Graphics and the element of surprise

Damien Demolder street photographyCafé, Prague

In my head street photography is architecture with people in it, so I am constantly on the lookout for ways to show how humans and buildings come together to create the atmosphere of a place. Every town and city has different zones, where a different style of building exists and where different atmospheres prevail. None is more or less valid than the other, and while some are more obviously attractive to the eye than others we can choose to remember that we don’t need conventional beauty to make in interesting picture.

This picture was shot in one of the less touristy areas of Prague, in the Czech Republic. If you type ‘Prague’ into Google images this part of town in unlikely to pop up – it’s a little shopping area near a train station on a junction of two busy roads. It isn’t one of the famous bridges, or in the quaint old town.

What caught my eye here was the vibrant graphics in the window of the café, and the rigid lines and angles that make up the framework of the window. The reflection of the building across the road fits nicely into the theme of collected rectangles – and the light streaking across the pavement adds texture that somehow works well with the curved shades of the bread and cream illustrations in the window.

These elements would all be fine on their own, as observational architectural details, but the man in the café brings humanity into the scene and brings the place to life. He was kind enough to sit just in the right place, so that the sun caught his nicely reflective head, making him just the right brightness so he stands out from the scene. He is dramatically round in a frame full of squares, which makes him drawn our eye by breaking the pattern, but the tonal and chromatic contrast helps to lift him from the dark background so we can see him through the reflections.

I like this sort of surprise – where we look at a big scene but are drawn by visual coincidences to one small part of the frame. It is the job of the photographer to say ‘look what I saw’ and to ensure that part is what the viewer sees too. I hope that in this case you experience the scene the same way I did when I came across it.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 with 12mm f/2 lens

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Drinking coffee, Prague. Damien Demolder

 

Lighting for 3D effect – orange pillar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALighting for 3D effect – orange pillar

It is through directional lighting that we appreciate the three-dimensional qualities of the things around us. Very early on in primary school art classes we learn to draw a cube and shade one side black and another grey; I was amazed how it jumped off the page, and repeated the exercise over and over. Of course we understand how all this works when we have a pencil in our hands, but it is another thing to apply the same principles when out with a camera.

Depth through layers

This image has a sense of depth through the different layers created by the lighting of the scene, and these make the man stand out clearly from the foreground and the background. As a silhouette he could be a cardboard cut-out, except that the light falling on his left foot suddenly lets us know he is in fact a 3D object.

The single bulb that lights the scene creates a definite mix of 2D and the 3D objects, and the contrast between them makes one stand out from the other. The heavy side lighting on the pillar describes very clearly its cylindrical form, and because of the strength of this impression the flat cut-out top half of the man’s body stands out. That he is sharply defined, with jet-black hair, eyebrows, lips and nose, against one of the lightest areas of the scene, our attention is drawn immediately. The figure jumps off the page by being 2D against a 3D background, and then by his 3D foot against the 2D background of the pavement.

Understanding the scale

We know exactly how far into the scene the man is, as we have his shadow to mark the position for us with engineer’s precision on the pavement – the grid of which lends us the front-to-back measures of the stage he is striding across.

There is further mix of 2D and 3D elements on the rear wall, where the long straight shadow of the door catch breaks the flat plane of the image background with one small but significant area of relief.

Atmosphere of mystery

I rather like that the fact we only have an outline of the figure makes his identity something of mystery. We get some clues, but not enough to really know much about him. He evades our detection, just as he bypasses the CCTV camera mounted on the wall in the background – that focuses only on a very empty dark door where there is clearly nothing going on. The mystery is continued by the dangerous deep orange night-time glow of the ambient street lighting.

The right person in the right place

When I saw this scene I knew I would be able to get something out of it, so I lined up the shot and waited for the right person to walk in to it. What makes this chap work is that he is in full hurried stride, giving a clear sense of his outline shape. This stride coincides with the moment right before his outline breaks the brightest edge of the pillar, so his darkness is at maximum contrast and he doesn’t interfere with that powerful long straight line. That he doesn’t intersect that line is critically important – we rely on the strength of his outline to identify what he is, and if that outline is complicated by external elements the message becomes less clear. And rather nicely, his shadow leads us from the lower left corner in a powerful diagonal straight to the subject of the photograph.

