Show Focus Points plugin for Lightroom 5

Just come across a cool – and free – plugin for Adobe Lightroom 5 today.

It’s called Show Focus Points, and, as you might guess, it shows you which focus points were selected by the camera when the photo was taken.

It’s compatible with Windows and Mac and works for both Canon and Nikon cameras.

It’s awesome, and free… so what are you waiting for? 😉

Show Focus Points plugin

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunkissed’ – Buachaille Etive Mor, Scotland


Known by many names – The Buachaille or The Beuckle – Buachaille Etive Mor must be one of the most photographed features of the Scottish highlands. Not only does “the great herdsman of Etive” look spectacular, a giant pyramid welcoming you to Glen Etive, but also getting to a spot with fantastic foreground interest is only a short walk across a field.

No mountains to climb or rivers to negotiate.

So, on the one hand it’s great to have such a splendid sight to work with that’s a few minutes away from the roadside, but on the other hand it puts a pressure on the photographer to present it in a new light. While there’s nothing wrong in bagging a shot of something that looks like thousands – if not millions – of other photos, it’s much more special – not to mention rewarding – if you can make that capture unique in some way.

Given that I didn’t have the drama of snow to work with, and the moon wasn’t going to play ball with me, I decided I was going to work with this peak both at night and early morning. The foreground interest provided by the waterfalls makes it a great subject to work with under low light conditions because long exposures draw out the time that the shutter is open, giving the water a chance to transform from looking as sharp cut glass to a super-soft candy floss.

But there’s other things that you can do to an exposure to present it in a different way. In this example I’ve processed the image as a black and white exposure, but I’ve also added a couple of colored graduated filters to it to give the image depth and drama. But these filters aren’t arbitrary. I added a light pink to the sky and a blue to the ground because this is what I saw just before the sun dipped behind the hills in front of me, robbing it of the last bit of vibrancy.

In a mere few seconds, the landscape can be transformed from a near monochrome into a bouquet of colors, and while the color is amazing to behold, so is that low contrast build up to the new day.

In a future post I’ll write is greater detail about the process of taking the morning and night shots of this splendid mountain, so stay tuned!

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunrise’ – Buachaille Etive Mor, Scotland


Woke up to this, so it would have been bad form to have not grabbed a few images of this classic Scottish view!

The idyllic scene caught in this image hides the fact that this was the most midge-infested place I encountered while in the Highlands. Even though I was plastered with the recommended insect repellent – Smidge – within seconds of getting out of the car I was surrounded my tens of thousands of these little critters. I think I should have let the insect repellent dry off longer before getting out into the thick of things because within seconds my arms and face looked like it had been liberally covered in poppy seeds.

While I was on the move the midges weren’t so bad – seems like they couldn’t keep up with me – but when I stopped to take shots I found myself engulfed in a cloud of the critters. And taking my backpack off, which exposed the fresh sweat from my back, just sent them crazy. Within seconds of putting my backpack on the ground it was surrounded in a haze of these irksome insects.

The toughest part of taking this shot was keeping the midges off the lens. Since I was using a 6-stop Hitech ProStop filter to take this shot, I had to keep the insects off the filter – and they seemed to really want to be on the filter! So, off-camera I was frantically waving a micro fiber cloth to keep them from settling – and it seemed to work.

This is a beautiful place, and I had it all to myself this morning – me, and a few billion midges!

Behind the Camera: ‘Mountain in the Mist’ – Holyhead, Anglesey


This is Holyhead Mountain – not really a mountain, but being close to the sea gives it a more majestic look – and it’s quite photogenic because it is often enveloped in fog or has a layer of cloud trapped by an inversion layer over it.

Rather than use a UV filter of polarizer to remove the haze that swathed the mountain, I made use of it, giving the mountain and sea a softer feel.

I shot this using a Canon 5D MkIII with a 70-200mm lens set to F8. I used a tripod, because I wanted to keep the ISO in the basement – ISO 100 – so the shutter speed was a little slow at 1/125th of a second.

