About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Chistmas

A happy Christmas to all. I hope that you have a wonderful time with friends and family and that the New Year brings plenty of photographic oppotunities and some great images!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Just Do IT

"Are you really sure you want to go for it", the voice asks querulously over the phone. It's raining outside, and dark. The weather forecast for the following morning is equally bleak. 'IT' refers to waking up at 2:00 am in the morning and driving for 2 hours to get to a location to do a morning shoot for a client of a farm in the Eshowe area of Kwazulu-Natal. The problem is that we just don't have any leeway in terms of alternative days. The images need to be created for an article that the client is putting together for a newspaper feature and the weather forecast looks wet for the the next week, let alone just for the next 24 hours. I have to admit that at 4am, waiting for my contact on the side of the road with rain pattering down on the bonnet of my car, I was starting to question my own sanity.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

One Flash Wonder Workshop

Last week we held our 'One Flash Wonder' workshop near Shongweni Dam outside Durban. The venue was an incredible set of dilapidated farm houses and an old abandoned chapel sourced courtesy of my wonderful assistant Claire. Our model for the morning was Chloe Stone, a beautiful and very patient young woman from Durban. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Composing The Dragon

Composition is never an easy thing to achieve. Readers of the site know that I often talk about the 'Element Approach' to composition. It's still something that I regularly work on, and will ultimately (I hope) come out in published form. One thing I have been lacking though is critical discussion around composition, particularly from a fellow landscape photographer. I had it in bucket-loads over the last recently!

For eight days I have been in the Drakensberg with Joe Cornish, Denis Hocking (of Hocking Photographic) and Nick van der Wiel (Tailor Made Safaris) locating venues for future potential photographic workshops. Weather, as is per the norm for the Drakensberg, was variable. Hot sun, soaking rain and gear penetrating drizzle. Not that dissimilar to British weather I suppose. The photographic opportunities were fantastic though. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Of Fungi and Streams

Sometimes it's worthwhile to take a look at the smaller things around us. I love the phrase that David Ward uses, "the inner landscape". I often have to remind myself that I should peel my eyes away from the broader horizon and take a peek at the smaller world around us. So it was that the photography students I was with last weekend in the Drakensberg were amused when they found me sprawled in the dirt photographing tiny mushrooms.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Time-lapsing Paddy

I recently had the privilege to meet and work with a photography student at the African Impact Thanda Photography Project. Paddy Bartram (left) is currently studying geography at Exeter University, but quite frankly should probably be concentrating on photography.

Paddy doesn't have a site as of yet, but I'll post it as soon as he does. I'm hoping to see more of his work in the future.

Here is a short clip that he put together after his time in South Africa (it can also be seen on Vimeo):

October Thanda Workshop

Spring has more than sprung in Kwazulu Natal! The green landscape has become so verdant that the hues of grass and leaf look more like something out of a cartoon than the palette of nature. If green weren't a calming colour we'd all go around with permanent headaches. So of course it means that this month's images look less like Africa and more like a set of pictures taken in the British Isles. I'll be heading up to Golden Gate in a few days time as well and am expecting much of the same across the province. By all accounts it seems to be that the entire coastline of South Africa has had more than it's usual share of bucketing rain. Of course it's not so fantastic for game drives, wet cameras and bogged down roads.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thoughts on the Nikon D600 and Canon 6D

Photokina 2012 had a rather interesting theme that permeated the announcements. The theme, or at least that which I felt was the strongest was that of the sudden growth in Full Frame equipment. This swelling of FF equipment happened both in the upper end and middle to lower end of the market with announcements by Nikon, Canon, Leica and Sony. On top of real announcements there were whispers and rumors that rapidly became internet chatter as pundits and manufacturers mulled over the possibilty of mirrorless FF. Fujifilm were slow - I'd say purposely slow - to dispel the rumors that there X-mount can support a FF sensor. Finally they came out with the fact that it can't. Then there were Sony who have announced the high end NEX VG900, the first full frame video-camera. The kicker though is that it has a NEX mount. Does this mean we can expect a FF NEX stills camera at some stage. I'd say it's likely? Read on for my biased, partisan, completely thumb suck, but maybe educated reasoning.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

For the Pleasure of it

As a professional commercial photographer I often find that it's actually quite hard to photograph for myself. The standard response when people hear that I make my living from a camera is, "wow, that's so cool, you get to take photos all the time". And it's true. It is cool! I am in the incredibly fortunate position to be able to do what I love on a daily basis. More than that, I really, really....really, love what I do. I'm also lucky enough that regardless of what I'm shooting, I tend to be content with a camera in my hand. So it might be a product shot of an aluminium pipe, or an architectural image of a haute couture hotel, or maybe a stylistic image of a model, or perhaps a field of sugar cane, or an industrial worker, or a corporate headshot...the list goes on. the thing is, it's what other people want me to shoot. Not what I want to shoot for my soul. That's where, I as a photographer, and anybody else who does this, have to be careful not to starve the soul.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Taking Over the Boardroom

