Category 'Conceptual fine art photography'

  [caption id="attachment_1592" align="alignright" width="300"]Unedited supermoon Unedited supermoon[/caption] 2014 had three supermoons so that gave me three chances to try and replicate those gorgeous photos of a big ol’ moon emerging from the horizon. Three chances that were doomed to fail because I now know those photos AREN’T REAL without the help of Photoshop or in-camera sorcery. The moon is too small and too bright so these photos are usually composed of one wide shot exposed for the dark scene and one telephoto shot exposed for the bright moon that are later combined in Photoshop. Shocking, I know. Some people feel this is cheating but if you’re going to be wowed by a supermoon photo will it be the one with the tiny blown out moon or the one where the moon is impressively detailed and huge? People hate to be deceived but they love magic and beauty more, which is what Photoshop makes possible. Lightroom is the magic world equivalent of coins and card tricks, it’s great for processing photos but it doesn’t allow you to combine two or more images like grand master illusionist Photoshop does. Photoshop’s advantage is that it uses layers and masks. Layers allow you to stack more than one photo together, while masking allows you to control transparency—hiding or revealing parts of each photo. If you can wrap your mind around this concept the rest of Photoshop isn’t so terrifying. Let me explain with an analogy: [caption id="attachment_1593" align="alignleft" width="133"]Beach Beach[/caption] Say you’re at the beach. You’re standing on the beach looking down and what you’re seeing is sand. Let’s say this sand is your “background layer” in Photoshop (ie. the first photo you open to work with). Then you throw down your towel so now, instead of seeing sand, you’re seeing your towel, but your towel is still surrounded by sand (this is the equivalent of adding a new empty layer on top of your background layer, selecting a rectangular area and filling it with colour, but you’re still seeing the underlying layer around the coloured rectangle). [caption id="attachment_1594" align="alignleft" width="960"]Towel Towel[/caption]   [caption id="attachment_1597" align="alignright" width="150"]Add layer mask Add layer mask[/caption]   Next you lie down on the towel, obscuring part of the towel with your body (another new layer, select a person shaped area and fill with a colour). Now it gets a little tricky. Let’s say you put on some sunscreen (add a white-filled layer). Some of this you rub right in so it becomes invisible, some you only rub in a little and some you don’t rub in at all so that parts of your body are partially obscured by sunscreen. This is akin to adding a layer mask (with the add layer mask button) that tells the layer which parts should be visible and which parts shouldn’t (use a black brush to paint away where you don’t want the sunscreen and then a grey brush or a black brush with low opacity to show partial areas of sunscreen). [gallery columns="1" link="file" size="large" ids="1595,1596"]   Then the sun starts beating down all bright and yellow. (Add an adjustment layer, which is a special layer that allows you to change colours or exposure – in this case, one that has the brightness and the colour yellow boosted.) You put up an umbrella so the sun only affects the area that isn’t shaded by the umbrella. (On the layer mask for the adjustment layer use a big round brush to daub a spot of black in the middle of your layer mask.) To tell a layer mask what you want it to show and hide you use the brush tool to paint white (revealing the layer), black (concealing the layer) or shades of grey (for partial visibility). The great thing about using layers and masks, is that they lie on top of your base photo and can be easily deleted without destroying the original (non-destructive). Umbrella Still with me? Without getting too fancy, I took three photos to illustrate how layer masks work, ranging from easy to medium difficulty. The easiest one, ‘Flora’, I took in spring when all the bougainvillea bushes were in bloom (to the amusement of afternoon strollers and the barking dog who lived at the house). I took a photo of me standing in front of the bush holding a frame I bought at my local op shop and then, without moving my camera or changing any of my settings, I stepped out of frame and took a photo of JUST the bush. Now if there’s one lesson I want you to learn from this post it’s if you’re doing experimental photography, always, always, ALWAYS take a photo of your scene without your subject in it. This is useful for so many reasons, all of which I’ll cover throughout my tutorials. I also expanded my frame which we covered last lesson. [gallery columns="2" size="medium" link="file" ids="1600,1599,1601,1602"]   In Photoshop I opened the background layer, placed the photo of me on top, and then added in all the surrounding shots. I added a white filled layer mask to the layer of me so no underlying layers were showing through. Then I painted black on the layer mask within the frame so my current layer disappeared and I could see through to the background layer below, making my head disappear and the area behind where I was standing became visible. MAGIC. I then got a little trickier with my editing by copying another portion of flowers into the frame because I didn’t think the fence was interesting enough. And then I put a bird on it.

Let me explain exactly how to use layer masks.

Toolbar [caption id="attachment_1605" align="alignright" width="300"]Paint black on mask Paint black on mask[/caption] When you add a layer mask it is automatically filled with white. And white means the layer it's applied to = 100% visible. Black = 0% visible. The little saying goes “black conceals, white reveals.” Write this down and add it to your mantra board. Grab a brush loaded with black (B to bring up your brush tool then check the two colours at the bottom of the tools panel, press D to make it the default colours which is white on black then X to bring black to the front.) Make sure your mask is active (check you have the correct layer highlighted and click on its mask – you can tell it's selected by the little selection marks around it), then paint black on your image so you’re no longer seeing that part of the layer, which now shows whatever lies under that layer. Using the brush tool is not very accurate though, so if you understand the selection tools you can use them instead to select a very specific area and fill it with black. (Draw in your selection, shift + F5 (shortcut for Edit->Fill) and choose black.) For my second photo, 'Beyond Reach', I got slightly more complicated. I took five photos – a bedroom door, an empty frame, a wall, me hiding behind a tree, and me lying on the ground. (Much to the amusement of the same afternoon strollers as before since I took these photos 20 minutes apart in a different location). [gallery size="medium" link="file" ids="1606,1609,1610,1607,1608"]   The bottom layer is the girl lying on the ground, the layer above is the door with the inside masked out so that the door is visible but the room is not so I can see through to the girl layer. The next layer up is the wall, then the girl behind the tree, and then the frame. I masked away the inside of the frame to see through to the reaching girl below, and then masked away the remaining area of the girl photo that extended outside of the frame to see through to the wall below. [caption id="attachment_1611" align="aligncenter" width="931"]Beyond Reach Beyond Reach[/caption]   Not so hard? Here’s a third photo, 'Eye Heart You', which I created for a bit of fun. Can you figure out how it was done? [caption id="attachment_1612" align="aligncenter" width="960"]Eye Heart You Eye Heart You[/caption]   Answers on a postcard!

