Choose a theme to take a giant leap with your creativity

A friend and I were looking at the picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Eagle lunar lander are reflected Buzz’s visor. It’s an evocative, powerful and unique image.

My friend then pointed at a Bamburgh sunrise photo and said, ‘Do we really need to see yet another photo of that?’

Searching online for Bamburgh Castle sunrise images we found 110,000 results. This is not surprising; it’s a beautiful view and the most liked image on the Northumberland Gazette’s Facebook page is often of that very scene.

Bamburgh Castle

Yes, I’ve been there to photograph it too. There is something special, even spiritual, about watching the sun rise or set over the sea. Many photographers want to capture it to relive that moment.

Is there anything wrong with capturing a photo of something that has been shot so many times before? Of course not. Studying and copying what others have done before us is a super way to learn creativity.

Furthermore, to create our own art that is good enough to hang on the wall for ourselves and others to enjoy is a goal worth aiming for. It’s relatively easy taking photographs of beautiful scenery at dusk and dawn as those times provide perfect light for landscape photography. Almost any photographer of any level of skill can get an okay sunset shot, even with a camera set to auto.

“But, they are clichés!“ my friend said.

I understood the point, although didn’t agree with the sentiment. If people enjoy shooting that scene and others like looking at them, then that’s fine. What was really bothering my friend was revealed in the next question. “How do I get originality into my photos?”

To achieve uniqueness and a photographic style is a challenge for anyone, but not impossible. You can learn creativity.

photographing the unexpected.
Try turning the camera in a different direction. This was shot within minutes of the picture of Bamburgh Castle above.

Start a project to hone your creativity

Come up with a story you want to tell and take a series of photos to illustrate that story. Try concentrating on one theme, or a group of related subjects, and stick to photographing that for a few weeks or even months. Shoot that same subject from different positions and angles in changing light. Adjust the focus, aperture and shutter values. With each press of the shutter release button you will hone your skills, learning from each photo you take. You will create an interesting collection of images.

If you have another hobby then record what you enjoy. Many ornithologists photograph birds. I’ve met wood-turners, gardeners, hill walkers, painters, needle-workers and an engineer who created still life images, photographing both their products and the tools they use. Perhaps you are interested in the people living on your street, or the way wildlife thrives in a local cemetery. Do you have a particular political view? Maybe you care about the environment and want to record a conservation project.

Working with others is also great for inspiration. Try bouncing ideas off each other and even sharing a project.  Take risks and experiment. With small steps, you can make a giant leap with your creativity.

How else can I get inspiration

Top photographers are always learning. So, look at studying a new area of photography you haven’t tried before. Read, watch videos, go on a course or workshop.  Photography is often a lonely pastime, but I can’t emphasise enough how shooting with another person, helping each other to get a great shot, can  improve your work. I am lucky, because I teach photography I spend a lot of time with photographers of all levels, and get inspiration and learn from them all of the time.

Shot on a trip to Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, in the company of a couple of other photographers.


There is no such thing as reality

Happy New Year! A purely human arbitrary concept, chosen in the past by our ancestors, it doesn’t correspond with an annual astronomical event of any importance that dictates when New Year’s Day should be. In reality, it is only 365 and a bit days after the last time we, in the West, set the daily counter to 1. Other cultures choose other dates. Our ancestors could easily have chosen any other day in the year. Perhaps we should wish each other a happy New Day every day instead.

Really! There is no such thing as reality

I really enjoy challenging what we perceive. Our perceptions are not reality, they are all a contrivance of our brains. Interpreted partly from the data sent along the optic nerve, much of what we think we see is actually invented in our minds. We use more stored information to create the world around us than what our eyes detect; what we already know about the world contaminates everything we see. We also perceive the world half a second after events occur.  What we think we see is not reality at all.

Sunrise over the Sea shot with a telephoto lens changes reality
A telephoto lens makes the rising sun appear enormous

Our anatomy and memories trick us too

Furthermore,  our eyes’ construction is limiting. Detecting only a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, most light we cannot see. Also, the structure of our eyes are as unique as fingerprints. How you see the world may be quite dissimilar from how I see it.

