Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Fun, fun, fun in the s...now?

It must be time for sledging!

And an opportunity for some "action photography" for daddy, of course!

We went to Longley Park just because it's round the corner. The hills were mostly still covered, although some areas were starting to melt already. Mind you, with the way it's been coming down we'll probably be able to go again this weekend.

As the kids readied themselves for their first descent, I readied myself by setting up the camera. I used the EF 28-135mm for this one so I could zoom in for close-ups without risking getting whacked with the sledge. At f5.6 it was wide enough for a bit of DOF fiddling so it's all good.

I also opted for AI Servo focus, which is Canon speak for continuous autofocus. The autofocus point can be set manually, so while tracking you could, for instance, choose to keep the top left corner in focus which is handy for tracking a sledge while keeping the other side open for good composition.

Another thing I took opportunity to play with is the lovely high dynamic range afforded to me by the 15 megapixel sensor and RAW image format. It's really easy to pull out the sky detail while not losing anything in the foreground.

Keeping in mind my recently learned mantra "focus is for amateurs", I took a chance and tracked some high speed sledging with a slower shutter and no flash. Motion blur is not just evident; it adds to the picture. It would have looked a bit weird to have a completely frozen image with this much movement in it.


Photography is all about lighting. When all is said and done, it's about getting the light to bounce off things in a nice way and land in the right place on a photosensitive surface. Dictionary definition, right there. But what if the light you have available is rubbish? You have to supplement.

Up to now I've been limited to built-in flash and a non-adjustable slave for backlighting. Not great for getting light in just the right place because you're basically limited to pointing the light straight at the subject. Harsh shadows abound. However, I recently took delivery of a Yongnuo YN-460 flash. It's entirely manual, so no TTL or auto-metering. It has no zoom. But it does boast an impressive range of features considering that it costs £30.

It has adjustable flash power, from full to 1/64th. It has slave mode so you can use it off camera. It has a fully adjustable head, with 90 degrees of movement vertically and 270 degrees horizontally. Pointing it where you need it is no bother at all. It also has a deflector and diffuser built in that handily stash in the top when not in use.

But what to do with it? Portraits! Combine the new flash, the slave for handling background, and my nifty fifty I had a go at shooting some nice shots of Emma and the kids.

Using the YN-460 in full power mode pointing at the ceiling, and my little slave flash bouncing off the wall behind the subject, I got this lovely blown out background combined with a nicely balanced foreground. I generally shot between 1/125th and 1/250th second, because the flash couldn't deal with any more and the lack of automatic sync meant I got tearing.

I was shooting entirely in RAW to make the most of the available light. Combining that with Aperture 3 I had a load of options to play with. Like this.

Now, taking pictures of the kids is an interesting proposition. Getting them to smile, or do something photo-worthy, while managing to also keep control of the framing and focus is a bit of a black art, it seems.

After trying one technique of getting them to tickle each other just as I was about to shoot, I went one better and told Daniel to bite Larissa's nose. Here is the result.

Good eh? I like it, anyway. Just messing about at the end I also got this lovely portrait of Larissa shaking her head, attempting to wibble her lips. She was grinning too much for any wibbly action, but her swishing hair more than makes up for it.

So, the YN-460 then. Nice flash. Low build quality according to reviews, but mine seems alright. And it's entirely manual, so be prepared to learn about flash theory and fiddle with it quite a bit, especially if bouncing it off walls. But well worth the cash, I feel.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


It's snowed. This is problematic. However, it's also pretty.

I've recently upgraded my post-processing kit. I was using The Gimp on an ancient MacBook with a dim, yellowing screen. This did not produce good pictures. I was also still shooting in JPEG rather than RAW, simply because I didn't have the tools to do RAW justice. The camera's internal software did a better job than The Gimp because, while the camera handles 14 bit channels, The Gimp can only handle 8 bit channels.

So here I have Aperture 3 on a MacBook Pro. LED backlit screen, 4GB of RAM and a 2.4GHz processor. Perfect.

One immediate advantage of switching to RAW is the amount of control over the sharpness of the image. JPEG has a tendency to soften the image due to compression artefacts, and processing a JPEG into another JPEG just makes it worse. Aperture lets me apply adjustments without ever touching the original pixels, so nothing gets ruined. It's only when I export the final image does anything get committed.

The other advantage is the amount of control I have over the colours. I can tweak them to perfection, change them entirely or anything in between. For the snow I overexposed between 1/3rd and 2/3rds of a stop depending on ambient light and sharpened it up just a tad when converting to JPEG. I think the effect is working nicely.

The final advantage I will demonstrate here is that there is a lot more detail. This is from the 14 bits per channel (giving a total of 16384 levels per colour channel) as opposed to JPEG's 8 bits per channel (giving  total of 256 levels per colour channel). As you can imagine, having that much extra data makes tweaking the image much easier. As an extreme example, the horizontal grills on the front of my car were completely black in the original image, lost in the shadow. By increasing the highlights I could bring them out of the shadow nicely.

