Using a Flat Picture Style for Better Finished Images

A Post By: Rick Berk

During my career in photography, I’ve continued to evolve, both my shooting and editing styles, to achieve the results I wanted. Several years ago, while working with film editors on a cinema project, I came across a concept that I decided to apply to my own photography, and I have to say, it has improved my final images a great deal. Let me explain about using flat picture styles.

Finished-Image

When Hollywood studios film a movie using a digital cinema camera, many times the camera will be set to record what is known as Log Gamma. This is similar to the picture styles that we DSLR and camera users have come to know and love. But while picture styles or picture controls are for the most part intended to provide a finished look, Log Gamma does just the opposite. A video file shot using Log Gamma will be very flat, with little contrast and color saturation. The purpose of shooting video this way, is so that it retains as much information as possible about the range of tones in the image, so the colorists who work on the video later can bring out that detail, and create a visual look to the film. This process is called color grading.

As I began to understand what the colorists were doing, I adjusted my workflow to allow me to take advantage of the same concepts. I find that by using a flat, low contrast, low saturation picture style, when I process the RAW file I can bring out better detail and contrast, and avoid clipping in the highlights and shadows.

Choosing a Flat Picture Style

Before Image With Histogram

A flat or neutral picture style will give you an image with the least contrast, maintaining better highlight and shadow detail. This allows you to bring out those details in processing. The histogram on your camera, and later in Photoshop or Lightroom, allows you to see where your highlight and shadow tones fall, to avoid clipping.

I had been shooting RAW for some time, but have left the Picture Style set to Standard or Landscape, for the most part. Once I saw this technique, I decided to change my picture style on my camera to Neutral (for Canon cameras) or Flat (on newer Nikons).

Canon Picture Style

Canon Picture Style

The reason is that the histogram shown on the back of the camera, as well as the image preview, reflect the selected picture style. The result is that if the picture style selected is a more contrasty one, such as Landscape, the histogram will reflect that, and may indicate clipping of highlights or shadows, especially in a contrasty scene.

Clipped Histogram

This histogram shows clipped highlights, meaning detail is lost in the brightest areas of the image.

On my Nikon D810, I use the Flat picture control, because it is the best choice for capturing the full range of tones in the scene, and those tones are reflected on the histogram on the back of the camera when I review the shots. This is important because I need an accurate indication of where the highlights and shadows in a scene fall in my histogram.

Nikon 810 Flat Picture Control

Nikon 810 Flat Picture Control

Nikon picture control

Nikon picture control – if you do not have Flat, choose Neutral or Faithful

The histogram on your camera is a graphed indication of where the pixels in your image fall in relation to highlights and shadows. The left edge represents blacks, the mid-left represents shadows, the middle is midtones, the mid-right is highlights, and the far right is whites. While not all cameras have a Flat picture control or style, most have a Neutral or Faithful picture style or control, that works similarly. Also, most cameras give you the ability to edit the picture styles, so you can turn down the contrast if you like, ensuring that you capture more highlight and shadow detail, and reducing the chances of clipping highlights or shadows.

When you clip highlights, objects in the scene that are clipped will show as pure white with no detail. When shadows are clipped, objects in those areas will show as pure black in the scene, also with no detail. When viewing the histogram, if the squiggly lines that make up the graph are pushed up against either the left or the right side, that is called clipping. When that happens, you are losing detail in the shadows if it’s pushed against the left, and in the highlights if the graph is pushed against the right. By reducing the contrast in the picture style, you’ll reduce the chances of losing detail in the scene.

Shooting RAW, and knowing I’ll be making adjustments in post, it doesn’t really matter what picture style I use, because I can change that when processing the RAW file. But it’s essential to be able to see an accurate histogram on my camera, to ensure I’ve captured as much tonal range as possible.

Processing the RAW File

Image photographed using flat picture control

This image was shot using the Flat picture control, and then the highlight and shadow sliders in Adobe Camera RAW were adjusted to further reduce contrast.

Once I begin processing the RAW file, I’ll do even more, if necessary, to flatten the image and compress the range of tones within the histogram. This includes using the Highlights and Shadows sliders in Adobe Camera RAW to bring out details on both ends of the histogram.  You can watch the histogram change in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom as you do so, to be sure you don’t go too far. If the highlights begin to look muddy, you’ve gone too far. By the same token, if the shadows start to look washed out, that’s probably too far as well. You want to maintain detail in each, but not lose the depth of tone completely. It’s important to note that this adjustment will vary for different images, depending on where the highlights and shadows fall in the images.

In addition to adjusting the highlights, shadows, and contrast here, I will use the Dehaze slider, Lens Correction, and Spot Removal brush in Adobe Camera RAW. If you prefer, you can use the Vibrance, Saturation, and Adjustment Brush to complete the image in Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom, but my preference is to work in Photoshop. There I can use a Layers workflow along with masking and Adjustment Layers and with various plugins, to achieve my final image.

Building Up Color and Contrast

Using Adjustment Layers

Using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop, I built up the color saturation and contrast to achieve the final image.

Once I have the image at the desired level of flatness, I then go about building up color saturation and contrast, or in Hollywood terms, color grading my image. After bringing the image into Photoshop, there are a number of ways you can go about this. The first is to use adjustment layers so that you can continually adjust each layer as desired, until you flatten the image for your final output. In addition, if you’re making an adjustment that you only want to apply in certain areas, you can use layer masks to hide or reveal it as desired.

Many of these adjustments will be to personal taste. I personally prefer my images to have punchy color and contrast. So a set of adjustment layers I might use would be Vibrance, Exposure, Hue/Saturation, Curves, and Exposure.  The flexibility of using adjustment layers allows me to direct adjustments where I need them, rather than being forced to make them globally.

Image processed with Nik Color Efex Pro

This is the same image, but I used Nik Color Efex Pro to achieve the final image instead of adjustment layers.