Olympus PEN E-PL5 with Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH
f/2.5 and 1/150sec @ ISO 1600

I run regular street photography classes around London, both during the day and at night, so why not join me and a very small group of other photographers for some instruction and inspiration – and a lot of fun?

I can help to improve your photography whatever your level of experience. Find out more in the Events and Courses section.

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Create 3D pictures with a sense of depth. Damien Demolder

 

Photographing graphic shapes

Photographing graphic shapes Damien Demolder in London. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Photographing graphic shapes – creating a frame

Most built-up areas are created using three basic shapes and the variations on them; rectangles, triangles and circles. Alongside those basic shapes we have the lines that define their edges and demonstrate their existence. When we recognise these shapes, and acknowledge that they are the foundations of the city structure, we can begin to make the most of them in our pictures. And when we do that, we tap into an awareness that can create really powerful images.

This picture is all about shapes and the lines that create them. The shapes of the world this man lives in are hard-edged and rigid, while his own shape is rounded, organic and soft – so he stands out against the foreground and the background. That act of standing out makes us aware that he is the subject, but only in the sense that his presence makes the hard/soft contrast possible – and it is that contrast that helps us to notice the hardness, rigidity and geometry of the world around him.

The frame

I shot this through a vast metal sculpture at Liverpool Street station’s Broadgate Circle entrance, in London. Looking between the great sheets of metal, I liked the way a giant doorway could be formed and the way the soft light of the overcast morning was bleeding into the deep dark shadow inside the structure itself.

The viewer’s first thought on seeing the image is probably that we are looking through a four sided aperture, but the four-sided idea comes only from the fact that the triangle made by the converging edges of the metal sheets meets the top of a wall that leads into another darkness in the distance. The two dark areas can play the trick of fooling us that they are one – and the overall visual effect is that they are as between them they contain our attention and hold all the action.

Composition and shooting position

I had to position myself quite carefully to ensure that I made the most of the shapes and lines on offer here. To get the full impact of a structure and its angles it’s important to have some sort of baseline that grounds us and lets us know we are standing straight and upright ourselves. In this picture that levelling anchor is the group of lines on the steps – that travel left to right parallel to the bottom edge of the frame. These, whether we recognise it immediately or not, let us know we are upright and perpendicular. When we know that, we can appreciate the relationships of all the other lines and shapes in the picture – that they really are off at an angle, and that it isn’t just us leaning over ourselves.

The lines of the steps are a strong visual element as they contain so much contrast themselves. The treads are lit from above, while the risers are comparatively dark. The combination makes a series of black and white lines, running like those on a sheet of ruled writing paper. They are powerful and influence our perception of the scene. That they are straight, and that our brain knows that, allows us to see the slope of the path, the diagonal of the handrail, the man’s upward journey and the angled edges of the sculpture.

The right man

I shot quite a few images from this position, as I experimented with composition and the different types of people using the path. Once I was satisfied with the camera angle and my exposure, I just had to wait for the right person. While it is easy to project what you think the right person will look like before they arrive, we should always be ready for whatever comes along. Here I knew I wanted a ‘city person’, and a suited worker would fit the bill, but with the light-toned background I had expected to be making a silhouette of someone in black. It didn’t occur to me that Colombo would come by, with a pale raincoat and newspaper – but he did, and I’m very grateful for that.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 with Taylor, Taylor and Hobson 2in f/2 Telekinic lens via a C-Mount adapter

 

I run regular street photography classes around London, both during the day and at night, so why not join me and a very small group of other photographers for some instruction and inspiration – and a lot of fun?

I can help to improve your photography whatever your level of experience. Find out more in the Events and Courses section.

