Category Archives: Photographic technique

William Fox-Pitt Panned

 I am little obsessed with panning. Mainly because I find so hard to do. You know what I mean by panning, right? Where you follow a moving subject as you photograph it, in the hope that it will come out reasonably sharp while the background gets blurred thus creating a sense of movement and speed.

Mostly I’ve tried this technique out on racing cars but last Sunday decided, on a whim, to try it with horses. I was at the Chatsworth International Horse Trials with my wife and daughter. The ladies go for the love of equestrianism. I go to take pictures and try to improve my skills.

Anyhow, this is William Fox-Pitt on Cool Mountain.


I’m reasonably pleased with the result. I used a shutter speed of 1/60th which produced enough blurring of the background, and while William is not exactly tack sharp he is very noticeably sharper than the background so the panning effect works. Trying this at the water jump was probably a good idea because the arcs made by the moving water droplets add a certain something to the overall effect.



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A Stop too Far

 We had a little family trip to the FINA World Series Diving at the London Aquatics Centre yesterday. It was my daughter’s idea. She bought the tickets as a birthday treat for my wife who had enjoyed watching Tom Daley et al on TV competing at the Olympics two years ago.

I decided to try my hand at taking some photos of the diving. As an amateur, of course, from the public viewing area. No special access, no use of flash, no special equipment.

My attempt to update my camera failed a few weeks ago when I ordered an Olympus OM-D E-M10. The kit I received came with the wrong lens so I sent it back and have not yet sorted out re-ordering it. So I still had my old Sony A100, which suffers from some controls only working intermittently, and the 18-250 lens.

The latter provides reasonable reach on APS-C; the full frame equivalent of 375mm. But the maximum aperture is poor at F6.3. The enemy was always going to be insufficient light.

Ivan Garcia

Ivan Garcia

The solution was always going to be finding the best compromise, particularly between shutter speed and ISO setting. The sensor on the A100 belongs to a past era where even at ISO 400 you are starting to invite noise and I normally regard 800 as the absolute limit. In this case I had no option but to go for a very optimistic ISO 1600 in order to squeeze out a shutter speed of 1/640 s. I really wanted 1/1000 to freeze the action but was never going to get there.

It was very difficult to get usable shots given the light levels, my distance from the action and the limitations of the equipment. When I did get my RAW images into Lightroom I went straight to the noise reduction sliders, used a liberal dose and gritted my teeth.

Not a day for a bumper crop of great shots, but one or two made it worth the effort.


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Fill-flash sunset

 There is nothing magical about fill-flash. You just have to recognise when you are in a situation that needs it. Then it is just a matter of flipping up the built-in flash and proceeding as normal. Provided you have the fill-flash setting enabled, it will come into operation automatically when you raise the pop-up flash and your DSLR will (usually) do the right thing without your needing to worry too much about it.

A situation that calls for fill-flash is one where you want to use natural light but the light is coming from behind the subject, causing the  subject to come out too dark. With fill-flash operating, the background will still be lit by natural light, and the automatic exposure will be set accordingly, but the flash will also fire so that the combination of natural light and flash will result in the subject being properly exposed too.

An example from my recent cruise. Naomi was dressed up for the gala night and we went out onto our cabin’s balcony, which was facing out from the back of the ship, to see the sunset. I realised that by using fill-flash I could capture both Naomi and the sunset, with both correctly exposed. It does not always work perfectly but on this occasion I was very pleased with the result, aside from the fact that the horizon could have been straighter.


The reason fill-flash sometimes does not work properly has to do with the flash sync shutter speed. Assuming you are using Aperture Priority, as many photographers prefer to, the camera will set the shutter speed to expose the background correctly. But if the background is reasonably bright and the chosen aperture is too wide then the shutter speed needed to expose the background correctly could well be higher than the camera’s shutter sync speed. If the flash were to fire in conjunction with a high shutter speed the shutter would never be fully open and only a part of the subject (a strip) would be illuminated by the flash. Trying to use fill-flash in those circumstances would force the camera to reduce the shutter speed to the sync speed and probably overexpose the entire image.


