Saturday, 31 May 2014

Go wild

Often people ask me If I had a choice what sort of photography would I like to specialise in. Actually no one ever asks me that, but if they did I would probably answer wildlife mainly concentrating on birds.

however there are a few things holding me back.

Firstly to get great bird photos you really need patience and time. I would like nothing more to go off to say Titchwell and spend a day photographing birds, but those opportunities are few. Going with kids, even relatively well behaved ones is a no no. The average attention span of a 10 year old is about 15 minutes. After that they will be running down the hide, slamming doors and various other things that are the major causes of infanticide by bird watchers.

The 2nd issue is equipment. My longest lens is a Sigma f5.6/300mm zoom. It's reasonably priced, pretty good quality, but no where near the level you need for bird work. You are looking at a fast 500mm, which start at the type of price you could buy a decent 2nd hand car. There is no likelihood this side of a major lottery win of getting that sort of kit.

However that does not mean you cannot take bird photos, you just have to set your sights a little closer to home.

When most people think of bird photography, they think of the exotic. But this overlooks the plethora of wildlife in your own back yard. OK, Robins and Great tits will not cause the twitching world to go a flutter, but that does not mean you cannot get shots to be proud of.

Anyway I write this as a prelude for the bird shots I have taken today, taking advantage of the fledging time of year.

Update:- This last one has got my highest rating ever on 500px.

Friday, 30 May 2014

50 shades of grey skies

Ah the British weather. The occasional photographers implacable foe.

Just when your appointments have been cleared, you have a thumbs up from your domestic boss, and you set out to some photogenic landscape location with camera in hand, it is almost certain the time that the weather gods will turn against you.

This being Britain, you expect little in terms of good weather and it does not normally disappoint. But is it too much to hope for a small patch of blue? Some fingers of light poking through the cloud? or at the very least heavy thunder clouds with dramatic contrast?

Apparently it is. Because too often in these situations you end up with the sort of grey background which you could use to set your white balance by (if it was not for the continual drizzle associated with it)

Someone's who makes their living through photography may just shrug there shoulders, hit the hotel bar and wait for conditions to improve. But for those of us who have to sneak their photography out between busy lives, there is nothing more disheartening to wake up and see another rain washed grey sky. All we can do is grit our teeth and hope something will come out of the day, or at least something that is capable of being salvaged by the patron saint of average photos, St Photoshop of Adobe

And so it was that I went on my first ever canal trip. I dutifully perused the weather forecast and realised that unless a mix up of  Michael Fish proportions had occurred, the many shots I envisioned of gaily coloured narrow boats reflected in water set against an azure background were going to be severely curtailed.

The plus side of these situations is that they force you to be test your limits. Yes you would rather be under a clear blue Nordic sky, but you are here, you have a camera and it is up to you to try and make the best of it. As it says in the Faulkener's  novel Moonfleet,  "Ita in vita ut in lusu alae pessima jactura arte corrigenda est" (Translation " As in life, so in a game of hazard, skill will make something of the worst of throws"). Which should probably be the motto of occasional photographers everywhere.

The danger in these situations is that you give up photographing and resort to snapping everything that moves in the hope that something, anything will come out, even by accident.

Now photo's are digital, the cost of this is small. However in days gone by with film there was always the danger of wasting £5 on developing 36 shots of a flat featureless landscape or 24 pictures of an out of focus Mallard. The main danger now is only to your pride and self esteem.

The important thing however is taht you are there with camera in hand. No, the chances are that they will not be ranked highly on the next club competition (unless the theme is average photos taken on a grey, wet weekend), but the ones that show some any ember of promise can be used as lessons in the future on what to do when inevitably this situation arises again.

Even the ducks had boots on

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Playing with photoshop

One of my challenges is to get better with Photoshop.

On of the best tutorial sites is If you can get beyond the very american type presentation, it introduces a lot of really powerful techniques which are not instantly obvious from the rather austere photoshop front end

Anyway work in progress based on this tutorial



Saturday, 24 May 2014

Photographer for hire

My recent request to take some photo's at the local Brownie group made me think about the whole issue of event photography.

Normally I am pretty happy to take photos at events, as long as it is on a casual basis. It allows me to experiment with new techniques, improve my photography and help out friends at the same time.

I have only done one event which I was a critical component. My father-in-laws church was doing a wedding dress show which various members of the congregation donated and modelled wedding dresses through the ages. He asked me if I would put some photo's together and put a CD together of the event which later they would sell to raise money. As a fool I agreed.

It was only when I got there that the pressure hit me.  What if the camera failed, or the photo's were poor. What if I ran out of battery, memory mid way through? Where should I stand, how do i get a good shot? What happened if I formatted the memory card before copying the photo's or the computer hard disk failed?

As it turned out none of this happened. The shoot went OK, I got some photos and put the CD together and we sold about 30(actually the worst bit was creating 30 CD's). But if the worst had happened, I could just shrug my shoulders, say sorry, and explain you get what you paid for.