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Photographing graphic shapes Damien Demolder in London. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Photographing graphic shapes Damien Demolder in London. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

 

 

 

The power of eye contact – Dean looks up
Boy looking up at first communion

Catching the attention

I had been asked to take pictures at a First Holy Communion by the father of the boy in this picture. I’d done all the usual shots and had more than enough pictures to keep daddy happy. With the job safely covered I was able to hunt out some different angles, and to take a few risks that may or may not have paid off.
I’d reckoned the organ loft would produce a few good pictures anyway, as I could get the children posing for the congregation at the end of the service, and get that wider view to include the families and guests crowding round to give a fuller account of the story. I used a focal length to just include the kids at first, as I wanted to catch some of their excitement and their interactions with each other. For many of them this was the first special occasion in which they had been the centre point, so they were buzzing.
As I framed the group the boy in the middle, who was my subject, looked up and saw me above him. As his eyes met the lens I checked the focus was right on him and I took the shot. All I got was the one frame, as he quickly reverted to facing forward at the crowd of other picture takers.
I hadn’t known that he would look up, and if he hadn’t I’d have just got some nice pictures of the whole environment, but because I was there and ready, when he did look up I got a picture that I couldn’t have prayed for.
His eye contact demonstrates how we react to other humans. The eyes make us look at him first, and we find it hard to look away for a while. We do, and we investigate all the other things that are going on in the frame, but the first and the last things any viewer will see are those eyes. They are only small in the picture, but their power is undeniable.
As usual I shot this in colour, and converted the file to black and white using the Channel Mixer. The more detailed channel is always green, and its more moderate contrast suits this subject very well. I tempered the bias to green with a touch of red and some noisy blue, but the green channel accounted for 80% of the information.

Simple compositions – shapes and tones

simple-compositionsThere is a difference between obvious subjects and those we have to search for. Obvious subjects might be a dramatic sunset, a lit fountain at night, the Eiffel Tower at anytime of the year or a zebra driving a jeep down the high street – these are things you couldn’t resist taking a picture of. Less obvious subjects only appear when you take time to be observant and have your eyes open to patterns, shapes and tones. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain exactly what it is you are photographing, but you can see there is a picture there all the same. And often it is only when you have the time to sit and study the picture after you have taken it that you begin to understand what it was that you saw in the first place.

The great thing about the less obvious picture is that fewer people see them, and so fewer people take them – so you picture will stand out as being different. 

This picture was taken on an overcast day on a ship far out at sea. Walking the decks with my camera in my hand the obvious thing to do was to look outwards to see what was out at sea. But as the answer was ‘nothing’, the only thing to do was to photograph the ship itself. 

Ships, especially old ones like the QE2, are beautiful to look at. They have wonderful smooth curves and endless lines of rivets, panels, handrails and planking. In the low contrast light of the clouded sky the shapes of the ship were revealed in lightly graduated tones, as moderate shadow slipped into moderate highlight and all the details were carefully preserved. 

Exposing a white scene

Shooting a white subject on a white day can create some exposure difficulties. If you let the camera make all the exposure choices you’ll end up with an image that is just too dark and dull. The camera’s meter will only see a very bright scene and will recommend buttoning down the aperture to ensure things don’t appear too bright. The camera doesn’t know of course that you want the subject to appear bright – it is white after all, so you have to take a little control to add brightness. On this occasion I only had to shift the exposure by about 1/2EV. Using the exposure compensation mode I dialled in +1/2EV – but you can as easily do this in manual exposure mode and open the aperture to over expose by ½ a stop. 

Uprights

A scene like this, which relies on its simplicity, requires that you allow the viewer to appreciate the shapes and tones unhindered by distractions. Firstly make sure that are no annoying, eye grabbing, objects in the scene – a cigarette end, a bit of litter or a person for example. Next, make sure you are not creating any visual distractions, such as sloping horizons, converging verticals and lines that are simply not level. You can’t just point and shoot; there needs to be a few moments devoted to ensuring the camera is straight and level. This doesn’t take much effort, but it will make the difference between a pleasing shot and one that does not convey your message.  

After effects – software manipulation

The key to the success of this image is its simplicity, soft contrast, neutral muted colours and smooth tonality. So long as the white balance – I shot this on the ‘daylight’ setting – was about right in-camera there shouldn’t be too much you’ll need to do to the picture in software. I opened this frame and looked for a while, itching to do something to it. I tried a few things and messed about a bit before I realised that what I really needed to do was to leave it alone. So, I did. 

