Monday, 30 June 2014

A Rave of Starlings

The official name of a group of Starlings is a murmuration, a word that sounds like a quiet gathering of like minded folk, like a group of monks at prayer.

Today we had a bunch of young Starlings appear on our bird table and murmuration is not the word that came to mind. Instead I suggest a change the collective pronoun to something more descriptive. A riot of Starlings, a delinquency of Starlings or just  mob of starlings would be a lot more accurate. If ever a bird could be anthropomorphised into a gang of teenage Hells Angels it would  be Starlings.

On the plus side, they make great photographic subjects. Here are a few of the photos that I got

A slightly wider depth of field would of been good, but I like the energy

Kung Fu Starling. Unfortunately I just cropped the top of it's head concentrating on the bird table. I guess it is always worth zooming back a bit and then cropping later.

The gangs all here

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Learning to fly

Yesterday we had a BBQ organised by the  Melbourne photographic society. It was an opportunity to socialise and at the same time take some photos. It was held at the local aircraft museum, the East Midland Aeropark which is also conveniently right next to the runway of East Midland airport providing great views of the aircraft taking off and landing.

From my youngest days I've always had a great fascination with aircraft and the Aeropark is a place I know well, so really this should of been grist to the mill for me. But in the end I felt the results from the evening proved to be less than stellar.

I can point to a number of reasons, however this time I can't really blame the weather. OK, It could of been better, but no rain and occasionally the sun did poke through which  for the UK constitutes a heat wave.

The art of combining social and photographic events can always be a challenge. I have to admit I tend to be a bit of a loner when it comes to photography, but you have to make the effort to talk to people in these situations. However while you are doing so something in the back of your head is always telling you that you are missing some great photo opportunity by eating that sausage

When I went to the park my original intention had been to try my hand at HDR photography. HDR photos are something I've always liked and while they can be overdone, old planes, especially those with bare metal should of been perfect subjects.

My camera has a in-built HDR mode, which while not getting the optimum results, allows the taking of good test shots. The intention then was to see what worked,  setup the tripod and do a series of shots to be combined into  HDR images later. In the end however I just couldn't get the HDR shots I wanted. I am still not sure why, but one possibility there was not enough contrast around in the subjects at that time of day. Obviously I still have a lot to learn about HDR photography.

So as the HDR idea was not working out, I just went round snapping photo's of anything that took my interest. Unfortunately I then got sidetracked by an idea. The park had a large number of swallows flying around between the aircraft. Now Swallows and all the associated passerine's have always fascinated  me and if I had the time I could lie in the grass and can watch them fly all day. It seemed a good  idea to try and get a a shot of a swallow against a background  of old aircraft, providing a juxtaposition of nature and the man made flight (A couple of swallows had actually setup a nest in the wheel well of a Vulcan bomber which I found deeply ironic.).

I have always had the ambition of getting a great shot of a swallow in flight. I have this vision of a photo of a swallow flying low toward me over some grassy hill, mouth agape. Anyone who has ever attempted to photo these birds will know how challenging they are to capture in flight, since they are so fast and random in their flight patterns. Capturing them at all, especially with the zoom lens at it's greatest extent, was always going to be a mugs game, but this is exactly what I tried to do.

Having a photographic vision in your head and trying to execute it, is not necessarily a bad thing.  However sometimes you get so involved in attempting it that you fail to notice better photo opportunities around. While I was trying to capture swallows flying, I took some of photos of plane details with my 300mm zoom. In hindsight these were the shots I should of concentrated on.

There is always a danger when taking photos of aircraft of getting a photo of the whole aircraft. These tend to be the boring shots that add nothing to the art. It is far better to try unusual angles or pick out parts of the plane. These are the shots that in hindsight I should of been doing. The same lesson applies to any man made object be it cars, trains or ships.

There was also the opportunity to take photos of the planes as they came into land at East Midland airport. I did take a few of these, but I always think that these photos are never very interesting unless you are an avid plane spotter(and there were plenty of those around last night. One group had travelled all the way from Leeds!)

Anyway my takeaways from the evening were as follows
  • It's all well and good to have an idea, but don't concentrate on it to the point where you miss other potentially great shots.
  • When photographing planes and other large man made objects, often it is better to concentrate on the details rather than the whole object.
  • HDR is a great technique, but you need to work out when and how to get the best out of it.
  • Trying to take pictures of Swallows in flight is always going to end in disappointment.

Thanks to everyone who organised the BBQ last night, especially Ian Petit who sacrificed valuable camera time to ensure we were well fed. Also to the volunteers of the East Midland Aeropark for opening up the park late at night and showing us around some of the exhibits. 