A short while ago I was busy shooting a series of conceptual images for a radiology firm in Durban. Some readers might remember the 'Building the Shot' post where I photographed the company's drivers in front of their vehicles. Unlike the driver shoot I needed to try and do this in a single capture. The concept behind the image was to have a clean shot of a group of doctors looking relatively informal with monitors displaying scans and x-rays. The idea was to show the friendliness and approachability of the doctors (the irony of course is you hardly ever see the doctors) while also showing off the technology that is now used, rather than the old lightbox and x-ray setup.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Upcoming Workshops

There are a couple of workshops coming up over the next two months that readers might be interested in. Click through to find out more...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cow Pats and Fence Poles

Yesterday I found myself staring eyeball to eyeball with a surly cow. Usually this isn't too much of a problem, but when my knee is resting neatly in a cow pat and said surly cow keeps dropping her head and making aggressive shifting movements towards me I start to wonder why I'm sitting in a small fenced in field with a smelly, albeit grassy, turd oozing through my trouser knee.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thanda in the Springtime - September Thanda Workshop and a note on Live View Focusing

One of the myriad advantages of doing a regular workshop in a single location is that you get to experience the location of a series of seasons. I'm continually asked by potential photographers on the African Impact Photography Project about what time of year would be best to visit. The answer is never simple I am afraid as every season, or month of the year for that matter, has something different to offer. I do however enjoy Spring and early summer the most most though. It's the sudden change from desolate brown to verdant green that does something for me.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Photographing the Cathedral

The Milky Way over Didima Camp at Cathderal Peak, with the Reserve's namesake in the distance (that's Tryme Hill on the left).  
I have been wanting to take students to photograph Cathedral Peak from a particular vantage point for quite some time now. The vantage point in question is half way along the standard route to summit Cathedral in the Mdedelo Wilderness area of the Drakensberg (also known as Cathedral Peak National Park). This means for a rather early start in order to hike the 5 odd kilometres to get to a point where the Cathedral Peak range can be effectively viewed at right when the sunlight hits it first thing in the morning. This means starting to walk before 4 in the morning. Amazingly, apart from a few half-hearted grumbles, the photographers were all up for this. Game on!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Giving Images ‘Bite’ in Photoshop, Lightroom and Capture NX2

One of my favourite techniques in the images that I use is to add a sense of clarity and ‘bite’ during post-production. I, like many other photographers, use a variety of programmes to accomplish my processing workflow. One job might be done entirely in Lightroom (usually for convenience), while another will spend most of its gestation in Photoshop proper (when complexity in processing is called for) and lastly, a great deal of my imagery is also processed through Nikon’s Capture NX2 (for ultimate quality - although this is debatable). 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thanda Workshop - August 2012

One of the photographic advantages of winter in South Africa is the fact that there is so much dust in the air. Everything is bone dry (unless you live in Durban and even then it's not exactly like the summer time ;walking in a swimming pool' humidity). Most people think that dust has few advantages, but what it does do is add that much more thickness to the perceived atmosphere. What this does is ensure that you can shoot nice orange and red sun balls even when the sun is relatively high above the horizon. It's just that much more difficult to get these during summer. So naturally, it being dry last week while in Thanda, the photography students and myself ended up shooting a lot of sundisks.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Teacher's Learning - Drakensberg Workshop August 2012

A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way from Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge

One of the greatest perks to being a workshop instructor and photography teacher is that you get to learn so much. Occasionally I feel a touch guilty that I might just be getting more out of the workshop than my own students are getting. This isn’t to say that I’m not working hard to inform and guide the students, but that they give back as much as they are getting and, in my opinion, are often giving more than they realise as it’s information that I’m also hungry for. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

To Clone or Not to Clone...

It's a slippery slope that I often talk to students about. Do you remove unwanted objects from an image or not? To me it ultimately comes down to the actual usage of the image. This is easy to control in most situations, but not in stock photography. Once your images are uploaded to an agencies' collection there is little control over the actual usage of the imagery. In fact there is less than little, there is none!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Getaway Featured

Over the years I have been regularly submitting images to South Africa's Getaway Magazine for inclusion in their Getaway Gallery. Recently a few of these images have also been selected for the Getaway Ultimate Destinations feature - a double page spread showing off places of interest but also with a specific emphasis on the photography itself. In particular the image below was used in the July edition while another image was included in the August edition.

