Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Performing Arts Photography and Extending Opportunities To Others

Director Robert Chuter invited me along to the play The Death of Peter Pan a story about love, young people, intolerance, persecution and shared suicide. Certainly a grim story, but an awesome photographic opportunity with the actors dressed in clothes from the 1920's set in a variety of scenes, London, Paris, Scotland etc.

The challenge for the photographer is that all the varied scenes are based around a simple flat stage and three objects. A Chesterfield chair, a dining table and a gramophone. The lighting and music along with your imagination filled in the rest. The brief from Robert was to watch the play along with fellow photographer George Darsas then come back for a special session to photograph the cast in action without annoying the audience with our clicking and moving around. This was an awesome opportunity and one I highly appreciated. The play was excellent and well worth seeing, I congratulate you if you did. The story reflects so much that is relevant in today's society. We haven't come very far forward at all in 100 years.

While this was an awesome opportunity for myself and George, I stretched Robert's hospitality a little and asked if I could bring some more photographers extending the opportunity to some other members of the Melbourne Photowalkers Google+ community. It's really important to me personally to generate opportunities for members of the community. I started in photography and grew because other people shared their opportunities and mentor-ship with me. Now it's my turn to pay them back. I know that some of the people I mentor and guide will do the same for new people perpetuating our hobby, craft and yes, even art.

The choice was really hard to make, Robert and I had settled on ten as a manageable number of people. As it happens we finalised with twelve on the day. How to pick 10 people out of 500 or so community members? I needed a balance of photographers who could deliver for Robert and the cast but also people who could use the opportunity to learn, perhaps even fail then workshop into an experience. George and I agonised over the choices and finally settled on a list and started to make contact. We were on.

The scenes were powerful and varied, ranging from every aspect of lighting imaginable. The low light as always was massively challenging and high ISO was necessary. High ISO combined with the atmospherics lead to noise that had to be dealt with. Fortunately, not too bad and LR 5 was more than up to the task of cleaning up.

Often it was possible to take advantage of the situation to craft images such as the steamy one above which while not that useful to the play cast made me happy!

Thanks to the wonderful cast and crew for putting on the show just for the photographers and putting up with our needing to flit in and out of their scenes and to move things around to capture the best possible light.

Very low light is the enemy of the photographer, you need a fast shutter to freeze motion or perhaps capture just the right blur and maintain an adequate depth of field. These needs really don't gel all that well with low light. Using flash is generally unacceptable and in smoke haze environments such as this won't work anyway. You need to work with the lighting you've got. Move with it. Where the colouring doesn't suit your taste monochrome might be the answer.

As always I'm interested in more performing arts opportunities. Please make contact via comments if you're interested in having me along to your play.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Orbalicious - The Photography of All Things Orby

Good friend +Charles Strebor introduced me to the wonderful world of photographing with things. Things change your photography, they introduce a new creative element that is fun to pursue. They change what you do and how you think.

In this series, I'm exploring a glass 80mm spherical orb purchased from the auction site of the moment for the princely sum of $10 including shipping from the poeple's republic.

Many people when they try this shoot only the orb and not what is in it or beyond it. I want to use it to explore the world of form and texture. To bring those things into a new focus and new creative imagery not possible without the introduction of the orb.

The image above captures the flames of the Eternal Flame at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance.

Using the orb to enhance an existing form can be a lot of fun, in this shot above I've used the orb to contrast with the hand chipped granite blocks and used it to bring lighting from the harsh tungsten lights overhead and to the right onto one of the blocks giving further contrast and interest to the image. The flare of light from the ball while a little distracting centres the eye letting it rove out again into the image.

The final image of the blog again makes use of the granite of the block work giving a harsh appearance and contrast to the smoothness of the ball. The impressive edifice of the shrine is present reflected from the far side of the orb as is the city skyline in the bottom of the ball.

Photographing with orbs can be a little tricky, for reflective shots you need to focus within the orb on the object you wish to see and ensure there is adequate depth of field to show or hide the surrounding features as your creativity wants.

I've seen people making fun of the orb shots community members are generating, this really doesn't bother me. They've yet to take the first steps out of the slime pool of documentary photographer into the more interesting and fun times of creative photographer. Dare I say even artist.

There is a small Google+ community called Orbaliciousness where people portray their achievements. It's a lot of fun go take a look and perhaps join in.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Photographing Railways

As curator of the Steamy Sunday theme along with +Shelly Gunderson I'm often asked how to photograph steam and steam railways. Over the last 35 years since I was a teenager I've been photographing steam engines, railways, farm steam and stationary steam. I find steam fascinating. Steam equipment feels alive and if you’re not respectful it is murderous.

