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    Hello, and welcome to my website! I'm Derek Gale, photography trainer and Fine Art photographer.

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If you go down to the woods today…

… if you are lucky you will find English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).  These plants are a feature of UK woods at this time of year, and they are a spectacular sight – and smell.  I’m lucky enough to have access to a friend’s private bluebell wood, and went along yesterday with a heavy camera bag and a heavy tripod.

In order to capture the swathes of flowers across the woodland, I tried out a technique that I’ve previously used for macro images; focus stacking.

“Focus stacked bluebells” by Derek Gale

With a 200mm lens, the depth of field was quite small, so I took a series of three images, and changed the focus point between images.  I opened the images as layers in Photoshop, aligned them, and then stacked them.  It’s sort of worked, giving more depth of field across the bluebells, but if you look closely you can see areas between the in-focus areas where the flowers are still out of focus.  I’ll go back and try it again with many more focus points.

One feature of this wood is an area where there are lots of orchids, so my macro lens came in useful.

“Early purple orchid” by Derek Gale

They are early purple orchids (orchis mascula), and they show huge variation in flower size, colour, and pattern.  This one was quite light in tone, but others were very dark or almost pale pink.  Each individual flower is quite small and has no nectar, and they attract pollinating insects by looking a bit like other flowers that do have nectar – sneaky!

As well as the masses of bluebell flowers, the individual plants are beautiful in their own right.

“Single bluebell plant” by Derek Gale

This plant, against a moss-covered rotting log, looked almost as if it was in a tropical jungle.  It shows the classic English bluebell drooping stem, with flowers on one side of the stem.  There’s another bluebell, the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), that’s hybridising with the English bluebell, and is viewed as an invasive species threatening the English bluebell.

So get out and enjoy an English bluebell wood while you still can.

Get it right in-camera, or do it in Photoshop?

An important question that’s asked in photographic circles these days is whether it’s best to make your final image as much as possible in-camera, or whether it should be left to the editing stage in Photoshop (PS).  Some people insist that everything should be done at the taking stage, while others insist that PS is an integral part of the creative process, just like a darkroom was.  Let’s look at an example of a landscape image with motion blur added in PS, or with motion blur created when the picture was taken.

“Unblurred image” by Derek Gale

This is the original image, taken with a walkabout compact camera.  I was attracted by the repeating pattern of the trees in the plantation.  It’s quite interesting, but I felt it needed to be more abstract.

“Motion blur added in Photoshop” by Derek Gale

Here I’ve added some vertical motion blur in PS, and it has made the image much more dreamy and impressionistic.  All the fine detail on the tree trunks has gone, making it easier to concentrate on the pattern and the swirling shapes.

“Motion blur in-camera” by Derek Gale

With this image, of another part of the plantation, the motion blur was a result of a long exposure combined with a vertical panning movement.  The same dreamy effect is present, but there is no sharp, unblurred image to compare it to.

As you can see, it’s hard to tell if the blurring has been done at the time the images were taken or added later.  If it’s added later you have complete control, and you can give more or less blur as required.  It does mean however that you don’t have the thrill of seeing a “just right” image on the back of your camera.

It comes down to personal preference.  Me?  I sit on the fence somewhat, and say create the effect in-camera, but I also take a sharp one for creative editing later.  The best of both worlds!

The merits of a plastic sheet

At a recent “The Creative Eye” photography course that I ran for the Royal Photographic Society  in Bath, we talked about useful photographic accessories.  One suggestion that surprised some delegates was a plastic sheet about 6 feet by 3 feet.  What on earth would you want that for?  Well, it’s really useful for when you need to lie down to get your image, such as macro photography of plants and flowers.

The images below, that I took this morning with my Sigma 50mm macro lens, are a case in point.  There was a heavy dew on the grass and the sheet stopped me from getting wet.

“Tulip almost out” by Derek Gale

A tulip, at the point of opening, composed simply to show off the subtle colours in its petals.

“Grape hyacinth” by Derek Gale

A grape hyacinth, lit by the morning sun, casting a shadow on a low brick wall.

Of course, the sheet can also stop your clothes getting dirty on a dusty surface such as this patio.  The tiny flower (only about 3mm across) was bouncing around in the breeze so I needed to be patient and wait for a lull.  I composed so that the flower was balanced by the colour and size of the lichen on the patio.

As well as protecting me from the damp and the dirt, the sheet I used has other merits.  It’s made of white plastic so it can be used as a reflector to put light into shadow areas.  It’s also quite thin, so it can be used as a diffuser to soften hard sunlight.  Look out for further blog posts where I demonstrate these uses!

It’s a moving experience

Many modern compact cameras try and reduce a major cause of low quality images; camera shake.  They do this by increasing the ISO, to give a short shutter speed, and using image stabilisation.  This is OK for most images, but it takes away a technique for creative photography; long shutter speeds.  Using long shutter speeds can give interesting effects, and add an extra dimension to your images, that of passing time, rather than being all about “the decisive moment”.

“Moving legs” by Derek Gale

Here an Irish friend is doing Irish dancing whilst sitting on a bench. Irish dancing involves moving the legs whilst keeping the rest of the body as still as possible.  The blur of her legs during the 1.6 second exposure makes an interesting contrast with the solidity of the wooden bench and her stationary hands.

That image is an example of subject movement during a long exposure, but long exposure can also be combined with camera movement, and use of flash.

“Movement and flash” by Derek Gale

Here I’ve used a 0.6 second exposure, moved the camera during the exposure, and fired the flash.  There’s an exposure from the ambient light which, combined with the camera movement, has given streaky lines and lots of blur.  The exposure from the flash is much shorter and has given a sharp image.  It’s a more complicated composition than the simple, geometric, “dancing” image, with multiple faces and coffee mugs, but that adds to its mystery.  It makes us ask questions, such as, “Why is there a yellow Marigold glove on the TV in the background?”.

So forget about trying to get short shutter speeds, and take your time to show time in a different way.

Walk or zoom?

One subject that often comes up when I am doing talks or training is about zooming.  It’s generally when we’re talking about getting closer to the subject. People say, “Surely if I need to get closer I can just zoom in”.  By “zoom” they normally mean using a telephoto lens, or local focal length, to make the subject appear larger without actually getting closer to it.

Zooming is fine, but you need to know how it affects your images.  Take a look at these three images taken at different zoom positions.  In each image the subject is the same height in the frame, but the look is different.

“Focal length 1” by Derek Gale

This first image is taken with the zoom at its widest.  On this camera it’s the equivalent of a 24 mm lens.  I was quite close to the subject, and there is some distortion of the perspective.  The closest parts of the subject are are too large compared to the furthest parts.  The wide angle lens means that the background is quite sharp.

“Focal length 2” by Derek Gale

With this second image I’ve moved further away and zoomed to give a lens focal length equivalent of about 75mm.  This is great for portraits as it slightly flattens the facial features, which is often quite flattering.  The background is less intrusive and more out of focus.

“Focal length 3” by Derek Gale

In this final image moved even further away and zoomed to my maximum focal length.  It’s now the equivalent of a 400m telephoto lens.  You can see that the image has really flattened out, and the background, which seems a lot closer, is now well out of focus.

So, get closer or zoom?  The choice is yours, but always remember how it changes things.

PS  Should I use digital zoom to get even closer?  Three words; No, no, no!