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Contemplative Photography

Contemplative Photography

Came across this really thought provoking and inspiring post on 500px today – I’ll certainly be trying this out as an approach in future and will share some of my attempts …

Always shoot at top quality…

You never know where your photo will end up. A few weeks back, I got a call one day from Carmel Mannion at Jump The Moon PR asking me if I had a photo of the name plaque on Pieta House. I did actually have such a photo, and vaguely remembered shooting the front of the Centre in Lucan several years back. I was sitting at my computer, and while I was being told the reason for the request, was firing up Lightroom and using Pieta House as a keyword, managed to locate the shots.

Now they were taken 4 years ago, and for no more than general photos for possible use in internal website publicity. But I always shoot in RAW and at the highest possible resolution, because of just this type of situation. The requirement was for a hi resolution image suitable for use on the iTunes icon for the Aslan single in aid of Pieta House, “Catch Your Fall”. I pulled a few together – I had actually shot a set of exposure bracketed images, and the one below was selected – great to be able to be a tiny part of this great awareness and fundraiser for a charity I have supported for many years now.

You can download the single from iTunes at please do, it's only €1.29.

Pieta House is Ireland's only completely free professional service aimed at the prevention of suicide and self-harm. For more details check out or call 01 601 0000.


Taking 80 year old photos with an iPhone

Old negatives brought to life!

As a long time photographer, its always fascinating to try a new technique for creating images, and coming across such opportunities can get rarer and rarer. I had a fascinating evening figuring out a little photographic problem the other night. As part of The Gathering celebrations in Ireland this year, many towns and villages are hosting reunions, and Drumgowna in Co Leitrim is basing theirs around the old school – see their website at .

A friend of ours who is living in the area came across a lovely find recently – an old shoebox full of old negatives. They looked really old, and were obviously well before 35mm film. I did some research and the film looks to be 116 film, which is 6.5 x 11cms and introduced in 1899 by Eastmas Kodak. As with any negative, holding them up to the light gives an idea of the image, but it's always difficult to really get a feel for the real image until it's been converted into a positive. So Reg arrived for the evening with the envelope of negatives and the question – could I turn them into photos she could see, and maybe then use as part of the village celebrations?

My first thought was that I might be able to use my new photo printer/scanner, but scanning the negatives just gave me very dark versions of the negative, so that wasn't going to work. then my wife reminded me that we had seen an app previously which claimed to be able to convert negatives, so I went on-line and soon hit on HelloPhoto. On visiting the Apple App Store I found that I already had the app, just not installed on my current iPad, but that only a took a few seconds to download. Reading the help screen I saw that this needed the app installed on my iPhone as well, so I did that, and was ready to begin.

Negive on iPad mini kit by HelloPhoto

My iPad mini was used as a light box – basically a light under the negative to make it stand out clear and sharp. HelloPhoto lets you set all kinds of screen sizes, colours and intensities, but I just set it to the maximum brightness (5500k) and full screen, then put the negative on the screen.

The next step was to fire up the app on my iPhone, and set it to photo taking mode in the app. Holding the phone about 12 cms above the iPad and negative, the iPhone then took a photo of the negative lit from below by the iPad, and then as if by magic, turned the negative into a real photo.

The buzz I got the first time I did this was something else! I never did film developing, only coming into serious photography with the advent of digital cameras, so the transformation and bringing to life of these old pieces of thin celluloid to images of real people from long ago was like magic.

It took a few extra steps to get to a workable process. I found that the negatives were not lying flat on the iPad screen, and after a few seconds the heat of the screen would make the negative curl up. I fixed this by finding a piece of card about the size of the iPad screen, then cutting a hole in it the size of the image on the negative – this could be placed carefully on the negative and held it down on the iPad screen with the card pressing down on the outer edges of the negative, just letting the image itself show through.

This had another benefit of reducing the upward glare of light, which was giving me an apple shaped reflection off the back of the iPhone. I got rid of this by cutting out a bit of paper the size of the back of the iPhone and sticky taping this onto the back of my phone, so there was no reflection.