The majority of people with a functioning camera will at some point have snapped a panoramic photo—a process that involves swivelling the body from side to side while taking a series of photos to capture the full range of a scene so beautiful it can’t be contained. (That last bit felt like it needed to be in bold.) [caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"]A Bridge Just Right 'A Bridge Just Right' by Ryan Brenizer[/caption] Then a cunning fellow named Ryan Brenizer started using this technique for portraits, but instead of just moving side to side he moved up and down and all around while using a wide aperture to create a very shallow depth of field, and stitched the photos together later in Photoshop. Thus, the Brenizer Method was born, while Internet forums went crazy with green-eyed monsters claiming to have invented the technique first. (Those people tend to call this technique ‘bokehrama’ or ‘panoramic stitching’ because agreeing on one name is apparently too difficult.) A Google image search of any of these terms will fill your screen with examples aplenty but this one by Ryan Brenizer himself seems to be the most common example. And damn right, it’s a stunner.

How the Brenizer Method Works

[caption id="attachment_1562" align="alignright" width="300"]bokehrama, expanding the frame 50mm f/1.4 Brenizer Method[/caption] Let’s say you’re out shooting but you only have a telephoto lens with you. Then someone says “Look at this amazing sunset! Please photograph me in front of it so I can impress my Facebook pals!” With a telephoto lens you’ll only be able take a head and shoulders portrait and miss the sunset entirely OR you’ll have to move so far away from your subject to fit everything in that they’ll barely be recognisable. The Brenizer Method lets you keep your subject close and intimate but still include as much of the scene as you want. [caption id="attachment_1561" align="alignright" width="300"]Brenizer Method wide angle lens comparison Same tree with wide angle lens - the subject would be further away[/caption] And because you’re using a wide aperture the background will be lovely and creamy and blurry so the background isn’t competing with your subject but is still adding interest and context to the scene. If you’d just used a wide angle lens your subject would be farther away than this technique allows (which is what you were thinking right?)

Why is the Brenizer Method so special?

Admittedly the Brenizer Method can be tricky to pull off successfully and I wouldn’t necessarily want to teach such an advanced technique early on. But in a pared down, form taking shots all around your scene to ‘expand the frame’ (where a wide aperture is optional) is a popular technique for conceptual artists and wedding photographers so I want to at least get you thinking about shooting extra shots around your scene. Here’s some of the reasons why:
  • If you’re shooting in a confined space and can’t move far enough away from your subject to fit them in, this technique allows you to shoot your subject and environment in a number of shots and stitch them together later.
  • By creating an image from more than one photo this increases the amount of pixels in your image giving you the ability to print at a much larger size without quality loss. Obviously, if you hope to make money selling prints this is a great advantage.
  • By taking two shots either side of your subject you can create the square shot that is so popular with conceptual photographers, rather than cropping out the top and bottom of your frame and losing pixels.
  • If you were photographing a wedding (for example) in a beautiful location, you want to show as much of it as possible without distancing yourself from your couple and losing them in the scene. (Although the opposite is currently popular in wedding photography where the photographer moves far away from the couple and photographs them as tiny dots in a large picturesque scene.)
  • Self-portraitists need their camera close for it to detect their remote so this technique allows them to add in the rest of the scene when they’ve finished shooting their pose.

Shooting the Brenizer Method

To attempt this technique you’ll want to use your longest telephoto with the widest aperture, usually preferencing the latter. I considered using my 70-200mm but figured the f/4 aperture wouldn’t be quite enough, plus I had a brand new 50mm 1.4 that I wanted to play with so I chose this lens instead. Next you’ll want to find your subject and location. My only available subject was myself which is another reason why I chose the 50mm because I needed to fit myself into one frame. Many photographers who use this technique shoot portraits or models and ask them to hold very still so they can shoot their upper and lower body in different shots, which isn’t so easy with a self-portrait. For my location I was out wandering the neighbourhood when I noticed that some vandal had been getting their kicks chainsawing trees in the local parklands. As I wandered along the felled trees got bigger and bigger until I found this mammoth tree that had been cut down and I came up with the concept of a girl trying to bring it back to life. I also liked that the tree offered a lot of foreground and background interest to add depth to the shot. Generally it’s best to avoid backgrounds with a lot of detail that will specifically need to line up, unless you’re like me and want to make it as hard on yourself as possible. Some points to keep in mind:
  • Avoid windy days or elements of your scene will move around
  • Ensure the light isn’t changing rapidly
  • Be mindful of shadows caused by your subject because you want the shadows to remain in all the accompanying shots. Keep your subject in place as you move your camera in this instance.
Obviously because I was shooting a self-portrait I had to use a tripod but it isn’t entirely necessary. However, it does help with lining your shots up later. Here’s how you set up your camera:
  1. Switch your camera to manual. You don’t want ANY of your camera settings changing while you do this process or your photos won’t match up afterwards.
  1. Set your exposure by using your widest aperture and change your shutter speed accordingly.
  1. Turn off auto white balance and either set a custom white balance or, if you’re lazy like me, use the daylight setting.
  1. Focus on your subject and then lock your focus by either switching your lens to manual focus or use back button focusing and don’t touch your focus button again. And most certainly do not change your focal length.
  1. If you’re shooting between 3-9 images it’s probably OK to shoot RAW. But if you’re (crazy) like me and wanting to attempt a 30+ image it’s advisable to shoot in JPEG or your computer won’t handle the processing when stitching the images together. (I shot in RAW and converted to JPEG afterwards.)
[caption id="attachment_1560" align="alignright" width="300"]expanding the frame, bokehpanorama Individual shots[/caption] When you’re ready take your main shot and then start taking your surrounding shots using a 40% overlap. It’s good to get into the practice of shooting in a pattern, ie in rows back and forth, but if you’re like me you’ll just shoot all around and hope for the best. Shoot slowly and be careful to ensure you have enough coverage. Another really helpful tip which I always forget to do is take a picture of your hand before the sequence and after the sequence to make it easier to identify in post. While you’re shooting your surrounding shots it’s best not to change the camera’s position but to swivel it up, across and down from one point as if it’s anchored to a tripod (if it’s not already). I made the terrible mistake of removing my camera from my tripod and stepping side to side then shooting above my head and down low. In my mind this made the most sense, like piecing together a puzzle. But in doing so my horizon line was changing which meant putting together my final image was a nightmare I intend never to repeat.

