A guide to panoramic photography

How to shoot sequential images and then merge them together in the computer to create a panoramic view of a scene

Nigel recently gave his first online talk of 2022, and on this occasion he gave the audience a guide to panoramic photography. This is the technique associated with the creation of a large rectangular image from several standard images, often with a wider view than is possible in any single image.

He gave an overview of both the in-camera photographic techniques, and the post-photography in-computer skills needed to create beautiful panoramic images. This talk is now available any time on You Tube, and can be watched here. Just click on the link below.

Step 1: Creating a sequence of images

As a guide to panoramic photography the first step towards success is to shoot a series of overlapping image that pan across a scene. To do this follow this list of do’s and don’ts:

  • Shoot with the camera in the vertical/portrait orientation. This gives a wider (ie from top to bottom) image that can help if any later cropping is needed.
  • Mount the camera on a tripod. Although the sequence of shots can be done with the camera hand-held, you are much more likely to be able to maintain a level horizon throughout the sequence if the camera is on the tripod.
  • Make sure both tripod and camera head are completely level. If they are not, then as the camera rotates to shoot the sequence it will start to tilt, putting the horizon out of line.
  • Shoot the sequence with a lens no wider than 35mm in focal length (on a full-frame camera). Using a lens with a shorter focal length than this can result in distortion in the image corners, making it difficult for the panoramic software to subsequently merge the images.
  • If shooting a view where there is no foreground with elements less than about 30 metres from the camera, it is fine to rotate around the camera body.
  • However, if shooting a view with a foreground and nearby elements, to avoid any parallax changes as the camera rotates it is better to rotate the camera around the lens’s nodal point, not the camera body. The nodal point is the lens’s optical centre, not necessarily the physical centre.
  • To achieve this, have the camera mounted on a sliding focussing mount, coupled with a vertical locking plate that allows the camera to sit above the focussing rail in the vertical position.
  • Slide the camera backwards on the rail until there are no parallax changes as the camera rotates: the relative positions of all foreground elements remain the same.
  • Once the camera is set up, focus on the scene and then turn the autofocus off, ensuring that the focus will not change as the camera goes through its sequence.
  • Meter the exposure in aperture priority, pointing the camera at something that is towards the middle of the view. Then switch to manual exposure and set the exposue manually. This will ensure that the exposure will be the same for all images in the sequence.
  • If shooting with a slow shutter speed make sure to use either a remote shutter trigger or a two-second time delay, and (if using a DSLR) switch the mirror-up facility on. These steps ensure there will be no vibration to blur the images.
  • Go through a couple of practice sweeps to make sure everything lines up nicely, and that there are no nasty surprises creeping into the view.
  • Then go through the shooting sequence from left to right or right to left. Make sure to leave about 30% overlap in the view between successive images. This ensures that there is plenty of duplicate data that the panoramic software can use to accurately sequence and line up the images.
  • Most sequences shot with the camera in the vertical/portrait orientation will need 7-8 images to make a complete view, but fewer or more may be needed for some views.

And that’s the in-camera work done. Now we move on to the in-computer work.

Guide to panoramic photography

Step 2: Merging the images in-computer

Continuing with our guide to panoramic photography, having shot the sequence of images we now need to merge them together in-computer to create the final panoramic.

If you shot the images as Raw files you’ll first need to convert them to the Tiff format. In doing this, any changes you make to colour temperature, saturation, contrast etc will need to be applied to all the images equally.

Having created the Tiff files you can then load them into the panoramic software. In this article, I’m assuming the use of Adobe Photoshop. Follow these steps:

  • Access the panoramic tool via the File>Automate>Photomerge commands.
  • In the dialogue box that opens load the files using the Browse option.
  • Choose the type of image merge method you need from the list on the left. For panoramic photography it is as well to stick with ‘Auto’, the default option.
  • Of the four boxes at the bottom, tick those whose actions you need. ‘Blend Images Together’ must be ticked to ensure the images are correctly blended to together. Tick ‘Vignette Removal’ if there is any shading in the corners of your images. I generally leave ‘Geometric Distortion Correction’ unticked as it often results in a curving horizon rather than the nice straight one I have in my original images. ‘Content Aware Fill Transparent Areas’ is a useful tool that you might to tick. Usually, the merged images don’t marry up to create a perfectly rectangular panoramic image. Instead, the outer edges curve or slope, leaving blank/transparent areas around the edges. Ticking the option to have these areas filled can be highly effective. Leaving it unticked will make it necessary to crop the final panoramic image to create the correct rectangle.
  • Once ready, hit ‘OK’ and sit back.
Guide to panoramic photography