P.S I originally wrote this blog before I really had a chance to review my shots. I now think that perhaps I was a bit hard on myself. Some of the shots were better than  I thought. Anyway judge for yourself

A big yellow banana full of parcels lands EMA

Sunlight on a Vulcan

Not sure why I even took this one, but the shapes are intruiging

I wish i could say this was deliberate. It was only when I got back that I could see the humour of the  runners running from the propellers

Yay, got one. A swallow flies past the Vulcan nose

One cargo of dried Cod

Nice detail of a prop

Waiting to fly. A swallow rests on a propeller

Wessex's in the sun

Canberra's Nose

Close up of a Canberra's engine

HDR's Canberra from the rear

HDR lightening. I have to admit probably went over the top Photoshop wise here. Work in progress...

Monday, 23 June 2014

Summer Time Balloons

You would of thought that summer is a great time for photography, but it's not necessarily so. Generally the best time of the day for outdoor photographs is a period termed the golden hour. This is normally an hour after the sun has come up or an hour before the sun goes down. At this time the shadows of the setting sun bring out the structure of the landscape, highlighting scale and distance. Also the young suns rays turn the world to a rich orange.

Unfortunately in the UK at high summer, this means either getting up very early or staying up very late. When the sun is high in the sky (yes we do get sun in the UK) it dramatically shortens the shadows and generates a huge amount of glare making photos look washed out. But beggars can't be choosers and it feels wrong to waste all that light without getting the camera out on such a day. 

The question is then what to take? 

Things low to the ground like flowers are good. Also portraits where you can use the sum to get a nice halo effect through the hair are excellent. But they are a bit done that, bought the t-shirt.

This weekend I was watching my daughter and her friends take advantage of the hot conditions to break into water fights and it gave me an idea. One of the things they had started doing was throwing water balloons at each other. This gave an opportunity too good to miss to try my hand at  high speed photography. 

Basically the challenge was to photo a water balloon at the moment of bursting

Now the normal way to do this sort of photography is to go in a dark room, open the camera shutter up and set off a short flash burst, when the event you want to photograph occurs. However apart from the mess it would make of the carpet, I wanted to provide some context by including my 10 year daughter in the photo.

One of the modes that my Sony camera comes with is one for high frame photography called continuous priority AE mode. This can take frames up to 7 frames per second (with some caveats such as the pictures are JPEG's not in RAW). I had never used this mode in any of my photography. One of the problems is that the manual that came with the camera is in fact pants. It describes the functions in purely technical terms leaving you to work out the rest. Until I had bought David Bush's SLT-A37  excellent book I hadn't realised how little I knew about all camera modes. 

Some of the modes seem to in fact have very little function and you wonder why they are wasting space on the dial. The Sony camera includes a 3D mode which in theory takes photos that gives a 3D effect when used with special goggles. I can only assume this was through special request of the Sony marketing men, who read that 3D was going to be the technology wave of the future, in the same way as people bought TV's capable of 3D then after 2 hours of sitting around wearing silly goggles never used them again.

Anyway I decided to give it a go and first co-opted my daughter as a willing volunteer. We got one of her friends to position the balloon next to her head and I set up the camera up on a tripod. I counted down to 1 and pressed the shutter. Unfortunately at this point we found out that bursting balloons, even armed with a pin, was actually quite hard. so my wife had to take over as the tormentor in chief 

After a few attempts we finally managed to get the balloon to burst on cue and got a couple of decent shots in the process

The results I think are pretty good. Even with a good frame rate, timing is crucial and I was lucky to get 2 decent shots. Of course to a 10 year old, getting wet without returning the favor to someone else quickly gets boring, so I only managed a couple attempts. Maybe next time I will have to resort bribery (or restraints). I also had to use Photoshop a bit to reduce the brightness of the water and increase it's transparency.

Two things I would of changed however. I had been shooting indoors previously and had forgot I had the camera at quite a high ISO(3200) setting on. Because I was using quite a fast shutter speed this may of not made much of a difference, but I would of liked to try again at a lower ISO. 

Also with hindsight a picture with the balloon above her head would of been even more dramatic. All I need to do now is to persuade my willing victim to partake again. One thing is for sure. Once a balloon full of cold water drops on her head, I'm pretty sure I won't get a 2nd attempt.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

All souled out - Which photographic manipulation software to use

Long gone are the days when taking a photo ended with the shutter being pressed. Now that is just half the job, the rest being taken up with tweaking and manipulating the photo via photo manipulation software. The question is however, for a photographer on a budget, what software do we use use?

