Category Archives: How Its made


Sunstars are the star shaped rays of light you get from a point source, when shooting a wide-angle lens stopped down.  I recently did a short test on most of my wide angle lenses to see which gave the best sunstars.  I included the 70-300mm as well just to see.  I used a small LED torch as the light source about 2 metres away, focused on it, and took shots at f/8,  f/11 and f/16 with each lens, except the Zeiss 50mm which ash f/8, f/16 and f/22.  The number and shape of the blades that make up the diaphragm should determine how many points the star has, with straight bladed diaphragms giving the most defined stars.


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Remo Rebelle


Now, about these modelling names.  Normally I can’t be doing with all of that.  Talking to someone and calling them “Sparkle” or “Shiny Stone” or something is just odd.  However, Remo has a real job and a life she’d rather keep separate from her modelling work and that’s fine with me.

Remo contacted me with a brief for 3 styles of shot, with lots of pictures and descriptions of clothing, styles and examples.  I liked Remo’s ideas a lot so a few weeks later we met at Pathways Studio in Chester to make them.  Also on-set we had a fantastic make-up artist, Victoria and my assistant for the day – my friend Sandy Auden.  It always helps if your assistant is a photographer, and Sandy is an accomplished concert and event shooter – more used to extracting good images in sh*tty light…  The idea you could actually turn it up and down intrigued her and she agreed to come help out – and did a brilliant job.

The first set was inspired by the sort of 1950’s Hollywood, film-noir style light with the subject the classic “femme-fatale” that often featured in these movies. As Remo’s outfit was all black, we needed some fill which is provided by the gridded strip-box on the right.  This is feathered off towards camera.  The main light, a gridded beauty dish, is actually hidden behind that strip-box and is aimed at her head and shoulders.  The last light, the edge light is off to camera left lighting the hair and providing edge light down her right arm.

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Portrait shooting and processing workshop

Thanks to everyone who attended the session last night at Holmes Chapel Camera Club.  Despite the technical problems with tethering a D800 to a Windows 8 laptop (my old D700 always worked flawlessly when tethered) we achieved the main goals of the workshop.  There are a number of articles on this website looking at specific bits of process and techniques which I’ve linked to on this page, however I thought it would be useful to summarise the things we looked at last night.

Many thanks to Clara for modelling for me.  Not easy seeing your face up that close.

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Images from the lighting workshop

Here are some of the things we went through in the workshop last month.  There was a lot of content to cover which meant restricting the amount of sets and lighting styles to cover each one in depth.  Our model for the day, Vicky provided all the outfits whilst hair and makeup was done by studio owner  Becky Hampson.   We started off with a simple beauty shot to talk about setting up 3 lights one at a time, starting with the key, using the light-meter to get the others at the exact ratio we wanted.  The background is provided by a 1.2 metre octabox, facing the camera and back-lighting the model.  Fill is provided by a strip box from below, and the key light is a diffused beauty dish.  This is a pretty formulaic and easily repeatable setup – it’s a bit like building your own Photo-Me! booth for beauty shots: once it’s set up and the lights are dialled in, you can just blast away.  There are lots of variations on this using reflectors instead of a second softbox for fill or with a Tri-Flector, or with a front-lit background and so on.  I like this set-up as the background light washes over the edges of the model – you just need to be careful not to crank up the background light too much or the light will eat into the edges of the hair and other fine detail.  You can meter this to get started, however this is really a creative decision – I tend to start at 2 stops over the key light, with the octabox about a foot behind the model. 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

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






Portrait processing in Lightroom

Up until recently I had been processing most portraits in Portrait Pro Studio.  Portrait Pro does a great job for 80% of the retouching work – especially on hair and skin as long as you don’t go too wild with the sliders.  However, one of the things I don’t like about it is the way it handles exposure and contrast of the image generally – I can never get beauty style shots light enough and so always end up applying a custom preset to the resulting tiff files in Lightroom afterwards.  It doesn’t do a great job on the eye sharpening or iris contrast either, so I started applying fairly blunt adjustment brushes to the eye area in LR too.  Having read Scott Kelby’s “Light it, Shoot it, Retouch it” (which is excellent by the way) I’d played around in Photoshop replicating Scott’s approach with great success – however, I don’t like to use external editors such as Photoshop or Portrait Pro if I can avoid it as this generates manual steps in my workflow and intermediate tiff files.



On the last shoot I did, I thought I would try to process some of them purely in Lightroom, translating the techniques Scott uses in Photoshop.  Here’s what I did to the image on the left:-

Most of the work is done with the adjustment brush.  However I started by making global adjustments to blacks, whites, shadows and contrast and then using the healing tool to remove obvious blemishes.