Depending on how much computing power you have, it may take some time to process the images to produce the panoramic. When finished, you’ll have a panoramic image with all its component images arranged in separate layers. If you’re happy with the result then flatten the layers into a single layer by going to Layer>Flatten Image.

You may then need to crop the panoramic to remove blank/transparent outer areas. Finally, check the whole panoramic for any bits of sensor dust that might be present and repeated across the panoramic. Also look closely for any artefacts due to imperfect image merging.

Finally, name and save your file. You now have your completed panoramic image.

guide to panoramic photography

Upcoming talks

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this guide to panoramic photography.

Our next online talk will be about underwater photography, on 22nd June. All our talks are free to attend – just register to be sent the Zoom link below.

You can also watch past talks. Just click on the link below.

Guide to panoramic photography

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In-Computer Photo Workflow

A personal approach to handling and processing photographs post-photography

In his December 2021 talk Nigel outlines his own in-computer photo workflow, the steps through which he handles and processes his images post-photography. That talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it right here. Just click on the image below to start.

From RAW file to finished Tiff

Downloading, captioning and keywording

My in-computer photo workflow makes use of three programmes: Adobe Bridge, Adobe Photoshop and Capture One Pro. Using these I’m able to bring all my images from basic RAW files straight off the camera through to finished, optimised Tiff files ready for use and storage.

I start by downloading the images from my camera via Canon’s own EOS Utility software, with the camera plugged straight into the computer. The images are downloaded not to the computer’s internal hard drive but to an external hard drive, as this is where they will all be stored.

Once downloaded, I then view the images using Adobe Bridge. With this programme I caption and copyright all the images, and then I make a selection for those I intend to process. I do this by dragging each selected image into a separate folder that I call ‘Selection’. I don’t use Bridge’s star-rating system as I prefer to physically separate those I intend to process from those I don’t. They’re either in or out – there’s no grey area.

As a final step in this process I back up all the images to a second external hard drive, giving two copies of everything as an insurance.

In-computer photo workflow

Optimising and converting the RAW files

The next stage of my in-computer photo workflow is to process the selected RAW files in Capture One Pro. This programme is intended primarily as a RAW file processing software, though it can also be used to process both Tiff and Jpeg files. The programme also contains some databasing properties, though I use it purely as a RAW file processor.

I’m often asked why I use Capture One Pro rather than Adobe’s Camera Raw converter (embedded within Photoshop and Lightroom). For me, Capture One Pro works more smoothly and has a superior high dynamic range ability, reaching deep into both shadows and highlight areas to pull up otherwise lost detail.

Typical steps that I undertake in Capture One Pro include:

  • Application of len-specific image aberration corrections;
  • Adjustment to colour temperature, contrast and saturation;
  • Straightening of sloping horizons;
  • Keystoning (ie straightening converging parallels, especially in architectural photography);
  • Removal of the most visible of dirt spots;
  • Application of some sharpening, if needed;
  • Decreasing digital noise, most especially in long exposure or high ISO images.

The final step, once I’m satisfied with the image, is to use the Process option to generate 16-bit, 300 ppi Tiff files from the Raw, the former being saved to a folder on the computer’s internal hard drive.

In-computer photo workflow

Finishing off in Photoshop

The final stage of my in-computer photo workflow is to run the newly created Tiff files through Photoshop for some final tweaks. These consist most especially of removal of sensor dust spots and any distracting minor elements, such as litter.

The final image processing step is to convert the 16-bit files to 8-bit. Having the images in 16-bit mode is very useful during the image processing phase due to the very smooth colour gradations that can be generated in sky and water. However, once processing is finished it is better to convert to 8-bit. This both halves the file size and makes it possible to generate Jpeg files, a format that cannot be generated from 16-bit Tiff files, only from 8-bit.

