Tip of the Day: Fluffy clouds

In this image I did something different from the norm. Since it was a nice, warm evening, and the light was constantly changing as the clouds moved and the sun sunk lower to the horizon, I’d shot a few dozen images while I was there waiting for the day to end. When I got back to the HQ I decided to take a ten of them to combine so I could do something I call cloud stacking.

Here’s how it works (here I’m assuming you know how blending modes and masking works … if you don’t, I’ll cover these in future posts).

  • First, I picked my images in Lightroom and sent them to Photoshop to load as separate layers (right-click on the in the timeline, select Edit In and choose Open as Layers in Photoshop).
  • I selected all the layers and set the blending mode from normal to screen. And as far as the clouds go, that’s it. That generates the fluffy ethereal clouds I wanted, but it also makes a bit of a mess of the foreground, softening it too much for my liking.
  • Next I picked one of the images to be my master image. I picked the lightest image I had since I wanted as much foreground detail as possible. I duplicated this image a set it as the foreground, then I used a mask to hide the sky on that image and reveal the sky from the screen blended images.

I did do a bit more finessing on the image, working the colors and sharpness a bit, but not that much. Mother Nature did most of the hard work for me!

Care and feeding of your camera’s memory cards

When thinking about photography kit, memory cards don’t come high on the list of ‘cool stuff,’ but without them you’ll have nothing to show for your photographic expeditions.

2014-04-17_15-33-00While there are no moving parts to take care of, there are a few things you can do to keep your memory cards healthy.

  • Buy quality cards from a reputable maker. You know what they say – buy cheap, buy twice. And while you can pick up a replacement card, you might not be able to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot again. I buy and use Lexar card, not only because they’ve been thoroughly tested before I get them, but they also come with a great warranty.
  • If you are going to buy cheap cards, buy several small ones rather than a single big one, that way if something does go wrong, you’re limiting the amount of images you’ll lose.
  • Keep cards away from dirt, dust, and moisture, not only for the sake of your cards, but because these cards go inside your precious camera, and any muck on them can play havoc with delicate electronics. It’s a good idea to keep spare cards in a case or card wallet.
  • Format the card instead of deleting the pictures off it. And do this in the camera you are going to use the card in, not on the PC.
  • Transfer the images from your memory card using a card reader connected to your PC as opposed to connecting your camera direct to the PC. Memory card readers are far more reliable and much better suited to the job, and are far les likely to result in data corruption.
  • Never completely fill a card as squeezing that last few images on it might cause corruption.
  • Equally, don’t let your camera’s battery go flat while shooting, as this too can cause corruption.
  • If you do come across a corrupted card, you might be able to recover images off it with a tool like Lexar’s Image Rescue (which comes free with any card from Lexar’s Professional range).

Tip of the Day: Take lots of shots

You’ve dialed in the exposure and got the focus pin-sharp, now all that’s left to do is take a shot.


And you’re done.

Oh no you’re not!

Memory cards are cheap enough that you don’t have to be sparing with the shots you take. It’s not like you’re dealing with a roll of film that has 24 or 36 exposures. Take your time and take a series of shots. Why? Because unless you’re dealing with static things under studio lighting conditions, things can vary from shot to shot. The light can change, the clouds can move, people can move/blink/yawn/pick their nose/pull goofy faces/photobomb you, waves or water can change, or any myriad other things change. Also, if you’re relying on autofocus, sometimes that will sometimes fail you. By taking a series of shots – sometimes I take a dozen, sometimes a lot more – you’re guaranteed to have a good selection of images to choose the best from

Also, it’s also easy to delete any files you don’t want after your shoot so you won’t be cluttering up your hard drive.

Please don’t think for one minute that I’m suggesting a “spray and pray” approach to photography because I’m not. Sure, there are times when you have to crank the camera up to its max shooting speed and let rip, but what I’m advocating here is a “ready, aim … Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!” approach.

Click now, and let Lightroom (or Photo Mechanic) sort them out!

Behind the Camera: ‘Surf’s Up’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

Sometimes it can be getting dark, but there’s still too much light.

That was the situation I found myself in last night when I rolled up at a local beach just as the sun was kissing the horizon. I knew that by the time I’d be setup I’d have missed the sunset so I decided to make the most of the red sky that my “Spidey weather senses” was predicting we’d get.

And I was right. By the time I’d scouted out a spot with some interesting foreground, midground and background elements in it, the sun had dipped below the horizon and the sky had started to pink up nicely.