Post production for the Brenizer Method

There’s two methods for combining your images together in Photoshop. The first is to combine your shots manually which is fine for 3-9 shots but I certainly didn’t want to attempt it with over 40. The second method is to go to File -> Automate -> Photomerge. Select all your images and check the ‘blend images together’ box (this tries to match colour and exposure between shots). It may take some experimentation to choose the merging option that works best for you. For example, on my first go I tried the auto method and ended up with a terrible mess because I could see that Photoshop had expected me to swivel my camera rather than move it. I then decided to give reposition a go because essentially that’s how I shot it and got a much better result. [gallery link="file" columns="2" size="medium" ids="1566,1565,1567,1564"] Going against all previous advice I chose to try to stitch all my RAW files at once. “I’m patient!” I thought, “I’ll wait for this all day if I have to!” But it wasn’t the time it took to stitch that ended up being the issue. It was that on my first attempt Photoshop wouldn’t save a file that large and on my second attempt my computer ran out of scratch disc space. There’s no real working around these kinds of issues so I bit the bullet and converted all my RAWs to JPEG. It also forced me to get rid of any unnecessary shots that just weren’t needed because I’d been over-cautious and taken too many. To ease the load on my computer I also decided to stitch 4 images at a time so I ended up with about 7 resulting images that I then stitched together into one. [caption id="attachment_1568" align="alignright" width="150"]Layer mask button Layer mask button[/caption] When this process is done you’ll get an image with white lines throughout showing you the stitch points. Flattening the image removes the lines but you want to leave this until the very end. They are quite handy guides to show you where a stitch occurred so you can follow it along and check you’re happy with the results. If you’re not happy add a layer mask to the problem layer with the button at the bottom of your tools palette and either add more or remove some until the seams look realistic (more on this next lesson). You will likely come across areas where perspective shifts (areas that won’t line up) have occurred so you’ll need to select the problem spot and use the warp tool (Edit -> Transform -> Warp) to pull areas into place. By swivelling the camera side to side you may end up with gaps at the top and bottom of each seam. You can fill these areas in using the clone stamp or content aware fill or just crop them out. I worked on this shot for WEEKS to make the stitches look convincing, all because I hadn’t swivelled my camera and because I’d chosen such a difficult subject to stitch. I was also relatively new to Photoshop so everything took twice as long. If I can do it, so can you. This is a technique I use in almost all my conceptual photos, although I usually use 9 photos or less and avoid using such a wide aperture because it makes it too difficult to find accurate focus for self-portraits. If you are interested in trying this technique I’d also suggest starting small and don’t make the same stupid mistakes I did! Taking one for the team. :) Here's another example, photographed the same day: [gallery link="file" columns="2" size="medium" ids="1572,1573"] [caption id="attachment_1574" align="alignright" width="960"]Final image: The Road Less Travelled Final image: The Road Less Travelled[/caption]  

Many of my favourite conceptual photographers started out, and continue to be, self-portraitists. Obviously it’s going to be difficult inserting yourself into a photo if you only shoot flowers or product photography but generally it’s advisable in most styles of photography to feature a human. So if you don’t have an available family member or friend willing to twist themselves into awkward poses, your best option is to use yourself. There’s much freedom and convenience that comes with being able to find or construct a scene and throw yourself into it spontaneously, without having to go to the effort of finding the appropriate model and explaining your concept to them, because by then the sun has come out from behind a cloud and your SHOT IS RUINED. Also, it’s quite difficult early in your career to phone up a friend and ask them to come round and pose in questionable ways. You could employ a model but this will either be costly or you’ll be expected to TFP (trade for print - where an amateur model trades their time for a copy of the photo for their portfolio), but if you’re still learning, what if the shot doesn’t work out? That’s why self-portraiture is the easy answer while you’re still experimenting because no one else is invested in the outcome. There are mistakes you will invariably make in your career that you’ll want sorted out before you have a client breathing down your neck. But as with anything fast and cheap it does have its drawbacks. Like the majority of the population, for many years I avoided being in photos because I hated the way I looked. “I’m the most unphotogenic person in the world!” I’d shriek whenever a camera was in my vicinity. I always felt awkward and pulled stupid faces, so of course I hated photos of myself because I wasn’t actually trying to look halfway decent. But once I learnt how to pose myself I stopped purposely sabotaging every shot and these days have no problem whipping out a smile for a happy snap. So my first tip for photographing yourself is to get to know your face and expressions. What poses work? What don’t? What style of lighting emphasises or minimises your faults? What features will you constantly be fixing in Photoshop and how can you best disguise these? In the course of your self-portraiture you will also learn what poses look good – which are the most dynamic, the most graceful, the most subdued. It’s a fantastic exercise in posing that you can use in the future when directing models. Also, using yourself as a subject makes you realise how incredibly akin to torture it is to hold an uncomfortable pose so when asking a model to pose in questionable ways – you can say ‘hey, I did that once! I know it sucks, but if you lie this particular way it will minimise the discomfort’. And they’ll likely be more receptive to the idea. So how to shoot a self-portrait? Well shooting yourself is actually kinda difficult (but sort of fun too) and if there’s mistakes to be made I’ve made every single one so here’s my tips: [caption id="attachment_1524" align="alignright" width="159"]Photo c/o Canon Photo c/o Canon[/caption]

