Using trees to get great exposures

Getting the right exposure can be a problem for landscape photographers. The sky is often equally important as other elements in the composition, but exposing for the sky while keeping everything else sufficiently bright can be a challenge.

The image below is very complex, with lots of different elements in the composition. I spotted the interesting clouds moving in, so I positioned myself in a way that I could capture the sky and other important components, such as the rocks and the trees in the middle of the image.

As you can imagine, getting the correct exposure for this picture was not easy. The two images below illustrate the point. The first one was exposed to keep the detail in the sky, and as you can see, the foreground has gone very dark.

The rocks in the foreground of the image form an important aspect of the composition, therefore I wanted these to be nicely exposed. However, exposing for the rocks led to the detail in the sky being lost.

I usually use the Zone System of exposure. The Zone System was created by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer in the 1940s. Their idea was to create a system that allows for an image to be visualised in the mind before the shot is taken, controlling the exposure so that the image turns out as planned.

Although I use the ‘full’ concept of the Zone System for most of my shots, I have created a very simple interpretation of it. I find this simple trick works about 80% of the time, and it certainly worked for the shot of the castle.

My simplified system involves the following. I look for trees or other similar coloured vegetation, particularly in the middle area of the shot, and I take a light meter reading from that area.

From that exposure, I underexpose the shot by one or two stops. For example, the trees in the middle of the shot gave me a reading of 1/60 second at f8. Instead of using that meter reading, I exposed the image two stops below, which in the case of the castle shot, was 1/15 second at f8.

This method results in slight underexpose in the trees in the middle of the frame, but there is still enough detail that can be seen. The underexposure provides just about the right level of brightness in the rocks in the foreground, and it results in the sky having the right amount of detail.

Understanding how light and meters work is fundamentally important to photographers, particularly landscape photographers. Light is reflected off every part of a scene; trees, water, rocks, people, roads etc. The light meter ‘reads’ these reflected values and then averages them out as ‘middle grey’, or in light meter terms, 18% grey. The meter then provides an exposure guide, which aims to bring the scene into the middle grey zone, which is why the sky can very often be burned out. However, by taking something that reflects middle grey (the trees in the middle of my shot) and underexposing them by one or two stops, the whole exposure of the image is pushed towards the darker end of the zone spectrum.

Using this technique results in images that require very little tweaking in post-production. Any alternations that I do make in post are mostly to deepen the sky and bring back the detail in the trees.

This little trick is really useful when exposing a tricky scene.

Pinhole photography

Pinhole photography offers wonderful simplicity, stripping photography back to the very basics. With just a light-tight box, a small hole and a method of capturing the image, pinhole cameras are a great fun way to learn the very basics of photography.

The use of pinhole cameras can be traced back to the fifth century BC, when Chinese scientists discovered that light travels in straight lines and that rays of light passing through a small hole will project an image on a surface on the other side of the hole.

Astronomers and scientists used the pinhole concept when studying eclipses and Leonardo da Vinci used pinhole images as a drawing aid. He wrote in his notebook, “When the images of illuminated objects pass through a small round hole into a very dark room, you will see all those objects in their natural shapes and colours. Who would believe that such a small space could contain the image of all the universe.”

During the 1850s, a Scottish scientist named David Brewster pioneered pinhole photography. In fact, he has been credited for coming up with the term ‘pinhole’.

Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre and Joseph Niece, a French artist and amateur scientist respectively, were the first to capture a permanent image from a pinhole using a plate made from pewter and coated with bitumen. Their first exposure took eight hours!


Niece discovered that silver-plated sheets of copper was a better alternative to pewter plates. After he died in 1833, Daguerre continued to experiment with copper plates coated with silver iodide, and he discovered a way to fix the image using mercury.

Richard Beard, an English former coal merchant, commissioned a chemist to refine the process. He opened the first commercial studio in Regent Street, London in 1841, using the daguerreotype as the basis of producing portrait images.

Studio in London

Not surprisingly, pinhole photography went out of fashion during the 1900s. However, the 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the technique, possibly because artists were looking for new ways of expression. In the 1980s, several international exhibitions featured photographs taken with pinhole cameras.

