Magician on Embarcadero, San Francisco

In the last post, we discussed some techniques to try when approaching strangers to ask for their photograph. However, once you have their permission, don’t forget to actually make the photo. Here are some practical tips to get the most out of these opportunities.

Be ready

Once someone has agreed to let you make their portrait, don’t make them wait around while you fiddle with your camera settings. They are most likely on their way to do something and may not have a lot of time, so in the interests of helping someone who is helping you, have your camera set up and ready to go. Do some test shots around the area and get a feel for the light, what kind of depth of field and shutter speeds you might need and have the right lens attached. That way you can start right away and not risk annoying the person which would come across in the image.

Use backgrounds

Similarly, have some idea of what your background should be. Look around your area and have a few options in mind. You will need to take into account accessibility, the direction of the light and the connection to your subject. A background can give context to a portrait, making it all the more powerful.

Girl busking
Busker surrounded by her audience

Pose your subject

Don’t be afraid to ask your subject to adopt a certain pose, hold an object that helps tell their story. If they are undertaking a daily task that is unique to their culture or region, you might ask them to continue with the task while you photograph them. Not all portraits need to be looking directly into the camera. Sometimes you can tell a lot more of a person’s story with an image of them consumed by their daily life.

This man makes birdcages in Hong Kong’s bird market.

Keep interacting

Once you’ve started a conversation and gained permission to photograph, it is important not to detach yourself from the person and become a robot photographer. By continuing to interact you will help to put them at ease, making for more natural portraits, as well as allowing you the chance of being able to give something back to the person.

Each of these ideas is general and not prescriptive in any way. It is important to judge each situation seperately and use whichever techniques you think will help make great images.

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Orange juice seller, Marrakech
Marrakech, Morocco. This orange juice seller in Djemma el-Fna was more than happy to pose for some photos after I bought several glasses of juice.

When we travel to a destination with the intention of photography, photographers mostly try to capture the destination in its entirity, rather than focus on one particular feature or aspect. Unless we are travelling to a particularly remote place, this will involve photographing local people.

Photographing people is scary. It doesn’t get any easier either the longer you have been doing it. But the satisfaction in creating a genuinely moving portrait of a person often far outweighs any fear or anxiety involved in approaching someone. It is almost always the images that are hardest to create that give us the most joy.

While the nerves are something we all have to overcome, there are some considerations to make your interactions go more smoothly.

Always ask permission where possible before photographing people. If you want to photograph children, always ask permission of their parents. Often you can do this with a simple smile while pointing to your camera if you don’t speak the same language. Don’t be offended if you are refused. This is not a personal affront as more likely the person is simply self conscous about having their photo taken period.

There are some situations where people are more likely to be obliging, such as if you are purchasing something from them, or if you have taken the time tostart a conversation before asking if you can photograph them. If you are photographing at a well known tourist destination, don’t be surprised if you are asked to pay to make your photos. There is an ongoing moral debate on whether it is ethical to do this, but if you do decide you are willing to pay, agree a price upfront and let the person know how many photos you are planning on. Often they will expect you to make just one and then walk away. If you feel that paying for images is not right, don’t under any circumstances then try to sneak a photo. That definately is immoral.

Cosplay girls
Harajuku girls, Tokyo. Followers of Harajuku fashion culture dress in elabourate costumes and are happy to have their portraits made

It is also useful to be ready to make the image before approaching people. Have your camera set up as you want it with the appropirate lens, depth of field and some idea of where you would like the person to stand. You may want to take a few test shots to make sure you have this right. It is much more difficult to keep the subject’s interest if you make them wait around while you stop and get ready.

Next post, we will look at practical and technical considerations for travel portrait photography.


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12 Apostles
This image of the 12 Apostles was the result of a lot of planning, research and multiple visits over the space of a few years before I captured an image I was finally happy with.

Occasionally great images are made by luck, simply being in the right place at the right time. Mostly though, they are made by extensive planning and research and repeat attempts. Basically, they are made by hard work. Below is a sample of the work that can go into creating just one image.


It all starts with an idea. A location or subject to photograph. Once this is decided, research guide books, maps, other image, blogs and forums and anything else you can find to decide the best viewpoints for a photograph.