Pentax K10D, smc Pentax DA-70mm f/2.4 limited edition lens at f/2.4 and 1/2000sec, ISO 400. 

See more of Damien Demolder’s recent photographic posts here

To see more of my pictures visit my galleries at www.damiendemolder.com

To see more of my pictures
visit my photo galleries site
at www.damiendemolder.com


 

simple-compositions

The shot looks very nice in black and white too

The shot looks very nice in black and white too

Using a neutral density graduated filter – Beltany stone circle

• Using neutral density filters • white balance for dawn light •

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

Balancing the brightness of sky and land is a regular problem at any time of day, but first thing in the morning, when the weak sun has still to cast its rays across the landscape, showing the detail in the foreground requires drastic action. On this morning I wanted to capture the atmosphere before the sun had really got up and started to shine. With a fine cover of cloud in the east the sun was up but only as a giant red ball with no real power, but its influence was enough to add a golden glow to the heads of grass in this late summer field.

I had been pointing the camera skyward to place the stone circle at the bottom of a frame of ‘big sky’. From the many times I have visited this place I knew there is only one angle from which to shoot this stone circle that allows it to be shown as a ring rather than a fragmented collection of rocks. It’s unfortunate that the only shooting position is in a dip in the land, which means it’s impossible not to be looking up at the subject. But with a wideangle lens aimed upwards to place the stones at the bottom of the frame the picture just looked like many others I had shot before. I was shooting ‘big sky’ because that is what I had in my head before I arrived, but I had to look a little harder at the scene when I realised the ‘big sky’ composition wasn’t going to work.

Looking afresh made me realise that I was missing an important and interesting element of the scene – the grass heads. The naturally low angle also meant I could include the grasses without tilting the camera down – so distortion would be kept at bay as the camera would be absolutely level.
While including the foreground solved one problem it introduced another. In the unlit morning, the grasses were much darker than the sky, and even the stones in their elevated position. The answer in this situation is to use a neutral density graduated filter to reduce the intensity of the light from the sky while allowing the light through from the lower parts of the scene. I used a 0.6 ND grad, and picked one with a ‘hard’ transition from clear to dark as the horizon is pretty straight in this shot.

It’s important in scenes like this, where you want to capture the natural colours of the morning light and sky that you set an appropriate white balance on your camera. I always use the normal ‘daylight’ setting, as this produces colours closest to what our eyes see, and will show those pinks, peaches and reds in all their glory. If you use auto white balance (AWB) the camera will do it’s best to neutralise those colours.

Canon EOS 1Ds lll with EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens and Lee 0.6 ND graduated filter. ISO 100, 1/3sec @ f/16.

Find Beltany Stone circle on the map, and read information about it

See more of Damien Demolder’s recent photographic posts here

To see more of my pictures visit my galleries at www.damiendemolder.com

To see more of my pictures
visit my photo galleries site
at www.damiendemolder.com


 

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

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A sense of depth – The Boathole

Using layers in your compositon • low angles to show the foreground • selective focusing for emphasis

Boat on Loch Foyle, at the Boathole, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. By Damien DemolderIt’s hard to create a sense of depth in a photograph, as we are trying to convey our impressions of a three dimensional scene using a flat piece of paper. To get the message over to the viewer we have to choose carefully what we show, as well as how we show it.

We are told that a 50mm lens gives the same angle of view as our eyes, when it’s mounted on a 35mm camera or full frame sensor (it’s about 35mm for APS-C sensors). Really, though, this only represents what we can concentrate on, rather than what we can actually see. There is a big difference between what we take in when we look directly at something, such as when we are talking to another person a few feet away, and what we experience when we are taking in a view or enjoying a pleasant scene. We build a profile in our heads of the atmosphere of a place not by looking in one direction or by concentrating on any single element, but by looking around ourselves, at our surroundings and the sky, and combining all the elements to create a whole and complete impression. We analyse the details, notice what is at our feet and what is in the distance, what is to the side of us, and how the place is made up.

The layers
On this morning I was enjoying the high grasses and plants as I pushed my way through their rain-wet leaves to get to the shore. Before I got to the water’s edge I stopped and took in the scene. What I was struck by was the combination of the flowers up to my waist, the stillness of the water and its gently turning boat, and the pale colours in the pre-sunrise sky. The horizon was almost out of sight in the mist, but before it was a splendid foreground, a high-contrast attention-seeking middle ground, and the shapes of the other side of the loch against the pale blue sky.

