Tag Archives: Dark

The secret to a wonderful black background with moody lighting

Mastering the black background

• Mastering the black background •
With very little practice you can get a perfect black background and moody lighting.

The eye is captured by solid black.

It provides a really focussed experience for the viewer. Low key and solid black backgrounds provide a wonderful insight on detail and features. If you get this right it provides an excellent insight for portraits and helps many other aspects of your photography. This is a technique I use for product photos, still life, landscapes and flower photography.

Simplicity itself

The technique involves using a bright light (off camera flash) to overpower the ambient light. The steps are simple…

  • Set your camera to its lowest ISO setting (around ISO 100) – the sensor is least sensitive to light.
  • Set your aperture to a high f number (small aperture = low light), say f11, or higher so that the amount of light your camera lets in is very small.
  • Take a test shot to ensure your screen is black – you want nothing to show.
  • Shoot with a diffused off-camera flash at full power using a narrow beam.

This simple technique is relying on extreme underexposure. Basically you are underexposing the whole scene to blackness. But then you are introducing a very narrow beam of brightness that overcomes a limited area of the underexposed shot. This leaves your highlighted spot on the subject in a moody light with the rest in black.

Photography Technique: The Invisible Black Background

Glyn Dewis  External link - opens new tab/page introduces the technique on video. Notice the way the umbrella is creating a focussed narrow beam of light. You can do the same thing with “barn door” lights or cards either side of a reflected flash. Enjoy the video…

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
See also: Profile on Google+.

The nature of shadows – ideas and inspiration

Shadows are most important in photography.

Without shadows the everyday shapes we see would be ill-defined. It’s shadows that help to give shape to the objects we view. They can also be the very essence of the picture. In this post I am going to look at different aspects of shadows as the subject of the picture. They can be extraordinary elements, message carriers, central attractions or complementary features. They are major influences in our art, sight and our everyday lives. I hope you will be inspired by shadows and appreciative of them as a strong compositional element in your photography.

What is a shadow?

Shadows help us to see. They are not an absence of light (darkness). It is the reduced light in a shadow that creates the contrasts that the eye picks out. In fact the camera does too. Where shadows are well defined, and contrast to the other light around them, we see a lot better than when there are few shadows and very bright light. Brightness makes it difficult to see things because the contrasts are absent and we can’t make out edges or three dimensions either. The variations in light intensities across an object tell us about its shape. If everything was in uniform brightness shapes would disappear.

Aesthetics and shadows

Shadow, and its counterpart light, are the medium of our vision. Decoding the light/shadow relationship is as stimulating as the pleasure of touching a sensuous surface; the electric excitement of a tantalising taste; being immersed in a powerful smell, or mellowing in the caress of a musical experience. Little wonder that as one of our five senses our understanding of light and shadow is also a deep part of our understanding of beauty and ugliness.

Seeing shadow

Of course our eyes sometimes misinterpret shadows and we make mistakes about them as with anything else. So it’s fun to consider the implications of false statements in shadow. In this first picture the shadow as the carrier of a message, but also the shadow as illusion. Shadow views of this sort bring out dark emotions and “shadowy” thoughts, but are also great fun artistically…

366 • 65 • Shadow monster by Pragmagraphr, on Flickr

366 • 65 • Shadow monster by Pragmagraphr, on Flickr
366 • 65 • Shadow monster by Pragmagraphr, on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

In his notes on this picture the author says… “I have a lot of school work hanging over me like a shadow.” The visual pun is interesting and conveys a great message.

We love it when something appears as one thing and turns out as another. One of the endearing attributes of shadow is the other side of the visual story. In this next picture the lovely shape and bright eyes of this animal convey it’s essential “catness”. But the shadow is something different. The author says… “Her shadow makes me think about a French bulldog – with a tail” … shadows easily take on different meanings.

