My top 10 photos for 2014

2014 has been an interesting year of photography for me. On the one hand, training for the Ironman has left very little time to get out and take photos. But on the other hand taking part in The Age’s ‘Clique’ photo competition has meant that I’ve been forced to really push myself out of my comfort zone in terms who and how I shoot. Plus I shot my first wedding (there’s a blog on that coming soon). The net result is that I shot a lot more photos that I was happy with this year…so here are my top 10 in no particular order (if you’re having trouble viewing the images you can also find them here.)

#1 X & A

The X-man and Ashy. ISO 100, 50mm, f1.4 1/200
X & A. ISO 100, 50mm, f1.4 1/200

Probably the biggest change to my photography came with my purchase of the Zack Arias video series ‘Onelight 2.0’ It transformed me from someone who swore he would never shoot with a flash, to someone who suddenly saw the opportunities a flash presented. Like capturing that moment when a couple of 2 year olds give each other a big hug. On my normal settings I would have missed this. They would have been slightly blurred…or a little out of focus. But with the flash they were captured in this moment, and they both just look so freaking happy to be in each other’s company.

#2 Lightspeed at the roadhouse

Light speed at the roadhouse. ISO 640, 24mm, f2.8, 8sec
Light speed at the roadhouse. ISO 640, 24mm, f2.8, 8sec

I owe a pretty hefty debt to Luke Vesty for the idea for this one. We were on a two day roadtrip in regional Victoria and had decided to take some long exposure shots. Luke got an amazing shot of a truck driving past so all you could see was a road sign and the trucks red lights disappearing into the distance. Clearly I couldn’t steal his idea…but I could appropriate it! So this is my remix. I set up my shot of the roadhouse and then waited for a truck to come past. When it was about 500m away I took and 8 second shot…and this was the result.

#3 Selfish portrait

Selfish portrait. ISO 400, 17mm, f3.5 and 6sec
Selfish portrait. ISO 400, 17mm, f3.5 and 6sec

One of the Clique challenges was to ‘shine a light on something you are passionate about’. So I had the idea of getting a shot of me out on the cycling trainer with a long enough exposure that my legs would look blurred. In theory the idea was pretty straight forward…but it took about an hour of setting up the camera, pressing the button, then running over to the bike and pedalling until the shot was done, then getting off the bike and back to the camera to see if it had worked. Eventually it did and I love the final shot (the light on the back wheel is coming from my phone which I had set up against the trainer)…but was it worth the numerous mosquito bites? Probably not.

#4 Down at the Nieuw Amsterdam

Down at the Nieuw Amsterdam,
Down at the Nieuw Amsterdam, ISO100, 17mm, f2.8 & 1/6sec

Another Clique challenge was to take a photo of someone who worked from dusk til dawn, and you had to use available light (ie no flash). I have a friend at work whose husband runs a restaurant in the city called Nieuw Amsterdam and I asked if I could come in and take a photo, and she said no worries. So I traipsed into the city one Wednesday night and headed down to the cocktail bar at Nieuw Amsterdam, and discovered that while the bar had an awesome ambience…it was freaking dark. So I asked the barman if there was any way of getting some more light in to the bar ‘Will this do?’ he asked and put a brulee torch to a block of sugar. *snap* ‘Yep, that will do nicely.’

#5 Maxim

Maxim, ISO 100, 24mm, f2.8 & 1/80sec

This shot was taken at Josh’s birthday party. My children pretty much refuse to do anything that I ask in a photo…but that doesn’t mean I can’t ask other, more polite children to stand under a skylight and look up towards it. I originally wanted to use as a colour shot as there was heaps of brightly coloured lego in the background…but it worked so much better as a black and white.

#6 Show me the boy at 7 and I’ll give you the man

Josh, ISO 800, 55mm, f2.8 & 1/100

As mentioned in #5, my kids have pretty much decided that my interest in photography is just a ploy to annoy them. As such, I have at best 10 seconds to get any shot of them before they walk off…and, no, they won’t be taking any direction…what you see is what you get. And sometimes that is pretty awesome. There’s nothing special about this as a photo…but as a parent it’s exactly how I see Josh, and how I think I’ll see him in about 10 years time. So I’m so glad I’ve got this as a keepsake.

