Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The 7 Stages of Wildlife Photography

The challenges of getting close to the subject :)

It is the time of year when nature takes its course and the deer start thinking about making the next generation.

Yes it is the deer rut, an annual event that has been going on well before man walked the earth, but is none the less exciting for that.

While not everyone can attend the deer ruts in places like deepest Scotland, it can be equally well seen in the various deer parks up and down the country.

The closest public one to me is Bradgate Park, a large area of moor and woodland which once belonged to the family of Lady Jane Grey, of Elizabeth 1st fame. Within the park there are herds of both red and fallow deer.

Every year without fail I plan to go, but apart from a few short visits with the wife and kids, I never seem to quite make it. This year the local camera club planned an early assault, and for once my calendar did not clash.

This required an early starts, so it was a question of getting up at 5:30 a.m for a 6:30 a.m start in order to try and capture the sunrise.

Generally in these sort of situations you already have an idea of what type of image you want to get. Two images that have proved popular recently is the one of deer(s) silhouetted against the rising/setting sun and the ones showing the breath condensing from the stags mouths. Also there is always a hope of catching the males fighting.

However it is often best not to make firm plans in these sort of events. Relying on the weather and indeed the wildlife in the UK is a bit of a fools errand.

Despite that I tend to find I go through the same stages when photographing wildlife.

1. Anticipation

The night before I go off, I cannot help but anticipate the great images I am going to take, despite experience otherwise. The night before I have to plan what kit I am going to drag with me in order to get those shots. It was hard to see past my 150-600 mm zoom, but I packed others plus a spare camera just in case.

The next question was tripod or mono-pod. A Tripod would be more stable, but heavier to carry around. A mono-pod would be more convenient and lighter, but would it be stable enough in low light?. In the end I thought convenience outweighed (sic) stability.

I always believe at this time that I am only hours away from that great image...despite experience showing otherwise

2. Optimism

One of the criteria and challenges of wildlife photography is the weather.  For the image I wanted of the deer, I needed either clear skies or high cloud in order to get a good sunrise or cold air to create a good atmospheric mist. Therefore there is much studying of the weather the night before, both through weather forecasts and looking outside. However dire the reports, I always at this point believe that the weather will turn out OK anyway. After all,  weather men what do they know?

When we entered the park it was pitch black. Its a weird feeling. All around you you hear large bodies hurtle through the undergrowth. Stag call out with that low pitched grunt they use to claim their territory. As your night vision improves, you catch sight of shapes moving either side of the path.  This is the confirmation that the rut is ongoing and therefore your hopes increase

3. Realization

As often happens. it is not long until you realize the weather is going to be, well,  British. 

We had low cloud, but disappointingly no mist. In reality the worst of both worlds. At least however it was not raining.

This meant that early morning visibility was poor and the light flat and dull. This is when you start to realize that maybe the day may not hold the promise you first hoped.

As the light increases you become aware  you are not alone. Other groups of photographers are waiting to do exactly the same thing you are.

4. Pessimism

Normally about an hour into the shoot, I start wondering why I came. The weather and light means that any shots must be taken with low speed and/or high ISO. The lens is struggling to find enough contrast to focus. You are cold, and to make matters worse, there are about 100 photographers around you with exactly the same ideas, so the chances of getting a unique shot seems increasingly remote.

The only good thing is that the Fallow deer at this time of year seem quite relaxed. One sauntered right up to us to feed to the chestnuts fallen from the tree under which we were standing.  This at least allowed some close up shots. However the big boys, the red deer, decided to keep there distance huddled in the private park areas.

5. Desperation

It is at this point that I start taking photos of anything, just to try and ensure the day is not wasted.

The light is still poor, so shots with the zoom will be noisy, but what else can I do? I start replacing quality with quantity and shoot at anything. Deer, local bird life, fellow photographers. I Just try to find an angle which none of the myriad other photographers have found, with little success.

6. Acceptance

After 2 hours I decide that this is not going to be my day and I start to wander off from the pack.

I start to forget about photography and begin to appreciate the surroundings. All around autumn is starting to show off its colours.  As you wander through the park , deer cross your path, look quizzically at you before scampering off.

Yes, it is not a great day for photography. but there are far worse places to be and it is a great excuse just to be out, walking and in the fresh air.

It is always at this point that something happens. I start seeing shots that I would otherwise not of noticed in my desperation phase. I relax and become more attuned with the surroundings.

Wandering up the hill to a landmark called Old John, I came across the main herd of red deer. Orbiting around them were all the king wannabe's trying to sneak in while the deer emperor protected his harem.  .

At this time of year red deer are far easier to approach, being distracted by more important matters than a few cameramen 

Of course what is really wanted is some stag on stag action.