Lens choice
To get a sense of realism rather than sheer impact I used the 35mm end of a 16-35mm zoom lens, and, fitted to a tripod, dropped the camera to below the level of the flower tops. Rather than stopping down and focusing a third of the way into the scene for maximum depth of field, I focused on the flowers just a few feet in front of me. I wanted them to get the attention, as even when soft the sky, the boat, the loch and the distance could look after themselves. Viewers are going to look into the distance anyway, but by pulling the focus to the foreground it ensures they pay attention there too.

Brightness balancing
Obviously, with such a range of brightness values I wasn’t going to get the correct exposure for the flowers while still showing the colours of the sky, so I used a 0.9 (3EV) neutral density graduated filter to hold back the illumination levels of the sky and its reflection. This balanced the exposure enough so I could show all the elements within the camera’s dynamic range.

With white balance set for daylight I was able to capture the cool tones of the morning without the camera attempting to turn the scene into a Caribbean dreamscape.

I think that what I have created is a picture that has a real sense of depth that allows the viewer to place him or herself there at the scene, on that morning and see and enjoy the things I experienced too. And if you get yourself up at 4am to look at it the experience will become even more real again!

Canon EOS 1Ds III, with EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens set to 35mm, 1.6sec and f/16 at ISO 100. I used a HiTech filter system 0.9 ND graduated filter to reduce the brightness of the sky. TeamWork sells them

Shot at The Boathole on Loch Foyle, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. Click to see a map.

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To see more of my pictures visit my galleries at www.damiendemolder.com

To see more of my pictures
visit my photo galleries site
at www.damiendemolder.com

Boat on Loch Foyle, at the Boathole, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. By Damien Demolder

Reflections in puddles – flat tyre

Low angles – using puddle reflections – keeping a clear message – dynamic composition

Pentax K10D, Sigma 10-20mm wide angle zoom lens. Volkswagon Beatle with a flat tyre, in a rundown area of Warsaw, Poland. Most photographers would agree that reflections are the number one tool for those looking to add a little something to their pictures. It seems everyone is fascinated by them, and quite rightly too, as they provide us not only with an upside down mirror-image view of the world, their lack of clear resolution can deliver a quick and easy impressionist element to our pictures.

The obvious places to find reflections are in lakes and rivers, as well as in the window-fronted skyscrapers of the city – where we like to contrast the modern with an old church spire. We sometimes use the reflections of shop windows to show what is in and out at the same time, which is all very clever.

What we don’t do so often, mostly because we are all slightly afraid of the rain, is use the reflections in puddles to enhance our street photography. Cities and towns are filled with hopeless drainage systems and dips and holes in the pavements. These are brilliant places to find the answer to catching a completely different view of a scene that has been shot a million times, or to producing a more dynamic view of a scene that might otherwise be not so remarkable.

In this shot I wanted to capture a sense of what this slightly rundown area of Warsaw was like. I had tried quite a few different angles and compositions which all showed the street and the flats in a matter of fact sort of way that, while doing the job of communicating the content of the area, looked a little bit uninteresting. Being a rather damp place in December Poland had got me hooked on puddles, and seeing this rather exciting one, positioned perfectly next to the flat tyre of a Volkswagen Beetle, I knew my prayers had been answered.

Taking a low angle automatically creates a picture that looks different, and with the angle I was able to create a really strong horizontal convergence using the lines of the building. This makings it streak through the picture from right to left, drawing the eye right into the depths of the scene, until the eye crashes into the buildings at the end of the road. You can them come back to see the flat tyre, the eastern European car, the bare trees, the knackered kerbstones, the rusting wheel arch and all the things that I wanted to show that build a picture of the atmosphere of the place. Of course, here the puddle itself adds to the sense of dereliction, as it suggests the road is poor too – which it was.