Flibberty and Her Shadow by peter_hasselbom, on Flickr

Flibberty and Her Shadow by peter_hasselbom, on Flickr
Flibberty and Her Shadow by peter_hasselbom, on FlickrExternal link - opens new tab/page

Of course shadows can be so much more than just a passive message. In this next picture the message is clear and the visual pun means so much to an English-speaking person. A clever use of shadow as the subject.

Shadow of 'a doubt' by Jon Downs, on Flickr

Shadow of ‘a doubt’ by Jon Downs, on Flickr
Shadow of ‘a doubt’ by Jon Downs, on FlickrExternal link - opens new tab/page

While the subject of a picture may not be the shadow there is still an important complimentary part to play by the shadow. The cobalt blue of the shadow in the next picture creates a wonderful tonality. The shape of the object is defined by the shadow, but it is the blueness that makes the statement. The author acknowledges that fact by his title…

If you can write a visual story with your photograph you pull the viewer directly into the shot. In this next picture the shadow and its disembodied juxtaposition on the ladder brilliantly conveys a set of meanings that we, the viewer, impose. The interest is the simplicity of the picture and yet the complexity of the possible meanings… fireman, escapee, workman, who is he? The interpretations are endless…

Shadow Climbing the Ladder at Sunset by S@ilor, on Flickr

Shadow Climbing the Ladder at Sunset by S@ilor, on Flickr
Shadow Climbing the Ladder at Sunset by S@ilor, on FlickrExternal link - opens new tab/page

Shadow and silhouette are closely related. The dark-side of a silhouette is the result of blocked light, as is the shadow. Normally the statement made by a silhouette is in its shape. I like this next picture because the silhouette is betrayed by the darkness behind it. The hard light and low light-source has lengthened and strongly defined the shadow creating a strong subject. It has become all the more threatening because the silhouette is only partially seen. What is there – is there a threat? Are we being menaced by our imagination misinterpreting the shadow… This is a clever interplay of light and of mood. Nicely done…

Shadow. by David Giron, on Flickr

Shadow. by David Giron, on Flickr
Click image to view large
Shadow. by David Giron, on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Shadows can convey much more than just mood. They create a picture themselves, but in a minimalist way. The two dimensional aspect of shadow is only partially compensated for by shape. We know that we can so easily misinterpret a shadow. So it is a relief when the meaning is implied without threat or misinterpretation.

Shadows and intimacy are frequently associated. Above, the closeness of the characters shows intimacy. In the next picture the intimacy of the boudoir is so strong that the viewer is relieved by the pattern of shadows to redirect the mood.

Shadows by Pablo Miranzo

Shadows by Pablo Miranzo.


The author says this is one of a series of pictures intended to contrast light and dark and is in black and white to simplify the composition. Oddly enough the composition is simplified by that, but complicated by the opposing mood settings. An interesting picture of mixed tensions.

The interplay between textures is important. While the shadow is a major part of many subjects, sometimes it is not the only subject. Look out for pattern shots that are uniform across the shot until you allow yourself to be drawn in. Often pattern shots have some compositional element to break the pattern, something that draws the eye. Wood grain and the subtle variations in the rhythm of its lines create micro textures and variation providing relief from the pattern, for example. It is that which draws you in.

Texture is an exciting aspect of any picture. It is created by the subtle tonal variations of light and shadow at the micro-level in the picture. If you see a texture and it convinces you that you would feel the texture if you touched it then the picture has convincingly been created as an image in your mind. In this next picture the image I see is all texture. The wonderful curve of the stair rail and its counterpart, the twisted shadow, combine to create great depth in this picture. The combination gives you the feeling that you can reach in and touch… A great image.