#7 Sir James

Sir James,
Sir James, ISO 100, 24mm, f2.8 & 1/160 (with flash bouncing off an umbrella)

Another big lesson for this year was ‘Don’t be afraid of autofocus’. I had always assumed that pro-photographers eschewed auto focus and manually focused all of their shots. But having spoken to a few photographers about this, they all had the same reaction ‘Wow, you’re focusing everything manually…I don’t do that!’

For this shot I was in near total darkness and had no scope to manually focus and so trusted the autofocus…and lo and behold the shots came out beautifully.

I had hired some flash gear for the weekend to take these shots, so I was shooting with gear I’d never used, following a technique I had just learnt from a video and I was taking photos of my father-in-law. So the scope for disaster was pretty spectacular, but if this year has taught me anything it’s that the more you push yourself, the bigger the rewards. My challenge with any portrait is to try and capture the essence of the person, and so in this shot I think you see someone who is content, confident, a bit cheeky and incredibly comfortable with a glass of wine in his hand. Which is pretty much exactly how I see James.

#8 The big sister

The big sister,
The big sister, ISO 200, 85mm, f1.8 & 1/200sec

Similar to the photo of Josh, this photo is incredibly important to me as it serves a record of how close these two are. Holly’s patience with Xavier is biblical, and Xavier’s adoration of his big sister is equally epic. In time this may change…but I’ll always have this photo.

#9 Harry Potter

Harry Potter
Harry Potter, ISO 200, 17mm, f6.3 & 15 secs

I can remember in my late teens I was having guitar lessons, and my teacher had given me a series of scales to learn. He explained that I could play the notes in pretty much any order and they would all work with each other as they are in the same scale. I worked on those scales for weeks…then one day I suddenly started to see the patterns in them and was suddenly able to create little solos by using the notes from the scales. It was like suddenly seeing how the magician did the trick. Suddenly things made sense.

This photo was a similar experience for me. I knew what I wanted to do with the shot, but couldn’t get the camera to do it. So I went to full manual mode and realised what I had to do. I changed lenses, I put the camera on a tripod, I manually focussed on the church, cropped the moon just out of the shot so that the overall shot was darker so that I could use a longer exposure, and I got this shot. Suddenly things made sense.

#10 Footjam Nosepick

Footjam Nosepick,
Footjam Nosepick, ISO 200, 42mm, f4.5 & 1/1,000sec

The final Clique challenge was to take a shot using a fast shutter speed, which again was something I’ve never really done before. So we headed to the Edinburgh gardens, and after watching the skaters for about 20minutes, I saw this guy on the BMX doing a few runs. He was pulling off some pretty awesome tricks, and so I decided he was my star. I watched him for a bit longer to work out where was a good place to take the shot (ie where I was close enough to a trick to get the shot, but not in the way of anyone else). Then I shot in bursts of 1/1,000. I got a couple of pretty good shots of him doing airs, and one of him grinding…but this was the hero shot.

I really like photos where the more you look, the more you see, and so if you look closely you notice his tatts, you notice the two skaters in the background watching him, and if you look really closely you see that he’s not using a hand-brake to keep his front wheel from moving, he’s jammed his foot between the tyre and the fork – a ‘footjam nosepick’.

In conclusion

So that’s my top 10 for 2014. I was really stoked to have my portfolio of photos for Clique make the final for the grand prize. But I was much happier with how many risks I was willing to take this year to work on my photography. From approaching relative strangers to be photographed, to taking on my first wedding, to trying new techniques and equipment…every risk I’ve taken has given me some reward. Now I just have to work out a way to get paid to do this on a regular basis so that I can afford to get some of these printed.

