Photography Lessons – can you paint a Monet?

You can buy a paintbrush and a canvas for £10 – but can you paint a Monet?

Examples of photographs taken for lessons
Examples of photographs taken for lessons

Copyright Cheshire Portrait Photography CPP220316








Christine came to me with a simple request – “I want to take some amazing photos of my kids, can you teach me how?” She pointed at her lovely new Canon 650D SLR, as if to say – “make it work, please, Peter..”.

“Yes, I can teach you”, I said, “But first we have to put the camera down”.

First lesson of photography – put the camera down and let’s talk about light.

Light. It’s all about the light. When we look at pictures, our brain is used to seeing the world with only one light source – the sun. Before I take a picture, I look, where’s the sun? Where’s the light coming from? Is it direct light, diffuse light? Where’s the person in relation to the light? The digital age is great, it’s given us instant access to photography through our smartphone, right here right now. But ‘owning a Nikon camera doesn’t make you a photographer – it makes you a Nikon camera owner’, as they say.

Budding photographers, read on…

  • I sat down with Christine to talk about light, and showed how a camera is designed to capture that light, with the 3 linked elements of sensor, shutter, aperture. We looked at how they interact. The camera started to make more sense and became less threatening.
  • We looked at how you can use the light from the sun to shape and tone an image; use of window as a lightbox (see the attached photo as an example), positioning, shade vs direct light, modelling the light. Colour or black & white.
  • We then looked at simple techniques of how to position your subject, how to blur the background, how to relax the subject; good locations and those to avoid. No need for fancy props, just your home and some creative thinking and tips.
  • Finally, as kids are usually fast, we looked at how to take great action photos and sports photos; for once, the camera setting can be extremely useful for these type of shots, so we looked at the correct settings for this.

We took the camera off the green ‘AUTO’ setting and practiced the theory with coaching and feedback from me, the digital screen giving us instant feedback as we tried out different techniques. I think I heard the 650D actually purring..

“The first million photographs are the hardest; then it gets a little easier” – Julian Calder’s first words in his 1980’s book ‘The 35mm photographer’s handbook’ – a book written in the days of film, when you had 36 chances to get the light right, and didn’t know until a few days later when the prints came back through the post.

  • Which, in essence, means that Christine’s photo lesson was the starting point – but here the fun starts, because she now sees the light differently, she can control it, tame the camera and use it as a valve, not a pump – open the photography floodgates, Christine, I can’t wait to see your amazing images of your kids real soon! Welcome to the amazing world of photography, combined with a bit of camera ownership…

Want to be a photographer, not a camera owner?

Photography Lessons with Cheshire Portrait Photography

Contact me to book your own personal 1:1 photography lesson. I offer a wide range of lessons, from beginner to advanced, photo technique to digital darkroom, SLR to Smartphone, starting from as little as £50. Great idea for a birthday or Christmas gift where I can provide a certificate with an envelope!).

Here are some of my lesson formats; all are 1:1 lessons at a convenient location, most usually my studio, but we can often meet on location, too.

  • Introduction to photography – 1:1 lesson – use of light, understanding digital cameras, photo techniques in an easy 1:1 coaching environment.
  • Smartphone photography – or how to increase your Facebook Likes that say, wow, great pic what camera do you use, must be expensive?
  • Intermediate photography – deeper look into photography techniques, wide angle vs telephoto, shutter vs aperture priority, histograms and other useful buttons…
  • Advanced photography – guide to specific genres of photography, e.g. wild-life, landscape, sports, etc.
  • Introduction to the digital darkroom – Adobe Lightroom introduction; how to use this amazing product to truly transform your photography, whether you have a small or large camera.
  • Advanced digital darkroom – Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop; getting under the hood; colour management, optimum workflows, layers, photo-editing, etc.
  • Working with flash – how to work with speedlights and why I always use flash for beach photos…
  • Your personalised bespoke lesson – I can tailor any lesson to meet your specific needs; contact me to have a chat.

How to contact me:

Facebook – search Cheshire Portrait Photography or Messenger me


…and I’ll get right back to you with my diary open, ready to book your 1:1 lesson.



Is 35mm Film the new Vinyl 12″ ?

Nikon EM circa 1982

So I bought a new camera – the 20- year old Nikon EM. 

I just read the following BBC article about the resurgence of film as a photography genre; a really good article about how a photographer in Baltimore is using film to document local life there.

