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Monday 20 July 2015

City Academy : Lifestyle Photography

When I started blogging two years ago, I had no idea how long I was going to do it for, and I definitely went for quantity not quality on all fronts.  Despite owning a Canon 500D, I trusted in my mighty Samsung Galaxy for photography to begin with (first world problems).  

Many bloggers and Instagrammers stick by their phones (for very understandable ease of use and efficiency reasons - Clerkenwell Boy seems to be doing alright eh?) but I caved after a couple of months and switched over to my DSLR camera.  

Since then, progress has been slow but steady, and Matt The Tumblr was set up a year ago primarily to showcase food & drink photos following the purchase of my now most trusted lens, "the nifty fifty" Canon 50mm f1.8.  If you want to make the step up from your starter kit lens, look no further.

Two years on I'm definitely still winging it, so I jumped at the chance to take part in a photography course run by City Academy.  They currently run six different £110 day-long courses:

City Academy Photography Classes

I riskily skipped the beginners course and went straight for Lifestyle Photography on the grounds that I could already fake "a good understanding of aperture, shutter speed and ISO".  Have a read of these handy beginner guides on (Aperture / Shutter Speed / ISO) if you want to be top of the class.  They are the three key settings (the "exposure triangle" if you will) that you should play around with to sort out the exposure.

For example, if you are shooting in really low light, you need to whack up the ISO (light sensitivity) which will lead to some grain ("noise"), and drop to a low "f stop" (which is confusingly a high aperture - this will reduce the depth of field / amount in focus) - then see what shutter speed you can get away with depending on how mobile your subject is!  If you are mostly taking hand held shots, you can't have too slow a shutter speed (say below 1/40) unless you have zen-like steady hands.

I'm often shooting right on the limit of my lens' capability with an aperture / f-stop of f1.8 and ISO of 3200 as London's bartenders are afraid of daylight, but ideally I like to get back to f2.8 so that I can keep more in focus / get a sharper image.  I don't mind the odd noisy photo (from a high ISO) as it lends a certain atmosphere, and a blurry background ("bokeh") from the high aperture can be really effective in certain lighting.

Noisy night shots at Doodle Bar in Battersea - 1/2000 // f 1.8 // ISO 3200

Noisy night shots at Doodle Bar in Battersea - 1/1000 // f 1.8 // ISO 3200

Blurry background "bokeh" at Peg + Patriot - 1/100 // f 1.8 // ISO 3200

Blurry lights on a rainy bus ride - 1/50 // f 2.0-2.8 // ISO 200

If I've lost you already, don't worry - have a read of the beginner stuff linked above and then play around with your camera, only changing one of the three core settings at a time until you get the hang of it. As with practicing your scales, I'm afraid you've just got to go and do it.  If the idea of manual really scares you, shoot on full-auto but look at what settings it chose for the shot (if you like it!) and work back to manual from there.

Anyway, back to City Academy.  So Lifestyle Photography is all about capturing the art of the everyday - the aim is to tell a story with each shot.  Easier said than done. Our teacher for the day was the wonderful Carole Edrich who specialises in dance photography (and has learnt 65 different types of dance along the way!) - her wealth of experience shooting fast motion in low light would definitely come in handy at Rematch Beeyatch!  

After a quick chat about some basics to gauge our levels, Carole sent us around the building to work on a couple of things. My mission was to pay closer to attention to light sources and play with the white balance settings designed to correct pesky lighting problems - I'd been largely ignoring it, assuming that AWB was an obscure reference to a Scottish funk band from the 70s, rather than Auto White Balance.

I've got Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten Light and White Fluorescent Light options to play with on my Canon 500D.  Rather than using them to get an image closer to what I was seeing with my eyes, Carole encouraged me to mess around and tell a different story. Game on. 

First of many meta shots + some funky "shade" white balance

Trying out different white balance settings - can't resist musical shots

Scroll down for some outdoor rain shots turned blue (shiny & chrome) by my new favourite Tungsten Light WB setting.  Learn more about white balance here.

It's worth saying at this point that you can obviously do a fair amount white balance-wise in post-production with the likes of Lightroom, especially if you have been shooting in RAW mode rather than JPEG, which is a whole other debate - RAW vs JPEG.  Basically JPEGs are easier to use and store, but RAW gives you way more flexibility in post, especially if you miscalculated the shot. Carole told us of a trip where she ran out of memory and was forced to abandon shooting in RAW and instead had to reply on JPEGs that compress and diminish in quality over time, making them hard to use professionally a few years down the line.

If in doubt (and if you have the space), set your camera to save both RAW and JPEG until you figure out what's going on! I could go in to some more detail, but you are better off reading the article on it (link above) - that's what I'm doing right now!

After some RAW chat, we took to the streets of London.  The four of us (a small group) were keen to look at food so we dropped in to Patisserie Valerie to get stuck in to composition.  In this case, the shots were fully under our control so we could compose them by moving the subjects themselves, changing the placement of neighbouring items, and by altering our own position, all in an effort to guide the viewer's eye towards the most important elements of our story, and to show off our individual style. 

