Trey Ratcliff, Miss Aniela, Paris and the seduction of surrealism

Just over two weeks ago I visited Château de Champlâtreux, just outside Paris, an imposing example of French architecture built around 1750. An appropriately dramatic setting for the Midnight Workshop with Miss Aniela and Trey Ratcliff.

Much of the building is unoccupied and left to collect the dust and cobwebs that veil a chaotic heap of antique relics, chairs, taxidermy, sculptures and paintings. Silk curtains ripped, tattered and draped over tall windows, throwing soft light over the debris. A photographer’s paradise.

Down in the Dungeons

Two Models were organised by Miss Aniela and partner Matthew Lennard, styled in fashions of the period like Madam Pomodour. There were dungeons, damp and dark with glimpses of daylight through the bars. An impossible challenge for any sensor, lens or camera. Having tried HDR for the first time the previous evening on Trey’s Paris Photowalk, now was the chance to use it.


The challenge was to retain detail in the walls and the window

Some HDR processes can flatten an image, losing the drama of light against dark which often defines an image and strengthens composition. Here was a situation where I wanted detail in the dark, the damp moss, cobwebs, and texture, but I didn’t want to completely blow out the window. The window and the model are important, they need to balance each other, both are pushed to the corners of the frame. Confined to the corner, she looks small and the stone prison engulfs her.

Whilst I’m not particularly creating a totally natural look, sometimes light just needs to be light so I’ve brightened the window back up a little. The danger is that it becomes so bright it is too distracting from the model. The only black in the final image is the arched doorway behind the model which gives the image depth. I bracketed my exposure and used a tripod to get 5 different exposures. The model is then re-added choosing the best exposure and pose from the 5 frames. I have used a really high ISO which is good on the 5D because I needed a fast enough shutter speed to get the model reasonably in focus in one of the frames.

The second day was spent processing. I had Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS5 with me.

If you are shooting in RAW it is probably best to export these as jpgs first and use these for your HDR image as the RAW files can be a bit big to process. I selected all five exposures in Lightroom and chose:

Photo> Edit In> Merge to HDRpro in Photoshop

Wait for your Mac or PC to chug through them and then you can play with the sliders until you get the effect you are after. In My case I wanted to keep the dark walls dark and imposing in contrast to the window lit model.

Once happy with the background I then found the clearest exposure of the model from my original RAW files and pasted the image over my HDR version. Add a layer mask and mask out all of the background.

Where the model has moved slightly so that you can still see bits of the HRD version behind the RAW version but I can tidy up behind the model with the clone tool.

I took this image in a landscape orientation with the square crop in my head. I use a square crop a lot of the time now. Somehow you can be more adventurous with a square. We don’t expect things to be composed in a certain way when presented with a square.


Constructing reality


Victorian postcard

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about constructing and manipulating reality in my work, so seeing how Trey and Miss Aniela work was great timing.

One thing that intrigues me about Miss Aniela is her capacity to see the possibilities for an image as she works. She takes images on the tripod either side of the model horizontally and vertically in case she gets a idea later on that would need a different composition.

She may merge these images later after she has decided what space to let the model occupy in the frame. There may be other elements she can add to the image, for example stock images taken for the purpose of creating surreal manipulations at a later date.

She showed us how to warp scenes using the warp tool in Photoshop instead of vertical and horizontal perspective shifts. You keep more of the composition in the frame this way because you are not forced to crop the image. Top Tip.

Tom Anderson (yes THE Tom Anderson of MySpace was at the workshop), remarked at our farewell dinner that he was interested in the way Natalie created and stage managed a set using props. Whilst the images she creates are unique and original the concept of creating a stage for a person is not a new one. The Victorians used to paint backgrounds, use props and literally cut and paste!

I had to include this image, I love  everything about this image, this is Warsaw 1946, unknown photographer. More images like this on my Pinterest “about life” board.

Warsaw 1946

Warsaw 1946


A developing fascination with the surreal

If you are familiar with my images you are going to see a change. I want to go back to a place of total creative freedom, building up images from different sources, using my camera, props, taking new stock and using archived images, putting them together in a way that tells a story.