However, the other reason for this post is that Getaway subsequently asked to put me in the featured photographers section of the website. This can be seen by clicking the link or going directly to this address: http://photo.getaway.co.za/albums/featured-photographers/emil-von-maltitz/.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Green Square Anonymous - Thanda Photography Workshop

This last Thanda workshop marked my four year anniversary with the African Impact team. Four years ago I walked into the African Impact house at St Lucia, not really expecting this to be a long term venture, and certainly not expecting for the project to move from St Lucia two years later to Thanda. During this time I have been happy to see the overall company grow as well as the new project at Thanda blossom from infancy.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Some Sound (Real World) Buying Advice

Just recently I have had a number of beginner photographers pass through my studio and workshops that have all had the same dilemma. To wit: a limited cash supply that needs to be balanced against a seemingly inexhaustible array of supposedly necessary and essential photography equipment. The problem is that very few of us actually have the kind of financial means to kit ourselves out with the latest and greatest cameras, lenses and more. Reading forums on the internet I can understand why so many of my students get the impression that all photographers are extraordinarily wealthy as the internet chat rooms are filled with users complaining about their latest purchases or their plans to spend a further triple zero amount on a must-have accessory. The reality is that there are far, far more photographers out there who don’t moan on internet forums and who don’t have the kind of money that said whingers talk about. The next problem is that the budding photographer, having decided to ditch the advice of the forums will go to the salesperson, who I am sad to say, in the majority of cases is more concerned about making a sale than of actually helping you on your path to photographic nirvana (most cases, not all). 

This article is not meant to compare the older D700 to that of the new and far superior D800. Rather, it suggests that perhaps looking for older models is a sometimes wiser use of one’s finances to obtain equipment

So here I am going to attempt to create a real-world buying list so that you can photograph with a diverse range of techniques while still fending off the bank manager or mortgaging the house. 

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Slice and Dice - and a note on Lightroom 4

I had my first surgery the other day...one that I photographed that is. I received a call from a client to be at one of the government hospitals for a shoot. except the specifics were rather lacking. Even the client, an event organiser for the medical fraternity, wasn't entirely sure of what I'd be shooting. My previous shoot for the same client had been a fairly conventional event: the opening of a new forensic unit - so the usual event/conference shots, some creative portraits of the guest speaker and a few group shots that were a little different to the standard 'stand in a line and say cheese'. So conservative guess was therefore this was going to be much of the same.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Thanda Workshop and a Caveat on the 'Expose to the Right' Approach

It's a week overdue admittedly, but better late than never I suppose. The last week has been rather frenetic with a number of shoots for clients along with a day of teaching thrown into the mix. Ultimately it kept me off the ether for a few days, so things are a little behind schedule.

The week at Thanda as per the norm, kept me on my toes - this time with a large group of 10 students. I really enjoyed the vibe among the photographers though. I admit that the smaller the group the more individual attention each of the photographers gets, but there are advantages to having larger groups as well. For a start the group dynamic can be more varied as there start to be groups within groups. I often try to avoid this, but it happens. Christian Sperka, a German wildlife photographer, has also joined the Thanda staff and made working with a larger group easier as well as adding a teaching dynamic by having more than one professional opinion (this I appreciate as photography is not actually a hard science once you get past the actual formation of an image on the sensor or film - decisions around exposure and technique tend to be aesthetically determined, and that is a whole mess of opinions).

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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Panoramic Workshop - An EArly Morning Start

We recently finished up a workshop on panoramic landscapes near Durban's uShaka Marine World. Apart from the usual hassles from security that we needed a permit to take photos (I shouldn't get myself started on this, but uShaka and Moyo's little authoritarian control of the public pier is beyond ridiculous, as a passing lawyer pointed put to the poor security guard - who was only doing what his employers insisted he do). After patiently explaining that this was a workshop and not a professional shoot he moved on the litany of statutes that the lawyer spewed out at him might have had something to do with it as well :-) ). So back to the workshop. The images were fantastic! All the students managed to produce something that they were proud of, some of which are shown here. Most of all though everybody there just had fun. Some thoughts on creating panoramics:

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Building the Shot

I've been doing quite a few commercial projects lately where it has been necessary to 'build' the image. Building the image has two connotations to me. The one is to keep adding elements to a created setup until everything just hums and the image comes together. This is how the vast majority of professionals create an image. Some lucky, extraordinarily talented few manage to do it in the first shot, but most grind on at an idea until everything just comes together.

Building the shot can entail getting the props right, the pose perfect and of course the lights in the right place. Herein lies the point of today's post. Sometimes building the shot requires more than the usual buildup of elements so that that click of the camera can create something special. Sometimes we need to take multiple elements and put them together in a single shot.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wildlife Composition - Thanda Photography Workshop

A 6 shot stitch to create a panoramic view of the large herd of buffalo on Thanda coming to drink.

