Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Birds of a feather

Green military macaw stares into the lens. I took a lot of photos of the parrots but i was happy with only a few

As I may of intimated before, If I had a choice on what type of photography I would concentrate on it would probably be  birds. The only thing that is stopping is opportunity(and patience, equipment,talent and money)

One of the issues is, in order to get a close up of our feathered friends, some decent long glass is helpful like a 400mm with a wide aperture(it is amazing how fast birds move, even when perching. They seem incapable of moving their heads in a slow movement like we do). However the price of such a lens would make even a premiership footballer pause before pulling out his credit card.

However there are some places where more modest glass can come into play. The garden is one, where a well provisioned bird table can often tempt birds into range. Another one is a zoo or bird gardens. 

So it was that I found myself off to Desford Bird Gardens . The ulterior motive was to meet my Aunt and Uncle, however I managed to sneak a camera and my 300mm zoom into my bag in the hope of sneaking off to photo some of the feathered residents

Some may think taking pictures of captive birds is cheating (although the parrots and macaw here are not strictly captive, just well trained ) and what I really should be doing is standing in a Bulgarian swamp up to my waist in stagnant water. But until I get the opportunity to take pictures of Java Finches in the wild, this is the best I can do. Anyway in the end the pictures does not  care where it is taken, be it an enclosure in deepest Leicestershire or the Indonesian rain forest. 

The stars of the show at Desford are undoubtable the parrots and macaw's, who are allowed to fly free and mug customers. While these are incredible photogenic, personally I was attracted by the woodland walk which contained a number of free flying tropical small birds such as weavers and zebra finches. With a little patience it was possible to get some nice shots. 

Although we are not taking pictures in the wild, many of the same techniques apply. Things like getting into the right position, understanding how birds behave, making sure the camera aperture and speed is set to get the best shot all apply. 

All these techniques can then be transferred to taking pictures of wild birds. In the mean time it means you can get great pictures on a budget without the danger of coming down with trench foot.

 A nice shot of a weaver bird. They were nest building and it was difficult to get a clear shot. They were also very aggressive, a number of times scaring of a number of other spieces.
 A Weaver bird close up
 Not sure what this bird is, but it was not shy, picking up insects from the grass close to the camera
 The day was so hot, staff sprayed the parrots with water. This is a green parrot getting a cool down
 The Java Finches loved taking a bird bath in the stream and I tried to get a good shot of them washing

 Nice close up of a Java Finch, puffing it's chest out. Handsome birds

Nice ripple effect as a Java Finch washes

15 minutes of fame

Andy Warhol once famously commented that one day everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. Today his prediction has come true except in one important respect. It's nowhere nearly as long as 15 minutes

I recently read this article by the photographer Kris J B in which he discusses the after effects of reaching the number one photo spot on a Reddit forum and it gave me much food for thought about the issues of sending your images on-line.

In my own (very small) way I can appreciate Kris's feelings about achieving his Reddit status. I'm in the habit of depositing what I judge as my best photos onto the 500px site and I still get a frisson of excitement watching their score rise and with it the chance of attaining the 'popular' ranking.

However I never expect to sell any of my photos.There have only been two occasions where my pictures were purchased, both at a local photo exhibition . I still remember my shock and panic when I was asked how much they were and I was so unprepared for the idea that my work had any value, that I gave a totally ridiculous figure that would not even cover my printing costs. I seriously doubt that anyone has ever looked at my photos on 500px with the thought that they would make a nice present for their aunt Edna.

So why then do I put them on-line?

I think like most photographers I feel the need for the praise and respect of others.  I need something that confirms that my effort is not in vain and there is enough of a spark of talent to be worth  blowing into a flame. Its all a bit sad really and I wish that I could be confident enough to put two fingers up to the world, but in this I am pretty sure I am not alone. If it were otherwise sites like Reddit and 500px would not exist.

The main problem today however is getting noticed at all. With photographs, there is such a low signal-to-noise ratio that standing out from the crowd is a real problem. Look on 500px on any given day and you will see 100's of really great photographs, so either you need a lot of skill or luck(or a combination of both).

On that basis I have to admit I read Kris's piece with a hint of jealousy (and not just because he had the opportunity to go to Japan, a place that has long held a fascination for me) . He has had a moment of fame and then he had the temerity to complain about it (and it is not without irony that it seems his article bemoaning the fact probably did more to drive traffic to his website than his original photo).

In the end the point of sharing our work is to show the world what you can do and in doing so increase your reputation, since it is your reputation that allows you to make your living in your art and not the selling of your work.

