Utopian Cities

Utopian cities


    Things have started to move forward for me in 2016. I have worked on two projects in 2015 and those opened a few doors. Thanks to wonderful Helen Mort my project, People of Shiva - portraits of sadhu monks in Varanasi was introduced to William Gould, professor of Indian History in the History Department at the University of Leeds.

    William works along Dr Ayona Datta is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, Dr Rebecca Madgin, a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow and Sarah Gandee is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. 

    The project concentrates on four contrasting cities in India: Varanasi, Chandigarh, Navi Mumbai,  Nashik and explores how cities have developed through the time and how will future development shape cities and way of life within those cities. The project runs simultaneously in India and United Kingdom, with workshops closely following the rationale of the project. 

    If you are interested in finding out more about this project follow this link:




Poet, writer, teacher, runner, climber and everything else Helen Mort is good at:



One stop, two stops. Light vs aperture and their relationship


     I use flash in my photography on a regular basis. I bring my light with me on every photo shoot. Word photography comes from Greek phōtos - light and graphé - drawing; therefore drawing with light. I like to be in control of light where and how it falls and how it lights my subject. 

   When I started photographing and using flash, I struggled to make sense of all the numbers, F stops on a lens, F stops on a flash, shutter time on camera, ISO and so on. So I decided to have a good look on how things work.

      First of all flash settings. Hypothetically flash gives me a proper exposure of f16 at 1m on full power. With the flash set to its full power I have my lens set at f16, make an exposure, and you get a nice sun tan. Full power is a lot of light coming at you, but you are properly lit and exposed. 

Flash power settings divided by one stop. Each time you move one stop up or down you gain or lose half the light emitted by the flash.

Full power to 1/2 is one stop and half the light lost. Full going to 1/4 are two stops and 3/4 of light lost, because you lose half the light at step one and half the avaliable light at step two. 


F stops as you can see them on your lens or in camera setting. Smaller the number more light camera lets in. Lens set to f1.2 lets in twice the amount of light  then lens set to f1.4 and 4 times more light then lens at f2 and so on. 

    So after frying my subject’s eyes by shooting at full power from 1 meter distance, I decide I don’t want to shoot at f16, I want to shoot at f4. If I open up a lens by 1 stop, I can lower my flash power also by one stop and only use half the power. Lens set to f11 and flash at 1/2 power. Same exposure, but by allowing more light through the lens I don't need to produce as much light to light the subject.  Therefore, if you want to move from f16 to f4 you need to open up the lens by 4 stops,  and you dial down the flash by 4 steps to 1/16th of its power. By going from full power to 1/16 power we lose 4 stops of light and by opening lens by 4 stops we gain that light back, Flash at 1/16 power and f4 will expose your subject same as flash at full power and f16.

Here you can see how we got from full power to 1/16 power and f16 to f4.

Please mind all flashes produce different amounts of light and those settings will vary on each flash system. Use of modifiers, soft boxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes or any light  shaping tools will change how much light is hitting your subject. Also distance of the flash from the subject will change how much light is available to use.  If you change the distance from the flash to your subject from 1 to 2 meters you will have only 1/4 of the light hitting it. We will get to inverse square law of light some other time.

What is a catch light and why you should use it?

Catch Light is a light source that causes a specular highlight in a subject's eyes. The technique is used both in still and motion picture photography. Catch light might be a result of lighting methods, or purposely engineered to add a spark to a subject's eye during photography. Adding a catch light helps focusing attention on a subject's eyes and adds life into eyes that might otherwise be lost within other elements of a photo. In portraiture eyes without a catch light might appear dull and lifeless. 

How to create a catch light in a portrait? 

To create a catch light you will need a bright source of light, reflector, flash or softbox that will reflect in the subject's eye. Natural source like the sun will also create a catch light. Make sure there is nothing in the path between the subject's eyes and a light source. Having your subject facing the sun might be uncomfortable or dazzle your subject so make sure they are turned slightly away and are not looking directly into the sun. 