Finally I had a bulletproof process, and the 30 or so negatives took about 15 minutes to turn into photos again – the first time these images had seen the light of day for over 80 years. I've reproduced a few of them below, and I think that the folks over in Drumgowna are going to use them as part of their exhibition for the School Reunion – check their website for more details of their events.



2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


Getting the shot – Powerscourt Lion

Powerscourt Lion – Joe Houghton Photography
Nikon D300, Tokina 12-24mm lens set at 12mm, F13, 1/500th sec, ISO 250

We had a great photo walk recently shooting the magnificent Powerscourt Gardens in Co. Wicklow, and for this post, I want to take a look at the process I went through to produce the shot shown here, because the original out of the camera looked VERY different.  Read on to find out more…

Composition.  Before you take a shot, you should be considering the elements in the scene you are facing.  Around the house at Powerscourt there are numerous statues, urns and pots of beautiful flowers, and the lions on their plinths caught my eye.  Big scenes often benefit from something in the foreground to start the viewer’s journey through your image, and such foreground interest should typically be located on one of the thirds lines.  My lion and the vertical of the plinth below his head is a little further left, but this was necessary to compose the house behind as well.

Verticals.  Especially with a wide angle lens, it can be difficult to maintain straight vertical lines.  The key ones here are on the plinth, so I made sure to keep them vertical – means the right hand side of the house tilts a bit, which I could adjust using perspective correction in Photoshop, but I didn’t this time.

Depth of Field.  Another creative decision for any shot is how much of it you want in focus.  For this shot I wanted everything from the foreground to the house at the back nice and sharp, so I used A (Aperture Priority) mode on my camera, and selected F13 to give me this.  Selecting that on the bright day we had gave me a shutter speed of 1/500th sec – plenty fast enough for a sharp shot handheld.  If you are using scene modes on your camera, set your scene to the mountains icon to get a wide depth of field where most of the shot is in focus from front to back.

Focus.  The general rule with large depth of field shots is to focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene.  Difficult in this case, so I focussed on the lion’s face and trusted the F13 setting to give me enough focus all the way back to the house.

Polarising filter.  I’ve written about this indispensable piece of kit in an earlier post, but on a lovely blue sky day it really comes into play, enabling you to darken the sky giving real “pop” to the clouds, lion and the house.

Check Your Histogram.  A lot of people, especially beginners, shy away when they run into the histogram display on their camera, but it’s a very simply and VERY powerful information source which you should at least understand the basics of interpreting.  Basically all you need to know is that the lines towards the left edge of the window are showing dark areas of your shot, whereas lines over to the right show that there are whiter areas in your shot.  If the lines touch the left edge, you’re underexposed, losing detail in the darkness, and if the lines hit the right hand edge, you’re overexposed and blowing out your highlights, losing detail and whiting out areas of your shot.

On the left here is the histogram for the original shot in the camera – quite dark with no bright areas or white in it.  After I’d made the post-processing adjustments I describe below, the final image’s histogram looks like the one here on the right – you can see the tones are much better spread and with no “clipping” on the right or the left.

So what did I do to change my original shot into the final one?  By messing about in Lightroom for a few minutes – adjustments to an original image to change it is known as…


Here are the shots before and after processing, so you can see how different they look.

I deliberately chose a really dark shot for this post to show just what a bit of post-processing can do to an image, especially if you’ve shot in RAW.  As long as you don’t over-expose on a bright day, you can pretty much rescue any dark shot as there is much more data stored in the darker end of the image than the bright.  My programme of choice is Adobe Lightroom, but the same principles apply whether you use free software like Picasa from Google (a great choice for those just starting), Adobe Photoshop Elements, or even the big daddy of them all – Adobe Photoshop.

So everything up to now has been done in-camera, but it was a very bright day, which makes capturing a shot with high contrast like this quite difficult.  I was also using my wide angle Tokina 12-24mm lens, and with the polarising filter on the front you can see some vignetting in the corners where the filter is showing at the extreme wide angle setting of 12mm.

Lightroom processing history for the final image

So, reading from the bottom up (because that’s how Lightroom records the changes), here’s what I did to the image.  Note – all changes to images in Lightroom are recorded in a separate file from the original RAW image, which means you can always undo them.  Hovering your mouse over each line in the History shows the image as it looked at that point in the editing process.

