and studio lighting would be one I'd like to pick up in 2009.

Ok, that's enough of that. I took some photos on the first day of the year, although I was a bit wobbly due to being still slightly drunk from the night before... The light was suprisingly bad, and it was very difficult to get a properly exposed shot without a very long shutter speed. This brings me to my last New Year's Photographic Resolution: Stop complaining about the light!