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Pondering Portraits

 My wife took this portrait of our daughter dressed up for her school leaver’s party. And while it may have been my wife who wielded the camera and pressed the shutter, I think of the end result as more of a joint effort.

Esther Leaver's Ball #8

I rather went to town in Lightroom to deal with a host of exposure issues. The picture was taken late afternoon on a clear, sunny day, using available light only. No fill-in flash, no reflectors, no nothing. The light is coming from behind my daughter so her face is in shadow. The contrast levels were quite high and it was a bit of a job to rescue her features without blowing out the highlights.

The biggest remaining problem is noise. The ISO setting had been left at 400 from a previous shoot, so the base image was noisier than it need have been. The fiddling with exposure in Lightroom added to the noise, particular in the area of my daughter’s face. The fact that the final image is heavily cropped has made the noise even more noticeable.

I think the tight crop works best, but my wife had originally shot a full length portrait to show off the dress. This is the image before cropping:

Esther Leaver's Ball #7

The much improved noise reduction system in Lightroom 3 makes a big difference. The noise is visible but has not ruined the portrait.

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Image stabilisation does not fix everything

One benefit of the Sony Alpha system compared to say Canon or Nikon is that the image stabilisation technology (Super Steady Shot) is built into the camera body as opposed to being incorporated into just some selected lenses. That means you have stabilisation available with every lens. Canon and Nikon users only get stabilisation with a limited number of the more expensive lenses, typically the longer lenses where camera shake is more of an issue.

With a Sony DSLR you can enjoy Super Steady Shot even on wide angle lenses and this can give rise to some odd effects. Bear in mind that the wider the lens, the slower the shutter speed you can get away with, even without image stabilisation, and still avoid camera shake. Add in Super Steady Shot and you can be taking camera shake free pictures at 1/15th or 1/8th of a second. Anything in shot which is stationary will come out sharp, but anything moving could be very blurred. Remember that image stabilisation only compensates for camera movement, not subject movement.

Take this picture, for example, from the family’s Nile cruise in the summer.

Egypt 3545

Our Egyptian guide, Ayman, telling us all about the Temple of Horus at Edfu, came out sharp thanks to Super Steady Shot even in low light at 1/8th of a second because he kept reasonably still. Except his right hand – he was waving his piece of paper around so it has turned semi-transparent. And the background is sharp; but some of the tour party were moving around and have become blurred or ghostly figures.

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Pan in the Can

The British Touring Car Championships event at Oulton Park on Sunday gave me the opportunity to try to perfect my panning technique. I’m getting better but still find this very hard to get right and my success rate is still too low for my liking.

The idea is to snap a fast-moving object (in this case a racing car) while following the car’s motion with the camera so that the car comes out sharp but the background blurs, emphasising the car’s speed. A slower shutter also produces motion blur in the wheels, which is good. The point is to produce a picture which generates excitement through visual clues to the car’s motion. If the car looks like it is parked on the road then you have failed.

The difficulty is that to get the background suitably blurry you have to keep the shutter speed relatively low, which makes it hard to get the car really sharp. This picture was taken with a shutter speed of 1/200th at a focal length of 75mm (full frame equivalent of 112.5mm) which would be ample if the car were at a standstill. With the car and camera both moving it is rather harder.

Some people seem able to go down to shutter speeds of 1/80th or even slower and still keep the car sharp. All power to them. The problem I had was that I was at a vantage point where the cars were both getting closer to the side of the track and accelerating, so that to keep focusing on the same bit of the car as it moved I had to speed up the panning motion of the camera very dramatically and at exactly the right time. It becomes a tricky hand-eye co-ordination job and I always was useless at ball sports.

If you look closely at the Formula Renault car in the picture above you will notice that the rear part of the car is reasonably sharp but the front part less so. This effect was noticeable in a lot of pictures. I wondered if this might be something to do with depth of field but I’m inclined to doubt it. I’m putting it down to the relative motion of the front of the car being greater (because it is nearer the lens) with the result that 1/200th is not enough to freeze it whereas it is enough to freeze the back of the car.

Here is another effort, this time teenager Carl Stirling in the Ginetta G40.

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