Exposure Compensation (when photography is a beach)

Interviewer: So what’s with the title of your post?

Me: I guess it’s a play on the fact that photographing on the beach can be a tricky business. It’s like photographing snow. You have all that glare and reflected light from the sand and the water, and you can’t rely on the rear display on your camera to tell if you’ve got the exposure right. And when your subjects are a pair of two-year olds, taking off in all directions, into the light, away from the light, with the rocks and sea and white sands as changing backgrounds, you’ve got your hands full trying to frame, compose and expose correctly.

Interviewer: I take it you’re talking about your family get-together in April?

Me: Yep. I am. My son and his family were visiting from London, my daughter and her son joined us from Johannesburg, and we all converged on this rather lovely AirBnB on the hillside above Simonstown, about 40km from Cape Town, with the naval harbour and views over False Bay stretched out below us.

Boulders Beach, on the Cape Point side of town, is famous not only for its calm blue waters and pristine sands, tucked between the sheltering rocks that give it its name, but also for its African penguins, which are perfectly likely to pop up out of the water beside you, and waddle like plump little businessmen in their dark suits and starched white shirts up the stairs towards the houses beyond, homeward-bound after a hard day at the office.

Kids love nothing more than sand and water, and the beach is the best playground of them all. So off we went, one bright, blue, sunny morning, to play with the grandchildren. Grandad, of course, thought this was a marvellous opportunity to take some photographs, so along came the Nikon D500, with the choice of the 17-55mm lens (24-70mm equivalent) that I explained the last time we spoke.

I knew, of course, that the light reflecting from the sparkling sea and the bright white sands was enough to bamboozle the light-meter in my camera, reducing everything to a muddy mid-tone unless I compensated. So I opened up by two or three stops, and most of my images were perfectly exposed. I’m quite pleased, to be honest, with the black-and-white portraits at the top of this post.

But there was one series of images, of the grandchildren playing together in the sand, where I’d closed down a bit, to only one additional stop, and the results were entirely predictable – though obviously I failed to predict this correctly at the time. The whole series of half a dozen or so images were all drab and underexposed. And although I could correct this in post-production, the resulting images were too noisy for my taste, so in the end I decided not to use – by which I mean share – them.

Interviewer: You say that you knew you needed to open up by two or three stops, to avoid underexposing – and the exposures you made when opened up by this amount were pretty much spot-on. So how come you under-exposed this particular sequence of images?

Me: It’s pretty simple, really. I made the mistake of looking at the rear screen to judge the exposure, instead of checking the histogram. The view on the screen is not an accurate representation of your exposure at the best of times, and practically useless under very bright or contrasty or extreme conditions. The only reliable way of checking your exposure is to read your histogram.

Interviewer: So why didn’t you do this?

Me: I guess I forgot. But there’s more to it than that. It comes back to preparation. I knew we were going to the beach, I knew it was a bright and sunny day, that there would be a lot of reflected light, and I knew I would have to open up by a couple of stops. But I didn’t take it further – I didn’t stop to think that I would need to check the histogram to ensure I had judged the exposure compensation correctly. So I ended up with some of my pictures – fortunately only a few – underexposed.

Interviewer: The obvious question is, how come you forgot about the histogram?

Me: It has to do, I think, with practice and familiarity. For a pro, this sort of thing should be intuitive. But in my case, and in the case of many amateur photographers I imagine, I might go for weeks without handling a camera, so some aspects of your camera’s capabilities – beyond the obvious shutter and aperture controls – become less intuitive than they should be, and you have to stop and think about them.

Before you start shooting, you have to take a moment to think about what it is you are photographing, what kind of images you want to make – high key, saturated, black and white etcetera – and what kinds of conditions you will be shooting in.

In this case, I was distracted by the subject matter – I wanted to capture the grandchildren running around, I was trying to keep them in focus, and I was trying to think – to the extent that I could, with everything in motion – about composition. It’s a lot to think about, which makes it all the more important to have thought through your strategy before you get started.

As I’ve said, though, it wasn’t all wasted effort. I got an amusing series of my grandson Tom charging into the sea and taking a purler, and a couple of portraits – you saw them earlier – which I thought would work rather well in black and white. And I’m pleased with the results.

Interviewer: We should talk, some time, about choosing black and white. When do you do this, and why?

Me: Absolutely.

Planning and Preparation: How to photograph a two-year old

Interviewer: Last time we spoke, you said you were in Simonstown recently for a family reunion. I imagine you took a few photographs of your grand-children?

Me: Absolutely. Tom has just turned two, and Gabriel turns two in July. Because Gabriel lives in London it’s not often that we get to see him, and it’s even less often that we see the two boys together. So this was a very special and uncommon occasion, and of course I had to take photos.

