Saal Digital Photobooks – review pt1

Review of Saal-Digital’s photobook creation software

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I love a good photobook!  There’s something much nicer about having images in your hands than on a screen and making a photobook is a great way to ensure you’ll look back at your images again and again.  So I’m always on the look out for good photobook manufacturers and recently took up an offer from new market entrant Saal Digital to try their new book software and service.

Here I’m reviewing the software and process of creating my photobook and when the book itself arrives I’ll review that separately.

There are 2 types of photobook software, those that are totally online and those where you download the software onto your machine.  Saal has a downloadable software and it’s really nice to use.

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I particularly like the fact that there’s no image uploading as the software connects to your folder structure and you select your images direct from there. I hate uploading my images to an online book provider because I don’t like the idea that they just stay there on someone else’s server when I’m done.  This way I keep control of my images and I don’t create duplicates – perfect!  Plus it’s as simple as dragging and dropping your images out of the folders into the layouts – it’s great, fast and reliable.

Layout wise there are plenty of pre-set options to choose from. I generally stick with simple monochrome backgrounds but there are also a lot of jazzier and themed backgrounds that I think would be great if you were making a holiday album or a gift for granny.  For professionals looking for a classy, timeless look though one very nice feature is that you can use an eyedropper to select a colour from an image and set it as the background colour or as a text colour. I really like this as it enables you to blend your image into the background and to ensure that your text goes perfectly with the image. It’s not a feature I’m found on other book software I’ve tried (whether it was there but not obvious I don’t know).screenshot Saal2

While preset layouts are a good place to start, the software also offers you plenty of options to customise image frames by setting size and location, which is great and as far as I’m concerned an essential part of creating a book.  Guides are provided to help you align images and you can add text, stack images together and set an image as a page background, which works very nicely as shown below.

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One of Saal’s selling points is the ‘lie flat’ nature of their books which allows them to work well with double page spreads and panoramas.  I’m reserving judgment on this for when my book arrives but I have deliberately set some images over the centre gutter to see just how flat they go.

During my trial I did contact Saal customer support as I’d found one bug in the software and had a couple of questions about how to do things – one on page gutters and one on how to lock aspect ratio.  I got a response within 24 hours and the bug was fixed at the next update which is pretty impressive.  So their customer service also gets the thumbs up from me.

One additional features for pros and enthusiasts is that they provide icc profiles for soft proofing which most mainstream services don’t.  Using the icc profile with Adobe Lightroom  to check how the colour on my images will look when printed, I saw that the glossy paper they’re using is slightly on the cool side but the colours otherwise appear pretty true. I’ve slightly warmed my images to compensate so when the book arrives we’ll see if that worked.  Note – I calibrate my monitor using a Datacolour Spyder and I know it’s pretty accurate as I print at home using custom icc profiles for my Canon printer.

I can’t really find anything wrong with this software to be frank.  A Lightroom plugin would be nice, so you can just drag photos in from Lightroom without needing to export them to JPEGs (when they’re shot in RAW) but Photoshop and InDesign plugins are available and the professional zone on the Saal website has everything you need to design your book and then upload the whole thing directly if that’s what you want to do.

So – all in all a big thumbs up!  I’m excited to get my design finished and ordered so I can review the book itself!

 

 

New Sian T. Photo Website

Why I moved my blog to Wordpress from Zenfolio

Hi folks!

So this is my first new blog post on my shiny new WordPress blog – yay! I thought I’d just do a quick post to explain why all the changes, as I think there are a couple of useful nuggets of information here.

Essentially I became pretty frustrated with Zenfolio as a platform for my website.  It started with annoyance at the fact I couldn’t change the gallery pages to get them how I wanted – they have these annoying side bar arrows (see below) and there’s no acceptable way to get rid of them without adding equally ugly thumbnails.  The available layouts just started to feel very dated to me and I couldn’t find a way around it.  Call me fussy but that one fact drove me so nuts that I started looking around for another hosting option.