If adjustment layers aren’t your thing, perhaps using a plugin such as Google’s Nik Efex Pro. It’s now available at no cost, and is a software package I highly recommend. I’ve created several presets in Color Efex Pro, and will also use Viveza and its control points to further adjust my image. For landscapes, in Color Efex I have created a preset using Brilliance/Warmth, Pro Contrast, Skylight Filter, Detail Extractor, and Vignette:Lens, that I find to be pleasing for a majority of my landscape images. Depending on the image, I will tweak these settings to meet my vision.

Summing Up

Before and After

On the left is the image with its tones flattened and desaturated, using a Flat picture control and adjusting highlights and shadows as needed. On the right is the image fully processed building contrast and color saturation.

By starting with a flattened file, you give yourself room in the range of tones to build contrast and saturation, without clipping highlights, shadows, or any of the color channels. While shooting with a more finished picture style may look more pleasing on the camera’s LCD screen, or upon import into Lightroom or Photoshop, the contrast has already been adjusted to give it a pleasing look. Any adjustments to Saturation or color may result in a file that at the very least looks overcooked, and at worst, shows evidence of clipping highlights, shadows, or color channels.

An image showing before and after color grading.

On the right is the image with the flat picture style, while the left has been “color graded” in Photoshop.

Building-contrast-2

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

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Weekly Photography Challenge – Wide Angle

A Post By: Darlene Hildebrandt

Shooting with a wide angle can be challenging – to create an image that is engaging and has a good focal point. Check out these examples.

Magnus Wrenninge

By Magnus Wrenninge

Aotaro

By aotaro

Here is some help for you if you need ideas:

Lee

By lee

Mariusz Kluzniak

By mariusz kluzniak

Giuseppe Milo

By Giuseppe Milo

Share your images below:

Simply upload your shot into the comment field (look for the little camera icon in the Disqus comments section) and they’ll get embedded for us all to see or if you’d prefer upload them to your favourite photo sharing site and leave the link to them. Show me your best images in this week’s challenge. Sometimes it takes a while for an image to appear so be patient and try not to post the same image twice.

Share in the dPS Facebook Group

You can also share your images on the dPS Facebook group as the challenge is posted there each week as well.

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Darlene Hildebrandt is the Managing Editor of dPS. She is also an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles, online photography classes, and travel tours. Get her free ebook 10 Photography Challenges to help you take better pictures or save $50 OFF on her Photo tour to Nicaragua – by using the discount code: dps50nica and join her on an adventure of a lifetime!

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15 Expansive Wide Angle Images

A Post By: Darlene Hildebrandt

Wide angle lenses provide a very different view of the world than what your eye sees. They are inclusive, meaning the viewer feels like they are included in the image – like they could step into it.

These photographers have used the wide angle optics to great advantage – see if you enjoy them as much as I did:

Dave Wild

By Dave Wild

Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

By Stròlic Furlàn – Davide Gabino

Indigo Skies Photography

By Indigo Skies Photography

Meg

By meg

David Tomic

By David Tomic

Mark Iocchelli

By Mark Iocchelli

Giuseppe Milo

By Giuseppe Milo

Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

By Stròlic Furlàn – Davide Gabino

Pablo Fernández

By Pablo Fernández

Guillaume DELEBARRE (Guigui-Lille)

By Guillaume DELEBARRE (Guigui-Lille)

Paulo Valdivieso

By Paulo Valdivieso

Lenny K Photography

By Lenny K Photography

Fs999

By fs999

Fs999

By fs999

Emmanuel Huybrechts

By Emmanuel Huybrechts

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Darlene Hildebrandt is the Managing Editor of dPS. She is also an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles, online photography classes, and travel tours. Get her free ebook 10 Photography Challenges to help you take better pictures or save $50 OFF on her Photo tour to Nicaragua – by using the discount code: dps50nica and join her on an adventure of a lifetime!

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How to Be Different and Make Your Photography More Unique

A Post By: James Maher

When starting on the path of learning photography, it is common for some to already have an idea about what their work is supposed to look like. They admire and look at the work of photographers and want to be able to do similar work themselves. While this is an important part of the learning process, the best photographers all eventually go off in their own direction, and creatively it’s very important to think in this way. You want your work to ultimately be different. Here are some steps to help you figure out how to go against the grain and make your photography more unique.

Soaring, 42nd Street, NYC

Soaring, 42nd Street, NYC.

1. Put your own spin on things you’ve learned

Yosemite, Broadway, New York.

Yosemite, Broadway, New York.

You cannot go against the grain if you don’t first understand the traditional techniques of photography. Take all of the photographers that you admire and teach yourself how to do what they did. Take the best aspects from all of them, whether it be content matter, lighting, exposure, overall look, or other technical skills, and integrate them into your own work. Become a hybrid of them all.

These photographers came before you for a reason, and it’s a luxury to be able to learn from them. You can still go in your own direction, however, you first need to create the foundation to be able to do that in the right way.

2. Don’t be afraid of people not liking your work

It is normal to feel like you need to cater to everyone’s interests. Obviously, you want to create work that a group of people enjoy, but try not to think about that at the beginning. No matter what you do, someone is not going to like your work, and probably more than a few people.

New York.

New York.

The problem with chasing likes, is that you end up playing the game of popularity. You look at what photography succeeds the most on social media websites, at what gains the most wows, and it’s easy to think that it is the best photography, and that is what you need to do as well. However, what you are really doing is conforming to work that has already been done before many times. You end up creating work so common that it is a dime a dozen. The most popular looks right now are the ones that are the easiest to achieve, with a medium amount of technical proficiency. You can do better.

There is no need to photograph for the purpose of getting likes. Seek out critiques and understand how people feel about your work, but your first aim should be to create work that means something to you. If you take everything else out of the equation, which of your images do you like the best? What has the most meaning behind it for you? This is often not a logical feeling. Rationally, you might think that a certain image is your best, but your gut may give a hint at something else.