To get such a dramatic view I used a really wide angle lens – a 10-20mm zoom at the widest setting. I didn’t want the dominant effect to be that of a wide angle, and the exaggerated sense of perspective that they can introduce, so I was careful to hold the camera as straight and level as I could. There is some ‘leaning’, but not much, and certainly not enough to draw attention. In cases like this, where the subject matter is strong in its own right, it is important to avoid photographic ‘effects’ that create a talking point in themselves. I didn’t want people to see the picture and say ‘Wow, what a wide angle’; I wanted people to notice the place and the clues that help to get a feel for what that area is like. Sometimes the power of lens effects can draw attention away from what you are trying to show, and to communicate what it is you have to say you have to be aware of that. Use photography to convey your message, not to detract from it.

The picture has a black and white look to it which I have been careful not to undo by adding saturation. I have altered the mid-tone contrast a little, by creating a kink in the central section of the Levels curve, but other than that the shot is just as the scene was.

Unless you have Live View with a flip-out screen, shooting from a low angle like this is either a guessing game or one where you lay on your face in the street. I try to wedge the camera onto the toe of my boot, as I show in this other post about low angles.

Pentax K10D, Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens 1/30sec @ f/5 and ISO 400.

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To see more of my pictures visit my galleries at www.damiendemolder.com

To see more of my pictures
visit my photo galleries site
at www.damiendemolder.com

Pentax K10D, Sigma 10-20mm wide angle zoom lens. Volkswagon Beatle with a flat tyre, in a rundown area of Warsaw, Poland.

Low angles, new views – Lazienki Palace, Warsaw

Lazienki Palace, Palace upon the water, Warsaw. Damien DemolderThere are plenty of places all over the world that have been photographed again and again in exactly the same way from exactly the same place. Often there is a really obvious angle that lines up essential elements of the place so well that it takes will power not to take a picture from that position – even though you know that everyone else who has ever visited that site has the exactly the same shot. In fact, at some sites the famous view is so famous the place is unrecognisable from any other angle.

If you are making a photographic documentary of a place it is probably important to capture the well-worn view, but at the same time we should be looking to start afresh and to capture a different take. I have found that in many cases the most popular views aim for the spectacular image rather than that which communicates what the place is really like.

In shooting the Palace on the Water, in Warsaw’s Lazienki Palace gardens in late autumn, I wanted to get away from the obvious views across the lake with its symmetrical reflections and well formed tripod holes, to assess the place anew so I could show what it all meant to me.

One of the most striking things about the surroundings of the palace, apart from the lake, is the mass of trees. While the popular view shows trees it doesn’t really demonstrate quite how many there are or their importance to the overall atmosphere of the place.

In this picture I used a really low angle to show what is on the ground, the types and volume of trees in the gardens as well, of course, as the lake and the all important distinctive characteristics of the palace itself.

In the autumn the place has a quite distinctive feel, with the golden foliage, wet and colour saturated, lying on the ground, and the lightly overcast low angled sunlight. The air is cool and the atmosphere damp, rich and earthy. I wanted to show the detail of the foliage, its colours as well as the palace itself – so this low angle seemed the ideal route to take. I used a 10mm wideangle lens (the equivalent of 15mm on a full frame or 35mm camera) and closed the aperture down to just f/8 to get a significant depth of field without attempting to achieve complete front to back sharpness. By keeping enough detail on the palace it’s easy to see what it is, but with the focus and attention on the foreground the view is presented in a different way – most people focus on the palace.

The soft light meant a low contrast effect in the leaves and the horse chestnut came naturally, and also meant I didn’t have to contend with extreme brightness differences between the foreground and the background. I took a spot meter reading from the palace and then opened the exposure by 1EV to render it a lighter grey tone – which just happened to be perfect for the foreground details as well.

To get the low angle I held the camera down on the toe of my boot and guessed the framing – checking straightness and composition on the LCD each time. If I had been using a film camera I would have laid on the floor, or used an angle finder to make sure I got everything right first time.

Pentax K10D with Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5-4.5 , 1/15sec @ f/8 and ISO 400.

To see more of my pictures visit my galleries at www.damiendemolder.com

To see more of my pictures
visit my photo galleries site
at www.damiendemolder.com

Lazienki Palace, Palace upon the water, Warsaw. Damien Demolder