In 2009, I attended an Introduction to Digital Photography course run as part of the after-hours Continuing Education programme at the Pinelands High School. A group of around 15 of us got together for an evening lesson once a week for three weeks, and at the end of the course, met up for a fun and exciting photo shoot at Oude Molen Eco Village (see the links at the end of this post).
Our teacher was Ian Walton, who is not only a professional photographer but also an excellent teacher. Even though there was a spread of different makes and types of cameras, with participants ranging in age from younger adults to pensioners, he quickly assessed our abilities – and our different types of cameras, which included pocket-sized point-and-shoots, compact hybrids, and digital SLRs – and tailored the course to suit all of us.
When I thus found out from Ian that he would be running another photography course, this time over a weekend, and in nearby Simon’s Town nogal, I signed up immediately.
Welcome to Simon’s Town
Simon’s Town, on the False Bay coast near the southernmost tip of the South Peninsula, is far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Cape Town to feel as though you are away, but also close enough to race back home in an emergency. Such as forgetting your battery charger, for instance.
It also happens to be one of the quaintest and loveliest of Cape Town’s suburbs, with a ‘historical mile’ of old buildings, enchanting shopfronts and Victorian houses complete with broekielace decorations. Add to that the fact that Simon’s Town has a particularly picturesque harbour and that it is the home of the SA Navy with its dashing sailors (mmmm….) and proud ships (oooo…), and you have a winning combination for a simply marvellous weekend of photography.
On Saturday morning, when I arrived at Cotton’s Cottage in the appropriately named Paradise Road, I quickly carried all my gear into the cosy room I’d been allocated. We were all eager to get going with the first of the day’s lessons. In addition to Ian and his wife Shélagh, there were five of us: Mike, Anna, Nicholas, Joan and me.
Part I consisted of a Recap of the Basics, as Ian led us easily through the maze of terminology: focal length, shutter speed, aperture, crop factors, depth of field and ISO. We went through the processes of taking photographs, including the different shooting modes available on our cameras, as well as the use of the flash – or more specifically when not to use it.
All of this was very useful.
Even though I’ve played with those settings on my camera before, I still struggled to get a clear understanding of the numbers. Particularly in situations where I was unsure of what aperture and shutter speed to use, or when I was under pressure to “just get the shot”, I usually relied on good ol’ Auto – or Auto-without-flash – to help me out. The pics I took on Auto, or with one of the predefined ‘Creative Zone’ options, almost invariably looked far better than the photos I’d taken with Manual, Aperture priority or Shutter speed priority.
Sheepishly, I had to admit to myself that, yes – blush – I had become lazy.
A Warm-Up Photo Hunt
Then it was time for our first practical, a Warm-Up Photo Hunt. Given the dense and chilly fog that hid most of Simon’s Town and False Bay from view for much of the weekend, the word ‘warm-up’ was an appropriate word to use. We had to take at least five photos within one hour: the categories included a close-up or macro shot (e.g. of a flower or insect), an abstract shot (e.g. lines or textures), a filtered shot (e.g. through glass or a window), and – most challenging of the lot – a self-portrait.
When the hour was up, we downloaded our 5 to 10 ‘best’ shots onto Ian’s laptop, and settled down on the comfortable chairs – cups of deliciously hot coffee and tea in one hand, cookies in the other – to admire and ‘criticise’ each other’s photos. I was relieved to find that there actually wasn’t any criticism or finger-wagging at all! Instead, everyone came up with helpful suggestions and advice on how to improve it next time, and complimented aspects of photos that had worked out really well or that were particularly striking.
While our first batch of close-up photos was mainly about using wide open apertures to create a shallow depth of field (thus blurring the background), the next assignment encouraged us to practice maximising our depth of field and thus using narrow apertures.
After a tasty lunch of homemade chicken burgers and salad, Ian reminded us of the basics of good composition. He suggested we ask ourselves three questions before clicking that shutter release button:
- What is the subject of this picture – what do I want it to be about?
- How can I best draw attention to that subject?
- Is there anything I can exclude, or that distracts from that central subject?