With processing finished, I then generate low resolution (72 ppi) Jpeg files for possible internet use. The finished high resolution Tiff files are backed up to two external hard drives, and deleted from the computer’s internal hard drive.

With processing finished, it’s time for a coffee and a well-deserved break!

In-computer photo workflow

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Great photography during the winter

An online talk that gives inspirational ideas about what to photograph during the cold and short days of winter

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In Nigel’s November talk, held live on 17th Nov, he aimed to inspire photographers not to put their cameras away during the winter. There is some great photography during the winter months, those short cold days a time of day-long low sunlight, dramatic storms, and over-wintering wildlife.

A recording of this talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it here. Just click on the link below.

Looking for subjects during the winter months

There is a temptation for photographers to go into hibernation during the winter, putting the camera safely away until the weather improves in spring. But this would be a major mistake as there is really is the possibility of great photography during the winter months.

With the sun continually low in the sky, it is perfectly possible to do some magnificent, moody landscape photography right throughout the day. Moreover, with dawn/sunrise and sunset/dusk both at very civilised times of day, it becomes much easier to shoot during these prime photogaphy periods.

Admittedly, the sun doesn’t shine a whole lot of the time during winter – hence the temptation to hibernate – but when it does then the light can be magnificent. Moreover, even when it isn’t shining, the frequent storms that sweep in from the Atlantic provide some very wild, dramatic weather for landscape photography, both on the coast and inland. This is particularly so just after the main storm front has passed through, a time when the clouds usually break, providing some great – though rapidly changing – light, along with a succession of rainbows.

Wildlife photography too can still be worked on to great effect during the winter. Although many mammals hibernate, others do not, including foxes and all our deer species. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, mostly wetland waders, though also woodland and garden birds, arrive in the UK from colder climates to over-winter here. Their numbers greatly swell local bird populations, especially in marshes, lakes and along the coast, providing opportunities for some fantastic avian wildlife photography.

Great Photography during the Winter

Fog and frost

Winter is of course the main time for fog and frost, most especially during the early morning, but also often throughout the day and in the evening.

Fog and frost provide some of the most effective and beautiful opportunities for great photography during the winter, the latter adding a stunning sparkle and sheen to any landscape and/or foliage scene. Fog – especially ground fog – really makes for some ethereal and often monochromatic scenes, reducing complex details to simplistic outlines that can have fantastic photographic impact. This is most especially so when some sunlight is still visible through the fog, providing some delicate illumination.

Snow and ice

Not surprisingly, no discussion of great photography during the winter would be complete without snow and ice. The latter can quite transform any normally watery scene, whether it be an entire lake, a puddle or just a dripping gutter. Convert that water to ice, and suddenly we have beautiful crack and freezing patterns, pointed daggers of icicles, often quite blue when seen in low light levels, and rendered even more magical if frost and/or snow are also present.

Snow, of course, completely transforms an entire landscape, creating wholly monochromatic scenes when the sky is cloudy, and truly dynamic high contrast landscapes when under a blue sky. Wide vistas, closer landscape elements, or really close-up details (such as of snow or ice gripping vegetation) all make for stunning subjects in this kind of environment. Shortly before sunset (or shortly after sunrise), snow will usually reflect the sun’s pink glow magnificently, creating some wonderfully delicate colours.

Great photography during the winter

Putting it all together

With so many photographic opportunities available during the winter months, opportunities that don’t exist at any other time of year, there’s really no excuse for not keeping on shooting throughout this season. Pick your subject matter(s) and get cracking!

Just keep an eye on the weather forecast, and prepare to head on out whenever the right weather seems to be heading your way. Just wrap up warm and waterproof and enjoy the outdoors at a time of year when too few people get outside often enough.

A word of caution

Although I’m really enthusiastic to get everyone doing some great photography during the winter months, I do need to sound a few words of caution. Not surprisingly, with storms, rain, frost, ice and snow all prevalent at this time of year, some care and preparation are needed. And not just simply to keep warm and dry.

Plan carefully, drive carefully, and in really bad weather don’t push yourself further than you feel comfortable. Think ahead of all the things that could go wrong and prepare accordingly.