A colleague of mine, Sean Tilden, wrote an article for Photo Writing some time ago that commented that far too many photographers shooting wildlife try to get in close for the portrait, or simply to squeeze the entirety of the animal into the frame. Sean pointed out that really effective images can be created using wide-er angle lenses that show the animals in their environmental context. This isn't easy to do admittedly, but it makes for some new opportunities and also means that great images don't necessarily need an exotic chunk of glass plugged onto the front of the camera. It's something I should take to heart more often as well. Everyone shoots the individual animal, but what about the herd? What about the animal in it's environment? A brief glance through some of the best wildlife articles in the National Geographic and you will see that a great many of the memorable images created show not a close-up, but the animal and it's surroundings. Jim Brandenburg's incredible image entitled 'White Wolf Leaping' comes to mind immediately for me (to see this image navigate to his site and look for the image on the front page among a selection of his favourites that are available for purchase as prints).

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pros and Cons of the Strobist approach

When you start doing more than hobby photography, it fast becomes a reality that you will occasionally, if not often, require the use of artificial lighting. Let’s assume that you are doing the occasional portrait, maybe wedding or event or the odd bit of location photography. Very fast the realisation dawns that you are going to need the odd bit of studio equipment; some lights, a bunch of stands and a bag full of light modifiers. You essentially have two options ahead: full studio outfit with monoblock lights, or the strobist approach. 

Strobism is a movement that really started gaining ground around a decade ago with the advent of small, powerful, hotshoe flashes coupled with the emergence of an army digital camera wielding enthusiasts suddenly eyeing the opportunity of becoming professional digital camera wielding photographers. Strobism relies on the use of small flashes in lieu of large studio lights (also known as mono-block lights or monos). The supposed primary advantage of strobism is that of cost. Theoretically it is cheaper to set up a strobist outfit than a regular monolight outfit. So here I’m going to evaluate that as well as other supposed pro’s and cons of the strobist approach

Monday, June 4, 2012

Photographing Water Droplets - Workshop

We've just finished up a the high speed water droplet workshop this afternoon. This is one of my really popular workshops as the results are always beautiful. Below are two of the images  created by students during the workshop.

I'm not going to go into depth about the creating these images as there are a number of articles on the internet that are easy to access and basically cover just about everything there is to know about water droplet photography. Corrie White, whose flickr galleries make for some inspirational viewing, practically made a profession out of photographing water droplets. Articles like those DIY Photography and Kevin Lewis have created are a fantastic way to get to know the basics and run from there. Then there's the incredible imagery by Jaroslav Wieczorkiewicz that defies reason with clothing made of milk and water. These images use the same principles as those in the far simpler water droplet photographer. He just takes the technique to a whole new level. 

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Sentinel Squad - and a note on shooting more

The temperature in the Berg is rapidly descending as the weeks move on toward winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Climbing to to the top of the Amphitheatre (or Sentinel as was the case this time) was a chilly experience. Still, frozen fingers aside, the weekend workshop was a both exciting and fun for the whole group. Highlights for a number of the photographers was hte slight change in itinerary that had us marching up the Tugela Gorge on Friday (rather than Saturday) and then travelling on foot between Royal Natal and Witsieshoek Lodge via ‘Gudu Falls’ and the ‘The Crack’. The Crack is an amazing fissure on the sandstone rockface below Witsieshoek that allows walkers to summit the lower Berg via chainladders and a narrow gorge. The views at the top are breathtaking as you take in the length of the Northern Drakensberg between the Amphitheatre and Cathkin Peak in the south. A very pleasant walk along the grassy lower berg escarpment then leads to Witieshoek and their wonderful pub, ‘The Usual Place’.

A real highlight for those who summited though was the attack on Sentinel itself. Few walkers make it to the top of this imposing basalt peak as it requires a little more effort than the average trail asks for. Narrow rock bands are negotiated by climbing (relatively low grade, but it feels exhilarating and slightly terrifying due to the drop below), sometimes with the aid of a rope to steady yourself and for security. Fewer photographers have made this climb as most people drop all their equipment at the base of the mountain and spring up as unladen as possible. I would love to say that the view were amazing and the photographs mind-blowing. But we summited in a very cold cloud. The few glimpses we did get were incredible though, making the experience more than worth the hard work we put it, or as Chelsea, one of the photographers said while absailing the last rock band on return, “this is the coolest thing ever”!

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Camera JPEG Settings

I am a firm advocate of camera RAW as any regular reader of this column knows. However, there are a couple of in-camera settings intended for jpeg users that can assist you in getting the best possible information onto the sensor. Picture Style and Optimize Picture (Canon and Nikon respectively) are jpeg settings that allow the photographer to adjust the shooting style of the camera (it is even possible to create custom parameters in Nikon Capture or Canon DP Pro). These settings essentially adjust hue, saturation, contrast and sharpening of the final jpeg image. This is very different to the RAW image that supposedly does not have any adjustments added to the file (or if they are added are removable). The basic gist is that with jpeg what you see is what you get while with RAW we still have to use a post-production workflow to optimize the image. 

