“Darkness” iPhone App Tells You When The Sun Will Come Up

iPhone Darkness AppI have many times crawled out of bed early in the morning in an effort to be somewhere in time to take photos as the sun came up. This usually involved a certain amount of homework to establish exactly what time sunrise was going to be; leafing through newspapers, asking locals, occasionally even getting up early the day before!

That works fine when you are already in the place you are going to be taking the photos, but might not work not so well when you are preparing for a trip abroad or are planning a trip in the future.

Of course, now we have the Internet and there is not much going on in the world that I can’t find out from Mr Google, with a little bit of effort and judicious searching.

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Review: Lastolite Hi-Lite Background System

Lastolite Hi-Lite Test Shot

I have been really excited about this product, largely because it looked like it had the potential to be the answer to my prayers. Now, the trouble with really wanting something is that the reality does not always live up to the expectation.

However, the people at Lastolite are obviously conversant with the obscure “Gaz’s Inverse Law of Relative Expectation” which states that (under certain, rare conditions) it is possible for Satisfaction to exceed Expectation, even when Expectation has been set at an unrealistically high level.

I’ve got to be honest, I was more than a little apprehensive about actually reviewing this kit, because I couldn’t see it working well. I have always been a fan of Lastolite products and the idea of (possibly) having to say this one was not so good was a worry. So now I have a dilemma – on the one hand I am excited and desperate to get my hands on this product; on the other hand, I can’t see it being brilliant and I don’t want to have to say so.

My Family

As I was unfamiliar (and (sorry, Lastolite people) not feeling too confident) I decided to do a few family shots so I wouldn’t have to worry about the results too much. After a previous review of the bottletop covers for the Hi-Lite, one of our readers went out and bought one and he sent me some feedback to say he thought it was fantastic, so I’m relying on him not stitching me up!

First Impressions

It’s quite big (I had the 6 x 7ft version). Anyone who is familiar with Lastolite reflectors will already have a reasonable idea of what the product looks like. It’s like two huge reflectors sewn together with panels in-between, making it like a big mattress with all the springs removed. One side is black, the other is a translucent white. The side panels are all fitted with zips to create an opening to insert your studio flash.

One of the major benefits to using the 6 x 7ft version (for me, at least) is that I can finally fit more than two people in the shot. It’s a really useful size (but there is a smaller version available).

The Perceived Issue

This is where I expected it all to go wrong. When you put your studio flash through one of the side panels, the light source is going to create a hot spot where it is so close to the material and a graduated fade across the surface of the background as the light gets further away from the source. It’s obvious. It has to happen. You can see the effect from the modelling light on the flash.

In Practise

Okay, so I took my readings with my trusty old Minolta light meter and set the camera accordingly. I fired off the first test shot and took a quick look at the screen on the back of the camera. Wow! Probably the best studio flash shot I have ever taken! Without really trying! Hot spot? No! Graduation? No!

I have two old Elinchrom 250 lights, one of which I stuck through the side of the Hi-Lite and the other I fitted with a lightbox. Apart from the unexpected evenness of the background light, the other unexpected benefit of using this kit was the wonderful fill-in effect. The background light source was so big and so even that it perfectly complimented the lightbox coming from the front.

I don’t deny that I could have spent a little more time fiddling with the flash outputs to get a better balance; I could have also have experimented with the subject distance from the background to get a better result. However, the result considering how little effort I really put in is simply outstanding. If I have anything negative to say about the experience, it is this: don’t try to use it in a confined space and make sure you have someone to help you get it back in the cover – it’s not easy the first time! Of course, this says more about me than the Hi-Lite!


I love it. It works brilliantly. I can’t imagine not having one of these for all my portrait work. For years I have told people that the Lastolite reflector was my favourite accessory – that may have changed now.

Lastolite HiLite Bottletop Covers

One of the stands I purposefully made my way to at Focus on Imaging in Birmingham last week, was the Lastolite stand. I have several of their products and their original collapsible reflectors have to be one of the best accessories ever invented.

I was particularly interested to see the HiLite Background system, which bears a passing resemblance to a huge softbox, but used as a background (the clue is in the name) instead of as a primary light source. There were several reasons why I wanted to see it:

  • I’m in the market for a new background “system” and high-key is a real challenge for me as I only have two lights
  • My TDM buddy, Charlie, said I should take a look and he’s often been right about the kind of gear that works for me
  • I didn’t see how it could possibly be any good (sorry Lastolite – pre-judging like this is unfair) and this was my opportunity to check it out

Well, I liked what I saw. Clearly, it does work (although I have not yet got my hands on one to test it fully). However, one possible stumbling block preventing me from investing is that I don’t always want a white background; I regularly shoot low-key against a dark grey background.

Anyway, today I learned that Lastolite has brought out a set of new “Bottletop” covers to provide a little more versatility. These include black and grey versions (I’m assuming you switch the back light off, at least for the black version!) and Chromakey versions in both blue and green. Simply slip the elasticated bottletop cover over the HiLite background to produce an instant change of colour. They also come complete with a train (although I’m struggling to find out exactly how long the train actually is). Now I’m excited!