Exposure was my first adjustment – and the original was so dark that I needed to increase by +2.26 stops – that’s quite a lot but you have up to 5 stops either side to play with when shooting in RAW, so as long as the detail is there and you didn’t hit the edge of the histogram, you can bring all the detail back.

Highlights is an adjustment which only affects the very brightest areas of your image, and after bumping up the overall exposure this then added even more punch to the clouds and the roof of the main house, also accentuating the relative darkness of the blue sky behind.

Black Clipping affects the other end of the spectrum, and the minus 13 adjustment here just made the blacks a little bit darker.  After doing this I pushed the Highlights even brighter to punch the relative contrast even more, then a very small push to overall Contrast brought things to where I wanted them, with detail retained in the sky but also in the stone of the plinth and the grass in the plinth shadow.

Clarity was my final tonal adjustment – it’s a wonderful setting in Lightroom which punches up the micro-contrast across the whole shot, like sharpening but without the nasty edges which that can leave.

That just left a bit of cropping to lose the vignetting from the filter, moving the image around a little to keep a sliver of grass down the left hand edge, and I was done.

Do you have any more tips on anything I’ve mentioned here? If so, please share them as a comment :)

Joe Houghton Photography runs small group photo shoots, individual 1 to 1 tuition, and photography assignments. You can see some of Joe’s photography on Fine Art AmericaArtistRising or on his Flickr site.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment, “Like” it on one of your social media sites or even better subscribe to the blog to get all the posts as they go up. Happy shooting :)

Getting the shot – Dublin Quays Panorama on iPhone

I’m often asked – how did you get that shot, so this is the first post in a series called “Getting the shot” where I will post a photo and then discuss the process of seeing, taking and processing it to a final image. I welcome comments and critique, so feel free to have your say!

Dublin Quays panorama – cropped version processed with SnapSeed

This image was taken on a night photo walk around Dublin’s Bord Gais Theatre and the south side of Dublin Quays earlier this week, and for this shot, rather than using my Nikon DSLR, I thought I would see what I could get using my iPhone 4.  Low light poses a problem for the tiny lens and sensor on phone cameras in terms of getting quite grainy looking images, but nothing ventured…

Pre-visualization is a photographic technique which basically means having an idea in your mind’s eye of what you want your final image to look like.  With a panorama shot, especially such a wide one as this, the image you end up with is actually quite different from any single view your eyes see, as to capture the 7 shots which make up this 1 image I had to rotate from left to right 180°.  I wanted to get some sky, the buildings and also almost an equal depth of reflections, so for this set of shots I turned the iPhone portrait mode – so the individual shots were taller than wide.

The app I used for this composition is AutoStitch, but there are other good iPhone panorama apps which will do a similar job – Dermendar is one I reviewed here, and Microsoft have their PhotoSynth app which is also very good.

The reason I used AutoStitch is that it allows you to set quite high resolution settings for both the images, the blending process and the final output panorama – it can save a single panorama shot of up to 18Mb which makes for quite a large image.  As you start to take your shots, and move round to the next position, you can see a ghostly image of the edge of your last shot which makes lining things up much easier.

Tip – always go into the settings of any photo app and set everything to the highest/best possible settings – anything less and you are really compromising the already limited abilities of the camera lens & sensor to deliver clean images.  

There are many tripod mounts available for iPhones these days, but for these shots I was just standing very still and hand-holding – a bit crazy at 9pm with the light going fast, but hey – it was an experiment to see what I could get.  Gotta have fun with your photography, and trying out stuff to see if it might work is all part of that.

So I took my 7 shots, then pressed the button to set AutoStitch to aligning and stitching the initial panorama together.  Once this is done (which took about 10 minutes with the top quality settings and 7 shots to process) you end up with a raggedy looking wide panorama which you then need to crop to get a clean rectangle.  AutoStitch automatically offers you the biggest crop area it can and generally I just accept that to lose the raggedy bits.  Here’s the shot at this point of my process – note the quaysides showing at both edges of the shot showing that this is a full 180° panorama.