If you are photographing indoors, position subject near the window or bright light source and you should see light reflecting in their eyes. If not, try adjust the position slightly. Many times it is just an inch to the side for the catch light to become visible. 

Closer your subject is to light source bigger the catch light is. I aim for a large round catch lights, but it is increasingly popular to have different shapes as well. Some photographers use light tubes and shape them either to triangle or a square. This adds interesting variation to round catch light.


In this photo I have positioned my Elinchrom 135cm Octa softbox to the right and up of my subject and just off the camera to create large octagonal (almost round) catch light.

Creating a catch light outdoors without a use of artificial light. 

To achieve a better result position your subject so that it's aimed at biggest light source available - the sky. To prevent damage to the eye do not instruct anybody to look directly into the sun.

If you don't pose your subject great way how to make them look up is to photograph slightly about their eye line. Your subject will naturally look up to your lens and the sky behind you will reflect in their eyes. 

Catch light and reflectors

By using reflector, photographers can create catch lights in almost any situation, whether it is inside or outside, sunny or cloudy. Use a silver reflector to bounce some light back into the face and eyes. The best thing is you can see results before even touching a camera and be sure you get catch light in your shot. The small size silver reflector can be hand-held by photographer or subject just under their chin. This is very easy to use method and shouldn't be overlooked. 

See how much life and vibrant does catch light bring into this portrait? Now it's your turn.....








Lighting up the Omo valley in Ethiopia

    My favorite thing when traveling to work on my personal project is to bring studio light out into the field with me. This short lesson will not be comparing different light settups or flash units, but simply shows lighting diagrams and my setups I have used in Ethiopia. Normally I use two light sources. One I bring with me is Elinchrom Quadra flash with Octa 130cm softbox and the second is up there in the sky - the sun.  

    Generally, I first decide what look I want for the image and choose appropriate f stop and shutter speed. Being a canon user I can't get above 1/200s so I might supplement with use of ND filters to keep the aperture needed for the photo. After taking a basic exposure reading for the photo I will step down to get more moody image and I expose my subject correctly with the flash.  Below you will find photos with a short description and lighting diagram.  I would like to thank http://www.lightingdiagrams.com/ for being able to use their online diagram creator. 


     In this image of a Hamar girl I have had her leaning on a tree turned around 45 degrees to her left with flash positioned almost directly in front of her and to my right. This gave her nicely lit face with the shadow side from where I photographed sculpting her face and features. I tend to aim the softbox slightly away from my subjects so they get lit by just a tiny pop of light rather than a bulk of it, providing very soft light.  The sun was almost 90 degrees to my right hidden in the clouds making it one massive soft light source lacking any shadows.


     For this Hamar elder I chose slightly different pose to what I usually do.  Standing by the fence near his house he faced full 90 degree away from the camera. I created lots of negative space behind him and had him looking away from the frame. Breaking few basic rules along the way, but I think it works for this  image. Softbox was positioned directly in front of my subject and slightly up dumping majority of the light to his right  away from the camera.  Photographing in the evening as the sun was setting through the clouds at around 11 o'clock position to me. This lit up the fence in nice warm colour, giving it a lot of definition and contrasted with his back separating him nicely from the background without having any rim light.


     In this photo of a Dassanach woman I have chosen to use a tree as a backdrop as light outside was still too strong and I was running into flash sync problems. Standing in the shadow of the tree I was careful to position her so there is some sunlight coming through rim lighting her left hand and bringing it out of the shadows. Softbox is turned towards the left of the image and creating a nice contrast on her right hand being on a light background.  Again I'm photographing on the short side shaping the face and body with light. 


     On my last day in Omorate  valley I crossed the river for the last photo session with Dassanach tribe and John, my guide, assistant and all around great guy. Way too late in the day I was reluctant to let go.  I couldn't even drag shutter any longer and keep the image sharp, so I settled for very dark and moody photo. Flash was positioned about 2 feet behind my subject and only lighting her with the side of the softbox at very low power. Lighting diagram shows sun behind me, but it was way below the horizon by the time I took this photo.  I'm mostly back lighting her face with the majority being in the shadows, but I like the effect this has on her face and eyes.