Interviewer: You said you weren’t going to make this a blog about photographic tips and techniques. Yet you’ve titled this post ‘how to photograph a two-year old.’ Why is that?

Me: Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about preparation, and how you envision – or ‘pre-vision’ the photographs you want to make. At one level, you want to take family photographs that everyone can share and enjoy, but you also want to go deeper – you want to find out something about who these fast-growing little people are. They might only be toddlers, but they are also little personalities.

Interviewer: Say something about ‘pre-visioning.’ What do you mean by this?

Me: In a way, I’ve just touched on it. I wanted to make images of the grandchildren that would show something of their personalities – of their moods and antics, how they engage with the world. In the images here, for instance, there is something bright and puckish about Gabriel Gabriel # 7– and just look at the mixture of truculence and charm in Tom’s expression!

Tom # 1

But I also had a clear sense of the kind of images I wanted to make.

At this age, there is a wonderful brightness and clarity in their eyes – the gaze is completely unfiltered. Their skin is so soft and supple and plump, there is a delicacy of tone, an unblemished quality, that seems to be the voice of creation itself, and I wanted to capture something of that.

The other side of this cherubic innocence  of course is the greedy physicality with which they mash their food into their mouths, the stains on their cheeks, the grubbiness and scratches and dirt, of which they are completely unaware. So you want to show some of that too.


Gabriel and Hayley # 1


Interviewer: So you have an idea, then, of the kind of photographs you want to make. What does that mean in terms of preparation?

Me: Well, first of all, I was flying with my wife to Cape Town, so I had to think carefully about the equipment I would take. Not just in terms of weight and bulk, but also with a view to the kinds of images I had in mind.

Interviewer: So what’s the link here? I mean, between the images you want to make and the equipment you decide to take with you?

Me: It’s about several things, actually. I shoot with a Leica D-Lux and with a Nikon D500. I love them both, but they have different qualities and different  kinds of flexibility.


The Leica is a smallish, mirrorless camera with a micro four-thirds sensor and a fantastic, fast, built-in zoom lens, roughly equivalent to a 24-70mm. It has fully professional controls which are very easy to use and to access – it’s a photographer’s camera, and my go-to camera in many situations. It’s great when I’m travelling, especially on business, when I don’t want to lug a big DSLR around. I’ve made 11 x 14 prints from it which are of amazingly high quality.

But there are trade-offs – there always are trade-offs. Though the electronic viewfinder is excellent, it cannot compare with the immediacy and brilliance of the big optical viewfinder on the Nikon, and being mirrorless, there is a small but noticeable lag between pressing the shutter and seeing the image in the viewfinder, so you can never be 100% sure of capturing exactly the right moment. Whereas the Nikon, on the other hand,


is practically instantaneous, and you know exactly what you’ve captured, at the moment you’ve captured it. This is hugely important when you’ve trying to a photograph a couple of two-year olds, who wriggle and bounce around like compressed springs, ricocheting from one corner of the room to the other. They have only two settings, these kids: on, and off. There’s nothing in-between.

The other consideration was simply the tonal subtlety that the larger APS-C sensor on the D500 delivers – a creaminess which the smaller Leica sensor can’t quite replicate.

Lastly, there was the question of lens. The zoom on the Leica, as I’ve said, is amazing, but for flexibility, sharpness, colour, tone, brightness, luminosity, it’s hard to beat the Nikon 17-55mm f 2.8 DX lens with its ED glass. It’s a pro-level lens, and the lens that is most usually attached to the front of my camera.

Like the Leica, the 17-55mm on a DX camera translates into a roughly 24-70mm equivalent, which is ideal for keeping track of little subjects who are ducking and weaving and lunging about, and it allows me to get in really close when I need to.

One last thing – and I’ve only recently discovered this – the ability to move the focus point around on the Nikon with a joystick that you control with your thumb means I can quickly focus on the eyes, regardless of the composition of the image – and this has made for a much higher success rate, in terms of really sharp images and bright, perfectly in-focus eyes.

So, to cut a long story short, as I thought through what the subject-matter for my image-making would be, and thought about the contexts and situations we would likely be in, and the kind of images I wanted to make – sharp, of course, but subtle, with good tonal range, as well as the ability – I haven’t mentioned this yet – to use a wide aperture to blur the background somewhat and emphasise the main subject – my choice of tools became clear: I would have to take the Nikon D500 with the 17-55mm lens. And I took a lightweight, carbon-fibre travel tripod, also, so I could shoot a couple of family group pictures with me in them, too.

