Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Successfully cleaning a Lastolite Hi-Lite Background

A few months ago, I came across a deal that was too good to pass up. A large 6ft x 7ft Lastolite Hi-Lite Background on Ebay. I'd seen one when having my headshots done for a movie company, and thought it would make a great addition to my studio setup. I won the auction and drove to the previous owners house for a demo and pick it up. Setup, it looked huge, but awesome!

When you buy second hand, you don't expect perfection, especially for the price I paid. So I was expecting a few blemishes or so. Apparently a common problem with the Lastolite Hi-Lite backgrounds occurs when something hot (presumably a hot light that has to be stuck inside of the background) touches the white panels, which results in a yellow dot forming and almost seems to go through to the front.

So I figured I'd try to get the stains out before putting the background to use. And I started with what I thought was something mild. First soap liquid, then oxy stain remover for fabrics ("Vanish"). Neither of which seemed to do anything to the stain. If you're trying to fix a stain such as coffee that somehow got inside, then these steps would be a good place to start, but don't expect miracles. Do remember to clean with clear water afterwards when you're done.

Next stage, I thought (incorrectly) that I'd try diluted bleach. This turned out to be a very bad idea. Now the little yellow stain was surrounded by a large ring of beige! In hindsight, at least the experiment did narrow down what kind of fabric this was.

I tried contacting Lastolite support for ideas, and they were of no help - they refused to tell me what the material was (other than it's custom made for them) how to clean it, repair it (can't), or how to get a piece I can use to replace it (not going to happen). So I gave up asking and looked for other solutions, based on what I presumed is a PVC front with a polyester binder in the back, not unlike a plastic tablecloth. Even though I got it for a steal, I'm not someone who would replace it just because of a small stain.

What the Internet searches came up with is to use Hydrogen Peroxide. I found some 6% solution and used a cotton bud (q-tip) to apply it neat. Setup the Hi-Lite somewhere out of the way (if possible), and have a lamp on the outside shining in so you can see what you're working on. Leave to dry and repeat - and this may take quite a few attempts, so be patient. I've now got the stain from the bleach to almost disappear after a dozen applications, and the treated yellow dots also seems to have faded.

When hydrogen peroxide dries, it often leaves a ring around the place you used it. While it looks terrible, note that this is not permanent damage. When you're done cleaning the surface with the hydrogen peroxide, you can use a sponge with hot (tap) water on the inside surface to get rid of the after effects. You can rub the inside surface without any issues - the material doesn't delaminate. Depending on the size of the treatment, it may require you to wash the entire inside surface to prevent the ring from returning.

So for anyone out there with a similar problem looking to clean their Hi-Lite, you can find hydrogen peroxide at your local chemist. It usually comes in 3%, 6% and 12% strengths. If you get some on your fingers, it leaves a mild white burn mark. So I'd advise wearing gloves, especially if you're using it at 6% or higher.

The one annoying problem with this process is that the black plastic above/below the side zippers isn't particularly strong, and surprisingly sown with a single thread. So you will likely cause the plastic to rip and/or pull out the stitches. Again, this should be easy enough to repair after the fact (put some black material behind the vinyl layer, and re-sew the white trim/zipper through to the black material). Also be careful climbing into the background and leaving dirty feet marks on the floor!

As always - a disclaimer - I have no way of knowing if this will work for you as I don't know if Lastolite has changed the material over the years or the source of your stain. My use of hydrogen peroxide is based on the fact that it yellows with application of bleach, and multiple applications does work without causing additional issues. If you're hesitant to try, I suggest you treat a stain on the side panel first to test, before working on the main panel.

One thing that Lastolite does recommend is making sure the edges don't get wet - the metal rod inside might rust, potentially causing new stains. So make sure you do this in a reasonably warm room so that it drys quickly. I don't recommend using a hair dryer, especially where hydrogen peroxide is used!

Good luck!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Consumed with history.

I've been busy and engrossed in a very interesting project that I believe needs to be blown open to all to see. We all know of the importance of history, to hopefully recognise the need not to repeat the same stupid mistakes, as well as to cherish our unique and interesting past in the present. The project has a historical background, but one that seemingly has been buried or suppressed.  The suppression is remarkable, considering what has been uncovered. I'll start from the beginning...