Which brings us back to the biggest issue raised by Kris in his article. If your reputation is based on your on-line work, how do you ensure that your work is properly attributed and others cannot appropriate your work?

Personally I am not sure how I would feel if one of my photo's got used elsewhere without my permission. I guess my emotions would range from being initially pleased that someone found my photo worthy enough to be used, followed closely by annoyance that I was not gaining the credit that would increase my reputation.

After reading Kris's article, I did something I have never done before. I was going to donate a bunch of photos I had taken at the local bird park in case they could use them in anyway. But for the first time I added a watermark. My reasoning at the time was that since I was giving away my work to other, the minimum payment I could expect was that I gain some credit from them.

However I hate watermarking photos. For a start, even if done subtly, it means you are deliberately defacing something you have spent ages getting to the point of perfection. It would be like Leonardo Da Vinci writing "Leo was 'ere" in red paint at the bottom of the Mona Lisa. Secondly it smacks of pomposity. It says "This photo is so great, it will surely be nicked". It goes against my in-grained inferiority complex that says my work is not worthy. Anyway as a theft deterrent it is relatively pointless, since anyone determined enough can probably remove the watermark

However there is an important point here. How do you ensure your photo can be properly attributed back to you?

Unfortunately there appears to be no foolproof way of achieving this and maybe this is a problem that needs solving. One possible way would be some sort of central photo registration service. But what I think is really needed is a new picture format specifically for the publishing of photos.

Such a format needs to have the following characteristics.
  • It needs to display on websites in the normal way(including scaling)
  • It needs to contain photographers details
  • Any changes to the photo will corrupt the photo.
I don't know whether this is even possible, but perhaps techniques like steganography could be used to uniquely distribute photo data such that any small changes will make it impossible to reconstruct the image. I could certainly see the advantages for sites like Getty Images would gain from such a format. However such a format would need wide ranging industry consensus from both the producers and the publishers, including companies like Google.

Today, images generally have little intrinsic value since they can be easily copied and downloaded. The real value comes not from the copyright of the image, but the increase in reputation and standing of the photographer who took it. This is new modern digital world, where the product itself has no value, but ability and skill to produce becomes the new currency.

Therefore the real question is not how we get our 15 minutes of fame, but how we ensure we get our due compensation for it?

Friday, 25 July 2014

The best of times...The worst of times

Ahh, the summer family holiday. What a great opportunity to go to some scenic location and practice your camera skills.

The reality is however, that family holidays are probably the most frustrating time for a part-time photographer. Here you are surrounded by all those great opportunities and you spend the whole time catering to the whims of your family, very few of which involve standing around for hours while you setup your tripod. Even when the stars do coincide and you end up with your camera in some photogenic location, the likelihood will be that you will only have the time to take a quick snapshot.

Don't take me wrong,  I enjoy being with my family on holiday, however sometimes it feels like being taken to a great pub and then being told you can only drink lemonade.

One professional photographer confided to me that he was banned from taking his cameras on holiday by his family. I can understand the reasoning, but of course for the rest of the year, he could spend every waking moment getting that next great shot. As a part time photographers we do not have that luxury, so the idea of a week without work and not taking photographs is unthinkable.

Still you have to take what you can get in these situations and so it was that I set out to the south coast of Wales.

It has to be said that as a location, the area between the Gower peninsula and Cardiff is often overlooked, but has pretty much everything that a photographer needs. Towering craggy cliffs and beaches, green hills and mountains, and wonderful beaches. Also for once the Welsh weather turned out to be superb.

In the end I did manage to get one 2 hour period to myself and my camera. I had always had the intention to play around with very long exposure seascapes so I went down to Southerndown beach.

As my luck would have it, I chose the exact same time as another bunch of camera enthusiasts were trying to do exactly the same thing (I wonder what the collective term for photographers is? An annoyance?)

Inevitably a lot of the time was spent trying to avoid getting in each other shots. Still they were a friendly bunch, and we had a good chat and photography and comparisons of equipment.

It has to be said though that I am not fond of  these "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours" sessions. I know full well that my equipment is pretty inadequate when compared to others. But as my wife says, it's not how big it is, it is how you use it(I assume she was talking about the camera).

In the end the only wildlife I managed to get were of Seagulls who will do anything for a thrown chip. As a consequence I didn't use my 300mm lens all week. Still seagulls should not be underrated as photographic subject.  True they are not as rare as a collared pratincole , but that should not make them any less interesting. And unlike, say your average Bittern, they can be easily encouraged into camera range.
(As a side note I did see 3 Choughs on the beach, but they were inconsiderate enough not to hang around long enough for me to change my lens.)