Thanks for following the blog this year, I know that it’s been pretty sporadic. But once I’ve got this Ironman done (in March 2015) I’ll have much more time to devote to creative pursuits….and hopefully 2015 will be an even better year for photography.

Shooting portraits

My favourite photography to look at and to take is portrait photography. I love the idea of trying to tell a story, or capture an emotion in a single frame. I recently took a whole lot of portrait shots at a family get together, and I was really happy with some of them. So ‘I’m No Expert, But’ here are my tips for shooting portraits.

1. Light
If you have a studio and lights then you are probably reading this post on an ironic level…so I’ll just provide advice for the rest of us.
Use whatever natural light you have available. So if there is a window in the room, make sure the subject is facing towards it (and obviously avoid placing the person in front of the window, as all the backlight will make their face comparatively dark).

2. Shallow depth of field
A shallow depth of field basically means that one part of your shot is very clear, while the rest is blurred. To me this allows you to make the persons face the focus of the shot…everything else is just background. The lower the f-stop you use, the smaller the area that is in focus. My lens can go to 2.8 so that is what I use. Some lenses can get down to 1.4, some can’t get lower than 3.5.
The challenge with using a shallow depth of field is that while it means that you have one area beautifully in focus…you need to make sure that it is the area that you want. I have a dazzling array of photos where the person’s hair is in focus…or their ear. When in fact what you want to capture is…

3. The eyes
This is where the connection is for me. The mouth can be smiling…but the eyes will always tell the real story…so make them the focal point of the shot.
If you can, try to get some ‘light in the eyes’. If people are looking towards the light you will see a reflection of this light in their eyes, which adds an incredible sincerity to the shot.
Steve McCurry is a great exponent of this.

4. Camera settings
If you have the time and ability, then by all means set your f-stop, aperture and everything else manually.
Personally, I use the ‘CA’ (Creative Auto) setting on my Canon. Then use the following:
Flash: Turned off
Background: Blurred as possible (this is the shallow depth of field I was talking about)
Exposure: Leave as is unless it is really dark or sunny…and even then, just move somewhere else
Picture setting: Monochrome (I really like my portraits in black and white). But only do this if you can work with RAW files on your computer.
File type: RAW+L This will give you a RAW file (in full colour) and a JPG in black and white (if you’re in the monochrome setting). A lot of people will tell you to shoot full colour and then desaturate the image to make it black and white. But I personally like to see the image in black and white as I shoot it…and if I suddenly need a colour version, then I can just save the RAW file as a colour jpg.
Shooting: Continuous (people’s expressions change in the blink of an eye…so it’s worth shooting a whole lot of shots, to get that one moment where you have captured something special).

5. Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you are sitting in front of a camera, unless you are an extreme extrovert, you are going to be feeling a bit nervous…the photographer takes the photo, then says ‘No, that didn’t work’ or ‘We’re going to have to do that again’. How do you feel? I’m going to guess ‘not so great’. As the photographer you may have meant ‘I didn’t quite get that right’, or ‘I’ve got to change my settings’…but the damage has been done. You are now very unlikely to get a great shot of this person because that are going to be feeling awkward or self-conscious.
So always put yourself in the shoes of the person you are taking the photo of…if you wouldn’t like someone doing something to you, chances are they won’t like you doing it to them. And from a purely selfish perspective, you are going to get a much better photo of someone who is happy to be there and having fun.

I also think it’s worth making sure you get at least one photo that the person having their photo taken will actually want. Yes that photo of them in the middle of yawn ‘totally captured their inner child’ and yes that photo where pretty much everything is out of focus except for their left nostril is a fitting tribute to ‘the look you were going for there’. But you’re going to run out of people who are happy to let you take their photo pretty quickly if nobody likes how you’ve made them look.
So find some work that inspires you (I love cycling so Kristof Ramon , Veeral Patel, and Wade Wallace are a few of my faves) and get out there and try to capture some magic…then upload that magic to the internet…then wait for people to tell you that ‘you’re doing it wrong’.