Like old, fading photographs, memories blur over time too. Suggestions change what we recall and other events intermingle with what we remember. There is no absolute truth in what we remember seeing.

Photographs distort reality

Can we apply this same fluidity to reality when creating a photograph? We do it all of the time, often unintentionally. When viewing pictures, we subject them to the same filtering and corruption by our eyes and brain as when we view the rest of the world. Furthermore, the photograph itself is not reality, just an interpretation of it.

A telephoto lens can make the sun seem huge in a frame. A fifteen-second exposure smooths out water and makes flashing beacons appear to be lit all at the same time. This is not how it appeared to me standing there taking the shot.

15 second exposure of Coquet Island with the smoothed sea. This is not a reality we would perceive.
A fifteen-second exposure. The flashing beacons appear permanently lit and the ripples on the water are smoothed out.

JPEG vs Raw

Your camera’s internal computer processes raw data from its sensor. If it is set to take JPEGs then the processor will be pre-programmed – probably by a technician on the other side of the world – how the picture should look. If you apply a digital filter in camera, the processor alters the data.  Applying differing luminosities to the millions of red, green and blue coloured pixels making up your image, the camera then adjusts them according to whatever filter you choose.

Throwing away the redundant data in a process called compression, the camera records one usable, shareable and widely compatible JPEG file onto the memory card. All modern cameras can produce great results in this way.

Moonrise above Coquet Island lighthouse from Hauxley Beach, Amble, Northumberland/
A path of golden moonlight across the sea

The camera always lies

A talented photographer I know takes amazing photos. Setting to record only JPEGs, her finished images straight from the camera look great, almost every one a wall-hanger. Her work-flow takes me back to my youth, entrusting my rolls of Kodachrome to a local laboratory to develop, process and print. Her methodology emphasises the importance of getting the composition and exposure just right.

Another option is ‘shooting raw’. The camera records the all raw data from the sensor into a file on the memory card without any processing. That gives more versatility. It lets you make the adjustments instead of the camera. Raw file developing, using tools like Lightroom or On1 Photo Raw, is non-destructive; anything you do to the file can be undone. Nothing is thrown away or lost as it is with a compressed JPEG. Akin to creating prints from a film negative, you can produce any number of different-looking JPEGs from that raw file without damaging the original.

Each result is your interpretation of reality. Every one is different. Yet, none of them a true or complete record of the event.

Although more versatile, shooting raw has its disadvantages. File sizes are larger and raw file previews are not universally compatible.

Changing reality: to edit or not to edit

There is a school of thought that a photo should always be untouched and a direct record of what was seen when it was taken. For reportage, I agree; the picture must be an honest representation as possible. News photographers – quite rightly – lose their reputations for editing pictures to deliberately mislead.

In portraiture and art shots, I have no qualms about removing a spot from a face or adding blur to soften wrinkles. In most photography, we are trying to create something aesthetically pleasing. If a lamppost detracts from a landscape I can’t physically remove it as I do litter. Is there anything wrong with deleting it using a computer to make a stronger composition? After all, our brains do it all the time.

When photos are changed…

Editing changes reality
Besides removing a lamppost, I edited this picture to convert it to black and white. We don’t see in black and white and yet, whether you like monochrome or not, converting it doesn’t raise an eyebrow in the same way that other editing does.

For me, creating photographic art is very different from just recording an event. I do my best to remove a distracting object that would otherwise spoil the shot; I’ll pick up litter and put in the bin when making the photo and compose the shot to exclude distractions. In the above photo it was a lamppost that unbalanced the shot. There was no way I could fix it while shooting, so I removed it with digital editing.

It’s art, it doesn’t matter that I have changed it. Saying that, it isn’t something I often do, using the clone or other editing tools; I rather get the image right in camera. But, the above image is far stronger with the lamppost removed. It doesn’t hurt anyone by my removal of it and I am not deceiving anyone by doing so.

I could crop the image above to exclude the lamppost or used a longer lens as I did in the following shot. But, would that loose the feeling of isolation? I think so.

… they become art.

