Blog, Prints & Photography Lessons from Edinburgh and the Lothians

Archive for January, 2012

Why those snapshots matter…

I’ve been considering this a bit over the last few days, thoughts sparked by the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page. If you’ve yet to take a look then mosey on over and feast your eyes on the huge array of Edinburgh pics from bygone years. It’s fascinating stuff.

The more I flicked through these, the more I started to think about how my own photography might endure the next 100 years or so. I focus on 2 differing types of photography, what I like to refer to as my “arty” stuff and the stuff I do for the Real Edinburgh blog. The more “arty” stuff goes to Flickr and what I consider to be more snapshots, to Real Edinburgh.

The blog stuff is by far the easier to take, I go out with just a camera, one lens and that’s it. No remotes, no filters, just me and the camera. While I’ll still compose shots, I worry less about the technical perfections and hence get what I would more term as a snapshot, a quick picture anyone with a modicum of photography skill could have taken even with a compact camera.

What you’ll notice about the Lost Edinburgh stuff is that none of the pics taken there were utilising long exposure techniques, fancy lenses and the likes. Most are simply point, click, picture. Job done and even years on the shots are, if anything, more relevant than when they were taken. They point to a bookmark in time that’s gone, the scene is as it was, not enhanced by modern photographic techniques and that makes it honest and a better historical reflection.

Here’s an example for you.

I would consider this one of my more “arty” shots.

Forth Bridge Winter Sunset Panorama

This was taken with super wide lens, camera on a tripod, using a variety of filters including a 10 stop ND to give a nice long exposure. I think it’s a nice shot but was that really what it looked like down at the bridges that day?

Now consider this shot taken a few weeks earlier also at the Forth Bridges:

Point, click. Job Done.

Which of the 2 in 100 years time do you think will tell more of a story of the day they were taken?

These pictures matter. It’s as important to capture real life as it is to create a piece of art every time you press that shutter. It’s even more important for future generations that they can look back and see how our towns and cities were from a realistic perspective.

Next time your out with a ton of camera gear on your back and your stressing about whether the scene calls for a 0.9 or a 0.6 grad maybe just look about a bit too and forget the technicalities and just press that shutter button and capture a slice of life as it is and do your part in documenting the world for the kids of tomorrow.


In search of the Aurora Borealis

Aurora over Edinburgh
Aurora Borealis over Edinburgh, Jan 24th 2012

To say I was pissed off after missing a chance to photograph the Aurora Borealis over Edinburgh on Sunday night is an understatement. The Aurora had been #1 on my list of list of photographic ambitions for 2012 and to have it basically handed to me on a plate and miss it made it even worse. The crowing glory of self pity though is that I missed it due to complete and utter apathy. I had planned to be out with the camera at the time it was clearly visible but instead made excuses, “too windy”, “too cold”, “can’t be arsed” rather than go and paid for it!

With that in mind I hauled my bones up Blackford Hill on Monday night. The skies were beautifully clear and the stars were easy to spot on the dark of the hillside but there was little chance of any Aurora since the KP index had dropped dramatically from the night before.

With the news of the huge CME heading towards earth from Monday mornings flare on the sun Wednesday night was to be prime time. Sadly, cloud was a constant feature along with fog and rain, hardly idea conditions to try and witness an atmospheric phenomenon.

Undaunted though, convinced I could see a green glow on the clouds despite a KP of only 4 at the time I headed back to Blackford Hill. Thankfully it was mild, the rain had stopped and there was little or no wind. There was also little sign of any Aurora either. On longer exposures the camera was picking up some green tinges in the sky but nothing concrete and the low cloud was in places reflecting light from the ground. To be fair, though, if you’re going to be disappointed the Blackford is the place to be, the view of the city from up here at night is amazing and a recommended visit even if there’s no Aurora.

From here I headed down to Cramond to see what conditions were like there but the fog hanging over the water of the Forth made it impossible to see anything. Nice as the still conditions were there was no chance of it moving either.

With the realisation that I needed to be up higher again I headed to the Braid Hills, it’s nicely dark up here but you do have the light pollution from the city in front of you. Still, while there, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I took some shots headed more or less directly north when I spotted a little to the North East the light around Arthur’s Seat. It certainly wasn’t green but I stuck the camera in that direction and rattled off a few longish exposures around 1.5 minutes looking for a composition which is where the tree on the right of the shot comes in!

I actually didn’t really notice the green until I downloaded the images when I finally got home after a 4 hour session out staring at the skies. Other shots in the direction had no hint of green at all and this was the only frame that did. Right place, right time, right clouds, right conditions and a lucky lucky catch.

The moral of the story? If you don’t try, you won’t get. Even if it doesn’t look perfect give it a shot, you never know what you might come back with.