The stairs in the next image are pretty minimalist in themselves. However, the elaborate pattern of light and shadow created by them is exquisite. It is a wonderful example of how shadows transform a picture. In this case the shadows have turned the purely mechanical geometry of the stairs into a complex of pattern and curves. It is a wonderful play-off between the simplicity of one and complexity of the other…

Pulling it all together

The shadow as a subject is clearly a compositional feature. It adds to the texture of the shot too. The clever use of shadow can also add a message and/or impart mood as well. Sometimes though, it all just comes together. If you can combine mood, subject, story, composition and texture you have really made the grade. Your picture comes alive in the mind of the viewer. You have truly created an image. To do all this using just shadow is a clever and precious creation. I think this next image is one such example…

Using shadow as a subject is challenging but worthwhile photographic pursuit. Shadow gives you all the essential elements of a good photograph but supplies it with simplicity and meaning if done well. There are untold interpretations and subjects out there for you to tackle. I hope that I have inspired some new thinking on the subject.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
See also: Profile on Google+.

Eight ways to bring out texture in your photographs

• Medieval Prison •  Bring out the texture in your shots

• Medieval Prison •
A dismal dungeon! Bring out the texture in your shots.
Click image to view large
• Medieval Prison • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Texture is essential for a 3D effect.

If you want a realistic feel you need to work at it. Convincing texture lies in the fine detail – your picture must look like it feels. Here are eight things you can do to increase the texture from capture to printing…

What is texture?

Texture is the fine detail in your photograph. I am sure you would know what it feels like to run your finger over the surface of a brick. If a photograph of a brick convinces you that touching the photograph would feel like a brick, your depiction of texture has been successful. The term texture is a fine art concept which applies to photography [texture definition].

More after this…

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Eight ways to enhance texture
  1. Pick your subject to ensure it will show texture. Close ups are easiest as you can work large. If you are with a large subject like a person and want to show fine texture on the background you should ensure the background surface you pick is well defined. Look for the largest contrast in shades of colour and in light/dark. Look for shadow areas and bright areas. Make sure that the physical texture (roughness) is roughest where you will be taking the shot. These are the features of texture the camera will pick up.
  2. Hard light on your texture will give it a sharp, unyielding feel, a sandpaper type effect. Soft light will give it a rounded less harsh look, more like weathered stone surfaces. Arrange your light to emphasis the character of the texture you are photographing.
  3. When taking your photograph arrange the light coming at your texture from the side. A shallow angle of light creates light/shadow areas which define the texture. When these little contrasts can be seen they make the texture stand out. If light comes from where you are shooting from these shadows are not created and the texture will be flat (eg. pop-up flash or sun from behind you).
  4. Consider very slightly over-exposing your shot. This will give you room to exaggerate the contrast in the post processing.
  5. In the developing module of your processing (RAW only) use the contrast tool to maximise the contrast potential in your texture. If working in *.jpg enhance the contrast in the normal picture editing view.
  6. Consider making your picture a grey-scale shot in post processing. If possible do not do a direct colour to black & white conversion. Use colour control methods to enhance the contrasts in each colour. You will need a more advanced image editing application for this (PhotoShop, or Elements for example).
  7. Use the ‘burn’ in post processing to deepen the dark areas of the shot. Set it to emphasis shadow. Manually pick out the shadow/darker areas and give them a very slight darkening. Try working at about 10% (or less) ‘burn’ exposure. Similarly, use the ‘dodge’ tool to brighten the highlights. Set the tool to pick out highlights at about 8%-18% exposure.
  8. When printing use paper that has a texture appropriate to the texture you want to bring out. You will need to print a test print. Then hold the test texture up against several paper surfaces to compare the textures. Paper with softer, uneven texture will take the edge off textures in the print. Harder textures with more regular surface will tend to sharpen the depicted texture. However, the eye must be your final guide. There is great skill involved in picking the right paper texture for specific pictures when printing. So you might need to make several tests with different paper textures to get the most emphasis for your texture.

Enhancing the contrast between light and dark or between colours will emphasis texture, but the most effective impact will be what you achieve in the actual shot. Try to ensure you use the light to gain the best advantage from your texture as you do the shooting. It will look more realistic and you will have to spend less time at the computer.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
See also: Profile on Google+.

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Simple ways to add contrast to your black and white images

Changing colour images to B&W often has surprising results.