It reminded me of a personal blog article I did 3 years ago, which I replicate here…it gives my own experiences of going back to the future!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The other week I bought a new camera – a 20+ year old Nikon EM 35mm film camera with original 50mm 1.8 SE lens and motor drive off Ebay. Why? Well, it was the first ever Nikon I bought and I think I’m starting my mid-life crisis that’s why..(and yes, I should never have part-exed it in the first place in 1986…).

My first experience of a film camera was my mum & dad’s Kodak Brownie; I took a picture of my dog, Bruce, running in the garden; I remember waiting a week for the return of the processed image and being really frustrated and confused that he was blurred in the final print; that’s when my photography journey started, I bought ‘The Puffin Book of Photography’ through the school book club and learned about F-stops, depth of field, shutter and apertures; just fantastic stuff. My first true SLR was the Russian-made Zenith EM with a behemoth 50mm brass screw fit lens; this was a revolutionary camera in that it had TTL metering (the Zenit E had an external light meter above the lens so the EM was a major advance in technology). It was a totally manual camera and I earned (yes earned not learned) the tools of my future trade with this unit. And you could have stopped a bus with it.

So, armed with the ‘new’ Nikon I put a roll of Ilford FP4 B/W film in (for those who are not old enough Google it…), took the kids to the re-opening of Queens Park Crewe and pressed the shutter. My experiences were as follows:

  • You have to think really hard about pressing the shutter as you only have 36 chances.
  • You have to wind on the film manually after each exposure with a lever, otherwise if you forget, you miss the next shot. This is why I loved the auto-winder – it was such progress, although if you weren’t careful you ended up having a couple of duplicate exposures as the winder double-kicked. 34 chances, then..
  • You have to manually focus the lens – try that without glasses..

  • You have to wind the film back when done, open the back of the camera, put film in a small box to protect from light.

  • You have to post it off to get developed and wait 2 weeks before you could actually see the final images.

    In my school days I processed a lot of b/w film and produced enprints from the massive pro-enlarger that was in the physics class darkroom (OK it was a cupboard..). A good education on dodging, burning and exposure timings which really helped me in my future digital darkroom. In the 1980s I bought a complete series of the magazine ‘The Photo’ (and still have every copy in a bound series at home). This was the film photographer’s bible; I used to drool over the developing kit printed in this mag and the processing articles were exquisite! I remember getting the mag on a Saturday morning, drooling over the article over the weekend and running straight to the darkroom Monday after school to try the new technique; we all dreamed of being able to process colour C41 negs, but we never got the chance, that really was ‘pro’ stuff. I suppose that’s probably why I chose to put the FP4 in the camera over colour film for my first try.

    The prints that came back from Ilford were really nice; they were packaged in a little presentation box and had a lustre to them that only film-produced prints have. Perhaps it was the age of the camera, there was a little light leakage showing on the prints, which was easily fixed with some tape on the hinge for future shoots, plus the contrast was not to my personal liking. Without a ‘proper’ wet darkroom I resigned myself to scanning each print into the digital darkroom to crop and balance the exposure to see the images on the Mac…(try doing that 36 times..)


I loved it. My friend recently gave me a Practika SLR camera and lens set, I’m going to clean it up and give it a similar try, I think! Ironically the above primary image of the Nikon EM was taken with my iPad 2  – 1.2mp camera – it’s dreadful isn’t it! Shoulda used the Practika methinks!.

Owning a Nikon camera doesn’t make you a photographer – it makes you a Nikon camera owner… ergo, the digital era doesn’t make your photo’s any better – it just speeds up the disappointment if you don’t practice the former 🙂

Here are some of the results with the Nikon EM..

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Five in 5 – Moira Rae Carter – Artist

Moira Rae Carter - Five in 5

Click on image above to enlarge full screen; you can then further zoom; to return to the article press the back button on your browser

Five in 5 is a personal photography project to capture the essence of working professionals. 5 people, 5 photographs. Simple. Or is it? In the age of digital cameras, it is easy to click away on auto-setting, without truly thinking what, why or who you’re photographing, in the hope that ‘one’ image may come out right. My project aim is, therefore, for me to go back to the basic principles of photography from where I first started as a boy, reading ‘The Puffin Book of Photography’ – subject – light – situation – environment – moment. 5 elements of photography. 5 in Five.

As soon as I approached Moira’s Rae Carter’s house in Chester, blue picket fence drawn at the front, Morris Minor tucked on the drive, I knew I was going to have a colourful and eclectic day.