Back in 1992, on a Graphic Design BA, I created a photo montage photographed it, changed it a little and photographed it, again and again in the same place, letting small flowers die, taking things out of the image and adding objects in. I photographed it with an angle poise lamp so that I could replicate the movement of the sun over time. The raised parts of the montage cast shadows like sundials.

I found the negatives of these a few weeks ago although some are damaged. I took these with a Canon EOS, a film camera I still have, they called it a digital camera because it had electronic buttons to change your aperture and speed and an LED display, mega modern in those days, may publish them soon.

I want to get into changing the meaning of things by using more than one image in an interesting way. My current board for montage inspiration is here.

Sometimes in deliberate and transparent ways like John Stezaker. (Deutsche Börse photography prizewinner 2012). I can’t get enough of his images at the moment.

Mask XXXV by John Stezaker


I’m also looking at ways to create subtle combinations of images in ways that look surreal, constructed to look like reality or nearly real.

Not being prepared with suitable stock for the midnight workshop, I needed another idea to create something different. What I loved most about the Chateau was the dust and cobwebs, the dramatic contrast between a once glittering example of all that was lavish and the careless abandonment, the greyness and quiet. I considered how to enhance these qualities  While Natalie, the other model and delegates were busy in one room, I took the opportunity of setting up in an opposite room. I cleared a space for the model in the heaps of chairs as I wanted her to be central. She looks more imposing here and her direct gaze is unnerving. I took 5 exposures, when merged to HDR the furniture looked flat and grey, a look you’d often try and avoid, but in this instance, perfect. Again I took the best exposure of the model and put her back in the picture using a layer and mask.

great expectations

great expectations

I thought about how I might make dust and cobwebs, so did a search for brushes, many cobweb and dust brush downloads later and I had the tools I needed. I sampled colours from the image then made them lighter and greyer and painted dust and cobwebs in layer, referencing images of real dust and cobwebs to see how they picked up the light, and dusted the edges of things. I drew them on layers varying opacity, colour and brushes. I then masked out any area that I didn’t like. Her eyes looked dull so I added some light and clarity to the eyes. This looks great printed big, I’ve just prepared one for a performance photography exhibition at the Dome from December 6 in the Founders Room. You can order prints there or order online from Redbubble.

What’s next?

I think I’ve been shy of obvious manipulation in the past, too sensitive to the online hammering I sometimes get from street photography purists.

I will always do street though, there will just be more variety. When in the streets surrounded by noise and people, I see that angle and I move fast enough to catch it just as real life all falls into place for a split second, I actually get an adrenalin rush. It’s magic and nothing can beat it. Why would I ever want to give that up?

I don’t want to just break the rules though, I want total freedom to influence and create at every step of the way from conception, the creation of a set, the photography, all the way through to the processing. I may do more self portraits. I built this set from seed in March this year and spent several months growing it inside my Victorian conservatory. I made the dress out of the leaves, with the help of my niece Amber.

self portait

self portait

This is one of my favourite self portraits by Mary Britton Clouse – Self Portrait, 2005, surreal, constructed and natural – an amazing image.

Mary Britton Clouse – Self Portrait, 2005

Mary Britton Clouse – Self Portrait, 2005

I’m not sure quite how it’s going to go but expect my work to be more varied for a while.

The thing that intrigued me about Miss Aniela is her capacity to see the possibilities for an image as she works.

She takes images on the tripod either side of the model horizontally and vertically in case she gets a idea later on that would need a different composition.

She may merge these images later after she has decided what space to let the model occupy in the frame.

There may be other elements she can add to the image, for example stock images taken for the purpose of creating surreal manipulations at a later date.

She showed us how to warp scenes using the warp tool in Photoshop instead of vertical and horizontal perspective shifts. You keep more of the composition in the frame this way because you are not forced to crop the image.

Whilst I’m not going to go all HDR, I’m really interested in using as a technique to get images that no sensor, camera or lens is currently capable of.