There is no doubt the king of hill, top of the heap is Photoshop. No other photograph manipulation package comes close in terms of popularity by professional photographers, nor do any others touch it in terms of the number of extensions, tutorials and other resources associated with it.

One slight problem however.

You cannot actually buy Photoshop. Instead the makers, Adobe, have moved to a model where you "lease" it. Basically you pay Adobe £9 a month in perpetuity and they very kindly let you use their software. Also don't think you can pay for a few months then stop. Once those cheques stop hitting the Adobe server the software will stop working and any files saved in the propriety Photoshop format will be inaccessible(I read one review that indicated that because renting Photoshop cost the same as a netflix subscription it was a good deal. This is the kind of review that makes you want to point out the reviewers faults by banging their head repeatedly against a brick wall).

Now to be fair to Adobe (and I really, really don't want to), for that price you do get a version of their RAW editing package, Lightroom, included with that subscription, and free upgrades for as long as you continue paying. But you have to balance this with the fact you have just made a lifetime contract to give Adobe cash, compared with the old model where you paid them once and probably never again because the old product did basically what you wanted. There is also the issue that if your software does not phone home on a certain date, it will stop working. Not great if you want to take your laptop to some remote location and do some photo editing on the move.

To be honest, if your profession is photography, this may not be the worst deal in the world, but for the rest of us, it sucks big time. Such is the state of the photograph manipulation software it is unlikely there will be any major changes and you will be locked into paying money that could go more usefully somewhere else.

Of course the reason that Adobe can do this, is that the photographic world is so addicted to Photoshop, it is almost impossible for a competitor to get a look in. In a normal situation such a power grab would result in a plethora of competing products and customers voting with their feet. The fact this has not happened shows that the market is so skewed, that Adobe could request the 1st child of all purchasers and would probably get away with it.

OK, so we cannot purchase Photoshop and we don't want to sell our soul to Adobe for life. What can we do?

Well there are alternatives.

For a start, Adobe would counter my criticism by pointing out that you can purchase Photoshop elements for £70 and that does most of what the full blown Photoshop does. However if you believe that Adobe is selling an almost complete Photoshop replacement for £70, compared to an annual subscription of £110, I have a bridge you might be interested in buying. Yes, Elements has a lot of the same features and the same look and feel, but it is also missing a number of important tools (See here is a quick comparison) . Now it is possible that you do not need any of those features and admittedly many only apply to high end print shops. If so, buy a copy,  but it is likely that some tools some like curve adjustment layer will be needed  in the long term.

There are similar priced alternatives to Photoshop elements such as Corel Paint Shop Pro or Serif Photoplus and while they are perfectly good products which provide a number of advanced features without the large price tag, you will eventually find a problem. The issue is that getting good at any photo manipulation task beyond cropping and resizing is a big learning curve. There is tons of good learning material out there, but they all assume you are using Photoshop. Translating these to other packages can be very difficult.

For a long time I used Paint Shop Pro. The truth is I had tried Photoshop and compared to the slick features of the Corel product I struggled to see it's Photoshop's advantages. However this was before YouTube(yes younger readers, there really was a time before YouTube) and I watched professionals use Photoshop to the enhance photographs to the maximum. It was  through sites like phlearn that I learnt the real power of Photoshop is hidden out of view and until you learn the short cuts and hidden features it is not possible to fully understand the process of getting the best of your photos.

Another even cheaper alternative is Gimp. Gimp is an open source, multi-platform software which costs the very reasonable price of £0. I love the idea of Gimp, I love it's potential power, unfortunately however hard I try I can never get the hang of it. Part of the problem was the user interface used to be idiosyncratic and difficult to get your head around. That has improved now, but it is still a difficult beast to get the best out of unless you know exactly what you want to do. If you look up a task the internet will almost certainly result in sending you to a Photoshop tutorial, which is not a lot of help. Still at the Gimp's price there is no risk in installing it and giving it a go.

There are other free alternatives. Programs like Paint.Net provide some Photoshop functionality, but quickly runs out of power. One I always forget about is Google's Picassa. I use Picassa as a very good photo managing tool. Being from Google it is good at search and ties in nicely with the cloud. However it also has some very powerful, easy to use photo manipulation tools. Things like adding a vignette to a photo is a one click affair. Ok, it is only suitable for basic manipulation but it is free, so what's to lose?

One intriguing alternative and maybe the way of the future is . This is a purely online tool, but has some advanced features and a Photoshop look and feel. It is certainly worth keeping in mind if nothing else is available.

But all these suffer from the fact they are not Photoshop. So what to do? Well there is a alternative to Photoshop which has 90% of the power of the latest version and is totally free. Strangely enough it is called Photoshop.