Follow your gut. Follow your instincts. Search through your archive, and find work that you’re afraid of showing. That is usually the best stuff. Put it front and center, and develop the ideas of that work further.

3. Take some technical risks

Trump Towers, New York.

Trump Towers, New York.

Try out as many alternatives to the traditional way of doing things as you can. Shoot in bad light, experiment with blurry photos, or create weird and off-kilter compositions. Make bright or dark images. Embrace imperfection and ambiguity. Not everything has to be beautiful.

Shoot in a more spontaneous way and follow your gut. Go to places that you normally wouldn’t explore, and take images. Shoot during your daily life. Force yourself to go to the most mundane place you can think of, and figure out how to create an interesting photograph there.

4. Think about, and create, exactly what you like

Intimate work is what makes great art. Think about ideas and subjects that you are passionate about, and explore them. Create nuanced work, and don’t be afraid if people don’t understand it right away. They probably won’t at first. Particularly if you are showing your work on the Internet, people scan so quickly, and they usually respond to what pops out at them in the most obvious way. Nuanced, thoughtful, and intimate work might not catch their eye right away. Experiment with this type of work and forget about how people might react to it.

Sample Sale, SoHo, New York.

Sample Sale, SoHo, New York.

What are you interested in? Maybe it is nature, sports, politics, identity, community, Pokemon, or a particular place nearby. Create a story. It literally could be anything. Think about what you are most interested in, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, and see if you can figure out a way to combine that with photography.

Next, create a series based on your idea. This type of work displays extremely well in a series format, because you can cover more ground, tell more of a story, and people will take the time to go through it. It will be easier for them to understand the idea more as they explore, whereas their brain will often glaze over or miss the idea in a single image.

5. Educate people

There is a common misconception that you need to let art speak for itself. This is very true on one level, because great art will allow people to ponder, and to interpret it in different ways, without anything pushing that. However, people will often need to be grounded at some level, to let them start to understand the work and delve deeper into it in the first place. Then they can more effectively explore, and get lost in the work and their thoughts about it.

Broadway, New York.

Broadway, New York.

Writing about your work is important, because a good introduction will set people on the path to gaining pleasure from the work, without you having to say too much about it. Hold some information back of course. No need to over-share.

The bottom line

Going against the grain means you can do your photography in any way that you please, and you don’t even have to take the advice here. This is just to get you started thinking uniquely and experimenting, and as the photography quote goes, “If everyone is looking one way, look the other way.”

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

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3 Tips for Taking Better Motorsport Photos

A Post By: Rhys Vandersyde

If you’re a fan of motorsport, then you’ve probably tried to take photo of a race car on the track. It’s not as easy as it looks is it? The high speed nature of motorsport photography tests even the best photographers and cameras. So it takes a special skill set to move your motorsport photos up to the next level.

Taking a photo of a car on track is one thing, but if you’d like to add one or more of the following elements to your photos, you’ll start to create some special images. So make sure you keep these three things in mind next time you are at a race track shooting motorsport: speed, action and emotion.

DPS Panning 001

#1 Speed

One of the biggest things that draws people to motorsport is the speed. If you’d like your photos to stand out, you need to showcase that speed in your photos. The photographic technique for doing this is called panning.

Panning is basically using a slow shutter speed to introduce motion blur into your photos. The easiest way to do this, is to focus on a particular point of the car, and move your camera in a smooth motion in the same direction as the car. This will keep the car nice and sharp, and blur out the background.

I would recommend that you start with a shutter speed of around 1/200th of second. As it takes a lot of practice to get a nice smooth motion. As you improve your technique and grow in confidence, you can progress to slower shutter speeds.

DPS Panning 002

Panning is one of the hardest techniques in photography. It takes a lot of practice to get it right. The slower the shutter speed, the less likely you are to get the car sharp in the photo. But the trade off is a more dramatic the effect when you do get it right.

Just remember that not even the professionals get every shot perfect, though they may not admit it. But once you have mastered the art of panning, you can look to add some more creativity to your shots by panning through objects, or using interesting angles.

DPS Panning 003

#2 Action

Getting a photo of one car on track is great. But those action moments are what really tell the story of the race.

Ideally you want to be on the look out for the moments when two or three cars are jostling for position. Usually in the opening laps of a race. Shots of the race leaders fighting for the lead will give your photographic story more definition.

To capture those actions moments, you will want to position yourself at one of the slower corners of the track. One that encourages passing. To do this you’ll need to be familiar with the venue. Each and every track is different.

DPS Action 001

Photographically, you’ll be looking to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. I would recommend using a shutter speed of 1/1000th at a minimum. Although the speed really all depends on how fast the cars are traveling at that section of the track.

Now, since you are freezing the action, you’ll still want to make the cars still look fast. To do this you will need to hide the wheels of the cars. Either shooting the cars directly front on, or from behind. Hiding the lack of motion in the wheels will give the cars a sense of speed, while still showcasing the action.

DPS Action 002

DPS Action 003

#3 Emotion

Motorsport, much like all sports, has high highs and low lows. That is reflected in the emotions you’ll see around the race track.

To complete a photographic story of the race, you’ll need to capture either the fans, teams, or drivers celebrating victory. That could be a victory burnout, it could be driver waving to the crowd, or it could be the team applauding as their driver crosses the checkered flag.

DPS Emotion 001

While the highs are good, the lows also tell an equal part of the story. It could be a crash between two competitors. It could be a driver walking away from his broken down car. These all add up to telling the story of the race.

Unfortunately, it takes a little bit of luck to capture the emotion in motorsport. That’s why these shots are the most rewarding.

Photographically these emotional moments take split second decisions to capture. If you’re photographing a driver doing a burnout, you’ll need to quickly drop the shutter speed to showcase some motion in the wheels. but not so much that the car starts the blur. I’d suggest something along the lines of 1/250th.