I then created a series of brush presets that I could use going forward:-

  • -90% clarity – applied with a broad brush with no auto-mask to the skin to soften it.
  • Increase exposure and highlights, reduce saturation on the whites of the eyes, with a small increase in white balance to compensate for the de-saturation.
  • Increase contrast, saturation, clarity and exposure on the iris and pupil only.  Apply with auto-mask and no feathering
  • Apply generally over the eye area: increase sharpness, clarity and contrast with small uplift in exposure (0.19)
  • Increase in saturation, slight decrease in exposure to lips.  Sometimes I’ll add a tint to this.  Apply middle without auto-mask or feathering.  Apply up to edges with auto-mask and no feathering
  • Big brush over hair area, increasing highlights, small decrease in sharpness and clarity and playing around with vibrancy, tints etc



_DSC2372A final crop and I’m done.   I really like the clean result this gives.  The downside is that Lightroom really starts to creak under the weight of all the brushes, and healing clicks and collapses occasionally requiring a restart.   More memory would most likely cure this though as my current OS can only address 4Gb.

I have also created presets for toning the image, used on the image to the right which was processed in Portrait Pro and then finished in Lightroom.  This was a revelation to me when I read it somewhere, a while back:  using the split toning tool in Lightroom to tone the highlights and shadows instantly gives your high key beauty style shots a print magazine style.  Use the yellow preset colours for the highlights and the blue preset colours for the shadows – and then adjust using the sliders on the split toning tool.

On the whole, you can get very good results purely in Lightroom up to a fairly advanced state of re-touch.  Where it’s not so good, is in actually editing pixels.  Anything more complex than a simple skin blemish heal and it will struggle.  You are better off doing these in Photoshop:  the clone stamp and healing brush tools are far batter for removing stray hairs.  Of course you can also make other adjustments in Photoshop such as adding hair, altering the shape of the face with the pinch and liquefy tools and so on.    What I like about working purely in Lightroom though, is that at any time, I can branch off a virtual copy to try something out, and the catalogue manages all the various versions.  Sure, you can create copies of images in Photoshop, however it’s not as slickly managed.   I can also then sync the global adjustments to all of the shots from that set and then get to work with the brushes again…..


See the images full size in the People gallery








How its made – studio insect macro

Metallic paint extra.

As my legs are in an unserviceable state right now, at least as far as Landscape photography is concerned, with the 4am starts, treks over all kinds of terrain with 40lbs of gear etc., I’ve had to confine my photographic activities to my house and garden.  After some time chasing bees around the garden, first with a ring light, and then with a soft-box and umbrella (I didn’t like the flat light from the ring light) I thought I’d try and bring some flies into the studio and make some graphic images against a plain white background.  There are a number of problems and constraints to overcome in making these close-up shots:-

First, catch your fly.

I used a plastic box with lid to capture my subjects, either on flat surfaces sliding a piece of paper under the upturned box, or on a flower or leaf, placing the leaf between box and lid.  There is always some collateral damage to the plant with this method and you must be careful not to squash the fly!  Hover flies are quite easy to capture, helpfully staying in one place in mid-air allowing you to place a box and lid around them.


Getting the fly to stay still

People often assume all kind of gruesome methods for keeping the model on the set when they see these images.  I can assure you that no hairspray, super-glue, or pins were used and that the subjects are alive and well and flew off seconds after each shot was taken.  The answer is temperature.  As cold blooded creatures, flies get very lethargic when they get cold and if you cool them enough, they will stand still for anything from 10 seconds to over 2 minutes.  Having captured a fly in the box, I put the box in the fridge for 40 minutes or so, tipping them out gently onto the stage and offering them the end of a match if they landed upside down.  They will stand there quite happily for a while, cleaning eyes, wings etc, while you spring into action taking pictures.  You need to get as much of the work done before you place the fly on the stage though (makes sure the flash is on, at the right power for the aperture you are using, and the remote cord or wireless trigger is working) as you don’t know how long they will stay put.


Eliminating shadows

I finally found a use for all those Lee translucent white lens caps!  As most standard lens caps will fit on a Lee filter ring, these things serve no purpose but to clutter up your backpack. They are approx 10cm in diameter and made from a white translucent plastic.  I place the fly on top of one of these caps, which is in turn placed on top of a white reflector on a table.  The light is provided by a Speedlight fitted with a small soft-box shining directly down on top of the fly.  Light passes through the lens cap, bounces back off the reflector and back through the cap, illuminating the underside of the fly and eliminating any shadows under it.