 However it did bring to mind that most dangerous of professions, the wedding photographer.

Riding on the back of that person is the job of recording two peoples most precious memory. I'm not sure any monetary recompense is worth that sort of  pressure.

So remember next time you hire a photographer for that event, that you are paying for their professionalism and skill, but also the ulcers and drinking habit that are likely to form through the responsibilities you put in their shoulders

Out in a flash

Last Thursday as I made my weary way to the polling station to vote for some lizards (As the late Douglas Adams said, if you don't vote for the lizards, the wrong lizard might get in) I got a text from my wife asking if I would like to take some photo's at the Brownie's pop themed party going on at that time.(There was an alternative motive here since it was both my daughters birthday that day and both were at the party. That's right I have twins who were born 5 years apart, which makes that day twice as stressful as it normally should be)

So I was faced with a tough decision. Should I go and fulfil my constitutional duty or go back and grab my cameras and spend an hour taking photos? We'll after mulling over the dilemma for at least 10 microseconds I did an about turn and rushed back to the house to grab my kit (Don't worry , concerned readers, I later managed to get to the polling station and single handedly managed to save British politics ).

Anyone reading my previous blogs will now know I have a habit of forgetting critical pieces of kit, such as memory cards, tripods etc.  So despite my rush I was very careful to check and as an extra insurance grabbed my bag of kit as well. I also grabbed my flash unit which I had only purchased a few weeks ago, determined to use it.

Now there is a fundamental problem with  Sony cameras. In many ways they are very talented engineers, but they don't want to be Sony. They want to be Apple. Apple have a history of creating a closeted walled garden into which unsuspecting punters are lured into, but then find they can never leave because all there stuff is so locked into Appleyness things the pain of leaving is too much(If Apple had a theme tune it would be Hotel California). Sony would love to do the same, but there is only room for one deity in the technology world(The 1st commandant of Jobs. You shalt have one true  technology god, and it shall be called Apple).

Unfortunately Sony forget this once in a while and try and and enforce a new standard on an uninterested and unwilling world. Here are just some of the standards that Sony have tried and failed to impose.

  • Betamax(just when everyone moved to VHS). 
  • Minidisk(Good but too expensive and trounced by MP3)
  • Memorystick(Because there was a big need for a new memory format that had lower capacity, was more expensive and fitted virtually nothing else)
  • Blue ray(just as the world was moving to digital downloads)

I bring this rant up about Sony, because it explains the issues with Sony flashes. Sony engineers could of said, well we are behind Canon and Nikon in the DSLR camera market, lets embrace open standards and allow those users to easily migrate to us. Make's sense right? Not in Sony world. In Sony world they said, we are the mighty Sony. Lets make a new flash interface standard which everyone in the world will gratefully fall upon and leave the false gods of Nikon and Canon.

The upshot is, you cannot go and buy any flash and stick it on your camera. You either have to buy one specifically for Sony (strangely enough only made by Sony) or have to get a special adapter to fit all other flashes onto your camera. This would be fine in Sony flashes were as cheap as other flashes or offered some great new capability, but they don't. An adequate Sony flash costs over £100 and up to £500 for top of the range. In comparison an adequate 3rd party flash can be got for £25. Maybe Sony flashes contain magic pixies that illuminate any scene better than other lesser flashes, but I think that is doubtful. A flash when all is done is not a particular sophisticated bit of kit. It's basically a big light with a few sensors.

Anyway being cheap economically challenged I bought a cheap flash and spent the necessary Sony tax to get an adapter. This unfortunately comes with a price. Because the Sony interface is so propriety, the e-TTL signals do not work, so you end up having to manually set the power settings.

Also I do not have much previous with flashes. All DSLR's have one built in but generally I find these useless because they have a tendency to flatten the scene too much. There is also the problem that flashes tend to be intrusive. There is nothing much worse than going to an event such as a graduation then flashing(if you don't mind the pun) all over the place. So generally I avoid flashes as much as possible.

However they do have there uses. They are best when offering extra light, such as reflecting of the ceiling to provide extra illumination  without overwhelming the subject. But this is really the 1st time I had used a flash and because it was not Sony I had to manually set it, which was another pain,

But generally the results were pretty good. After playing around with my zoom for a while i went back to my 50mm prime lens. Now I love my 50mm lens. It is the only prime I have but at £100 I think is a bit of a bargain. When it works it makes lovely results and the combination of it and the flash gave a lovely soft focus look.

With a prime lens you need to work a bit harder. Rather than composing the photo with the zoom, either you or the subject need to do the moving which comes as a bit of a shock when you initially switch. The great advantage of the 50mm prime is the narrow depth of view and the great bokeh effect. Unfortunately this can sometimes be too narrow and if you have two subjects in the shot, there is a danger of one being out of focus.

However the biggest danger with the 50mm prime is getting carried away with it.  Once I take a great portrait from it, I tend to go mad and try all sort of shots with it, most which are a disaster.