For capturing other celebrations, which are often just fleeting moments. I’d recommend a high shutter speed and wide aperture to create shallow depth of field to draw focus to the part of the celebration that tells the best story.

DPS Emotion 002

Summary

If you can keep those three things in mind while you are taking photos trackside, you’ll take your motorsport photos to the next level. Then you’ll really telling the story of an event, instead of just capturing cars on a track.

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Rhys Vandersyde is an Australian based motorsport and automotive Photographer. Documenting his travels as he covers events all over Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more about his photography portfolio and his travels.

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How to Find Great Backgrounds for Outdoor Portraits

A Post By: Andrew S. Gibson

Outdoor portrait photography involves going outside, and utilizing the beauty (or the ugliness) of your surroundings. You probably already know some local beauty spots, and can think of some good places to take portraits right away. But once you start observing your local area with the aim of making portraits in mind, you will begin to see the potential, even in mundane locations. But how do you find great backgrounds for outdoor portraits?

Portrait taken outdoors

Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. What lens are you going to use?

This is important because, broadly speaking, there are two different ways to take portraits. Both involve the use of different types of lenses.

The first is to to use a wide-angle lens to take an environmental portrait. This may be documentary in approach, or it may be more fashion or beauty orientated. Either way, the idea is that you use a wide-angle lens to take a portrait, and that the setting is as important as the model.

The second is to use a longer focal length, and shoot with a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. In this situation the requirements for the background are different, because you are looking for something that looks good out of focus. Also, because longer lenses have a narrower angle of view, you are using less of the setting in your portrait.

Of course, it is more than likely that you can find opportunities to take both types of portraits, in the same setting. You may also make up your mind, once you have scouted a location and assessed its potential. But it helps immensely if you know what your approach to the shoot will be, while searching for a spot to shoot.

These two portraits show the differences in the two approaches. The first was taken with a 40mm lens (on a full-frame camera), and shows the setting as well as the model. The second was taken with an 85mm lens (also on a full-frame camera) and shows much less of the setting.

Portraits taken outdoors

2. Where does the light fall?

Some photographers tend to shoot portraits entirely in natural light; others use flash to supplement it. Whichever approach you take, it is still important to assess the quality of the light in your given location.

Take into account the time of day you plan to do the shoot. To take full advantage of natural light you should aim to shoot in late afternoon or evening, during the golden hour, when the sun is close to the horizon. For this reason it helps if you do your scouting at the same time of day, so you can see how the location looks in this beautiful light.

Another option is to take photos on a bright sunny day, but in the shade. The light bounces off nearby surfaces, which acts as a giant reflector. This is another type of natural light with beautiful qualities.

Alternatively, you might like to shoot on a cloudy day. This means that time of day is not so important, but it does mean that the light is most likely to come from above, and may create shadows under your model’s eyes and chin. In this situation you can use a reflector or fill-flash to minimize shadows. So think about whether there is room to set up a light-stand (if using flash) or for somebody to stand and hold a reflector (if using natural light).

This photo was taken in Wellington Botanical Gardens, and the model is illuminated by light coming from above, through the tree tops. As she is in costume, I thought the direction of the light was reminiscent of a spotlight on a stage, and appropriate to the style of portrait. I used a short telephoto lens (85mm, full-frame camera) to separate the model from the background.

Portrait taken outdoors

3. Use a smartphone to take photos

You can use a smartphone to take photos of locations to help you remember what they look like. Of course, you can do this with any camera, but the advantage of a smartphone is that most of them have GPS, and this helps you remember, and find, the exact location again later. This could be important if you are out in the countryside somewhere. There is nothing more frustrating than finding a great place to take some portraits, then not being able to remember where it is.

You could also import the photos into a specific Collection in Lightroom, and go to the Maps module to see the locations displayed on a map.

Here are some types of location you can search for. Remember, it’s important to think about what type of lens you are going to use for your portraits, as well as to assess the quality of light.

Backgrounds by the coast

Any location by the sea is full of potential. The same place can look very different every day, thanks to changing tides, weather patterns, and light. If the coastline is rugged, look for locations where you can use the rocks and cliffs as a background. Each bay or beach has its own character, so get out and explore. You are likely to find a good variety of beautiful locations, even in a relatively small area.

This photo was taken on a local beach, which has become one of my favorite locations for taking portraits, using a 40mm lens on a full-frame camera. This lens has a slightly wider angle of view than a 50mm standard lens, and allowed me to include a little of the beautiful location, but still make the model the focal point of the photo.

Portrait taken outdoors

Graffiti backgrounds

It may be bit of a cliche, but there’s no doubt that graffiti or street art, can make an interesting and colorful background.

This photo was taken on a local beach with a graffiti covered, concrete bunker in the background. I used an 85mm lens (on a full-frame camera) to include just a little of the artwork in the frame.

Portrait taken outdoors

Field and forest backgrounds

Fields and woodlands often make good locations for taking portraits, especially in the spring and summer. Fields of flowers are gorgeous locations. Try using a telephoto lens, and shooting through the flowers so they are out of focus.

The light in a forest is usually most suitable for portraits on a cloudy day. The light is soft, and unlike on a sunny day, your camera can easily cope with the brightness range. The one thing to watch out for is the direction of light. It comes from above, through the trees, and is highly directional. You will have to search for the places where gaps in the trees let light through. You may have to use a reflector to fill in the shadows created by the top light, or ask your model to tilt her face toward the light.

On sunny days, try shooting at the end of the day, when the light is softer, and use backlighting.

This portrait was taken on a cloudy day, in a thick forest where not much light penetrated through the trees. We found a clearing next to a large tree that we were able to use as a background. I used an 85mm lens (full-frame camera) to pull the tree in close to the model, and exclude most of the forest from the frame.

Portrait taken outdoors

Local buildings for backgrounds

Keep an eye out for local buildings with public access that you can use for photos. I’m not talking about busy locations, as they are difficult places to work, unless both you and your model are very experienced. Let me give you some examples.