Crime Scene Investigation

This actually should have been posted last Tuesday (23rd Nov) but due to me being slow and a bit daft, I completely forgot. We had a CSI night. This involved playing the CSI board game, then laughing at CSI:Miami.

Rather amazingly, we discovered that if you shine the little UV torches that come with the game into the dice, it glows in an eery manner.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

James Montgomery

I decided to take some random pics around Sheffield cathedral just because. I got this nice shot of the statue of James Montgomery.

What's particularly impressive about this one is the amount of detail. Have a look at this 100% crop of the same image:

Impressive, no? Now I just have to play around and figure out the sweet spot on each lens to get the absolute best detail out of them. About f/5.6 should do it.

And I must practice getting landscape orientation pictures ... I'm definitely still a naturally vertically oriented person.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Today I've been playing with skittles.

This took 156 exposures to get right, 5 at a time in burst mode. This one was actually exposure number 48, but I didn't realise until quite a while later that it was the best. I used a relatively slow shutter and flash on rear curtain to freeze the ball and skittle while maintaining motion blur.

For the dailyshoot assignment, I shot another without flash. Instead, I used a tungsten lamp for a warm feel and a slow shutter. This led to the falling skittles and the swinging ball becoming abstract blurs around the central skittle, which I managed to miss completely.

Finally I have one taken from a different angle. I prefer the feeling of motion in the first, but the composition of this one.


Friday, 19 November 2010

The Fog Descends

Today I went to Manchester, and it was very foggy. Fortunately I had my camera with me (I'm getting better at this "always have a camera" business) so I stopped in Derwent to take a few snaps. Obviously they are all low contrast and, well, covered in fog.

38mm, f11, 1/25th sec, ISO 100

This was my first opportunity to try out my new EF 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 in anger. It's a heavy beast, weighing down the front of the camera so it hangs vertically round my neck. I'd say it weighs twice as much as the body. But that's ok. It's comfortable to hold, easy to operate, and the autofocus is silent. Add to that the fact that it has optical image stabilisation via an in-built gyro and it's a lovely thing to use.

I switched to my EF 18-55mm on the way back. It's the kit lens that came with the body, but it's the most wide angle I have. I used it to try and take in the height of the trees. At a minimum focal length of 44mm (thanks to the 1.6x crop factor) the 28-135mm couldn't get them all in due to space limitations.

You can check out the rest of the flickr set for all the pictures I deem publish-worthy from my little outing. Here are a few samples.


Thursday, 18 November 2010


A plant for your viewing pleasure.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Graffiti on my garage door. Really should get that repainted one of these days ...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Isolated Subject, High Contrast

Today's assignment: Isolated subject, high contrast. These are, obviously, coat hooks. The two lights almost equidistant from the subject make the interesting shadows beneath. Taken with Hipstamatic for iPhone because it's the only camera I had with me at the time.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Busy doing nothing

Today's theme is "calendars". I chose to take a picture of the inside of my diary to demonstrate how little I have to do at the moment. Of course, it's a complete lie. I'm insanely busy this week, running up and down the country for work until I finish this job on Friday and start a new, more local one on Monday. I just haven't written any of it in the diary yet because it wasn't decided until very recently. I thought it'd be a nice subject, anyway. I was also testing the low light capabilities of my new camera. This picture was shot at ISO 3200, if you can believe it!

And just to clarify, I've focussed on tomorrow's date because I thought it best from an artistic viewpoint. And not at all because I forgot what day it is. No. That would just be silly. *ahem*

Now to the subject of why I even have a new camera. As some of you may know, a bunch of cretins broke in and stole a load of stuff, including a laptop, a Wii, and all my camera gear. We are not amused. Fortunately the camera was insured and has since been replaced with a Canon EOS 500D with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. Replacements for my other lenses, including a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.8 and a 50mm f/1.8 (the famous "nifty fifty") are on their way. So I'm able to now continue my photographing.

Aside from the heartache and chaos caused by those vile creatures, I found a new website for inspiration. Daily Shoot provides one new photography idea or topic every day, either through the website or on Twitter. I'm going to be using these as inspiration for my 365 photos. I realise how badly I've lapsed with those and have large chunks missing, so hopefully I can get back on track. Or maybe just start again from today.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Fairy Lights

Street lights at night can be very pretty. For someone who lives close to the centre of a large city, skirting round the edge of the town centre can provide a host of beautiful views at night.

One advantage to using a wide open lens when taking these pictures is the capture of bokeh, or creative blur. An extreme example is shown to your right; a mass of coloured circles that roughly represent the city they are part of.

A more subtle example, of course, is in the picture of the day at the top of this post. The lights cluster around the top of the leaves like fireflies, obviously part of a cityscape but at the same time abstract.

The extreme out of focus image is a blurred version of the picture on the left. A view over Sheffield from Pitsmoor, looking up Netherthorpe Road and up to the university. Even when the buildings are focussed (roughly; I'm still practicing) the lights take on the shape of the lens's aperture.