So the lesson here is to know which lens are suitable for which scene and don't be to ambitious. 50mm work great for face portraits, but anything else and you are asking for trouble

Anyway here are some of results

My Wife looking particularly gorgeous

Abba when they were young


As a postscript I may of been a little harsh on Sony and flashes. It appears the inherited the standard when they to0k over Konica-Minolta and the newest DSLR's have now moved to a common flash interface. It only took 7 years to get there....

Friday, 23 May 2014

Copyright or Copywrong

It is said that there are 2 types of Photographers when it comes to copyright.

Those who are afraid their Photographs will be stolen, and those who are afraid that they won't

In that light this blog looks at copyright of photography, who owns it and when it expires.

Those who have been following my blogs know that one of my photographic hobbies is rephotography. This involves taking an old photograph, taking a modern photo from the same spot and overlaying the two together.

Up till recently I had not given much thought about the copyrights of the photo involved. It is not  because I was deliberately ignoring it or trespassing on another photographers rights. It was because

a) the photos were in most cases over 100 years old
b)  I was not using them to make money but to create a derivative work.

I therefore assumed that I was doing nothing wrong copyright wise.

However I had a run-in with copyright as explained in this blog which made me think a lot about copyright law and many of the common misconceptions

I guess here we must add the usual advisory note here. I am only here concentrating on UK copyright law. Other countries may ,and most probably do, have different laws. Also this is not legal advice. I have no legal training nor desire to get any. This is based on minimal research and understanding. If you have a copyright issues, please see a lawyer (but take a large check book)

Anyway you have in your possession a old photo and you wish to use it in some way. How do you assess its copyright status. This is not clear, so in an attempt to clarify some of the issues I have put together a simple flowchart to help your deliberations.

Original information from

You see it's simple. To work out if a photo is out of copyright you need to find the following pieces of information:-

  • When the photo was taken
  • Who by
  • Are they still alive? If not when did they die.
  • Was it published and if so when. 
Once you have gained this information and gone through the above flowchart, you are now in a position to assess whether a photo is out of copyright.

If you think this is a bit over the top, then join the club.

Now in my previous blog, it may seem I was a bit anti-copyright. This is not true. I can see the point of it when it comes to stopping some poor photographer having his labours ripped off by big corp. But the lengths of time of copyright seems out of proportion to it's benefit. Yes, artists must benefit for their work, but for 70 years?

Put it like this. As a software developer I write code, which could be considered creative works. I am sure there is code running around I wrote 30 years ago still in use. However I am not expecting that I will get a check through the post every time someone uses my software for the next 40 years.

There is also an important point about copyright that is easily forgotten. It is called a right, which makes it sound like something the state protects you against. But there is no government agency for collecting royalties, sorting disputes and policing transgressions. If you feel your copyright has been trampled on, your only remit is to sue, with the cost and pressure associated with it.

In some ways this makes a mockery of the whole law. We may worry about our work being stolen (Can a digital photo be stolen? Surely stealing indicates that you have deprived someone of its use), but at the end of the day it is unlikely you will ever do anything about it. In the meantime there is a law that restricts the creative process and provides undue influence and power to those with the resources to employ armies of lawyers (Although firms like Getty's have started to bow to the inevitable and made a lot of there photo's available royalty free)

In a digital age, where art is now so fleeting and virtual, copyright law feels like something from a by-gone time, a bit like restricting grazing rights for your cows. There is nothing worse than a law that does not protect those it sets out to, other than a law that provides power to those with money and the ability to wield it.

Some links to information I used on this blog.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A few photos round Whitick

No long posts today, just a few photos from around Whitick I took in-between my Taxi duties

Part of a rainbow rises over Mount St Bernard Abbey in the Distance

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Photographing ghosts

One of the best and worst things about Photography as a hobby is the breadth of different types of photographs you can take.

This is good because you will always have new things to try. The downside is that it can sometimes feel overwhelming in term of the number of skills you have to master, never mind the amount of equipment you need to build up.

After a while it becomes sensible to concentrate on a few number of disciplines in the hope of mastering them, rather than spreading your time and resources too thin.

Of course, before you get to that stage you need to try out as many genre's as possible and see what sticks.

Most photographers start out taking landscapes for good reasons. The subject matter is easily available and does not need much more than the camera and maybe a tripod. Of course you quickly realise that getting great landscape photos is not as easy as it looks. Apart from the issues of composition, you are at the vagaries of the weather and the seasons. Not only that, but you find you have to start taking more and more kit with you such as extra lenses, filters,bigger,  better tripods. Soon it feels you need a full Sherpa support team.

I remember well my 1st attempts at serious landscape photography.  I borrowed a tripod, dragged my wife up into the Derbyshire peak district and spent 2 hours taking photos. When I got the camera back(this was in the age of film) all the photo's without question were dull, flat and frankly not worth the effort. It took me a while to learn that capturing a great landscape is more than just snapping away. You need to be aware of things like leading lines, foreground objects giving scale, etc.

