Author Archives: scooter

Shorter focal lengths cause distortion

(or longer focal lengths compress features)

This is a classic example of correlation being mistaken for cause and effect.   That is, 2 things being caused by a 3rd thing rather than one causing the other.  When we shoot portraits, you’ll often hear people saying “don’t shoot below 50mm or you’ll get distortion of the subject’s features”.  Or “shoot a longer lens to compress the background”.  It isn’t the focal length that is causing these effects, it’s the distance between you at camera and your subject.  The closer you get, the more distortion of features you get, as the nose (for example) is now proportionally a lot closer than the ears to your camera than if you shot further away.  The shorter focal length is also caused by you being closer – to get a wider view to fit the whole face in.

Try this – take the same shot at 200mm and 50mm with the camera and subject in the same position and then crop the wider shot so the subject is the same size – they will look the same.  In the same way the background is compressed when you move further away (ie the distance between subject and background is proportionally smaller to the distance between you and the background).  A longer focal length is caused by the increase in distance, to keep the subject filling the frame.

So, rather than focal length causing the distortion,  the focal length and the distortion are both caused by the close working distance.

Lighting Workshops in partnership with Body Couture Studios

Lighting workshop flyer

I am very excited to be  teaching a workshop on lighting at Body Couture Studios on the 26th January.  The workshop will cover some of the underlying science, a tour of the typical equipment used, and then move on to practical sessions covering how to meter the light, where to place the lights to get hard or soft light, how to adjust the position to balance the lighting on certain features of the subject, how to skim and feather the light and how various modifiers can be used to help achieve these goals.  These will be part demonstration and part hands-on for the attendees.

Finally, we’ll be looking at how to incorporate motion into your shots combining continuous and flash light for a classical dance shot.

The course is suitable for anyone who has never used flash before and wants a jump-start into the world of creative lighting, and people who are familiar with studio lighting and would like to take the next step in controlling the light to get the picture they have in their heads, onto the memory card.

The course is for a half-day on the morning of Saturday the 26th Jan (10am start) At Body Couture Studios in Congleton, Cheshire.  The cost is just £95 and you can book your place by calling Becky at Body Couture Studios on 0772 039 5723.  You can find out more about the studio at








Landscape capture workflow


Some soap-box philosophy

Let me start by saying I don’t view my camera as a Polaroid instant camera.  That is, I don’t accept the efforts of the tiny processor and limited software inside it in producing a finished landscape image.   I see this sort of idea bandied about in print magazines and on forums across the intertubes:  “get it right in camera” they say.  What absolute rubbish.  What magic does it add to use the camera’s limited post-capture  processing as opposed to the might of Photoshop, Lightroom, Photomatix, Oloneo et al to produce the finished image?  It’s still processed by software.

“Don’t tamper with the image” is another axiom.  This is only important if you’re making a documentary.  Landscape photography is all about mood, emotion etc.  Who cares if the sky was really that colour?  Your camera doesn’t see what you see.  Your eyes cope with around 11 stops of light.  Your DSLR only around 5.   If you used a focal length much below or above 50mm, you are not capturing the field of view your eyes do, and the image will be distorted versus the one your eyes supplied to your brain.  Plus, if you shoot jpeg, your camera processed the image for colour, sharpening, contrast just the same as you might do in Photoshop – the only difference is that the settings were decided by the software engineers at Nikon/Canon et al a long time before you took the picture.  My point is – you already altered the scene by using a camera and not your eyes, and my advice (which can take or ignore of course) is that you get over this and liberate yourself from this restricted thinking.  Move forward to capture the mood of the scene – the emotion it evoked when you saw it.

I treat my camera as a data gathering device.  Nothing more.  I don’t use any of the post capture processing such as “Active D-Lighting”, “Magic pixie pixel improvement” or “picture control”.  I capture the raw data.  Even white balance and colour space are just tags in the image.  Specifying “ProPhoto” doesn’t capture any more data in the raw file.  Setting the white balance doesn’t affect what is captured – this tag just tells the viewing software how to render the colours in the picture.

OK I’ll now put away my handy fold-up soap box.

Continue reading

Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique


Dancer: Gabrielle Dams Crew: Suzy Clifford, Chris Steel, Lorraine Barnard, Clara Barnard. Time lapse BTS shoot: Clara Barnard Theatre technician: Paul Edwards Make-up: Gabrielle Dams Model Ageny: Becky Hampson, Body Couture Location: Grange Theatre, Hartford Special thanks to The Grange School.