Panoramic View of Carlops, Scottish Borders

A few months ago, I ate at a local restaurant and the owner, Rosemary, recognised my name and already knew what I did. After paying for a wonderful meal, I offered to return and discuss her ideas for photos, not really realising how this was going to play out as the work was relatively undefined. But the subject matter was quite surprising, the life of a poet and his son a painter, born in the area, and largely forgotten about.

The meeting took place at the Allan Ramsay Hotel, Restaurant and Bar in Carlops. So it makes logical sense that the person in question was Allan Ramsay, and his son Allan Ramsay (Jr). The hotel has been a fixture in the village for centuries, and has been called the Allan Ramsay Hotel for much of that time. The work I was asked to do was to photograph things that related to the poet's work from "The Gentle Shepherd" which was based in the local Carlops/Penicuik/Linton area. However the issue was that I'd have to find out about the connections in order to photograph them.

In the 1808 edition of the Gentle Shepherd, there are a number of plate images that reflect the location of the scenes. I was told there was once a trail that the locals took to follow in the footsteps of the book, and we found old photographs of people in locations referenced in the book. So I took the initiative of finding known trails in the area and noted where these places were in order to try to reproduce the images. After numerous treks through the area, and consulting various historical maps (including the one in the book) and noted listed building locations, I built up a map that identified where the landmarks were. For simplicity I've created a shortcut link to help:  map.drw.photo

Unfortunately many of those images are now known to possess some artistic license. Some show waterfalls and hills whose size would be difficult to believe - even though the river has since been dammed at a reservoir, the quantity of water doesn't make much sense. But a few of them are indeed relatively easy to identify, once you have found the exact location they portray and the appropriate angle.

In the process of doing this, we've uncovered various other pieces of information about him, and in turn that lead to more and more photographs. One very interesting thing is a unique monument that was built near Penicuik House. However it isn't on the same grounds, but instead in the middle of farmland. The interesting thing is that the house is largely surrounded by trees, but there is an intentional void cut into these trees that permits a view of the monument from the back of the house itself. The vast majority of the local residents have no recollection of the monument, nor know of its location.

There are a number of other interesting points that really make you stop and wonder. The song Auld Lang Syne, typically associated with Burns, was first written and published by Allan Ramsay in 1720 (Burns was born in 1759). Both start with "Should auld acquaintance be forgot", then differ. Burns association with Ramsay was as a friendship and Ramsay appears to have taught him. That Burns is still famous today, is puzzling when Burns owes much to Ramsay.

There are a number of references to the location of the Gentle Shepherd, all of which are located in the Pentland hills area. Carlops/Penicuik, Woodhouselee/Glencorse and Currie (1.5miles south of) are mentioned in various historical references. All the locations have similar features, but only Carlops matches all of the features described in the book. A side note is the distances mentioned - at the time there was a difference between a Scottish mile and an English mile, so the distances don't match. In the region between Woodhouselee and Carlops are Eight Mile Burn and Nile Mile Burn, both of which refer to the Scottish miles away from Edinburgh.

In order to finance his poetry, Ramsay was first a wigmaker and then started a bookshop, selling his work. This turned into a lending library where people could rent his books. Is this the first lending library? His library was in the Luckenbooths building that was located alongside St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile - but was demolished in the mid 1800's as it obstructed the road (which today is ironically a pedestrian zone again). Today the Luckenbooth brooch is still sold - named after the building it was likely first sold.

Today, one of the most expensive properties in Edinburgh is in the building (and connecting dwellings) that Ramsay built, alongside Edinburgh Castle. From Princes Street, these can be seen as the white/red buildings on the hill. Princes Street is also where a statue of Ramsay resides, and his face is also on the Scott Monument. How surprising it was to walk into a bookstore on Princes Street to enquire about his book, only to be left with a blank expression and nothing. It does bring to the fore that most of us walk by historical objects on a daily basis and have no idea what they are meant to represent.

It is unfortunately depressing to find that a number of professors at St. Andrews University appear to have allowed teaching about Burns to persist, while the history about Ramsay has been ignored. The timing coincides with when Scotland lost its independence to the English to form the union. At the time, the Scottish language and dialect was taboo. So in these modern times where many Scots are unhappy with the political state of affairs, it is rather interesting to rediscover Ramsay.

