Tag Archives: reflection

Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor

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My Most Expensive Photograph: a Reflection

It is when you least expect them that surprises present themselves and that makes them more, for the lack of a better word, surprising.

Around September last year (2010), somebody actually purchased a license to use my photograph. It was not much. Just slightly lower than Gursky’s shot that sold for $4.3 million USD. Because of that photo I have managed to pay in full the house I bought in the CBD and I now have enough money in the bank to allow me to live comfortably without having to work. Surprise!!! No, I did not. Although I did sell a photo for a measly $64 AUD.

The amount it sold for is less important than the lesson I learned from that photograph and I would like to dedicate this post into reflecting upon that reflection. That statement would probably make more sense if I’ve shown you the actual photo so here it is:

Now you know why it didn’t quite reach the level of Gursky’s shot (but I bet one of my kidneys his won’t make it to Flickr Explore LOL!!!).

Anyway, let’s satisfy the measurebators first so they can skip the rest of this post. I used a Canon Powershot A590 IS in full auto mode without a tripod. Of course the flash fired and that’s evident on the lower right portion of the frame. So, nope, nothing interesting in here for you guys. You can see the rest of the EXIF info here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dtmateojr/3462807514/meta/in/photostream/

Back then, I was in stage 2 in the evolutionary ladder of an amateur photographer. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, please read my older post on this very important topic of evolution (you didn’t read it?!!!). To those of you who read that post (a thank you is in order) you should have realized by now that I wasn’t kidding at all 😉

This is quite a long story so please bear with me. If I remember correctly it was my second time driving all the way from Brisbane to Sydney. That’s approximately 1000 kilometers that took me 13 hours including lunch, dinner and wee breaks and about 1.5 tanks of fuel for the rented 2.5 liter Toyota Camry. We decided to visit Luna Park in North Sydney after the rain stopped. We wanted to take the fun rides but there was an important event, which I could not remember, so it was closed for mere mortals. We decided to just roam around and enjoy the night. It was our first time to visit the location anyway. This part of North Sydney is a very good vantage point to take photos of the Harbour Bridge (this I learned much later). I saw several photographers with huge cameras and tripods with dangling “cables” (shutter release). I remember this particular bloke who was standing on the same spot for several minutes. With all that expensive-looking gear I thought he must be a pro. I didn’t know jack about photography back then so everyone with a DSLR was a pro to me. Anyway as I was strolling, the reflection on the puddle of rain caught my eyes. I immediately took my camera and aimed at it. I framed it in such a way that the face of that entrance gate would seem to be staring at me from under the concrete. I was unknowingly teaching myself how to compose a shot! I must have done something right because that bloke who was just staying on one spot with all that expensive gear started doing exactly the same thing. Well actually it kinda annoyed me because he started setting up his tripod and was blocking my view. The copycat was preventing me from taking more shots! Anyway, he was the pro so I quietly walked away. He must have been very happy that this foreigner (me) finally left. Well I hope he got a nice shot of the puddle. Not! We went back to the hotel and, if I’m not mistaken, had dinner at my favorite Thai restaurant (that restaurant closed down after about a year later).

I did not immediately look at the photo. Typical of most n00bs, it stayed in the camera for quite some time. I stored it in my hard drive but never touched it until much later when I was already playing with that thing called Photoshop that my good friend sold to me for $100 (he switched to a Mac and the software was for Windows — lucky me). I’ve always thought that photos should be kept as pristine as possible. Photoshop = evil. SOOC = good. I don’t remember exactly why I started retouching my shots. You probably noticed that I bumped the saturation a bit too much in that photo. I must have thought that the shot didn’t quite turn out the way I saw the reflection or most likely because n00bs tend to push the sliders all the way to 11. In retrospect, I’m blaming auto white balance here.

Fast forward a year later. I went back to the same spot and behold: a rain puddle of almost the same shape was there again. Whoever was assigned to fix that concrete obviously wasn’t doing his job. Lucky me 🙂 Here’s the “enlightened” shot:


A bit conservative in terms of processing. The composition is much tighter with less distraction. I used a Canon G10 here, a much improved point-and-shoot camera. ISO 400, 1/8s at f3.2. I must have zoomed in thus forcing the lens to change the aperture from f2.8 to that weird f number. Flash did not fire this time 🙂 Of course I used a (wobbly) tripod.

I would like to think that I have grown as a photographer over that period when I took the old photo and the new one. If I go back to that spot again, assuming that they still haven’t fixed that concrete, I would be very interested to know if there is anything different I would find in there. I probably won’t. Which is kinda sad knowing that I have spent so much time learning how to shoot and not just writing about photography. With the more expensive toys I have right now, I expect my photos to be so much better. On the other hand, it feels good that even as a n00b I was able to capture a photo that’s good enough to attract a buyer. It’s quite amusing that the photo is now worth more than the camera that took it (digital rot guarantees that your old digital camera is next to worthless after just a few years). That old photograph won’t win me any awards but I humbly think that even pros will have a not-so-easy time improving it considerably. I am no pro but certainly no longer a beginner. If the second shot is any indication, I doubt if I can make the first one miles better.

Just to wrap it up, I would like to point out a few very important lessons. Firstly, it’s not the camera that makes a photograph. Equipment hardly matters at all. Secondly, photography is something that you can only learn by doing. Spend less time measurebating and lurking in forums. (Promise you will go out and shoot after reading this post). Thirdly, take some time to reflect on your self. Evaluate your weaknesses and try to improve on the areas that you feel most uncomfortable with. Be honest and take praises as a challenge to do better instead of resting on your laurels.

How about my “audience”? Do you have a story to tell? I’d be interested in reading them. Please do share.

Until then, keep shooting.