The top of a high cliff is no place to be at the height of an Atlantic storm, for example. You would probably find it hard to do much photography anyway. It’s better to wait until the main storm front has passed, winds have eased slightly and the light has improved. You’ll still get hugely impressive storm photos and with a lot less risk to yourself.

If venturing out in snow and/or ice make sure you’re prepared: take food and drink, extra warm and dry layers, a shovel, sheets of a material that can be pushed under slipping tyres to give them grip, and even a tow rope, just in case.

And of course, as always, make sure someone else knows where you’re going, and also ensure that you have a phone with a fully charged battery.

Once you’re equipped and prepared you’re well protected. Get out there and enjoy the winter photography!

Great photography during the winter

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Close-up Photography

Nigel’s October 2021 online photography talk

In October’s online talk, Nigel covers many of the basic principles of close-up photography, explained in clear and unambiguous terms. Often also called macro photography, the subject covers the photography of both very close details and/or patterns in a host of subjects, and the photography of very small subjects. It is particularly widely used in wildlife photography, to enable the shooting of small animals and plants, such as butterflies, damselflies and many of the smaller wild flowers.

A recording of that talk is now available on You Tube, and can also be watched here. Just click on the start button below. We hope you’ll enjoy it.

The subject matter of close-up photography

The talk begins with a short introduction to the kinds of subject matter commonly shot in close-up photography. These range from detailed patterns in quite large subjects, down to small household objects, and all the way down to the tiniest animals and plants. Close-up photography techniques are commonly used to photograph butterflies, damselflies and other insects, as well as many flowers.

Some techniques and equipment explained: static subjects

The talk goes on to cover a range of basic techniques used in close-up photography, starting with the photography of static subjects.

Static objects such as flowers are usually shot with the camera on a tripod. With the camera inevitably close to the subject, focussing is critical, so a useful aid is a focussing rail. This is a track that fits between the tripod head and camera base that allows the camera to be slid forward and back over very small distances. It is a simple yet very useful little device.

Then there are the lenses. The fundamental problem for close-up photography is that you need to come really very close to your subject in order to get the necessary magnification. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible using standard telephoto lenses as their minimum focussing distance – the shortest distance from lens to subject that they’re able to focus at – is too long. You need to be able to focus at a much shorter distance.

This problem can usually be overcome in one of two ways:

  • Use of a dedicated macro lens. This is a telephoto lens specifically designed to focus at very short distances. They are generally available with focal lengths ranging from 60 to about 180mm. The lens can also be used for standard photography, and its autofocus works throughout its focussing range, right down to the closest distance and smallest subject. This is the more expensive and bulkier, but more versatile option;
  • Use of an extension tube coupled with a standard telephoto lens. This is quite simply a tube containing no glass, but with all the necessary electrical contacts, that fits between the camera body and a telephoto lens. The effect is to allow the lens to focus much closer to a subject, providing it with an effective close-up facility. This is a small, cheap and highly convenient piece of close-up kit, but it does have limitations. A lens cannot be used for standard photography while it is coupled to an extension tube, and the autofocus usually does not work reliably. Focussing is usually achieved, if using a fixed focal length lens (a prime lens) through a combination of moving the camera (eg on the focussing rail) and by hand turning the focussing ring. If you’re using a zoom lens, the most convenient way to focus is to turn the zoom ring, though this will also change the magnification.
Close-up photography

Photography of moving subjects

When photographing moving subjects, such as insects, amphibians and small reptiles, the photographer needs to be mobile, so the tripod and focussing rail necessarily have to be dispensed with. This is almost entirely the realm of hand-held photography.