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Screen shot from my old Zenfolio site

As I was shopping around for other options I started thinking about the blog and realised that there was no way to export or back-up the blog in Zenfolio.  So basically if I wanted to keep my blog content I had to stay put with Zenfolio or copy and paste everything into a Word file as a back-up.  As an information professional this annoyed me no end – it’s a basic tenet of information product selection to ensure you can always get your data out and I was vexed that I’d overlooked the lack of this when selecting my own website platform. I’d been sucked in by the integrated blogging capability and hadn’t given any though to what I’d do if I wanted to move platforms – stupid really!  So I decided it would be better to have my blog and website separate – so that moving the website between hosts wouldn’t screw with the blog.

It’s taken weeks to manually copy and paste and then pre-date all my posts into WordPress!  I decided not to move everything and have a bit of a cull, so I’ve just moved the reviews as this was what people pre-dominantly wanted access to – but even with just that it’s been a total pain!  You can easily copy and paste the text but the formatting goes all squiffy and you can’t do the same with the images which have to be re-uploaded into WordPress and then added to each post in the right place.  However, I think it’s worth it as I can now play the field with website hosts as I want without worrying about the blog.  I’m not convinced that integrated blog functionality is really that big a deal anyway as you can very easily link to a WordPress (or other provider) blog from your website menu and if you style it consistently with your site the user experience remains very good.  Plus by being part of a blog provider you get some gains on search engine visibility.

So – if you’re thinking about moving away from Zenfolio, or about using integrated blogs these are some things to bear in mind!

Also – check out the new website at www.siantphoto.com.  It’s on Smugmug now – more about why I chose it and what else I considered in a future blog post.

Toodles!

 

Workshop review – Introduction to studio lighting with Hannah Couzens

I’ve been looking for a class on portraits for quite a while and was drawing a blank (with the exception of creepy looking ‘glamour’ workshops – ew!) until I came across this workshop.  I think this was the inaugural course which was great for me because it provided an opportunity to talk to Hannah beforehand about what I was looking for and how it all might work.  In essence, I was after something around lighting and the different options in terms of lighting effects and equipment.  This came about following my first real studio style shoot for One Three Seven and the fantastic experience of working with professional stylists and models.  I got the bug really badly but recognised my images were very evenly lit (necessary for the photos showcasing the hair colours and cuts) but not necessarily very interestingly lit (see examples below)

The workshop day started with the five students meeting at Hannah’s studio in St Albans. It’s a beautiful studio, the walls are covered in Hannah’s lovely work, very inspiring.  We spent the morning listening and taking notes (while drinking tea!) as Hannah explained the basics of how light works.  We covered the impact of close and far away light sources, of the size of the light source and of hard and soft light.  There’s a lot of physics involved in all this but Hannah was very careful to keep it to what we really needed to know, with helpful analogies and practical examples to help us. Towards the end of the morning we got into the 5 standard portrait lighting patterns and their impact on the shadows falling on the subject’s face – we were getting to the really interesting bit!

Lunch wasn’t provided but that meant a great opportunity to stretch the legs in St Albans which has no shortage of eateries and after a lovely two course lunch with fellow workshopper Lucy, I was fuelled and ready for the afternoon session.

The afternoon was all practical.  With the aid of lovely model Natasha (patience of a saint and a look I just absolutely loved!) Hannah showed us how to set up a single light for each of the lighting patterns and how to modify the looks by adding light with a reflector.  Each set up was demonstrated and photographed with the images appearing on screen for us all to review.  In between shots Hannah answered our questions about focal length, modifiers, posing and a host of other random things.  It was a really lively and engaged group and, while that did mean running a bit behind schedule, Hannah was always gracious and never hurried.  After the demos we got our own opportunity to set up the light to replicate the patterns (great fun!)  and just that little bit of practical really helped the stuff stick in my brain.  My favourite shots from the afternoon are below.  Not perfect examples of the lighting techniques but definitely an improvement in terms of lighting interest.

It was an unusual workshop in so far as I didn’t come away with that many shots, but that really wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.  If you want to just shoot a model then you’re better off hiring a model and studio and doing it yourself.  However, if you want to learn about studio lighting, watch a pro in action and get a bit of practice setting up the light to get different effects then this is definitely the workshop for you.  One of the great things about the day was that Hannah is really not obsessed with what light you’re using so it’s possible to implement what you’ve learnt regardless of what light you’ve got or want to buy.  Studio flash heads are used for demonstration but as only a single one is used for each demo, it can be replicated with a constant light or a speedlight (albeit with a bit more guess work!). Set-ups with multiple lights were demonstrated and Hannah did cover the different modifiers and their suitability for various light uses; key lights, hair lights, spotlights etc. but this was all non-essential and there was no pressure to have a whole bunch of lights to be successful.

