Our Photography Courses Blog - Photography Tips and Techniques

How to make an interesting photograph

Posted in Photography Tips and Techniques on December 2nd, 2013 by Phil and Rachel – Comments Off

One of the subjects that often comes up on photography courses is question of how to take an interesting photograph. We’ve all seen this – other people’s wedding or holiday pictures just don’t capture the scene or the atmosphere. What is it about cameras but so singularly fails to capture our emotional impression of the scene?

Firstly, the camera sees very differently to us. It’s not our fault that cameras see differently, we just have to bear in mind when we take photographs.

secondly, you’re trying to interest the viewer in something they’ve never seen, or some location they’ve never been to, or some person they will never meet – you have to make it interesting and dramatic. You need to sell it to them. They’ve got lots of other things to do besides looking your photograph! There are several ways to do this – interesting camera angles, slightly non-human lenses can combine to result in a picture that shows a familiar scene in a slightly unfamiliar way.


seagulls on the river at Henley

So here’s a picture from Saturday’s photography course in Henley-on-Thames. This shows the Henley church and river from a slightly more interesting angle than usual. The composition is quite standard, with the bird in a rough thirdsy location, but nonetheless it pulls in what is unique, different and interesting about Henley, and after all isn’t that what we want from an interesting photograph?


We recently had a German lady on a course whose father had been a professional photographer perhaps 70 years ago in Germany.  He said that all photographs need to be taken from low down. We’re not sure about that, but we are sure that the camera position needs to be thought about every time. Taking shots from your eye level is going to give the most boring view possible, and everyone able to like our shots, we need to plan and construct an interesting photograph.

Camera free photography

Posted in Photography Tips and Techniques on November 26th, 2013 by Phil and Rachel – Comments Off

Today was a strange day at Ashton Court, where for the first time ever we did a go at camera free photography – improving our photography without cameras!

Not as weird as you might think, when the main thing we are encouraging is to stop and think about the pictures, rather than f-stops/ISO/metering/white balance etc etc etc.

So this morning, Richard and Phil set out into a slightly cloudy Ashton Court to look at potential landscape photography locations, think about metering modes and work out exposure compensation. All without using Richard’s rather lovely D600.

Firstly, we were looking at views that would make sense to someone who hadn’t actually seen the location – like the viewer of our photograph. We need the image to be clear, with sight lines leading us in, no barriers and no objects in the foreground to take our interest.

Secondly, we had to worry about colour at this time of year – it’s extremely green here at Ashton Court at the moment, and even a camera as sophisticated as an Nikon D600 will tend to assume that all this greenery is fluorescent lighting and tone it down, resulting in images that are significantly under green.  There is an article about this here.

Thirdly, we had to consider exposure compensation – the leaves are not reflecting anything like as much light as the camera would like to see, and it tends to overexpose pictures where the greenery fills the frame. So today we were thinking about under exposing by perhaps a stop. In our experience people do not use exposure compensation anything like enough – it’s why the button is in such a convenient place!

Fourthly, we were doing the old deeply pretentious trick of framing a scene and closing one eye. The one eyed perspective of the camera plays havoc with the way the picture looks, and always tends to blend in foreground and background objects in a way that they were not blended visually.

One of the problems with taking a camera on location and then trying not to be distracted is that the most distracting thing you have with you is the camera itself. The moment you get out the camera you are interested in the battery life, the room for new pictures, the custard your child got on the camera last time you used it, and any number of things that draw your attention away from your surroundings. It’s pretty hard to ignore the camera and look beyond it at the landscape, but that’s what you need to do.

This is Richard’s third course with us, and he’s back again to Arnos Vale in January. Can’t wait.

Next time, we’ll be using the camera and won’t go for camera free photography

What is photography noise, and how can I get rid of it?