The concept of a pinhole is quite straight forward, and it is the essence of all photography. Light passes through a hole and is inverted inside a light-tight box. Film or photographic paper is used to capture the image. A pinhole camera can be built from cardboard, wood, or even old tin cans. Laser cut pinholes can be bought commercially, which give an accurate hole diameter for exposure calculations.

One of the advantages of using a pinhole camera is the incredible depth of field that is possible. From a few centimeters to infinity is the norm with this technique.

Of course, another massive advantage is the exposure time. Most of my pinhole images have been shot with exposure times of well over one minute, plus reciprocity time. This creates an amazing ethereal-like image.

Exposure can be difficult to calculate, but thankfully there are several apps for smartphones that help with the calculation. And, remember to add reciprocity to the final exposure time. I use Pinhole Assist, by Le born de la piscine. You simply put in your pinhole size and it gives you an exposure time.

If you don’t want to build your own pinhole camera, there are a few that are commercially available. I use the Holga 120 Pinhole Camera, which uses 120 film. The panoramic 6 x 12 is an ideal format for a super wide-angle view.

Let me know if you have experimented with pinhole cameras. Look out for the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD), which was held in April 2022.

It is incredible that an image can be created using a simple pinhole that projects an image onto a film. Here are a couple of recent pinhole images I took at the local beach. Of course, they are not perfect images, but their creative potential is massive.

Look out for the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

Abstract landscape photography

Landscape photographers usually try to capture a scene that has a few recognisable elements. Foreground objects, middle distance and background are familiar component parts of a nice landscape photograph. These parts work together so that the viewer can gain an appreciation of the location or message that is being communicated.

But sometimes it is nice to move out of the whole scene and focus on part of the landscape. Abstract photography is all about isolating a fragment of a natural scene in order to remove its context.

Abstract photography as a term is quite interesting. There is no commonly-used definition of the term. Many writers and photographers have written about abstract photography without really defining exactly what it is. In 1916, Alvin Coburn, a photographer, proposed an exhibition called ‘abstract photography’. The exhibition entry form said: “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary”.

John Suler, a Professor of Psychology put it quite simply as: “If you look at a photograph and there is a voice inside you that asks ‘what is it?’ well, that’s an abstract photo!”

I like to categorise landscape photographs in three ways. Firstly, there is a picture that depicts a scene, albeit a location that the viewer might not be familiar with. A ‘true’ landscape image is one where the location could be found and visited. There are recognisable parts and these work together to communicate something about the scene or location.

Then there is what I call the semi-abstract photograph. This is an image that does look like an object or thing, but it does not attempt to show the context of the scene. It might prompt the viewer to think, ‘I know what this is but I don’t know which landscape or location it is from.

And then third category is the complete abstract image. The viewer might ask, ‘what is it?’

Regardless of the category or the definition, I think it is sometimes a good idea to step back from the overall landscape that you are photographing and to look for the detail. Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene, to such an extent that we miss some of the detail.

Abstract or semi-abstract photography is all about looking for detail; texture, form, shapes, colours, grain, noise, that can produce a nice image, regardless of its context.

I think abstract photography teaches a photographer to look and assess the small components that make up the overall scene. When you stop and look at the small bits, the bigger picture can make more sense.

Barbara Kasten, a photographer and professor, wrote: “abstract photography challenges our popular view of photography as an objective image of reality by reasserting its constructed nature….freed from its duty to represent.”

Interesting shapes and forms are all around us and it can be quite liberating to shoot stuff that doesn’t have to make sense. The art of photography is to interact and engage with the viewer but it doesn’t always have to be a contextual engagement. Sometimes conceptual is enough to encourage a response.

I hope you enjoy taking some abstract images.

Autumn colours in black and white

Autumn is a great time for photography. Vivid colours and still waters that give beautiful reflections offer great scope for the photographer.

However, with all these beautiful colours around, it can be a challenge for the photographer working in black and white. This time of year is one of the best times to get to know tones and to be able to look at colour but visualise in black and white.

For those who are used to working in monochrome, autumn should present fewer challenges, but for those who are new to the genre, it is a wonderful time to experiment, and it is a good lesson in using limitations and constraints to produce a final image without colour.