However, in post processing I chose to take an inverse approach to the look of the image, keeping the mountain looking soft, but processing the clouds so that they have a harder edge to them by applying a graduated filter to the sky and applying some clarity and increasing the contrast.

On top of that, I used a radial filter and elongated it to cover the haze and the sea and added some negative clarity to it to soften the mountain and sea a tad.

For the final processing I gave the photo an antique or sepia look. Why? Because I like it! A landscape like this is works well in black and white, but by adding some cross processing sepia colors, it gives this shot a timeless look.

Behind the Camera: ‘Channeled Sun’ – Church Bay, Anglesey


Being a night owl, I don’t see that many sunrises, but the flipside “glass is half full” side of that is I see a lot of sunsets!

I’d like to say that I timed everything in this shot perfectly – from the position of the sun in the channel, to the height of the tide, and even the weather – but I didn’t. This was one of those happy accidents where I rolled up and everything just clicked.

I’m not a professional photographer and I don’t make my living from photography, and I’m glad, because I don’t have to make pictures when I don’t want to. I get to pick and choose when I go out shooting, when I process, what I process, what I show to the world, and what I don’t. I like it that way, because I feel that nothing would destroy my creativity more than having to shoot.

I shoot because I want to shoot. There are times when I’ll roll up to a spot and take hundreds of shots, and there are other times when I won’t take a single shot.

I know pro shooters who have the patience of snipers. They’ll eyeball the location to get a feel for the lie of the land, and then they’ll return and wait patiently for the perfect light before taking a shot. While I’d love to have the time and space to do this in my life, that takes enormous levels of patience, and heaps of luck (you might spend days in a spot and never get the right light).

I take a more Zen approach, believing that if show up, something magical will happen. And a lot of the time I feel that this approach works well.

This was just such a shot. It was taken at a local beach that I know quite well, one that is west-facing and gets some good sunsets. It’s also got rocks for some foreground interest, which is awesome. On top of that, the beach is mostly shingle and not sand, so tripods won’t sink, which is a plus during long exposures.

While I do use a lot of tools and apps for planning – from maps to weather forecast services to apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris – I will still sometimes turn up to a locations on the spur of the moment just to “see what I can see.”

Behind the Camera: ‘Illuminated Walls’

Illuminated Walls

It’s great when we see something pretty or inspiring and we figure out how we might capture that image to keep it, share it or create something that lives outside of ourselves, maybe even as a piece of art. Conveying feeling is important. Sharing a moment or an experience is vital to our sense of human connection. What we are really building is empathy.

So taking a photograph which portrays something which represents a not so pretty experience, but rather a moment which is indelibly disturbing, requires something more than just pointing the camera and something deeper and darker than just making a pretty picture.

For me this is summed up best in the poem ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy:

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

Taking this photograph and even being in this location was difficult for me and my intention was to convey that discomfort and give a sense of things being ‘not quite right’.

The room in the photograph was the single room stone hut of an elderly nun, who lived here for many years in seclusion on the remote holy island of Bardsey and eventually was taken off the island. The reason why is evident on the walls in pained scrapings, that have since been painted over and the tiny hut re-purposed as a chapel.

Chapel

I have written about my experience of visiting this small chapel with its anguished etchings hidden beneath the whitewashed walls, but my words cannot begin to convey my own horror at seeing the evidence of the hours, days, weeks and years she spent scratching into stone and the seeming holiness of that harsh ascetic life. Surely no belief system could be worth that!

I have delayed looking at the photographs I took during this trip. Indeed I have resisted using my camera altogether. I knew that looking at my pictures would take me back to my trip and my own harsh and hollow realisations made while I was there. Far from being a spiritual retreat, this visit was a short sentence in my own personal hell. Health problems, loneliness, being away from the smallest comforts of home and the distracting relief of books, television, the Internet, family and friends – all contributed to my own dark teatime of the soul. The trip ended, but my feelings of emptiness endured. Rather than being a spiritual pilgrimage, this journey was a loss of the last vestiges of faith for me – something that I must now slowly come to terms with.