In a small park like Bradgate, there is not the same level of competition as say the Scottish highlands, where the herds are bigger. While one stag was chased off, no fighting was to be seen. I find however in these situations that there is always a photographer on hand to tell you what you had just missed if you had been here hours/days before.

Still at least I get some shots of Red deer stags at their most resplendent.

7. Relief

So I get back home and  I upload the images to the computer with more hope than anticipation.

It is at this point that I find that not all the shots are terrible. Yes, they require some processing and ,no, there are no award winners, but it was not all in vain.

Also I got a good days walk and witness a small part of one of natures greatest spectacle.

To be fair, there are much worse ways to spend a Saturday in October....

Here are some images from that day...

as you can see fallow deer vary widely in colour, from white to almost vlack

Ignoring the deer, there were worse places to be

seeing off the competition

The victory dance

Sunday, 16 October 2016


Every year my local camera club holds a theme competition, where basically you have year to take a set of images based on a key word or phrase.

In previous years we have had "glass", which was relatively straightforward and "opulence" which required some a lot more thought.

This year the theme was "Emphasis", which to be honest has flummoxed most of us.

This is because the term"Emphasis" is ambiguous and its interpretation largely personal. It is easy to just take a photo and place the word emphasis on it  such as 'Emphasis on the seaside' or 'Emphasis on landscapes' in a way that feels lazy and contrived.

You have a year to work out how to meet the brief and I must admit I did not have many ideas. My first thoughts turned to selective colour, but the actual shot I wanted I could not find a suitable location.

So in the end I ended up looking at shots I had taken through the year nad see if the word 'Emphasis' popped out

In the end these were my entries. In truth only one of them actually was taken with the word emphasis in mind(and that one did worst in the competition)

In the end, the competition went down as I predicted with a lot of entries with only vague connections to the theme (lots of landscapes with emphasis on mountain etc). 4 of my entries did OK, but none came in the top 3 (last night was the 1st one with our new scoring system. Instead of marking each picture between 1 and 20,, instead you got commended, highly commended and 1st,2nd and 3rd).

This was the only one I tool which I took specifically for Emphasis. It was not held back. Maybe I went to overboard with the effects, but personally I felt it stood out well

My daughter allowed me to use her image. To be honest I was just playing around with my 90mm macro when out one day, but really liked the images. Playing around with selective colour helped 'emphasize' the eye

Probably my weakest entry and the probably the one I am least proud of in terms of hitting the breif

This one did best and came close I think to being in the top 3.  It is quite a simple image, but I titled it to point to loss in both children and adults by calling it "Emphasis on loss". I think it got a strong audience reaction, which pleased me. It is a good example of how the title can really change how a image is viewed. This wast taken in Southwell workhouse museum where I got a lot of inspiration.

This was taken in Bath. We were sitting on a lawn in front of some Georgian buildings (there are a lot of these in Bath).  This man walked into view and it just seemed so improbable and out of this world that I took a few shots. Later I felt it "emphasised" (see what i did there) cultural differences so that is what I called it.

I think the winners were worthy ones. To be honest the print winner I had identified as a potential winner some months ago when I first saw it.

However I was a little disappointed not to do a little better.

I must admit I found this years theme competition just a bit on the vague side. Still next year the word is "monochrome' which in truth is far to obvious a term, so maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

No go Zoner

This was originally intended to be a review. Unfortunately it has now turned into a bit of a rant

Sorry about that

For the last few years I have been using Zoner photo studio as my primary  photograph editing tools.

It provides 90% of what I need on one package including a RAW development package (based on Adobe RAW), some good editing tools and best of all for me, access to the NIK Efex collection.

There were weaknesses, but nothing that I could not live without or could not replace with other tools. The biggest weakness was probably it lack of decent layer support, so I was quite excited to see a new version announced, Zoner X, which included layer support.

Zoner have been very good over the years in providing upgrade discounts, and I went to the main page where it suggested I could get the upgrade for $50 (a discount of 50%). Fair enough I thought, for the increased functionality $50 seemed reasonable. I was just about to commit when I noticed something else.

This was not $50 one off payment. This was $50 a year. Zoner had decided to move to a subscription model like Photoshop CC. Also the $50 was only for two years. After that the subscription would increase to the full $96 a year.

Now don't get me wrong I understand the attractions of the subscription model.

The idea is that you pay a monthly fee, and get upgrades for life. The development company get a guaranteed steady income which in theory allows them to plan there releases better.

However subscription for software makes most sense when the software is rapidly evolving or requires expert support. For example Tax software, which requires changes every year, is a great example of where subscription is a good model. An even better example is anti-virus software which is rapidly being modified to meet risks.