  1. Before you begin shooting yourself you’ll need to decide how to trigger your camera. Either you can set your camera to ten second timer, press the button and then run in front of the camera and pose (great because you can hear the 10 seconds counting down, bad because you have to run back to the camera every time). Or you can get yourself a remote to trigger the camera. I use very cheap remotes purchased on eBay. There’s a little switch on the back that you can change to 2 seconds allowing time to trigger the camera, hide the remote and strike a pose. You can also use a tethered (corded) remote but I haven’t personally found the need.  
  2. Find a tripod or something to stabilise your camera. If you can’t find or afford these things you could just try sitting it on the ground and angling the camera towards you.

  1. Use a lens that will fit your scene in but also allow you to be close enough to the camera for it to see the remote. I try to use a 50mm. It’s a touch too close on a cropped sensor (maybe a 35mm would be better) but fine on a full frame camera. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve got myself into an awkward pose only to find that the camera won’t sense the remote. Also go into your camera settings and find the ‘auto power off’ feature and ensure it’s set to a reasonable time. Mine was set to 1 min (until just now when I finally discovered you could change it!) which means I constantly have to get out of my pose to wake my camera back up.
  3. Getting focus on yourself can be tricky. Either ask someone camera-savvy to help, use a stand-in person or object to pre-focus on, or focus on the area of the ground where you’ll be situated. Then lock your focus by switching your lens to manual focus (or just use back button focus) so it can’t change. Another tip is to activate Live View on your camera if you have it, zoom right into the area where you think your eyes will be and manually focus on that area. It’s advisable to take shots of yourself moving slightly back and forward so at least a few will be in focus. [gallery link="none" size="medium" ids="1536,1537,1538"] [caption id="attachment_1539" align="alignright" width="146"]Fringe focus Fringe focus[/caption] If your camera is set to autofocus you can also use your remote to find focus on you before it takes the shot. Just be sure to change your focus point to one that corresponds with the area where you want it to focus. While this seems like an easy option I can never remember how to turn off back button focus so I rarely use it (and funnily enough, no articles on the web tell you how to change it back because NO ONE EVER DOES). It’s also a bit hit and miss because my camera likes to focus on my fringe rather than my eyes which sucks on a wide aperture, and leads me to my next point.
  4. When you first start shooting yourself don’t use a wide aperture. Sure, portraits look great when the eyes are in focus and everything else is soft, but it’s so hard to hit that narrow spot of focus when you can’t see what you’re doing. Starting around f/5.6 is safest. [caption id="attachment_1540" align="alignleft" width="180"]One Christmas I wanted to shoot some portraits with strings of blurred Christmas lights for a bokeh effect but I needed a wide aperture to blur the lights which made it near impossible to get myself in focus. One Christmas I wanted to shoot some portraits with strings of blurred Christmas lights for a bokeh effect but I needed a wide aperture (f/1.8) to blur the lights which made it near impossible to get myself in focus.[/caption]
  1. Don’t choose difficult poses, locations or props that require a lot of interaction. It is painful and annoying to get up and down and run back and forth to check pose and exposure on the back of your camera. My thighs often hurt for a few days after. Start simple.
  3. If you’re doing all this publicly, prepare to be stared at and look stupid to everyone. I gotta tell you though, after years of stressing about how I look, shooting self-portraits has made me way less self-conscious. It’s surprisingly easy to become the character in your story.
And that, dear readers, is how you graduate from a selfie taker to a self-portrait maker while getting in some practice to be the world’s best photographer. And if you just want a killer Facebook photo, no one ever has to know you took it yourself. (Although the compliments are generally better if you admit it.) Now I want to know what YOU look like. Share your shots – failures and successes both welcome!

Many photographers use their camera to capture a moment; they see an interesting subject so they shoot it to the best of their ability. But a worthwhile experiment for every budding photographer is to try staging a photo. Rather than passively waiting for all the elements to perfectly arrange themselves, take control and create the moment yourself. It’s an important lesson in thinking about concept, setting, composition, lighting and posing. It could be as simple as approaching someone interesting on the street and non-creepily asking permission to pose them in a certain way or as elaborate as the over-the-top concepts often seen in fashion or advertising. Make, rather than take. Create. My chosen style of photography, conceptual fine art, uses photography to tell a story and so while the course of this blog will see me study and explore a photography technique each week, I also need to develop a story to incorporate that technique. It’s a daunting prospect because concepting a shoot requires thought, creativity and the drive to pull together the elements needed to bring a story to life. But tackling these challenges can only improve your work. If you break your project down into its different components it becomes easier to manage. ‘Garden Attack' is the very first conceptual photograph I ever took. I am proud of myself for attempting it even though I wouldn’t call it a success. But I thought it would make a good example to illustrate all the areas that need to be considered when creating a photo. Firstly, you need to devise a concept and that’s going to involve tapping into your stream of inspiration. Not a creative person? Rubbish. You either haven’t found a way to express your creativity or you’re not yet seeing the world as an endless source of inspiration. I can’t close my eyes and come up with ideas. I need to surround myself with books and art, music and movies, and the work of other photographers. I particularly love to browse op shops for props to build a story around.  I take these influences and use my own life experiences to give them a new twist. Buy a notebook and jot down every idea, no matter how stupid. Use Pinterest or Evernote to create an inspiration library that you can turn to at any time for a little creative boost. And if you’re really struggling, try some inspiration exercises. Brooke Shaden outlines some particularly good ones here.