When creating a photograph, unless using a lens of the same focal length and depth of field as our eyes, we step further away from our usual perception of reality. Maybe, that is why we like unusual angles, very short and very long exposures, hyper-real imagery and high-contrast monochrome in our photography. By seeing the world in a new and unusual way that our eyes and brain cannot perceive, it looks new and unusual.

It’s that difference that can make a photograph compelling. It’s what makes it art.

Walking across the pier in Amble Northumberland



A Piece of Cake

The Ingredients

Two-years BG (Before Google), I worked at an outdoor education centre in a remote village on the beautiful west coast of Scotland.  It’s a perfect location for landscape photography, if your camera is weather-sealed. We had a saying there that if you could see across the loch it was going to rain. If you couldn’t, it was raining.

Each morning, all the youngsters gathered in the drizzle. They listened eagerly to the well-rehearsed briefing from Jeremy, the senior instructor, discovering what they would be doing that day. Would they be sailing, kayaking, climbing a rock-face and abseiling, scrambling up a burn, or hiking up a mountain? The briefing would invariably end with, “Any questions?”  One day, trying to keep a straight face, a lass asked him, “How far is it to the moon?” This started a trend of us priming the kids to ask Jeremy questions he wouldn’t be able to answer. Ranging from “What do you call a man with a seagull on his head?” to “What are the ingredients of a sponge cake?” Jeremy’s life would have been easier if smart phones and Google had been invented back then.

The Method

I love teaching photography as much as I love taking photos. There is one question I am asked repeatedly on my courses. Unlike providing the recipe for a Victoria sponge, it is far more difficult to answer than it first seems: “What are the best settings to take a perfect landscape photo?”

Sunrise shot of migratory geese flying over the Farne Islands
Geese over the Farnes

I start by giving a simplistic reply, and you’ll find similar recipes using Google: with a wide-angled lens, choose a small aperture, maybe f/11 or f/16; use a tripod if necessary; include some foreground interest; focus somewhere between three metres and a third of the way into the frame and check your depth of field; ensure you have the most important ingredient, excellent light; set your white balance to match the light; ensure your horizon is level; add a sizeable pinch of good composition and bake at ISO 100 with a shutter value to achieve a correct exposure. Like cooking a sponge, you should get a good result and lots of ‘Likes’ on Facebook and Instagram. Piece of cake!

The Bake

However, just as creating a showstopper cake on Bake Off needs greater baking proficiency, elevating a photo from being mediocre to superb takes more in-depth photography knowledge. By learning different recipes, we discover what works well and what doesn’t. When we have enough knowledge, we can create our own photographic recipes and aim to become Star Baker.

The alternative to learning how to take photos is the cluster-bomb approach. Give an infinite number of typewriters to an infinite number of monkeys you should get a Shakespearean play. Give them cameras instead and some of their photos will turn out well. You’ll also end up with a lot of selfies, other dross and pictures you would not show your mother. Furthermore, the monkeys won’t have learnt anything about photography.

Pots and Flags
Pots and Flags

The Proof is in The Eating

If you are embarking on a voyage of learning all you can about photography then be prepared to put lots of time, effort and money into it. If you want your photograph looking just the way you envisage it, you need to know how to use your camera. Learn how it performs in different conditions, how the different settings affect one another and how changing those settings alters the look of the photo.



Once you have grasped those basics, you can break away from the basic ingredients and create an image using your own recipe. After years of learning, work and practice you may become an overnight success.

A piece of cake? No, but it’s a great journey.

Misty Fields

Night Shooting

Yesterday evening I had a delivery of my brochures to make to a local holiday business. Walking back with Johanna I saw the moon had a huge halo, a   moonbow. Formed by ice crystals high in the atmosphere reflecting the moonlight, they are fairly unusual here and this was the largest I had ever seen. Johanna and I walked to the harbour and I grabbed a few shots.

Portrait of Johanna under the moonlight
Johanna and the Moonbow

This was a 5 second exposure (“Sit very still, my lovely wife!”) at 12mm, f/3.2. The foreground is lit by sodium lights, hence the off colour cast in the foreground. The wide angle of the lens distorts the horizon in these forst two shots, which I could correct in Photoshop, but I actually like the strangeness of the warped look. This first image actually works really well as a black and white, the version I am adding to my portfolio.