The interior of Moira’s house was not a studio – it was a living gallery. Wall to wall framed illustrations; litho and lino prints of frogs, swans, butterflies and tea pots; a corner filled with reference books and an unmissable hand-painted wall-mural of bright red, purple and pink tulips, masking an enigmatic secret door frame, altogether greeted me. And builder’s tea.

Straight to business with a few hand-held shots at ‘1.4 – 35mm in the vivid yellow kitchen with yet another window-softbox and Moira’s story began to unravel. Too good to be an art teacher eh? Should have been a seamstress by all accounts? Moira’s tales of her starting up, determined to be an art student, illustrating plants for Kew were conjoined by delicate hand illustrations that explained the intricacies of using her favourite artist pen, lino cutters and the real tools of her then new trade – her hands; today was going to be about hands. Her story was so interesting and the hands so mesmerising, I kept forgetting to press the shutter.

I was keen to light up the wallflowers, such was their presence and as Moira patiently posed for me while I tried different lighting positions, her story continued. As we repositioned by the bookshelves, the ‘Moths of the British Isles’ book became the first showcase textbook, then a book on plant illustrations with eloquent, wet-ink hand-notations, as we then stood by the front room window, softly lit by natural light. Then, upstairs to the studio room for more textbooks; ‘Lino Cuts by Claude Flight’, ‘Art in Nature’ – a particular favourite – each with their unique story and another peg in Moira’s journey as a fine illustration artist. Today was also about books – reference for the use of; inspiration for the taking from.

Moira had given up her ‘formal studio’ a while ago and settled for a neat office-studio upstairs with desk, bookcase and classical radio in the air. The true studio, though, was the house, was the gallery. I so wanted to capture every ornament, pin-cushion, butterfly and bee that surrounded me at every turn. How was I going to choose only 5 images today from this cornucopia of illustrations? My brain’s graphics card was using all it’s RAM today!

Focussed on getting the definitive wall-flowers in their best light, it was downstairs for a re-take; with so many frames on the wall, it was hard to avoid reflections of the softboxes, needing a fair bit of compromise and lens choice. 14mm just a bit too angular and difficult to light uniformly, 70mm a tad too close, so the 35mm 1.4G became yet again the workhorse of the day, allowing a tighter crop, this time at 1/125th and F8. Manual – so refreshing yet so unforgiving with TTL metering and 2 softboxes. Once again, while Moira posed, we just chatted about art, photography, textbooks, techniques; we could have stayed there all day.

My final selection – Five in 5

I knew from the moment I walked into the house it had to be Moira with the tulips as the key image. Vivid, graceful strokes from hands that not only know art, but know flora expertly. I took a fair few images of this wall; natural light making the wall too dark and the white background tinted by the yellow wash from the kitchen; flash light difficult to fill uniformly and a tendency to blend Moira into the 2-dimensions of the wall. I was learning my trade today, that’s for sure. The image I selected, I felt reflected Moira’s persona, her hands pointing to the tulips, stating to the World: ‘this is who I am and these are my tools’. Her manu propria tulipa.

I could have chosen dozens more images to capture Moira’s essence; sat, relaxed and confident in the natural light of the bright yellow kitchen, hands around the mug as if protecting her work-tools by keeping them warm; stood either by a window or bookshelf pointing at the reference illustrations; gesticulating and explaining the various techniques used to craft a specific print. How to distil these into only 4 more images? In my final analysis there were 2 themes jumping out at me.

The 2 images with books reflected the reference illustrations that were so key to Moira’s link with the past and the validation of her journey; one image from the hand-annotated book on plants from the soft window light, the other of Moira’s hands lovingly stroking the page from ‘Art in Nature’, the old friend.

The final 2 were close-ups of the hardened tools of Moira’s trade; balletic, illustrative, explanatory. What else but to depict an illustrator?

I forgot to ask what was behind the secret door whose frame hid between the tulip petals. Only the little door-keeper bee and Moira know. Still.

Five in 5 – it was indeed a privilege to have a private tour of the Moira Rae Carter living gallery.