Your research might also include on-site research. Often it pays to make a scouting trip to the location and explore potential angles and viewpoints that might not show up in an online search. This extra effort can result in a more original image. You may choose to make an entirely seperate trip for scouting, or arrive a little before the required time on the day of the shoot.

12 apostles google search result
A Google Image search of the location reveals potential angles and viewpoints.


In addition to the best spot to make the image, you need to consider time of day, sunrise and sunset times, time of the year for the look and feel of the image that you want and position of the sun in relation to the subject. There are tools to help, such as the Photographers Ephemeris which will calculate sunrise and sunset times and the direction of the sun at a particular time of day.

12 apostles sunset angle
Tools such as the Photographers Ephemeris are useful for determaining the angles and time of sunrise and sunset. The above diagram shows the difference of the sun axis over 6 months.


Once at your location, be prepared to wait for the light. You’ve travelled potentially a long way, so make the most of it and try as many different techniques as you can. You might have a vision for a particular shot, but also experiement. Try varying your apeture, using various filters, long exposures, flash and other lighting techniques. You might just come away with something unexpected and different from your original vision but just as pleasing.

Often, despite meticulous planning and research and checking of the weather forecast before leaving, you travel hours to your chosen destination only to be greeted with bland light, the wrong weather conditions or other factors that can ruin the image that you envisioned. What to do? Try again. And again. And again until you come home with the image you planned. This could take weeks, months or even years, but will be worth the effort in the end.

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Chimping: “What one does after taking a picture with a digital camera and looking at the result. Derived from the words they speak when chimping: “Ooo-oo-oo!”” Definition from

While taking a break from editing, I recently came across a discussion on a photography forum about chimping and how only “cheat” photographers do it. This made me curious and on doing some more clicking I discovered that this is actually quite a hot topic that many feel strongly about. Who knew?

Now that I’ve been dragged out from under my rock, and made aware of this pressing issue, let me just say it’s a ridiculous argument.

While I agree with the point that if you are checking your LCD after each shot you will miss important moments and hence other shots, why would you not use every bit of technology available to you to make the best possible images? Next we’ll be hearing that using auto-focus is also cheating.

There is nothing wrong or amateur about reeling off a few frames then doing a quick review to check that you have what you wanted. If not, you can then try again, make corrections and ensure you get the shot before leaving. Especially if you are shooting far from home where it would be difficult, if not impossible, to return. It is too late to fix mistakes once you are back home reviewing images on a computer. So, I ask, is it better to come home with a bunch of blurry or overexposed images but be satisfied that you didn’t “cheat”, or come home with images you are proud of and possibly having improved as a photographer through being able to learn immediately what didn’t work and being able to adjust?

Do you think that a professional photographer completes an entire shoot without checking that they have what they need? The most talented photographers constantly review and adjust. When you are being paid a substantial sum of money to produce the images that you’re client needs, you’d better make sure you produce the images. Try explaining to a client that “yes the photo is a bit blurry and underexposed, and the expression on the person’s face isn’t quite what you were looking for, but I couldn’t look at the images before the shoot was done. That would have been cheating”. They don’t care. All they care about is that you got the shot. And that is all you should care about as well.

Finally to those who like to spend their time telling others how they should or shouldn’t make photographs, you may be better served getting away from the keyboard and working at improving your own photography.

Ok, rant over. I’ll get down from my soap box now. Normal Service to resume shortly.



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For all the technical jargon, multiple camera functions and general overthinking, making photographs is actually quite simple. Like some of the best recipes, a successful image is made up of only 3 ingredients, 1. A strong subject, 2. The right light, and 3. Thoughtful composition.

A Strong Subject

The most powerful images have a clearly defined subject. There may be other elements in the image, but these should be secondary to the main subject. This subject should convey a clearly defined theme. For example a portrait of a smiling person conveys happiness, a reflection in a pond calmness, or car light trails at night speed and energy.

Moonrise over bay
A clearly defined subject is essential to a successful image

The Right Light

There is a reason photographers will hang around for hours at the same location. The reason is light. Light moves across a scene and changes as the position of the sun changes and effects how the entire scene looks and feels. A location that looks flat and lifeless by day can take on a warm glow and sense of peacefulness as the sun dips and colours of the sky change.