Anyway these are some of the better shots from my trip

 Fishermen on the beach. I've increased the contrast a bit, and there are some nice silhouettes

 The red cottage. This is from my trip to St Fagans museum, which is a real gem(and even better, free). For some reason I did not end up with many great photos here

Nash Point. I have to admit I have photoshopped out the ugly radio mast that someone had decided to position next to it.

 Colours. I really like the abstract banding of corn and foliage here

These are a closeup of the thatch on a cottage at St Fagans. It is actually in colour, but again I like the abstract shapes

Both of the above were taken with my budget big stopper on Southerndown bay. Really needed a whole day to do justice to this (I got an hour), but I learnt a lot doing it

My two best seagull photos. The sky makes the difference. I must admit the throwing of chips was used in these photos

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Events Part Deux

Some while ago I wrote about my disappointment in the shots I got from the may market. Last week I had another opportunity at the annual Party in the Park.

This is an event pit on every year by the organisers of the download festival to apologise putting up with the disruption for the week. Anyway it is a big event in the local and surrounding villages, and a great place to take photos of people. 

Again the weather was great, so I just went round snapping anything that caught my eye. Anyway these are the results. 

This is nice with the slightly blurred background giving context

Kids are great subjects in days like this since they really only care about having fun
This photo summed up the event. You could argue the boy is a distraction, but I still like it

A Freddie Mercury Impersonator gave a great show and i got some good shots. However some had is hand clipped, showing that I need to stop zooming in too close to my subject.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Our friends electric

It is not often that a brand new motor racing concept starts on your very doorstep, but so it was that the new FIA sanctioned racing series, Formula E,  had based itself at a Donington Park, a motor racing circuit close to my home.

Even better, they had announced that the testing sessions were to be free. So it seemed to good a opportunity not to go up there and try my hand at some motor racing photography. So it was that I took a day off work(for some reason I always feel guilty about taking a day off for pure photographic reasons like I have somehow betrayed my family ) and made my way up the hill on a cool summer morning.

There is one critical technique to master when taking pictures of fast moving objects like racing cars and that is the pan. Basically you need to track the car as it passes you, so the car itself is pin sharp and the background is nicely blurred so indicating motion.

This sounds pretty simple, however like all such things, execution is often more difficult than theory.

Firstly how fast you need to pan is a equation based on how close you are to the object and the speed it is moving past you. Too fast and you struggle to move the camera to follow the object. Since the idea is to keep the moving object pin sharp and the background blurred, you do need to keep the object at the same point in the viewfinder when the shutter is open.

After experience with previous test days where they had closed a lot of the track off, I did not expect to get too close to the action. My previous experience with Donington Park was that the sight lines are generally pretty atrocious. I don't know whether this is common to all circuits, but most of the best picture locations are obscured by fixed safety fencing, meaning trying to get any reasonable photo is out of the question. When you do get a good view, it usually means you are so far back that you need some serious glass and a steady hand to get a good image (I often laugh to myself when think back that at some point Donington was proposed to hold Formula 1).

However this time I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the full circuit open, but the cars were using the Melbourne hairpin part of the circuit which allowed me to get far closer and without the usual obstructed view. So this time I could easily get close enough for my 300mm to get some decent shots.

In fact sometimes I found I could get to close. The idea was to get a big a close up as possible, but the speed of the cars meant that if I got too close, it was virtually impossible to swing the camera around to keep the car in shot. So I resorted to moving back some meters, resulting in shots that were less detailed ( and backtracking on my earlier rant-et that cameras today have far to many pixels). Another problem ,which is probably unique to this sort of motor racing, is that because the cars are electric they are damn quiet. This means that they are upon you before you know it, unlike other motor racing events where you can here the cars a mile off (believe me I know, I live only a few miles from afore said circuit and can often hear them even from that distance )

Another challenge was getting the cars pin sharp. Looking at the results later show that often while some of the car was sharp, others parts were slightly blurred. This is probably a consequence of shooting at a high shutter speed which meant having a very narrow depth of field. I now know why the pros carry lenses with such whopping great pieces of glass.

As a consequence this is one of the first times that I have used  the Photoshop unsharp tool. This tool has probably the worst name in Photoshop (although Dodge and Burn come a close second). Despite what the name says, it actually brings out detail in a photo, not reduces it. The technique has actually got a long history going back well before digital processing. It basically takes a blurred copy of the original photo (so the name), inverts it and uses it to cancel out the blurred elements. The result is that detail's can be enhanced ( like the sort of things you see on CSI [although in this case they actually work]). I therefore used the tool to bring out things like blurred logos and other writing on the car.