You may not get what you expected. Often this is because the contrast in colour shots is quite low. B&W conversion requires contrast to work well. This is how you can increase the contrast…

Wolf - the range of black and white tones can really add to the dramatic impact

Wolf – the range of black and white tones can really ad to the dramatic impact.
Click image to view large.
Wolf – By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

The objective

We are trying to increase the range of greyscale tones in the picture. Grey is a fickle colour – it fades from tone to tone almost unnoticed. In a high contrast shot we want to stretch the grey and express tones from deep blacks to whitest whites. This is something we avoid in colour because deep black or blown-out white is a distraction. In black and white they can be too, but if well controlled the balance helps emphasise the pictures’ strong elements. So we must add the contrast. That can be done by applying one or more techniques in post-processing:

  1. Add deeper tones to the darker areas, whites to the lighter areas
  2. Create darker/lighter tones over the whole image – moody effect
  3. Use an overlay technique to apply contrast

I am not going to go into depth with these. Just some simple ideas.

Add deeper tones to the darker areas, whites to the lighter areas
This is essentially a manual technique. Using photoshop or a similar editor, you need to activate the ‘burn’ tool. Originally burning was a way of making film processing darken the print. In digital editing it spreads a soot-like effect where applied. Normally you can just paint it on. Set it so the ‘exposure’ level is low and set for ‘shadow’ in the settings. Then paint away. You will darken the dark shadows without darkening the lighter areas. Higher exposure will darken more. If you set for ‘highlights’ you will be able to paint out whites – great for toning down strong white burn!

You can do the same for whites with the ‘Dodge’ tool. Select ‘highlights’ and a low ‘exposure’ then paint over bright areas and they will brighten slightly. Higher exposures brighten more. Set the tool for shadow and you can lighten darker areas.

In both tools ‘mid-tone’ will brighten or darken the mid-range tones depending on which tool you are using.

Create darker tones over the whole image – moody effect

You can use a ‘contrast’ control in most image editors to affect the lightness and darkness proportions across the image. However, too much of this control tends to give sickly greys an outing. Faces especially look ill if you apply too much of the contrast control.

In most image editors there is usually a ‘gamma’ control somewhere. This uniformly affects the blacks right across the image. Often the toning down of blacks is enough to shift the image to the moody or dramatic side. Gamma gives you great control over this. So look up in your help files how to adjust your Gamma.

In Photoshop the control is in the exposure adjustments panel. If you have not got gamma control in your editor you can use it in Irfanview (free download). Irfanview has a great gamma control. You can find both gamma and contrast with other colour controls in the menus. Go to Image; Colour Corrections… The dialoge box there is worth playing around with.

Gamma is not so good for adding brightness, but in small measure it is OK. So you can either whiten or darken the image using the gamma setting. It actually is great for toning down all sorts of white errors.

Use an overlay technique to apply contrast

In the image editing applications that use layers and overlay there are literally hundreds of ways to adjust contrasts. I have seen one ‘grunge’ technique use 16 layers and 35 steps to create a contrast-widening effect. While grunge is a popular look in image processing it is an artistic process that you really need to practice a lot before it is effective. And, like many processes can be overdone. So, to help you out I have researched the technique below. It is quick and easy. It is possible in several of the full blown applications for image editing. Best of all it takes a few seconds to apply and you can see the results straight away. So watch this short video and I bet you will be itching to have a go…

Uploaded by Larry Lourcey on Dec 16, 2010 http://www.PhotoEducationOnline.com

An important note…

Remember that all of these techniques work better in RAW. Attempting to use them in .jpg is a lost cause and may just look a mess. Although, to be fair, that does depend on the image. Take my advice and shoot in RAW. For 99.8% of the time the results will be better after processing. Remember not to do post processing on your only image. Keep an original and only work on copies.

How to make your monochrome shots moody

Honiston Tops - The English Lake District. Mono shots are so open to moody interpretation.