Finding a Steam Railway

I suspect the average punter would be surprised to know there is an active steam powered railway in practically every place in the world. They are preserved and maintained by small armies of volunteers and in some cases government appointed authorities. In some places they still run in revenue service. Here in Victoria Australia we are blessed with quite the selection. My favourites are:

Puffing Billy Railway running from Belgrave to Gembrook;

Bellarine Peninsula Railway running along the coast near Geelong from Drysdale to Queenscliff;

Alexandra Timber Tramway; and

Central Goldfields Railway between Castlemaine and Maldon.

To find one near you, Google of course!


Daylesford Railway near Daylesford Victoria

Personal safety for you and the people around you is very important around an operating railway. A train can sneak right up on you at any time – they can appear out of nowhere silently. Don’t depend on the time table to keep you safe as special movements can occur at any time.

Generally speaking stay at least 3m from the centre of the track but if you must get closer (I often do) then look and listen before you do and always pre-pick at least two escape routes.

Sleepers and track are often slippery even in dry weather. The ballast between them often moves. Trackside drains could be knee deep full of mud or effluent. Never walk through points (switches) or over signalling wires and rods as they may be controlled remotely by someone who cannot see you. Crush dangers like these abound on a railway.

Stay aware of your surroundings, don’t depend on the driver to spot you in time. They could need up to several kilometres to stop depending on the speed they’re running and their tonnage. How far can you see? It is your responsibility to keep out of the way and safe.

Always face a moving rail vehicle to enable you to see and avoid anything that is outside the normal area the train will occupy such as dragging branches, broken rolling stock or moved loads. This means that you never ever stand between dual track running rails where trains might pass you simultaneously in both directions at once.

Most railways will require you to wear high visibility clothing and steel cap footwear if you’re going to be near the track or other facilities.

Beyer Garret G42 Puffing Billy Railway Belgrave Victoria


Most railways will happily allow non-commercial photography but will usually require you to declare your intentions, complete an induction and fill out a liability indemnity agreement to protect them before you can enter non-public areas of their property.

Once you have the agreement from management, making yourself known to local representatives is advisable. Not only will the local knowledge help you to not get killed they will probably have good ideas of places to shoot that will yield an interesting composition. Most people working on steam powered railways are rail fans “gunzels” and are often photographers.

Times of the Day, Year and Weather

I prefer to photograph in the morning and late in the afternoon. This helps avoid blown out skies in your images. Of course this isn't always possible so devices such as graduated neutral density filters and polarisers can help.

It may seem weird to discuss the time of year and weather conditions, but when it comes to steam railways in particular cold damp weather yields awesome images as the steam and smoke hangs in the air where it is ejected which transforms the locomotive into a living breathing creature.


Think about what the driver can see - can he see you? In this image if you were near that signal there is no chance he can see you. So often when on the footplate I see people crouched behind bushes and in gutters just before reaching them. If you're going to get into this kind of vantage stand where the driver can see you and after you've made eye contact then go into the position you want. Don't panic the driver they've got enough stress to deal with.


There is no right camera or lens combination for steam engines and railways. I always take a selection. A nice short prime to get up close and personal and a medium telephoto or zoom for longer shots. A tripod is essential. I often leave my camera and tripod where I myself won’t stay (e.g. between running rails) and use a radio trigger to fire it off.

Choosing Places, Angles and Exposures

Steam engines are at their most impressive when they’re working hard as they eject the smoke and cinders high into the air. Try to find places where the locomotive is climbing a hill or on something interesting like a wooden trestle bridge.

I look for angles that reveal a good view of the train and infrastructure but hide modern surroundings. Try to avoid the eye height shot – everyone does those. Get on your belly or up on a bank or even up a tree. If you get above the train on a bridge or other infrastructure remember that smoke and soot flying up.

Exposures can be tough. Many of my photographs are under trees in dim forests or worse in a dim area with bright spots. Locomotives are beasts of high contrast, overhanging foot boards and tanks can hide the interesting monkey motion that goes on underneath. Clouds of steam easily trick your camera into underexposing if left on auto.

I meter and expose for the location just before the train arrives and photograph on manual as bright shiny things can adversely affect your auto meter leading to gross under exposure.

My settings will depend highly on what I want to achieve. Do I want depth of field (small aperture) or hide my background in blur (big aperture)? Do I want to stop the motion (fast shutter) or have some blur (slow shutter)?