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”  - Ansel Adams
For ‘Garden Attack’ I came up with the idea purely because I liked the look of the passionfruit vines hanging over the fence and I thought about how a person might interact with them. Once you have your idea, break it down into all its components. Here, you’re thinking about:
  • Story
  • Setting – location, era, time of day
  • Subject
  • Props
  • Wardrobe
  • Pose
  • Lighting
  • Framing – angle, lens used
Story: this should primarily be guided by your idea, however if you’re simply shooting fashion or glamour it may not be especially relevant. For a conceptual photo, putting thought into your character will help get your story across clearly. Who are they? What is this situation they’re in and is it the most visually interesting part of their story? How did they get here? What happens after? Having answers to these questions will help you add extra elements that enrich the story. I wanted my character to look as if she’d been digging a hole in the garden but nature had started fighting back. It’s not a complicated story and had I put more thought into it I might have had a stronger image, but I do like that it’s open to interpretation. Setting: where and when is your story taking place? If your story takes place at a castle at sunrise then you’re either going to have to find a castle you can photograph at sunrise or recreate one using compositing. This is my biggest struggle. Either my concepts are too elaborate or the location I need is too public or dangerous. (With all the deadly creatures in Australia going off the beaten track is an extreme sport.) This means I have to think smaller, using the little pockets of trees and creeks that surround my home. My best tip is to assess your local area for its most unique features and include those in your photos. Use Google Maps to discover what’s nearby and then your car and your feet to explore further. Once I have built a portfolio I intend to approach more interesting locations for permission to shoot there. As my initial idea came from the vines over my fence, it was easy for me to shoot in my garden and tangle myself in the vines without travelling too far or having passers-by staring at me. Both the time period and time of day are not important here, but I did want to darken the photo to suggest that the weather, too, had been angered. Props: Having your subject interact with SOMETHING will make your shot more interesting and further your story. Being on an extreme budget I usually buy props from cheap “$2” shops, eBay or just use things I have lying around the house. Depending on your concept, you can even composite in a photo of the prop you want if it’s too difficult to get the physical version. For my shoot I needed some gardening implements. I had a rusty shovel lying around and I replanted an overgrown lettuce to look as if it was grabbing at my hand. I used the vines to wrap around myself and dug a hole in the ground to make it look like I’d been doing something in the garden. Wardrobe / Make up: What would your character likely be wearing? I have a clothes rack full of costumes specifically to be used in photoshoots. This is made up of clothes I don’t wear anymore, old costumes, and dresses from my *cough* goth days that are rich in dark colours and fabrics. I regularly scour eBay for vintage dresses (I never spend more than $30 unless it’s particularly special) and I visit every op shop I find. The clothes are cheap anyway but I like to go around change of season when I can usually pick up whole bags of clothes for $5 or less. For now, I wear basic make up I’ve applied myself. As my character was working in the garden I figured she’d be wearing something old and ragged. I had a pair of paint splattered overalls that I thought would work perfectly. To make myself look dirty I smeared some mud on my white shirt and arms but unfortunately I did this fairly half-heartedly so you can’t really tell. Subject: Who will play your character? What physical attributes do they need to have? If you have a willing family member or friend on hand – great! For me, mainly for ease of access, I primarily use myself but in the future I hope to either recruit friends or use models through ModelMayhem or online message boards. However, your subject needn’t be a person. An object or animal are perfectly fine too. I never considered using anyone but myself, however the story would have been stronger had I used a model and wrapped them entirely in vines. As it was I had to wrap myself up, take the photo (my camera was too far away to register my remote so I had to pull myself out of the vines to trigger it and quickly wrap myself back up), run back to the camera to check my pose and keep doing this over and over until I was happy with the photos I had. I waited a few hours to get the diffuse light I wanted and jumped outside when it was just right. It would have been tricky having a model waiting around for that to happen. [caption id="attachment_1506" align="alignleft" width="200"]Stupid remote Stupid remote[/caption]                   Pose: It takes a little experimentation to get this right but the best way to start out with posing is to think about what pose will help tell your story. Should it be powerful or submissive? I tried a number of poses for my concept, many of which didn’t work, including making it look as if my feet weren’t touching the ground and the vines had fully embraced me. My pose had to be tense and convey fear and struggle as I fought to escape the plants, but also partly submissive to make it look as if the vines were winning. [gallery columns="4" link="none" size="medium" ids="1500,1501,1502,1503"]   Lighting: Lighting is difficult and expensive, so it’s always best to start out with natural light, positioning your subject so it sculpts their features. Shoot early or late in the day and aim for overcast or cloudy days to avoid harsh shadows (unless that’s what you want). I’m just starting to dabble in the world of lighting, but you can start experimenting cheaply with lamps and candles. I photographed mid-morning but waited until clouds crossed the sun so that my skin had a milky tone and everything was nicely lit from the diffuse sun. Framing: Do you want a wide shot to see the location, or a tight shot to really focus on your subject? Do you want to shoot from low down to make them look powerful or high up to make them look submissive or straight on to let the image alone tell the story? I chose to shoot front on and in portrait orientation. I used a 50mm to get a close shot without distortion but I also moved my camera right and left to take extra shots of the garden to Photoshop in later (they didn’t make the final cut). Once you’ve thought all this through do a rough sketch of your idea to help you visualise all the shots you’ll need to take and any elements you might use to strengthen your story. [gallery size="medium" ids="1504,1505,1510"] If your shot doesn’t work out don’t feel dejected because you’ll have learned a tonne of things from the experience. It’s frustrating to fail but get straight back out there and shoot it again using what you’ve learned. This is the only way to improve. I initially considered my photo a flat-out failure because the “garden’s attack” was not how I envisioned and didn’t feel convincing enough. But I let it sit for a good 9 months before I took another look at it and with a little toning and colour correction in Photoshop I think it’s OK. I love jumping on the Flickr pages of great photographers and scrolling back to their first photos to see how far they’ve come. And I’d love to see yours too. Have you tried taking a staged shot? Show me your first attempt!