I try to incorporate some foreground focus when using blurred backgrounds to give the picture some grounding. Completely blurred pictures can look nice in the abstract, but to give them some context they need attaching to something "real". The brown leaves of the trees surrounding the town provide sufficient foreground interest to complete the picture.

I'm not 100% happy with these, but they're not bad considering it was raining and cold and very late at night. Maybe I'll have to get the tripod out, drop the aperture to f16 or f22 and take some long, detailed exposures of Sheffield at night.

I'd rather be here

In other news, yay for low light performance!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

More Autumn

This time with a twist; the new toy. Nikon 50mm f1.8 lens on the S1 Pro. Mmm.

It's often said that a good, fast prime lens will improve  your photography far more than sticking with the slow kit zoom that comes bundled with most dSLRs these days. I couldn't agree more, after getting bitten by the prime bug using the Zenit recently.

There are a multitude of benefits to a fast prime:

  1. Lovely shallow DOF
  2. Great low or dim light performance
  3. Sharper image due to higher quality glass
  4. Gets you used to moving your feet
The last one is a point of confusion. Surely it's better to have a zoom instead of clambering about all over the place? Well, no, apparently not. It makes you lazy. Something a little bit too far away? Just zoom a bit. Something too close? Zoom out. But changing focal length affects every other aspect of the picture, from the available f stops to the depth of field to the telephoto compression.

Shooting with a prime forces you to think about your composition. Having a fast prime with a wide range of f stops (f1.8 to f22 in this case) means you also have to consider the depth of field. It's easy, for example, to have it too wide and make part of the subject blurred. Or too narrow and cause the subject to blend into the background. Having to physically move to get the position and framing you want forces you to think it through far more carefully.

The shallow depth of field is a wonderful thing. It's great for "almost macro" shots, and the "creative blur" (commonly referred to as bokeh on the internet) can make interesting shapes and patterns in the background. I'll put more examples of this up later.

The speed is, of course, a great benefit. My old lens, am f3.5-5.6 28-100mm zoom, was sloooow. In fact, wide open the prime is almost 8 times faster than the zoom at 50mm because it was stuck at f4. This translates directly into much, much faster shutter speeds. In fact, shooting today's pictures involved dialling down the f stops because the body can only handle 1/2000th second and it wasn't fast enough.

The sharper image due to higher quality glass is sometimes rather subjective, but I intend to explore this property in upcoming weeks. Smoother colours, sharper edges and pin sharp focus are all for the taking. Just need to practice with the manual focus a bit more. The Zenit is the first camera with manual focus I've used in a long, long time because the manual focus ring on my zoom is too loose and wobbly to be used reliably. The prime has a much stiffer movement, and is easy to turn it exactly to the right place. The handy focussing dot in the viewfinder is a great help, of course.

Lots of learning to do. Now to get on with it!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Of Gimps and Curves

Of all the photos in my recent Manually Autumn post, the picture of my garden gate garnered most praise. In part it was for the subject matter and composition, and in part for the beautiful colours and dynamic range of the film.

Shooting digital means you lose some things that film gives you. First and foremost, you lose the large upfront costs and processing costs. So that's a plus. But you lose out in other areas. Film has a wider dynamic range than almost any digital camera, so where a dSLR would have blown out highlights, film will fill it in with subtle detail. Film also has properties unique to each formulation. I used Fuji Superia film, which has a slightly green, almost ethereal feel to it in the right conditions.

It got me to wondering if I could replicate the feel of the film using a curves preset in my image editor of choice, The Gimp. Of course, if I ever got round to acquiring photoshop, it would probably work there too. I went out and took a picture of my garden gate with, roughly, the same composition. I say roughly because, frankly, I did a terrible job of it. But it'll do for the purposes of this experiment.

As you can see, it's slightly skewed to one side. I'll fix that later, but it does mean some of the bottom will be cut off.

After much experimentation, the curves look like this:

 Save this as a preset, and let's check the results against the original.

Original (Zenit-E, 58mm f2) Digital (Fuji S1 Pro, 50mm f1.8)

Not bad at all! There are very slight colour variations due to the different weather conditions, and the fact that the leaves are browner. Also, it hadn't been raining when I took the second picture, so the ground in front of the gate appears lighter. The digital version does appear to be a little brighter, a little sharper, and with a little less contrast at the bottom end. Still, pretty darn close.

Next task is to take two identical pictures using both cameras, apply the saved curves to the digital version, and see how close the film version is once it is developed.

While I was at it, I also saved a slightly modified set of curves that enhances the red and green. I call it "Warm Autumn" and it lends a subtly different feel to the image.

My work day, addendum

My work day, of course, does revolve around one thing.

Delicious, life-giving tea. In a Top Gear mug.

My work day ...

... mostly involves this:
Photo taken at ISO 1600, 1/10th sec, f4.

I have shed loads of stuff to write about. Photos from Ireland, further adventures with the Zenit, messing with curves in The Gimp, and a new and exciting toy to play with. And no, I don't mean the Zone40. Just got to get my head clear of snot and a little bit motivated.