I have tried a number of photography genre's over the years and in fact there none that I am not willing to have a go at. Well I say that, but I think I would struggle to do any sort of glamour work. Not that I have any problems with those who do and I fully appreciate the skill involved. I just don't think I could ever put myself in that situation and actually use a camera (not only that but I am not sure my wife would be too keen either). One thing I have noticed from local competitions is that most photographers are happier taking pictures on inanimate objects or animals than people. I see very few good photos of people, be it street life or portraits so I can only assume many photographers have similar issues.

So what genre do I feel most comfortable in? There is no specific one, but over the years I have been drawn to the concept of time in photography.

The way I see it (and stop me if I'm boring you) is that when we take a photograph we are recording a unique quantum instant in the universe that will never ever exist again in the universe.  Not only that but a camera allows us to play with time. We can freeze an instant or combine many instants into one picture by slowing the shutter speed.

I think it was this fascination into the effects of time photography that started my interest into rephotography.

Rephotography is the process of taking a photo at the exact same spot as a previous, older photo and combining them to show the changes that have occurred since that time. Building on my concept of quantum photography, we are taking two unique instants in time and superimposing them to show a combined view, a now and then on the same page, which to me seems pretty cool.

I first heard of the technique though a guy called Sergey Larenkov website. He had taken pictures from the 2nd world war and combined them onto modern scenes. Now one of the advantages Sergey has (if you can call it that) is that he lives in a part of the world which has seen much conflict and change over the last 80 years making the photo's very dramatic. However I was much taken by the thought of the individuals on the photo's, most now probably long dead, staring out at me in that instant of time and the present day people stepping through their ghostly image oblivious of the changes wrought by the previous occupants very presence.

I decided I would try something similar. Obviously I do not live in a former battle zone but I got some old photos from where I live and did the best to combine them. Some of them I in this youtube video. It's called "the ghosts of Castle Donington", because as I did it I felt that the people in the long ago taken photo's were in some ways staring out at me from that time to the present.

Since then I have given a talk and even exhibited some of my photos and it has been received with great interest. I have also made my one and only photographic sale(does that make me a professional?) so it is an area I am keen to work in more.

One thing that always confused me was that when I took the photo's, however careful I was to line up the camera, often when I got back the roads, houses etc, did not line up with the modern scene. This always confused me since I took great care to stand in the same place. In some cases it was possible that roads and paths had changed, but this did not explain all the changes. At 1st I thought it was due to perhaps the old lens being not as good as the modern equivalent or a wider angle. However It was only when reading this blog that I realised the issue.

Before compacts. professional photographers use the old bellows type cameras so beloved of silent comedies.However these cameras had a ability that is difficult to reproduce on modern cameras. They could tilt the photographic plate, left/right and up/down so changing the composition of the landscape. So basically they had their own tilt-shift lens on the camera. You don't realise this until you get the photo back and try and line the two up. Fortunately Photoshop comes to the rescue here, and allow use to manipulate the photo in a similar way, although you have to be careful not to add distortion.

Anyway a few example photos.

 Bond Street, Castle Donington 1900 and Now
St Pancras Station, London - Now and in 1941

Just one more point however. When I started this hobby, I made the reasonable, but simplistic assumption that the original photos were out of copyright and free to use (They are mainly over 100 years old after all). However after a little run in with the copyright police(or my local museum as they are known) I realise the situation is a little less clear. This will be another blog another day as I try to unravel the ball of twine which is copyright law. But in the meantime here is another blog I wrote about the subject

Anyway till then some interesting links on the subject of rephotography

Friday, 16 May 2014

Come over here if you think your good enough...

There comes a time in every budding photographers life when they wonder whether the photo's they are taking are actually any good.

Unfortunately we are generally not very good at assessing our own work. Either we are too modest and think our work should never be shown outside the confines of our own home, or (and probably worse) we have an inflated opinion of our abilities and force our nearest and dearest to invent more imaginative platitudes, whenever forced to sit through our collection of electricity pylons from unusual angles.

However without fair judgement I challenge anyone to improve their photography.

So how do we achieve this. Of course you could just grab strangers in from the street, but apart from the likelihood of the police getting involved, how do you know whether their opinion is both balanced and worthwhile? The same goes for friends and relatives. While they maybe willing to express an opinion(sometimes too willing), they may struggle to tell you why they like a photo or be critical enough to correct faults.

One option is to put your photos on photo sharing sites suck a flickr . Unfortunately while a good way to share photo's, it is not really set up for criticism. You may get some comments, but not in the quantity required to make a meaningful evaluation.

A better option is 500px. Not only does the site allow other photographers to comment, like or love your photos(and in doing so ranking your pictures) but it is a great place to see what other photographers are doing and get ideas to try

You can see my 500px page here  under the moniker hammarbytp. There is something gratifying about watching other photographers decide that you work is not a pile of foetid dingo kidneys and could in fact have some promise.