I presumed from the beginning that photographing an art project like this was a good networking opportunity. Projects like this aren't done for the money, but for the return to the larger community who want to listen. In order to do this, I've hiked many miles (which is probably why hiking up Ben Nevis in the middle of it wasn't a big deal) with my 50 megapixel camera, tilt-shift lens and tripod (which is what was used for all my images), and met a number of very interesting people along the way.

Rosemary asked why I was doing this, and I said I thought the history needs to be told, that the local historians need a chance to pass this information down. This is something a community should embrace, because this is part of their history, and that should never be lost. The trails of yesterday have been forgotten, some locations are unidentifiable, but we have restored a reference to Ramsay's work. In hindsight, work like this is both timeless and priceless - Ramsay needs to be brought back from history and permitted a venue to speak. For everything he did, Ramsay deserves as much, if not more credit than Burns - perhaps Ramsay should have his night celebrated each year?

On October 14-16, 2016, the Allan Ramsay Hotel is hosting a Allan Ramsay Festival. A number of my photographs will be on display, and contained within a guide book that tells the story of Ramsay, father and son.


Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Hiking Ben Nevis

This year we took a well deserved break based around Ben Nevis in Scotland. The weather was expectedly changeable, but that didn't prevent us taking advantage of the beautiful scenery.

Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in the UK, and we had a view of the cloud covered peak from our holiday cottage. I'm not a regular hiker as much as I'd like to be, but I do have the dogged determination to get things done when I put my mind to it (which explains how I've finished a sub 5-hour marathon after getting injured 19 miles in). Ben Nevis is challenging, but much like long distance running, it isn't remotely impossible if you're reasonably fit and have the right mindset.

After checking the weather forecast, I thought I'd picked a good day to get to the top of Ben Nevis and get a clear view. Unfortunately, after hiking to the top with a carefully selected choice of camera gear and tripod, the weather didn't match up with the forecast, and so this was the view:

As you can see, the view from the triangulation pillar's platform was pretty bleak. The observation station was a bizarre sight. Full-on thick fog was the case for the top 250m of hiking.

If you're wondering, the pink fog is what you get when you've tried to de-haze the image to the extreme in Adobe Lightroom. This is actually much clearer than it really was, but I figured it was more important to show what is there than sheet fog!
So I'm glad I was fortunate enough to take a number of other photographs on the way up. These two images show the view looking down Glen Nevis valley:

The following image was a 5-shot panorama of Lochan Meall An T-suidhe, visible from about 600m up the trail.

On the way back down, this sheep was checking us out.
For anyone interested, the waterfalls in the area are quite impressive. Given that the general weather on Ben Nevis includes rain, it's not surprising how many waterfalls it has. The trail up the mountain requires hikers to walk through the bottom of a waterfall, so remember to bring waterproof boots!

July 2016

Friday, 20 May 2016

A Twist on an American Favourite

I lived in the States for over 22 years and immediately took a liking to Pumpkin Pie. I don't remember how many I baked over the years, but I do know that there was usually a can of Libby's pumpkin in the cupboard, and the corresponding can of Carnation evaporated milk.
Some years ago on a regular visit to Target store (closest UK equivalent is probably a Tesco Superstore), I came across some disposable plastic bakeware - meant for sharing baked food (and not caring about if you forgot to bring it home or it disappeared). In it was a mini cookbook which included a recipe for what I have always called "Pumpkin Cake".  I've not made many pumpkin pies since then, as most people much prefer this instead. It's probably the fastest cake to make too, once you've assembled the ingredients. So here I'm sharing with you one of my favourites. If you take it to share at work, expect it to disappear quickly!
Pumpkin Cake - Serves 12.
3 large eggs.
1 can (425g / 15oz) of Libby's Pumpkin (try Tesco Superstores or online).
1 larger can (410g) Carnation evaporated milk (don't use condensed milk!).
250ml - Sugar (when poured into a glass measure, 250ml = 1US Cup)
4 tsp - Pumpkin Pie Mix (available at Steenbergs online in the UK).
1 1/2 packages (600g) of store brand Vanilla Sponge Cake Mix.
1 package Pecan Nuts (broken or whole - approximately 250g).
1/2 a block of butter.
1. Set the oven to 180˚C.
2. Grease a large deep rectangular cake tin or pyrex glass pan (approx: 33x23x5cm).
3. In large bowl, whisk eggs then add pumpkin, milk, sugar and pumpkin pie spice mix. Stir until smooth, pour into pan.
4. Sprinkle the dry cake mix on top of the pumpkin mixture, then roughly cover with the pecans. Melt the butter (I use the same glass measure used earlier and microwave it), and pour over the pecans so it touches the cake mix.
5. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes (fan oven: subtract 5 min), check with a fork in the middle that comes out clean.
6. Allow to cool before serving (goes well with vanilla ice cream :)
Once you're done, it should look like this:

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Open for Business

2016 has been an interesting year so far

After receiving notice of my layoff from my employer of almost 15 years last October, I was finally unleashed from having to work for someone else. I've already experienced a layoff on two previous occasions, so it didn't come as a shock. The work had become tedious, unchallenging and boring anyway, but there was always the benefit of a guaranteed paycheque. What I didn't expect to find was that the job really dulled my creativity, and kept me back from doing what I've always wanted to do.

So I signed on for unemployment, knowing full well that I wasn't going to get any money (and didn't), but the process put me on towards getting help for setting up my photography business, through the New Enterprise Allowance program. Going through the NEA started me down the road of getting my ducks in a row, making a business plan, taking classes at Business Gateway (available throughout Scotland for free), and understanding what I was up against. When I did start up, the program pays a small weekly stipend to help with the initial costs of business.

I intentionally attended Business Gateway classes in Selkirk in the Scottish Borders as I really wanted to make an effort to work outside Edinburgh. The Borders are quite unique for being so isolated and rural, making me realise how my marketing efforts would have to be primarily offline - most of the area has poor Internet and mobile-Internet connectivity. It also doesn't have a decent newspaper either, so most news passes through word-of-mouth or annoying Facebook groups (which often dissolve into written gossip). Networking with others discovered how Facebook was seldom responsible for any work, regardless of where people originated from in the area. The other surprising fact was networking with numerous people who work in the area, who said that they seldom got any work from anyone in this part of the Borders.

So at the end of the previous tax year, my business started crawling into first gear. I made a few small sales while ticking over the tax year, helping me net a nice tax rebate that went towards the new DSLR that I had my eye on. I've spent some of the money from the NEA program to help convert my garage into a studio of sorts. And now I've started working with others to take on work across Scotland.

Now I'm slowly gathering props for food photography and experimenting with styling food and shooting tethered. Food photography has two extremes - one done by a mobile phone in a restaurant (blogging) and the other takes hours to carefully compose an image and then shoot food before it 'expires'! Who knew food photography could be so challenging! I don't know of may others in the region who take food photography so seriously, because it really isn't something you can do without the right tools. Yesterday I made this little beauty:

I'm sure to the casual viewer, it's nothing more than a table with a cloth, bowl and eggs. What's not shown is the work to get the table (a very rustic pallet that was carefully dismantled, then re-assembled as a table), the eggs (from two different sources), the table cloth was cut and made from a larger sheet of cloth and of course the bowl was picked up at IKEA. The colour of the eggs is actually accurate - one of them really does look like a golden egg! All in all, probably 4 hours work, not including the travel time to pick up the pieces.

The last thing I recently acquired was photographic business insurance. Something that I've put off for as long as I could, but realise that it is an essential component of every legitimate business. So I now have coverage for Professional Indemnity and Public Liability just in case something goes wrong in a big way. Remember, we're all human, and at some point even professionals make mistakes. I've heard the horror stories of trips and falls that could cost someone more than their business - important if you're a sole trader without the benefit of a limited company structure. If you're on the look out for a photographer to work with you, make sure they're insured just in case. To be honest, insurance is probably the most legitimate difference between an amateur and a professional in the UK (since there is no defining criteria).

While I don't yet have a diary full of work ahead, the future looks bright, and work is fun. I look forward to working with you in the future.

Best regards,

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Lightroom Presets - Are they worthwhile?

In the last few years I've noticed a number of other (usually) prominent photographers trying to sell their favourite Lightroom Presets, often as part of some "unbelievable special offer". How could you possibly pass these up?