Here’s an abandoned boat shed on a lonely beach. 

outdoor-portrait-locations-12

Test shot

outdoor-portrait-locations-13

This is the portrait we made at that location.

The second example is a graffiti covered concrete bunker left over from WWII.

Test shot.

Test shot.

Here’s a portrait we made there.

Here’s a portrait we made there.

In both examples I used a small part of the building as a background. You can see the same technique in the other photos in this article. The idea is to make sure the background complements the model in your portraits, and doesn’t overwhelm her.

Summary

The outdoors is a bit like a giant stage set, just waiting for you and your model to use. Wherever you live, I am sure that there are plenty of great locations for portrait photography nearby. It’s just a matter of learning to spot their potential, and thinking about which lens (or lenses) you will use for your portraits. 

Share some of your images from your favorite spots in the comments below.


Mastering Lenses

If you want to know more about buying and using lenses then please check out my ebook Mastering Lenses: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Beautiful Photos With Any Lens.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

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How to Control and Modify Your Lighting With Flags

A Post By: John McIntire

Lighting can be a complicated subject. From light sources, to modifiers, and color temperature, there are so many things to take into consideration. You probably know of many ways to alter your light with reflectors and diffusers.

However, what do you do when you have too much light, or the light isn’t behaving the way you need to produce your final image? You could start from scratch and choose a different light source and modifier, or you could opt for a different setup altogether. There is another way – flags.

how-to-modify-light-with-flags-5218final

Like diffusers and reflectors, flags are a tool that are used to control light. While diffusers control the shape and softness of light, and reflectors control the shape, intensity and direction (often acting as an additional light source), flags give you the ability to remove, or block light from your scene.

Another use of flags is to alter the size and shape of your modifier. For example you can block off a portion of a softbox to turn it into a striplight. They are also useful when working with reflective surfaces to control or block unwanted reflections.

This article will break down the basic use of flags to control where light falls in a scene. To do this, we’ll go through the step by step process of creating an image which employs the careful manipulation of a single light source.

The purpose of using a small, tabletop subject is so you can repeat the exact steps at home, in your own time.

What are flags?

At the most basic, flags are anything that can used to block or cut light from anywhere it isn’t wanted. Have you ever closed a blind or a curtain to block glare from a television screen? That blind is acting as a flag. Another example would be the sun visor in your car. What other examples can you think of? These instances from day to day life can help you figure out the use of flags much quicker.

Although you can use almost anything dark as a flag, the most common items are black paper and foamcore. Also, most 5-in-1 reflectors come with a black side that’s intended as a flag (see links above for some options).

Foamcore is one of the more useful things you can use, as it comes in a variety of thicknesses making it rigid, and it’s easy to cut to any shape and size you might need. It is also easily obtainable (visit any art supply store) and quite cheap.

Helpful things to have

As you will see in this demonstration, it can be very precarious to get your bits of foamcore to stay in place. An easy solution is to get a bunch of clamps to hold your flags. I cannot recommend this enough.

Other things that will help you position your flags include Blue-Tac, toothpicks, Popsicle sticks and tape.

Building an image

When you are working on an image that has many steps as part of the setup process, it’s important to take your time and build up your image one step at a time. Start with putting your subject in place and choosing your composition. From there, you can pick how you want to light it. Once those three things are in place, you can add or take away from the scene one step at a time, ensuring things are perfect before you move on to the next step.

Fun with flags

Step 1 – Set-up

As mentioned, this process will start with a wide crop to better illustrate how the light changes. The first task is to arrange the subject and light in the desired position, and calculate the exposure. For this shot, I intend to push the highlights of the subject to just below their limit, so the flags can be used to darken the background and achieve a very high contrast look in the final image.

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Original setup, no flags used.

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Step 2 – first flag for background control

Even though that is a good start, there are some things that can be done to improve this image. The first thing that needs to be tackled is the large negative space in the left hand side of the image. The background matches the subject in tone and color, so bringing down the exposure on the background will help to separate the two.

This is achieved by bringing in a large piece of black foamcore and holding it in front of the light. By watching where the shadows fall, you can figure out exactly where your flag needs to be to reduce the exposure on the background, without affecting your subject. Once that place is found, the flag can be mounted in place and another test shot taken.

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First flag placed to strategically block light from falling on the background.

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Notice how much darker the left side of the image is, but the exposure on the subject has not changed.

Step 3 – place second flag for further light control

With the left side darkened, the next bit of concern is the area of background to the right of and behind, the subject. Again, it’s a matter of bringing in a piece of foam core and moving it around while watching the shadows and making sure the subject is still lit. Once that’s achieved, clamp or hold the flag in place and take another test shot.

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Step 4

With all the flags in place, this image isn’t quite finished. Because the background has been darkened so much, the shadow side of the subject now doesn’t stand out as much as it did in the initial setup. You can fix this with a reflector. In this case, I used a strip of white foamcore, just out of the frame to camera right. This fills in the shadows, creating an extra amount of separation between the subject and the background.

how-to-modify-light-with-flags-reflector

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Final image

With these techniques, you are taking your time to build up a scene, and controlling every bit of light that your camera records. This control, when done right, should result in well crafted images that need very little attention in post-production. In this example, this image needed a small crop, a couple small local contrast adjustments, and a high pass filter. That took all of a minute to achieve, thanks to the amount of time spent working in camera.

Before

Before flags and lighting control

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Final image with the use of flags and a reflector to control the light, and minimal post-processing.

Moving on

Once you try this for yourself, you should quickly see how flags can be a huge help when trying to control lighting in your photography. Although this tutorial focuses on a small subject, flags can be used to great effect in all manner of genres where you have the opportunity to control light. This is especially true with portraiture. So, when you have the hang of it with a small subject, don’t be afraid to think bigger.