However as good as the site is, it is limited by the amount of feedback it provides. Yes it will tell you which picture may not be total turkeys, but it will not tell you how to improve it  or what was good/bad about it.

For that you really need to go to the next stage and join a photographic society. It took me a long time and a lot of pontificating before my wife pushed me out the door to one. Finally I joined the Melbourne Photographic society and I must admit I have benefited greatly from the advice I have been given and the ideas and criticism I have gained from other members.

However to truly benefit from such organisation you must at some point put your photo's into competition.

This is not a step to be taken lightly and it is at this point that you realize that underneath the friendly exterior of a society, there is a deep level competition that a new part-time photographer may not be ready for.

I made the mistake of putting my 1st photos into the mix when choosing photo's for an external competition.

I agonized for days about which photos to show. I even  dragged my family into discussions. However on the day the photos were given short shrift and did not even get on the 2nd consideration pile.

In hindsight I realise that because this was a club external competition, I was putting my photos against the best photos of the society that year, so I was really out of my league. Saying that however, it did not stop me feeling hurt on how quickly they were dismissed. Did they not realise that these photos were my children, each lovingly raised? How dare they just cast them out without a backward glance!!

In fact the pain was so bad I almost did not go back again, but in the cold light of day I realized they were right. The photos were OK, but not to the standard required for the society's to rest it's reputation on. This was a necessary step in becoming a better photographer. Indeed my next entries for an internal competition were better received, although again did not get to the top table. Close, but encouraging.

The lessons here is that however good we think we are, we all need criticism if we wish to make ourselves better photographers. However we must be prepared for the disappointments that the criticism will inevitably bring.

I also learned another lesson. For the 1st competition entry I used my family as my judges (wisdom of crowds etc). But I wasn't happy with their choices.

The 2nd time I chose my own. Now I am not saying that things would of been different if I had been brave enough to choose my own photos in the first place. But sometimes it is better to fall by your own sword than to rely on others.

These are my first competition photos

and my second try

 Strangely this one got 16 and the other 15.....
But I prefer this one. Judges eh. Can't live with them etc....

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Things to check...

Last year I had in terms of birthday terms a significant event. Now I am not a great rejoicer of birthdays, not seeing much point in celebrating 1 less year until my inevitable demise (as you can tell I am a joy to be around at these times), but what I also dread is presents.

The problem is I expect that my dearest and nearest will know what I want, and they almost without fail, fail to deliver. This birthday I was dreading even more, but to my great surprise they pulled through. They paid for me to go on a photography course in deepest Shropshire.

The course run by these guys (Nature Images) was excellent, despite me managing to forget my tripod (this is starting to be a theme) and as a bonus I could spend a whole day just playing with my camera.

The big thing I came away with was that I had been approaching photography the wrong way.

Firstly I had been photographing in JPEG rather than RAW. Basically I did not want the effort of converting the RAW files to JPG each time. But as I found out, RAW gives you far more flexibility in terms of post-processing to get the best out of the photo.

Secondly I generally left the camera on auto. But as the instructor showed, it makes far more sense to move to aperture priority.

Aperture priority allows you to control the 3rd dimension in photography, the depth of field.  Basically if the aperture is wide open you get a very narrow depth of field which is great for photos where you want to blur the background like portraits, while landscapes you generally want a deep depth of field so need a very narrow aperture. He also showed how you could play around with the white balance to change the warmth of the photo (although obviously if shooting in Raw this can be done in post processing)

Just a note here. I can never remember which f stop is wide aperture and which is narrow. Basically the f stop numbering system is counter-intuitive, so basically I remember it by if when you are dialing in your aperture your shutter speed is going up(i.e. getting shorter), your aperture is getting larger(More light, less speed required).

The final lesson was that as a rule you want to shoot in as low a ISO number as possible. Now modern cameras get better and better low light performance, but generally ,even now ,as soon as you go past ISO 800 noise is starting to creep in and if you push it to the max you get a noisy mess.

However if it is a dull day and you want to have a deep depth of field(meaning long shutter times) then sometimes you have no choice but to increase the ISO rating (The same can apply if you want to use the long end of a zoom). But as a general  you want to keep the ISO as low as possible. In auto mode, the camera tends to do this automatically, so you may think you are getting a great photo in low light, but when you get back, there is so much noise it is unusable.

He also showed how even good photos could be tweaked with photoshop to make them even better(I'm sure I'll talk about this in another blog)

I bring this up now because last night I went back to my moonlight job as Dad's taxi. I had to take my daughter to a singing lesson in Whitwick. My choices were sit in a car for an hour, or grab my camera and see if I could find anything to photo (guess which I chose)

Now Whitwick will never beat Venice as the place most people would want to photo, but actually it has a few pockets of almost Derbyshire peak district landscape. Also the light was good, with blue sky and bit of cloud, with the sun was approaching the golden hour, so I found a nice walk and took photos of anything that took my fancy.