Our instructions for the second practical were to play with the elements of composition, in order to take some urban landscape shots. Ian recommended that we pay attention to lines, perspectives and angles, while looking for frames to give depth to our shots and playing with balance and symmetry. We should look out for interesting shapes, textures, colours, contrasts and tones, and the effects of light and shadow.
Full of ideas and inspiration, and with fingers itching to turn that mode dial away from the safe and familiar Auto settings, we made our way down to the small harbour.
Ian had helpfully suggested that we spend a little bit of time just relaxing into our environment, rather than rushing in to take as many photos as we could: “Ask yourself how you are feeling in that environment: Is it calm or rushed, is it quiet or noisy? Tune into your own feelings and your own perceptions. How can you best capture this in a photograph?”
It was overcast and foggy with a decided nip in the air. Though the sea was quite calm, conditions were not optimal for those pretty reflections one can get on a sunny day when the water is almost perfectly still and when the blue sky makes all the colours look quite radiant. As a result, I found myself looking for splashes of colour in the mainly grey landscape and seascape – like these rowing boats!
In any harbour, there is always some activity. If you wait long enough, and just ‘hang out and chill’ for a while, there are bound to be boats coming in and going out – like fishing boats, or sailing vessels, or this kayak. Timing the shot so that the different elements (the two strange markers on the left and the right in the foreground, the rows of sailboats behind the kayak, and the misty mountains in the far distance) were pleasing to the eye and balanced took a few attempts.
No seafront is complete without its swooping and soaring seagulls. I decided that I wanted to catch one in flight, with wings outstretched. So I swapped to the telephoto lens, and kept training it on one seagull after another, panning with them as they flew… after several failed attempts, I got lucky! OK, it is a little blurry, and I had to crop the image afterwards so that the seagull was in the ‘right’ place, but I was chuffed nonetheless.
Tied to the pier was a nice looking boat. The normal side-on angle wasn’t all that exciting, so I decided to try a frontal perspective. I didn’t want to have the entire boat in sharp focus, but only the anchoring pin on the pier…
Afterwards, I realised that it might have looked better if I had reframed the shot slightly to focus on the striking red rope instead. The tricky part was getting the angle and the timing ‘right’, as the gentle swell of the sea was making the boat bob up and down, easing and tightening the pull on the rope. I wanted to click the shutter release at the instant when the boat was pulling the rope tight, so that it looked as though it was straining against the restraints. I think it worked.
Along Simon’s Town Main Road, I found a row of these black pillars with a shiny plaque with the name of the town. I tried different compositions and framings, initially struggling to exclude the passing traffic – until I realised that the blurred motion of the cars might make the image a bit more interesting.
We contentedly returned home with our haul of images. Once each of us had selected 5-10 images, we made ourselves comfortable in the lounge for a slideshow. It was so interesting to see other people’s photographs. Even though we had all walked around exactly the same part of town, from the little harbour and waterfront up to Jubilee Square, everyone’s photos were unique.
It really emphasised that every single one of us was seeing the world in a unique way. Different features caught our attention, and so we used a different frame or composition to bring out those features. We were paying attention to different perspectives and lines and angles, and even when we were standing or kneeling or lying in the same position as someone else, we used different settings, based on the options available in our cameras and the lenses we had used.
Even though it was such a cloudy and foggy day, the light kept changing – the sky was was not uniformly grey; occasionally, the clouds would drift apart for a moment and reveal patches of blue sky, or the sun’s rays would illuminate something and call our attention to it.
Sunset from the Patio
And that led us straight into Part II: a discussion of Light and Lighting. Ian patiently explained the workings of the so-called exposure triangle: the relationships of shutter speed, aperture and ISO. We learned, for instance, that the optimal ISO setting was 100, and that it should only be increased, when the correct exposure could not be obtained by changing the other two parameters.
He introduced us to the mysteries of the different metering options available on our cameras – matrix or evaluative metering, center-weighted average metering, and spot or partial metering, and he unravelled the complexities of that strange tool known as the histogram, which indicates the tonal range of an image in terms of shadows, midtones and highlights. Frankly, I had thus far ignored it, as I found it too puzzling. Suddenly, though, I realised that it would be useful when double-checking whether a shot was over- or under-exposed when I could not judge this clearly from the image on my little LCD screen.