The day ended with a series of videos on using just one studio head and a universal umbrella to light ten different subjects. I must say, by this point my brain was saturated so I was really glad that Hannah provided links to these videos to watch at home later as I don’t think I could take much more in.

All in all this was an extremely useful and enjoyable day and also one of the most inspirational workshops I’ve ever done.  I learnt a surprising amount and am now on a mission to make use of what I’ve learnt in my portrait work. As soon as I got home I was anxious to start trying it all out with my on-site model Isaac and I could instantly see an improvement in the impact of the images (see below).  Following the workshop Hannah kindly answered a couple of questions I had about gear and the follow up materials including the videos were dispatched really quickly.  Hannah is also really active and responsive on social media so it’ll be really easy to stay in touch and follow her work.

 

Introduction to studio lighting – Inspirational stuff!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking ****
Pre-event communications *****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention ***
Information and Learning *****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost *** £250
Image review and feedback ***
Post-event feedback and follow-up ****

 

 

Workshop review – Coastal Long Exposures with Aspect2i

As I was due to be in Rye for a wedding on a Saturday in March, this 1 day (Sunday) workshop seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the most of the trip and get some advice on long exposures using my new Hitech 10 stop filter.

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The group makes a start with Jon’s instructions

 

Initially the workshop was sold out so I joined a waiting list but Aspect 2i were soon in touch to let me know another date was available, and since I couldn’t make that date, to offer to accommodate me as an extra on the workshop – providing I took my own car which I though was very nice of them.  Unfortunately Michael Pilkington who was due to run the course was unavailable for a period and for some reason I didn’t receive the usual emails about payment, joining instructions etc and so I had to get in touch a week before to find out if it was still going ahead.  It was at this point I was told that Jon Gibbs would be running the workshop instead but yes it was going ahead and here were the instructions.  While I’d normally have a moan about having to chase for information I think in this case Michael’s unavailability was the issue, along with the fact I was an extra and therefore probably got missed off some things, so I wouldn’t like to comment generally on the communication of the company.

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On the day I was met at the rendezvous by Jon who was full of energy and excitement for the day ahead – a great start!  We were eventually 4 learners on the workshop which is a nice small number and there was a good variety of levels of familiarity with the area and with long exposures.  We headed out on an easy but pretty long (about 45 minutes) walk out to the groins down the coast where we set up for the first shots.  I’ll get the whinging out of the way immediately – we spent most of the day at this location and there were no toilets apart from those a 45 minute walk back at the car park, and that’s a long time to hold your bladder!

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Jon started the session with a demonstration of the set up for long exposures, including how to calculate the ND grad needed to balance the sky and suggested apertures and shutter speeds using a handy 10 stop chart he provided (I’m hanging on to this!).  We then had some time to have a go ourselves, with Jon on hand to help us navigate our various individual camera menus and help us get everything set up.  Jon’s got a great teaching manner, plenty of humour and a plain-speaking way of explaining things that meant I’d picked up the basics in no time – thanks Jon!  I’d fulfilled my aims for the session in the first hour and half which is great going and meant I had the rest of the day to finesse it and get feedback and advice from Jon on composition.

After lunch we began moving back along the beach, looking out for other composition options as we went. Jon and my fellow workshoppers were really flexible throughout the day so we took time to stop for some detail shots, some abstracts and even some equine images as we worked our way along. Jon didn’t have his own camera with him so he was 100% available to us throughout.  There are pros and cons of the tutor not having a camera, sometimes I find it useful to see what images the tutor is making as we go along because I’m interested in the compositional techniques but likewise it could be a distraction.

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The one thing I must say about this workshop was how much we laughed and what a fun day it was.  This was largely down the having a great group of people.  All passionate about photography and with lots of share, it was a superb group and Jon was very patient with us throughout.