I wanted to get the fly as big as possible in the frame whilst getting all of it in.  I practiced with a dead fly I found on a window sill to get the angle of the shot right as I knew I wouldn’t have much time once the model was placed on the stand and in warm air again.

I tried some manual extension tubes as these have the advantage of adding no additional glass, and so no chromatic aberration etc.  However, having to manually open up the lens to compose and focus, and then stop down manually, using the aperture ring on the lens before taking the shot, was not really compatible with a subject that could fly away any second.  In the end I opted for a +2 dioptre close up lens on the end of a Sigma 105mm macro lens, focussed to its highest magnification.  A nice side effect of a fixed focus is that the subjects are always exactly the same distance away from the front element – and so all these shots are to scale.



I had my camera mounted on a dual axis macro rail allowing me to make very small movements back and forth and side to side with the whole camera.  I would move the Lee lens cap that the fly was standing on to roughly the right place whilst looking through the finder, and then use the macro rail adjusters to get the final focus.  Depth of field is very narrow at this level of magnification and most of the time I would focus on the eyes, although for the shot at the top of this article, I shot seven images stepping gradually through the fly front to back.  I used CombineZP to focus stack these images to produce a fly that is almost all in focus.  Of course you need your fly to stay still while you take all these shots.  These shots were taken mostly at f/16 with some at f/18.   This is really pushing the limits of diffraction for the sensor on my D200 and normally, I would never stop down more than f/11 on this camera, and usually no more than f/8 is required.



Flies get covered in dust and pollen and I spent some time gently blowing this away with a lens blower, whilst being careful not to blow the model off the set 😛



How its made

This is the first of a series of articles which I suppose could be titled “how do they do that then?”.  I often find myself trying to reverse engineer pictures, and more recently, trying to figure out why the picture works too, however that’s a more subtle art.  For these pieces, I’ll be going through the technique more than anything.  Seeing the picture in your head first is up to you – that’s what really makes you a photographer; not knowing what kit I used to make this image.

Anyway – enough of the philosophy.  First of all – just what is this an image of?  Is it bubbles on the surface of some water?  Where did the idea come from?

It’s like this.  I’m short sighted.  very short sighted.  Without my glasses on, I have macro eyes. My range of focus beats any macro lens you can buy today from 3cm to 6cm.  When I lift my glasses from the shelf in the shower and look at them close enough for my eyes to focus (or “eye”:  at that range, only one eye at a time can be used really)  the image below is basically what I see (maybe with a bit more DOF).  And that’s exactly what this image is – water droplets on my glasses.

If you’re wondering how I took the image without the glasses on my face:  the answer is pretty boring I’m afraid, I have a second pair:  when you’re more or less blind without these contraptions, you have more than one.

The light is natural light from a window behind, through a diffuser.  The colour gradient in the top half was added in Lightroom.

I had the glasses resting on a box on the window sill and the camera on a tripod.  Now, I say it was on a tripod and that sounds pretty simple.  However, looking at it now, its apparent that the top 20% of the “tripod” is actually one sort of mount or adjuster bolted on top of another.  I have a set of Giottos legs and ball head, with Wimberley C12 clamp, Giottos Arca plate screwed into the bottom of a dual axis macro rail which is in turn bolted to the Kirk L-bracket that never leaves my D700.

Happily it all fits together to allow for adjustments in tilt, rotation, left-right and forward-backward.  Its that last one that matters most for macro shots.  You don’t focus by adjusting anything on the lens: you position the tripod so the subject is roughly the right size in the frame, and set the focus on the lens manually to roughly where it needs to be.  The actual focussing is then done by using the geared adjusters on the macro rail to move the whole camera back and forth.  I bought my macro rail from HT Photo in China and it’s a solid piece of kit.

Live view is invaluable here, especially with the magnification function on my Nikon that crops the LCD display to a moveable window on the scene.  Zooming in using this function on live view and using the macro rail adjusters to move the camera allows for very precise focussing.  To take the shot, I then drop out of live-view, lock the mirror up, blank off the view finder and take the shot using a remote release to avoid any vibration or movement of the camera which would knock my focus off-target.

The water was added by my shower – holding it in the water until a suitable pattern of drops was formed – I had around 10 goes before I got drops of the right sizes and roughly spaced how I wanted them.  Post processing Lightroom added the graduated colour, some global and mid-range contrast, some saturation boost and selective sharpening (with an aggressive mask to only sharpen the droplet edges)