Over the coming weeks I will begin to explore the tricks and techniques used by the best photographers but rather than just saying “hey, here’s how to shoot an HDR image” I want to photograph these techniques in the style that I love to shoot. Every pro photographer specialises in a certain kind of photography and I want to talk about why it’s so important to define your niche and explain how I eventually stumbled across mine. When your passion for photography first ignites you’ll want to shoot everything in sight. Every flower, every sunset, every local event. You’ll find excuses to go places just so you can take your camera and begrudge going to events where cameras aren’t allowed. I was stuck in this snap happy wonderland for about three years before I started to consider making money from my hobby. But to be able to market yourself as a photographer you need to have a specialty. At first I thought this was ludicrous. Surely the fact that I can and do shoot everything makes me a better prospect for every photography job ever. But the more I thought about it the more I realised why this doesn’t make sense. If someone wants a children’s portrait, then they want to employ someone who shoots children’s portraits because that person will know exactly how to put children at ease in front of a camera. They don’t want someone who sometimes shoots kid’s portraits but also shoots food photography and sports because they’ll look at your website and won’t understand what they’re getting. (Unless you specifically shoot children eating food at sports games and then you have a specialty—even if it’s a creepy one). If, however, someone only shoots macro fungi then whenever a company is looking for a well-shot mushroom they’re going to save themselves time and employ the person who lives to shoot that subject and knows where the best mushrooms are and the best light to shoot them in, like THIS GUY, and not the guy who shot a mushroom once. And this is why it pays to specialise. Not just in photography, but in whatever your chosen profession is. It limits your competition and allows you to perfect your niche and be the best at what you do. I really struggled to define what it is I wanted to shoot. Whenever I tell someone I’m a photographer most people assume I shoot weddings and portraits because that’s what photography means to them and that’s traditionally where the dollars are. And for awhile I too pictured myself as a wedding photographer because it was the only field I knew I could make money from right away. But deep down I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer and I didn’t want to take family portraits. What I did like to shoot was landscapes and wildlife, but how do you make money out of those? Especially when there’s already so many people doing it better? Then one day on CreativeLIVE I saw an ad for a course on how to turn photographs into works of art and decided to tune in because the concept intrigued me. After watching Brooke Shaden’s class for a couple of hours I knew that THIS is what I wanted to do with every fibre of my being and I bought the course without hesitation in what became one of those life-defining moments. I would be a conceptual fine art portraitist. A WHAT? Well, normally when a portrait is taken it is commissioned by a person, family or company with the intent to showcase the subject’s beauty or professionalism. Conceptual fine art portraits on the other hand are created as an art form. Instead of smiling, candid subjects these portraits aim to tell imaginative stories through the use of costumes, props and posing. They are experimental in nature and in many circumstances utilise in-camera tricks or post processing to add an element of magic or the unreal, and it’s mainly these kinds of techniques I will explore throughout this blog. Conceptual fine art portraiture is a broad field so it’s incredibly hard to describe but as a picture paints a thousand words, here are some examples from a few of my favourite photographers. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="238"]Away with the canaries 'Away with the canaries' by Miss Aniela[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignright" width="200"]to serve 'To serve' by Brooke Shaden[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="253"]Set them free 'Set them free' by Erik Johansson[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignright" width="200"]These Are The Creatures In My Neighborhood 'These are the creatures in my neighbourhood' by Joel Robison[/caption]                           I was drawn to this field instinctually but over time I’ve asked myself why that might be. A few years back I would have told you I didn’t have a creative bone in my body but I’ve always loved the arts so have gravitated to jobs in this area. I can’t draw or play an instrument. I tried creative writing but it felt like drowning. I’ve since learnt that creativity is so much more than being able to dream up and make pretty things. It’s not a skill gifted at birth and it’s actually surprisingly easy to train yourself to be receptive to creativity when you find the medium that allows you to express it best. I now come up with at least three concepts for photos a day, whereas before, I was hard pressed to imagine ANYTHING. I’m also a perfectionist so being able to refine one concept is immensely appealing to me, whereas if I take a trip and shoot 3,000 photos, that’s an overwhelming amount of work for me and is the primary reason why most of my photos remain unseen. But most of all I’m a huge fan of magical realism, where elements of a magical world seep into our own and are presented in a way that makes it seem entirely normal. This idea is thrilling to me and conceptual fine art photography has given me the medium to express my fascination with this concept and a way to add magic to my everyday. So in defining your photography niche it pays to analyse your strengths and interests until you find a field that fits. If you’re really stuck this article succinctly wraps up some points that may help you define yours. But above all you need to love what you do because to succeed at something you need to pursue it doggedly and if your heart isn’t in it you’re destined to fail. Defining who you are is important because it gives your photographs intent, which makes them powerful. Good photographs have a clear subject, whatever it may be, and they tell a story about that subject. Sadly, choosing your field is not the end. Then the world expects you to have a personal style! Something about your work that is instantly recognisable and sets you apart from everyone else. Usually style comes naturally with experimentation. Mine is currently a work in progress but I know I like dark autumn colours, muted blacks, foreground interest, painterly techniques and cinematic lighting, and am sure these will manifest in my work, but for now this is still part of my journey. Discovering what you love to do is the fun part. Enjoy it! But if you’re a hobby photographer who loves taking photos for the sake of taking photos then that’s just fine too. Let me know how you discovered what you love to shoot!