It was a gorgeous day when I decided to shot material around the River Spean in Scotland. The weather, as often the case in Scotland, was changing rapidly. One moment the sun would be out while 30 seconds later it would be overcast with low moving cloud.

I always resist using filters, but I appreciate some people like to use red or yellow filters when shooting with black and white film. Using filters to bring out the clouds or deepen a white overcast sky is a good technique, but I prefer to shoot without colour filters. At this time of year, I often shoot the sky separately from the main image, later combing it back into the image during post production.

Tree colours at this time of year are numerous. From evergreens to orange, red and yellow leaves, colours abound. One of the techniques that I do think is particularly useful at this time of year is the zone system of exposure, which I will discuss in later posts. But for those familiar with the system, using the zone method helps to place the tree in the correct dynamic position in the exposure scale.

In the image below, I underexposed a couple of stops, which put the furthest evergreen trees into the lower 3/4 of the exposure range, while it allowed the orange and yellow trees to retain their individual place in the dynamic range. I tried to capture all the different colours with their representative monochrome tones, from the very light grasses and ferns to the orange, yellow and green trees.

Click on the gallery to flick through the images I shot to get a context of the area.

My final image of the shoot is the dam at Laggan.. Again, I wanted to capture the structure and surrounding tones in their relative monochrome range. The autumn ferns were quite light but the darker evergreens had a two-stop difference, and the reflections in the water had a three-stop difference. I used the zone system to place the darker water in zone 3, which allowed me to retain detail in the lighter areas.

Autumn is a fantastic time of year to get out with the camera. If you shoot colour on either digital or film, you shouldn’t be short of opportunities. If, like me, you have devoted your photography to the art of black and white, autumn is a great test of your ability to see in colour but to visualise in monochrome.

Evolution of an image

How did you take that photograph? That is a question I am often asked.

Fellow photographers usually want to know about the technical aspects, such as shutter speed and f-stop or about neutral density filters that I used.

But producing a nice image is much more than the technical aspects of photography. Sure, exposure and filters are important, but to me there are many more non-technical considerations to think about. I love it when someone really wants to know how an image has evolved.

Whenever I arrive at a potential spot for a photograph, I rarely reach for the camera. Instead, I sit down on a rock or on the ground and take in the scene, listening to the sounds around me and closely looking at the visual elements. I think this is one of the most important aspects of photography; looking, listening and suppressing the urge to get the camera out.

In the case of my Lakeside image, I spent the morning walking around the area, watching the boats and passenger ferry, and watching the numerous birds landing on the rocks and beach.

Resisting the temptation to get the camera out leads to much more appreciation of the area and of the elements that might be important when I do finally get to work with the camera. I call this the contemplation phase of the evolution of an image. Letting the senses see, hear and sometimes taste the landscape is such an important part of landscape photography.

Lakeside is a village at the south end of Lake Windermere. The village, in the county of Cumbria, was established as a steamer pier for services along the 10-mile lake. It is an important area for wildlife, tourism, sailing and other water sports.

As the contemplation phase progresses, I start to get an idea in my mind about what the image is going to communicate. Is there a story to be told? Or do I want to stimulate my viewer, to encourage them to think deeply about the image? This is the conceptualisation phase. This is where the concept of the image starts to become clearer in my own mind.

And then comes the visualisation phase, which is the stage where I can ‘see’ the final image in my mind. At this point, I start to carefully visualise the elements of the picture and how they might work together to capture the mood, the atmosphere and the concept I have in mind. Now it is time to reach for the camera!

The production phase is about the technical aspects. Shutter speed, depth of field, aperture settings, filters and neutral density are things that need to be considered, in relation to the concept and visual image I have in mind. These need to work together to produce the picture that I want.

Capturing the image, usually on film, is of course only the first part of the production phase. To get the final photograph the way that I want it usually means making some alterations to the film processing time, and it often involves making tweaks to the scanned negatives to bring out tone and dynamic range.

So, whenever someone asks me ‘how did you take that photograph?’ I usually hesitate before launching into a summary of the evolution of an image: contemplation, conceptualisation, visualisation, and production. Or, sometimes I simply say, ‘I took the shot at 1/125s at f-8!’

Why black and white film photography is great!

Black and white film has the ability to inspire creativity. But so does digital, so what is the big deal about black and white film photography?

