Photography studio, gallery and training complex

Archive for January, 2011

Flowers Fotofilia-style

One of the things I’ve been doing with each of my “DSLR For Beginners” groups at Birmingham Botanical Gardens (and now also at the studio) is photographing flowers. No great surprise there you might think – after all, it’s the Botanical Gardens so you can hardly move for beautiful plants.

Except that for two of the year’s three terms it’s usually too dark to photograph very much of anything in the gardens between 7 and 9pm, which is when the classes are. So I’ve adapted an idea I found in the book, “Still Life” by Terry Hope which is a compilation of images by different photographers giving details of their particular approach to the subject.

Unfortunately, I confess I can’t remember the name of the photographer whose idea I have based my technique on (the book long since having been “borrowed” – that’ll teach me). However, I do remember exactly how he/she achieved their striking results.

A sheet of tracing paper was placed over a window frame, and so leaving an inch or two gap between pane and paper. Then a small hole was cut in the paper and the stalk of a flower (in this case a gerbera I think) was inserted into the hole. The flower was then photographed from indoors with a certain amount of the window light bounced back at the flower from inside to lift some of the shadow detail. The result was a black and white image of the flower seemingly suspended in mid-air with the stalk pleasingly fading off into the distance. Presumably this would have necessitated a long, tripod-mounted exposure.

I decided to adapt this for a classroom/studio environment where natural light wasn’t exactly in abundance. I used a studio flash fitted with a softbox to substitute for the window. In front of this I set up a frame with tracing paper stretched over it and once again, cut a small hole to insert the flower’s stalk through. Instead of a reflector, I set up a second studio flash (synched to the first and fitted with either a softbox or reflector brolly) in front of the flower at a lower power setting.

Tip: I find that flowers with a more translucent quality work best.

This simple set-up has become a regular and popular staple of my courses. Here are a few results…  

Hope you like them.



PIY (Print It Yourself) SOS!

Another of those questions I’m often asked is: “What sort of printer do you have?” or “Which printer do you recommend?”.
Well, the truth is, I own only a very cheap (£45) combined printer/scanner/copier that’s used exclusively for printing letters, invoices, course materials etc. And it drives me nuts! Constant pop-ups about ordering more cartridges, aligning my current cartridge (even though I did it the last time I switched on), paper jams, and endless, pointless un-requested ink-guzzling test prints…

I NEVER print my own photographs. I’m no PIY (Print It Yourself) enthusiast. Well, not digital photos anyway. Let’s face it, digital printing is a fairly soul-less activity anyway – you press a button and out pops a print – so not likely to ever be as much fun as seeing your print emerge from a chemical soup in the darkroom. 

The darkroom - the only PIY I'm happy to do.

Of course, I know lots of professional photographers who do. Most of these have invested at the very least a thousand pounds on their printers. Often, they’re photographers who print large quantities of smaller prints where, let’s say, maximum quality isn’t the primary consideration.

Similarly, I know semi-pro and amateur photographers who PIY but they don’t print in any great quantity and arguably can devote more time per image to ensure they get the best quality their machines can deliver. And I can’t deny that some of the images produced are comparable with pro printing houses in terms of quality.

Some years ago, I won some funding with which I could easily have bought a decent printer. I bought a medium format camera. And a camera bag. And a laptop… anything other than a printer, although I did consider it – for about three minutes.

My Fotofilia colleague Lisa has a “dye-sub” printer (that weighs roughly the same as a Ford Fiesta) that she regularly uses for her event work, for which it is an invaluable bit of kit, quickly and cheaply churning out large numbers of prints for her clients. But even this can’t print very large prints. The quality’s actually pretty good but she wouldn’t produce her exhibition prints with it.

Let’s be honest, the kind of machine that will consistently produce large, high-quality prints to the standard that I’d require for exhibition or my clients is going to cost me at least a couple of grand, probably more – and then there’s the inks, which need to be used fairly regularly, and the ongoing issue of trying to maintain colour consistency. Constantly (or even occasionally) having to calibrate the colours on both monitor and finished prints is frankly one more tedious task I could do without.

My philosophy is simply this: I can’t afford a £20,000 (for instance) printer so I’ll send my pictures to someone who has one.

I never run out of ink. I never run out of paper.

Instead, I send my images to the place I’ve entrusted with my photographs for over 20 years ( I upload the files (or take them in) and they’re printed in a few short days. Cost-wise, I can’t imagine that doing them PIY would work out much cheaper. Quality and convenience – and I can spend the capital I didn’t spend buying a printer on something I really want… like setting up a new darkroom perhaps.