This mainly consisted of the plant life. While flowers themselves are not always the most interesting subjects it does allow you to play around with the depth of field. The secret of a good flower shot I think is  to find 1 good specimen and take the photo with a very shallow depth of field.

Anyway after 3/4 hour I had taken a few photos of bluebells and other flowers, I went to change the setting on the camera. It was at this point I realized that I had been shooting the whole time at 3200 ISO! Now the photos were not ruined, but they would not be as sharp as I would like.

The problem came about because again I was in a hurry so did not take 5 minutes to check my camera.

So I have decided to do something about it. I am going to make a checklist which I will attach to the camera. Basically it will say something like this
  1. Check Battery
  2. Check Memory Card
  3. Check File type(Raw)
  4. Check Camera settings (Mode, Aperture etc)
  5. Check White Balance Setting
  6. Check ISO setting
  7. Check Exposure compensation level
What I really need is simple mnemonic to remember. Unfortunately the acronym for this is BMFSWIE which is hardly memorable. If anyone has a better aide de memoir then answers on a postcard.

This was taken with the high ISO. Blown up the noise is very visible

Noise can work for you too. The noise adds to the glow here

My ambition is one day to take a decent photo of swallows. Preferable in flight

Again noise has helped with this hawthorn

ISO much lower, and the background shows it

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

My weapon of choice..

The old and the new. My present kit next to my old film SLR

This is bit where I bore you to tears about which bit of kit I use.

At present I use a Sony Alpha SLT-37 DSLR. There are not as many Sony users out there and sometimes I get pelters from some photographers who will remain nameless for not using the more usual Nikon or Canon brands (In fact I get this so much I tend to term Nikon enthusiasts as Nikon Nazi's since some seem to think of non-Nikon users are the Untermenschen )

Up to a few years ago I used a small Panasonic compact to get my photos. It was convenient, had a good zoom range and was generally pretty happy with it.

However despite getting nice photos I decided to upgrade. The main problem was the compacts low light performance. When the sun was shining and the subject was relatively close, I could get some nice pictures. But as soon as the light dropped from optimum I really struggled. I ended up with photos too dark, too grainy or blurred because of too slow a shutter speed.

One of the great advantages of a compact is it's portability and there is a true maxim that says the worst photo you will ever take is when you do not have a camera with you. I was attracted at first to the mirrorless 4/3 cameras such as the NEX range, which seemingly combined good performance with portability. But after playing around with them in the now long departed Jessops, I couldn't stop feeling that I really needed a viewfinder(Once you have a camera with a viewfinder there is no going back). While a lot of photo's can be composed using the back LCD, you really can't beat a viewfinder, especially when tracking moving objects. But the NEX range is probably what got me thinking about Sony in the 1st place.

Anyway once I had decided to buy a DSLR (and persuaded my wife we could afford it) the problem was which one to buy. I had a limited budget which severely restricted my choice if I was buying new. Basically it was to be one of the entry level cameras from the Sony, Nikon and Canon.

The Sony at the time had a number of advantages for me. Firstly I already had some Minolta lenses which were compatible. While the lens were not great glass in modern terms, they would do the job for a while.

Because Sony had to try harder than the others (it not being the brand of choice), I also felt I got more bang for buck than the equivalents in the other brands. It was also a little bit cheaper.

But actually the main interest for me was the Sony's SLT technology.

Most DSLR's use a mirror to reflect the light coming through the lens through a set of prisms into the viewfinder. Sony do something different. There is no mirror in the normal sense. Instead the light is split by a translucent mirror with a small percentage going to a electronic viewfinder and the rest to the camera sensor.

One advantage is that when you take a shot the camera no longer has to lift the mirror before taking the photo. This is seen at it's best by with Sony's frame rate matching much more expensive camera's. Another advantage is that without the need for a large prism assembly at the top of the camera, the camera can be built smaller which improves portability. This was a big consideration  for me at the time. While the size difference is not huge it is significant.

Another factor was also to do with my personality. Basically when it comes to technology I am a masochist.

Maybe it is because I work in the technology industry, but my relationship with gadgets is one of detached interest. I severely distrust the herd instinct that makes people jump on the latest bandwagon  . For example while I appreciate the technology in Apple phones and iPads, I will never have one myself because basically the lack of control over the product.  I would rather have a product which tries a new direction with both the plus and minuses that entails.  Why go the scenic route when you can climb over sharp rocks in the hope you might find a better viewpoint that no one else has ever seen?

And so it is with the SLT technology. There is no doubt it has some advantages. Because the mirror is not being flipped up all the time, it is easier for Sony to produce a camera with a faster continuous shooting mode. You also see at all times what the camera sensor is seeing without having to flip the mirror up. One big plus for me is that you get a lot more information in the viewfinder than an equivalent DSLR, so things like histograms are available at all times while you looking through the viewfinder. Plus you get 100% coverage(although this is a can be a mixed blessing)

Then again there are those rock splinters.