Star trails revisited, 10 easy steps to better star trails pictures

It’s been a learning curve the star trails shots. What I’ve noticed is that I’m pulling more stars out the shots now than when I first started and this is turn leads to denser trails. So what’s the difference and how do you get more stars?

1. You MUST shoot in RAW.

2. Compose your shot and expose to the point that you can see a lot of stars in the preview but don’t totally blow out anything else you might have in the shot. In light polluted areas I’ve been using 30s at around f7.1 and ISO400, in darker areas I can drop to around f3.5 quite happily.

3. Take at least 20 shots, the more the longer the trails. Focal length plays a big part here. At 18mm 20 shots will give a short trail, at 50mm it’ll be a longer trail. a cheap 50mm f1.8 is the perfect lens, but if you need wider try and get more frames.

4. What I do now, is to take all the RAW images and dump them into a folder. Now with Adobe Camera Raw (this will transfer to Lightroom too), open the first 10 RAW files. Select the first file and hike the clarity up to 100%.

5. Now drop the exposure slider to the right until you are bringing out stars, bumping up the fill light also helps.

6. Now swith to the Tone Curve tab, at the bottom of the box are 4 sliders, you want the light and darks sliders, make the lights lighter and darks darker until you get a balance of the stars with a darker sky. You will also need to go back to the basic settings and fine tune Temperature and Hue.

7. Once you have a nice balance save the settings and these will now appear in the Presets menu under the name you saved it as.

8. Now select all the images you opened and apply this preset to the all and click Open Images.

9. Once all images are open simply save each jpg and close the shot, repeat for all the RAW files you have.

10. Combine the processed JPG images in your chosen programme for blending, usually StarStax or StarTrails.exe and save the final image.

Once you have that final image you can fine tune with a little colour balance if needed. A bit of dodge and burn can go a long way to to lightening and darkening areas a little at a time until you get the shot you’re happy with. Once that’s done, save and admire!

Both these shots were processed in the way above, both are only around 30 exposures (which if it’s under 0c outside is more than enough!), but the first shot was as 18mm, the 2nd shot at 50mm where you can see a big difference with regards to the trails.

18mm shot:
Newhaven Star Trails

50mm shot:
Telegraph Star Trails

by way of a comparison, this was the first star trails shots I took, you can see the difference in the amount of stars I’m managing to extract now with different processing.
Forth Bridge Star Trail - Explored


Dirty, thieving, photography copyright stealing bastards

As a follow up to my copyrighting post in the real world, another quick flick through my Fickr stream looking for copyright violations has been interesting to say the least.

2 things are apparent.

1. Post a picture of a cute dog and it’ll be ripped off all over the internet.
2. Post any picture with Danbo and it’ll spread wider than a copyright thief’s mother’s legs.

This image, which is MY dog, in MY garden:

Playing in the snow - Explored

Has been on so many of these free wallpaper and puerile lolcat type websites it’s not funny anymore. Free for download they all say, no it’s fucking not I say! It’s worse still as usually it’s overlaid with stupid comments like “Weeeeeeee I can haz a fly…”. You wonder about the mentality of people who upload this shit.

As for Danbo, these images…

To boldly go... - Explore #2, FP

Trapped in a mac Danbo was sad - Explored

…now appear on what appears to be around a million lame blogs a piece. There is so many it would be near on impossible to try and get them removed. It wouldn’t be so bad if they liked to the Flickr original, which I would be fine with but they download them and use that downloaded image that then spreads everywhere.

This website: http://joomla17.zootemplate.com/jv_alber/index.php/using-joomla/extensions/templates has seen fit to rip off 5 of my images in a large size from the Flickr lightbox. Their response to an invoice?

“Lol, are you crazy? Are you scammer? Now please show us the copyright of your pictures.

FYI, there are many web designers are using the stock from Flickr without any authorised, ex: themeforest.com

Don’t kidding us! =))”

Illiterate at best, offensive at worst. They have yet to reply to the follow up message proving copyright.

So, is there a lesson to be learned? Yes, please people check your images, it’s easy to do, just drag the image from an online thumbnail into a Google image search and you’ll see if it’s being used. Go after every single one of the bigger organisations and at least be a pain in their arse over it.

Me, I’m going to watermark every image that might have the tiniest of “cute” factor with an enormous comedy cock to be sure as hell it won’t be used again!


So you got a DSLR for Christmas? What now?

Ah, so you got a shiny new digital SLR for Christmas did you? An upgrade from a compact, first SLR maybe? I’m betting as much as you like it it’s also confusing the life out of you and frustrating you at the same time isn’t it?