Please note: Not all printing houses are the same! More about this in a future post.

Cheap, Chinese & Cheerful

I’m indebted to photographer Keith West for introducing me to, and convincing me of, the merits of the item I’m going to discuss here.

So many of my students seem to fall prey to sales staff at their high street camera shop and come along to class clutching their beloved new DSLR, “kit” lens (aaaargh!) and Speedlite-type flashgun.

They then usually huff and puff about what an expensive hobby photography is: they’ve only just taken the hobby up and already find themselves in need of an additional lens (that’ll be limitations of the “kit lens” becoming apparent) and accessories for their ultra-expensive flashguns.

Until comparatively recently, I confess, I’ve side-stepped the whole speedlite/strobe mania thing. On location or weddings I avoid flash unless absolutely necessary – that’s why God gave us the sun, clouds and reflectors, after all. If pushed I’ll reach into my camera bag and pull out my trusty old Metz “hammerhead” – fifteen or so years old and still working beautifully, nice white light, powerful, fully adjustable – but gobbles up batteries like they’re going out of fashion.

My trusty old Metz

In case you didn’t know (or care), in recent years there‘s been a quiet revolution in flashgun technology. The new generation of guns are capable of much greater communication with the camera as well as an infinitely faster recycle rate – most being able to keep up with your camera’s 6-7 frames per second firing rate -hence increasingly being referred to as “strobes”.

I’ve never been too worried about my camera and flashgun talking to each other. I just want to be able to adjust the power output, so my Metz has been ok so far even though after a few dozen shots on fresh batteries, I find myself having to make small-talk with the model for 3 or 4 minutes until its ready to shoot again. Not ideal.

But if I decide to go out and get a nice shiny new strobe to go with my Nikons – say the Nikon SB-900  or  much smaller SB-400, I’ll be shelling out between £128  and £323. Canon’s equivalent range from £102 to £368 (prices from as of 6th Jan. 2011).  Even the Nissin branded equivalent will set me back between £83 (for a “not-quite” speedlite) and £204.

And that’s the problem: I’m basically tight-fisted when it comes to buying new gear. Unlike an amateur enthusiast, every item of equipment I buy has to be justified and justifiable economically and it galls me to spend upward of £200 on something which I feel is obscenely overpriced.

So imagine my delight when Keith West, an equally thrifty photographer, told me that he regularly uses a sturdy little Chinese equivalent of the speedlites which costs a fraction of the price of the Nikon/Canon model and despite not having a few of their bells and whistles, delivers finely adjustable strobe flash (almost) just like the big brands. 

Keith uses a couple of Yongnuo strobes on stands with brollies or soft-boxes and so produces studio-quality results and this kit still adds to less than the price of a single Canon/Nikon/Nissin strobe – how can you lose? 

The Yongnuo YN 560

As I’ve said, the Yongnuos don’t have all the functionality – especially the same level of TTL (through the lens) control – as their big name counterparts. But my own model, the YN560, has one Manual and two slave settings as well as fully adjustable power and zoom settings. That’s all I need. There’s also built-in pop-out reflector and diffuser, as well as the natty little “frog feet” stand.

Another advantage of these cheeky little strobes is that they’re essentially the same carcass shape and size as the ones they’re attempting to mimic in every other way. The obvious benefit of this is that they can be used with the same range of accessories. For example, Rayflash ringflash units fit nicely onto the Yongnuo just as they would onto the Canon/Nikon versions and this is also the case for the various additional diffusers/light-shapers that are available. 

Yong Nuo & Canon equivalent side by side

The build quality is surprisingly very good. I’ve had a couple of occasions in the last few months when I’ve been very glad of my Yongnuo: one of which was an early morning winter wedding – virtually all indoors and minimal available light. The Yongnuo managed something in the region of 500+ shots before I decided to change batteries, and in truth I could probably have gone on for some time longer but wanted the fastest recycle times possible so that I didn’t miss anything.

But here’s the absolutely best bit – the aforementioned YN560 (not the cheapest strobe in the range by some way) is currently listed on Amazon from £56! That’s FIFTY SIX pounds!

Of course it’s up to you how you spend your cash but personally I’d rather by the cheaper strobe – or even two – and spend the balance on other kit.

Keith’s website –

Christmas Is Dead – Long Live Focus

The last mortal remains of the turkey have long been consigned to a black plastic bag and you’re anticipating the unwelcome thud of a dozen credit card statements landing on your doormat – time for Focus On Imaging 2011.