Point Richards Pier Point Richards Jetty
A lifeless scene can come alive with the right light

Thoughtful Composition

Composition is bringing together the elements in an image in a way that best describes the photographer’s message. A number of questions are asked when composing an image, such as does this clearly define what my subject is? Does the image balance? Is this the best use of light? Does it add drama if drama is needed? How is the eye led through the frame?

Matilda Bay boatshed
Successful compositions are uncomplicated and make best use of available light

The Fourth Ingredient

It is easy to think to much and be overwhelmed when constructing an image, but in truth the above process comes pretty naturally to most photographers. At least after practice it does. More experienced photographers find themselves thinking less consciously about what they are doing and being more instinctive. Once this happens, you tend to me more relaxed and enjoy the process more. And that, I guess is the fourth element to making great images: enjoy yourself, have fun, that’s why you want to make photographs in the first place right? You can tell when a chef cooks a meal with pride and enjoyment in what they are doing. It is no different for photos.

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Portarlington Jetty

We’re a weird bunch, us photographers. We spend countless hours watching light and waiting for it to be just right. We spend evening after evening returning to the same location waiting for everything to be just right to create an image we have seen in our minds.

Non photographers look at us and ask “Don’t you get bored of the same old location?”. Well, sometimes maybe, but stronger than that is the determination to present the beauty that we see before us. To do that, we need to learn to see. See how the light lands and moves across on the scene we are photographing and how it changes mood. We need to learn to understand how to move to place objects into a scene, or take them out, to push and pull the eye to what we want to show it.

Just like learning multiplication tables, this can only be done by repetition. We try, and try and sometimes we fail first but eventually it clicks. For this reason photographers often have locations that we return to time and time again, challenging ourselves to find something new that we haven’t shot before.

The image above is of a jetty at Portarlington, a small seaside town not too far from Melbourne. I grew up there and this was one of the first places I ever tried to make a photograph that wasn’t a family snapshot. Apart from having sentimental value as a place I went to many times as a child, I also love the area from a photographic point of view for it’s simplicity. Its basically a beach, jetty and water, yet it offers so many possibilities depending on the season, the light and where you choose to photograph it from. Its fair to say the old jetty has been a great teacher.

It is exciting to explore new locations looking for fresh images, but it is just as exciting to return to old favourites and understanding how to get the best from it.

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 If you do any type of photography training based around composition, you will likely be told that you need to “fill the frame”. Generally this is sound advice. However as with all rules, there is a case for ignoring them. Often the use of negative space helps to show the relationship between a subject and its environment.

Firstly, what is negative space? Basically its the space where your subject isn’t. This might be a sky of your subject is at ground level, the background, or even the foreground if your subject is placed off in the distance. This space in the image is as important as the subject itself as it enhances the story of the subject. A portrait of a person is much more powerful when they are shown in the context of their surroundings.

The image  below is a windmill. Thats pretty obvious. We can see that it sits in a wheat field, but we don’t really get much of a sense of its surroundings. Therefore it is merely a photo of a windmill rather than a story about the windmill.

Windmill in Australian outback

Simply by zooming out from the windmill, we can see the windmill sits in a very empty landscape, giving the image a completely different feel to the previous. A sense of isolation and of the vast expanses surrounding the subject.

Windmill in Australian outback

Often by paring back and simplifying a composition we end up with a more powerful result. Why? because we remove distractions and focus the viewer on what the image is really about.

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photography career

I made some photographs for the first time in weeks recently, and they weren’t very good. To me they seemed unimaginative and uninspired. They were difficult to make. Why, I wondered. Conditions were good, I had all the gear I needed. I had a beautiful location to shoot. The trouble was, I had forgotten what I needed to do. Ideas came slowly, and when they did, it took some time to remember how to adjust the gear to achieve this, and by the time I did, the moment was gone. This frustration was a good reminder of the importance of staying in practice.

If you’re a working photographer, its easy to get caught up in, well, making a living. But it is also important to remember what products you produce that earn that living: photos. Businesses large or small all need to spend time on revising and improving their products. For photographers this means striving to improve the images we produce, and we can only do this by making more images. By practice and experimentation. By remaining familiar with our gear so that we don’t need to think about what settings we need to use to bring a particular idea into reality.