Ever since I watched Joe McNally’s video about making a stroboscopic shot of ballet dancer Jen Concepcion, I wanted to shoot more dance.  Moreover I couldn’t get that shot out of my head.  I’ve learnt a lot of from Joe’s books and videos over the past year or so, and never travel without at least 1 speed-light these days (those rumours about me sleeping with an SB900 under the pillow are unfounded though).  Of all the shots I’ve watched Joe set up and make, this had to be the most complex in terms of technical lighting.  Not in terms of lighting finesse you understand – there are much more subtle arrangements of lights in Joe’s work.  But, shot in 3 parts, in camera with 3 commanders and for sheer speed-lightery, this was the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique of lighting – and as time went by, I just had to try it to get it out of my head…. Continue reading

Photography Myths – “Full frame” = 35mm sensor

I always wondered – “who died and made 35mm the reference size?”  It’s popular for sure, but it seems a bit strange to call 35mm sensors “full frame” when there are plenty of bigger ones and even bigger slabs of film available.  So I did a bit of research.  “Full frame” does not mean 35mm film sized sensor.  In fact it has nothing to do with the size of the sensor.  “Full frame” refers to a type of CCD sensor that does not have “shift registers” interleaved between each photo-site to shift the values off the photo-diode.  The space this frees up can be occupied by more photo-diode (around 70% surface area is light sensitive in a typical full frame sensor) making them more sensitive to light. They are called “full frame” as they shift the full frame out of the sensor to the storage array at a time.  This also makes them subject to light smear as they are still collecting as the data clocks out line by line to the storage array.  Without interline shift registers, full frame sensors are cheap to make, but require a mechanical shutter to stop and start light collection.  Because of this they cannot do video, or live view.

Almost all digital cameras today are not full frame.   They have Interline Transfer CCDs that are equipped with shift registers interleaved between the lines of photo-diodes to transfer the data off the photo-diode and onto an accumulation register (which can then be clocked out to the storage array while the light sensitive area is collecting photons for the next frame – allowing electronic control of the image start and stop and doing away with the need for a mechanical shutter  (we then have to ask why manufacturers add mechanical shutters to their cameras – which cause all kinds of problems with vibration and for high speed flash – I don’t know why they do this and can’t find any explanation).  Because they have shift registers next to the photo-diode, only around 30% of the photo-site is light sensing material.  To compensate, these sensors have an array of “micro-lenses” on them to collect light from the full area of the photo-site and concentrate it down into that 30% area.

So, by this definition, if your camera, like mine, does video or live-view:  it ain’t “full frame” – no matter how big the sensor is.

Another meaning of “full frame” originates in the movie industry.  35mm movie cameras using the full size film gate were called “full frame” or “full gate”  Smaller gates could be used to save film (which would run through the smaller gate slower).

This is also meaningless to 35mm digital cameras unless (as on some Nikon 35mm cameras) you have the option shoot with less than the full frame.  Even then though, this makes no assumption about the actually size of the “full frame” – it could be anything.







Scooter make fashion shot

With wrinkled background

Or “early man” fashion shots really. These are pretty basic in terms of creative input, however I wanted to give the basics a go in terms of more even, full length lighting, and getting the background right!  It sounds simple doesn’t it:  just blur the background to even out the inevitable wrinkles in your seamless paper or vinyl?  I tried a number of ways of doing this:  brushing on -100 clarity in Lightroom with the adjustment brush using the “auto mask” feature.  I tried feathering the brush, not feathering the brush; cleaning the edges after with the eraser.  I got close, however at 100%, there was always a perceptible halo round the model.  I tried blurring in Photoshop and masking the model by brushing the mask on; and a 100 variations.

Then I watched Frank Doorhof’s video on how he processes his fashion shots – ( On Kelby Training – go there now!  You’ll like it ).  I’d watched Frank’s great lighting videos, but never his Photoshop ones as, well, they have Matt Kosklowski’s tutorials on there – why would I watch Photoshop tips from Frank ? He’s the lighting guy!)  However, Frank’s technique for blurring out the background really works, and it’s not even that tedious to do!

In a nutshell:   Duplicate the image; on the duplicate layer, select the background using the tool of your choice (I used the magic wand).

with smoothed background

Keep clicking until most of the background is selected, but don’t pay any attention to small areas caused by loops of hair and don’t worry about getting the selection perfect.   Invert the selection.  Expand the selection by 1-2 pixels so now you have a  rough selection of your model with a small margin around them.  Cut out the selection (your model).  You can still see the model from the layer below.  Blur the duplicate layer at maximum Gaussian blur.  Get rid of the banding this produces by adding the same amount of noise to this layer as your camera produces  (for my Nikon D800E, this is around 1% at ISO 100).

 a tighter head and shoulders shot processed the same way

Paste the model back.  This produces a 3rd layer:  merge down.   Now zoom in to 100% and click the duplicate layer on and off and marvel at the seamless join.  You can then mask off the blurred layer to suit, say on shadows cast on the floor or for any fine tuning around the hair etc.  Full size in the People gallery as usual.

