News photography: Ash Wednesday Witness


For the last 27 years, Pax Christi, Christian CND and Catholic Worker have held their annual Ash Wednesday Witness at the MoD in London to protest Britain’s non-participation in nuclear disarmament treaties. This year I put my news hat on and went down for work. The veteran peace campaigner and activist, Bruce Kent, who will be 90 this summer, has been to every one. I used a wide angle lens and fstop of 7-9. It was a grey, wet day which suited the mood of the occasion. I did most processing on one picture, of the woman tying a ribbon to the fence at the MoD, to remove nearly all colour except the penitential purple from the ribbon. You can see these photos, and an accompanying vid, in their context at The Tablet.



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.




Studio: Patterns in hard light

In studio portrait photography, there are four main patterns: butterfly, split, loop and Rembrandt. The latter three are demonstrated here. (Butterfly, which I’ll show next week, is straight on, with a butterfly shadow thrown just below the nose.) These portraits were shot using ‘hard’ light, in order to demonstrate more vividly the shadow effects. Soft light is more usual in portraits however. The featured image was shot from a lower vantage point, in order to give the subject a more commanding presence. Shooting straight on, or even from a higher point, makes a subject seem more approachable.

  1. Loop: The shadow from the nose loops slightly to one side or the other, with the light source above the subject and to one side.
  2. Split: The light is split down the centre of the face between light and dark, by lighting from the side.
  3. Rembrandt: Named after the artist because this is how he liked to light his portraits, the shadows of the nose and the cheek join to create a triangle of light below the left eye. Ideally, the eye above the triangle of light should have a ‘catch’ light in it. (I managed to achieve the catch in the second ‘split’ portrait, but not in the Rembrandt lighting. Often, the ability to do this is determined by the subject’s physiognomy and a failure can be corrected in processing.)



Unit: 1 The Camera: Film or Digital

Task 1 Depth of Field, Selective focus AC (2.1,2.2

For the end of term task for Unit 1 in the RHACC Level 2 Photography Course, the task was to choose a place near our home to explore urban or landscape photography using a variety of approaches. I chose Kew Gardens, and decided to focus in on Christmas at Kew, the annual light display.

Task 1: Depth of field, Selective focus (LO 1,2,3)
(to address Assessment Criteria (AC) 2.1, 2.2, 3.2)

These are my 3 images in response to the title using depth of field and/or selective focus.

  • Working with aperture to create required depth of field.
  • Working with manual focus in order to create required focusing point.

For the first photograph, of lights in the lake at Kew Gardens, I used a zoom lens 70.0-300.0 mm f/4.5-5.6 with a tripod, shutter speed of 0.4 seconds and 100 ISO for less grain/higher quality.  I had lens on an aperture to create sufficient depth of field with as much of the picture as possible in focus. I loved the reflections created in the lake. From my position on the bank, it looked magical but through the camera lens, even more so. Manual focus here was easy – simply preset to infinity – but of course with the camera on M.

The second photo, of a winter bud, I switched to a 105mm f/2.8 micro lens and also moved from night time to mid-afternoon for better quality of light. Set at aperture f/4.8 so the soft-focus effects would not be too great at the edges of the bud, nevertheless I was able to achieve sufficiently shallow depth of field at 100 ISO to allow for fine detail of the softly unfolding bud to emerge in the photo. It was only in processing the pic with Camera Raw and then Photoshop that I realised a synthetic blue thread of nylon, blown no doubt in the wind, was on the bud. So I used healing brush editing tool to remove it.

The third pic shows an opened autumnal bud, with the fluffy cotton and seeds ready to blow away in the wind, from the Japanese Garden in Kew Gardens. The near-abstract nature of this image in micro appealed to me. With f/4.2 and shutter speed of 1/250, and in a soft breeze, it was hard with this one to get the right part of the image in focus. The only solution in the end was to fire off several pix until one emerged that looked “right”.

Focusing was the crucial element to making these latter two pictures work, and the most difficult. The only possible way was manual focus, then to move the camera gently backwards and forwards within a small margin of a cm or two, while visually checking the focus through the viewfinder to find the ideal time to press the shutter.

Task 2 Shutter speed AC (2.1, 2.2) (LO 1,2,3)


These are my three images in response to the title using slow or fast shutter speed techniques with:

  • Multiple exposures
  • Movement
  • Painting with light

For the first photo I used lens 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 on a tripod with exposure of 3s. This was a mirror ball snowman at Kew Gardens with the trees behind lit with eerie blue light. The ghost effect in the foreground was achieved by asking another visitor at Christmas at Kew to walk slowly in front of the camera past the snowman while the shutter was open.

The second image was taken with the same wide angle lens f5.6 with exposure 1/4. I asked a family if their daughter would hold her rotating light sparkler in front of her, to give the colourful effect of moving light with the twinkling ‘light cathedral’ in the background.

The third image, painting with light, was of the light “doorways” we passed through at the start of the Christmas at Kew winter light display. With the same wide angle lens, allowing me to get quite close to the gates of light, at f5.6 with an exposure of 2s I was able to move the camera gently literally to paint the camera sensor with fine lines of light from the separate bulbs in the display. It took several goes to get this right, with the lines appearing in focus and not blurred. The clue to getting it right was to have the camera on manual (as with all the above) so as to allow for consistency of focus during the longer exposure this type of photography demands.

