How to photography: Glasgow University Cloisters

Many of you have commented how much you enjoyed my recent picture that I took at The Cloisters at Glasgow University so I thought I’d share with you how I captured it. Thankfully it’s nothing too complex so if you know the basics of photography you should be able to create a similar style yourself!


First of all I should say that it’s a location that I’m very familiar with so I could picture in my head how I wanted the photo to look before I went. This often isn’t the case and can sometimes be a stumbling block if you’re not familiar with a place that you’re going to take photos. A big part of photography is visualisation; trying to reproduce the kind of image you’re envisaging in your mind and have that image replicated in your photograph. Often you’ll see something in real life which will spark an idea and that’s great, if you take your time to have a look around a location you’ll always find something of interest. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t; it’s a skill which can be learned and will develop with practice.

Once I arrived I made sure there were no distracting elements in the composition I wanted (things like rubbish bins, anything lying on the ground which might not look good etc) and set up my tripod. The area I was in was very dark with some light spilling in from the quadrangles to the left and right of the picture, but the main light source here was the lights running along the ceiling at the centre of the picture, leading the eye to the bright light in the door just below the centre of the picture.


For this picture I wanted to have the elements perfectly symmetrical so I lined up my camera, set up the tripod low to the ground and angled the lens towards the ceiling. A tripod is essential in this shot as the light was so dim that anything taken hand held would either be blurry (long exposures result in blurring if the camera isn’t mounted on a tripod) or too dark to be used. I was using a wide angle lens which is great for architecture; you can get a lot of detail in the picture and the size of objects in the foreground and the extremes of the frame are exaggerated, making for an interesting picture. Many digital cameras have grids and guides which help you in lining up a shot if you’re trying to achieve symmetry or incorporating other rules of photography such as the rule of thirds. We’ll look at the rule of thirds in another blog, but lets move on to the settings I chose for this picture and why.

Aperture: F8

I wanted the majority of this picture to be in focus, so I chose F8 for the aperture. This allowed enough of the image to be in focus but the shutter speed to remain fairly low. I try to work mostly between F5.6 and F11 which allows a good balance between depth of field and the amount of light reaching the sensor.

Shutter Speed: Two exposures – 1 and 2 seconds

For this shot I combined two images; One to expose for the areas in light and one for the areas which are in shadow. There are a number of tools you can use to assist you in getting the correct exposure: Highlight warnings, the histogram or even just checking the image on the display (assuming it’s calibrated correctly). I often refer to the histogram for one exposure but because I wanted to expose two different shots, I relied on checking the image on screen to ensure the shadows and highlights were exposed correctly. I’ll talk about blending the two images shortly.

ISO: 200

I always choose the lowest ISO setting I can get away with as this will produce the sharpest results. If you’ve got a tripod then you can have the ISO set to low values and let the shutter speed compensate for the lack of sensitivity. If I didn’t have a tripod and wanted to shoot something similar in the low light, I’d probably have to ramp the ISO up to at least 800 to get a result which looked sharp enough.

Post processing

I ended up with the two images below which don’t look right on their own, but when combined give me the results I’m looking for.

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So to produce the final image, I opened the pictures individually in Photoshop. I then right clicked on the photo exposed for the shadows and clicked “Duplicate layer”. Then I selected the name of the other picture I had opened and clicked OK. I then went back to the first picture I opened where you’ll see I now have two layers open; one with the picture exposed for the highlights & mid-tones and overexposed image which brings out the shadows sitting on top of it.

The next step is to mask the picture exposed for the shadows, then paint in the areas I want to increase the brightness of by using a brush. To do this, we need to add a solid black mask to the overexposed image first. Hold down Cmd (or Alt on a PC) and click “Add layer mask”. This will add a black mask (If you didn’t hold down alt the mask would be white).

Then, click on the Brush tool on the left hand side and select a suitable size. Around 300 pixels should be a good balance between accuracy and coverage. Make sure the colour of the brush is set to white and then paint over the areas which are in shadow. You can experiment with the opacity settings; you don’t want to have it at 100%, I changed mine to 60% initially and then changed the settings to a lower/higher setting depending on the mood I was trying to create.

What you’re doing in this process is painting away the black mask, which is bringing up the earlier picture that we put the mask over that was exposed for the areas which were in shadow.

Once I finished, I right clicked on one of the active layers and clicked “Merge Visible Layers”. This then merged the two together and allowed me to increase the image sharpness, mess about with contrast, saturation etc.

The key is experimentation; try different settings and see what results they give you!