Travel photography tips

      Everybody takes pictures when travelling, whether it is on your cell phone, point and shoot or DSLR camera. We all do it and we like to share photos straight away, but things can go wrong. Some people don't like to be photographed, police minds that you are taking that picture that you shouldn’t, bags and cameras get stolen or lost. Here is a few tips on how to bring those photos back home safely and enjoy the trip without worrying too much.

      First of all I always carry my camera, flash unite, laptop and storage with me on all flights. It all fits nicely in my Kata backpack. Traveling into the middle of nowhere and loosing my camera backpack would be a disaster. You can buy clothes easily, but might not have a chance or money to buy camera gear all over.

      Cards, card, cards is my motto. I usually carry about 8-10 different SD cards and change them frequently, usually twice a day or so. This way, if I lose one, or it gets damaged or stolen before it has been backed up I still have some of the photos on other cards and it is not a complete disaster. 

      Backing up is very important. You can replace everything except your photos. After a day out I will back up everything on a computer and a separate hard drive. Considering lowering prices of storage these days, there is no reason not to have some handy and back up. They are small and portable and for some you don’t even need a computer as they have SD slots and automatic back up function. Carry a drive and a computer in different bags or have your drive constantly with you. I always have some old SD cards, some only 64 or 124 MB that I’m happy to give up in case of a trouble, make a scene as if this was the worst thing that ever happened and keep real drives and cards securely stored. You can use lots of mp3 players as a storage as well, these won’t be as obvious as laptops and drives. If you have access to internet upload files to sharing sites or to the cloud. 

      Take spare batteries and chargers. Hotels in Asia might have power available only for a few hour in the evening and in rural Africa you could go for a few days without power and being able to recharge your batteries. Hotels and guesthouses in remote areas will have generators so bring a jerry can of petrol if travelling by car and you will get power and some good points with owners or people staying. Recharge where you can and while you can. You should be able to recharge in restaurants and bars as well, just ask.

      Expensive camera gear is a magnet for thieves all over the world. I would never discuss prices of my equipment with anybody when traveling. Shinny gear with big brand names screams take me. Simply make it look like an old piece of garbage and you will be safer. Hide that big Canon or Nikon logo. I usually use some gaffer tape to mask things and when asked why is it there just tell them it’s old and was dropped and it’s just holding stuff together. They know damaged cameras have little value on the black market. 

      Before every trip I thoroughly research the location. I will read as many blogs as possible and get in touch with people that has been there before me and experienced what I want to see and do. Thorn tree forum on the Lonely Planet website and TripAdvisor are fantastic tools. You can find local people that are invaluable help when travelling and travellers usually respond within a few hours with thelatest news and ideas. The Thorn tree forum allows you tocontact, arrange guides, and discuss your plans. I generally stay away from tours organised by big companies as this doesn’t provide freedom and flexibility I enjoy when travelling. 

      A good guide can make your trip unforgettable experience. Guide that speaks your language, knows the area, people, local dialects and languages will bridge cultural differences. I think guide is one place you should really invest in. Even in the time of internet, local knowledge and experience is very important. A good guide will organise things for you, listen, adapt, and learn what you are doing and after a while will know what you want to get out of your trip.  Don’t forget to tip and leave good feedback on the forums so he/she can get work again and again.

      When photographing portraits I prefer to spend some time with people and get to know them, become friends and after a while I will photograph. People will generally be more patient and willing to do what you need to get the photos you want. And of course, it is fun, it is interesting and nice to learn about the lives of others and get to know them and become friends. It feels good to just leave the camera behind and sit, talk and drink tea or coffee and talk about everything with people you just met. If I can print photos and give them to people I have photographed I always do. They don't mind, that nothing has been retouched or “fixed”. Some of them might have never had a photo taken so it is a nice thing to do for them.  And it helps them to see what is actually happening. Don’t forget to always be human and treat your subjects with respect. 