I’ll aim to keep things fairly natural looking in terms of light and colour, anything else is game as long as it adds to the image in some way.

What Digital Camera – My Camera – Micro Four-Thirds

I was asked if I would like to have my images published in “What Digital Camera” magazine. I told them I have a 1DS, and two micro four thirds camera the Panasonic  GF1 and GH2. They responded by saying that the micro four thirds models were probably of more interest to their readers. Oh dear I thought, I only use my micro for days out, family, walking the dog and short breaks. All of my ‘serious photography’ is done on the 1DS. Then there is the fact that, try though they might, micro four thirds cameras still do not produce the same quality as a mid to high range SLR. It was a challenge at first but being able to view by camera type in Lightroom made the task relatively easy, selecting the best from the GF1 and GH2.

I use Photoshop and Lightroom for editing. If you need to learn more about Photoshop then take a look at the Photoshop Training courses at Silicon Beach Training.

They chose to publish four of the images, one of my mum and one of my dog! It made me think of how easy it is to make images worth keeping from everyday situations, the ones when I have my small camera with me.

Here is the short-list of the images they picked from those I sent them. Below you will find the full editorial.

Andy and Filby - Newhaven Beach

Andy and Filby – Newhaven Beach


I have had a Canon 1Ds for five years now. I love the clarity and sharpness I get from it and it is still my weapon of choice when I’m going out for a serious shoot. With one additional lens and a flash unit, however, it’s like carrying a backpack full of concrete. A year and a half ago I invested in a little micro four-thirds camera the Panasonic GF1.

Children of the Desert - India

Children of the Desert – India

I have used it a lot, I’ve taken it with me for days out, dog walks, anytime really when I don’t want to be lumbered and weighed down. I have an ultra wide lens; I’ve always liked to shoot wide. It’s a 7-14mm which acts as a 14-28mm and I use this most of the time.

Filby on Mount Caburn - Ringmer

Filby on Mount Caburn – Ringmer

I’ve since upgraded to the GH2 mainly because the back screen broke almost as soon as I started using the GF1 and got progressively worse. The GH2 has a flip back screen, so I can keep it safely tucked away when I’m not using it.

old railway land lewes

Lewes River Ouse

Sometimes I miss the extra detail I get from my pro camera, and I miss the ability to crop hard. With a smaller sensor than the larger pro cameras it can lack detail in the highlights and shadows. Also the distortion of using such a wide lens is more pronounced than when using the wide angle for my pro camera. Having been spoiled with a pro camera I find the noise levels can be quite noticeable in low light. On the other hand I’ve got loads of images that I would have missed, just because I’ve had a camera on me, and with a bit of tweaking in Lightroom and sometimes Photoshop some missed detail can be recovered or sorted with a little cheating!

My Mum

My Mum

I love street photography and I often look at the work of Eric Kim who uses an Olympus Pen. I see blown out highlights and blocked in shadows but they just don’t seem to matter, the images have impact because they are real, because they have impact,  not because they have registered the most detail. Sometime I think that pro cameras have become so sophisticated that we get bogged down with perfectionism, just because it’s possible.

old railway land lewes

old railway land Lewes

My husband and I run Silicon Beach Training in Brighton and I use both the GH2 and the GF1 creating video for work. I must say the video quality is brilliant and, because they use facial recognition, they are in fact much superior to the Canon 5D.

Swanky Bar - City of London

Swanky Bar – City of London

If you need a little help with processing your images in Photoshop we provide brilliant Photoshop Courses for beginners and advanced, as well as SEO Training and Social Media Courses.

What Digital Camera - Left

What Digital Camera – Left



What Digital Camera - Right

What Digital Camera – Right

Using Photoshop with Exposure bracketing

With the new trend for High Dynamic Range (HDR) images, it is becoming quite popular to bracket your exposures. In my experience though not everything looks great with exposure spread evenly throughout the image making it look highly unnatural and often quite fussy.

tattooed man in shiney american airstream

tattooed man in shiny American airstream – Brighton – click to buy this image

Unnatural I can cope with but I sometimes long for some moody areas of blackness, or even the occasional burnt out mass of white. When I used film, I would use the grainiest film and the hardest papers and I miss all that drama. So I am going to show you how you can use bracketed exposures to get even more drama rather than less. This is especially effective for images with difficult light/exposure conditions as it allows you to get the details back where you want it or to loose it – you stay in control.