Lastolite HiLite Bottletop Covers

Here’s the new range:
HiLite Bottletop Cover with Train 5â?? x 7â??
Black â?? LAS 8702 SRP £54.99 Inc vat
Grey – LAS 8770 SRP £54.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Blue â?? LAS 8788 SRP £54.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Green â?? LAS 8781 SRP £54.99 Inc vat

HiLite Bottletop Cover with Train 6â?? x 7â??
Black â?? LAS 8802 SRP £64.99 Inc vat
Grey – LAS 8870 SRP £64.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Blue â?? LAS 8888 SRP £64.99 Inc vat
Chromakey Green â?? LAS 8881 SRP £64.99 Inc vat

You can find out more about Lastolite products by visiting www.lastolite.com or by phoning 01782 753304.

I need to get hold of one of these for a proper test – I’m not sure whether I will still need to get a third light to illuminate the HiLite, or whether using one of my lights for the HiLite and one for the primary light source would be enough. Still, I was anticipating an additional two lights for the background so this could still be a good solution.

Book Review: Portrait in Light and Shadow; The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Maria Tippett

Portrait in Light and Shadow; The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Maria Tippett

Okay, so this is not actually a book review, on account of the book not yet being published. But I’m really excited with the anticipation of getting my hands on a copy the second it is available. I’m hoping I can pass the excitement on to a few more people.

Karsh was (in my humble opinion) a true master of the art of portrait photography. His images of such icons as Churchill (Karsh took away his cigar!) and Einstein (in a sweater!) are sublime. I choose these two examples because the photographs are icons in their own right, making them almost icon squared, if you see what I mean.

I’m always a little envious of those who have the opportunity to photograph such universally recognizable people, but I don’t believe that makes it any easier to take a brilliant portrait. If anything, it probably makes it even harder, with expectations being that much higher.

Anyway, Karsh – right at the top of the heap (with a few other heroes), so do yourself a favour and get hold of this book as soon as you can. And someone, somewhere, put on an exhibition of his work and let me know about it.

Book Review: Understanding Digital Cameras by Jon Tarrent

Understanding Digital Cameras

I think that the more you know about how your kit works the better able you are to use it to its full potential. For this very reason I like to really immerse myself in the technology side of my photographic kit. This month Iâ??ve been reading Understanding Digital Cameras by Jon Tarrant.

The book is aimed at all levels of photographer and as such covers everything from basic camera settings right through to an in-depth analysis of analogue technology versus digital. Itâ??s been put together to show you how to get â??the best image from capture to outputâ?.

If youâ??re a veteran there are certainly a few chapters youâ??ll be itching to skip, however if youâ??re new to digital photography youâ??ll find that even the really advanced content is written in a clear, straightforward way that makes it very easy to understand. As well as all the technology stuff, the book offers invaluable tips to help you with photographing all the usual subject matters (and a few unusual ones too) and gives you clear tuition in a wide range of photographic techniques.

The bookâ??s content is backed up with clear, easy to understand diagrams and what must be hundreds of photographs. Most usefully the author has included photographs that show what happens when you get things wrong, when you get things right and when you really nail the shot.

The only negative thing I can say about the book is that sometimes it goes into a little too much detail and can feel a bit too much like a text book. That being said, it is generally very well written and the information in the book is worth far more than the £18.99 price tag.

If youâ??re a complete beginner you will find this book invaluable. If youâ??re a seasoned professional Iâ??m certain that youâ??ll find the technology side of the book fascinating. Either way, if this is the only photography book on your Christmas list this year, I donâ??t think youâ??ll be disappointed.

For further details, including the book’s contents list and a selection of pages that you can browse online see Understanding Digital Cameras on Amazon.

Product Review – Giottos Rocket-air Blower


I’ve been having to change lenses on my Canon 350D quite a lot recently and no matter how careful I am it seems impossible to stop the dust getting in. There are hundreds of products on the market for cleaning your cameraâ??s sensor but the ones that seem to be the best all require making contact with it. To be honest Iâ??m not thrilled about the prospect of doing that. I just donâ??t want to risk a slip-up and ruin my beloved camera. So, for the last few months Iâ??ve been trying to give it a clean with my blower. Iâ??m sure you have one of these too – a little rubber bulb with a brush on the end – useless by anyoneâ??s standards. I have decided that enough is enough and today I purchased a Giottos Rocket-air Blower.

If you donâ??t have one of these then run out and buy one right now! I mean it looks like a rocket for crying out loud! Actually, joking aside, when you use the blower it becomes clear that its looks are a by-product of its engineering. The bulb is erganomic and as large as most people could comfortably hold. The fins at the bottom are there to stand the blower up, preventing the inlet valve from becoming blocked and the nozzle, well OK I think the nozzle is just to make it look more like a rocket but still, it really does seem to be the product of good engineering rather than aesthetics.

With each squeeze you really get the sense that this is a very well put together piece of kit. Itâ??s made of thick, natural, environmentally friendly rubber and feels almost indestructible.

The pressure of the expelled air is substantial. Certainly strong enough to blow away dust that had become statically stuck to my cameraâ??s sensor. Iâ??ve also used it to clean my lenses with equally superb results.

The one I bought was the medium Rocket-air. With that in mind the power of the large one should be very impressive am Iâ??m certain the small version will combine ample oomph with pocket sized portability. They cost around £5 – £10 depending on the model and are available at any good photography store. If youâ??re like me though and canâ??t be doing with the trip into town you can have one delivered straight to you door by good old Amazon:

Giottos Rocket-air Blower – small

Giottos Rocket-air Blower – medium

Giottos Rocket-air Blower – large