Focus is, despite all my best efforts, an unmissable event in the annual calendar. This year it’s 6th-9th March and as usual is to be held at the NEC in Birmingham (Halls 9 & 10) – so I can’t even blame excessive travel for my non-attendance.

Nope, I’ll be there, just as I am ever year, tutting under my breath, grumpy old man-style, as I realise the absence (or scaled-down presence) of another big name of the photographic world compared with the year before… But there’s always something new to take it’s place.

Focus, even if you don’t actually buy anything, is a very good barometer of what’s happening in photography. Trends in framing, software, presentation, albums, printers etc are apparent by simply seeing who’s there and what their new lines are.

Focus 2010

I always – always – leave my credit card at home. This is dangerous turf for the impulse buyer. There are usually lots of great deals to be had (even if you have to search a few out – some you don’t get unless you ask) and if something is too good to miss but exceeds my day’s self-allocated pocket money, it’s often possible to arrange to buy after the event. If not, I’ll come back (your pass isnt day-specific but is scanned on the way in).

Previously seen deals include: rucksacks free with 6 month camera mag subscriptions, five Fuji 120 films for a fiver, half-price books, great discounts on memory cards, bundles of magazine back-issues at mad-cheap prices (I stock up my reading material for the next 6 months), and good reductions on memberships to the RPS and trade organisations.

The queue - what did I tell you?

Here’s my Focus tips…

  • Pre-register online. It will save you ages in the queue. It’s also £2 cheaper if you’re a non-trade visitor and you pre-register (£8 instead of £10).
  • Go by train if you’re fairly local. Even if you go by car, there’s quiet a walk to the halls.
  • Take an empty satchel and start by walking around picking up ever leaflet and brochure you see. Then scan these over coffee and decide who you want to re-visit.
  • If there’s a presentation or demo you definitely want to attend, pre-book.
  • NEVER go at the weekend unless you really have to. This is when the amateurs bring their kids along. Whenever you go it’s a bun-fight but always worse at the weekend.
  • Get along to the Disabled Photographers Society’s stand. Not only does this organisation do some great work, but if you get there early in the show, they sell off all their unwanted kit – a friend of mine always makes a bee-line for this stand and stocks up on tripods and kit bags for a few quid each.
  • Unofficially, a fair bit of haggling goes on at Focus. Listen out and you’ll hear it going on. Try – you never know.

and the Disabled Photographers’ Society

Word & Pictures pt.2

As I mentioned in pt.1 I began linking my own photography to the written word (and especially poetry) some years ago. But now I must confess that I’ve recently “borrowed” an idea from the Viewfinder gallery in London…

The exhbition space at Viewfinder

In Spring 2010, I took part in an exhibition called “Alchemists” at Viewfinder, which was then in Greenwich (now in Brixton). After the exhibition, Viewfinder curator Louise sent me an email containing press reviews as well as a series of photographs of a creative writing group (based at Viewfinder) who had used the exhibition as a stimulus for their work – and Louise had also included some examples of their efforts.

I was able to pick out references to my photographs (a series of gum bichromate prints) quite easily because their subject matter was quite unlike that of the other five exhibitors. I was thrilled by this! My own creation had led to another, entirely different, creation!

So when we set up the gallery space at Fotofilia, I was keen to do something similar. It seemed to be something that both photographer and writer might benefit from. I contacted Emma Purshouse (the wonderful poet that I’d collaborated with on “A Circle Drawn at Random”) and she in turn contacted Bohdan Piasecki, the West Midlands Programme Coordinator of national poetry organisation Apples and Snakes ( Thankfully, he also liked the idea.

The result? Apples and Snakes are holding a poetry workshop at Fotofilia on Sunday 16th January. This has been timed to coincide with the end of THE CLUB’s exhibition so that the workshop participants will have as wide a range of material to gain inspiration from as possible. It is hoped that this will lead to the establishment of an ongoing relationship between Fotofilia and Apples and Snakes and even perhaps a poetry group meeting regularly at Fotofilia. 

The workshop is free too! Anyone interested in taking part should should contact Apples and Snakes direct.

Viewfinder’s blog can be found at – more about this excellent little gallery soon.

Interview: Christophe Dillinger

I filmed this interview with photographer Christophe Dillinger just hours before the launch of his “WYSIWIGOTN” exhibition at Fotofilia, which also happned to be our very first exhibition, in August 2010.

Here, Christophe describes the two series of images included in the show but also his approach to his work in general and his publishing activities.

Hopefully, this is the first of many such interviews (especially now that I’ve invested in some new video kit). Enjoy…

Guess I should add some links to Christophe’s sites here too…