Please feel free to have a go at this technique yourself and share your questions and your results below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram and 500px

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Using the Canon Camera Connect app

The introduction of Wi-fi into Canon’s DSLRs and PowerShot models has opened up new possibilities when it comes to shooting and sharing our images.

Over the years, we’ve seen Canon release a few different apps for its users of DSLRs and PowerShot models that feature Wi-fi technology.

In the past, if you wanted to control your Wi-fi- enabled Canon camera remotely, you needed to download the EOS Remote app onto your mobile device, whereas if you wanted to view, share and save your images onto a smartphone or tablet you were required to install another app called Canon Camera Window.

It didn’t take long for Canon to realise that it would be far more useful if they could take the best from both apps and consolidate them into one. Camera Connect is now the main app endorsed by Canon and it blends the functionality of remote shooting with the option to save images straight to a mobile device.

This is great news if you’d like to share images with others via email or social media, and best of all, it’s intuitive and quick to learn. In this guide we’ll take a closer look at all of its key settings and features so you can get the very best from it.

These screengrabs show the intuitive layout of the app. The two images to the left show the ISO scale, shutter button and adjustable AF point in the centre. The third image from the left illustrates one of the two views we’re given when working in the ‘images on camera’ area of the app. The shot on the far right shows what the progress bar looks like when images are being transferred and saved to an iPhone

These screengrabs show the intuitive layout of the app. The two images to the left show the ISO scale, shutter button and adjustable AF point in the centre. The third image from the left illustrates one of the two views we’re given when working in the ‘images on camera’ area of the app. The shot on the far right shows what the progress bar looks like when images are being transferred and saved to an iPhone

Connecting to the app

To use the Camera Connect app you’ll first need to pair your DSLR with your mobile device. This might sound simple, but there are a series of steps you’ll want to follow to ensure you get connected quickly. Firstly, you’ll want to head into your camera’s menu and enable Wi-fi/NFC before selecting the Wi-fi function option.

From here, select the connect to Smartphone option and confirm you’d like to connect to the device. If you’re using a DSLR and it has an LCD on the top plate you’ll notice Wi-fi is now displayed as being switched on.

It’s at this point you’ll want to enter your mobile device’s Wi-fi settings and select the appropriate network from the list. A tick alongside the Wi-fi network indicates that the devices have been successfully paired and you can then return to the home screen on your mobile device before locating and loading the Canon Camera Connect app.

It’s at this point you have to wait a second or two before the app confirms its link with the camera. With the hard work done, you now decide on whether you want to select the Image on camera option, Remote shooting or Camera settings option, which we’ll now study in more detail.

Images on camera

The Images on camera part of the app is the area where you can view and inspect the images you’ve taken before rating or saving them directly to the camera roll on your mobile device. Images are neatly grouped into folders based on the date they were taken and you’ll find the most recent images shown at the top.

Set to default, images are grouped together as small thumbnails, but clicking on an image enlarges it, with the option to use pinch and zoom gestures to inspect the quality of sharpness and depth of field. Below the image you’ll find the filename, the time the image was taken and the EXIF data.

If you’re like me, you might want to click on the list icon at the top right, which enables you to switch the view of images – handy if you’d prefer to have thumbnails listed with all the filename, date/time and EXIF beside. The list icon also enables you to sort images quickly based on their date, folder or rating, and there are other options to jump to an album based on a date or control the resizing of images.

Saving images from the app to your mobile device can either be done individually or selectively. For example, if you’re viewing a single image in the app you can copy just this image, or if there is more than one you’d like to copy it’s possible to select which images you’d like to transfer from the wider thumbnail view. It takes roughly 1.5secs to copy a single image with a strong Wi-fi connection, but be aware a transfer may take longer or might not be possible at all if your connection is weak.

Having the option to rate images from 1-5 stars is a particularly attractive feature in this part of the app and is very simple to do. Any star rating you apply is instantly applied to the file on the memory card, making it possible to filter the images you want to work on or keep/delete much faster in editing programs such as Adobe Bridge and Lightroom.

You’ll also find there’s the option to delete redundant images from the camera via the app. This can also be done individually or selectively and prompts you to confirm you definitely want to delete files before going ahead.

Remote shooting

As briefly mentioned in the introduction to this article, the remote shooting feature can be incredibly useful in certain situations and offers an advantage when you’d like to create distance between yourself and the camera, but remain in control of the key camera settings.

Selecting Remote shooting from the app instantly engages Live View mode, which can be identified by the sound of the mirror flipping into its upward position. The Live View feed is transmitted via Wi-fi to your mobile device and by clicking on the information icon towards the top right you can display key camera settings, such as shooting mode, white balance, metering, AF mode and drive mode.

Other than drive mode and AF mode, none of the above settings can be adjusted via the app and these have to be changed via the camera manually. It’s worth knowing that you’ll want to prevent changing the shooting mode when using the app. Doing so interrupts the Live View feed and disconnects the Wi-fi connection, giving you no option but to repeat the task of connecting to the app. Bearing this in mind, it’s important to make sure you choose the appropriate shooting mode before controlling the camera remotely via the app.

Other key variables you can take control of include aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation. You’re first required to select the slider icon at the bottom right, which presents the options needed to adjust these exposure variables using a slider scale. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation appear alongside each other and to access the drive mode and AF mode options you’re required to use the down button. With the latter, you’re given options to select focus tracking, FlexiZone – Multi and FlexiZone Single. All three of these AF Live View modes support repositioning of the AF point around the frame using your mobile device’s screen and it’s a really intuitive way of refining the focus point on your subject when there’s distance between you and the camera.

At the top right of the remote shooting interface you’ll find another icon that gives you the option to lock the screen’s rotation, switch off Live View and control other settings such as showing an AF button. This is used to recreate a half press of the shutter to focus before taking an image, but I find it works best with the AF beep on the camera enabled.