Because not all the light goes to the sensor you are losing about 5% of light to the sensor. While most of the time this is not a problem, you will still suffer at little in very low light (But since at this point you should really be on a tripod anyway this is not as disaster). There is also a lag between the light hitting the camera and it showing in the viewfinder. Normally you do not notice this, but when panning fast moving objects such as cars it is apparent and you have to compensate to try and ensure the subject is somewhere in the middle of the shot which takes a bit of practice.

So after 2 years of usage how would I sum up the Sony Alpha SLT-37

The applause

Good frame rate (up to 7 f.p.s)
Excellent Sensor for the money.
Electronic viewfinder(EVF) provides extra information and 100% coverage and a better preview of what the photo will look like

The brick bats

The EVF is a mixed blessing. It make panning shots difficult and it does not have the resolution of a standard viewfinder

This being Sony, they have to put there propriety mark on the camera somewhere. The memory stick slot is OK, since there is also a SD card one. The Sony RAW format is OK  since all camera manufacturers have their own raw format. But why do they insist in having a Sony only flash hot shoe? It means if you want a external flash(and if you do indoor work, you will) you either have to buy a very expensive Sony flash or buy an adapter and miss out on E-TTL mode.

The rear LCD screen though is the real bugbear. I have a friend who bought the previous mode(alpha 35). That has a quite decent LCD. When they made the alpha 37 the designers obviously took the decision that if they were upping the sensor pixel count, they had to make economies elsewhere. The result is a LCD which is close to useless being really poor resolution and difficult to see in bright light. I tend not to bother using it and if I am reviewing my shots I tend to use the EVF. Unfortunately they appear to have done a similar trade-off with the my cameras replacement , the SLT a-58. This really is penny pinching now that decent LCD panels are a dime a dozen(Basically they are doing it to ensure there is a clear market difference between the middle tier and low end DSLRs. So basically a marketing and not a technical decision )

Would I buy Sony again?

The real proof of the pudding is given my time again and what I know now, would I buy the same camera.

The answer is probably yes. The camera is relatively small, has a good sensor and some nice features. It has it's fleas too, but so would any of the entry level models. Best of all for me, I am not following the herd and can go my own way, and perhaps find advantages over the herd.

One thing with cameras is that once you have made your choice you are stuck with it. As you build up your kit, it makes it harder to switch brands(although Ebay is your friend here ).

So what about Sony's now? Well I still think they make interesting to great cameras(The a7 and RX100 have great reviews, but come at a price) and are as good as the equivalent Nikon or Canon.

Sony always have had great engineers. However Sony as a company need to realise the advantages of standards and stop listening to the marketing men. I'm pretty sure it is the engineers at Nikon who decide the product and not the money men.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The ones that got away

After Monday's rather disappointing photo haul I decided to get back on the proverbial horse and take my camera to a local social event at the Methodist church

To ensure the minimum of distraction I only took the camera and my 50mm prime lens. As I was in a bit of a hurry after work I just took the camera and left the case and associate gubbins back at home.

I took some potentially great photo's of both children and adults. The 50mm lens is great for  this sort of in close portrait work. You have to work a bit  harder to get the right distance, but because you are not zooming in and out, you concentrate on framing more. Not only that but the larger maximum aperture means that it works well indoors and you get lots of great bokeh(I love that word)

However I would love to share with you some of these photos so you can see what I mean, unfortunately there is just one small problem

 I forgot to put a memory card in the camera.....

It's such a newbie mistake I can't believe i did it. It was largely down to being in a hurry. After copying photos from last night I did not replace the card in the camera. And my spare card was in the camera case which I did not take to save time and weight

This is not the 1st time this has happened to me. Unfortunately the no memory card signal  in the Sony is not at all obvious until you preview your photos and to all intents and purposes the camera works. If only there was a option to make it more obvious, such as the camera not taking photos with a large message in the viewfinder saying IDIOT!!

However this is by no means my worst disaster like this.

Let me take you to the days of film when I went on my one and only long sea voyage up to the Arctic circle on the Royal fleet auxiliary vessel Olna. We sailed for 6 weeks outside Murmansk and watched the pride of the Russian nuclear fleet sail by, while Sea Kings took off and tried to ping them to test their sonar absorption capabilities.

Because I wasn't sure whether I would be allowed to take a camera on board(actually no one cared), instead of taking my SLR, I took a my wife's compact. During the 6 week voyage I saw once in a lifetime sights.

There was Beluga whales basking, a peregrine off course and resting on our masts. Russian submarines by the score including the largest ever built, the Typhoon class. At one point most the Russian navy sailed past us and we passed the Admiral Kutnetsov aircraft carrier (with I seem to remember just a truck and a dog on board).

We were buzzed by Migs, A Nimrod did an air drop. At one point two Russian maritime aircraft did a number of low level passes firing flares. All the time the Sea kings were taking off into the Arctic sunset and I watched as divers recovered a Russian underwater sonar sensor for later analysis. Being an oiler the Olna also did refuelling to HMS Sheffield firing the lines over.

