Photography Tips

Photography & Video Underground in a Gold Mine

One of the things I enjoy the most is doing underground photography. Ever since I got my first assignment from a Gold Mine in South Africa asking whether I would be willing to travel deep underground and photograph a group of visitors who would be visiting their mine I was hooked. I was warned that the environment would be unlike anything I have experienced and I have to state to anyone who wants to do this, or ever is offered such a job, it is not like any photography job you will ever so.

Under ground the environment changes as it is artificially stimulated to sustain human life. The stope, that space at a rock face where ore is extracted, is hot, humid and dusty. It is an unfriendly and wild environment where the air is breathable, but not anywhere near comfortable. Mining is not for soft people…it requires a person dedicated, hardened and willing to work in an environment you will not experience above ground. There are men and women down there who collect many tons of ore to make just one golden trinket.

The first time I went underground I used my Sony A77 which is a crop sensor camera, but in the cramped spaces I soon discovered that the Sony SAL2875 SAM lens was just not wide enough. At the time I owned the Sony A900 as my only full-frame camera and I was very scared to take it down as it cost me so much money, but on a third trip down and noting that the A77 suffered no ill effects I took the A900 down and it was amazing! Full frame and a wide angle non-distorting lens is great! Yes, I could use wider angle lenses, but I did not want the distortion which comes with these lenses (I did try a 19mm lens and it was horrible underground).


Then I got a Sony A99

The Sony A99 change me as a photographer…it fealt as if I had re-entered the days of film, but with some super-juice! The Sony A99 is just a different piece of equipment designed around the photographer to make life simpler in even the harshest of environments. After spending so much money on my A99 you would think I would wait a while before I took it underground into the wild depths, but I had it less than a month and it accompanied me on my next available mine excursion. Why? Because the A77 and A900 had already proven to me that this class of camera is really weather sealed and more than capable of handling these extremes (and I did a wedding that next weekend with my A99!).


Now…a long time after taking the A99 underground it is still my favorite underground photography and even videography piece of equipment. There is not always a lot of light and I make do with what is down there as flash often destroys the mood. Even when shoot at ISO6400 I find the photos perfect for use in posters, booklet and even banners.

Here is a video snippet I shot yesterday on the Sony A99 while in one of the harshest environments in the world.


To Photoshop or not to Photoshop

The heading should actually read To Edit or Not to Edit, but the word Photoshop has become more a term synonymous with the editing procedure rather than the product by Adobe. As a photographer each of us are faced with editing decisions every day and each of us has developed a taste and style of editing. Here I am going to generalize a little for the purpose of simplicity and include all types of retouching done to original photos. Recently a number of articles have appeared which lambaste retouchers, photographers and magazines who edit photos to such an extreme that you would not recognize that person if you walked past them in the street.

What is my opinion on editing photos?

In my opinion editing is something which should be done subtly so that the end result still looks realistic and believable. When someone looks at one of my images I do not want them to immediately think…WOW, great Photoshop work, I want them to see the image and afterwards wonder if any editing had been done. Too many photographers, especially new photographers tend to overdo their work so that the first thing one sees is the editing and afterwards you notice the subject. I see so many people who smooth peoples faces to such an extent that they look like wax dolls, but this is unreal as no-one will ever look that way. Skin has a natural texture and it cannot be completely smooth. Below is a recently edited image (right) next to the unedited version straight from the camera (left). This shows the level of editing I like to use. The final image even still has some skin imperfections, but this is purposefully left as I believe in a concept I term “Perfect Imperfection” which is that little bit of reality I leave in a image to make it real.

Natasha Edit Sample

Does this make editing wrong?

No, editing is a fact of photography. Though some purists may argue that one should not edit photos at all, I feel it is a personal part of each photographer. Each one needs to decide how much they want to edit to suite their style. The editing method is personal and part of the artistic impression each photographer leaves on their work. Similarly I feel it is unfair to ask a photographer for unedited photos as they will always feel that the work was never completed. It is like walking into a restaurant and asking for uncooked food as you will just cook it at home…what is the point?

Triangle Lighting Setup

I recently posted a new Facebook Profile Photo and got quite a bit of response via email and Facebook inbox messages asking what the settings were and what the light setup was.

I call the light setup Triangle Lighting and I originally saw the famous headshot photographer, Peter Hurley, use something similar with continuous lighting. I thought that the light setup should theoretically work with strobes turned down fairly low.

I used two 90cm X 90cm softboxes turned about 30 degrees inward and placed right next to each other with a 140cm X 30cm stripbox (with grid) to close the lower half. Refer to the image (click on image to open in new window for slightly higher res image).

I set the strobes fairly low and measure with the two large softboxes to get an f/8.0 (on ISO100, 1/200 shutter) on my light meter. I measure with both strobes switched on as they are coming from the same angle and are additive to one another. I then measured the strip box alone at f/5.6 as it will be a fill only. I then measured everything together to confirm total additive light is not exceeding my aim of f/8.0

This lighting setup creates a large soft light area directly from the front result in a very flat lit image, but which is appealing for headshots where you need that well lit look. I set my 90X90 softboxes with a little more light than the stipbox so I do not complely eliminat shadow, but rather create just enough shadow to give the image definition. This is not 3 point lighting and I would say rather qualifies as single point lighting as all the light is coming from one angle.

The advantage of this lighting technique is that it simulates a very large light source and thus also softens the light. The only other time I have seen this same look is from a very large parabolic umbrella (1.8m or larger) behind the photographer. A big advantage of this kind of light is that it fills in even small shadow areas so skin appears very smooth, but then again, everything else tends to smooth out too so textures may become lost.

