Learning about natural light

It was lovely after all this time in lockdown to venture out to my first London Photographic workshop for well over a year. Alex and Jane were leading, and the subject was natural light. As Jane said, there is no such thing as bad light. Every form of light has its uses. I had not previously understood quite how the diffuse, soft lighting created by a cloudy sky could enhance certain types of photographs.

Dreams Reality AC 2.1, 2.2 (LO1,3)


Working in the final term of level 3 towards the Dreams/Reality project, my goal was to move on from the floral theme in the studio and at Kew Gardens to a ‘wilder’ goal including tentative spiritual exploration around ‘pilgrimage’.

This was very much taking forward the work from last term, working particularly with depth of field, aperture and shutter speed in manual mode, with some post-production effects being brought into play, to create a variety of effects around realism and surrealism.

It turned into two literal pilgrimages, but also became the proper start of a pilgrimage for me as I begin to find and create my own distinctive style, drawing on the work and influenced by the numerous masters in the field of photography.

Studio and product photography: Flowers


Term two we analysed use of studio lighting in relation to product photography. We made a presentation on a particular photographer.

My presentation was on Robert Mapplethorpe, and found his studio work with flowers, both on their own and when photographed with people, incredibly inspiring.

Using dark backgrounds and split lighting techniques in the studio with a diffuser/softbox it was possible to create dramatic light and shade contrasts that highlighted the relationship of the flowers to the human subjects while presenting both flowers and people in their beauty and vulnerability.

For the flower on its own, the trick was to use a reflector also to make the light bounce back onto the stem, otherwise the stem would have been in complete darkness. Using also a low F-stop some sharpening of the stem was necessary in post-production.

Also studio assistance was needed to use a shield to ensure absolutely none of the light fell onto the background, to maintain the dramatic effect caused by total darkness.


Project prep: flowers and lighting


For my product project, I have been assigned the subject ‘flowers’. My presentation on a studio photographer will be Robert Mapplethorpe, particularly his work with flowers in relation to the human form and in isolation. Prep for the project coincided with the Orchid festival at Kew Gardens near my home. So I decided to take the opportunity to experiment with photographing orchids in the Princess Diana Conservatory, both at night, and in natural daylight. Also, I was trying out the different select tools in Photoshop in post-production.

Below is a selection of photographs from the festival taken at night. (I used a 50mm lens at 1.5 to get the rare bokeh effect on flowers in artificial light, and a micro lens for the detailed pix.)


Then I went back in daylight, to experiment with photographing the same flowers in natural as opposed to artificial light. In particular, it is interesting to note the different appearance of the pink orchids taken in artificial light, above, with the bokeh effect, and the exact same flowers in natural light in the conservatory. There is no question that flowers look best in natural light. So studio work presents particular challenges to capture their ethereal beauty.




Winter Lights: Night photography in London


I did two night shoots in London over January, in central and at the Winter Lights display in Canary Wharf. Practised using different lenses and zoom blast with tripod. One of the interesting aspects was editing using photoshop and the magnetic lassoo tool to brighten some areas of a picture while darkening others.


I posted this last photo, of the Windmill strip club in Soho, on Unsplash, and it was featured as one of their images of the day.

Landscapes with new camera

Having been given a Nikon D500 at Christmas by dh, I spent some time mainly familiarising myself with the new controls in Kew Gardens and on Richmond Riverside, when a gentle sunset at an exceptionally high tide obliged nicely. The controls turned out to be surprisingly intuitive. Focusing is so much easier and the colours and sharpness of the final results are a huge improvement on the D5200.

LO 2, 3, 4 Slow shutter speed, light

The Christmas at Kew event was the perfect event for painting with light and working with slow shutter speeds. The artificial light used to illuminate the trees at night, plus the light displays themselves, presented a number of challenges and opportunities. I experiemented with ‘painting with light’ on the slightly longer exposure. I used a tripod for almost every shot as exposures were several seconds long in each case. I also tried to use creatively the people walking past, eg in the mirror-ball snowman, were a person who at my request agreed to walk slowly in front of the camera created an impression of a ghostly image passing by.  The bottom image is a case of natural light shining through, the moon breaking briefly through the clouds to light up the autumn leaves, which on a long exposure looked beautiful.

There were many crowds, and it was important to observe the health and safety restrictions at Kew – staying behind barriers etc, being careful in the dark not to do anything that could put myself or others at risk while manoeuvring for a good shot. There is a lot of water at Kew that can be fallen into, and many things that can be walked into and fallen over in the dark. Also permission had to be negotiated with individuals who might appear in shot, or who were in the way of a shot. (Kew is a registered charity so it is not a public space where it is legal to take photographs of anyone without asking permission. In any case, it is considerate to ask permission.) Just walking around with a tripod meant taking care not to bang people on the legs or bodies in the dark and the crowds.

Although the working conditions here were very different, I was aware when shooting of the influence of the British photographer Jem Southam, and the night enhanced by artificial light I felt almost created some of the luminescence of his landscape photography, though naturally the moon did it best of all, unaided by our human artifice.  I had also learned from and was aware of being influenced by the work of German photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, who manages to make the ordinary manmade light/dark contrasts in urban landscapes appear extraordinary by the use of intelligent composition.

LO 1, 2, 3 Light and landscape: Africa


Working in Nigeria, Africa for a week, most of my pictures were for work and not relevant to this course. However, this one was a picture of the new Catholic church being built at Caritas hq in Abuja. With the dawn breaking, there was a brief moment of a few minutes to capture the perfect light as it rose over the hills. In camera raw I lightened the foreground to create a rosy glow. As I was shooting into the rising sun, I used a relatively small aperture and fast shutter speed to capture the colours and not over-expose with good depth of feel. Again this was good practise for the plan ahead to work in the darkening twilight at Kew.

This was the first time I felt able to experiment in a way with colour in the processing in a manner that I could pay adequate tribute to American photographer William Eggleston, a pioneer in the use of colour that today we take often for granted. The light in Africa naturally conveys the colour-saturated warmth that was such a hallmark of Eggleston’s own work.


LO 3, 4 Working with light and dark

LO 1,2,3

Moved by some of the images I saw of the Tower of London’s Armistice memorial of 10,000 lights, I went down to have a go myself at photographing this beautiful and powerful display of torchlight. It was pouring with rain, there were hundreds of people grouped at all the best viewing points. So this was not an easy assignment. I used 16-85mm lens and edited in photoshop and camera raw to achieve greater contrast between dark and light. In the first pic tried using masks to enhance the sky, but the grey rain meant there was nothing there in the first place to work with, so I just darkened the sky to black instead. In the third pic I left the sky closer to how it appeared IRL. I did this for the blog in preparation for my final assignment for the term, some of which which will be based around light after dark.

Health and safety issues were at a premium. It was pouring with rain, windy and there were thousands of people milling around. I had a tripod but the barrier was high and it was difficult to find a vantage point. Meanwhile traffic was whizzing past at quite a speed. Climbing walls to get a better shot was not an option! I also had to respect the rights of others to a good view and not get in their way with my equipment, or hog the space once I did find one.

I knew I wanted my final assignment to be Christmas at Kew, a local landmark where the light display at night is beautiful, so this was an opportunity to practise photographing light at night in difficult, crowded conditions like those that were certain to pertain at Kew.