The best way to do this is with personal projects. By taking time to also shoot for yourself, apart from the feeling of fulfilment you achieve, you keep evolving creatively and honing the skills needed for when client’s are relying on you to produce quality images.

So even if it is shooting what interests you with your mobile phone, or carrying around a compact camera if you can’t have an SLR with you, making an effort to just shoot more often keeps the eye in so to speak, so when the moment comes when you are under pressure to create, its not a matter of thinking, just a matter of doing and following the instincts you’ve been honing.

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Histogram: a statistical graph that represents the frequency of values of a quantity by vertical rectangles of varying heights and widths. The width of the rectangles is in proportion to the class interval under consideration, and their areas represent the relative frequency of the phenomenon in question.


The histogram is an often misunderstood, but very useful tool that allows you to make a suitable exposure of your images. Without getting into a lot of technical jargon, I’m going to attempt to explain how it works and how to use it to get good exposures.

First some background

I work on the theory that there are 3 images that go into making the final image. 1. the image you visualize, 2. the image you make with your camera, and 3. the final image after post processing. Based on this theory, exposing and metering is aimed not at obtaining the best exposure for the final image, but at capturing as much detail as possible to allow you to push and pull this later to bring more emphasis to the important elements in the image, and less to the not so important ones. What I’m looking for is the best possible digital negative.

What information does a histogram contain?

The left side of the histogram represents the shadows, or the blacks in an image, while the right side represents the highlights, or whites. The middle in turn represents the greys, or midtones. The peaks of the graph show where most of the information lies. The histogram below represents an even exposure, or what some would call “correct”.


As you can see, most of the peak is contained within the midtones. ie grays. Which makes for a fairly gray, flat image.


In the example above, most of the information is contained in the shadows, resulting in an underexposed image. The end result of this is that some of the details can be lost in shadows.


Here most of the information is contained in the right half of the graph. This is preferable as the right side of the histogram is capable of storing much more information than the left. For the techno-nerds, the right quarter of the graph can hold up to 2,000 levels of information, the second right, 1,000, then 500 and 250. So the closer you can get the peaks of your histogram to the right without blowing out the hightlights, the more information you have to work with later.

Ignore everything I just said

As with any technique, there are times when the best thing to do is to throw it all out the window and just go with your instinct. Low light scenes will naturally have histograms that lean toward the left, such as the below image. However the final result benefitted from these blacks.


High contrast scenes will often have a histogram inverse to what is considered good. Which makes sense when almost all of the information is contained either within the extreme blacks or whites of the image.


In the end, a histogram is just another tool that offers the photographer a method of obtaining good exposures, and it does not replace the photographer’s eye or creative vision. But if your aim is to create a good digital negative from which you can realise your vision in the end image, then it can be invaluable.



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Wheat stalk
 Wheat stalks, 2004. The blacks in this image allow the other colours to stand out and give a sense of the hot summer evening that it was that day.

I get the attraction of High Dynamic Range photography. I really do. It’s useful to be able to blend exposures and bring out detail otherwise lost. HDR helps make the otherwise impossible image possible. Such as a contrasty scene where some element important to the story is hidden in shadow. But HDR has created something of a monster.

It seems that some photographers have forgotten that it is ok for an image to have some amount of black in it. In fact, black can actually enhance an image.

Every so often a new photography technique comes along, and the nerdy side of us screams “Do it! It looks awesome!”, so we do. We get so caught up in the novelty of mastering a new process that we forget to consider whether it adds anything to the story of our image. We forget that the point of a photograph in the first place, its reason for being, is the story.

I think HDR is beyond being a fad, but I do think there is a tendancy to go a little overboard with it in the attempt to create something spectacular. When used subtly, HDR is a powerful tool to help the camera replicate what the eye can see. When the restraints are taken off, the results can be a cartoonish whir of supersaturated colour that confuses the eye and is more about the technique than the story.

St Pauls Beach Mornington Peninsula
St Pauls Beach, Mornington Peninsula, 2012. Not revealing all detail in the rock formations gives them a stronger presence.

Sometimes black adds to the story, or the mood of an image. It can add depth to other colours and it can draw the eye to other elements. Black adds simplicity, and simplicity often makes an image all the more powerful.

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