I set up only inches above the ground, and right on top of where the water was lapping. I just love the face that my 3 Legged Thing Erica tripod (I can’t call the thing Eric, sorry, so I’ve added an “a”) can get so low to the ground – scarily low when you’d above lapping sea water!

Despite the fact that the sun had set on us for the day, it was still too bright to get a long exposure without using filters. Even slamming the aperture down to F16 – which I did to get a good depth of field – didn’t slow things much beyond a second, so I reached for my trusty Formatt-Hitech 6-stop Pro IRND filter (which is like my Lee Little Stopper except the Formatt-Hitech filter has two advantages over the Lee product – it is resin rather than glass so a lot less likely to explode into a billion expensive pieces, and it also filters out IR as well as visible light so I don’t get the crazy blue color cast).

The filter allowed me to keep the shutter open for 30 seconds, plenty of time to catch the water lapping over the rocks and seaweed, and it also reduced my post-processing time later by not messing with the colors as much.

As usual I got my feet wet taking this shot (I promise I’ve ordered some Muck Boots which claim to be able to accommodate my big calves … so once I have them I’ll no longer be complaining about my feet) but getting up close and personal to the water is part of the fun of these shots. Sure, I could set up the tripod at eye height and position myself ten feet away from the water, but that shot wouldn’t be anywhere near as dramatic as one where the lens is less than a foot from the water.

Being this close to the water meant I couldn’t use my cable release safely in case it went for a swim, so to reduce camera shake I activated the 2-second delay on the camera, which worked fine. I also made sure that the tripod had a firm footing so as not to move during the shot.

How did I process this shot? Well, that’s a bit more involved so I’ll leave that for a later post – I’m just off out to take some more photos now!

Base Lightroom 5 settings for landscapes

When I start out processing a ‘keeper’ photograph into Lightroom 5, I generally start out by trying  the following settings:

  • Exposure: -1.20
  • Contrast: +10
  • Highlights: -100
  • Shadows: +100
  • Clarity: +10
  • Vibrance: +45
  • Saturation: -10
  • Enable Profile Correction: On
  • Remove Chromatic Aberration: On

After doing this the photo might seem washed out so then I adjust the black point (Tip: Any time an image looks washed out, go for the black point slider!). The best way to do this is to press Alt on Windows, Option on Mac and then the image will be replaced with a white screen (this shows the clipping – if it is all white, no blacks are being clipped). Slide the black point until the white screen starts to show a tiny amount of black, this means that a small amount of blacks are clipping in the image, which is good because every image needs a little solid black.

Next adjust the white point. Again, press Alt on Windows/Option on Mac and then this time the image will be replaced with a black screen (this again shows the clipping – if it is all black, no whites are being clipped). Slide the white point until the black screen starts to show a tiny amount of white, then back it off until it is once again pure black (this is because you don’t normally want whites clipped in an image).

After this, I usually go back and tweak the adjustments I’ve done a little more to get the exposure right before continuing to process the image.

It might seem odd to start processing images by applying the same settings to them, but I find that for upward of 90 percent of images these settings give me a good starting point to continue with the processing.

Remember, these are just a starting point, and quite possibly not the final settings. The idea here is to dial in some default settings for the raw file to maximize the color and detail available.

Post Process: ‘Violent Color’

‘Violent Color’ by Kat Kingsley-Hughes (Flickr)

Whenever I think about photographing Parys Mountain, my mind is always infused with the expectation of color.

Parys Mountain Rocks
Parys Mountain Color

The metal minerals leaching out of the rocks in this ancient coppermine create a mind-bending range of fabulous hues. So I prepare myself for a riot of color!

Parys Mountain Shapes
Parys Mountain Shapes

But every time I arrive at Parys Mountain and begin walking through this landscape, I am invariably shocked, not only by the color of the place, but by my own reaction to the space as a whole. The island of Anglesey is such a small place! And Parys Mountain is one small part of that small island and the very existence of this impossibly vast space casts my perception into a vortex of logic-defying shapes and distances, rendered in a skin of eye-popping color and surreal peculiarity.

Parys Mountain Vast
Parys Mountain Vast-NonVast

At once I am transported through time to being a small child, standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, marvelling at such a vast, incredible space. Of course I had read the guide books and seen photographs so knew what to expect at the end of my family’s trans-American journey. But, experiencing the place was another matter! Decades later, the experience is still etched into my mind. That day as I watched the landscape change with the fading light and the awed daytime hush of a solar eclipse, I lost a button from my favourite sweater over the side of the canyon, and for the first time in my life I realised that this object was unlikely to be recovered by anyone ever again. As I stood there, alarmed by the sudden darkness, I felt dizzy and sick. I became suddenly existentially aware of the great chasm at my feet, the vast distances before me, the incomprehensible expanse of geological time that had created this marvel of sediment and erosion, and the unlikelihood that my little red button would ever be seen by human eye again.

