Composition in the wild

You could walk straight past a couple of kangaroos and never know they were there – perfectly camouflaged! I’m a bit suspicious of kangaroos wearing camouflage – they might be up to something. But what struck me about the scene, was how they led the eye up the hill, even though one was looking out of the picture. So what is going on here to make the image dynamic?



I think there are four compositional elements at work here:

The power of diagonals
The darker green tufts of grass set up a diagonal across the image from lower right to upper left.

Relationship between elements
Whenever there are two subjects, the eye forms a relationship between them, which in this case leads the eye from one kangaroo to the other – again lower right to upper left. But why that direction, and not from upper left to lower right? The answer lies in the gaze of the lower right kangaroo looking past the observer towards the left. The shape of the body takes you up that same powerful diagonal to the second ‘roo which has its back to us and is looking to the right.

Rule of thirds
The two kangaroos are approximately one third in from each side, and the lighter colour bands frame the image.

The vortex effect – the eyes have it

And here’s where it gets interesting. Our eyes are drawn first to the eyes of the lower roo, but then they are drawn up the diagonal to the upper left – where that kangaroo is looking to the right, so our eye is drawn back to the lower right in a kind of vortex that belies the tranquility of the scene. This adds to the sense of alert-ness of the roos and makes for a compelling image.

So beware of alert kangaroos wearing camouflage – especially in an urban environment. Yes, I lied about the wild. These ones were only 300 metres from my front door, in the nature strip between two suburbs. In darkest Canberra. Next thing they’ll be door-knocking…


An Ansel Adams moment

The storm reduced driving visibility so much that I had to stop twice on the side of the road. As the rain front passed I glanced over toward the distant hills – part of the great Snowy Mountains chain – and took this shot. It was an Ansel Adams moment – a landscape that leant itself to a treatment similar to that of the great American photographer.

Near Cooma NSW

Near Cooma NSW

Supermoon – what lies behind the shot

There is a strange fascination with celestial events, and I love to try to capture them with the camera. But the moon is a real challenge isn’t it? Especially the full moon. Have you ever seen those movie shots of the moon looking enormous – perhaps with a boy and an alien on a bicycle? This shot unexpectedly went a bit viral, being featured on a range of news and astronomy websites around the world. Let me take you behind the scenes to show you how I captured this shot without any fancy photoshop wizardry or collaging of multiple shots.


Supermoon – 10 Aug 2014

Before moonrise I set up on some open grassland near my home in Canberra and pointed the camera at the top of a hill about 2km away. I used an iphone app called Sun Surveyor to work out roughly where the moon would rise, and positioned myself to try to catch the moon behind the lonely tree on the hill.

The Camera
The camera is a Canon EOS 60D – a good mid-range DSLR camera with a cropped sensor. The new version of this camera is the Canon EOS 70D.

I used the Canon EF 100-400mm L-series lens to achieve the large moon. While it was a ‘supermoon’ – a full moon on its closest approach to the Earth – it is of course not that size to the casual observer. One characteristic of zoom lenses is that they compress the space between distant objects and ourselves. The lens was already focussed at infinity with the tree in focus, so the moon was also in focus, but looming large against the tree. It is a useful effect of the physics of light as it travels through the lens.

Keeping it steady
A tripod is pretty essential for anything with a long zoom in order to keep it steady. The tripod should be as sturdy as you can make it. But you don’t have to spend a fortune. One trick is that the tripod can be cheap and cheerful, but it is worth spending money to get a good tripod head so that the camera can be set up without it sagging. And don’t forget to turn off the image stabilising when mounted on a tripod – if you don’t it will try to counter a vibration that isn’t there – and will actually introduce movement that you really don’t want.

Use mirror lockup and if possible a remote trigger – or use the camera’s timer on a 2 second delay.

One useful trick is to use the rear screen at 10x magnification – you will soon see when it is in focus – it works great for those times when there is just not quite enough light to use auto focus.

The moon will appear to move quite quickly due to the Earth’s rotation, so don’t be afraid to use a higher ISO to get a shorter exposure – you can deal with noise in post processing, but not movement blur.

A special piece of kit
I used a device I just acquire recently – a Vixen Polarie Star Tracker. This is a device about the size of a camera body that fits on the tripod and to which you attach another tripod head to mount the camera. It’s purpose is to keep the camera aligned with the sky – in this case the moon – so you can focus on focussing, and not worry about the moon racing out of the view finder. More on this later when I write a proper review. It is great for any type of astrophotography.

The settings
A lot of people – myself included – find it difficult to get the right exposure setting for the moon. The thing to keep in mind is that the moon is quite a good reflector of the sun – so you are dealing with reflected sunlight. So start with a good shade setting – say around ISO400 with an exposure of around 1/250 sec at f/5.6. For the image above, I used ISO100 exposed for 1/90th sec at f/5.6 because it was still somewhat light being just after sunset.

Prepare for the unexpected
I nearly missed this shot. The sun surveyor will only give an approximation, so at the last moment I had to grab the whole rig and move it about 6 metres to get into the right position. Also just after this shot, I noticed a flicker of movement which I though might be a bird. I took the shot anyhow… and caught a small plane against the moon! So keep your eyes on the prize and prepare for the unexpected – you never quite know what you’ll get on the day – even with good preparation!