Interviewer: Did you feel the need to take other lenses with you? What about that ‘just-in-case’ impulse?

Me: I did consider taking other lenses – a 35mm f 1.8 prime, for instance, or my wide-angle zoom, a 10-24mm Nikon DX lens that gives pretty good results – but in the end I decided to keep things simple, and to save the extra bulk and weight. Travelling light, right?

Interviewer: So, to sum up: there’s a lot to think about, before you press the shutter.

Me: It all starts with the pre-visualising, and the pre-planning.

I interview myself

In this series of posts, Glen the apprentice writer interviews Glen the apprentice photographer.

There are common threads.

First up, as a non-professional – someone with a day job, a family, obligations and commitments – how on earth do you create a viable path between the pressures of daily life and the urge to write or the need to make photographs?

How do you keep the dream, whatever it is, alive – how do you keep going?

How have my ideas about writing and photography, my passion for words and images, been shaped by my family background and personal history – by my parents and grandparents, by where I grew up, when, and with who?

In other words, what are the many conscious and unconscious influences that have shaped me as an apprentice writer or photographer? What debts do I owe?

Not to mention the one big, mysterious and perhaps unanswerable question: why does one choose to write or make images in the first place?

So this is not a blog about photographic gear, lists of photographic do’s or don’ts, tips and techniques – though I may, as the interviewer in me probes, touch on some of these things. It is a blog about image-making, in words and in pictures, and how making images arises from the rich or sandy soils of our lives. My life, in this case.

If life is a journey, so too is the business of learning to write and make photographs. As with most journeys there are unexpected twists and turns, dead-ends and highways, roads not taken and surprising destinations. It’s not a straight road, by any means.

So let’s get on with it.

Interviewer: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you become interested in photography?

Me: I must have been eight or nine, maybe ten. I was given an old Brownie

box camera Browniewhich must have belonged to my grandfather, and which I never actually used, so far as I can remember. But there it was, with its dusty leatherette covering, its smeary little lens, it’s really very basic construction, and it somehow took up a place on the empty shelf of my imagination.

Later there was a Fuji camera (I think) and a Kodak Instamatic,

DCF 1.0also gifts from my grandfather.

Pooch, as we called him, was in the film and photography business. As a younger man he had worked for MGM in South Africa, and he had a watch to prove it. He had gone on to become owner of a cinema in Cape Town, and was involved in establishing one of the first drive-in cinemas in the city. But he was cheated out of the business by his partner – this at least was the story, whispered but not really communicated – that I picked up as a child.

My grandfather went on to establish a small viewing cinema where the Censorship Board would view – and cut – movies before they could be viewed by the public, and one of my enduring memories is of standing in the projection room, turning the dials on the projector to keep the carbon rods that provided the light aligned, while the censors were sitting below busy banning Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. Which means I must have been about 14 at the time.

Having a camera was one thing, having film was another. And getting the film developed and printed was another thing again. I would be given some film as a present, for birthdays or Christmas; I would (very sparingly) compose, and focus, and press the shutter a few times – and then, when the 12 or 24 exposures were made, I would hand the film to my dad in the hope it would be processed. And that, often as not, was that. By the time I saw my pictures – if I saw them at all – I would have forgotten what was in them, let alone remember how I had taken them.

My grandfather, though, was always taking pictures of us, or shooting home movies – he had a 16mm Bolex

Bolexwith which he sometimes shot commercial footage. And my dad was a very capable, if conventional photographer. So there were always cameras and photographs – slides, mostly, from my dad’s business trips abroad, and of course family photos – about. I guess that must have had an effect.

Interviewer: Tell me about these images.

Me: Well, at one level, they’re about a family reunion. My son and his wife and my grandson came out to South Africa from London, just before Easter, my wife and I, my eldest daughter and her son flew down from Johannesburg, and we had a big family get-together in Simonstown, about 40km round the False Bay coast from Cape Town. We rented an AirBnB above the historic naval harbour, and these are the views from our balcony.

But these images of course are also about the light, the sky, the sea, the cloudscapes. As a photographer you want to do more than simply say, ‘we were here. This is what it looked like.’ So you try to choose the moment.

Interviewer: Have you always approached your photography this way? Choosing your moment?

Me: Yes and no. When you’re an amateur photographer, as I am, not a pro, photography is something you have to fit into the rest of your life – growing up, getting married, having children, finding a job, pursuing a career. So your photography changes according to your circumstances, according to which stage of your life you’re in. At least, that’s been my experience.

Interviewer: Are you pleased with these images?