That feeling was burned into my memory, and it is this emotion that washes over me like a dizzying tidal wave, every time I venture into the Parys Mountain site. Like a microcosm of my childhood journey, Parys Mountain never ceases to blow my mind.

Parys Mountain Discarded
Parys Mountain Discarded Rock Piles

Like the distorted mirrors at a funfair, its bright incongruous colors dance unfathomably before me. I am tricked by the strange shapes and mounds of discarded rocks that seem to mimic yet are almost an exact opposite of the Grand Canyon, where nature has carved out shapes from vast slabs of rock; Parys Mountain was carved by man. Yet the greatest distortion is in its strange combination of color and space that somehow appear vast, creating a continual visual confusion of distance and logic, making the eye dance and the focus contort.

This feeling was what I wanted to capture!!

In order to recreate this off-kilter sense in my photograph ‘Violent Color’, I set out to reverse the logic of distance and definition, and instead force the eye to search for a focal point. I had seen many tilt-shift landscape photos that appeared to make large expanses appear small, creating a  sense of toytown spaces with the forced perspective of a model village.

In order to try to recreate what happens when I stand at the edge of this vast-nonvast space, I wanted to reverse this effect and make the relatively small instead appear vast.

Without a tilt-shift lens at my disposal however, I needed to create this effect in post.

Parys Mountain Lightroom

Parys Mountain Lightroom

To begin with I set out to take a photo that was pretty much front to back sharp focus. I chose to take the photo at F13, primarily because it was a windy day and, as I was using my camera hand-held, a photo at F22 would need too long an exposure to avoid camera shake.

With the shot in the can, I then created the tilt shift effect in Adobe Lightroom by superimposing two graduated filters, pulled in from opposite sides at the top and bottom of the picture to alter brightness, contrast and, most importantly, sharpness in order to create a sense of opposing levels of blur, and leave a plane of sharpness which draws in and confuses the eye.

‘Violent Color’ shot was my first attempt at this. I will go back to Parys Mountain and have another go, hopefully next time with a tilt shift lens.

In the meantime, I am pleased with my photo as it says what I wanted it to say: that it is as strange   and confusing for me to stand on the edge at Parys Mountain, as it was for a child standing on tiptoes on the edge of that vast geological wonder, her eyes searching the chasm for one last sight of a lost button and feeling all the pressures of time and space suddenly upon her.


Behind the Camera: ‘On the Rocks’ – Porth Dafarch, Anglesey

Last night I had an inkling that we might be treated to a nice sunset (my Grandfather was quite a ‘Weather Whisperer” and I’m lucky to have been blessed with a small fraction of the talent he had), so Kat and I packed our gear into the car and headed off to a local beach that I thought might offer a good vantage point.

When I arrived at Porth Dafarch beach, which is on the western coast of Holyhead, Anglesey, the sun still had a ways to go before kissing the horizon which gave me time to set up my camera and get the filters I needed out of the bag. While I usually carry everything I need with me in my backpack – a LowePro Flipside 400 – when I’m going down onto a beach where I suspect I’m going to end up standing in water (which seems to invariably happen), I’d rather leave the bulk of my stuff where it won’t get wet!

As I walked down to the shoreline I couldn’t help but notice that I could see patches of sky and clouds reflected in the water on the surface of the sand. Great, I thought, that’s something that I’ll definitely want to try to catch in in my images. Also, despite the sky being bright, and the air warm from being kissed all day by the sun, the waves were pounding the cliffs and sending water far up the shore. I wanted to capture a sense of this drama too, but wanted it to look smooth and soft as opposed to aggressive and harsh, and the best way of doing that with water is to slow down the shutter speed to draw out the image by a few seconds.

The best way to do this was to use a Formatt-Hitech 6-stop Pro IRND filter. I could then juggle the aperture and ISO to get the exposure right. Also, the filter would help protect my lens from the salt spray being driven off the sea and into both my face and the camera’s lens.

I’d just needed to remember to give the filter a wipe every so often with a microfiber cloth, or everything would take on a soft focus look.