Pros of this lighting technique: Very soft flat lighting

Cons of this lighting technique: Very soft flat lighting

It is what it is and should be used where you need this look.

How to Edit Photos

I often get asked the question: “How do you edit your photos”

There is no simple answer to this question and it could even turn into a debate which could last days without a solution. Every photographer eventually develops their own style of editing and it is not always something you can impart on others in words. I am going to try to explain what I do when I edit my photos for portraits, weddings or almost anything else.

To edit or not to edit

In my opinion a professional photographer (someone who does photography for a living) should never let a photograph leave their hands in unedited form. It is very rare to photograph something which does not require even the smallest adjustment of some sort. I shoot all photos in RAW and not JPG so editing is a requirement as a pure RAW to JPG conversion would look bland in most cases. If you shoot photos in JPG then you are limited in what you can do in post processing with that photo. If you shoot in JPG then you may get the odd shots that are “perfect” straight from the camera, but in most cases you would want to do some tweaking and JPG editing will result in some sort of loss of quality, so I stick to RAW.

What is editing of a photo?

There are many arguments about what counts as editing and what not. Some photographers would argue that just adjusting contrast levels, saturation, exposure and tones is not editing, but I differ. I believe that anything which changes the original look of the photo is editing and includes:

  1. Contrast, Exposure, Saturation and any other “levels”
  2. Cropping, Straightening or change of aspect ratio
  3. Adding or Removing something from the image
  4. Adding filters
  5. Changing to Black and White

Developing your editing style

Developing an editing style is something very personal and you only realize this after a few years of editing photos. I find so many people who try to copy the styles of popular photographers over and over and they usually end up never feeling quite satisfied because their photos don’t look like those of their favorite photographer. Though there is nothing wrong with admiring another photographer, you should not try to copy another photographers’ editing style as you will usually just feel disappointed. You could use their style as a starting point and then work towards what really feels and looks good to you.

I developed my style by just looking at my images and deciding what I wanted to enhance. I have never tried to copy a style by anyone else. I love a more natural look which appears as close to reality as possible without the obvious Photoshop look. When I look at my images I want them to appear as if they were not edited but rather that they were just captured at the right time with the lighting and everything just having been correct (which does not happen in reality).

What do I edit in my images?

– Check the angles

I start by looking at my angle of the image and checking if the angle needs to be adjusted (straightened) to avoid distractions due to skew horizons or other lines. I usually concentrate heavily on this while taking shots so often straightening is not required.

– Cropping

You often hear other photographers, especially those who teach others, say that when you compose your shots to leave a little room at the top and bottom and left and right so you can crop to what you really want. I followed this technique for a very shot while since constantly cropping shots can become a time waster. I try to frame and compose the shot the way I want it in my final, but sometimes a little copping may be required.

– Eyes

If the angle and cropping is correct I check the eyes of my main subject(s) at 1:1 view (100% zoom). If the eyes are out of focus I reject the photo and move on the to next. If the eyes are out of focus the image may appear good enough at full size, but you will not be able to print enlargements of any sort. I may enhance the saturation and contrast of the eyes slightly, even on full length photos as it is something people viewing your photo always look at (unconsciously). On female subjects I may even darken lashes very slightly (30% burn).

– Blemishes

No-one has perfect skin, but over smoothing the skin gives a person a very plastic look and will look obviously edited. I apply a 30% softening brush with 40% added noise in cases where I want the skin to appear more even. Obvious skin blemishes I use the healing tool, but I try not to remove everything so the natural look is retained. I call this “Perfect Imperfection” I would look at a subject and decide which imperfections I am going to remove and then remove those same ones over and over in consecutive images while leaving a few others present. People looking at the image will note the one or two small imperfections which translate to a reality and subconsciously they believe the image was not edited.

– Lips

I usually add 10% saturation (yes, this is very subtle) to lips and increase sharpness about 30%. I also sometimes do a little dodge (20% or less) on middle parts of the lips to add a glossy look.

– Teeth

Over whitening of teeth look horrendous, yet I see it so often and it looks obviously edited. If I do have to do whitening of teeth I lower the saturation by 15% and increase exposure 20% (dodge) and no more. We have to accept that tooth enamel does not have a pure white glow unless seriously bleached and people accept this.

– Hair

I play quite a bit with hair by doing some dodging on the highlights and burning on mid-tone areas. Do not make dark areas too dark. Lightening highlight areas adds a glow but I keep this subtle so prevent the obvious edited look.

– Overall

Too much of anything is too much so I avoid high contrast to split lights and darks. I use dodge and burn brushes in various parts of an image to balance light towards what I want a viewers eye to really see.

Editing an image is a personal thing and you should do what looks good to you, but also try to be consistent in the way you approach every shoot in terms of editing. Once your style is developed then people start recognizing your images from others. Wildly moving from one editing style to another confuses people and they never know what they are going to get when they come to you for their photo shoot.

Below is an example of a before and after editing image. The original looks fine, but just adding those subtle edits enhances the original into a more appealing image.

Before and After Editing

Black and White Versus Colour

I love Black & White Photos and often get requests to do photos in Black & White, but I prefer to provide photos in colour. Why? Because Black & White is a what is commonly referred to as a filter. There are many tools available (many of them free) that can convert a photo to Black & White (apply the Black and White filter) or Sepia or Vintage Tones or many other filter styles. I prefer to stay away from filters when providing photos as once applied you are pretty much stuck with it. If I provide a customer with a great colour photo they can “play with filters” using their favourite software as much as they like. The same goes for fancy frames, writing and any other additions to the photos. I do not want to provide a photo to my customer that they have to accept as is, such as Black and White (even though it may be striking) because it cannot be changed to colour later. This photo is an example of how great Black and White would look, but the colour option is just a good.

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