Could these presets be worthwhile? Will they really save you the time and make your photographs stand out? Will they be beneficial to your style of photography? From my experience, the answer is usually no.

Lets take a step back for a minute. The presets being offered originated when a photographer was making changes in the various tuning parameters in Lightroom for a single photograph. When they got these settings to a point they liked, they then saved all these changes as a preset. They did this process for a number of different photographs and bundled these presets up for sale.

What is getting saved in these presets? Effectively all the settings that the photographer changed. Here's an example:

s = {
id = "xxxxxxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxxxxxxxxxx",
internalName = "Fuji Velvia 100RVP",
title = "Fuji Velvia 100RVP Slidefilm",
type = "Develop",
value = {
settings = {
Blacks2012 = 100,
BlueHue = 0,
BlueSaturation = 0,
CameraProfile = "Adobe Standard",
Clarity2012 = 13,
ColorNoiseReduction = 25,
ColorNoiseReductionDetail = 50,
Contrast2012 = -14,
ConvertToGrayscale = false,
EnableCalibration = true,
EnableColorAdjustments = true,
EnableDetail = true,
EnableSplitToning = true,
Exposure2012 = -0.75,
GreenHue = 0,
GreenSaturation = 0,
Highlights2012 = -78,
HueAdjustmentAqua = 36,
HueAdjustmentBlue = 13,
HueAdjustmentGreen = 8,
HueAdjustmentMagenta = 9,
HueAdjustmentOrange = 9,
HueAdjustmentPurple = 0,
HueAdjustmentRed = -2,
HueAdjustmentYellow = -33,
LuminanceAdjustmentAqua = -13,
LuminanceAdjustmentBlue = -1,
LuminanceAdjustmentGreen = -25,
LuminanceAdjustmentMagenta = -2,
LuminanceAdjustmentOrange = 0,
LuminanceAdjustmentPurple = 0,
LuminanceAdjustmentRed = -8,
LuminanceAdjustmentYellow = -1,
LuminanceNoiseReductionContrast = 0,
LuminanceNoiseReductionDetail = 50,
LuminanceSmoothing = 20,
ParametricDarks = 0,
ParametricHighlightSplit = 75,
ParametricHighlights = 0,
ParametricLights = 0,
ParametricMidtoneSplit = 50,
ParametricShadowSplit = 25,
ParametricShadows = 0,
ProcessVersion = "6.7",
RedHue = 0,
RedSaturation = 0,
Saturation = 5,
SaturationAdjustmentAqua = -13,
SaturationAdjustmentBlue = 1,
SaturationAdjustmentGreen = 0,
SaturationAdjustmentMagenta = -3,
SaturationAdjustmentOrange = -3,
SaturationAdjustmentPurple = 0,
SaturationAdjustmentRed = 15,
SaturationAdjustmentYellow = -4,
ShadowTint = 0,
Shadows2012 = 79,
SplitToningBalance = 0,
SplitToningHighlightHue = 0,
SplitToningHighlightSaturation = 0,
SplitToningShadowHue = 0,
SplitToningShadowSaturation = 0,
ToneCurveName2012 = "Custom",
ToneCurvePV2012 = {
ToneCurvePV2012Blue = {
ToneCurvePV2012Green = {
ToneCurvePV2012Red = {
Vibrance = -13,
Whites2012 = 69,
uuid = "xxxxxxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxx-xxxxxxxxxxxx",
version = 0,

So you can see above, there's no magic here. In fact many of the settings are unchanged from defaults.

When you get these presets, you get the fun job of installing them - something that most Lightroom users won't do because they don't share presets. You do this simply because you presume these Lightroom presets will save you time making the same settings. Problem is, when used with your images, these presets are simply a starting point to get closer to a look you want. You're still going to have to make your own changes.

So what do I recommend? If you're determined to use other photographers presets, then there's already presets available at no cost. I would suggest trying them and see if they offer any benefit at all to your personal workflow. There's some interesting ones that emulate the look of different films - but once you've seen one, it's not rocket science to make your own changes to emulate another.

Regardless of whether you choose to buy presets or not, if you really want to fine tune your images, then you still need to learn how to use the develop module.