Posted in Photography Tips and Techniques on November 14th, 2013 by Phil and Rachel – Comments Off

To start thinking about photography noise in a digital camera we have to think about film first.Back in the old days of film, you may remember buying 100 or 400 ASA film, which was all most shops seem to stock. If the light was quite poor, as often as in the UK, a 400 ASA film would mean that a photographer could get away without flash,  or that the flash could be less powerful and less obvious.In theory, using a low ASA film was a good idea, because films with higher ratings were more sensitive to light because they had larger grains of light-sensitive material, and therefore the picture looked a little grainy. If you look at old photographs of dark situations – things like jazz trumpeters in nightclubs you will see that the pictures are very grainy.


1600 ISO (bear in mind this is a Canon G9 – small sensor+12Mp=lots of noise!)


Looks pretty horrible close up


200 ISO – much better


When digital cameras came along it became possible to change the sensitivity of the sensor (the digital equivalent of the film speed) between each picture. So if light was poor, you could turn the ISO up to make the camera more sensitive – basically turning up the volume of the camera. This means that in low light you can still get a reasonable shutter speed by making the camera more sensitive.


But as with film photography, the disadvantage comes in the form of graininess which is called photography noise in a digital camera – if all the pixels are turned up to maximum sensitivity, they’ll start to interfere with each other and produce a sort of mottled effect where pixels are misfiring and producing spots of either the wrong colour or the wrong intensity. This is particularly a problem with older cameras, and also smaller cameras with smaller sensors, and lots of megapixels – where the pixels are physically close together and therefore interfere with each other more. So an old bridge camera for example will be pretty bad! It is another reason why professional full frame cameras, with huge sensors are less grainy than crop sensor cameras that most of us use because the pixels are further apart.


So the disadvantage  with high ISOs is that the picture becomes slightly indistinct and grainy. How high can you go?


Sadly, this is partly up to you as the photographer – grainy pictures can look great in certain circumstances – but not others. It can make a nightclub looked dangerous and interesting, but you might not want the same effect in a church interior.

Also, as we said earlier, cameras vary a lot so 1600 ISO on one camera may be perfectly usable but dreadful on another. We always recommend experimenting and taking the ISO as high as you can before it starts to look bad, this is usually at least one or two stops less than the maximum of the camera. We used to find that our old Nikon D 90 could do quite well at 2000 ISO, but the Nikon D2X,  which was a higher spec camera but older could really only manage 800. Nowadays, the D 7100 Nikon looks pretty good at 3200 ISO and the D3 and D4 even higher.So the amount of photography noise depends on your camera.


The other trick in reducing the camera shake is to make the picture deliberately a little dark. After all, it’s dark right? Slightly darker exposures will look authentic and reduce the shutter speed. So a picture taken at 800 ISO and -1 stop of shutter speed will have the same shutter speed as a picture taken at 1600 ISO, but much less photography noise. You may well be able to brighten the picture in software afterwards, but often.pictures look good anyway.


The other way of reducing ISO photography noise is to use noise reduction software. We are cautious about the use of this, it is definitely not a get out of jail free card but a little noise reduction can often help. Programs like Adobe light room have pretty good noise reduction capabilities, but they do tend to soften the image slightly. There is no such thing as something for nothing in photography!


There are a few more examples to be found here in the ask PMS section of our website.It is worth pointing out that photography noise is more of a problem on plain black surfaces – so you may get away with it in a wildlife picture where the background is mottled but the photography noise can be very clear in product pictures.


Modern cameras such as the Canon 1100 D, or 650 D or the Nikon D 7100 or D50 200 seem to cope with quite high levels of ISO without much photography noise.  Bridge cameras and compact cameras especially old ones like the G9 used above can be pretty bad!



Five ways the camera doesn’t see what you do – overcoming camera vision.

Posted in Photography Tips and Techniques on November 1st, 2013 by Phil and Rachel – Comments Off

Camera vision of the world is very different from the way that we see it visually. In effect, the job of the photographers often to try make a picture that looks like things did visually while using a device that doesn’t see the world in the same way. Figuring out the difference in what camera sees and what you see and compensating for  it can make all the difference to your photography. So what can we do to make pictures that are more visually pleasing?