The same focussing limitations apply, so in this technique we’re still using macro lenses or extension tubes coupled with a normal telephoto lens (zoom or prime). In addition, it is also useful (though not always necessary) to have a flashgun attached to the camera. There are a number of points to bear in mind when using a flash for close-up photography:

  • The flash is usually fired in such a way that it balances with the ambient light, removing any shadows lying across the subject and providing even illumination. Only occasionally is it used as the dominant light – in poor natural light conditions or at night, of course. On those occasions, although the subject will be well-lit, the background will come out very dark or completely black;
  • Another reason to use a flash is to help reduce the risk of camera shake, and hence blur to the images. Inevitably, using a telephoto or macro lens and coming in so close to a subject the risk of camera shake being visible in the images is quite significant. Removing that risk ordinarily means using quite a fast shutter speed, but this would then make it difficult to maximise depth of field through use of a narrow lens aperture. The very short duration of a flashgun’s flash (about 1/1000 second) helps to mask any camera shake, thus making it possible to use a significantly slower shutter speed;
  • Rarely fire the flash directly at the subject, but instead either bounce it off a reflector or fire it through a diffuser. This will help to reduce, or completely overcome, the risk of hard flash-induced shadows around the subject. The only occasion when you might fire the flash directly is when shooting in very bright sunlight and the flash is struggling to generate enough power to balance with that sunlight;
  • The flash needs to be mounted either some way above the camera or off to one side, or perhaps with a special mount near the end of the lens. Shooting in one of these ways will ensure that the flash does not put a shadow of the lens across the subject – remember that your subject is very close to the lens, and so a lens shadow could easily reach it if the flash is in the wrong position. Do not be tempted to use the pop-up flash found on top of many cameras: this does not give you enough control of the light, it only fires directly at the subject, and because it is so close to the camera body it will fire its light along the lens, generating a long lens shadow that may very well reach the subject;
  • Because the flash and camera are so close to the subject (less than half a metre usually), a flash firing at full power will almost certainly overwhelm the subjec with too much light. It is important, therefore, that any flashgun you use has a dial-down facility, enabling you to greatly reduce its output.

Apart from these flashgun rules, techniques are similar across both static and mobile close-up photography, and are described below.

Close-up photography

General techniques

Close-up photography, whether tripod-mounted or hand-held is best done in soft or even quite flat light. It is tempting to do it in bright sunlight simply to have higher light levels, but then there is the risk of bright highlights and/or shadows being thrown across your subject. With the subject being so small even what appears to be a small shadow or highlight area can have a dramatic negative impact on the final images. That said, if photographing animals and so shooting hand-held with a flashgun attached, sunlight can be very effective, as long as the flashgun has enough power to provide lighting that balances with it.

Naturally, if photographing plants you also need to have windless conditions as any movement will result in blurred images, especially if slow shutter speeds are being used (as is usual, especially in soft lighting conditions).

Remember also that the closer you come to any subject the smaller is the lens’s depth of field (ie the amount of a view that can be sharp). By the time you come down to close-up photography, in which the lens is usually a lot less than a metre from the subject, depth of field is generally only 1 cm at best. To maximise depth of field it is usually necessary to use a very narrow lens aperture – such as f/16 or 22 – something that will further lengthen exposure times and so increase the need for windless conditions.

Of course, it is also possible to improve the situation by increasing the camera’s ISO – the sensitivity of its sensor – thus reducing the amount of light that the sensor needs to be correctly exposed. The problem here is that as ISO increases so image quality declines, so there is a delicate balance to struggle with. There are occasions when the only way to get a useable image is to put the ISO up, but I would always do so only very carefully and to the absolute minimum needed.

I firmly recommend that, as far as possible, you always shoot using the camera’s lowest ISO setting, increasing it only when absolutely necessary.

Finally, a word on composition. Since depth of field is so small, it can be quite a challenge to get the whole of your subject in focus. For some flowers this is not always such a bad thing as having a small part of the flower a little blurred can help to direct attention to one particular part. However, that still leaves the challenge of ensuring that the right part of the flower is sharp!

Things are a little tricker when it comes to photography of insects, such as butterflies. It is quite common to see images in which one end of the insect is sharp and the other end blurred, a result that is rather off-putting and not very satisfying. This problem is the result of the insect being at an angle to the lens: the head is a few millimetres closer to the lens than the rear end of the wings, for example, enough to throw one or the other out of focus.

Ensuring maximum depth of field by using a very narrow lens aperture can help to overcome this, though even this may not be reliable. The most effective solution is to have the insect’s body at exactly right-angles to the axis of the lens, ensuring that all parts of the body are roughly the same distance away. This of course requires that you get yourself and camera in the right position – the insect certainly isn’t going to do it for you – something that can be quite tricky, especially as any movement you make when close to your subject risks frightening it away.