Honiston Tops – The English Lake District. Mono shots are so open to moody interpretation. Click the picture to view large
By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

The contrasts in monochrome make it suited to moody scenes.

Yes, we see so much in the gloom! Mono is a great way to express the deep, dark and threatening. It is also uplifting in many ways. Look at how we can enhance our shots…

Landscapes

The beauty of a landscape is not about the weather. It is in the character of what we see in the country and the shapes and forms. However, the weather can complete it. A beautiful day in the scene above can equally light up the sky and uplift the sole, even in this desolate place. Surely colour is more suited to that uplift? Probably. Weather is the icing on the cake. If you can capture it with the contrasts fully expressed you have a winner. The depth of the cloud darkness has expressed the awesomeness of those wonderful clouds. What is great about this type of shot is the depth of the greys and blacks, as well as the highlights of the whites and bright spots. In a landscape the moodiness lies in the contrast through that spectrum. Try to express the full range of blacks right through to whites to bring out the mood.

Subjects

The use of a great subject is really the key to a moody monochrome. Some subjects really lead us to the moody feeling. Candles are a great example. If we are to express a deep gloom the candle is perfect. Candles express our fears of shadowy corners and the lurking danger just out of our sight. They seem to sum up a real essence of the past and the primeval fear that they were meant to chase away.

The moodiness of candles is often created by the type of exposure you take.

The moodiness of candles is often created by your exposure.
Click image to view large.
Moody Candles
By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Again, it is the contrastiness that does the trick. The brightness of the flame and the luminous glow that hugs so close to the wick really exaggerates the darkness in the background. To take a shot of a candle you need to focus on the flame so that you can expose for the bright spot. This is wonderful for monochrome since the exposure will leave the background really dark that way. Other subjects that bring out the moodiness include dark alleys, dim corners, and the contrasting brighter spots – safe havens in the darkness. Again, look for the deep blacks right through to the bright spots to bring out the moody and threatening in your monochrome.

Faces

It is great to find deep expression in faces too. It’s often contrastiness of the lighting in a portrait that brings out moodiness in the shot. The archetypal villain in the wide brimmed hat, hiding in the darkness underneath it, or on the dimly lit corner, is a great example. Think of the dark and uninviting holes where you see villains portrayed in stories and films. You too can express these things in your photography. It is about the contrasty blacks through to whites again. More black – moody. More white – uplifting! The timeless battle between good and evil.

The moody face, of course, can be more than just deeply-dark to brightly-bright lighting. Often moodiness in the face can be highlighted through sheer expression. It is important to make sure that if you are going for moody that the expression supports the scene. Remember nothing will work if you break the mood. Dark, dim and dank, is trumped by jumping for joy!

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
See also: Profile on Google+.

Three little known facts about shadows

What is shadow? Why is it so important in photography?

What is shadow? Why is it so important in photography?

Shadow is difficult to understand… it’s, well, shadowy.

To a photographer the nature of shadow is the second most important concept we work with, but most don’t understand what it is. Here is a look at three ideas to help you know shadow.

First, you may ask, what is the most important concept to a photographer before shadow? Light… it’s the very centre of photography. It is also the reason we have shadow.

Fact no. 1 – It’s all in the difference

Light and shadow are in fact the same thing. They are not opposites. Dark is the absence of light – a pretty rare thing in modern times. But, shadow is the difference between a particular light intensity and a lower light intensity next to it. Shadow is created by an object intercepting the light from a light source. Light passing the object will be brighter than the light where the beam has been blocked.

Fact no. 2 – It’s not dark in the shadow because…

Light is pretty fickle stuff. It travels in straight lines (direct light) unless it bounces off something. In fact light will bounce off almost anything – even the atmosphere. We see everything around us because light has bounced off things and then entered our eyes. Places with a lot of light bouncing around from different objects and in many directions is said to have diffused light. Some of that light will be bounced into shadow areas. It lightens the shadows. Some light is produced by big light sources like a photographer’s umbrella. This causes a less direct or soft light. The soft light source creates shadows with poorly defined edges. The shadows have a gradual transition from light to the darker shadow areas. Where soft light and diffusion occurs you get less shadow and it is poorly defined.