Five in 5 – Jo Jenkins – Contemporary Artist

Jo Jenkins - Five in 5Click on image above to enlarge full screen; you can then further zoom; to return to the article press the back button on your browser

Five in 5 is a personal photography project to capture the essence of working professionals. 5 people, 5 photographs. Simple. Or is it? In the age of digital cameras, it is easy to click away on auto-setting, without truly thinking what, why or who you’re photographing, in the hope that ‘one’ image may come out right. My project aim is, therefore, for me to go back to the basic principles of photography from where I first started as a boy, reading ‘The Puffin Book of Photography’ – subject – light – situation – environment – moment. 5 elements of photography. 5 in Five.

Jo Jenkins – Behind the 5 Images

Jo Jenkins is a contemporary artist based in Chester. I met her through the Cheshire Artist Network. As I walked across the threshold of her home, her art greeted me in every corner of the house; beautiful large canvasses and prints with patterns, shades, abstracts that defined her artistic style convincingly.

As a photographer, I look at clarity; solidity; form. What surprised me was how Jo sees the world. As I observed one of her large paintings on the stairs wall, she described how there was an horizon of a hill, with the sky above and land below – where at first I only saw abstract shades, large colour patterns. Then, slowly, surely, as she described it more I began to see the hills and visualize the horizon as the image began to take 3 dimensions. So, Monsieur Photographe, light has shape even if abstract.

Jo’s studio is upstairs, with a natural softbox from the large window of the south-facing room that overlooked the Welsh hills. There will be no need for flash today, or so I thought. All around were in-progress canvasses on easels, with a noticeable array of mixed oil-paint swirls on upturned plastic container lids.

Jo showed me her ‘ideas board’. Her colour inspiration comes from her travels on walking holidays, from the Himalayas to Italy; photographs of far flung scenes adorned the pin-board. As I attached the 35mm 1.4G lens and held the viewfinder to my eye to take a basic headshot of Jo, I casually reviewed the bokeh of the ideas board on the camera screen – and then it all became clear to me – in the wide aperture blur, the colours of the post-cards matched her paintings – swatches of pastel colours, light and dark; shapes, horizons, troughs. Note to self – get me my own ideas board and start thinking shades not shapes.

In the corner by the window was an array of the usual paint tubes and brushes that you would expect to be there in an art studio; curiously, though, amongst them was an orderly line of labelled audiocassettes and a paint-splattered cassette player. Jo needs music to paint to. Cassettes have an eminently practical superiority over CDs to a painter, apparently – you can’t smudge an audiocassette ribbon as easily as paint-covered fingers can a CD. Would her auditory mix-tape match the oil-swatches, I thought?

And so to the task – Five in 5. The afternoon Spring sun bathed the room with natural light; it soon became apparent that I needed a fill-flash softbox to balance the contrasty shadows at the back of the room from the natural-light version. Using the 14-24mm at widest angle allowed me to capture Jo in her natural environment, at home in the middle of her canvasses, comfortable in her ‘painting slippers’. This lens can have unforgiving distortion at the slightest tilt, so I was careful to keep an eye on the electronic levels in-camera. Using live-view helped me hold the camera at waist level to give a uniform perspective, plus, it also helped me interact with Jo more easily without my face being hidden from the large square block of the D800.

As I experimented with angles, close-ups, standing-by-the-canvas-‘cos-she’s-a-painter-shots, I realized that Jo needed some space. Her paintings after all are of large abstract landscapes and vistas, so boxing her in didn’t feel right. She and they needed room to breathe, so 14mm was a good choice.

Before we knew it, our time was up and a cup of tea was kindly offered downstairs. We talked about portraiture, Jo showed me a classic book of portraits and we realised together how artists and photographers have a similar mission – to tell a story through our eyes in a standing image. The methodology may be different, but the need is identical.

Which Five in 5?

It’s often quite a task to sift through the loupe viewer to select one’s chosen images; with Jo it was easy – space, swatches, ideas, music.

My key image of Jo is a wide angle shot of her standing in the middle of her art, relaxed, satisfied. This image needed to fill the width of the final image block to give her the necessary space and presence with her paintings. Using the letterbox format I think accentuates this for the viewer; the controlled edge distortion of the left framed painting adds to this dimension.

The second is a key portrait of Jo’s face – showing how the natural light bathes the room, but deliberately in the background an anchor point of where it all starts – the bokeh’d ideas board.

For the remaining images I chose 2 images of the oil swatches; the first because I just liked the composition of the 2 round lids together; the second as it signified the journey from the table of swirls up and into the canvas painting.

The final image was of course the symbolic, audiocassette soldiers at attention, Jo’s indestructible muse.

Five in 5 – thank you Jo.