Film photography has been in my blood since childhood. I was given a Kodak camera when I was eight years old and have been shooting film ever since. I built a darkroom in my parent’s attic and spent many a day experimenting with processing and printing negatives.

Having used, and still use, digital cameras, I think there is something very different about the results from film photography. Black and white negative film offers creative opportunities that digital and colour can never do. Here are a few of my reasons for shooting with black and white film.

Firstly, it is about mindfulness. I know, mindfulness is a much-overused word now, but this is a definite aspect of film photography that I think is the most important. Although the digital photographer has to think about composition, light, contrast etc, there is nothing stopping him taking tons of photos to find the one that looks just right. On the other hand, the film photographer has to really concentrate on getting the image in the camera right the first time, because each shot costs money. Getting the image right involves much more deliberation and concentration, a very mindful experience.

Film photography is about anticipation. You never really know what you are going to get until the film is processed and scanned or printed. I process my own film, and the sense of wonder is compelling when the film emerges from the developing tank, especially when a quick look reveals some really nice negatives.

Film photography is about challenge. There are so many things that can frustrate the photographer. Dust, scratches on the film, uneven development or even light leaking into the camera are all possibilities when shooting with film. Yet, even with these factors to consider, film offers the opportunity to accomplish skills that the digital photographer will never master. The challenge is definitely worth the frustration!

Colour is great, but it can sometimes confuse the viewer. A colourful image tends to hide patterns and shapes. When these elements are important features to communicate, black and white can win hugely over colour. It is almost like the analogy of the forest and the trees. Seeing a huge forest is great, but sometimes the overwhelming view of a forest hides the most important element, the trees. We can overlook the detail when overwhelmed. Colour can often have the same effect, while black and white lets the viewer see the detail.

Many people who give film photography a try can be disappointed with the results because the final image can look very different from a digital comparison. Film can have a grainy look to it and it definitely has a subtlety of its own. And, different films have different characteristics. For example, I use Ilford FP4 and Delta 100 for most of my work. Although both are rated about ISO 100, they behave quite differently. Delta is more contrasty while FP4 has a slightly better dynamic range. Working with film means learning the characteristics of the material and how it will behave. Almost like working with colleagues – you never really know their real character until they are pushed a little!

So, frustration, challenge, and never really knowing what you are going to get are some of the aspects of film photography that make it a special craft to master. By turning those challenges into a positive, film photography, especially black and white, offers amazing opportunities.

Have you given film photography a try? Let me know how you get on.

Don’t forget about the sky

I was leading a group of photographers a few weeks ago at one of my workshops, in the beautiful Braemar area of Aberdeenshire. We were discussing the river as it meandered around the gorgeous heather-clad hillside. Many of the group were chatting about filters or exposure settings and some were talking about using slow shutter speeds to try to capture the movement of the river as it flowed over rocks.

I listened to the chatter for a while before interrupting their conversations. I asked ‘haven’t you overlooked something wonderful that is about to happen?’ They just looked at me as though I had lost my marbles!

What the group hadn’t noticed was the sky. Behind us, from the west, a magnificent cloud formation was forming over the nearby mountains. The clouds looked very ‘angry’, more than likely bringing a little rain to the occasion.

Sky in a photograph is crucial to the emotional meaning of an image. The sky can either help or hinder the meaning of a picture. In landscape photography, the sky is about creating balance between the tonality of the sky and the foreground.

Of course, in everything related to photography, personal preference plays a big part. Some people like a picture that has a large chunk of white sky, but in my opinion, the best skies are those that add lighting, texture and tonality. Adding these elements create balance and interest, but it will also add drama. A bland sky with no tone often results in no interest.

Often, it is not possible to get a dramatic sky, because it is either too overcast or it is such a nice day that the sky is cloudless and blue. In these situations it is always better to minimise the amount of sky in the picture. On the other hand, if the sky has interesting cloud striations or the clouds are bearing storms, use this to advantage and include a large expanse of sky in the frame.

Moving the horizon in the picture will help to add interest depending on the weather and sky conditions. A simple rule to remember is: low sky interest, high horizon; dramatic sky, low horizon.

In conclusion, whenever taking pictures, always remember to look up!