Like I said, I learnt a lot at the very outset and the time to practice means I think this will stick with me.  I’m not sure I’ll go back to this particular location in a hurry though.  It was nice and quiet which was good, but the remoteness is an issue and I’m not sure there are enough compositional options to warrant another day.  If I do return to the area I think I’ll explore some other sections of the coastline, using the techniques from this workshop.  If I was making recommendations here I would definitely recommend Jon as a tutor – he does his own workshops as well as those through Aspect 2i and if I’m ever on the Norfolk coast then I’ll be seeking him out for a 1:1 as well as keeping an eye on what he’s up to with Aspect 2i.  A long exposure workshop is a great way to nail the basics of this popular branch of photography so I’d recommend looking for one if you’re interested in getting started, although I don’t know if Aspect 2i are planning to re-run this particular one.  If they do I think they must consider a different location or at least a quicker way of getting between the photography and the facilities.

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Follow up wise, Jon was quickly in touch and did ask us to share images with him. I got some good feedback on the day and afterwards which was really nice and I’m keeping in touch with Jon on social media so that’s great. I’ve not had any follow up from Aspect 2i so again, I can’t really comment on the company.

All in all I got a lot out of this day and the great company meant that despite some discomfort it was a lot of fun and certainly great value for money at just £120.  I’d like to thank Jon and my fellow workshoppers for a highly enjoyable and useful day!

Coastal Photography and Long Exposures – Great introduction and fabulous tutor!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking ****
Pre-event communications **
Personalisation and 1:1 attention *****
Information and Learning ***
Approachability *****
Location **
Cost ****
Image review and feedback ****
Post-event feedback and follow-up ***

Workshop review – Yorkshire Dales with Lizzie Shepherd and Oliver Wright

Back in October I went on a 1 day photography workshop in the Yorkshire Dales with Lizzie Shepherd and Oliver Wright, and I’m afraid I only just realised that I failed to write a review – apologies for the delay!

The major strength of this workshop was the sheer number and variety of locations we visited.  We covered everything from limestone pavement (see above) to waterfalls, via a salmon run and Bolton Abbey’s woodland.  If anything we ran rather late in order to cover all the locations and by the time we were ready to leave it was almost completely dark.

Lizzie and Ollie make a great team; they are landscape photographers but each with a different style and approach and neither is 100% fixated on the grand vistas, something which I really appreciated as due to a very foggy start and overcast skies those big scenery shots were never really on the cards.

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Bolton Abbey estate on a misty day in Autumn

The workshop was very relaxed, participants had a variety of experience levels, a variety of kits and a variety of photographic interests.  Inevitably there were lots of questions about gear choices and recommendations from the group and our leaders did a great job of answering from personal experience and with an appreciation of limited budgets.  They were also happy to loan lenses and other kit for us to try although I declined a loan of Ollie’s Canon 70-300L lens for fear of falling in love with such a pricey bit of glass!

 

Probably the main learning points for me were from Lizzie on creating abstracts with branches and leaves and in particular how to look for background colours and use cooler white balance for effect (see below) and from Ollie around finding interesting compositions in otherwise ‘chocolate box’ scenes. I found Lizzie in particular to be really great at sharing the images she was making and talking about why she chose that composition and how she’d process it later.  No question was too daft and with only 5 of us on the workshop with 2 tutors there was plenty of opportunity to ask questions and get tips on creating your own images.  Ollie is so positive and excited by photography that even I sometimes felt I’d managed a really worthy image and I certainly came away walking a little taller (photographically speaking – I think it’s a little late to get above 5ft 2 now!

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All participants were given the opportunity to get feedback on a couple of images after the workshop, and we were also sent a full location list afterwards which was really nice.  Ollie and Lizzie obviously care about improving their workshops as there was a pretty comprehensive feedback questionnaire – which I find reassuring!

Pace wise this was a pretty long and busy day and there was quite a lot of walking and a bit of scrambling down some dodgy paths to get to one location, so if you’re less sure on your feet or unable to walk comfortably for up to 30 minutes I would ensure that you let Lizzie and Ollie know in advance. I’m sure they would be able to accommodate you as they were very understanding if reservations were expressed about some activities. You’ll definitely want sturdy boots and waterproofs too, it will only be called off in extremely bad weather.  Also bring water, a flask of tea and plenty of snacks as it’s easy to get carried away and we didn’t stop for lunch until 2pm having started at 6.30am.