If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re either a very good friend of mine (thanks for your support!) or you’ve already started your photography journey and are looking for ways to improve. So before getting stuck into any photography tricks I first want to talk about my recommended resources for learning photography and then introduce you to the camera settings and techniques used by the pros. These are the things that, if I had a time machine, I would go back and tell myself the very first time I picked up a digital SLR (obviously once I got over the shock of seeing a duplicate self). The resources for photographers are endless so without a good starting point you’re going to get overwhelmed pretty quickly so I want to fast track you to the ones that I personally think are the best. DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY SCHOOL & DIGITAL CAMERA WORLD These are two amazing and free websites that comprehensively cover everything there is to know about photography. The way I use them is by signing up to their newsletters / social media pages and then reading anything and everything until it all becomes too basic. But if you’re just starting out I’d recommend reading articles about ‘composition’ and ‘learning to see’ and then getting into ‘exposure’. PHOTOGRAPHY CLASS My next tip is to take a beginner’s photography course because it’s important to get hands-on experience. The two I took were found through daily deals websites and cost about $50 each. Aim for a class that will teach you to use you camera’s manual mode because your photography will never improve if you keep letting the camera think for you. Then you have to practice, practice, practice because manual is hard at first and your photos will suck for awhile. But once you get the hang of it that’s when you’re allowed to start calling yourself a photographer because you’ve put in the hard yards required to tame the beast. [gallery columns="2" size="medium" link="file" ids="1447,1449,1450,1451,1452,1453"]   CREATIVELIVE The most wonderful resource I’ve found for photographers is CreativeLIVE, which offers photography classes instructed by world class photographers for FREE, provided you’re watching live (or a small fee if not). If you do tune in I can guarantee you’ll want to purchase every class because they’re always inspirational and vastly informative and you’ll want them on hand to study at your own pace. At $99-$149 per three day class this is an absolute steal. To take a local class on a similar subject you’d pay four times that amount for a half day workshop with a photographer no one’s ever heard of. I’ve purchased over ten CreativeLIVE classes and never regretted a single one of them. I’m a fairly thrifty person but spending money for education on a subject you are passionate about is a no brainer to me. PHLEARN At some point you’ll want to tackle the dreaded beast Photoshop. I chipped away at learning Photoshop for many years with little success. It was only when I stumbled across the highly fanciable Aaron Nace’s Phlearn that everything clicked. Aaron creates a free ‘how to’ video EVERY SINGLE DAY. You can also purchase a Phlearn Pro for $25 and work right alongside Aaron on a project from start to finish. The first time I completed one I nearly ran down the street high fiving everyone who came my way because suddenly so much more seemed possible. MY TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY RIGHT AWAY Provided you have the appropriate kind of camera, I believe these tips will improve your photography right away. Check your manual or the web to see if your camera is capable.

  1. Techniques for getting sharp focus almost every time
SINGLE POINT FOCUS Sure, those 45 focus points on your camera sound amazing but if you let your camera choose the focus for you, chances are you’re going to get punchy when you see the results. How a camera chooses where to focus is fairly technical but some say they choose the largest object, some say the closest object, some say the centre, and some say the area of most contrast. But all you really need to know is that letting your camera decide its own focus points is a mistake. I recommend setting your camera to use only one focus point – the centre point – because it’s the most sensitive point and the easiest to work with. I place the centre point over the area where I want sharpest focus, lock the focus, recompose if necessary and then take my shot. I use this point 99% of the time and only change it when I’m doing a tricky self-portrait using a low aperture and the focus needs to be spot on.   [gallery columns="2" link="file" size="medium" ids="1456,1457"]   You may need to google how to do this for your specific camera but here’s a quick guide for Canons. BACK BUTTON FOCUS The single greatest change I ever made to my camera was to set up back button focus. Basically, this means that instead of your shutter button both focusing AND taking the shot, you are using an entirely different button on the back of your camera to find and lock focus so the shutter merely takes the photo. With one button press you can lock focus and keep it locked until you decide to change it or you can track a moving subject by holding the button in (if your camera is set to AI SERVO). This is great because your camera doesn’t refocus between shots. Admittedly back button focus can be a little difficult to get your head around but it honestly only took me an hour or so to get used to it. My dad put off using it for years until very recently and his focus improved immediately. Here’s how to set it up. (There’s plenty of other articles / videos out there if you struggle with the instructions in this one.) [gallery columns="2" size="medium" link="file" ids="1458,1459"]   Of course, you could choose to ignore both these points and use manual focus instead, and that’s totally fine. Admirable even! But my eyes aren’t the best and I like to shoot quickly so focusing my lens manually isn’t practical for me. If your photos are still blurry, make sure your shutter speed is not too low. (I personally can’t go under 1/100 without a tripod.)
  1. Shoot RAW
When you shoot JPEG your camera automatically processes your photo in camera - applying sharpening, brightness and contrast and then compressing the file by discarding data - so your photos come out of camera looking good but the file size is small and contains only limited information. Whereas if you shoot RAW you get access to all the information recorded by the camera sensor with a full range of brightness to darkness, however your photos initially look kinda dull because the camera isn’t applying any processing. That’s because RAW is designed for people who want full control over how their final photos look and it is AMAZING how much scope you can get out of a RAW file. I spent years shooting JPEG and those photos are now mostly unusable to me because they’re too small and I can’t modify them how I want. [gallery columns="4" size="medium" link="file" ids="1460,1461,1462,1463"]   [gallery link="file" columns="2" size="medium" ids="1464,1465"]   The RAW file is not natively understood by most computers so you'll need to use your camera’s software or purchase a program to interpret your files. I own Adobe Lightroom and it is the best photography money I’ve ever spent. You can currently purchase it outright for about $180 or you can buy it on a plan with Photoshop for $9.99 per month with lifetime upgrades. Start by playing around with the sliders in the develop tab and then use google or YouTube to learn what else the program can do. These photography tips would have saved me years of experimentation, money and frustration and I hope they’ll do the same for you. If you have any questions or tips of your own please add them to the comments!