Some months ago Adobe announced that due to registration server changes, Photoshop CS2 would be installable without the need for a product key. In effect, it was saying that Photoshop CS2 is open to all. Now legally this is only really supposed to be for people who bought CS2 in the first place. But in practice there is nothing to stop anyone downloading it and installing it.

But how does a 9 year old piece of software help us here? Surely it would be like running Windows 3.1 when you want Windows 7.

Actually no.

If you follow the tutorials you will find 90% of the functionality just the same between CS2 and CS6. There are a few missing items, but the majority of the good stuff is there. OK, there have been some major user interface tweaks in that time, but these only make the job slightly easier. It is a great way to make use of the mass of tutorial material on photo manipulation using a familiar interface. Hopefully once mastered, these can be easily applied to other packages such as Gimp.

There are 2 caveats however. Firstly if you have a modern camera it is unlikely you will be able to edit the RAW files. This is because the version of the code that Photoshop uses to handle RAW files has not been updated to include the more modern formats.  So you will need to convert your RAW files to jpeg's or TIFF's first. Secondly the more modern 3rd party extensions are not likely to work either.

If you shoot in RAW format(and you really should) you may think this is a pain. However there is a solution. Unfortunately it may involve giving Adobe money(but not as much as a subscription).

There are a number of good packages out there for editing RAW files. Unlike Photoshop there is more competition in this area. I have Zoner Photo Version 15 which I got free as an offer. Dx0 similarly is an excellent package to do the same. However because Adobe is so big in the photo manipulation area, it is difficult to look past their RAW editing package, Lightroom.

Lightroom cost about £100, which is not pocket change, but affordable. Like Photoshop, it takes a while to get the best out of it, but like Photoshop there are a lot of tutorials to help you. Additionally there are a lot of great extensions. The Nik collection is especially good and integrates nicely into Lightroom. OK, it adds another £100 to the bill, but the result is that you get a set of state of the art set of tools that you can do the majority of your photo correction work in. If you need to do any more, you can convert them to a file format of your choice and continue in Photoshop CS2.

All without paying Adobe another cent, which sounds like a good deal to me. As a bonus you also get to keep your soul.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Will someone think of the children!!!

Every once a while I have a rant on this blog. I try to stop myself, but sometime things happen which I have to comment on. Just think of yourself as part of my therapy session....

I went yesterday to my children dance show at Derby theatre. This is something they have been rehearsing really hard for for months and needless to say the show was great and my kids were brilliant.

However what annoyed me was a sign in the theater foyer. On it, it said, "due to child protection concerns, no photographs are allowed during the performance".

At the time I ignored it, but thinking about it later it was a little strange. These children were in a public show. They had spent 6 months to get ready in order to display there skills to the wider world and now someone is suggesting that someone with a camera had the potential to cause them irreparable harm? Not only that, but the whole performance was to be filmed for the later production of a DVD to be sold. Should I have been concerned that the video camera was invading my child's privacy and would become the cause of many hours of therapy in later life (I was a good child until aged 10 then someone videoed me in a dance show so I murdered my parents)

The truth is I had no problems with a ban on photography at the event. It was the use of child protection to justify it that I found annoying. If they had said no photos because it is annoying to the people behind you, I would of applauded them. If it had been flash photography can distract the performers I would of agreed. Even if it had been no photography because we really need to scalp you for a DVD later, I would of shrugged and accepted it. But by using child protection as the context for a ban they are ruining their own argument.

I had another issue like this recently. I went to Leicester cathedral for the 1st time and was taking some pictures of the painted ceiling. A warden came up to me and asked me to stop taking photos. I initially assumed that it was due to some preservation issue or perhaps I needed to buy a licence.

But no, the issue was that there was a school party in the building and he was worried I might inadvertently take picture of them. Ignoring the fact that unless they suddenly grew angels wings and floated to the roof it was unlikely they would be in shot, what was the danger? How much more potentially dangerous would it be that I inadvertently took a photo of a child in the church than say in the car park outside?

The whole issue of child photography has reached a point of such misunderstanding that even holding a camera near a school or public park can be considered grounds for serious abuse, both verbal and physical. If asked why, a lot of people will claim it is against the law. But there is no legal issue of photographing children in a public place Children have no less or no more protections than adults. It is not like up to the age of 18 they have to wear the photographic equivalent of a burqa, after which it can then be removed.