Lastly, at the bottom left corner you’ll find a small thumbnail that can be clicked on to show a strip of the images you’ve taken. Clicking on any of these displays an enlarged view, and again pinch and zoom gestures can be used to inspect the image at closer magnification.

Camera settings

Beneath the Images on camera and Remote shooting options at the front of the app you’ll also find Camera settings. From here you can reflect the date and time of your mobile device within the image EXIF data, with the option to manually change the area and enable daylight saving time if you wish. Of the three options from the front of the app, Camera settings is by far the most basic.

To return to the front of the app at any time you can tap the home icon at the top left of the interface and there’s a disconnect icon at the top right, which is good to use when you’re finished with Wi-fi and want to preserve your camera’s battery power.

If you own a Canon Wi-fi-enabled camera and have access to a mobile device, Canon’s Camera Connect app is worth downloading and comes highly recommended. After all, it’s free to download and provides you with increased functionality and greater sharing options at your fingertips.

Manage your apps

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To find the app quickly, it’s a good idea to bundle it with your other photography apps so they’re all located together in one place. Creating a new folder on an iPhone or iPad couldn’t be easier – simply go to your home screen, touch and hold the app you want to create a folder for until all the apps begin to jiggle, and while continuing to hold your finger down on the app, drag it on top of another app you want in the same folder.

You’ll find the app becomes grouped in a new folder and it’s possible to rename the folder at the top of the screen. Keeping your apps tidy and well organised makes them much easier to find and saves you the difficulty of searching for the one you want among many others.

Step by step: How to connect your DSLR to the Canon Camera Connect app

Enable Wi-Fi

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Switch your DSLR on and hit the menu button. Navigate through the menu settings to Wi-Fi/NFC, which is listed under the same tab as Format card. Set to the camera’s default settings, Wi-Fi/NFC will be switched off so you firstly need to select it and change the Wi-Fi/NFC setting from Disable to Enable.

Select the Wi-fi function

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Move down one option and select Wi-Fi function. From here you’ll find different options such as Transfer images between cameras and print from a Wi-Fi printer but the one you’ll want to select is Connect to smartphone. This is easy to identify thanks to the small smartphone icon second from the left on the top row.

Connect to smartphone

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You’ll now be greeted by onscreen options to choose the set and review/change settings. When you want to connect quickly with minimal fuss, simply ignore these settings and select connect at the bottom left corner of the screen. This will prompt a connect to smartphone option and you will want to confirm by selecting OK.

Load the app

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When you have the connect to smartphone and disconnect, exit and Confirm set options listed on your screen, it reveals that the camera’s Wi-fi is now on and it’s ready to connect. If your DSLR has a top plate LCD, you’ll notice the Wi-fi now indicates as On and the Wi-fi icon above is blinking. Next, pick up your smartphone and enter your Wi-fi settings.

Finalise the connection

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Find your DSLR’s Wi-fi name from the network list. Click on it to initiate a connection. You may be prompted to enter an encryption password (displayed on screen) if you have this setting enabled. Next, load the Camera Connect app. After the connection has successfully been made the LCD monitor will be turned off and the app will display the message Connected to Camera.

Terence Donovan: Portraits

Through his photography, Terence Donovan captured the 1960s’ spirit like nobody else, photo historian Robin Muir tells David Clark

French Elle, 2 September 1965, ‘Les Manteaux arts modernes’, coat by Pierre Cardin

French Elle, 2 September 1965, ‘Les Manteaux arts modernes’, coat by Pierre Cardin © Archives Elle/HFA

In the early 1960s, fashion photography went through a revolution that was led by three young and ambitious photographers: David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan. Talented and determined, with a fresh and informal style, they quickly usurped established fashion photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson.

‘Before us, fashion photographers were tall, thin and camp,’ Duffy famously commented. ‘We’re different. We’re short, fat and heterosexual.’ Beaton himself later praised ‘The Terrible Three’, as he called them – ‘three cockney boys who rushed out of the somewhat staid John French’s darkroom and gave a signature to their times.’

Actually they weren’t all cockneys, nor did they all work at the studio of fashion photographer John French, but their photography did embody the freewheeling spirit of the ‘swinging sixties’.

All three went on to have successful careers in commercial and editorial photography. Today, Bailey is still active in his late 70s, while Duffy abandoned photography in the early 1980s, long before he died in 2010. Meanwhile, Donovan’s career included fashion and portraiture, as well as directing pop videos and thousands of television commercials. His reputation for excellence led to him being nicknamed ‘The Guv’nor’.

The best of times

French Elle, 1 September 1966 ‘Du Nouveau sous le nouveau tunnel’. Fashion by Pierre Cardin

French Elle, 1 September 1966 ‘Du Nouveau sous le nouveau tunnel’. Fashion by Pierre Cardin. © Archives Elle/HFA

The year 2016 is both the 20th anniversary of his death and the 80th anniversary of his birth. These anniversaries are being marked by a new book, Terence Donovan: Portraits, and a major exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, titled Speed of Light. The exhibition is curated by photo-historian Robin Muir, who worked with Donovan at Vogue magazine and is an expert on his photography.

For Muir, the work Donovan produced in the first decade of his career was undoubtedly his best. ‘His photographs for me are just fascinating documents of the ’60s,’ he says. ‘Between 1959 and 1969 he was just absolutely at the top of his game. His pictures give us a wonderful take on London and the fashion and people of the time.’

In those early years, Donovan’s work for magazines such as Man About Town or Vogue had a gritty, street documentary style. He photographed glamorous models in the latest fashions in outdoor locations such as blocks of council flats or in parts of London still derelict from wartime bomb damage.

Donovan was particularly innovative in the way he photographed men’s fashion. As he himself said, ‘Up until then, all the pics of men in tweed coats had them on shooting sticks in Hyde Park. I shot them on a gasworks.’