Moon with Halo over Amble Little Shore
Amble Little Shore Moonbow

This is a panoramic shot of three images stitched together.

Walking to the end of the pier, the moon was illuminating the sea nicely but it was too dark to focus or compose the next image, so this was a point and shoot shot. I set the camera on the tripod facing out to see, turned the focussing ring to almost infinity and increased the aperture to f/4.5 to give me a bit more depth of field. Using the viewfinder I checked the position of the flashing light to guess the composition, the other images were shot using Live View. It was a 50 second exposure at 20mm.

Coquet Island viewed from Amble
Coquet By Moonlight


New Lens. New Camera?

What better to get the photographic juices flowing than a new bit of kit.

My E-5 is a 6-year old camera now, and I still love it! I think the look of Olympus images is different from the other brands. I like that difference.

Since Olympus stopped making its Four Thirds DSLRs in favour of its Micro Four Thirds Mirrorless CSC, some excellent, used kit has been appearing on the market for a fraction of what it would have cost a couple of years back.  The £960 Zuiko 12-60mm ED SWD lens used to not lose much of its value at all in the second-hand market. I’ve just bought one in as-new condition for about a quarter of its original price. It’s really fast to focus and the image quality, when mounted on my E-5, is superb.

There are plenty of newer cameras that have double the pixel count, or more. But, my camera is well beyond more than adequate for printing images far larger than A3, and I never need more than that; Mostly, I am printing A4 or 5 x 7.  Most of my images end up only online. Besides, I don’t want photo files that are 25 MB each. (If I did need to print larger, I have software that allows me to enlarge images.)

My camera is so fast to focus (especially with the new lens). The high ISO noise control is good even at high ISOs. Some of the most modern camera’s can produce usable images at ISO 32000 or higher, but how often would I need that? With many of my shots I am trying to reduce the light reaching the sensor not increase the sensitivity!

The camera still fits my hands perfectly. It is a solid build with a magnesium alloy body, it’s splash-proof and I know my way around it in the dark.

But, I do need a new second camera. As more and more commercial shoots flood in, I need something to fall back on that is at least as good as the E-5. (My other camera doesn’t quite make the grade.)That has left me with a predicament and it is something I have been pondering over for months.

I could buy a second-hand E-5. But, there are so few on the market that they sell for a premium. Would I be better off spending that money on a new camera? If I do, it means changing to a different system; the Four Thirds DSLR system is discontinued. If so, do I  swap to a newer micro Four Thirds mirrorless compact system camera, such as the amazing Olympus OMD-EM1 mk ii; my dream camera. Or, perhaps I should consider the excellent and more affordable OMD-EM5 mk ii. Both of these have tremendous low-light performance; useful for weddings and parties. The EM5 good enough for the likes of Gavin Hoey, so it should be good enough for me. An adaptor would allow my lenses to work with all their high-speed functionality on these bodies.

Or, do I go full frame? That’s something I have resisted. Lots of professionals are now migrating away from these huge beasts and opting for something more portable and practical, better suited to documentary-style photography. But, there are artistic benefits of having a larger sensor. There are excellent full frame cameras on the market for less than the OMD-EM1 mk ii. But, that would mean me having to invest in a new set of lenses.


What do you think I should buy? If you seek advice about what camera you should buy, a photographer will always recommend the make they have. They will never admit to having made a bad choice and will enthuse over their chosen brand. (There is one brand that I will avoid just because of the number of incidents I have come across of them going faulty, but I won’t say what it is. I don’t want to upset you if it is the make you chose!)

When people ask me about buying a first camera, and they regularly do,  I sit down with them and search Flickr.  There are fantastic photos taken with any brand and any model. Variations in quality are down to the photographer and not the camera.   All cameras from any of the big makes are excellent and will perform as highly as the photographer’s skills will allow. (There’s an old saying that the best component in a photographic system is the one looking through the viewfinder.)

The next thing I always recommend going into a shop and trying different models to see what fits their hands the best. Ergonomics are so important.