With the sun slowly dipping below the horizon I watched as the clouds started to liven up, transformed from lifeless grey blobs into vivid patches of reds and pinks. We were getting close to show time, and when the curtain went up, I knew that I’d have about 20 minutes to make the most of it. A rogue wave had already engulfed my shoes (why, oh why do I not have wellingtons in the car?) so with that over I could concentrate of taking the shots. I’m not a big fan of water sloshing inside my shoes, but as Mother Nature cranked up the vibrance slider on the sky, the goosebumps popping upon my arms made me forget all about the water in my shoes.

And anyway, I’d have plenty of time to relish that feeling on the drive back home.

I remember reading somewhere that the trick to transforming a photograph into art is to step away from reality as much as possible (I think I picked that up from the black and white fine art photographer Joel Tjintjelaar), whether that be though vivid colors, the lack of color (black and white), or playing with time. Here I wanted to be Doctor Who and play with time, slow it down, tame it, but the irony was that I had to be fast because time was ticking away!

Playing with time isn’t tricky, it just means that you have to experiment with settings and take a lot of photos until you have what you want. Your eye – or mind’s eye – might give you some ideas as to what starter settings to use, but from there on it’s trial and error. For example, here I was dealing with waves, and if the shutter speed was too fast then the action is frozen suddenly and looks too angular and jagged, but if the shutter speed was too slow then all the detail would be blurred. It depends a lot on the water in front of you. Sometimes a shutter speed of a quarter of a second gives the desired result, other times that needs dragging out to 20 seconds or even beyond.

For the above image I had the aperture set to F9.0 to give the image some softness, and the ISO at 200, which, with the 6-stop filter gave me a 3.2 second exposure that was long enough to catch the water rushing over the rocks in the middle-distance, giving it the look and feel of cotton-candy.

Another factor to consider is where the water is. Waves come and go, and while Sir Isaac Newton is in the driving seat (or his laws of motion are), the water can seem unpredictable. Sometimes it is way over there in the distance, and next it’s raced past you, your tripod, and your feet are soaked. What this means is taking a whole bunch of images, with the water in different positions. Forget reviewing them until you get home (other than reviewing your test shots for sharpness and to see if you have the correct exposure – the stuff you can’t fix in Photoshop!).

But as quickly as the light comes, it goes again, as Mother Nature takes the vibrance slider in the other direction. I could stick around for the blue hour, but in the cove where I was standing I couldn’t see a composition that would work, so I squelched back up the beach. I was happy because I was certain I had some good stuff waiting for me on my memory card.

Behind the Camera: ‘Chaos Theory’ – Poth Swtan, Anglesey

I like taking shots of things that are moving in what seems to be a chaotic manner. Here everything that isn’t made of rock is moving … the sun is moving, the water is moving, the clouds are moving, the little bits of foam are moving, and above all, the light is moving.

Then they all arrange themselves into the visual equivalent of a poem, the shutter opens and closes, and then they return to their chaotic movement! This is what I love about photography.

With this shot I had to get close to the water – OK, into the water – and get the camera low down so as to give me the best angle on the surf and rocks, while also giving me a good view of the sky. This means being prepared to get wet while at the same time working to keep the camera from falling in to the sea. Sand is soft, and as the waves go in and out, the tripod sinks in, which not only shifts the composition and can ruin long exposures, but also destabilizes the tripod. If you become distracted because you’re faffing about trying not to get wet (or freaking out because you are wet), this is when your camera gets a chance to go for an expensive swim. Remember, you can dry off a lot easier (and cheaper) than your camera can!

I shot this at F22 not only because I wanted pin-sharp detail front to back, but also because I wanted to show down the shutter speed to get a slight sense of motion. I could have used filters but there was a fair bit of surf and sand blowing about (this was shot in February, and while the sun looks warm and appealing, it was actually cold and blustery and the sand was whipping at my skin and eyes) so it was easier to keep my lens clean than it was to keep a filter clean.

But F22 does bring up a couple of problems in post. First, it shows up dust on the lens and camera sensor, especially in areas of blue sky. This means time with the spot-healing tool in Lightroom. Another problem is that closing down the aperture like that softens the image a little, but because the only thing we want pin sharp here are the rocks, it’s nothing that a little sharpening can’t fix.

With this shot what I did was set my camera to bracket exposures (+1 stop, normal, and -1 stop) and then fire away with a cable release. A lot. It’s almost impossible to catch everything in the right spot, so I stand there (with wet feet) pressing the button and trust that Mother Nature will arrange things just right. Most of the time she does.