The technique is pretty simple. I create a duplicate layer and a mask with all hidden. I then do a unsharp mask over the entire photo. Because I am only applying it to small details I use a pretty aggressive one with the amount about 100 and radius of ~5. I then use a white brush to unmask the part of the photo I want the unsharp mask filter to apply, which is generally the writing, the helmet and some of edges.

Before on the unsharp mask on the left and after on the right. The words and the Michelin logo are now far clearer

Is this cheating? Well no more than a myriad of other Photoshop techniques that are used for getting the best out of your photos. My take on it is, if you are not adding anything to your photo that was not already there, and is done subtly, it is allowable.

I managed to get quite a few half decent shots. However I have said in the past that I am not a great fan of having photos with all the usual angles, and generally what I got her are some perfectly nice, but pretty boring photos of cars. In my defense, due to the limited viewing angles, it was difficult to really take anything different. I do have some ideas on how to spice some of the photos up using Photoshop so watch this space.

Anyway it was a fun day out (Even though Leonardo do Caprio  failed to make an appearance ) and excellent practice in the art of panning.

Here are some of the results.

 The Amlin Aguri car was the most photogenic and caught the eye
 Most of the photos were side on, so a slightly different angle made a change
 This is panned nicely with the background showing good speed
 The buildings make a big difference here. Also the car going slightly out of shot gives the impression of speed

 This landscape shot shows the circuit nicely
 This is a bit of a trick. Head on shot, but the sky darkened using a gradient

 Although this one is not totally in shot, it provides a nice close up

 The rear is not generally the best shot, but with the car cornering and the road ahead in picture makes it quite dynamic
 These tyres are used as movable crash barriers but gave a nice detail

 The Virgin cars were nice, but the mirror surface made getting a good photo difficult
Close ups in the pits can be quite powerful too

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Pixels and the art of backup

My first digital camera had a massive 1.1 mega pixels(MP) sensor. Today with even low end mobile phones packing 5 MP this would now be considered pretty low resolution, But in the day I got some great photos out of it and it helped show me the power of digital cameras (up to that point I had been doubtful whether digital would ever overshadow film).

My present camera packs a 16.1 MP sensor and this is considered the low end for a DSLR. For example, my camera's successor has 20.1 MP sensor and even this for a camera is thought of as mid-range. For example at the top end the latest Nikon, the D810, packs a massive 36.3 Mega Pixels.

I bring this up because it seems every time a manufacturer produces a new camera, they feel the need to increase the pixel count. But the rarely asked question is why?  Take for example my cameras successor, the alpha 58. At the same time as they increased the pixel count, they reduced the frame rate. Is this a reasonable compromise?  Personally I am not convinced.  In the same way that most of today's PC's have a processor which is fast enough for 95% of tasks, I feel we are reaching the  point of max pixels. Basically we are at a point where any increase in pixel count will make little difference to your photos.

To put this in context, it has been calculated that at it's best old chemical film had a digital equivalent resolution of 20 MP. This means that even a mid-range camera will exceed the best film resolution. Remember this is film at it's best. Therefore increasing pixel count to a figure beyond has very little effect on what people will see on a photo in terms of detail. Remember also that the majority of photos will actually be reduced in size before display, so any gain in resolution will most likely be lost in post processing.

Of course there are some reasons why you may feel the need for more pixels. If you are in the habit of blowing up your photos to the size of a house,you may feel the more pixels the better. But remember such large images will likely only be examined from a distance, so any gain in resolution is likely to be moot.

The other reason often mentioned is to allow the cropping of a photo without losing resolution. However if you do such extensive cropping you are most likely to find all sort of artefacts as you zoom in. In reality a better lens is more likely to improve your resolution that a huge number of pixels. Don't believe me? Well read this guy take on it.

Then there are the downsides of having all those pixels. Depending on your sensor size, more pixels means packing more electronics onto the same size of silicon. This in turn means each pixel becomes more sensitive to noise. The only way around this is to make the sensors bigger, which in turn is more expensive. More pixels means that your frame rate is likely to suffer, which for pure landscape photographers may not be an issue, but for general .usage could be an important deficiency.

There is in fact a good argument that what actually is required is a larger sensor, containing fewer, not more, pixels. This is the path Sony have gone with the A7S which packs 12MP into a full frame sensor. 12MP does not seem a lot, but it does allow the camera to achieve almost unheard of low light capability with perfectly adequate resolution (See this review if you don't believe me).

So if we already reached the optimum level of pixels for camera, why do manufacturers continually pump out cameras with  greater and greater pixel counts? The answer is that pixel count provides an easy selling point when potential customers compare camera models. It is easier to compare 16 MP against 20MP models than things like low light performance or ease of use.