If you’re travelling on a special train and it is doing a photo run by there are some special considerations. First and foremost is to stay safe. Next is to keep out of everyone else’s shot. Normally the organisers will set up a photo line at an angle to the line so everyone can get a decent shot. If there is an official photographer, try to keep out of their shot. They are shooting to help the railway make money to continue operating. Suggest they wind on some hand brakes for the run by to make the engine work hard.

To achieve the best results of stationary steam engines I resort to bracketing the shot and later HDR processing to bring out the detail in the differently lit areas. Remember your digital camera (even a good one) is very poor on contrast ratio when compared to film. Even an HDR from a single RAW can be better than hours of masking and post processing.

Last Few Things

Railways and particularly steam railways are filthy. Your gear won’t enjoy filth. I came very close to killing a sensor when it was sprayed by steam from a source I had not anticipated while changing lenses. Steam is loaded with oil to lubricate the pistons – this oil is atomised in the steam and ejected into the air. Keep out of it. Note this happened to an experienced person like myself. Expect the unexpected! In this case it was a faulty pipe coupling that sprayed when the driver opened the throttle.

Oily Water

They are hot! For many years one locomotive I've worked on had my boot prints on the top of its smoke box. The fire had been lit less than 30 minutes. In that time the hot gases had heated the smoke box surface hot enough to melt my soles.

Most steam engines lubricate to waste which means most surfaces are oily, greasy or better yet hot, oily and greasy. It is easy to get a third degree burn from one of these machines. Coal ash is highly acidic and eats away susceptible metals like those in your camera.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and have fun and don't forget to contribute to #steamysunday on Google+.

Light, Patterns, Textures, Flows and Creativity

Everywhere around us there is light. The light reveals patterns, textures and flows in everything. We can add to the light and we can use the patterns and textures. We can represent the flows as a moment in time or as a time frame through long exposure.

Recently I started to play with glass spherical orbs, I've got several different sizes and colours. They are a lot of fun and you can really unleash some creativity with them. They can be shot with themselves as the subject and a part of the composition as I have above where the orb rests on the granite edifice of a building. The harsh tungsten lighting thrown from right of camera highlights the shape and form of the granite and is relit by the light cascading from the orb itself. I really enjoy the contrast between the harsh hand chipped rock wall blocks and the smoothness of the orb.

Moving away from the orb for a moment, we come to flows. At Monash University I found a small stepped fountain lit from under the water. I spent some time with this small flow of water - you're looking at around a 10cm drop in height with a very gentle cascade barely able to promote any bubbles. Grubbing around on the floor with my lens just about in the water got me the angle and appreciation of the light I was looking for. This gentle golden flow is reminiscent of many things from beer through a bubbling stream. When I first posted it on g+ people were guessing what it was for quite a while. This to me is the mark of a successful abstract. It's part of a greater whole or context but when this small unrecognisable part is removed from that context it becomes abstract.

Still with the flows and textures is another image I've shared on Google+ which kept people guessing for most of a Saturday. A harmless game encouraging people to recognise what is going on. At the time of posting this image no-one has figured out yet that this is the result of a laser beam being shot into an acrylic block. The shape, flow, form and texture is amazing. It reminds me of a rocket climbing into the sky or the water blast of a powerful fountain. Shortly people will read this and know what it is. How do I know? Too many late night stints on Discovery Channel and Discovery Science. When a laser is built for a laser cutter the laser generator is tested and tuned using acrylic blocks as they allow the test engineer to see the beam and how it's focused and directed.

There are wonderful textures and shapes everywhere, while walking through Melbourne Observatory with some friends late one night we found this interesting orb of dark material with stainless steel bands. Spectacular. Capturing the texture at night was an interesting experience. I tried to balance the depth of field to capture the spots dots and fingerprints of curious children from during the day with the need to capture the feel and colours overall.

These stainless steel roof panels were suspended on tight cables with an interesting wave pattern over head. The panels interlock and provide protection from the sun and during the day are somewhat mundane - but at night - a whole new magic. Each panel is sitting differently to its neighbor so the qualities of the light and reflection are different on each. Good fun. While this is still a traditional thirds type of composition it moves away from the regular thirds using the diagonals to break the image up. The central star attracts the eye away from the brightest and darkest areas and holds it captive.

So the point of this blog entry? It pays to look all around you including up in the quest for light, patterns, textures and flows. Use them to help with your creative thinking, your ability to see something that others don't. You are a photographer, your role is to find the interesting within the mundane and expose it to other people. Good luck with your quest.

As always, write and comment if the mood strikes you. All feedback and criticism is welcome.