1.   Think about backgrounds.   When we look at somebody we genuinely don’t notice the background behind them. Try it – you will see that when you’re looking at someone the background is genuinely indistinct. We always think that it gives a roughly 80 mm F1 .8 look when you’re paying attention. if we’ve got this right, it means that the background behind the person is more visible in the photograph taken with a regular kit lens about F5 .6 than visually. So all of a sudden in the picture there’s a whole load of stuff in the background that you didn’t notice – it’s not your fault! How visual system is designed to pay attention to things that are close and worry less about things that are far away. Even Fox Talbot referred to the camera as “indiscriminate” in the way that it picks up detail from all over the place. This can be very distracting and can be countered by you thinking about this all the time while taking pictures what is this background going to look like? Look around the subject, behind the subject –  think about the background. The lamp post growing out of the head picture is not your fault – you didn’t see it but the camera did a bad job of representing what you saw visually. Camera vision strikes again!

2.  Think about distances.   Camera focusing systems are basically rangefinders. Everything the same distance away will be in focus regardless of where it is in the frame. Human vision is not like this – we have a lot more light-sensitive cells in the centre of our retina, and objects at the left or right are out of focus even if they are the same distance away.  Try it – looking at your computer monitor now you can see that anything on your desk that is the same distance away from your eye is not in focus as it would be in a photograph. This is why having a bit of branch poking in from the side of the frame in a landscape can be so distracting – it’s more in focus than it would have been visually. So how we fix this is in the composition, recognise that anything the same distance away as the subject will be equally in focus and therefore equally as important in the composition whether we want it or not.

3.   Think about colour brightness. Our friend Geoff photographed some Ferrari cars for a magazine. Most Ferraris are flame red, but occasionally there are yellow ones and even white ones. Geoff found that the reds reflected much less light than the yellow ones and he had to take this into account with the metering. Not big problem, but visually a Ferrari looks about as bright as a yellow one but not to the camera. People have evolved to be very sensitive to red, and so we tend to see a dark red shade as lighter than it really is. Since the camera is metering in monochrome, a dark red rose looks like charcoal grey and a red Ferrari looks much darker than a yellow one. So you may need a little exposure compensation for this –a little negative exposure compensation for the red car  and a little positive exposure compensation for the yellow one.

4.   Think about unimportant bright coloured things. We assume that bright colours things are important, so use them for all our emergency equipment – red fire extinguishers, yellow safety handles, black and yellow striped edging. I’m not suggesting that emergency equipment should be painted beige, but this stuff is everywhere and can dominate a portrait picture in the background even if it’s out of focus. The viewer thinks what is that red thing so be very aware of brightly coloured things in Iraq which the common situation with children or even fire alarms etc in a corporate situation. In camera vision bright colours run important but not to the viewer.

5.   Think about 3-D. If you are lucky enough to have two working eyes, you see the world in three-dimensional shapes. Your brain puts all this together and shows you shape of the world. Babies spend a lot of time learning how this all works – reaching out and grasping things to learn how what they see visually compose with the real world of objects. Obviously camera vision has only one lens, and one eye so the world is rendered flat.    Many of our photography mentoring service customers send us  landscape pictures that are badly composed because trees in the foreground and trees in the background blend in together. These are normally accompanied with complaints that it doesn’t really look like it did visually. So we need to keep similar toned objects separated from each other in our composition, and it’s one reason why the landscape pictures come out particularly well on a misty morning, so the background trees and paler than the foreground and separate out giving us a sense of distance.



It’s interesting that despite all the camera technology and vast amounts of money that have been invested in camera design, the fundamental differences between human vision and camera vision and never really been addressed. As a result, even the most expensive camera can take disappointing pictures that look nothing like it appeared at the time.  The art of taking good pictures is partly about recognising this and overcoming it with technical know-how, thoughtful framing and composition.  The camera is less important than your eye in deciding what to take and how to make it look realistic.  That’s why we’re here.