The whole issue seems to of come about some 6 years ago when there was one of those scare stories about pedophiles taking photos of local children. However it doesn't take a lot of thought to realise this does not make a lot of sense. Why go to the effort and risk when you have the internet or magazines easily available.
This Guardian article describes the issue very well

The 1st we knew about it was when schools started asking for cameras to be removed at school plays. Again it was for the child's protection, even though no reasoning was given (There was a suggestion that it was to stop estranged parents locating their kids and abducting them. But if these parents have the resources to scan the internet for one child, banning school photography is unlikely to be much help ).

 It has reached the point that it is ingrained in British society that a man with camera near child is dangerous. Schools could of fought this at the time, but unfortunately took the line of least resistance(I have noticed that now they asked parents to opt out, which is better, but many organisations still ban all child photography).

But why should I care? (Maybe some of you reading this with the thought in the back of your head that I protest to much) Isn't it better that if there is any possible danger to our children, however small, that we be careful even if it means a slight reduction in freedom?

Well there are a number of reasons.

Firstly children are a great photographic subject. Their wide eyed innocence and lack of self consciousness provides a great context photographic scenes. We lose this with such a ban but gain little in return.

Secondly childhood is such a fleeting period of time, never to be recovered. With my kids I would like to get as much on photographic record as I can. While I do it, I may get your your spotty oiks in the picture as well, either deliberately, to provide context or by accident. Either way, it should not stop me from recording those memories.

Finally, we live in a world with too much in fear of the stranger next door. Policing non-rules like this does nothing to protect children. It does however distract us from the real dangers.

It is unfortunate however that we will never get a honest debate on this subject. The fears are too ingrained and those likely to stand up are constrained by the fear of being tarred by a common brush. Even as I write this blog, something in the back of my mind is screaming about the risks of putting my head above the parapet.

However it is such a pity since by doing nothing we lose so much and at the same time do nothing to help ensure out children's safety.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The art of selection

Having spent the last few days going through the photos I took at Mallory park I have faced one of the problems that occurs when you do an event like that is, namely how do you go about reducing the mass of photos to the few pictures that you wish to share?

In total I took 625 photos in a mad 3 hours at Mallory. It would be wonderful to believe that each one was a gem of photographic perfection that should be cherished and celebrated, but that is never going to happen. Instead I have 625 photos of varying quality each which need to be ranked and in most cases simply deleted.

The easy job is getting rid of the ones which are just plain bad, such as they are out of focus or have the wrong exposure. Others are just badly composed with faults like chopping part of the subject off or a similar composition faux pas. These are the easy ones to find and once these have been removed you are left with about half the photos you started with.

There are also the duplicates; photos taken in quick succession but basically show the same scene. These can also be whittled down to just one photo (I used to save all the photos even the bad ones. This was a hang over to the days of film, since after paying for them to be developed you felt beholden to retain them. I also used to believe that even bad photos could perhaps be saved in the future. But now I realise they just take up valuable disk space and need to be exiled to digital hell),

After this process you are left with a core set  of photos without any discernible technical faults. Then starts the next challenge. You need to go through them again and judge whether there is a decent photo trying to escape. If you are lucky you will find some flawless gems which stand by their own merits,but more likely you will find photos which don't quite make the grade. This is where you start up the photo editing software

In the old days of film (unless you owned a developing studio) photography was a strictly WYTIWYG affair (What You Took Is What You Got). Nowadays unless you are very skillful (or in my case, lucky)  this is just the start of the process. Virtually without exception, all photos can be improved by some tweaking in Photoshop and the like, but some need more major rework. The next stage is to see what can be done to take a photo to that next level.

The things you can do to a photo are only limited by your time and your skill levels. It could be anything from playing around with the white balance(if taken in RAW mode), changing the levels, tweaking the color curve, converting it to black and white or just cropping it to produce a different viewpoint. On top of that there are numerous effects you can play with such as filters or just removing annoying distractions via clone stamping. The list is endless.

These range from the easy to the difficult and of course there is a philosophical debate to be had about when a photo stops being a photo and becomes a Photoshop construct. To me it is when the photo becomes something that could not have been achieved through the camera alone, however leaving that to one side for now, generally you start with the changes that have the maximum impact for minimum work.

Cropping is always a good place to start. In some ways it is the simplest one to achieve, but the most difficult to master. A good crop can add enormously to the photo, but the issue is what to crop and how much. This is an artistic call rather than something that can be legislated

Cropped, possibly cropping more would work????

Converting the photo to black and white is also simple to do and can sometimes have a huge impact. It is a strange thing that removing the colors can improve a photo, but the colors can sometimes prove a distraction from the subject. By removing them you end of with the subject coming to the fore, which is why portraits are so often better in black and white.