With other software the advantages are less clear cut

The best analogy I can come up with is TV rental. When colour TV's came out in the 70's they were mostly rented. The TV's were expensive, the technology were rapidly evolving and improving and their reliability was patchy requiring expert repair and support.

My TV at home at present is about 5 years old. It has shown no sign of breaking down, and has all the feature I want. New features such as 3D TV(remember that) are either feature I have no interest in or things like access via the internet can be extended via 3rd party plug-ins.

Photo editing software is a bit like that. It is harder to make the case that there will be added any significant features onto basically a mature product.

Of course there is always the chance that it will happen. In that case you have to look at the cost differences between purchase and subscription.

The last photoshop you could buy would set you back about £500. (I won't go into whether it was actually worth that much). Add lightroom and you are talking £600. Now at present subscription rates it will take you about 5 years before the subscription cost overtakes what would of been the purchase costs.

So you have to judge that within that period would you have updated your software? If the answer is yes, then you are at least breaking even with the purchase price. Put like that Photoshop is not a terrible deal.

Zoner on the other hand are basically charging the full cost price every year. There is little if any discount and the chances of getting a "must have" feature within that period is greatly reduced.

In truth it seems like the owners of Zoner have looked at Adobe's business model and decided we want some of that. However Adobe are a special case, being by far the  product leader. It is also a high end professional tool. Businesses are generally happy to pay subscriptions. Zoner is not in that league, plus their pricing takes them very close to what it would cost to subscribe to Photoshop CC.

The fact is, when you subscribe to software you are in fact entering a Faustian pact with the software manufacturer

Yes, initially you will get a discount on what you would normally pay out front, but that is eroded as time goes on. If the software producer fails to improve there product rapidly, you may find yourself paying a lot more for features you do not need or basically having the same software you had before but for a much greater cost.

Like all Faustian pacts, it is also important to read the small print.

One clause many forget is that once you stop paying, like a repo man coming for your TV, the software stops working. It does not matter if you have spent thousands on the product, it is not yours and can be electronically yanked back  at any point.

This for me is the kicker about subscription software and it is why I will not be updating my version of Zoner and will looking around to see what non-subscription alternatives there are.

It will be interesting to see how this works out for Zoner. Personally I don't see how they will encourage present users to move to the  subscription model or even get new users at this price point. They would of been better of offering both a subscription and a purchase model. with a price advantage for the former.

The irony is, without this subscription model I would be now handing over the equivalent yearly subscription cost to Zoner. In a years time I would probably be persuaded to do so again., but at least it would of been my choice when I upgraded.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Autumn Colour

Fly Agarlic mushrooms from last year
Today is my birthday.

I mention this not to try and elicit congratulations. After all I have been round the sun enough times for the point to be reached where a birthday becomes less about the future but more about the past.

However a birthday is the one day in the year where I feel that I can free myself from family obligations without guilt and spend a day doing what I want to do.

That inevitable means of course something photography related, however with the freedom of being selfish in how I do it.

In the UK, when planning ahead it is unwise to rely on the weather. Therefore I decided to go and try some photo mushrooms and toadstools. It is right time of year for these annual visitors to show themselves. With most mushrooms and other assorted fungi occurring in wooded areas, the theory was that even if it rained I would still be able to get some shots. As it was the weather turned out OK. Overcast, but relative warm and best of all rain free.

I decided to go to Jubilee woods  near Loughborough. It is an area of mixed deciduous and evergreen woodland, and in the past I have seen and photographed a number of mushrooms, including the perennial photographers favorite, the fly agarlic toadstool.

I must admit, though I love my family greatly, there is considerable joy in just being on your own and just photographing. As it was I took a number of shots of various fungi, plus some other shots which showed the beginning of Autumn.

Unfortunately there were no big red toadstools were to be seen. I find they do not stay around for long, because they act as a big red target to all boys and tend to be kicked to death soon after blooming.

I also wanted to take some shots from below the mushroom with a flash to illuminate the gills, but I could none in which I could get low enough. However the fungi I found made up for that and generally I am happy with the results.

Although I took a whole plethora of kit, I found that my Tamron 90mm macro was really all I needed. This has become my goto lens this year. it is probably my sharpest lens, is fast and best of all is a macro. This makes it perfect for the closeups in poor light. While I did use my tripod a few times , generally I found I did not need it unless I wanted better depth of field.

It also appears we are still a few weeks from full Autumn, which is by far my favorite time of year. Hopefully I will be able to get a few more days like this.

However all in all a good birthday.

As happens, these were next to the car park, and were probably the best mushrooms I found