A good place to start is with the old rule of thirds / golden ratio and leading lines (big fan).  As a former mathmo and Fibonacci fanboy, I should probably pay more attention to the rule of thirds, but I tend to frame things quickly on instinct rather than mathematically - the benefits of having a 5-second countdown from hungry friends wanting to eat their photogenic food. You can always crop it later (bit risky!). Then there's depth of field to think about - a lowish f-stop (f2.5-3.5) should get the key dish in focus and some nice background blur, but you might want take a different approach if you are shooting a feast! Oh and don't forget lighting, and loads of other stuff. It's complicated, this photography lark.

Obviously, when you aren't in control of the subject / scene (as is usually the case in street photography), then you need to do what you can with your own positioning.  Carole's rule of thumb is "do the opposite of what tourist photographers are doing" - i.e. change your angles, get up close and personal, don't compose centrally etc! She's also a firm believer in something red being in every shot, hence the umbrella.

Next stop was Itsu for some motion blur practice (and lunch).  Product placement alert! We took turns shooting a can of DIET COKE whilst someone walked up and down behind it, confusing Itsu customers no end. With a slower (but still manageable) shutter speed of around 1/15 / 1/20, balanced by a higher f-stop (lower aperture), we made the can appear frozen in time whilst the world carried on behind it.  

In a similar vein, we attempted to follow moving objects (cyclists, cars), panning the camera smoothly at a similar speed to keep them in focus - tricky.  Snipers / clay pigeon pros would no doubt find it all rather easy.  There's a lot of fun to be had with long exposure (very slow shutter speed) - trying to capture lightning, making waterfalls look magical, adding ghosts to images, making patterns with glow sticks etc, but you'll need a tripod / surface to sort most of that out.

Motion blur with stationary subject - 1/15 // f 14 // ISO 800

Motion blur with moving subject - 1/20 // f 14 // ISO 100

Here's a random, purposefully overexposed shot I took outside - apparently I can claim this as chiaroscuro (a term commonly associated with Rembrandt) since it features high-contrast, distinct areas of light and dark (not so sure about the latter). Perhaps I need some more shadows in there too. I don't really know what I'm talking about, let's be honest. Still - it's a cool shot. Moving on.

Overexposed? Chiaroscuro? Who knows? 1/50 // f 4 // ISO 100

To finish, Carole sent us off with a bunch of tasks to keep our eyes open and test our ability to adapt and compose quickly.  In search of funky shoes, I went all tungsten white balance on my Vans next to a puddle.

Our travels took us across Waterloo Bridge where I really struggled to take any interesting landscape shots, even with the shapely London Eye and Big Ben in view.  A wide-angle lens might have helped but it was mostly down to the dull, cloudy lighting - I needed to take it in a gritty direction, but was unsure of how to go about it.  Carole might regret giving me her email address...

The Southbank skate park was more my scene, with great potential for silhouettes (or more chiaroscuro?) looking out towards the river. Inevitably I ended up shooting the photographers instead as usual.  This is probably my favourite shot from the day:

Skate park silhouette - 1/1000 // f 1.8 //  ISO 100

We ended in the Royal Festival Hall for prize-giving and a debrief.  The day flew-by and everyone on the course was in high spirits after several hours of pointing and clicking which is a testament to Carole's approach.  We were lucky to have such a small group, but I'm sure it would work well with more students too.  

What now? I'm eyeing up my next City Academy photography course (probably Street Photography), ideally with another teacher for a different perspective, and a trip to Fixation / Calumet is in order to check out some wide angle prime lenses ahead of a trip to the incredibly photogenic US West Coast.  

Aside: If anyone from Canon is reading, please send me some expensive kit, or I'll switch to Nikon. If anyone from Nikon is reading, I'm very happy with my Canon set-up - make me an offer I can't refuse and we'll talk.

A late entry for the funky shoes contest

Some more useful / interesting articles from


How to photograph food with a camera phone

Food photography tips // Photographing food outdoors

Black and White Photography // Low Light Photography

Photographing Waterfalls // Photoshop vs Lightroom


My favourite London photographers:

Charlotte Hu / Chris Coulson / Gaztronome / Addie Chinn / Seb Roberts / MKJLB


Of course, there's more to City Academy than photography workshops. From Diva Dance Classes to Film Making Workshops on remaking the bullet-time scene from The Matrix, they've probably got what you are after, plus a whole lot more that you didn't realise you wanted to learn until you saw it on their list.  Check out the full list of City Academy classes on the website -


  1. Love what you're doing here guys, keep it up!..
    pregnancy photographers

  2. Canon 500D is a camera for amateurs with a good set of features. The only major drawback is that there are more advanced models of the younger line of SLR Canon cameras, such as 550D, 600D, 650D. very interesting article about photo editing


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