Another problem with a high pixel count is that is your photos are going to take up a lot of space when you download them to your computer. This in turn has a knock on effect when you go to back up your photos.

That is of course if you do back up your photos. Many don't and live continually with the risk of being only one hard disk failure away from losing all their irreplaceable memories, So unless you actually enjoy living on the edge, it is highly recommended that you have some sort of backup plan in place.

The problem is how best to do it.

Currently each of my cameras 16MP Raw files takes up approximately 16 MBytes of space on my disk. On a good day I can take easily 200 photos and when you upload them you suddenly see your disk space being eaten by up to 3 GBytes each time. Even on a 1 TB hard disk, you are going to quickly run out of space. OK, you can whittle your pictures down, but even so you will find that you are using a large amount of disk space just by storing your photos. This is only likely to get worse if the pixel count on your camera increases.

For a long time, I would religiously back up my photos onto cheap DVD's twice a year(hoping I had no failures between times). A DVD can take about 4.8 GB of files, but that is only about 300 photos worth, or one days photography. You can see from that, backing up 6 months work took a long time.

This would still of been acceptable if it wasn't for the fact that when I went back to recover some files from a backup DVD, I often found that after 4 years they were basically unreadable. DVD's, especially cheap writeable ones, are notorious for degrading. You can buy specialist archive DVD's, which are supposed to last 100 years. However these cost about £5 a pop and you will need a lot for a backup. Also the long term prognosis for these are only a estimate and it  may be difficult to locate the original manufacturer to get your money back if you find in 25 years time you can no longer access your photos(if DVD drives still even exist by then).

So what is required is a long term backup solution  that is convenient, has high capacity, low cost, is fast, and can secure your data for generations to come. DVD's obviously are out (Blue Ray for the same reasons), so what are the alternatives.

For a while I used to flash dongles to keep my data. These can be got in 32, 64 GB or greater sizes, are fast to copy to, easy to store and are not that expensive. However there is no real evidence that they will retain their data for a long period and it is likely that after a number of years of sitting on your shelf the data will be inaccessible.

Big corporations use tape as a their long term back up solution.  However tape  is slow to store and even slower to retrieve. Also there are few consumer solutions on the market.

One option is to invest in a RAID NAS server. This is a box containing 2 or more hard disks that sits on your network allowing you copy files to it. A properly configured RAID solution ensures that if one disk fails, the data is safe, copied or mirrored to the other disk. However there is a motto in computing that says "Raid is not backup". While generally reliable, RAID can fail ugly and should not be relied on for long term storage of your data.

Then there is always the cloud. There are loads of places online all happy to store your photos. These start  from the free, to more expensive solutions depending on facilities and quantity.  However two problems. Unless you have very fast upload speeds(and most don't) it will take ages to upload all those files. The second issue is, do you trust your life work to another company? What if it the company goes bust, or you cannot pay for the storage? Can you get the photos back or transfer them somewhere else? By all means use the cloud to store your files, but don't assume they will be safe forever,

So if you have managed to got to this far, you are probably guessing I have a solution for you.

Well here I have to disappoint you.

I do have a solution that is fast, local and uses technology known to retain information for considerable periods, but there is a gotcha.

What I do is buy cheap generic SATA hard drives and put them in these cardboard containers.  I backup my pictures to them using an USB adapter and place them in the cardboard box, and place them on a nice dark shelf somewhere. The price of a generic 500GB hard disk is quite low, especially in terms of GB per buck.

It sounds good, so whats the problem? Well no one really knows how long disks will last. They are pretty mature technology and therefore we have a good track record. Because we are only using them occasionally there will  not be a lot of wear and tear. However disks are designed  to be running continuously and there is some doubts whether a disk left on a shelf for a long time will start up again. One additional solution is to make duplicate copies of your photos from disk to disk (which is basically what Google does) but this can get complicated.

The truth is you do not know the true effectiveness of your backup solution until you try and recover your data. By then it maybe to late.

In reality, at present there is no perfect solution for backup that will guarantee your photos are secure for you and your descendants. Even if there was, there is no guarantee that such technology will be usable in the future. If you do not believe me try and read data of a 5 inch floppy disk.

There is only one long term solution that has stood the test of time, but it is expensive.

Get your photo printed. It maybe the only way that your descendants will actually get to see your  photos.

It will mean however that you will have to throw away a lot of pixels in the process


I started a  thread on pixel count on  dpReview  which is actually quite an interesting read

Links found useful in my research,-better-photos-Fact-or-fiction/2100-1041_3-6156398.html