At the time, taking this photograph seemed wrong. I used the fish eye lens because I was wide-eyed and agog at the suffering these walls bore witness to. It was shocking and confusing, and, unlike the war photographer in the poem, I was unable to fly away or return home due to the storm that prevented the boat from sailing. Whatever I found in that room stayed with me. Paraphrasing the T-shirt slogan: I went to this place looking for God, but all I got was this photo.

Crucifix

The bright purple scarf around the ‘shoulders’ of the crucifix and the crown of thorns that appeared to form a face, seemed to make the cross represent a human shape. How had I not seen this before? This iconic structure did not represent an ancient instrument of torture – it represents the body itself.  It is depicted as where the suffering happens. And the sacrifice. Yet it is the mind that really experiences pain – and that part is not depicted here.  Except, I realised as I looked around me, in the scratchings on the walls: a tortured mind. And in this case the torturer was also the tortured; this was self-inflicted pain! There is no one to blame, apart perhaps from a belief system that seems to gloss over, or even revel in, torture.

wall

This modernistic shrine to pain made the suffering all too tangible and real, whether that be the torture and death – of either a god or a man, depending on your view – or the solitary, penitent life of an elderly nun and the pained mind that drove her hand to scratch into these walls in this small harsh cell. And this wasn’t a one off. Countless wars have been fought over these beliefs and are still being fought. Such stark reality in such a tiny place.

I decided to take away these cheery colours in post process because the reality was too pretty, trying to hide the cruelty behind something calm and righteous and holy. The poem compares the red of the dark room to the blood of the war zone and yet in this room all is clean and painted over. Wholy whitewash, Batman!

Suddenly the island I love so much seemed to be a place of self-denial and punishment. I wanted this quality in the photograph I took away from there. Since first visiting, I have always adored the beauty and peace of the island, but in this small room I came face to face with the suffering of human existence and the price we humans pay for our consciousness. We each choose to act or to look away – like closing the Sunday supplements and going to the pub in the poem – or in my case returning to happy vacationing.

Cross, hammer, nailsBoth my mind and my hand resisted the invitation to bang a nail into that cross as some kind of cosmic exchange of my sins for another’s pain, however long ago, whether he was a god or just a man. I would rather hang on to my sins. Saying that is probably a sin in itself. But doing nothing is too much to bear. Taking the photograph was all I could do. Contributing to the ‘spools of suffering’ as I try to bear witness to what lies hidden beneath the white paint. I know there are people who would rather I didn’t write this and that I didn’t take the picture. I believe the story needs telling.

We can look away and pretend that all we see is white paint. We can bear witness like the war photographer. We can be devoted to our beliefs. We can deny ourselves to the point of madness like the nun. We can punish ourselves. We can punish others. We can have compassion. We can alleviate suffering. We can be kind to others. We can be kind to ourselves. We can try to make a difference. We can try to look away. We can find a million different ways to pass the time or to make a point or to be creative.

We can even take photographs…

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if what we do is important or not. It’s all transient.

“All flesh is grass.” -Isaiah 40:6

'Rocks in the Mist' - Bardsey Island, Wales

David Noton – The Vision: The Art of Photography from Idea to Exposure

Part pretty pictures, part information, part what’s going on in the photographer’s mind. I like David Noton’s witty take on photography, and he condenses several decades of photographic know-how into this easy-to-ready book.


David Noton – The Vision: The Art of Photography from Idea to Exposure

David Noton: The Vision analyses, in a detailed and logical progression, the ways in which a successful photograph comes to be, from the formation of an idea to the moment of exposure. The way in which a photographer uses their eyes is fundamental and provides the core message of this book, with heavy emphasis on perception, composition and colour. David Noton: The Vision explains how a photographer can translate an idea into reality by using their vision, imagination and understanding. This focus on vision means that the actual cameras and hardware used are not important. The technical information and advice is delivered with David’s characteristic wit and charm and is accompanied by beautiful images and context from David’s travels around the globe. This makes the book both a useful and entertaining read.