I also say to check out the second hand market. There are hundreds or even thousands of great second-hand cameras available and some great deals to be found. Older models still take excellent pictures, as they did when they were new, and can be picked up for a few tens of Pounds.  It’s also more environmentally friendly buying a used camera.

A word of caution. Although you should be okay buying a used camera from a reputable camera retailer, do take care when you buy elsewhere. Cameras regularly get stolen and are fenced on online auction and marketplace sites.

Ask to see a photograph of the serial number before you buy from a private seller. (Don’t just ask what the serial number is, crooks don’t tell the truth!) Serial numbers of stolen cameras are often listed online. Then, ask to see some historic photos posted on sites like Flickr from that camera. It’s relatively easy to compare the seller and check with the person who uploaded the images that the sale is genuine.

If the vendor is unwilling to do any of this, don’t buy it.

Here are some shots with my new lens.





When the Boat Comes In



Frugal Photography

I am a great believer in reusing and recycling. Our planets resources are finite and I believe that we have a responsibility not to make waste. This sits nicely with my mildly frugal attitude towards photography. I don’t believe that the best photography can only be taken with the latests camera with the most expensive, newest lens.

My tripod died. It was a good quality but 30-years old Slik. I bought it, second-hand, for a song. I really liked it. It was easy to use and the tilt-and-pan head on it would lock into place with absolute solidity. I could mount my camera in portrait mode with a long lens attached and it would not rotate on the quick-release mount, a big issue with cheap tripods.

The best thing about it was the weight. It was not so heavy that I would break my back carrying it, but it was heavy enough that it would not blow over. Northumberland has one of the highest average wind speeds in Britain. I remember when I first moved here and taking photos using a lightweight tripod just catching it before it toppled over in the wind with my camera on top.

I searched online for a replacement part. I found lots of bits from other similar tripods that had been dismantled, but not the bit I was looking for. The failing part must have been the weakest component.

Fortune must have been smiling on me that day. My lovely wife, Johanna, phoned me up. She had gone to meet a friend in another town and they had perused a charity shop together. She phoned me. “Are Manfrotto tripods any good?”

The tripod came without a head. My initial thought was to mount the Slik tilt and pan head from the old tripod. But, the screw-mounts were different sizes. The head had a ¼” female thread while the Manfrotto tripod had a larger 3/8” male screw. I bought a converter to fit the two together, but also bought a budget ball-head mount to try.

I took them on my first field test this morning and was really pleased with how they worked. The tripod was quick to adjust, stable and sturdy, and allows for very low-angle shooting. The head too was easy to manipulate and to lock in position.

These first shots were before sunrise. All shot  1/15 second a few minutes apart. (For those who are eagle-eyed, the clock on the tower has stopped!) The sky at dawn is filled with birds here and these blur with the long exposure time. For these types of shot I usually set the shutter speed to several seconds so the birds disappear altogether, but I wanted to capture their movement.

The sky gradually became more orange as the sun neared the horizon.

I walked farther along the river from the marina and got down to the water’s edge. For the quarter of an hour before sunrise, the light became much more subtle and a slight mist helped mute the colours. I ended up with a completely different set of photos.

This first one I chose to use the horizon to bisect the image across the centre to exaggerate the symmetry of the sky and its reflection. I find square crops really cry out for symmetrical images and so cut away some of the left hand side of the picture, which contained a bright orange buoy that I found distracting.

The reflection of the cloud makes good foreground interest in the shot and I find the loose line of the clouds and their reflection draw my eye to the wreck in the middle of the water.

Not all landscaped need foreground interest though. Turning the camera to  by 90° to face Warkworth I grabbed this shot. It’s often worth looking away from a sunrise or sunset because the light in the opposite direction can be quite special.

The soft pastels of the sunrise-lit mist against the icy blue of the sky were what made this picture for me. Do you agree that it doesn’t need anything in the foreground?



Happy New Year

If you look closely, you can see the tiny speck that is the sun just peaking its face above the horizon.

Happy New Year to my readers. I hope 2017 brings everything that you wish for and more.