Close-up photography

A final word

There is no doubt that close-up photography can be quite a challenge. The difficulties created by short focussing distances, minimal depth of field, awkward lighting, wind, and rapidly moving (and easily spooked) subjects all work to make things very difficult.

However, once you have a few pieces of critical kit together and then make the time to practise, practise, practise the techniques and hence success will slowly come together.

Ge stuck in and enjoy it!

Close-up photography

Future talks

The next two talks are on 17th November and 11th December, when I’ll be talking about winter photographer and my in-computer workflow. Click on the link below to register – it’s free!

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Storytelling Through Photography

Creating a set of images that tell a story

My September 2021 online photography talk was held recently, the subject this time Storytelling Through Photography. This is the art of creating a set of images that tell a story about an event, a place or a person, something that is very different from simply shooting high quality stand-alone images. When telling a story, the images must work together as a team, with no single image dominating the others and distracting attention away from the aim of the story.

The talk is now available on You Tube, and so can be watched here. Just click on the image below to launch the video.

The essentials of building a photographic story

The talk runs through a series of tips about how to go about storytelling through photography. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The aim is to create a set of photos that work together as a ‘team’, building the story and without any single photo dominating the collection;
  • Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Without these, it is just a collection of uncoordinated images;
  • The beginning should consist of a couple of images that set the scene – the type of environment or general location for instance;
  • The end should again consist of a couple of images that round off the story, giving a summary of what transpired or the end-result of whatever process is described in the story;
  • The middle is the main meat of the story and is the longest section, consisting of a string of images that describe the heart of the story, such as what is happening, arranged in a sequence that a viewer can follow;
  • Production of technical perfection and spectacular stand-out images is secondary: telling the story is paramount. Things often happen so quickly and unexpectedly in a story-telling situation that perfection has to take a back seat. However, if there is time to craft perfect images then so much the better;
  • Report and record what you see impartially – leave any preconceptions or prejudices behind and photograph what you actually see, not what you think you ought to see or what you would like to see. If you want to put a particular slant on a story, do this at the post-photography image editing phase, not during the actual photography.
Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

Examples of storytelling through photography

To illustrate the process of storytelling through photography, the talk uses images from two of Nigel’s own stories: conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile and reindeer herding in Lapland, in the far north of Sweden. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Conservation work with the Philippine Crocodile: This is the world’s most endangererd crocodile, and the photography in this story illustrated the work of the Mabuwaya Foundation in rearing infant crocodiles in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild once they were large enough to fend off predators.

The photography started with a couple of images that set the scene, one showing the forest and lake habitat, another the team of workers involved. The main part of the story then illustrated the work in catching captively reared crocodiles, taking their vital statistics, transporting them into a nearby national park, and then releasing them into a lake. The final images rounded off the story by showing a crocodile being released and then swimming as a free, wild crocodile in the lake.

Storytelling through photography: Philippine crocodile

2. Reindeer herding in Lapland: Every autumn the Sami people in the far north of Sweden round up their reindeer from the mountains, bring them down to lower winter pastures, and temporarily corral them in order to mark out ownership of newborn deer and to kill some of the older males for winter meat.

The photography in this story illustrated the corralling process and the capturing of both young deer and mature males. The story begins with a couple of images that introduce the environment, showing the wild mountains where the reindeer spend the summer, photographed from a helicopter just as the first winter snows arrived. The images of the main story showed thousands of corralled reindeer, with the Sami people picking out and lassooing newborn animals and mature males. The story rounds off with a summary of the family nature of this process, with a picnic once the work is done, including the presence of the family’s pet albino reindeer.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The importance of storytelling through photography

Most photographic tuition available in one form or another concentrates on teaching people how to create fantastic single standalone images, but don’t look at the storytelling process at all. This is a shame, since throughout its history telling stories has been one of the most important roles of photography. It is a skill worth cultivating. Hopefully, the tips in this talk will help give you some ideas about how to go about storytelling through photography.

Storytelling through photography: Reindeer herding

The next talk

The next online photography talk will be about macro photography, and will be held on Wednesday 20th October at 8pm (BST). It’s free to join, just click on the link below to fill in and submit the form. This will enable me to send you the link.

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