All the time I took photo's. But you will have to take this on my word, because when I got my camera back and took the film out to get it developed, I found the film had not even wound onto the camera spool. So for 6 weeks I had been firing blanks, so to say.

It still hurts when I think of it. In comparison today's  faux pas is just a minor irritation in comparison.

Anyway here is today's lesson.

Before you take your camera out always check the basics such as
  • Clean the Lens and carry a lens cloth
  • Check battery power and carry a spare
  • Make sure the memory card is in place and you have a spare.

You have to take my word for how brilliant the photos were however :(

Event Photography - Always plan ahead

I went yesterday to our local Mayday festival. Last year I got some good photos, so I had high hopes of doing so again. As well as the street performers, it's a great place to get photo's for local colour. Also, so unlike many Bank Holidays in the UK, the weather gods this time were kind with no rain forecast.

When I reviewed the photos I took however, I was disappointed with the results. From my initial viewing, none of the photos had any wow factor. While it may be possible to make something of some of them, I had no great enthusiasm for any of them.

So what went wrong?

Well in hindsight, I think my mistake was that I did not plan ahead about what sort of photo's I wanted to take. I went just with a big zoom on the end of the camera and snapped away at anything I though might be interesting. Last year I went primarily with my 50mm Prime lens. Because of the restrictions the lens presented (i.e. no zoom) it forced me to focus on taking photo's of people, rather than the scatter gun approach. As a result my photos benefited from the increased discipline.

I must admit the reason I went with the 18-210 zoom this year was that I felt I missed out on some good shots through the lack of zoom ability. However because I had not planned on the theme the photos I did not concentrate enough.

One set of photo's I had planned to get was of the bird of prey guy. I was hoping to get some good shots of falcons and owls flying. Unfortunately, unlike last year, he did a lot less flying and mostly away from the camera, which is not the best shot for these sort of things. I think for a good raptor shot, you really want it flying toward you with the eyes in shot and focus.

Lesson 2. If it is clear plan A is not going to work, don't be afraid to give up and go to plan B.

These events are generally about the people. Now shots of people in events like these are never likely to get you high scores on websites such as 500px, but they are good to advertise your skills to the local community and open doors. I have noticed that a lot of photographers don't like taking photos of people and I think is generally that we are happier behind the lens, not interacting with people.

I always make the mistake in these situations in believing that I am some sort of candid street photographer. I let myself believe this because of my inherent shyness and therefore avoid the need to talk to strangers. However in these situations, you get far better shots if you ask people to pose for you. This is why going only with a prime lens is such a plus. It is the only photo you can really take.

So the lessons learnt going forward.

1. Have an idea of what sort of photo's you wish to take before you go. Do not go with a scatter gun approach, since you will probably end up with nothing.

2. If conditions are not suitable for plan A, don't be afraid to re-evaluate and switch to plan B. It the photo's are not coming out as you want it is better to do something else

3. These sort of events are about the people. Get used to talking to people and getting them to pose for you. Most will be happy to do so (although expect them to be reticent at first). Zoom street photography is just an excuse for not getting close and personal

One thing that might help my shyness is actually forcing me into situations where I have to interact. One thing I may try and do is take people photos' during the local Heavy Metal download festival as a way of overcoming my phobia.

Anyway here's the best of a insipid bunch...




Monday, 5 May 2014

First Post

This blog is about my journey through photography. I am not a professional photographer nor am I ever likely to be one. My only hope is that one day I can be considered a competent one.

This blog is a recording of my journey along that road, so that others can trace my path.

I have a couple of rules/restrictions however which makes my journey more challenging than some.

Rule 1

The money I earn in my day to day job is there to keep a house over my family's head and food in their stomachs(I have a teenage daughter so this is considerable). Even once all the bills have been paid, only a small proportion can be allocated to what after all is only a hobby. So no £5000 lenses or multiple camera bodies. Even £100 for a big stopper filter seems extravagant when there are so many other demands on my cash. So this is photography on a budget. It is finding out how to do the best within limited means. And while I would love to have the cash to buy whatever I want, in some ways I like the restriction because it forces me to be more imaginative with what I have.

Rule 2 

I have a growing family. One day they will flee the nest, but up to that point I want to spend as much time  as I can with them. So no exotic trips to the most photogenic locations in the world or safari's to the worlds best wildlife haunts. Most of my photography will need to be restrained to where I live and the surrounding areas. Not only that, but the time I can spend on my hobby is also limited by the demands of the very same family. While some can spend hours waiting for that shot or setting up there kit, my time available is measured in minutes(if I'm lucky). The fact I have a day job limits me more. But again like money, I don't see this as a restriction, but a challenge that will make me a better photographer.

The truth is my challenges is not so very different to many others out there. This blog is a salute to others like me who strive to get the best despite the challenges heaped upon them.

It will also once in a while allow me to rant a bit. Let me apologize in advance for that.