Exposure bracketing means that you take one correctly exposed image and two more pictures: one slightly under-exposed (usually by dialing in a negative exposure compensation, say -1/3EV), and the second one slightly over-exposed (usually by dialing in a positive exposure compensation, say +1/3EV), again according to your camera’s light meter. But if you have an image that has various parts of the image under or over exposed you can export three images using Camera RAW or Adobe Lightroom and import them into Photoshop. You could use the vomitty Merge to HDR technique (I know it can sometimes look good and I have used it myself!) or you can use masks to get back the detail in the highlights and put some depth in the shadows.

The image above started out like this:

original exposure

original exposure

Now I’ve gone to quite a lot of trouble here – first I asked if I could take his picture in his hoodie reflected in the bus, than I said “Yes Please”, and kept a serious face on when he offered to strip. I like the picture but it has no drama, there’s detail in the sky but you can’t see it, his face is too dark and the background is too fussy, some of the detail has been lost in the strong highlight on his back. So I have used Lightroom here to underexpose the image (you could use Camera Raw) until I see what I want in the sky. I then opened the image up in Photoshop.

expose for the sky

expose for the sky

I then exposed the original image for his back and opened up the image in a new layer in the Photoshop document.

expose for the back

expose for the back

Then I exposed the original image for his face and opened that up in Photoshop too so that I have three layers all exposed differently.

expose for the face

expose for the face

  1. I put the over exposed one at the bottom of the layers and left that one alone
  2. Then I added masks to the top two layers by clicking on the quick mask icon when I have the layer selected
  3. Turn off the top layer by clicking on the eye icon next to that layer.
  4. Select the middle layer and make sure you have the mask and not the layer selected and brush black where you want the underlying image to show through and white where you don’t want it
  5. You can use the selection tools for sharper lines and fill with black but you may need to soften the selection using refine selection or by painting the edge afterward with a soft brush
  6. You can also play with the opacity of the brush strokes so you can have some of the underlying image showing through
  7. Do the same with the top layer
  8. Play around until you have the effect you want and save your image.
  9. I have done my final overall effects in Lightroom as I find it the most versatile. I have increased the clarity using the “Punch” effect and converted to Black and White.

If you need Lightroom Training or a Photoshop Course you can book with Silicon Beach Training. We also offer Email Marketing Training, Access Training and SEO training.

Using Fill Flash for Portraits and Events

There are many tutorials on this subject, I know, I have read most of them! Still I have always found it tricky fiddling with the camera and flash settings at events like the Brighton Zombie Walk, when all I’m interested in is capturing all of those split second moments or getting people to pose for a second and not wait while I fiddle!


Brighton Zombie Walk 2010

For all the expert  advice I have received I seem to have a virtually fool proof way of getting results like this:



and this:

 zombie walk Brighton 2010

Holy Smoke – zombie walk Brighton 2010 – click to buy this image

  1. I just keep the flash in automatic “E-TTL” setting. You see the beauty of fill-in flash with a modern SLR is that the camera adjusts background exposure and flash exposure automatically, with little input required from the user. That’s how I like it. I know we should be in control blah blah blah and well done anyone who can do all of this in a flash while running around like a maniac like I do at these events.
  2. I set my camera to capture RAW images – important for making sure your highlights don’t blow so much you can’t get them back
  3. I also put set my ISO to 400 when it’s not really bright and sunny, I know another rule break! that way I find the flash is less obvious. I also underexpose my images in camera by 1/2 stop and sometimes 2/3 of a stop as I find it really brings out the sky (I’m holding my breath here waiting for the onslaught of comments telling me why I shouldn’t do this but it really works for me!).
  4. …..And… wait for it…. I leave my camera on P mode.