We promptly got a chance to put the theory into practice by setting up our tripods on the patio, with its glorious views of the harbour and the False Bay coastline, and trying to get some sunset shots. As the sun was setting behind us, and behind the western mountain ridge, this was… um… a little odd. 🙂 But we had fun!
I even had an opportunity to exchange my 18-55mm kit lens for Ian’s 10-22mm wide-angle lens. At its most extreme wide-angle of 10mm, there is some distortion on the edges, but it suddenly opened up my field of vision in a most appealing way. Landscapes and skyscapes looked so much more impressive!
Once the sun had gone down, we played around with some longer exposures on the tripod, trying to capture the reflections of the lights on the water of the harbour. In the past, I had always used the ‘Auto without Flash’ option available on the Canon EOS 550D, or the pre-existing night-time settings on my previous compact cameras. It was far easier – and quicker – than getting frustrated with the manual options!
This time, though, Ian had encouraged us to see whether we could get a good result on our own by trying various f-stops and using the tripod to stabilise the camera for longer exposures, and only amping the ISO when absolutely necessary. Thanks to the helpful suggestions from my fellow students – all of whom clearly had far more experience than I did with night-time photography! – I finally obtained some pretty nice shots!
I learned, for instance, that it is important to use the ‘2-second delay’ shutter release, rather than clicking the button myself! The subtle movement of manually clicking the shutter release created a wobble at the instant of taking the picture which thus blurred the image – this was made worse by the fact that my tripod, even though it was on level ground, was not all that sturdy or stable… and the fact that I had needed to wind-up the head piece even higher to get the optimal angle. The slightest brush of my hand thus increased the blur.
By the time that we had taken turns to download our favourite sunset photos in preparation for the next slideshow, our supper – a braai complete with grilled vegetables and salads – was ready. I think the fresh salty air had given all of us a good appetite – it certainly did for me! After tidying everything away, we were really keen to have some fun with light painting.
In order to do this, we needed to ensure that the room was as dark as possible, by closing blinds and shutters and blocking windows. Then we set up our tripods, opened our apertures to f5.6 (to filter out unwanted light as much as possible), set the shutter speed at about 20 to 30 seconds, the shutter release to 2 seconds delay, and our ISO to 200 (to keep sensitivity and granularity as low as possible).
And then, Ian and Shélagh twirled and whirled various light-emitting glow sticks and even bouncy balls, creating some wonderful images. It was such fun!
I slept rather restlessly that night. My head was reeling with all the things I’d heard and read and seen, and the photos I’d taken, and the photos that others had taken, and the things we would be doing the next day… it was impossible to come to rest.
I also didn’t want to miss the magical time before sunrise, so I was up and dressed even before my cellphone alarm went off at 06h30. Nobody else seemed to be up and about, though, which didn’t surprise me as it was chillingly cold out there! So I sprawled across the bed, wrapped snugly in my anorak, and opened Ian’s ring-bound notes and read until I heard someone unlocking the door to the patio. Yayy! Time to get up!
Sunrise in the Fog
A bank of fog was hiding the eastern horizon, and the whole of False Bay from sight. The lights in the harbour, still reflecting prettily in the gentle swell of a steely grey sea, went off one by one. Here, some of them are still on:
Taking photographs of the actual sunrise – with the sun emerging from the ocean – or the wall of fog in our case – is challenging. I didn’t want to point the camera directly at the sun, because it was over-exposing the shot.
Eventually, I decided to have some fun with exposure bracketing. It’s a handy little feature where the camera takes three pictures in succession – one slightly brighter, one slightly darker, and one in the middle. You can decide by how much you want to over/under-expose a shot. This is particularly useful when it’s difficult to see on the LCD screen or in the viewfinder how bright or dark an image really is – so you can choose the best one on the computer afterwards.
It is also useful for creating a High Dynamic Range or HDR photograph in post-processing, by combining two or more images of the same scene, but with different settings, into a single photograph. I have only dabbled in that from time to time, and have still to get an OH WOW! shot, but it was fun to play with it. In this one, I deliberately over-saturated the colours.