The annoying thing about our LCD screens is that they show us the rendered jpeg, not the actual RAW file (the mind-numbingly expensive Leica S2 does show us the RAW file). This means that the image on the back of the LCD screen is often very different to the one which we see in Lightroom, Aperture or our editor of choice. If we use proprietary software the image is likely to look more akin to that on the LCD screen, but it might not be what we actually wanted (Capture NX2 and DP Pro use the embedded jpeg as the default settings for the opened RAW image). We then have to go back and neutralize certain parameters to get back to a base point from which we can effectively convert the image. Another downside to the LCD screen is that it actually has a smaller colour space than sRGB (and you thought that you were shooting in Adobe RGB). Basically, the LCD screen is not the place to look for image capture confirmation.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Photo Writings ebook now available

The Photo Writings ebook is now available. Photo Writings is a collection of the editorial writings from two years of the Photo Writing monthly (2010 to February 2012) that is sent on a to subscribers. Unlike the monthly writings though, the ebook is also filled with descriptive text and teaching points around the photographs themselves, as well as more images than have been published in the monthly Photo Writing. At the moment, Photo Writings is only in interactive pdf format (it is designed to be read comfortably on a tablet with interactive buttons and hyperlinks), but if there is demand I will bring it out in the epub format. The link for payment (via paypal) and download will be live at the beginning of next month. Readers can also contact me directly to have a copy emailed directly to them. The price for EFT payment is R38, the payal payment will be $5.95.

Clicking on the link will direct to the sales page on the Limephoto website. At checkout a confirmation email will be sent to your email address with a download link that will last for 48 hours.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Thanda Photography Workshop - a note on sharpness

Sharpness is critical to creating good wildlife photographs. If there's blur or softness in the frame it needs to be there for a reason. This, sadly, is one of the hardest things to get right when you are learning about wildlife photography. Not just for the actual issue of focusing, but also for the ability to get the camera stable during the exposure. Far too many people think that they can get 'acceptable' results while hand-holding a bazooka of a lens at shutter speeds below 1/125th of a second. not that I am condoning 1/125th of a sec as an adequate shutter speed for avoiding camera shake mind you.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Nikon D3200

 Last week Nikon announced their new entry-level camera, the Nikon D3200. The camera comes in either red or black (it seems that gone are the days that black and chrome were the only options if there was an option at all…but why on earth red?) and sports a 24mp APS-C sensor. It’s the sensor that’s the talking point as little else has changed from the D3100. 24mp! That’s a lot. To add to that; that’s a lot of resolution for an entry level camera. So is this a wise decision of Nikons?

It’s interesting to remember that at one stage Nikon fans were defending their turf with comments that you “don’t need lots of megapixels” and that “it’s the quality, not the quantity”, while Canon seemed to be ramping up the megapixels on a six monthly basis. Do those same Nikon fans now say that Canon, with their lower megapixel count is a better and wiser camera manufacturer? I thought not. No, the Nikon fans are now crowing that Nikon wears the resolution crown. Silly really.

I’ll get to the sensor in a moment. First, my thoughts on the camera as a whole. The D3100 has been an incredibly popular entry level camera for the past year. It has about the right size in the hand that it doesn’t intimidate the new user. This is more important than it seems as a vast number of its users are women. Then there’s the attractive price-point. It is one of the cheapest DSLRs available. When you look at store discounts and forget that the EOS 450D is still available in some mass-mart like stores, it is often the cheapest DSLR available, and is therefore always on the list of potentials when a user is thinking about moving from a point and shoot to a DSLR. The advertising is also aimed at the ease of use, again tempting point and shoot users with its promise of simplicity and ease.

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The Mercurial Drakensberg (and a note on Photo Writings)

I get to mention the weather again. It seems like I’ve been fortunate over the last two Drakensberg workshops to not have had to mention the vagaries of the mountain weather, but yes, this time it had a part to play in the proceedings. To be fair though it was more that we were incredibly lucky. As I right this, sitting at Witsieshoek Lodge, we are sitting in a cold and damp cloud with sudden pattering of icy rain hitting the windows. We just missed the weather. Here I get to breath a contented sigh if relief. Of course that’s not to say that we didn’t feel the first effects of winter hitting the Drakensberg. Yesterday on the climb to the summit of Amphitheatre the photographers had to contend with droplets of rain hitting their lenses, gusting wind buffeting their tripods and temperatures that made working the camera feel like handling an ice-block. But, and this is a big one. The colder temperatures and mercurial clouds meant for some great landscape images!

I’ll say it again as I’ve said countless times before…bad weather makes for good photographs. Dramatic clouds and lighting tend to happen at times when most people think it is more sensible to stay in bed with a hot mug of cocoa. It’s for this reason that we set out in the dark and stumble our way up to to viewpoint at the top of the Witches. It’s why we brave the rain and don’t curse too much (there are still some mutterings) when we wipe the lenses clean for the umpteenth time. You don’t get a full rainbow striking the side Sentinel Peak – as we did – unless you are there when the weather is if not bad, at least inclement. So it was a good weekend at the end of it. Despite numb toes, slightly wind-burned faces and chilled fingers.

On a different note to the Drakensberg, I am finishing up the last touches to the ebook, ‘Photo Writings’. This is a collection of the editorial writings from the last two years of the Photo Writing monthly that is sent to subscribers. Unlike the monthly writings though, the ebook is also filled with descriptive text around the photographs themselves, as well as more images than have been published in the monthly Photo Writing. At the moment Photo Writings is only in interactive pdf format (it is designed to be read comfortably on a tablet with interactive buttons and hyperlinks), but if there is demand I will bring it out in the epub format. The link for payment (via paypal) and download will be live at the beginning of next month. Readers can also contact me directly to have a copy emailed directly to them. The price for EFT payment is R38, the payal payment will be $5.95.    

Monday, April 2, 2012

Weather seems to always be a little gremlim of mine. The Draksneberg workshops are often made all that more interesting by the vagaries of mountain weather. Ah, but so too can the weather wreak havic on the seemingly benign outdoor photography with flash workshop that was held this last weekend in Durban. In the end it wasn't really outdoor, but rather a mixture of under a veranda and indoor to escape the buckets of water that descended from the heavens in a seemingly unending stream. So it is with photography shoots, which in itself was a valuable lesson for the photographers attending the shoot.
Originally we had intended on shooting in Durban's beautiful botanical gardens, but obviously the weather put paid to that. Enter the magbificent generosity and hospitality of two of our models, Pippa and Bevan who opend up their wonderful historical iron and tin home in Durban. A group of damp photographers descended on their veranda armed with wet light stands and a plethora of light-modifiers. 

To say that the photographers performed well would be an understatement. We set up various lighting setups and looks for our four models Natascha, Linda, Pippa and Bevan, which all the photographers had a chance to experiment with. What I loved though was the way in which each photographer was able to make a particular lighting setup their own. 

Time flies when you are having fun supposedly. It flies even faster when you are working with fantastic models and far too many lighting scenarios (note to self...may be I should be less enthusiastic on the number of setups for the next workshop....nah).

Herewith are some of the images by the workshop attendees as well as some of the setups as they were being shot. Equipment used was fairly simple with no more than three hot shoe strobes being used in any of the setups. The object was to learn how to create big light with small strobes (apologies to McNally), which the photographers handled with aplomb.

With that now behind us, the next flash workshop will be 'one flash wonder' workshop - dates to be provided soon.

Friday, March 30, 2012

How Do I Get My Photo’s To Look Like That

This piece could equally be labeled, “how do I get my images to look that sharp?”  I remember poring over images in photography magazines as a teenager and thinking that there must be something wrong with the equipment that I was using that the images I was producing weren’t as sharp or as crisp as those that I was seeing on those pages. This is a typical stage for most photographers to progress through. Our lens bag gets heavier and heavier as we buy more and more expensive optics to put on our cameras. At least in those days we couldn’t blame the sensor as the image quality was dependent on the lens and the film. Now we start to caste a suspicious eye towards our cameras, believing that the sensor must not be that great. The result is yet more money spent in the relentless quest to get our images looking like those in the magazines.

David du Chemin in his ebook, “  “ mentions how he wishes he could have gone back to a darkroom 20 years ago and advised the young David of the course he should take. I like the analogy. A younger me made a lot of mistakes based on false assumptions when it came to producing images that looked anything like those I was studiously scanning in the pages of Practical Photography (my friends jokingly referred to as ‘practical pornography’ in the less PC days of my youth as the cover was usually graced by the presence of a semi-clad feminine beauty), Outdoor Photography, PDN and Amateur Photographer. Like many others I nitpicked over the quality of my lenses, constantly feeling that they were inadequate for the purposes that I was putting them to. It’s taken me a decade and half to learn that I was starting from the wrong assumptions.

It’s not the gear! Yes there are lenses that are poor samples, but the vast majority of lenses are absolutely fine if used properly. If there is one thing you can do to make your images look more like those published in magazines, it’s to get the camera steady. This is the number one piece of advice I’ve learnt since I held my first SLR camera in my hands in the early 90’s. This doesn’t mean that you have to place the camera on a tripod for every shot, although using a tripod is good advice. It also doesn’t mean that your shutter speed has to be so blindingly that it’ll even freeze a photographer with caffeine jitters. It means doing your best to make sure that there is as little movement in the camera…unless you choose it to be so.
Here’s the other lesson that took me a while to grasp. There is no such thing as a technically perfect image. Every adjustment we make to a camera is going to change the way that the image ultimately looks. There is a difference between f4 and f2.8 and there is a difference between 1/60th of a second and 1/125th of a second. So what is a technically perfect image then? That taken at f4 or f2.8? It all comes down to the final image and the feel or aesthetic that it portrays.

So this takes me back to the previous paragraph; get the camera steady unless there is a reason not to have it steady. My event photography suddenly took off the moment I realized that blur and movement create a dynamic in the image that is lacking from those that show everything as pin sharp and static. Consider the opening image of this piece. The image is far from technically perfect, yet it is one of my favourite images of last year. There is blur and movement, but there is also sharpness where there needs to be sharpness.
To come back to getting your photos like those published in magazines. Clarity and sharpness are one of the most visible or noticeable aspects between our images as novices and those created by professionals and enthusiasts. Camera stability is central to this sharpness. Images that have bite tend to be those that are incredibly, mind-blowingly sharp. But incredible images aren’t always as technically perfect as this. Consider some of the top wildlife images of the last 15 or so years by the likes of Frans Lanting, Nick Nickols, Beverly Joubert, Flip Nicklen or …. Many of them are not ‘pin-sharp’, but the moment and the aesthetic overrides that concern. One of my favourite images by Frans Lanting is also the cover of his book, “Jungles”. It shows a red macaw flying at an angle beneath him in a diagonal direction across the frame. The shutter is dragged so that Lanting could pan with the bird in flight and flash burst has frozen the bird at the end of the exposure. There isn’t a single thing that is pin sharp in that image. If you look critically at it you will also notice that the bird’s eye is ever-so-slightly out of focus. Competitions and photography clubs would rack the image up as a nice try, but ultimately a missed shot. In reality the shot is astoundingly good. It’s beautiful. It does more than document the macaw flying over its natural habitat (the red against green being complementary colours allows the bird to positively burst from the page). It shows the essence of a macaw in the jungle, that flash of red and blur of wings in the dark green jungle canopy that is characteristic of the bright red bird.

In a sense this is a ‘how-to’ with a caveat. It also follows on from last month’s editorial (Finding Flow). Sharpness, or lack thereof, in an image is the number one let down to its effectiveness. Improving one’s images starts at this basic lesson. Get the camera steady. Understanding what the aperture is doing follows closely thereafter as the aperture is intimately linked with the perceived sharpness of an image. In many ways this follows on from the elements approach to photography that I have written about before. Sharpness is another one of the elements in the frame that we need to consider when creating our images. Do we want it critically sharp (usually the answer should be yes), or do we want to convey something else about the subject that blurred movement or even softness would convey more effectively. We need to make critical decisions as to what our images need to come out looking like, what they portray, to be able to get our photos looking more like those we pore over in photography magazines. Sharpness is a good start, and the most visible one at that. Thereafter we need to create images with intent.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Blindness of Familiarity – March Drakensberg Workshop.

After another fantastic weekend in the Drakensberg with a dynamic and energetic group of photographers I’m left feeling amazed that what I do is still called work. Waking up this morning I wandered down to the Witsieshoek lodge to write this piece and wait for the others, and I saw the sun rising between two layers of cloud in the distance. Because of the cloud and the atmosphere the red orb seemed twice as large as one ordinarily sees. The Amphitheatre, standing almost aloof was facing the rising sun, seemed almost ethereal…maybe Tolkinesque, in its blue morning haze. This is work? Being a photographer has its downsides. There’s the almost incessant travel away from a young family (I am continuously amazed at how my eldest daughter seems to take my disappearances in her stride, almost as a way of life) and of course the drudgery of key-wording. But when you are faced with the splendor of the mountain and the chance to meet so many amazing people… Like I say, is this really work?

Martijn van Schaik, a member of African Impact was a guest with us last year March. His request this year as a staff member on the trip was that everything be as close to last year’s trip as possible – for his anniversary of the Berg. It was. I’ve added last year’s photo of the group looking out from the viewponi above the Witches to this year’s photo. It seems almost as if the images could have been taken a few minutes apart rather than the 12 months that do separate them. To say that the weather was similar would be an understatement. It was hauntingly the same, even adding the cloud wrapping round us as we made our way off the ladder and onto the escarpment.

As a landscape photographer it is often easy to fall into the trap of over-previsualising the imagery we strive to create. I definitely fall foul of this, and I find that it becomes harder when I return to a place often. Pre-visualisation, as I often mention, is the attempt to see the final image in the mind’s eye before we press the shutter. It is the technical previsualisation of the scene that guides us as to how to expose for the image. What should the aperture be, how will I handle the shutter speed etc. Each of these technical decisions has an impact on the look of the final image. It’s the aesthetic previsualisation where we can start to become lazy. Because I know the route so well that we take the photographers on I often fall into the trap of looking for predetermined images. This is a problem as it means that I am inadvertently closing myself off to new images, for the spur of the moment. I would love to point to an image from this trip that is a good example of having just broken the norm, but I can’t. The realization was while looking at the photographers work last night before dinner. As is usual we each present a few of the images from the weekend. The quality of the work was very high, such that a number of the images were the sort that one feels the inner photo gremlin grumbling, ‘wish I taken that’. Then there were two of Martijn’s images that made me sit up and go, “wow, why didn’t I see that” (he does admit that the cloud shot was pre-meditated, but the point is that fresh eyes look differently at the scene). I didn’t even notice the horses on the ridge line as we walked from the top of the Tugela Falls back to the ladder. I didn’t notice because I was pre-occupied with other images that I had already captured, or that I was still thinking about.