Nik plugins 15 percent off coupon code

I’m a huge fan of the Nik Collection of plugins — I especially like Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro.

The other day Kat wanted to buy a copy as a gift for someone and I knew that there must be a coupon code for the collection out there somewhere. After a lot of trial and error I finally found a coupon code that gave a whopping 15% off the price of the plugins. Give that I’d had such a hard time finding a working code I thought I’d share it here:

MORETHANWORDS15

Enjoy!

Tips for photographing bioluminescent plankton


The other night I got to witness bioluminescent plankton doing its stuff. It truly was an amazing sight. It turned waves and ripples into a shimmering electric blue, and if you looked closely at the rocks or the shore, you could see tiny sapphire pinpricks glowing away.

It was amazing.

But it was also challenging to photograph.

I do a lot of night photography so I knew I’d need a wide aperture (I went for F2.8), a show shutter speed (I was working between 8 seconds and 20 seconds) and an ISO high enough to catch the plankton glow but low enough not to give me noise problems (the Canon 5D MkIII was happy at around 3200 to 4000 ISO).

However, trouble came when it came to focusing. Normally I shoot wide at night, but I wanted to get in close to the action with this so I shot with a Canon 70 – 200mm lens, and so I didn’t just have the option to set the focus on infinity and fire away. I had to be more specific, but that isn’t easy when you’re trying to focus in the dark on tiny glowing things.

I took three different approaches to focusing:

  1. Just eyeball the distance, set the focus on the lens to that distance, and hope for the best. This worked pretty well.
  2. Shine a light on an object and auto focus on it. Again, this worked pretty well.
  3. Manually focus on the plankton. This was trickier to do as the viewfinder and live view was dim.

Oh, and as always, I shot a lot, and checked the image on the live view to see what I got. I knew I might not get a chance to see this again, so I wanted to make sure that I got the shots I wanted in the can before calling it a night.

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunrays Across Snowdon’ – Snowdonia, Wales


“Looks like a good place for a shot,” says Kat. I’ve learned to ignore her advice at my peril because she has a good eye for the changing landscape, and can spot subtleties that I miss.

There’s no one behind us so I slam on the brakes and come to a rapid stop in a small pull-in on the side of the road. I’m probably no supposed to park there, but I’m not in anyone’s way, and there’s a chance of a good shot, so I park up and pull out the camera.

Somewhere off in the distance I hear the distinctive two-toned call of a cuckoo, a sound that fills me with conflicting feelings. It’s a beautiful, unique sound, but as a kid I was bought up with the idea that cuckoos are evil things that chuck out the eggs of other birds. This clashed with my childhood Disneyesque views of how nature was supposed to be, but now I just see it as part of a whole.

I get the camera and tripod set up and then I notice that the sun has dipped behind the mountains and is splashing golden rays across Snowdon, the tallest of the Welsh peaks. Each second sees the scene change, as the sun continues towards the horizon and the clouds move across the sky.

I shoot and shoot and shoot, catching the rapidly changing vista before me. I know I’m going to have a lot of work ahead of me in Lightroom just finding the best shots, but I’d rather overshoot and catch some good stuff than be stingy and miss a good shot. I’m also bracketing shots too, causing the files to grow geometrically.

I remind myself to remind me of this later when I’m sorting through hundreds of shots looking for “the one.”

Mama Nature is pulling out all the stops. The light is perfect, the cuckoo is cuckooing away, and the clouds are adding just the right amount of drama to the shot.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

As I get ready to leave a splinter group from the herd of cows in the field have climbed up the steep hill to see what I’m doing, and in the process they’re snapping branches off the nearby trees. Hey cows, you’re destroying foreground interest there!

And I’m here catching this because Kat said it would be a good place to pull over.

So, what’s the moral of this tale? To be honest, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s listen to others, or perhaps it is that sometimes you can catch awesome shots from the roadside without having to travel to foreign parts or hike for miles, or maybe it’s that we shouldn’t base nature on Disney films.

Nah, scratch that last one.

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