When photographing the sunrise, it’s not necessary to point the camera towards the sun – sometimes, the nicer shots are behind you! The soft golden light that is filtered through the mist and the long shadows that make the textures stand out more can create some beautiful images.
When I turned around, I happened to see the reflection of the sunrise in the glass doors to the patio, so I set up this shot instead.
OK, the composition isn’t ideal, what with the pillar slicing through the centre of the picture like this, and I should have moved the chair on the right out of the shot, and it might have looked nicer if I’d had an even wider angle to include the landscape, and if the photographer Anna hadn’t been quite as squashed up in the left corner, and if Mike hadn’t been so far too the left that it looks like he is gazing into a wall (when taking side-on shots of people etc. it is better to leave more space on the side towards which they are looking), and and and… I’ll know for next time! 🙂
Breakfast with a Harbour View
By now, the sun was up, the tummies were rumbling, and the prospect of breakfast overlooking the Simon’s Town waterfront had become too tempting to ignore. The choice was between the upmarket ‘The Meeting Place’ on the Main Road, and the ‘Harbour View Coffee Shop and Restaurant’, which – as its name promised – did have a perfect view of the little harbour where we had spent the previous afternoon.
It also offered a breakfast special of eggs, bacon, grilled tomato, and toast for R21.95.
Well, that clinched it.
In the soft early morning light, with the slight haze of the fog still on the horizon, the long shadows, the slight ripples on the water, the harbour looked even more lovely than yesterday.
What did I tell you at the beginning? Simon’s Town sure is picturesque! And definitely worth another visit, or perhaps even a weekend away?
Still Life and Portraits
When we returned home to Cotton’s Cottage, stomachs pleasantly full, it was time for Part III: Fine Tuning. Ian explained about colour temperatures and the use of white balance settings; about exposure lock, exposure compensation and auto bracketing, and introduced us to the option of taking our photographs in RAW in addition to JPG format. For now, I think I’ll stick to JPG format only – saving all my photos in RAW mode too, thus filling up my card way too quickly (those files are massive!) and, more to the point, my hard drive – is not a viable option right now, if I want peace to reign in our household, where hubby frequently reminds me to delete, delete, delete… 😉
Our next assignment was a still life. We scoured the house to find interesting and pretty objects to create still life photos against a black cloth background, and set up our tripods inside the house. This was my best attempt.
And then we had fun taking some portrait shots of each other on the patio, with Ian patiently holding a circular reflector to illuminate our models’ faces. I’d never seen a reflector like that before: rather like one of those sunscreens for a car’s windshield, it folds up into a small circular thingy. The outer covering comes off, so that the reverse side can be used too. It has a black side, a white side, a silver side and a golden side. And the inner shield can be used as a light diffuser. Very handy!
I also got a chance to experiment with Ian’s 50mm prime (fixed focus) lens, which was an interesting challenge! Not having used a prime lens before, I wasn’t accustomed to not being able to zoom in or out to frame a shot! Instead, one has to get closer to or move away from the subject, which is nice with portrait shots when someone doesn’t mind you taking photos. It blurs the background extremely well, because it has a large aperture (I think f1.8 or something like that).
After showing each other our portrait shots on the projector, and discussing what had worked and what hadn’t worked quite so well, we had Part IV, our final brief theory session, on the hot topic of lenses (standard zoom, telephoto zoom, superzoom, wide-angle zoom, macro lens, prime lens), tripods and other cool gadgets to keep in one’s camera bag! 🙂
Suffice it to say that it confirmed, sadly, that lenses are expensive items. I also learned that, even if Canon or Sigma did manufacture a lens that could go from a 10mm wide-angle to 500mm zoomed in (which has always been something that I rather fancied, as it would make it entirely unnecessary to swap lenses in the middle of something important), it would come at a price – cost most importantly, but also quality, and size… I’d probably need to hire someone to carry and hold the camera for me!
Goodbye to new Friends
All too soon, it seemed, our weekend was coming to an end. We packed our gear, said goodbye, and tackled the long drive home, our eyes more open than before to the exciting photo opportunities that might await us around the next curve in the road!
Thank you, Ian and Shélagh, for a wonderful, exciting, educational, enriching photography course!
Blog posts about the previous course I did with Ian: