Scanning Film with LaserSoft Imaging SilverFast (Podcast 709)

Scanning Film with LaserSoft Imaging SilverFast (Podcast 709)

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About six months ago I posted about my Rolleiflex F3.5 Twin Lens Reflex camera, and how the ability to develop film in broad daylight with the Lab-Box had contributed to a rekindling of my love for film. The Rollei was a replacement for my old Yashica TLR camera, which I still have, but the few drawbacks in its design and the difficulty and sometimes pure panic of working with the dark bags that I reported on around four years ago, had caused my interest in film to dwindle again for a while. The Rollei and Lab-Box have brought it all back around for me, so I will occasionally shoot film for the pure joy of it, and being able to come home and process my film myself is the icing on the cake.

Back in episode 690 I also talked about the scanner that I bought late last year because my old Epson scanner had given up the ghost. After a fair amount of research I decided to go for the CanoScan 9000F Mark II scanner, the main reasons for which are the ability to get very high resolution scans of my 6 x 6 cm medium format negatives on 120 film. As I shared last week, one roll gives me just 12 frames, and with developing costs etc. we’re talking a couple of bucks per photo, so it keeps you relatively careful about releasing the shutter each time, although I will, of course, still opt to grab a photo and throw it out if necessary, rather than hesitating too much about the cost.

Although I’ve been using SilverFast 8 to scan my film for the last six months, I realized last week that I had not talked about it here on the blog and podcast, so I’d like to do that today. I initially was not happy with the results I was getting from SilverFast 8 as I thought it was too grainy, but I’ve been able to get over that to a degree. What happened was a combination of various factors that actually did make my images too grainy, so I’ll briefly cover that too.

Basically, for some of my winter snow scenes, I was essentially over-exposing my images a little, because with digital I get better quality images by exposing to the right. As one of my incredibly knowledgable participants on my January Hokkaido Landscape Tour shared with me though, for film, you have to protect the shadows rather than the highlights, and therefore I find that I’m not exposing the same way with film and that is more important with snow scenes, because of all the white, although in general, my exposures were just about spot on.

The problem was compounded by the fact that I started to experiment with some other developing chemicals, and I guess I learned that you don’t experiment when shooting film on important shoots. I’d been using Ilford DDX, which is a very nice developer, but I tried Ilford Perceptol, and found it more difficult to get good results, but that was partly because some of my winter scenes were a little too bright. The main reason though, I’d come to find, was probably agitating the film too often during the development process. The Lab-Box tutorials said that you need to agitate more often, and more rigorously, which is what I was doing, but as I looked into the cause of my over-grainy images I found that this can cause more grain, and sometimes streaks on the images, which I was also getting.

I didn’t find this out though until I’d damaged a number of rolls of film, and also, on recommendation from a kind reader/listener, I made one last change, which was to switch my chemicals again, this time to Adox Rodinal. Although I liked the results I was getting with Ilford DDX, I was throwing it out occasionally because of the relatively short shelf-life. You also have to use much more of it, with a 1+4 mix ration, which helps with the shelf-life problem if you develop film often, but still, I found that I was both going through too much of it, and sometimes throwing it out because it had crystalized too much and basically gone off.

Rodinal, on the other hand, requires just a 1+50 mix, although I also got caught as I arrived at that. The one downside of Rodinal is that it takes quite a long time to develop your roll, so I initially tried working with a 1+25 solution, which halves the development time, but I also found that doing so increases grain, and that cost me another roll of photos. I finally arrived at working with Rodinal at 1+50 and halved the agitation during development. I had originally been agitating quite rigorously every 30 seconds, based on the Lab-Box tutorials, but I reduced that to relatively slow agitation every minute, and the results are finally what I was hoping for, and what grain I do sometimes see, is now very pleasing, natural film grain, and no vertical streaks.

One last thing that I did as well, although I’m going to try not doing this now that I’ve worked out all of the other kinks, is that I started to mix my developer with purified water, which is basically one step down from distilled water. I’d been using tap water, and I’m still not sure if that was a problem, but using the purified water may have helped. I’ve also considered buying a distilled water machine, but they aren’t cheap for a good one, and I’m not sure how important this is to the process. If anyone has an opinion on this, please let me know via the comments below.

Anyway, now that I’m getting the sort of results I wanted from my development process, and using Adox Rodinal, which can be stored for a very long time without worrying about shelf life, the results that I am getting with SilverFast 8 are very pleasing, but there it took me a fair amount of trial and error to get the results I’m happy with, so I’ll walk you through the process now. As you can see from the screenshot of the startup screen, you select your scanner on startup, and in fact, you have to bind your license to your scanner, and I’ve not really looked into how easy it is to change this later if you change the scanner, but hopefully that is possible and not a costly process.

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SilverFast Startup Screen
SilverFast Startup Screen

Somewhat uncharacteristic of me, I actually went for the cheapest version of SilverFast which is the SE version at €49. There’s a chart showing what you get with the higher versions and would have liked to try but don’t have access to is the Auto Adaptive Contrast Optimization. The other thing that might be of use is the Job Manager, but that doesn’t kick-in until the Ai Studio version which is €299 and I wasn’t willing to pay that much for this software. Everything you’ll see today is what I’ve got with the SE version.

I am setting my film into the scanner using the film holder that comes with it for 6 x 6 cm frames. Here is the photo from my earlier post to illustrate that. I load the film with the shiny side down, because the scan is performed from underneath the glass. There is a window in the lid of the scanner, but that contains a light source and a diffuser to soften the light source as it illuminates the film for the scan.

Scanning 120 Film with the CanonScan 9000F Mark II


Scanning 120 Film with the CanonScan 9000F Mark II

When I first started using SilverFast I selected the following settings in the Preferences > General tab, and after arriving at the settings I liked, I saved the tool dialogs as a preset here. You can update that with the floppy disk icon. Under the CMS tab I selected the Adobe RGB (1998) color profile, and that will be plenty as I’m scanning black and white images, so the lack of ProPhoto RGB doesn’t bother me here. I left the options under the Special tab at their default settings.

SilverFast General Settings


SilverFast General Settings

Most of the other important settings for my scanning workflow can be seen in this screenshot of the main scanning window. You can see in the top left corner that I’m scanning to TIFF files, and dropping the scanned images into a folder called Film Scans initially, in my home directory. I have the quality set to 300 ppi, and I’m scanning at 4800 ppi, which results in images that can be printed at 300 ppi at approximately 90 cm square but can actually be printed around twice that size at 150 ppi and still look great.

Scan Dimensions


Scan Dimensions

People often try to tell me that this resolution is too high, and while I agree that it’s a tad on the high side, my next lower option is 2400 ppi and that is not enough for my use cases, which often involve printing my photos out very large. I have tested in steps and found that there is an increase in detail up to 4800, but nothing more is gained higher than this. Also, keep in mind that the optics of your camera and how sharp the original photograph is all come into play here, so find your own maximum resolution, and work with that. I’m happy with 4800.

Picture Settings

Under the Picture Settings panel, you can easily adjust the midtones which affects the brightness of the image without shifting the black and white points. If you click on the N button that you there, you switch between Normal and Logarithmic modes, as necessary. I’ve used both depending on the photo, so it’s worth giving it a click sometimes if you aren’t getting what you want. If this was a color image, I could click the C button to introduce Adaptive Saturation which prevents over-saturation in more saturated areas of the image.


The NegaFix panel is interesting and provides a number of presets based on various film types. For example, they have Ilford Delta 100, which does a really nice job, and can, of course, be applied to other films. I generally leave this off and adjust the image myself later in Capture One Pro, because they tend to plug up the shadow areas a little too much for my liking, but these presets are definitely worth a play with. The CCR button that you see there is for Color Cast Removal, which does a good job of neutralizing the color.




It’s probably also worth noting that most of the time I leave the NegaFix options set to Other for the Vendor and Film type, and leave the ISO pulldown set to Linear. If the image is a little too pasty I sometimes use Standard instead of Linear, but I find it can be a little heavy-handed, so I go with Linear and then apply a tone curve to my liking in Capture One Pro. I prefer to keep that extra bit of control.

NegaFix Linear ISO


NegaFix Linear ISO

Unsharp Masking

Also note from these screenshots, that I’m reducing the amount of Unsharp Masking that I apply to the images as well. I found that the Automated Sharpness was a little heavy-handed as well, and not necessary with images from my Rolleiflex. My Yashica would need more sharpness though, so again, the settings you select really depend on the camera probably also the acuity of your film.


If we also take a peak inside the Densitometer panel which was closed in the first screenshot, and you’ll see that we can check the Black and White points, and although the left and right rectangles are both the same in this screenshot, as you make adjustments to your images in SilverFast, the right rectangle shows you the tones or colors for color film after the changes. The left rectangle represents your original film tones.

Setting Black and White Points


Setting Black and White Points

Also, you can click on the Pipette icon in the toolbar to the right of the sidebar, and set your Black and White points, and if necessary, the Neutral point as well, and Reset it all if necessary. I generally find that setting the Black and White points helps to get a nice spread of tones throughout the image.


iSRD is a form of Dust and Scratch Removal. The important thing to note here is that it only works in 1:1 or HQ (High Quality) modes, and it requires a high-resolution infrared scan to get into that mode. Luckily though once you have that scan, you are done. You apparently don’t need to do another scan, as the software has all the information it needs at that point, but to be completely honest I have found this feature to be pretty buggy and actually never gone through with a scan using iSRD. Sometimes the preview looks great, but then I simply cannot get a view of the cleaned-up scan, and other times it takes so long to process, even with my 10 core iMac Pro, that I end up just coming out of iSRD and clean up my image manually in Capture One Pro later.


Another of the few features that I am disappointed in, and cannot get the SilverFast Support team to comment on, is the Grain and Noise Elimination. I personally think that this is just not working at all, at least not on Mac OS Catalina. Here, for example, is a screenshot of a dark area of an image that has a bit of grain in it. You can see from the bottom left corner that Grain and Noise Reduction is currently turned off in one image, because there is no tick in the box in the top right of its pane, and in the second image the check is on, supposedly apply Strong GANE. I’ve viewed this on a 32-inch display though, and I cannot see any difference. If anything, the image with Strong Grain and Noise Elimination applied is marginally grainier, but I think they are pretty much identical.

I’m not going to touch on the other features, which I don’t really use, but I should mention that the Auto CCR button on the top toolbar can do a nice job as well. It’s basically Automatic Image Optimization with Color Cast Removal. Especially when you first start using SilverFast, this can be really useful to see what it does and what is possible.

Batch Processing

I would like to finish by mentioning Batch Processing. Although I can only scan three images at a time, once I have selected the appropriate settings for each image, I go to the top toolbar and hit the Scan button, and select Batch Scan, which opens up this dialog box. Here I can set the folder into which my scanned images will be saved, and also give my files a name. I then provide a starting number and turn on Index active, and the software will then start at 01 and automatically increment that each time a scan is performed. When I’m doing an entire roll of 12 images I have to open this dialog four times, but I only set that number on the first batch, and it increments through to 12 automatically.

Batch Scanning


Batch Scanning

Once I save my images via the Batch Scan process, due to the way the images are saved from SilverFast, they are not editable in Capture One Pro. I have to open them in either Photoshop or Affinity Photo and save them again, even if I keep them in the TIFF format. Until I do that, none of the sliders in Capture One Pro are active so I cannot make any changes.

After saving the image files, I actually do one last thing, and that is to grab the script that I made six months ago that enables me to easily add EXIF data to my photos. As I shoot I use an App on my iPhone called FilmPad, which records the shooting data and time etc. and then once I’ve developed and scanned the film, I open up my EXIF Updater script, and hit number 1 to parse the folder of images, and then walk me through each image to add the camera and shooting information. I dreaded doing this manually with Exiftool before I created this script, but now I don’t have to look up or remember any commands. My script does all that for me. I just have to enter a few pieces of data in human-readable form.

MBP Film EXIF Updater Script


MBP Film EXIF Updater Script

I spend a few hours yesterday clearing up a few final bugs that I was aware of and will be putting this script up for sale in the coming days, so if anyone is interested in grabbing a copy, come back in a week or so and it should be available. I will also produce a post to explain how to use it so if you need a reminder, subscribe to our newsletters and I’ll let you know when it’s ready. The result, of course, is that my images are tagged with camera and shooting data, so my website shows EXIF data when you view the images, and also they show up at the right date and time in other image management apps.

Anyway, I hope you found this useful. I’m happy now that I have started using SilverFast, despite the few things that don’t really work well for me, and for the price of the SE version, I think I’ll continue to use it. Although the grain did bother me at first, as I explained earlier, my current scans contain much more organic film grain, as opposed to the Canon Software which basically smooths everything over and then resharpen, removing pretty much all grain, and that was perhaps too much the other way.

This post and podcast were not sponsored or endorsed in any way by LaserSoft Imaging or any other third party. I paid for the software myself and they don’t even know about this review at the time of publishing, although I will send them a link after release.

Show Notes

SilverFast Scanner Software:

Music by Martin Bailey


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The Mental Checklist to Make Better Photographs (Podcast 498)

The Mental Checklist to Make Better Photographs (Podcast 498)

About two years ago I wrote an article for Craft & Vision’s PHOTOGRAPH magazine called The Mental Checklist. I’ve discussed this in parts in the podcast both before and since that article, but today I thought I’d wrap my ideas surrounding this into a fresh episode.

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It’s hard to believe, but this podcast turned ten years old in September this year (2015). If you’ve followed along over the years, I hope you’ll agree that my photography has gotten a bit better as time progressed, and what I’m going to talk about today has played a big part in my development as a photographer. More importantly, I think the things that I’ve learned and employ in my own photography now, can help us all to improve, so I hope this will be of use to you.

My original article was in Issue #5 of the Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH magazine, if you’d like to check that out, but this isn’t a straight reprint. I’m actually expanding this significantly without the length constraints of the magazine.

I’d been doing photography as a hobby, later developing into a passion, for some 20 years before I started this podcast, and was of course confident enough that I had something that could be of value to others back then in September 2005 when I released episode 1. Looking back at much of my earlier work though, I had some shots that weren’t bad, but a lot of my work was nowhere near the quality that I’m creating pretty consistently today.

Shoot Regularly

Some of my improvement will have without doubt been organic. Just doing something with intent for a long time will hopefully lead to improvement. I was a guest on This Week in Photo last week, and we talked a little about 365 projects, where people commit to shoot every day for a year. I’ve never done one of these projects myself, but when I’m in a situation when I shoot every day, like when I’m away on one of my tours, the camera becomes an extension of my arm and brain.

There are not really many long spells now when I don’t shoot at all, but in the past I would go weeks, sometimes months when I didn’t shoot very often, and then, when I pick up the camera again, it feels a little rusty and disjointed. You sometimes make stupid mistakes just because it’s not coming totally natural.

But, when we shoot every day, operating the camera and making creative decisions becomes much more natural and fluid. The technology kind of fades into the background, and it’s much easier to get into a state of flow and just create the beautiful work. The reason I mention this here in this context, is because the podcast gave me an incentive to shoot when I may have otherwise not left the house with my camera.

Of course, you don’t have to start your own podcast unless you want to, but I do think that finding a reason to shoot, or even making a commitment to shoot, on a regular basis, can greatly help to improve your photography. Think of a personal project, or multiple projects that will keep you shooting regularly. On TWiP last week, this came up because we were talking about the OKDOTHIS iPhone app, which gives you photography assignments and inspiration, so you might want to check out that app as well.

Question Your Process

Shooting more often was only part of my improvement though. Some of the episodes that I had started to create are what I call travelogues, where I walk you through a particular shoot, or a tour, talking about my experience, and what I was thinking as I made each photograph that we look at as a real-world example. Most examples initially were taken from my image archive, so I’d go back and look at my settings and recall my thought process after the event, then write about it to share that experience with you.

As I thought about these images though, I’d often realise that there was a better way to have done what I did. Although I’d try to work this into the episodes too, I’d kick myself for making a stupid decision in the field. This in itself was helpful, because I would keep these mistakes in mind, and try to avoid them in the future.

The major change in my photography though, came as I did more work after starting to create the podcast. I found myself thinking about what I’d write in a future episode as I did my photography. And, just like when I realised that I had made a stupid mistake when I prepared an episode from archive images, I realised in the field that I was doing something stupid, but now, because I was still in the field, doing the photography, I was able to correct the mistake, sometimes even before I released the shutter.

This of course means that I was improving right there in the field! Preventing mistakes before I made them, and getting better results than I ever had before, simply by running through my processes with intention, asking myself questions about each of my creative decisions.

Intention Behind Every Frame

Again, you don’t need to do a podcast to start doing this yourself. Just being more intentional and asking questions about each decision you make will improve your photography. I’ll give you a sample list shortly, but the important thing to note here is that I’m not talking about doing this once per shoot, or doing it a few times then assuming you’ve improved and stopping. You will start to do this to some degree with every image you shoot. Once some decisions have been made, you can move on to different questions, but there should be thought and intention behind every frame.

Refine Your Composition

I often show you the resulting, final image as I talk through my travelogues, but one thing I sometimes do on workshops, is show participants the images that lead up to an image that I am happy with. In my Mental Checklist article, I talked a little about a series of images that I made of the Tatsusawa Falls in May 2007, as this was one of the first shoots that I really noticed myself being totally intentional about my process and creative decisions.

Depending on what I’m shooting, I sometimes take a walk around my subject without shooting first, but more often than not, as my subject starts to come into sight, I start shooting as the scene presents itself to me, especially when there isn’t a lot of time, or the scene does something for me right at that point in time. Rarely though do these first frames become the final image that I’ll show people or add to my portfolio etc.

Here we see a few frames that I made as I approached the Tatsusawa Falls (below). I started off wide, at 17mm, capturing the larger scene with the lush green foliage around the falls, but this wasn’t really doing much for me. I asked myself if including that white sky was worth it to get the foliage in, and the answer for me was “no”, so I continued to move in closer.

Refining Composition

Refining Composition

I moved over to the right side of the falls, closer still, but quickly realized that this wasn’t working either. I’d removed the sky, and kept some foliage, but the feel of the images was getting worse, not better. I’d also noticed earlier that there were some branches with leaves over the front of the falls, and I really liked this look, but they were not really visible in the shot from the right side, so I moved towards the front of the waterfall, until I got to the centre frame in this series (above).

I continued to work in, really concentrating on the one branch and its leaves, and the falls, just with a line of rocks along the bottom of the frame, but this felt a little too constrained. My favorite from the set ended up being the fifth frame, which I still have in my Nature of Japan portfolio today, more than eight years later. Some of you might recognize this shot from the old graphic that I used to use for the podcast in iTunes for a year or so.

Night Falls

Night Falls

In addition to the composition, I was, of course, asking myself other questions that led to the final result. I decided to leave my White Balance at the Daylight preset for example, partly because I generally do, but also because I really liked the late dusky blue tones of the image as it is without any white balance correction. I also decided to go for a long shutter speed to make the water all silky like this.  I would normally use a Neutral Density filter for this, but as it was so dark by this time, I was getting a 2.5-second exposure at f/11, ISO 200, so I didn’t need an ND.

Sample Checklist

Of course, the questions that you ask yourself will differ by subject and situation, but here is a sample checklist, of the sort of things I might ask myself as I shoot a landscape scene.

  • Can I use a tripod or does it not make sense right now?
  • Should I shoot through the viewfinder or use live view?
  • Am I using the right focusing mode for this subject?
  • How can I compose the shot to lead the viewer to my main subject?
  • Are there any leading lines that I want to use, or avoid?
  • Is my composition effective, with the balance, drama or serenity I want?
  • Is the foreground important, or distracting?
  • Would this scene look better in portrait orientation or landscape?
  • Can I tell a bigger story by going wide?
  • Can I tell a more intimate story with tighter framing?
  • Is the lens clean?
  • ?Should I position myself higher or shoot from ground level?
  • Is my camera/horizon straight, and if not, does it need to be?
  • Are the edges of the frame free from distracting objects?
  • If not, am I happy/able to remove that distracting object in post or should I find a different composition?
  • How much depth of field do I need?
  • Shall I use a fast shutter speed to freeze my subject’s movement or a slow one to record the movement or flow?
  • If I need a faster shutter speed, do I change my aperture or ISO, or both to achieve that?
  • Should I use a polarizer, neutral density or any other kind of filter?
  • Does that filter need cleaning?
  • Should I use a cable release or self-timer?
  • Do I have time to check my exposure?
  • Am I blowing any highlights, and if yes does it matter?
  • Has the light changed since I started shooting? If so, do I need to adjust exposure?
  • What’s behind me?
  • Repeat and refine.

Like I say, these are just a sample of questions, and I change and adjust these all the time, but let’s think about why I might even be asking myself these questions.

Using a Tripod When Possible

Firstly, I like to use a tripod whenever it makes sense to do so, so my question is never “should I use a tripod” but whether or not I can use a tripod or whether or not it makes sense to do so. For landscape work, I almost always use a tripod. Even if I’m hiking a way to my subject, I don’t leave the tripod behind. Being without a tripod removes many creative options, such as long exposures, and also adds an element of uncertainty to my photographs.

For example, however careful I am about my composition, and checking the edges of the frame for distracting objects, as you scan the edges of the frame, the camera moves when you hand hold, so you can never fully control your framing. When using a tripod, I can carefully scan the edges of the frame and recompose to remove distractions or make a conscious decision to remove something later in post, but that’s not something I like to do if it can be avoided. This isn’t an ethical decision, rather I just don’t like spending time in Photoshop cloning stuff out if I can avoid doing so.

Live View

I also like using a tripod because it enables me to use Live View. When we look through the viewfinder, we see the world framed, but it’s still three dimensional. That enables our brain to jump forwards and backward in our scene, and that can lead to us missing something that doesn’t look good when overlapped.

When we switch to Live View, we see a flat, two-dimensional rendition of our scene, just like the final photograph, and this can help with composition and noticing things that could ruin your photograph later. So we can recompose or change our aperture/depth of field to avoid that if necessary. Of course, Live View doesn’t make much sense for hand-held or fast-paced shooting, so I generally only do this when I’m able to use a tripod.

Use or Avoid Leading Lines?

If there is something in the scene that can act as a leading line, I like to decide if that should be emphasized or avoided. For example, if something is leading to a point in the scene that I don’t necessarily want to lead the viewer’s eye to then I might consider changing my position or the height of the camera to play that down. If I can use it to good effect, then I will position myself to use those lines effectively, as I believe I’ve done with this photograph (below).

Ohmu Tetrapods at Dawn

Ohmu Tetrapods at Dawn

You can see how I positioned the first largest tetrapod in the bottom left corner, and used the rest of them to lead the eye into the scene, right up to the two tiny ones on the far right in front of the wave breaker wall that then leads the eye back into frame towards the sun’s rays and lighthouse. Of course, the sun’s rays are quite bright, and this will attract our attention first in some cases, but once we start to explore the image, these lines can help to keep the viewer of the image engaged.

Don’t Include a Foreground Just Because…

Conversely, one of my pet peeves at the moment is people including distracting objects in the foreground of their images. It’s popular to talk about including a great foreground in your photographs, and that is good advice, if you have or can find a great foreground, but the emphasis here is on the world “great”. A rock isn’t always great, it’s just a rock, or a log, or lump of grass, or whatever it is that you’ve found. And, getting down really low to make that something really big in the foreground might only make the situation worse.

If you have truly found something interesting to use in the foreground, then go for it. Otherwise, I think it’s generally better to work with the part of the scene that attracted your attention in the first place. Zoom in on that and remove everything else that doesn’t add something to your photograph.

Be Intentional

A lot of this is about being intentional in your photography. If something is just there, in your scene, it’s really important to ask yourself if it is adding something to your photograph. If it is not actively adding to the scene, the chances are it is probably detracting, or diluting the attention that we might pay to the more important elements in the scene. If this is the case, consider how you could reframe or recompose your photograph to remove it without losing your main intention.

If your intention is to create a very minimalist photograph for example, everything in the frame is making the scene less minimal if it isn’t the main focal point of the image. This is one reason that I love minimalist snow scenes and long exposure photography. We can be totally intentional with the contents of the frame and how we record that.

For example, for this photograph (below) from my Hokkaido Landscape tour, of just a tree on a hill with a line of fence posts, is very minimalistic for a few very intentional reasons. First and foremost, is that I chose to visit when there was a good chance of having total snow cover. Then I zoomed in to 110mm to isolate the tree, the posts and the curve of the top of the hill.

Hanazono Tree with Fence Posts

Hanazono Tree with Fence Posts

Perhaps most importantly, is that I waited until there was total cloud cover in the sky above the hill. When we arrived at this scene, there was patches of bright sky and some dark clouds, so I waited for a while until the sky was more uniform white before making this photograph. Other than that, there really isn’t much done to this other than converting to black and white in Silver Efex Pro.

Steller's Sunrise

Steller’s Sunrise

And, going back to my foreground gripe, if I had included a rock or a tree stump in the foreground of this minimalist photograph, it would break up that pure white foreground and mess up the image totally. There is a time and place for everything, so we don’t have to look for and overly try to include something in the foreground, just because we’ve been told that we should.

There are no shoulds in photography. Everything that do is based on decisions about our options at any given time. And of course, everyone is going to make something different of any given scene, because we are all different and make our own decisions.

Landscape or Portrait Orientation

Another thing that I ask myself is whether or not the scene would look better in portrait or landscape orientation? Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape orientation, because so many of our viewing devices, such as computer displays and TV screens are created to work better in landscape orientation.

Of course, the iPad and phones can be flipped over easily, and I have my Eizo monitor flipped 90 degrees to view portrait oriented images nice and large, but there are still more options for landscape oriented images.

Still, some scenes simply look better in portrait orientation, and so it’s still best to keep this option in mind. I often switch to portrait orientation when there is a strong vertical in the scene, such as with this photo of a Steller’s Sea Eagle perched on a pinnacle of sea ice at sunrise (right).

One other thing that I often consider with regards to orientation though, is whether or not the image might be worth shooting in both portrait and landscape orientation, for use as a stock image, or for illustration in my own magazine articles.

Sometimes, even though an image would look better in portrait mode, for example, having a landscape version gives you better layout options and vice versa.

Once again though, I want to stress that these are only guidelines and ideas. Strong verticals in the scene don’t automatically mean a portrait orientation will work better. We can create landscape oriented images with strong verticals as well, as I did with this ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) photograph of a copse of birch trees in the snow (below).

Winter Birches

Winter Birches

Keep Your Lenses and Filters Clean

Another thing that I touch on in my checklist a lot is simply the mechanical checking of my gear. When I change lenses, I take a look at the front of the lens to check that there is no dust or other marks on it, and if there are, I blow the front of the lens off with the blower that is always in my pocket. The same goes for a filter. If it’s dusty, blow it, and if there are fingerprints, wipe it with a microfibre cloth before shooting. If it’s actually raining, or there might be spray from a waterfall etc. then checking the front of the lens or filter between each shot is a must.

Setting Exposure

Whenever I come to set my exposure for any scene or subject, I ask myself what I want to do with that subject. I generally set my Aperture first, because I want to control the depth of field in my photograph. Often, for landscapes, I use a deep depth of field, and so I’ll shoot with around f/14. I don’t select too small an aperture, as I want to avoid diffraction, which is when the image actually gets less sharp as you stop down the aperture too far.

For wildlife, I often use around f/8, as I don’t necessarily want the background too sharp, but I do want to record some detail, giving the subject a sense of place. I’ll go deeper if the environment is important to the overall story. For flower shots or portraits, I often shoot much wider, with the lens’ aperture wide open at f/2.8 or whatever the widest aperture is.

Once I’ve set the aperture, I then usually set my shutter speed. Considerations are whether or not I want to freeze the movement of the subject and to do that, I have to think about how fast my subject is moving. A large bird in flight requires between 1/500 and 1/1000 of a second to freeze most of its movement. I generally like to leave just a little bit of movement in the tips of the wings, so these settings work for me. A small bird in flight requires much faster shutter speeds, such as 1/2000 of a second or higher. For slow moving animals, I will try to use around 1/500 of a second if possible.

To blur the water in a river or waterfall, I generally like to use 1/2 a second or longer. Water will start to blur from around 1/5 of a second, but I like to capture it silkier than that, so I generally aim for about 0.8 or a second to two or three seconds. To make the surface of the sea go silky or to get cloud movement requires much longer exposures, like 30 seconds to multiple minutes, so I’ll start to use heavy neutral density filters for this.

The last exposure setting that I decide on is my ISO. I generally want my ISO to be as low as possible, so I’ll keep it at 100 unless I need more sensitivity to get a good exposure having set my required aperture and shutter speed. I adjust my final exposure with ISO much more than aperture or shutter speed in fact. Because I shoot in manual mode most of the time, I find myself adjusting my ISO often, while I might leave the other settings where they are for hours at a time.

Polariser Filters

I don’t use a polarizer or PL filter very often, but if there is some reflection in the water that I want to remove, for example, I will reach for a polarizer, as I did with this image of a stream running through a forest here in Japan (below). The polariser here also made the foliage much more vibrant, as it decreases the reflectivity of the surface of the leaves, allowing their color to show through more.

Goshikinuma Stream

Goshikinuma Stream

Of course, the other main use for a polarizer is to make a blue sky bluer, but I don’t photograph blue skies that often, so I don’t find myself asking that question very often. 🙂

Cable Release or Timer

I generally keep a cable release with me all the time, but when I’m photographing landscapes where the actual timing of the start of the exposure isn’t critical, I almost always just use the two-second timer on the camera when using a tripod. This enables me to remove my hand from the camera to avoid camera shake, especially with long exposures.

If the start of the exposure is critical though, for example, I’m trying to get a wave breaking at the critical moment, it’s hard to do this with the timer, so I attach my cable release and start the exposure just as I see the action that I want to capture unfold.

Look Around

It’s also very important not to get too caught up in one subject or possibility. I often just turn around and look behind me, to see if I’ve missed something on my approach, and this is important as the light changes too. If you see some color starting to develop in the sky, for example, this is a good prompt to take a look around, and see what that light is doing in areas other than your chosen scene.

Stay Curious

That’s an explanation of many of the points in the example checklist, but in reality, the list is pretty much endless. The things that I’ve touched on here are just pointers, and you’ll add your own checklist items constantly. The important thing is to not get complacent. Stay Curious. Question every decision you make, and even after you think you’ve nailed a wonderful shot, see if there are other opportunities.

It is important to also have the confidence to quit and pack up at a good point in your shoot as well. I sometimes see people who’ve stayed at a location for a really long time, yet when you look through the photos, they’ve really nailed the scene much earlier in the shoot. They just hang around because they aren’t confident that they’ve got their best shot at that location. It’s fine to continue to work a scene, but also try to learn when you’ve done your work, and can move on to the next location, or pack up and go home.

Pre-Shoot Checklist

Before we finish, I’d like to take a step back and talk just a little about my pre-shoot checklist. This is what I do before I actually start shooting. Again, this is just a guideline, as what you need or use will vary, but for example, as I prepare to shoot landscapes, I check the following things.

First, before I leave home, or the hotel if I’m traveling, I do a general quick check of my cameras. Are my batteries all fully charged? Have I formatted my memory cards? Is the camera set to shoot raw? Especially after I have had my sensor cleaned, I always double check that the technician hasn’t switched my camera to JPEG mode and left it there. I have in the past somehow managed to flick my camera into JPEG mode mid-shoot, so I even check while shooting when I think about it.

I also check my auto-focus modes as I start shooting. Generally, for landscape work, I use One Shot focusing, but for wildlife, I’ll use AI Servo or Continual Focus modes. I might change this during the shoot, as I often change my AF point mode too, but I just like to check this as I get started.

I generally don’t put a lens on my camera if I’m walking to my subject. I leave my camera bodies and lenses separate in my camera bag until I need them. This is partly to protect my cameras in case I fall, as you can rip the mount out of the body or rip the back of the lens off if they are jolted while joined together. It’s also so that I can decide which lens I want to use after I’ve seen the first opportunity open to me. If there is a chance that something could present itself to me during the walk though, I might put a standard zoom like a 24-70mm lens on the camera and walk with it out, ready, although I try to avoid this when walking in icy conditions, to avoid breaking the camera if I slip.

I always shoot with a photography vest on or a photography jacket that has pockets to store various things in. I always ensure that I have my blower in my pocket. I’m often surprised that so many people don’t keep a blower in their pockets when shooting. This to me is a fundamental tool, and I’ve carried one in my pocket while shooting since I can remember. The same goes for a microfibre cloth. I use Spudz microfibre cloths because they fit into their own built-in pouch, and so don’t get dusty while sitting in my pocket.

Other things that go into my pockets are spare batteries, a cable release, and my filter case. I also keep some spare batteries for my GPS logger etc. Anything that I might need during a shoot goes into my vest pockets.

When I’m actually ready to start shooting, I generally survey the scene and move a few lenses to my vest pockets as well. If you have to take your camera bag off and open it up every time you want to change lenses, it can make you lazy. You end up shooting with the wrong lens because it’s a pain to switch them out, so if you remove the pain-point, you are more likely to use the right lens for any given situation that you might come across.

Like I say, the list changes depending on what I am shooting, but I always try to anticipate what I might need, and make it as easy to put my hands on as possible while shooting. Keeping the same thing in the same pocket also helps. I generally keep my blower and lens cloth in my bottom, front, right pocket for example. My GPS batteries go in my right chest pocket.

Write About Your Creative Process

Coming back to how creating this podcast helped me to improve my own photography, we can get another hint as to how this might help you too, and that is to write about your creative process. To enable me to talk somewhat intelligently about my own creative process, I write my thoughts down each week before I record.

The act of writing down our thoughts helps us to organize them into a more logical order, and this is one of the main reasons that the podcast helped me with my own work. It made me more methodical and organized, and as I said, just like creating the podcast in my head as I shoot, the order that I introduced into my processes through writing about them, found it’s way back into my processes in the field.

You might write a journal about your work, just for yourself, or if you don’t already, blogging about your photography can be a great way to motivate yourself to write about your own creative process, and may also help you to reach a wider audience with your work, as I’ve done through this podcast and blog, or blogcast as I’m now calling it. To be honest, the benefits of writing out my process have proved so great though, that I’d probably write about it now even without an audience to share this with.

If you already blog about your work or start to do so to help you write about it, share a link in the comments below. I’d love to take a look at what you’re creating.

The Mental Checklist

So, to recap, the important thing to keep in mind about what we’ve discussed today isn’t so much all of the details that I’ve covered, it’s the act of running through your mental checklist, that will help you to improve your photography. You don’t have to start doing a podcast to initiate that unless you want to of course. If it helps, copy and paste the example checklist above into a Word document, adjust it as necessary, and print it out, then look through it a few times as you shoot.

You don’t want to keep getting this out in the field of course. The goal is to become accustomed to questioning your processes and creative decisions. The more you do this, the more automatic it will become, and you’ll find yourself correcting habitual mistakes proactively, and you should also see an improvement in the quality of the images that you make.

Never Stop Asking Questions!

One last thought before we wrap up though is that it’s important to never stop asking questions.  Once you are comfortable with your processes and the checklist has become mostly automatic, add more questions. Stay curious, and always try to push your photography to the next level. It doesn’t matter how accomplished we become, there is always a higher ground that we can strive to reach.

Show Notes

Craft & Vision’s PHOTOGRAPH magazine Issue #5

Music by Martin Bailey


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