Photoshop tools everyone should know

     Photoshop is incredibly useful, popular and powerful program that will help you to adjust, edit and manipulate your images. It is complex and packed with many tools and it can take long time to learn and master. Many photographers however, use only some of those tools avaliable. These are the tools I use most of the time to edit my images.


Adjustment layers: 

     Adjustment layers apply colour and tonal adjustments to your image. This creates a new layer above your image, but doesn't change the pixel value of the original image, therefore it is a non-destructive method of image editing. All the changes are made and saved in adjustment level. You can change your adjustments later on or even completely discard them. Layers allow for advanced composition via transparency and blending, stacking images or parts of images on the top of one another.  Some of the features of layers I use most are Curves and Channel mixer.



     Curves tool is one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop. It lets you adjust image brightness and contrast by simply shaping the curve. The great thing about using curves to adjust the tonal value is that it doesn’t just change the value of pixels you are adjusting but also pixels with similar values around it.  Shadows are located bottom left and highlights top right. By simply pulling shadows down and highlight up you adjust contrast of your image. Each adjusted value is represented by a little white dot along the line. If you are unhappy with adjustment click the dot and drag it of the screen to delete it.  To adjust colour, click RGB box and select from Red, Green or Blue channel. This adjusts respective colours and gives you control over the tonality of your image. I am not using any pre-sets at this stage and I adjust levels until I’m happy with it.


Channel mixer:

     I use the channel mixer to desaturate image or for B&W image conversion. It works the same way as if you were using colour filter with B&W film photography.  Even though you are working with B&W media filters only let certain wavelengths through and this will change tones on B&W film.  After clicking on Channel mixer icon, a window opens with three sliders for each RGB channel and constant slider. When adjusting RGB channel keep in mind that total value needs to be at 100% otherwise you will change brightness as well.   Red channel will give you smoother skin tones or darker sky while the blue channel acts in the opposite way. Blue filter also tends to reduce contrast across the image. Green channel usually adjusts balance between Red and Blue channels.


Clone stamp tool:

    The clone stamp tool is used in pixel by pixel cloning. It allows you to duplicate a part of the image.  Brush size and shape, opacity, flow and blending modes can all be selected in toolbar panel. Simply select part of an image you’d like to clone, press ALT and click it. Now paint over your image to clone desired parts of it. Clone stamp can be used for covering skin blemishes or removing unwanted parts of an image. It is not my most favorite way of retouching as it will copy/clone exact pixels and after a while of using it you will start seeing repeating patterns in your image.  To avoid this problem you can use the healing brush as this will sample more pixels and paints them more randomly.


Healing brush:

     Healing brush lets you fix distractive image imperfections, blemishes or scratches. I find this to be the best retouching tool in Photoshop. Healing brush does a good job in matching pixels tones and textures and will try to keep it as seamless as possible. To remove simple little blemishes, select size that is just slightly larger than a blemish and click to remove it. Healing brush will look at the pixels around your selection and adjusts it. To correct more pronounced wrinkles or blemishes I would duplicate the layer and remove them completely with the healing brush, then bring the opacity down to reveal some of the original image and thus keeping it looking more natural. I prefer not to create a porcelain looking skin as I want to see how my subject looks in reality and I just aim to tweak the image not change it.


    After you have tweaked your photo, you definitely want to sharpen the image to bring back some of that crispness that could have been lost in post pro or adjust slightly out of focus photo. The tool I use for sharpening is called Unsharp Mask. There are three sliders that will determine the sharpness of the image. Radius slider determines how many pixels out from the edge will be affected and Threshold determines how different a pixel must be from surrounding before it is considered a pixel edge. I leave those at the default setting and only adjust the Amount. There is no real rule on how I sharpen images; I will move the slider up until I see the pixels almost falling apart and then back up a little. One thing I make sure I am doing with every image is, that I will view it at 100% then apply Unsharp mask. Also, I will only sharpen the image at the resolution I want to use it and every time I resize the image I will re-sharpen it again. When sharpening you will need to do so on the original image as it will not work on new empty layer as of now.  