In black and white. Now the intense expression on the lead rider comes to the fore

Once you have picked out those photos that can benefit from extra processing and retained those lucky ones that need no or little enhancement, the rest can be deemed unworthy and can be relegated to the also ran pile (although still retained waiting for that unlikely day when maybe your Photoshop technique has advanced enough or a different requirement makes them useful again). The rest are to be cropped, clone stamped or otherwise digitally manipulated.

You may now be left with 5% of your original photos and hopefully those left are worthy of extra critical attention. In my case this was still 20 or 30 photos. Of course you could stop here, kick your feet up and have a cup of tea, but since we are in a never ending quest for perfection we need to continue our search for excellence. What we are looking for now are those few photos you would be happy to share to your peers and the world.

Here is where the real challenge begins...

So you have 30 photos. The obvious defects have been removed. They have been buffed up with Photoshop to the best of your ability and you wish to pick those most likely to propel you to glory. Unfortunately this is a bit like choosing which of your children you like the most.

The question then is how do you subjectively judge a photo? The truth is there is no easy way. Like art, ones persons Picasso is another persons set of pointless squiggles on a canvas. In a few precious instances a photo just leaps out from the screen, but mostly we need to be more subjective.

In order to do this I tend to use 3 criteria.

Criteria 1 is whether it add a new angle to the subject? So many photos put on sites such as 500px are of the same scene, taken in the same way. This to me is not photography, just advanced copying. To me a good photo does something different, an unusual angle, a different shutter or aperture setting. The list is endless which is why it is hard to understand why so many photos end up just as clones of earlier work.

Criteria 2 is whether the photo tells a story to me.  Especially with  photos involving people, a good photo is one that captures a moment in time and tells the narrative of that quantum second. A look on someones face, the body language, something that indicates what was going on at that never to be repeated moment in time. The problem is however expressing that story to the person who sees the photo in a unambiguous way. As in all art, its quality can often be down to how well the photo connects with it's audience.

This lad turned up in a few photos and I wanted an image of him watching the cycling, with his bike. In my mind he is thinking of the glory days ahead when he is old enough to race
Same lad on the way out. I thought it was a nice way to end the day
Even after applying these criteria there is still room for doubt. There are photos which you think may have merit but others dislike making you doubt your photographic sanity. Are they good in your head only? Will releasing them show your artistic judgement is fatally flawed?

These are difficult dilemmas and at the end of the day while getting the opinion of others can be a useful exercise it is your photo and if you like it you should be willing to stand up to your convictions. Sometime the rest of the world is just wrong.

So the 3rd Criteria is that you like it and at the end of the day that is the most important test of all.

I am not sure about this photo. In some ways it is a mistake, but i like the energy and movement

Similar here. This was more by accident than design but I like the feeling of movement. But is it a good photo?  I don't know, but I like it

Friday, 6 June 2014

Musings on Camera user interfaces

All cameras today come with an array of automatic, 1 click options.

A cheap camera will have a "take it all" only mode. As you go up the scale you may be able to choose between different scenes such as portrait, landscape, razzle etc (I may be wrong about the last one). Even when you get to the top of the range DSLR, you will still find 1 click modes.

Most of the time these modes are great and certainly take a lot of the effort out of taking simple photos. However they have their limitations and anyone who solely relies on them will not get the best results out of their camera. You often see people with top of the range £1000 DSLR's round their neck, who quite clearly have never moved the dial off full auto. For a cash constrained photographer, this is a pretty disheartening mode of behavior. It is the equivalent of buying a Ferrari and driving it everywhere in 2nd gear.

Cameras full auto modes are now pretty sophisticated, and weigh up a wide range of factors when taking the photo. Some will even do clever things like faces detection. However leaving all the decisions to the camera is akin to letting your mother choose your wife. You will get something broadly acceptable, but not necessarily what you want.

As you move from being a happy snapper to a photographer, it is important to envisage the photo you want and then learn how to communicate that to the camera. In order to do this you must learn to manipulate not only the aperture and shutter speed, but also controls like  the ISO level, exposure compensation, focus mode and exposure modes.

Sometimes this must be done in the split second between seeing the image you want and pressing the shutter. Which is akin to rubbing your tummy, patting yourself on the head, while standing on one leg on a high speed turntable. So it is no surprise that sometimes you get it wrong.

So why not just leave it on auto? Well the problem is that the automated modes are so good now that people think the camera has almost achieved sentience. However as a programmer, I am fully aware of the limitations of software. The algorithms the engineers use are sophisticated, but dumb. It may compare 200 parameters in a blink of an eye, but it does not have the vision of an artist, only the simulation of one.