Behind the Camera: ‘In a Galaxy Far, Far Away’ – Bardsey Island, Wales

Usually, I hate being photobombed by something in a capture. Usually it’s someone’s head or leg, or a bird, or sometimes the branch of a tree or something else I didn’t notice when looking through the viewfinder. But this time I didn’t mind the photobomb at all, because what photobombed this shot was the Andromeda Galaxy.

See that fuzzy patch just to the top-left of the stone cross? That’s it, and it’s a whopping 2.5 million light years away. This means that the light left that galaxy 2.5 million years ago! What’s more, that small fuzzy blob is home to a trillion stars (that’s 1,000,000,000,000).

I think that the fact that the light traveled all that distance – and over all those years – before being caught by my camera is pretty awesome.

The Andromeda Galaxy is also quite big. If it were brighter we’d see that it is in fact about six times wider than the moon.

I took this shot while on Bardsey Island, a small island off the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula, the island where 20,000 saints are reputed to be buried, along with, according to some legends, King Arthur himself. It’s a truly magical place, steeped in history and mythology, and with everyone else tucked up in bed on the island, I had the whole place to myself.

Two of the hardest things about taking night shots are focus and composition. I will cover these in a separate post, but I take my time over these because they’re key. There’s no way to correct for an out of focus shot in Photoshop or Lightroom, and the only way to fix a bad composition is to crop, and that means losing precious pixels, which I try to avoid whenever possible.

Then it’s a matter of locking the shutter release cable, and sitting back and let the camera do what it does best. Since clouds are constantly moving I like to stay in the same spot for at least 15 minutes so as to give me a good range of pictures to choose from (if I’m shooting 30 second exposures then 15 minutes of shooting will give me 60 shots). In the summer months insect repellent is a must because without it they’ll home in on your sweat and breath and drive you mad in no time at all! Fifteen minutes is an eternity when you’re being feated on by bugs.

Since there was a fair bit of orange airglow in this shot I decided to process it as a black and white, and I’m pretty pleased by the results. Since you don’t see many astro shots processed into black and white images, I think it’s a little different.

Behind the Camera: ‘Aurora Over Anglesey’ – Trwyn Du, Anglesey

This is one of my all-time favourite shots, but it’s also one of the easiest I’ve taken, and one that needed only a minimal amount of post-processing. I basically turned up, opened the shutter and let Mother Nature do what she does best. It’s one of those situations where you’re rewarded for basically making the effort to turn up.

And boy, did Mother Nature put on a show. Not only did she put on an amazing show of lights that we haven’t seen here in over a decade, but the skies were crystal clear and the air still. Perfect conditions. What a privilege. I needed to make the most of it. No pressure then.

The biggest pressure was time. Auroras are as fickle as Mother Nature herself, and they can last all night, or a few minutes. Mess around and this magnificent sight could be gone.

One of the things that made this shot so easy – other than the amazingness of an auroral display this far south in the UK – was the fact that I’d chosen to use my Zeiss 21mm lens. Not only does this lens capture images that are sharp enough to cut glass, but it features what’s called a hard-stop at infinity for the focus. This means that I don’t have to mess around in the dark – and wind – perfecting the focus. I just flip the aperture to F2.8, turn the focus ring until it hits the hard stop at infinity and start shooting.

Since this is a manual focus lens I didn’t have to worry about switching off autofocus.

There’s a lot, lot more to photography than the kit, but sometimes kit makes it a lot easier to get the capture you want.

Before setting my camera to F2.8/ISO 5000/15 sec to take the shots I racked up the ISO on the camera to over 100,000 and took a few 1 second shots just to get the composition right. I do this for two reasons. First, I do it to save time as I don’t want to take a whole bunch of long exposures just to get the composition right, and secondly, I can tell my test shots apart from my real shots because of the crazily high ISO once I get them into Lightroom. Sure, they’re grainy, but I’m only using them to adjust the composition using Live View.

I played with a lot of different compositions, vertical, horizontal, and even shooting a few panoramas, but I quickly realize that horizontal works best. I’m not capturing the whole sky, but I am getting plenty of drama.

Once I’d got my settings and composition dialed in I could relax a little and take my shots while drinking in the amazing display. And what a display it was.

At an ISO of 5000 there was a little bit of noise in this shot, especially in the dark areas, and while I usually just use Lightroom to handle noise, for this shot I used DxO Optics 9 which has an excellent noise-reduction feature (more on this in a future post). The only downside of this is that it takes several minutes for it to process each image, but the final results are stunning.

I also had to correct a little distortion in the shot, and I did this using Lightroom 5’s lens correction feature. While I was in Lightroom I also toned down the colors in the sky a little bit and make the stars pop a little more.