That’s it, people ask me all the time how I get such great colours in the sky when using my flash and there you have it, breaking all the rules. If you know the real and proper “how to do it” then feel free to let everyone know what I’m doing wrong in my comments section. There is a minimal amount of Photoshoppery to learn more about Photoshop come down to Brighton for a Photoshop  Training Course. We also offer Business Training and Prince2 Training as well as SEO Training and Social Media

Is Photoshop Good or Bad for Photography?

Some people claim that Photoshop is destroying the art of photography.

There is so much information out there on improving your shots with Photoshop that we do seem to be encouraged not to worry about learning good camera techniques but simply learn how to ‘fix it’ in Photoshop.

london market

This was more or less finished in the camera. I have selected the correct exposure, decided on the focus, waited for a good position of the lady in the background and click. I have, however, added a vignette and boosted clarity in Lightroom – no Photoshop here! (Click this image to buy )

In a way Photoshop allows you to skip some of the key techniques that can improve your camera skills in favour of trying to quick fix it on the computer.

Though I use Photoshop extensively in my work, I do think it’s really important to learn how to use, aperture, focal length, ISO, Shutter Speed etc, and understand camera settings and the effects they have on your images in order to get it right at the time of taking the shot. This can save you hours messing about with Adobe Photoshop afterwards, after all, who would prefer an hour of fixing a problem in front of a computer screen to messing about outside in the landscape or street having fun experimenting with your camera? More time out in the field rather than spending hours at a PC also gives you more opportunity to see and capture a moment and to enjoy the natural world and it’s inhabitants. Photography should be fun, exciting and free, it should not be about being glued to a computer screen all day, what’s the fun of that?

Photoshop is still amazing, and it is great to be able to recover a missed opportunity, but maybe we are becoming too reliant on it and wonder if the tendency these days to use it instead of learning the correct technique is makes us poorer photographers.

You can, on the other hand, use Photoshop (or Camera Raw or Lightroom for that matter) as a leaning tool by noting the adjustment you need to make each time and trying to get those right first time in camera next time. It can be good when you have limited time in on location and don’t have time to take different images on different settings, because it’s all about the moment, like at an event when everything is moving fast. So it’s useful if you have made a mistake on a great image or change your mind after the event, or for doing really funky things that are impossible in camera.

skateboarding brighton

This has been in Photoshop! Whilst the shutter speed, apperture and ISO have been carefully selected to freeze the action. I have moved one of the lamposts on the promanade so that it doesn’t go up his bottom! The Black and White conversion, the square crop, and the burning in of the edges especially the left corner has been done in Lightroom. (Click this image to buy )

However – ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear” – Photoshop cannot correct a badly focused image or a badly composed one. It can correct things the camera got wrong, like white balance, and you can go to any extremes in processing to create a particular effect if that is what you want.
If you want to visually transform an image then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. You can combine images, change skies, get rid of blemishes, clone out things, get rid of noise, desaturate parts of an image, selectively darken or lighten parts of a image- these are the things that Photoshop excel in.

Things you should definitely learn to do in camera:

1. Select the right depth of field / lens aperture
2. Decide where you want your Focus
3. Choose a great composition
4. Choose the right shutter speed to avoid camera shake, or enhance movement.
5. Choose a filter when necessary for example a polarising filter

Things you can learn to do either the camera or Photoshop

1. Colour balance
2. Sharpening (jpegs only)
3. Using filters (on camera) or filter effects (PS)

Things you can only do in PS

1. Cropping and straightening
2. Dodging and burning
3. Adjusting low and high levels independently
4. Adjusting levels brightness / contrast, hue / saturation etc
5. Lots of strange filter effects.
6. Cutting and pasting part of on photo to another.

If you get it really wrong in camera delete – don’t waste your precious time. Learn as much about your camera settings as you can and start to experiment and practise with your settings. If you get it nearly right you can recover in PS, even though cameras are really sophisticated they don’t alway get it right on Auto.
I know photographers have very different opinions about this, what do you think?

If you need help with learning Photoshop I can recommend the beginners Photoshop Training course and the Advanced Photoshop Training courses at Silicon Beach Training