So to get the best out of a shot we need to explore the functions and decide things like, what sort of depth of field do we need? is the background or foreground to bright? Do we need to increase the ISO to get more light at the cost of more noise in the photo?

All these features are available on a modest DSLR and even on some compacts. But accessing them in the mad half second before you press the shutter can be a struggle even when you are fully acquainted with your camera

My Sony has a number of features that help in this and some that does not.  One of the great things about the Sony DSLR range is because of the SLT technology, you get a lot more information in the viewfinder than most makes of camera. So as well things like exposure and shutter speed, you can get a histogram indicating the exposure range. I must admit however, that I have been slow to take advantage of this feature. To often I am concentrating on the subject, but used properly the histogram allows you to change the shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation to their optimum values.

One negative feature is the movie button. Now I never really get the idea of movie mode on DSLR's. It is something that a lot of camera manufacturers push, because it sounds like a good idea. Why buy two camera when you can have it all in one? But the truth is it is a bit like having a 6th finger. Possibly useful, but more likely will get in the way when trying to do something. I think it would be far better if they concentrated on the basics like a better rear screen rather than adding all the gubbins need to to take movies.

Unfortunately on the Sony, the movie button it is very close to the exposure compensation control. When in a hurry, it is very easy to press it by mistake. Now you can disabled it, so that it only works in movie mode. But annoyingly instead of just ignoring the button press, it presents a warning dialog informing me I have pressed a disabled button. This I have to clear to carry on. This is not what you want when you are desperately trying to take that perfect wildlife shot.

However annoying this is, the truth is that the DSLR user interface has not moved on much over the years. As the number of parameters you can control increases, so does the workload on the poor photographer. It is about time camera manufacturers revisited this and thought of better ways to control their cameras.

It is surprising really that no one has come up with something better. There has been some improvements using touch screens as a way to get to parameters to indicate the focus point. However this requires taking the eye from the viewfinder to the screen. As a DSLR user, I really value the viewfinder and I want to be able to do as much as I can while my eye is stuck to it. Because the Sony system allows more information to be super-imposed on the viewfinder it is surprising that they have not been more  innovative in the use of it.

What is required is 2 things. A easier way of accessing the key parameters and better way of visualizing them. The latter is a challenge to the mechanical designers, but there must be something better than a collection of buttons and D-Pads. Maybe a trackball or a joystick or maybe just better dials. Unfortunately camera design is very conservative so it will be a brave manufacturer who attempts to mess with the standard look. Saying that, who would of predicted that the age of the push button mobile phone would end so abruptly when Apple brought in the iPhone.

The visualization process is easier to envisage. What is needed is better ways to visualize the data as we look through the viewfinder. Not only show the present aperture/shutter settings, but also the ISO and exposure compensation values, together with the exposure histogram. What could also be visualised is how these settings would change. So if I modified the ISO, what would the shutter speed change to in aperture priority mode.

Of course it would be useful if this information could be conveyed to me in the viewfinder as I compose the shot, and this is where Sony could use their SLT technology to their advantage.

Anyway those are my ideas. I'll leave the implementation details to the designers. Just send the check in the post.

Sport photographer for a day

As part of the Melbourne Photographic Society I had a great opportunity to go to Mallory Park and take some photos of the cycle racing. The organisers were very welcoming and for once the weather ensured it was a wonderful evening for photography.

Sports photography is not something I have really tried my hand at. Unfortunately like wildlife photography it is one of these events that lends itself to expensive telephoto lens etc. 

I have a major racing circuit on my doorstep and in the past tried to take photo's there with little success. Motor racing quite rightly takes safety very seriously meaning often your view is obscured by wire fences and  you are kept well back from the track. Consequently unless you have special access and the kind of lens that would allow you to image a pimple on Jupiter you will generally be on a hiding to nothing.

However Mallory being a smaller track and the fact cycle racing is less risky means you can get as close to the action as you want (it is also free to spectators). Therefore it is a great place to hone your skills.

For once I tried to plan what I wanted to do before I went. I looked on the internet on advice and found a number of useful tips. Specifically I wanted to try panning shots of cyclists on a relatively long exposure(1/15 to 1/40) and close ups of cyclist faces against a blurred background. I also wanted to try illuminating the subject with a flash to highlight them against the background.

As it turned out things did not go exactly to plan. Because the races had a number of novices in it the organiser had decided against having the major hill, so removing the possibility of close ups as they crested the brow. My initial attempts with the flash were not successful, probably because the light was too strong at that point. However because of the size of the circuit and the number of laps there was plenty of opportunity to try new things.