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Location wise, Lizzie advised me to base myself at Settle which was perfect as it has good road connections to all the possible start locations. I stayed at Littlebank Country House which I found on Booking.com for £70 per night. It’s a tad tricky to find but once you’re there it’s very nice and homey and the owners were wonderful, they even set me out an early breakfast for my early start!

All in all this was a superb workshop! The Yorkshire Dales is really stunning in the autumn and I’m really glad to have benefitted from Lizzie and Ollie’s local knowledge, next time I’m in the area I’ll have a really good idea of where to go for the best autumn colours.

 

Autumn in the Yorkshire Dales – Highly recommended for autumn colour and exploring

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking ****
Pre-event communications ****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention *****
Information and Learning ****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost ***
Image review and feedback **
Post-event feedback and follow-up **

Top 3 Photography Magazines

The weather has been so foul recently that I’ve found myself huddling close to the radiator, photography magazine in one hand and cup of tea in the other. I know that the hardier landscape photographers of my acquaintance will be out there regardless, capturing the fleeting moment of dazzling light between the rain and the gale force winds, but I have frankly no inclination to join them.

Photography magazines come in many flavours, but here are my top choices just in case you’re wondering what might be good. Or perhaps you’re fed up with seeing the same re-hashed seasonal stories in your current magazine. Yes, this is a perrenial problem in photography magazines, there are only so many guides to shooting “in low light” “for autumn colour” “long exposures” and so on, that you can really be interested in!
1) Lenswork

I talked about the Lenswork podcast in my photography podcasts guide last year, and everything I said about it also applies to the print magazine.  It’s a small format, bi-monthly magazine produced in the US but easy and not too expensive to subscribe to in the UK.  Lenswork is primarily a showcasing magazine with portfolios of work from different photographers each month plus editorials.  The thing I like best about Lenswork is the sheer variety of work they show.  You’ll get brand new work from digital photographers alongside a collection of black and white film images from the 1960s.  The editor and I clearly share some taste in photography as there is rarely a portfolio I do not enjoy and given the mixture of landscape, abstracts and documentary style work that is saying something.

I’ve just renewed my Lenswork subscription because so far I’ve found no repetition in the editorial articles and they are always thoughtful and accessible.  For what is essentially a fine art publication the writing style is neither arty nor snooty and retains a conversational style throughout. I also bought the book “The Creative Life in Photography” by Lenswork editor Brooks Jensen and thoroughly recommend it!

2) Black + White Photography

Black + White photography walks a fine line between showcase and teaching magazine.  The whole aesthetic of the print publication is cool and high quality and they spend a good deal of time on both inspiration and perspiration. By that I mean that you’ll find plenty of portfolios from talented people (inspiration) alongside project ideas you can try yourself (perspiration).  The great thing about the projects is that they aren’t formulas for creating certain images, they are just ideas to get you thinking.

Another great feature of recent editions has been articles on printing, and not just how to get a nice print (which is in itself useful!) but also ideas for making things like booklets and other forms of presentation.  I really like this holistic approach to photography, its about more than just making the image, it’s about the whole process from visualisation to printed product.  I really think that reading this magazine has made me think more creatively about what I do with my images as well as how I make them.

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3) Aesthetica

While not strictly a photography magazine, Aesthetica is the latest edition to my print subscriptions and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve recently become interested in fashion photography and opted for this subscription because it carries plenty of art, fashion and pop culture material and will I think be a great source of inspiration for styling shoots (and possibly my wardrobe!). Aesthetica does feature a lot of photography, some is featured as photography but much is editorial accompaniment and even that is really beautiful.

There’s also a lot of great information about exhibitions all over the world, and since I’m not likely to get to many of them it’s great to read about the artists and see a snapshot of the content, all while drinking a coffee at home.

Since this is quite a new subscription for me it’s hard to say whether the content will start to repeat, but I’m hopeful that it’s focus on current and upcoming exhibitions and new work will mean that it won’t.  In any case I recommend picking up a couple of issues if you’re at all interested in art, fashion or pop culture in the broader sense.

Workshop Review – Macro with Chameleon Photography

Review of macro photography workshop with Chameleon Photography, Surrey

It’s taken me 3 weeks to get around to writing this review because I’m still processing all the lovely images from the day!