I've purchased a few of these as part of a larger package deal - effectively free in my case. I installed a bunch of them - they definitely make interesting changes to my images. But truthfully, I've not used any of them in my workflow or my final images. NONE.

I'm not impressed that there's individuals and companies out there that sell these (or offer a few as a lure to get your email address), thinking they're doing us a favour.

Personally I'd suggest you save your cash and spend more time really learning to use Lightroom's develop module, and understand how to make changes. Better yet, take a class on this - I'd highly recommend RMSP.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Where has your photographic journey taken you?

I vaguely remember as a very young kid, being given a very old box camera to play with. I was curious why I could look through a glass window at the top, and could see the image that was in front of the box. Curiosity took the better of me and I opened it up to see how it worked. I don't recall anyone having any idea how it worked, other than the understanding that it was a box camera. I suppose you could say this was my introduction to photography.

Some years later in my mid-teens, I went to Italy on a coach and bought a "110" pocket camera on the cross-channel ferry to capture my memories. I still have some of the photos from that camera 30 years later. A few years later on one very rainy day, I was cycling to work and I found a 35mm point-and-shoot camera on the side of the road, filthy and soaking wet. I took it home, cleaned it up, exposed the film and asking if anyone knew the people in the photos to help return it, without success. I still have this camera today.

That 35mm point and shoot became the first camera that seldom left my side, and I took many photographs as I travelled around the country. I was initially intrigued that I could take photos of local scenery that looked unfamiliar to people who had lived only a few miles away their entire lives. As it was 35mm film (and my friends mother worked at Kodak, giving me access to lots of cheap film), I tried many different kinds including black and white film.

A few years later, I moved to the USA, and soon bought my first SLR camera - a Canon Rebel X with a couple of cheap Sigma lenses. The camera lasted for years, only to be replaced by my first foray into digital photography, with an Olympus point-and-shoot camera which I used to photograph my young kids. It had less than 1.3 megapixels, so the images were hardly a film replacement - an issue that later resulted in upgrading to a Canon 7E SLR and a new Sigma standard to wide angle lens. This combination helped re-introduce me back into landscape photography, however I realised the downsides of plastic cameras when taking photographs in the cold icy environment in Minnesota. I slipped on the frozen shore of the Mississippi, and my camera on it's tripod fell and broke resulting in a ruined lens and a camera repair bill that I didn't want.

After the turn of the century, I bought my first DSLR- a Canon 10D, which was built like a tank. Unfortunately it had constant focusing issues (which didn't occur using the same lenses in my film camera) and had just 6 megapixels to work with. After years working with film, I really didn't like the crop sensor images. I ended up losing patience with my expensive toy and put it aside and went back to Fuji Velvia and Agfa Scala slide films. By now I could afford to purchase a Canon 1V which was bulletproof - perfect for taking photos in the frozen tundra in northern Minnesota and beyond and not having to worry about breaking the camera or the battery going flat. Travels with my 1V resulted in a box full of slides which I treasure to this day.

Around this point, I attended a Rocky Mountain School of Photography 'weekend' course hosted in Saint Paul, Minnesota which made me much more interested in pursuing photography more seriously. I also attended a National Geographic course on Travel Photography and an excellent course on Nature Photography from John Shaw.

My Canon 10D left me so frustrated that I didn't venture back into digital photography for 6 years, until I found what I considered to be the first realistic film replacement digital camera that didn't compromise - the Canon 5D mark 2. Today I still use this camera.

I bought a second 5D2 body shortly before putting work on pause to attend Rocky Mountain School of Photography's 3 month long summer intensive in 2013, which I now use interchangeably with the first one. The Summer intensive course was a wonderful step into the world of professional photography, spending all day (and many nights and weekends) breathing photography for the majority of the 3 months. Thousands of images later, I miss the atmosphere of being surrounded by so many creative people who also crave the same.

Today, while I'm diversifying into studio based photography, I still photograph landscapes and nature. I'm still learning, but my biggest pet peeve is wasting time trying to get tack sharp images. I don't recall having so many issues trying to get sharp photographs with film, so I wonder if one of the reasons is the low-pass filters that most DSLR's have to remove moiré. I expect my next jump will be to the Canon 5DSR when I can justify the expense to find out.

Where has your journey in photography been?