As fresh travelers photographers are definitely more open to image suggestions. They see things with a new eye. They see things like a child would occasionally, with wonder. When we grow up we become jaded and cynical and stop looking at the world with the questioning gaze of the youth. In the same way that we stop looking at the world on our way to work, we stop looking for new things when we return to a scene regularly. This is ironic as looking at things in new ways is something that I, and many other photographers strive to do. So I leant a valuable lesson. Although I am relatively happy with some of the images that I created, there isn’t anything particularly new about them. I’ll be putting more energy in future into doing as preach…looking at the world like a ten year-old, or a traveler in a new land. Hopefully I start seeing again. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Updated Workshops

In lieu of a full blog post (I am currently on leave meeting my new niece Saskia), here's a quick update on upcoming workshops. You can see the current workshop list by clicking though to the website on the tab at the top of this blog or by hitting this link. I have also been updating the Nikon/Canon camera page on the website. The page isn't complete as of writing this blogpost, but it at least lists the more recent announcements. I'll be posting in more depth when I get back from this weekend's Drakensberg workshop with African Impact.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

March Thanda Workshop and a tip on group photos

So the Cyclone Irene blew in and blew out and caused a few hiccups along it's progress down the east coast of  South Africa. In the end it was a bit of a non-event for many people who were expecting storms along the lines of those felt during Demoina in 1984. In the province 5 people lost their lives...almost all of them while trying to cross swollen rivers. But, for most people it was one big rain storm that lashed the coast with buckets of water. So it meant that the usually dry Thanda Game Reserve was somewhat wetter when I arrived on Monday morning.

The African sun did it's work though, and by Tuesday morning game drives were out in full force once more, seeking out some slightly damp mammalian subjects. Due to the all the rain, slightings were down considering that there was water everywhere (which is great for the reserve, but ironically they still need more, despite almost 170ml falling in less than a day). The latest addition to the reserve, a large male lion brought from Shamwari Game Reserve no doubt has had a rough month what with the weather and the sudden change in scenery.

One of the things that I regularly do is capture a group photograph of the workshop photographers (usually without me in it, but sometimes with). The hardest thing about this is trying to come up with a new idea each time. Here's the process for this one: We were out on King's Land for a sunset shoot, for which sun decided not to keep it's appointment. Still, the light was interesting and the clouds looked pretty cool (as can be seen from the panoramic shot of our new guide Simo standing on the edge of one of the water tanks at Twin Drum on King's Land). Once everybody was finished with their shots I quickly got them all onto the lip of one of the water tanks via the game viewer, which I promptly removed from the shot while they all yelled at me how narrow the edge of the dam was. I had set up two strobes, an SB600 and SB800 each cable-tied to a tripod and facing in at about 45 degrees. I wasn't really going for intricate lighting. all I wanted was relatively full lighting to overpower the ambient - which I got. So ambient was underexposed by about 1.5 stops, maybe 2, while the flashes were set to 1/2 manual and triggered via CLS (and the pop-up flash of my D700). I kept the aperture pretty wide at f5.6 and set ISO to 400 (didn't want to tax the small flashes as they were set away a little from the group themselves as I wanted the light to have a longer fall-off.

Group shots need to be more interesting than the usual, 'stand and say cheese' shot that seems obligatory. Another group shot had us doing the usual painting with light which I love. Problem was that the moon was so bright that it practically made the sky turn into daylight with any particularly long exposures. I duffed this shot as I usually take my time to paint, but this time rushed it as I didn't want the moon to blow out too much (I also dropped the aperture to f11 at 100ISO in an attempt to keep the ambient dark while still allowing enough open aperture to effectively paint - not my finest work but it still looks pretty cool). Using the surroundings like this is one way to make a group shot stand out. Getting the lighting a little more interesting than looking straight into the sun (as the old film canister boxes used to recommend, paraphrased, "set the camera to f16 at 1/125 second with the sun behind you"). It doesn't have to be complex, just different.  Using the frame of a door is a great way to use the surroundings (see this post or this post). Getting in low is another useful to change the viewpoint  from the ordinary (see this post). You can also get them to do something silly (such as in this post) or jump up in the air (such as here). Whatever you do keep a sense of fun in the shot and it's bound to succeed. Anything to steer away from the usual standing in a line shot that anybody with a cellphone camera can achieve.