However, I want to share this now before all the details go out of my head – so here you go.

Barking gecko

Chameleon Photography is based near Frimley in Surrey and offers workshops at their studio (based at the owners house) as well as animal experiences for birthday parties, schools and groups.  I chose Chameleon partly because they are reasonably local to me but also because macro photography workshops are pretty few and far between and I was particularly interested in photographing insects and small animals rather than flowers.  Groups are limited to 3 photographers too and as I knew I’d have a lot of questions, it was reassuring to know that I wouldn’t be fighting for attention.

Prior to the event Roy (the owner) contacted me by email to see what species I was particularly interested in and to check dietary requirements (sandwich lunch with homemade bread was provided – yum!) and when I arrived I was met by Geoff (the other owner) and my two companions for the workshop.  The studio is cosy but comfy with strobes and backgrounds all set up and various habitats and props available for the creatures. I was a bit nervous as flash is not normally my friend and one of the major questions I wanted to ask was about how on earth to start with flash, but I needn’t have worried as the set up was all explained really well and Roy helped me get the camera setting sorted to start with.

The first thing I have to mention is the sheer number and variety of animals available. There were over 20 different animals including geckos, chameleons and other lizards, snakes, frogs, mantis, spiders, mice and millipedes.  There were so many gorgeous animals it was like running around in a zoological sweetshop and we ran well over the allotted time despite having cut our lunch break to the minimum to gulp down a sarnie and a cuppa.  Roy and Geoff have developed a superb working relationship with Global Geckos who loan them animals for use at these workshops in addition to their personal collections.  The animals we had were in excellent condition and were generally very cooperative in posing for photos – just beautiful.  As is normal for me, at one point I got distracted by a gecko and forgot to use my camera but despite this I still got a fantastic array of images and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Harvest Mouse

Geoff and Roy are both great photographers who had tons of great tips to share and really took the time to answer my questions and show me how to use the techniques in other situations, including in the field. I spent most of the day shooting with Geoff’s Canon 100mm IS macro lens (if any one has one they’re not using please let me know – I need it!!!) and my standard 50mm came in handy too.  Geoff and Roy both regularly checked my images through the day and provided feedback on composition, exposure and how to get the shots I wanted.  This was all done highly constructively and I also learnt a lot from talking to my workshop companions and looking at their images and approach as well. Both were keen camera clubbers and it was intriguing to learn about how that influenced the shots they made as they worked at getting good scores at the next meeting – I’m not sure I could stand the pressure of that!

What also came across really well is the passion that Roy and Geoff have for their animals, so as well as plaguing them with photography questions I also learnt a lot about the animals and that was well worth the cost of the workshop even without the photography.  I’ve always loved animals of all kinds but particularly snakes and reptiles so for me this was a fantastic opportunity to get up close with them in the company of experts whose passion was contagious.

Bearded DragonSince the workshop Roy has been in touch with some gear recommendations and we’ve looked at some of the images from the day. Once I get through them all I think I’ll send over a selection for comments and I’m pretty sure I’ll get some good feedback.

All in all this is a superb workshop which I’d particularly recommend in the winter when the weather outside is not reliable. I think it’s most suited to animal lovers looking to improve their macro work or who just want to get close the animals and learn about them while getting some great images.  It is a studio set up with flashes so if you’re looking for macro ‘in the wild’ this is not for you, although I certainly think there are things you can learn which will apply in the wild as well and Roy and Geoff will help you with that.  1:1s are available if you prefer but I did enjoy the small group and if you’ve got a couple of friends you can go with it’s ideal.  The location is pretty easy to get to with satnav and there’s plenty of parking.  You don’t need masses of kit, no tripods just a macro lens and a standard prime or zoom is fine.  The price for the full day, 10am to 4pm (ish) is £140 including lunch.

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I had a fantastic day and definitely plan to go again!

Workshop Recommendation

Macro workshop at Chameleon Photography – Highly recommended for animal lovers wanting to get up close

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking **
Pre-event communications **
Personalisation and 1:1 attention *****
Information and Learning *****
Approachability *****
Location ***
Cost ***
Image review and feedback ***
Post-event feedback and follow-up ***