Importance of flash in portrait photography

As someone who spent most of the time shooting less than average landscapes, flash, and I mean pop-up flash as well as off-camera flash, has been in my eyes unneeded.

               However after the "revelation" from master of portrait photography and famous painters like Velasquez and Rembrandt, I have understood what good lighting can do for your photography. From setting up the mood to sculpting out your subjects face features and adding textures. Off-camera flash is your best friend in pretty much any scenario.

               On my recent trip to Varanasi I have done exactly the same. I "painted" with light on faces of people I have photographed.

               Let's assume that you have already decided to use a flash on your shoot. First of all you need to decide what kind of flash you would like to use. On camera flash is a real savior if you need to quickly fill in shadows in broad daylight. Mind that the flash mounted on the top of your point and shoot or DSLR is going to give you a harsh light - this is due to its size. And also the light is coming directly to your subject thus creating a very flat portrait. Flat meaning there are no shadows and shape of the face is not pronounced and may seem very two dimensional - not a flattering or exciting light. Harshness or softness of light on your subject depends on size of a light source and its proximity to the subject. Big and close will give you soft wrapping light and border between light and shadow will be very soft. Small light source that is far from the subject will give harsh light with harsh shadows and hot spots.

               Once you improve, and invest bit more in your gear, you might start using some sort of flash gun either mounted slightly higher on the top of your camera or off to the side.   Now different angles come to play and your subject will have some areas of shadow and light on them. This will create more natural look and helps to show real structure of face features.

               Let's have a look at off-camera flash bit more. Flash guns are pretty easy to use these days. Camera measures scene and tells your flash how much power to use. You get correctly lit photo. For more creativity you can tell your flash to either underexpose or over expose the scene. This however has its limitations. If you only want to light certain part of your scene your better use the manual mode and experiment a little.    

               This is the way I light my photos (not necessarily right, best or easiest way). First I take a reading for a whole scene without using a flash. I make an exposure then look at the picture and at the histogram and decide how much under or over I want to go. Underexposing ambient light suits me more as it adds drama to my style of photography. I aim for a darker more dramatic sky and background. When I'm happy with exposure I will introduce flash to correctly expose my subject. You can use a light meter to get this exposure right straight away or again - experiment. Zoom in as much as you can on your camera and look for shadows and light parts of the picture, hotspots, over or under exposed parts.  

               Paying attention to ambient light is in my opinion as important as your main light. Placing your subject in parallel line with your flash and ambient light i.e. the sun will give you very nice highlight on hair and shoulders, backlighting your subject in warm glowing light. This is easily achieved early in the morning and during the sunset.

               Now it’s time to concentrate on quality and direction of your light.

               Quality meaning harshness or softness and how the light is interacting with subject. For my portraits I prefer soft wrapping light with nice transition between light and shadow parts of the image. Flash hitting the subject directly will give you contrast look while flash pointed slightly to the side, where subject is only hit by part of the light emitted will produce softer light. Soft light is very flattering for female subject and more contrast light for male models. This of course depends on your taste, subject you are portraying and feel you want to get out of your photograph.

               Direction of light and how it affects image - Rembrandt is my favorite lighting. I will place flash 45 degree to the side pointing down on subject. This will produce partly lit face with one side properly lit and other partly in shadow with a little light triangle under models eye and nice catch lights. I'm l using a big softbox placed just outside of the frame as close to the subject as I can get away with. This is very simple one light setup easily adjusted and changed. Also it's easier to travel carrying just one light and one softbox. 

               Try placing light anywhere around the subject and then compare how this will affect your image. Experiment with lightning as much as you can, look on photographs of your favorite artists and try to dissect the image to figure out light placements. Catch light in the eye and shadow direction will help you to figure this out. You can learn a lot from watching movies as those are well lit. Once you can see how the scene was lit you will become much better in lighting your own portraits.