How often have you looked at a photo and thought, ‘how did they do that?’ Among a sea of selfies and food shots some photographs are so intriguing or beautiful that they demand your attention and make you wonder. But what might be a fleeting interest for some, for me is an obsession. I don’t usually pull things apart to see how they tick but knowing the tricks the great photographers use enhances the magic for me rather than ruining it. And after years of studying these techniques I want to share them with you so that you too can appreciate the process of creation and not just the end product. And so the ‘Exposing Illusions’ blog will see me attempt, and no doubt sometimes fail, to reproduce a photography technique each week. My journey with photography began in high school where I spent a semester studying black and white photography before quickly realising that spending time in a stuffy dark room with a bunch of unpredictable chemicals wasn’t my idea of a good time (nightclubs excluded). Besides, back then I was more a video girl, all colour and movement, a clunky VHS video camera glued to my shoulder which eventually led to a passionate but brief career as a video editor (and probably all this back pain). When digital photography came along I was gifted a point and shoot and proceeded to point it and shoot snaps of every willing subject. It was then that I discovered I had an eye for the vaguely interesting and this, really, is the essence of good photography - immortalising the interesting. Now I’m the kind of person who struggles to be good at anything because I’m too impatient and if I can’t be good right away then what’s the damn use in trying. And if you’re one of these people too, I suggest you pick up a camera because cameras today are clever enough to do the hard stuff for you, which you’re not going to get from a painting or an  instrument. All you need is an eye for composition and the ability to press a button and hey presto! you can trick your brain into thinking you’re already good at something and then it’s only natural to want to improve. [caption id="attachment_1417" align="alignright" width="300"]Morocco The first ever photo I took with a digital camera in 2006.[/caption] When my dad outgrew his first DSLR it became mine (cue heavenly music) and like many I was content for awhile to use my camera on full automatic mode. Even though some photographers would disagree, I believe that using your camera, whatever it may be, in auto mode is an important step in learning to hone your vision without getting weighed down by the technicality of your camera. Honestly, my non-technical brain screamed in pain every time I made efforts to understand the exposure triangle or depth of field and these concepts rattled around in my brain for years before they eventually clicked and made sense. If I’d had to understand these concepts before I ever picked up a camera than I would have given away this photography lark eons ago. Most people are content to stay in auto and that’s perfectly fine for documenting personal events and pretty scenes but I started to get REALLY annoyed by blur and poor focus and so I put myself in the hands of the professionals and took a couple of half day beginner photography classes to learn how to control my camera manually and it was then that I became utterly hooked.Hayley Roberts head shot photo If this were a film, it’d be here you’d see the montage – me pouring over every photography book and magazine I could get my hands on, trooping around the backyard shooting everything in sight, pages flying off the calendar as I scoured the Internet and YouTube for anything vaguely photography related, crying over my bank balance when I see how much I’ve spent on photography gear (that point and shoot is a gateway drug – you’ve been warned), ending in me staring at a blank Word document wondering how to put all this passion into words. I’ve shot it all - weddings, portraits, events, landscapes, bands, wildlife, macro, travel, street - and 95% of my photos have never been seen by another human because I’m too much of a perfectionist to share them. [gallery columns="5" link="file" ids="1418,1419,1420,1421,1422"]   But it’s conceptual photography—the art of using models and props and lighting and Photoshop—that truly thrills me because it’s no longer enough for me to merely document; I want to create, and make magic a reality, even if just in photographic form. Each week I hope to get better and wiser and pass on what I’ve learnt to you, so I can give back to the community that’s taught me so much. And, if nothing else, I learn by making mistakes so this could potentially be a very amusing experiment. And thus, the ‘Exposing Illusions’ blog is born. *cut the red ribbon – cue applause* Are you ready to peek behind the curtain?


How to use layers and masking. Photoshop 101.

  2014 had three supermoons so that gave me three chances to try and replicate those gorgeous photos of a big ol’ moon emerging from the horizon. Three chances that were doomed to fail because I now know those photos AREN’T REAL without the help of Photoshop or in-camera sorcery. The moon is too small and […]


How to shoot and edit the Brenizer Method (aka bokehrama, frame expansion, panorama).

The majority of people with a functioning camera will at some point have snapped a panoramic photo—a process that involves swivelling the body from side to side while taking a series of photos to capture the full range of a scene so beautiful it can’t be contained. (That last bit felt like it needed to […]


How to photograph a self-portrait.

Many of my favourite conceptual photographers started out, and continue to be, self-portraitists. Obviously it’s going to be difficult inserting yourself into a photo if you only shoot flowers or product photography but generally it’s advisable in most styles of photography to feature a human. So if you don’t have an available family member or […]


How to create a conceptual photograph.

Many photographers use their camera to capture a moment; they see an interesting subject so they shoot it to the best of their ability. But a worthwhile experiment for every budding photographer is to try staging a photo. Rather than passively waiting for all the elements to perfectly arrange themselves, take control and create the […]


What type of photographer are you? Discovering your style.

Over the coming weeks I will begin to explore the tricks and techniques used by the best photographers but rather than just saying “hey, here’s how to shoot an HDR image” I want to photograph these techniques in the style that I love to shoot. Every pro photographer specialises in a certain kind of photography […]


Learning photography. Take better photos today.

If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re either a very good friend of mine (thanks for your support!) or you’ve already started your photography journey and are looking for ways to improve. So before getting stuck into any photography tricks I first want to talk about my recommended resources for learning photography and […]


Welcome to Exposing Illusions

How often have you looked at a photo and thought, ‘how did they do that?’ Among a sea of selfies and food shots some photographs are so intriguing or beautiful that they demand your attention and make you wonder. But what might be a fleeting interest for some, for me is an obsession. I don’t […]