Fact no. 3 – Direct light and little diffusion equals hard light

Direct light, where there is little diffusion, creates sharp edges on the shadows. The shadow abruptly stops and the brighter light starts. This is called hard light and is normally created by a small light source. Because there is little diffusion the shadow is more intense. This is because there is no diffused light bouncing into the shadow area to lighten it. Hard light and little diffusion creates well defined shadows.

Where does this lead us

The photographer works mainly with light intensity, direction, colour and hardness. Together these components create the quality of light that is so important for successful photography. We intuitively understand intensity and direction. Colour in light is something that we gradually learn to see (harsh blue of mid-day to the golden glow of dusk).

Most photographers don’t immediately see the difference between hard and soft light, and what the effects are on shadow formation. However, shadows are of great importance because they define what we see many ways. More intense shadows stand out more. As they catch our eye we are better able to see what is causing them. As we do so we become aware of the shapes and forms that are sculpting the shadows. In other words, shadows help to give definition to the objects and world around us.

Photography is a two dimensional media. We are very experienced at seeing the world in three dimensions. When we see a flat representation of the world we are able to interpret it in three dimensions because we understand how shape and form are portrayed by the light/shadow relationship. So get to know shadows, hard and soft. Become skilled at capturing them in your images. You will be better able to create a three dimensional world for your viewer – even within a two dimensional medium.

Shooting very long night exposures

Lights from any building generate a surprising amount of light at night.

“The Compleat Angler” – This hotel, pictured from Marlow Bridge, Buckinghamshire UK generates a surprising amount of light. Click image to view large.

Shooting by moonlight or other dim lights

It’s true. You can shoot in almost total dark with a digital camera. You make exposures of many minutes and use really dim lights – the moon, stars and low-level hand-held lights are enough for the camera to pick up.

Previously…

In other articles about night photography we looked at Planning and Preparing for a Night Shoot and Out on a Night Shoot – Night Composition. We also looked at Six things you must know for night shoots including the basics of controlling the camera and the sort of settings used. It is worth following up on these articles before proceeding.

Night light

Out of town, away from the urban lights, dark is really dark! Many urban dwellers don’t realise that unless the moon and stars are out our eyes are pretty poor in complete dark. Yet, when the moon is out, and the stars, we can see pretty well. In fact our eyes are not well adapted to this darkness. However, the digital camera can pick up amazingly small amounts of light. In the photograph above the EXIF data is…

Model – Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ExposureTime – 10 seconds
FNumber – 11
ExposureProgram – Manual control
ISOSpeedRatings – 100
Flash – Flash not fired
FocalLength – 25 mm
ExposureMode – Manual
White Balance – Manual – Cloudy
SceneCaptureType – Standard

Ten seconds is a reasonable time with all that light knocking around. Remember that an exposure is like filling a bucket with water. As light enters the camera it fills the exposure, making it brighter and brighter as the shutter is open longer. So, in very low light situations you can take photos with very long exposures.

One thing to consider is how to set the length of exposure. Most cameras cannot time your exposure if it is going to be longer than thirty seconds. You can buy automatic ‘intervalometers’ – devices which count intervals of time. They will be able to set your camera off for longer exposures than thirty seconds. However, on the camera there is normally a setting called ‘bulb‘. This will allow you to time a period yourself and close the camera shutter when you are ready. You can find out more about the bulb setting (B setting) in: What is the ‘Bulb’ Setting?

The video

In the following video, Mark Wallace takes us through the process of taking a photograph by moonlight. He is using a two minute exposure. Besides nearly getting eaten by coyotes (OK I exaggerate) he gets some well lit shots. Remember he is out in the country where there are no lights and is just using the ambient moon/star light.


Uploaded by snapfactory External link - opens new tab/page on May 1, 2011

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
See also: Profile on Google+.