Task 3 Final take AC (3.1, 3.2) (LO 1,2,3)

Here I present a series of present a series of five images in response to the title using photographic techniques I have become familiar with during the course of the preceding exercises. My aim was to explore light and landscape in the context of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

For the first photograph, I used the wide angle lens and a long exposure of 6s with the camera on manual focus on a tripod lowered as close to the ground as possible (LO 1, 2 & 3). It was a matter of taking repeated photographs to get the combination of light, dark and colour as dramatic as possible as the lights passed through a wide variety of different colours. Processed in camera raw to increase contrast and sharpen slightly.

The second photo, of the moon behind the trees, was taken using almost all natural light of the moon at a rare part of Kew Gardens lit up by just a few artificial lights from the front (LO 1, 2) It was quite exciting as it was as if the whole of Kew Gardens had been placed in a studio with artificial light! With an exposure of 3s, on a tripod, and zoom lens of 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 the aim was to capture the colour of the autumn leaves as lit from the front by artificial light, with the natural light of the nearly-full moon coming through from behind. I processed in camera raw but only slightly, to increase exposure.

The third image was of moving flash lasers which when photographed give an impressions of fixed arches of pure light.  Taken with wide angle lens and exposure of 6 seconds on tripod, this needed quite a lot of work in camera raw and photoshop to enhance clarity and sharpness and bring out the colours and increasing exposure.

The fourth image showed a pentagram of natural light – created by lit gas “candles” – which leads the viewers eye towards the artificially-lit trees in the night. (LO 1,2,3). It is dramatic because of the variety and the contrasts of the colours, with the orange of the real fire dramatically outgunning the artificial light in the distance. A wide angle lens with an exposure time of 3s created a sense of movement in the flames which was a vivid contrast to the static lights on the trees. Enhancing vibrance, saturation and exposure in raw added the final touches to the image.

The final, fifth image is my favourite of the whole exercise. (LO 1,2,3) A lone tree is lit green by artificial light. With a wide angle lens and exposure time of 3s, the main challenge here was getting the composition right to create the balanced effect I sought. In the end the simple rule of 3 worked well, but I took many photos with the tree that bit more to the centre or the right of the picture. One problem was a red light in the distance which intruded when the tree was in the “right” place in the composition. However I was in the end able to edit that out seamlessly in Photoshop after enhancing vibrance and exposure – but not too much – in Camera Raw in Bridge.

4. Safe Working Practices (LO4)

Here I discuss safe working practices I identified and used during this project, and the occasions when I needed to request permission to take photographs.

Although there is no law in the UK against taking photographs of any individual, including children, in a public space, this is not as straightforward as it seems. Many places that fall under apparent definition of public space are not actually covered by this law, especially when taking photographs for commercial purposes. Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square for example need special permission for commercial photos. Likewise, special permission is needed to take photographs for commercial purposes in the royal parks – including Richmond Park. (Someone should tell those poor deer!) The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew is not a public space, it is a registered charity with paid entrance. I was fine taking photographs for this project, which is non-commercial, but had I wished to sell these photographs, I would have needed to obtain permission. Likewise, one of the photographs included a child. I did ask permission of her parents, and said I would email them the photograph. That email included a request for permission to use it on this blog. As they never replied to my email, the photograph I used of the child was one where identifying features were obscured by the light.

Regarding safe working practices, the relevant statutes are the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Obviously this project is not a professional work project, but for the purposes of this exercise needs to be approached as if it were. So it was important that the photography was carried out without causing risk to any members of the public – or myself.

This included safe practices such as staying within safety barriers put round lakes and other water on a dark and damp night where grass was slippery under foot. Also not getting excessively close to electric light displays in any way that could pose a hazard to anyone. A further aspect that became apparent when walking around with a tripod among large crowds was how necessary it is to control the metal legs of the tripod so they do not bang into people’s arms and legs. Simply managing the weight and dimensions of photographic equipment can be a challenge among large crowds on a dark, damp and breezy night. For example, how to change lenses when there are dozens of people crowding past, in the dark, all wanting to gaze at the same view and snap it on their phones. In the end the only option was to find a slightly less crowded space to kneel on the ground and hope no-one walked over me! One particular lesson learned in this case for the future – buy some cycling gear like luminous arm bands or head band so when I am kneeling down to change lenses etc, I am not simply a dark blob on the ground to be run over (possibly even tripped over, thereby inadvertently causing injury to some child or adult besides myself).

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 Depth of Field, selective focus

Finally ready to take photographs for the final three tasks, I worked with a micro lens and a zoom lens with depth of field and selective focus. The zoom lens was to get the close-up on the boat-lights in the lake at Kew Gardens during the Christmas at Kew light display. The other five photographs were taken during the afternoon, with a micro lens enabling close-up on autumn fluff and flowers. I love the near-abstract quality of detailed micro-photographs, and the challenge of editing in Camera Raw to bring out as much of the fine detail as possible without distorting any of the natural beauty of the subject.


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.