Apart from that, these shots used a 1.2metre white octabox, with both baffles in place up high to camera left, and a gridded strip box pretty much opposite the octa to camera right and behind the model.  The background is a grey seamless vinyl, not specifically lit.









Model:  Ellie Anderson – Body Couture Agency.  Clothes and make-up by Ellie.



Portrait Processing: sometimes you just don’t

I shot this image today at Body Couture Studios in Congleton. Adjusted the white and black points as usual in Lightroom.  Looked at it and thought “you know what – I’m not gonna touch this – it’s done”.  If the light is right and the subject has good skin, and great make-up, you don’t need to mess with it.  See a larger version in the “People” gallery.

Model:  Ellie Anderson, Body Couture Agency

Make up:  Ellie Anderson






Hoops, poles and portable lights


I visited the opening party for Body Couture studios in Congleton last weekend.  It’s a fantastic Georgian building with a great gallery staircase, small studio rooms and some other rooms with attractive furniture, and big windows.  One of the studio rooms is equipped with 4 poles and a hoop.  The studio is owned and operated by Becky Hampson, a successful model, and pole fitness instructor.

I had no idea what to expect from this event other than to meet people.  At the last minute I threw a speedlight and a 24″ soft-box and stand into the car.

The event was packed with photographers, models, and makeup generating a great busy atmosphere.  Whilst the studio has some basic lights, and people were shooting, the outcomes were likely to be on the basic side.  Chris and I started shooting models on the hoop – using an SB-900, zoomed out to 17mm with the diffuser attached, and  inside the 24″ soft box.  The room is quite small, and there were a couple of other people in it so we struggled to get distance both for the light and the camera.  So I decided to stick to some tighter shots, minimising the background.

At 1/250th, ISO 100 and f/5.6  on the D800E the room was black and ready for light.  Chris was wielding the light handheld – the only way to go when your model is moving around, hanging upside down and rotating on a hoop suspended from a floor joist in the ceiling.  After a few shots we swapped roles and I played “chase the face” with the light for Chris as Belle, a dancer and part time model, moved from pose to pose.


Using iTTL to control the light from the camera was perfect for this ever changing shot – we could move the light, feather it, move it further away, closer in and iTTL sorted the exposure every time.  Later on, we worked with Stacey (left) and the one-

light in a soft-box (here to camera right, angled slightly downwards, and more or less side-on) worked well.  Chris varied the dtsiance of the light until we got a nice rotation from light to shadow.  I would have killed for a 2nd light to add some accent to Stacey’s hair, however we had just one light – and I like the simplicity of this shot.  The quality of the light was quite soft too, for a relatively small source compared to big studio octa-banks.

We also used the same technique to light some shots at the top of the stairs with Ellie.  Not the last word in lighting, however better than just the ambient which had the models in shadow against a lit background.

I had a fantastic time, met a load of talented people and even made a few simple images  The studio is a little on the small side however if you’re looking for something with a bit more atmosphere than seamless paper, Becky’s new studio venture is worth a look.










Forget the beauty dish – meet the Pie Dish


I was quite taken with those trick Elinchrom deep octaboxes with the swappable reflector dishes for producing a crisp but even light with the diffusers removed.  However all my lights have Bowens S fitments.  I could buy a converter and mount the deep octa on my S fit lights however I thought I’d try a DIY version first.  So behold the Pie Dish.  My 1.2 metre white octa with a take-away dish suspended on four pipe-cleaners in front of the flash bulb.  The pipe cleaners are inserted into four of the strut loops on the octabox.


Photography myths – high pixel density increases noise

This one is being trotted out with ever increasing frequency these days as manufacturers release new cameras with more pixels per square inch than ever before.  Especially Nikon, who seem to have decided everyone needs to print at A3, with the D800 at 36Mpixel and even the new entry level Nikon DSLR the D3200 packing 24Mpixels.

I currently use a D700 most of the time which “only” has 12Mp spread across a 36mm sensor (“35mm” sensors and film are actually 36mm – go measure it if you don’t believe me ).  It performs really well at high gain (the so called “ISO”).  I was concerned about the performance of the D800 at high ISO ratings – if I switched, would I still be able to take pictures in relative darkness, handheld and so on?

Now, sure, if you took the same image at a high ISO rating  with a D700 and a D800 and zoomed both to 100%, the D800 image would have more noise.  But!  You zoomed the D800 image more.  A lot more.  Zoom the D800 image to the *same* magnification as the D700 image at 100%, and what you’ll find is that the noise is the same.    It makes sense – if you divide the same physical area of sensor into 3 times the pixels, but then squash the image down by a factor of 3, the extra noise is lost in the re-sizing.  There will be some loss due to inefficiencies and the borders around the photo-sites sure, but on this comparison, the D800 shot looks better than the D700  (D3 on the test) to me (and about the same as the canon 5d MKIII):