Me: Yes. I think I am. As images go, they’re not what you’d call out of the ordinary. But they are workmanlike, I think, and I worked quite carefully on the post-production, to try to bring out the qualities of the light, and the skies, and lift the images up a bit, without getting into that dreadful over-saturation and over-sharpening that is something of a disease these days.

The Kroukamps in Canada

Eve and Shaun and Joshua are doing well, in their new lives in Canada. I have this on good authority (my own) after a too-short stay at the Kroukamp pile in Woodbridge, Ontario, on the outskirts of Toronto, where Rob and I spent the Easter weekend before repairing downtown to meet up with friends and take care of some errands and shopping.

Joshua, needless to say, is a little firecracker, full of beans, bursting with smiles and laughter, not to mention the occasional, inevitable howls of frustration and outrage. He is not quite three yet – huggable and adorable.

Easter Sunday, as everybody knows, is Easter Bunny Day, and the Bunny made a good job of it, as these photographs show. Josh’s reaction, though, was interesting. The grown-ups all assumed, I suspect, that he would plunge into the basket of Easter eggs and start gorging immediately – but no. He was almost shy about it, a little overwhelmed – for several minutes he eyed the basket cautiously, circled it, examined it from various angles as he tentatively drew closer – and then, extremely delicately, extracted the smallest of eggs, and held it up to us with a fey little smile of pleasure.

Easter eggs and breakfast called for a walk, so off we headed for a 6 km tramp through the Kortright Centre, a conservation area just down the road.

Though the weather was a grey, and a little chilly, and the paths in part were wet and slithery underfoot, there were glimpses of bright leaves catching the light in the woodlands, and lichens clinging like barnacles to logs, that made for one or two half-decent images.

It was good to see how contented and close Eve and Shaun seemed – working too hard, the strain and exhaustion showing a little, yet very much a happy and thriving young family, making a go of it, in a new country.

We reconnected the following weekend, at a gathering of friends in Hamilton – ‘Steeltown’ – and spent the Saturday night and Sunday morning (yes, there is an English novel of the late 1950s of that name, for those of you old enough to remember) before Shaun dropped us off downtown again, on Spadina, for a meet up with Boyd and a last night together before I headed home, via Zurich, on the Monday evening. Rob follows in a fortnight.

Here, to close off this post, is a photograph of the whole gang of us – three generations, young and old. Well, not old really, but getting up there.

Zurich Altstadt – Signs and Figures

Photograph of Heidi the cow, in Zurich's Altstadt

Zurich Altstadt: Signs & Figures.

I suppose you can’t really ‘get’ the soul of a city, a spirit of place, from a (literally) flying visit, a one-day random perambulation through streets and squares, along the river and over its bridges, beside its churches and fountains – and yet, as I mentioned in my first post on Zurich, there is a tone, a mood, a coloration of stone and air that is quite specific.

I felt it in the signs and emblems, from the sacred to the quotidian and downright silly, and saw it even in the people, who themselves in my imagining became signs of Zurich.

Here are some images.

Zurich fountains – three more images

As promised in yesterday’s post, here are three more images of fountains in Zurich’s Altstadt.

You will see that I have done one more in black and white, but with a harder edge to it than yesterday’s more ethereal image.

The other images insisted on being done in colour – in the one case, as befits the flowers, with a vivid palette, in the other with more muted tones, the tones of the fountain – a swooping, very modern sculpture – echoing the tones of the Fraumuenster in the background.

Zurich Fountains # 1

On Tuesday morning I stumbled off the plane in Zurich after an overnight flight from Toronto, with a day to spend before climbing back on board another plane for another long flight, overnight to Johannesburg.

Why I would punish this 65 year-old body like this, I don’t know.

I took the train downtown, to the Hauptbahnhof, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed along the Bahnhofstrasse, popped into the Fraumunster to see the Chagall windows, crossed the bridge across the River Limmat beneath the towers of the Grossmunster, and so whiled away the morning with sightseeing and photographs.

By lunch time I was footsore and spaced out after only two or three hour’s sleep during the flight, so I found myself a table at a quiet little restaurant in a quiet little square and took my time over some very tasty pork and noodles – posing, to my amusement, as pork ‘ossobucco’ with ‘risotto’ and with an incongruous slice of grapefruit to the side. It was delicious.

Zurich – at least the Altstadt – struck me most on a chilly grey day with its quietude – its architecture and spaces not severe, exactly, but restrained, disciplined, a little prim perhaps, or perhaps dreaming of higher, more spiritual things, as befits a home of the Reformation.

This image, of the fountain in the quiet square where I ate my lunch, captures for me something of what Zurich evoked, in my mind and emotions. Perhaps this weekend I will have time to process and post a few others.