These are some of the things I learned...

  • There is an optimum distance when panning. The closer you are the more difficult it gets because of the speed your target moves. It took a few attempts before I got to the right point. 
  • You are better off  concentrating on one rider in a group rather than the whole group. The temptation is to take loads of photos as the group streams past and hope something comes out. Better to take a few well considered shots than fire of 100's in hope.
  • I initially put the camera on a high frame rate, taking as large number of pictures in one go. Unfortunately the camera cannot keep this up for long so you find it stuttering towards the end as it tries to catch up. This is usually the point that something interesting passes the lens and you will therefore miss it. It is better to leave it on a slower rate so that you can take the picture when the opportunity arises.
  • Try for the less obvious shot. Like I said there was plenty of opportunities to take shots (the mens race was 30 laps) and with the sun setting, the light was changing all the time. Unfortunately photographers like twitchers tend to congregate. This is natural since you are always worried you maybe missing out. However the upshot is everyone gets the same photo.  
  • One lens does not fit all. I found myself swapping lens quite a bit(I even tried my 50mm prime, which was a mistake.). I know now why professionals have so many camera bodies.

Anyway I took over 600 photos(yea, digital), so will have a bit of sorting and culling to do. However these a are a few shots I picked out from the initial set.

Sometimes details are better than the whole rider.

There is a temptation to concentration on head-on shots, when the view going away is a different angle and can be just as interesting.

This nicely brings out the movement and speed

A nice panning shot. I've cropped it so it is moving out of the frame, rather than in the center as in the original.

Thanks to Mallory Park and the organisers for being so accommodating and welcoming.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A critical eye

One of the things that is useful when trying to improve as a photographer is look at photographs from other people to get ideas and tips on how to improve your photographs.

As you do so you start finding things that hopefully you can include in your photography. A different angle on a subject, unusual lighting, different ways to use aperture or shutter speed. You also start getting an idea of what sort of photographer you would like to be, what subjects you want to concentrate on etc.

This is still a work in progress for me. I still cannot define easily why I like some photographs more than others (there are a great number of brilliant ones out there), but I have a pretty strong idea of the ones that I don't.

To me a great photograph adds something to a subject. A new angle, a different viewpoint, something that makes you think again about something familiar. Unfortunately a lot of photographs fail this test. People see a photo like the millennium bridge in London and take exactly the same picture.  A great photographer will go to a scene like that and find a new angle that no one as ever seen before.  At a club photo competition recently the judge kept using the phrase that a photo was a nice holiday snap when he saw a ordinary photo. Now I'm pretty sure he was trying to be nice, but to me there would no greater insult.

Unfortunately the downside of developing a critical eye is that it is difficult to turn it off. So when a friend or relative shows some photograph, I cannot help (internally at least) analyzing and criticizing it. Would it better cropped? Could the white balance be better? is there a better angle? Could we remove the distracting feature in the background? What would it look like in black and white?

This is not generally a problem, since the photograph was not designed to be judged and exercising your critical muscles is never a bad thing. However when it really becomes an issue is when you look at photos you are expected to pay for. For example I can spend ages choosing post cards because to be honest the vast majority have little or no artistic merit. To me, it not only has to show the scene, but it also has to do it in a way that interests me. Many photographs I see on post cards fall under the nice holiday snap category, so much so that I find it hard to believe someone was actually paid to take it.

However my biggest ire comes from a set of photographers that I am expected to shell out £10 or more at least twice a year.

The school photographer.

With only a couple of exceptions, virtually every photograph I have received from my school has been bland, unimaginative and even worse often a bad image of my child. It is photography by conveyor belt. Take a photo, move on. Do not worry about the result. In most cases a better photograph could be obtained by sticking them in a passport photo booth.

Now I know that being a school photographer is probably a pressurized job, with tight time scales. Also I am sure I would struggle to do better job. On the other hand I would not expect £10 or more for basically a happy snap of my child.

What makes me think that it does not have to be like this is that I have seen some exceptions to the rule. The one that really stood out were ones of my nieces. The photographer had taken their portraits as closely cropped black and white images in an outdoor setting. These were the kind of photo I would have no problem shelling out my dosh for if given the option.

However maybe I'm wrong. Obviously school photography is a lucrative market given the number that are out there. Maybe they know their audience and the majority of there customers would not be interested in anything too "arty". But personally I think it is just professional laziness. They do it because they know they can get away with it and their customer will feel under emotional pressure to buy the product, however bad it is.

If you are going to photograph something, be it the millennium bridge or the kids down the local school, you owe it to yourself to do the best job you can.

Especially if you expect me to pay for it.