Dublin Quays panorama – initial version before additional cropping

Now, for many shots this is job done, but being an inveterate tinkerer I like to run photos through some post-processing just to see if things might be improved at all.  This can of course be done on the iPhone screen, but I will generally wait until my photos have synced onto my iPad at home and then do editing on the much bigger iPad screen.  My app of choice these days for most photo editing on the iPad is SnapSeed by Nik Software – it is simply superb, and quite the most powerful and easy to use photo editor I have yet tried – and I’ve tried pretty much everything out there!  In the image version below I’ve applied a bit of selective brightening to the very dark building 2nd in from the right, and also applied a touch of “structure” from the detail menu in SnapSeed, which also brightened the sky up a touch.

I actually quite like the initial version’s composition as I think that the composition lines of the quayside at each edge of the shot work in taking your eye out to the other side of the river and the lit buildings.  Penny, my wife suggested I try a crop to lose the quaysides and focus more on the lit buildings and reflections, which is shown below.

Which do you like better, and why? – please do post a comment and let me know :).

Dublin Quays panorama – cropped version with SnapSeed processing

Great offer on Adobe Lightroom from


Adobe CS5.5--available nowAdobe Lightroom 4 offer from Amazon have a great offer on at the moment where you can get Adobe Lightroom 4 – the latest version, for only GBP 69.99 when purchasing another camera accessory.  I use Lightroom for all my image cataloguing, editing, printing and publishing – it’s a simply superb piece of software which handles my 200,000 image catalogue with ease.

The offer ends Aug 31st, so if you have been thinking of getting Lightroom, now’s the time to go for it!  Click here to go through to the Amazon page.

And remember, as a long time Lightroom user and trainer I can do 1 to 1 sessions any time if you want a session to get yourself up to speed.  If you are interested, just book a 1 to 1 session at


3 new photo walks for Aug/Sept

Donadea Forest Park photo walkGlendalough photo walkPowerscourt Gardens photo walk

Hi everyone – the big news this time round is 3 brand new photo walks.  A good friend of mine once told me – to take beautiful photos, go to beautiful places, so we have 3 new beautiful locations – Donadea Forest Park & Lake, Glendalough and Powerscourt Gardens.  Check out the booking page for dates and times, and links to the galleries of shots.  Make a day of it and go home with lovely photos too!

20120805-_DSC0131.jpgWe’ve had some great photo walks in recent weeks – a wonderful night out shooting the Liffey, a Botanic Gardens walk where the rain stopped as we arrived and started as we left – great water droplet shots on flowers and leaves as a result! Some of my shots are on Flickr here, and the gallery of participant shots has been updated with some of Lynda’s shots – I love the misty waterfall one – brilliant shot Lynda!

I’ve put some new dates up for the 3 new walks and some of the old favourites at – do come out on a walk and why not bring a friend or two – let’s make the most of the nicer weather while it lasts!  And remember, your 5th walk is free – there are a number of people who have done 3 walks with me, so one more gets you an extra one for nothing! A couple of comments back from participants recently:

  • Linda – “Thanks Joe, really pleased with the result. We will definitely be booking some more in the near future.
  • Shay – “Congratulations on your teaching skills, I found yesterday’s photo shoot at the Botanic Gardens very informative and helpful, I learned so much in just a few hours.

10 Tips for … Shooting sport and action

Jessica Ennis

I've just spent a wonderful evening watching the athletics on the TV and seeing Team GB (my native country) win 6 gold medals in one day, including Jess Ennis' amazing heptathlon win.


Now in bed with iPad on my lap and sleeping children snoring gently I felt inspired to share a few tips on how to capture sporting and other action – these tips apply equally to getting shots of fast moving children and pets as well!


1. Use the “Running Man” scene dial mode – if you are not yet brave enough to move into the more manual settings, and want to stay with the scene modes, the running man icon sets the camera up for action shots. Doesn't matter what kind of action – it could be the children running about, the dog shaking out water droplets after a dip in the lake, or Jess Ennis clearing the high-jump – the thing is that you are trying to freeze the action.