Muir says, ‘Donovan was a fantastic photographer of men and men’s fashion, and he did a lot of wonderful black & white pictures depicting men’s clothes. He took them into parts of the East End he knew and put them into these extraordinary backdrops. Nobody else was doing men’s fashion in that way. And he did it very well. He was as good in the open air as he was in the studio and you can’t often say that about photographers.’

Honest and authentic

But what else sets Donovan’s work apart? ‘As the ’60s gained momentum, a lot of his contemporaries’ work became much more polished and glossy,’ says Muir. ‘Whereas although Donovan did a lot in the studio, there’s a certain sort of naturalness about it. His work looks more authentic, more honest. It just looks different. That quality lasted the whole decade.’

Terence Stamp, Vogue, July 1967. Photographed on the set of John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd

Terence Stamp, Vogue, July 1967. Photographed on the set of John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

Donovan certainly worked hard, sometimes shooting three or four sittings a day, and was soon established as a leading fashion photographer. However, in the 1970s, he began to work much more in the lucrative worlds of print advertising and television commercials. From this point on, Muir believes his work lost something of its appeal.

‘Photographers have to mature and change, but I got the impression that Donovan’s heart wasn’t really in editorial photography any more,’ he says. ‘I think he lost his way a little bit when he discovered moving film and advertising. There was big money in advertising and you can’t blame him for wanting to go in that direction. It didn’t demand much from him in the way that earlier editorial photography had. Notwithstanding, he still produced a lot of wonderful stuff in the ’70s and ’80s.’

‘Dressed Overall’, Fashion Feature for Nova, March 1974

‘Dressed Overall’, Fashion Feature for Nova, March 1974 © Terence Donovan Archive

By the mid-1980s, Donovan had been away from regular editorial photography for so long that he was often overlooked for commissions. However, his reputation for taking definitive and iconic photographs led to commissions for official royal portraits, including a number of sittings with Princess Diana. He was also chosen to photograph Margaret Thatcher while she was prime minister.

Muir, who was present at some of Donovan’s portrait sittings for Vogue in the 1990s, says by this time his portraits were done as quickly as possible. ‘He was as charming as everybody said he was, delightful, and a very good photographer,’ Muir recalls, ‘But he had got his portrait photography down to a very fine art and a very quick art. There was no hanging around, no analysing what we were about to do; he just did it. Everybody was in and out in probably about an hour.

 A suit by Hussein Chalayan, British Vogue, ‘Made in England’, 1995

A suit by Hussein Chalayan, British Vogue, ‘Made in England’, 1995 © Terence Donovan Archive

‘I thought it was extraordinary, because with other photographers like Snowdon and Albert Watson there would be a lot of preparation, and a lot of chatting before the day. Terence got past all that and went straight into the photographs. I’m not sure whether that in itself was a good or bad thing, but the pictures he took latterly at Vogue weren’t among his best.’

Nevertheless, Donovan was to have one memorable return to form in 1996 when he was commissioned to photograph major music stars of the day, including Jarvis Cocker and Bryan Ferry, for GQ magazine’s ‘Cool Britannia’ issue.

In the Speed of Light exhibition, Muir will be devoting space to this final portfolio among more than 130 Donovan prints, together with work from throughout his career, as well as some of his sketchbooks, contact sheets, videos and filmed interviews.

Sadly, the GQ shoot wasn’t published until after Donovan’s sudden death in November 1996. For Muir, it is both a reminder of Donovan’s talent and an indication of the work he might have gone on to produce.

‘This wonderful portfolio for GQ would have been his way back into editorial photography,’ Muir continues. ‘It was an amazing roll call of the great and good of British music, and I think it would have been a great calling card. I genuinely believe it would have re-established his career, and if he was alive today he would have been a proper “grand old man” of photography.’

Thermodynamic, 1961

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© Terence Donovan Archive

This shot was taken for About Town magazine and published as part of a fashion feature in January 1961. The model, Peter Anthony, one of the few male models of the period, was wearing a Jaeger suit. It was taken at Grove Road Power Station in St John’s Wood, London.

‘This kind of image, where Donovan has photographed his model against the backdrop of industrial London, was typical of his work in the early ’60s,’ says Robin Muir. ‘It was very dramatic to show the model against the plume of steam. Other photographers have done similar things since, but this was the first time it had been done in a mainstream magazine. There was no regard for health and safety! You couldn’t get away with it now.’

Terence Donovan, 1936-1996

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© Terence Donovan

Terence Donovan was born in Stepney, East London, in 1936. The son of a long-distance lorry driver, Donovan spent most of the Second World War travelling around England with his father. He began a part-time apprenticeship in lithography at the age of 11 and studied block making at the London School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography.

At 15, he began working as a photographer’s assistant at a printing company. After National Service, he worked at the studio of fashion photographer John French. Then, aged 22, he set up his own studio.

He shot editorial images for magazines such as Man About Town and Vogue (from 1963 onwards). He also shot fashion and portraits for Nova, The Sunday Times Magazine and others.

He concentrated on advertising photography from the early 1970s, and in the ’80s and ’90s, focused on the moving image. He shot around 3,000 TV commercials and directed influential pop videos, including Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love.

He produced just three publications in his lifetime: the booklet Women Throooo the Eyes of Smudger Terence Donovan (1964); a book of erotic nudes, Glances (1983); and provided the images for Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki’s instructional book Fighting Judo (1985). Judo was one of Donovan’s passions, and he achieved black-belt level.

In 1996 he was appointed visiting professor at Central Saint Martins School of Art. He committed suicide later the same year after suffering from severe depression. He left behind an archive of around a million images.

Terence Donovan: Portraits

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Terence Donovan: Portraits, by Philippe Garner, is published by Damiani and priced £35. It includes portraits made throughout Donovan’s career. Subjects include Diana, Princess of Wales; Laurence Olivier; Margaret Thatcher and Sean Connery. See www.damianieditore.com.

Terence Donovan: Speed of Light in association with Ricoh is on display at The Photographers’ Gallery from 15 July, www.tpg.org.uk.