2. Use S mode and set your shutter speed. Similar to using the running man scene dial, the S mode gives you precise control over how long the shutter stays open. As you adjust the shutter speed up and down you will see the camera adjusting the f-number (which controls depth of field) accordingly, as the two settings have a direct relationship. Basically, faster shutter speeds will result in a smaller depth of field, and vice versa. So what shutter speed do you set? Well that depends on the action. People walking or jogging you can freeze with 1/125th sec. The Jess Ennis shot above is probably shot at 1/250th or even 1/500th sec. To freeze the Red Arrows as they cross each other head to head will need 1/1000th or even faster. Practice the type of shots you want and experiment with varying shutter speeds so you become aware of the effect you get at each speed.

3. Use a longer zoom lens. Unless you have a press pass to ringside, you'll probably be in the stands with the rest of us, so a long zoom is an essential to pull in subjects which are a way away and get them filling the frame. You want a 300mm lens or more really, but they do get expensive the longer they get, and the really cheapo 500mm lenses you see on eBay really are not worth splashing out on!

4. Pre-focus to where the action will be. By definition, you are shooting moving targets in action and sports photography. If you rely of the auto-focus of the camera and lens there can sometimes be a slight lag as the camera locks the focus, by which time you've probably missed the shot. So, again using the shot above as an example, you would switch into manual focus mode, and carefully move the focus ring on your lens while looking through the viewfinder, to make the middle of the crossbar pin-sharp. Then, as Jess begins her run up, you start shooting in multishot mode, so your camera is firing of several shots while you hold the shutter down. As Jess comes into your zone of focus she will then be sharp in the shot and the front page of the paper is now yours tomorrow!

5. Scout the best position. Good photographers check out different shooting angles because they know the type of shot they want. Go early, or make a pre- trip to your venue, and work out where you need to be, and how far away you will be, and then you can bring the right lens to get the shots you want.

6. Use a monopod. A tripod is great for getting rock steady shots, but you are working at faster shutter speeds anyway in sports photography, so a monopod is normally enough of an aid to avoid camera shake. Remember the rule of thumb that goes with long zoom lenses – if you are out at 300mm then to get a sharp shot you need a shutter speed of 1/300th of a second. Up at 500mm zoom you need 1/500th sec – that's why professional sports photographers all have the huge zooms which are very fast lenses letting in lots of light to get these shutter speeds – problem is that they cost a fortune!

7. Set Multi- shot on. As mentioned above in point 4, unless I'm shooting landscape, I always set the camera to multishot mode, and take a series of quick shots with the shutter held down. Very often in these sequences of shots you will find that the later shots in the sequence are sharper, because your finger movement from pressing down on the shutter has stopped and the camera is stiller than it was for the first shot or two.


8. Look at other good sports and action photography. As with all photography, a great source of ideas and inspiration is other photographers. The Olympics is a wonderful arena for this kind of photography, and every news outlet has dozens of creative shots which you should file away and use to guide and inform you when you are next at a sports event. Often the key thing is to find an unusual angle – that can turn a standard shot into a really dynamic one.

9. Use a fast memory card. Not all memory cards are equal! If action sequences are going to be a feature of your photography, then invest in a fast ca, which will allow the camera to write the photos down to it much quicker than a slow card. They cost a bit more but you don't find yourself waiting for the little light on the back to go out before you can shoot again. It can be very frustrating to miss the shot you wanted because your camera is locked up writing an earlier sequence of shots to a slow card. Get a x166 or higher for sports and action photography, and the bigger the better – cards fill up fast when you shoot sequences.

10. Look for emotion. Nothing brings photographs to life mo than emotion on the faces of subjects. Look to capture the effort, the elation, frustration, disappointment, whatever the emotion is sport tends to magnify it in the moment of triumph or disaster. If you are waiting and ready, these can be wonderful shots to capture.


Do you have any more tips for sports or action shots? If so, please share them as a comment.

Joe Houghton Photography runs small group photo walks, individual 1 to 1 tuition, and photography assignments. You can see some of Joe’s photography on Fine Art America, ArtistRising or on his Flickr site.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment, “Like” it on one of your social media sites or even better subscribe to the blog to get all the posts as they go up. Happy shooting!


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