Consider this 12 month plan to help you unravel the secrets of your DSLR and get the most out of it. This won’t tell you how to USE your camera but it’ll tell you what to concentrate on while you get to grips with it and what you’ll need.

Month 1

So, how best to get the most out of your new acquisition? The good news for you is that you don’t need any more equipment at this point, no more expense! All you need is your camera with its kit lens and off you go. Don’t even think about new lenses and any fancy accessories just yet, spend the first while with your camera getting to know it. It’ll have a load of modes and features which no doubt you’ve played with but have no idea what they do.

Rule 1, and try to keep with this one as much as you can. Forget AUTO mode exists. Don’t touch it. There can be no excuse for using AUTO on your SLR. If you want to use AUTO, go back to a compact.

Rule 2, forget all those pre-programmed modes, the only thing to concern yourself with now is the Aperture Priority mode which may be A or Ax on your camera. Stick to this mode as it’s all you’ll need for now, eventually you can progress to using Manual but Aperture Priority will serve you well for now and it’s going to keep things simple.

Spend the next month playing with the camera in this mode. Learn what the aperture is, there’s a million tutorials on this out there, you don’t need one from me but trust me, learn to use your camera in A mode, learn the difference between taking pics at f3.5 and f22, and learn to use the ISO on your camera. Try to keep it as low as possible but don’t go over 800 if you can, learn to adjust this and the aperture so you can shoot handheld in the light available. You WILL get the feel for it a lot quicker than you think.

Months 2 – 4

OK, so you’ve recognised AUTO mode as evil and you now understand what aperture and ISO are. These are building blocks for you to move on now. By this time you’ll also know what your SLR is going to be for you. Are you just using it for family snaps? Or are you actually taking pictures with it, are you seeing scenes and trying to capture what you see? Do you find you want to take the camera wherever you go? If you are, then let’s go shopping.

If you want to progress you will need a few additional items of equipment.

1. A tripod. Now, don’t skimp here. You can get tripods from a tenner upwards but its false economy. Tripods take a fair hammering and I went through a load of cheap ones until I finally saw the light and invested £120 in a decent one which has outlasted all the other cheap ones put together and it’s still going strong. Final decision is yours but I would consider spending that wee bit more here.

2. Remote Control. To go with your tripod you need a remote. You could use the self timer on the camera but that’s not perfect, a half decent remote will serve you well. Try and avoid these tiny IR remotes that use the camera’s built in IR, these are typically useless. Get onto eBay and find yourself a programmable remote that connects to your camera with a cable, these are a LOT better and you’ll get a lot of use from it. Around £20 should be all you need to spend. If you want to go a bit further look at something like the Hahnel Giga T, which has a receiver unit that sits in the hot shoe and connects with as short cable to the camera. It’s triggered by a powerful programmable IR remote, a highly recommended investment (around £60).

3. Some decent processing software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Ok so that’s it. Put the wallet away. You need nothing else. Now though, you can take pics in lower light, even dark as you have the tripod for stability and the remote to trigger the camera without touching it. You can now also progress to longer exposures, your aperture mode will allow you go up to 30s but if you flick to manual and select the shutter speed of BULB then you can go as long as you want. EXPERIMENT! It’s the best way to learn. Over this time you’ll see a difference in your pictures.

Months 5-8

So how’s it going? Still enjoying your camera? You are? Excellent, time to go shopping again.

What we want now is a simple set of filters. Keep it cheap to start with. Get onto eBay and get yourself the following.

1. P series filter holder
2. P series adapter ring to fit the screw size of your lens
3. A set of 3 85mm (P series) soft graduated filters, 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9
4. Slot in 85mm circular polariser

This shouldn’t cost you any more than £60 or so and it will transform your images. Remove your lens hood and screw in the adapter ring, fit the holder to it and you’re ready to go. The graduated filters will allow you to control the difference between the light sky and dark land; the polariser will make white clouds white and fluffy while giving you a richer blue sky. They also reduce reflections in water and glass.

Now you need to get out and learn to use these filters. Expect disasters to start with but if you’ve been learning aperture, manual mode, using your tripod and remote then all this will be 2nd nature by now so you can concentrate on learning how to use the filters.

At this point too, if you’re still taking pics as jpg’s on your camera, learn about the RAW format, it’s time you processed your own images and not letting the camera make a best guess and what you want.

Months 9 – 12

And here we are 9 to 12 months after getting your SLR and your still out taking pictures? The bug is biting it seems. Now it’s time to go lens shopping. Your kit lens has served you well but nows the time to consider some of the following.

1. Replacement for the kit lens. These are typically low quality medium range zoom lenses, 18-55mm or so. It’s a good focal range but there are a lot better versions on the market, get a good one and it’ll last you forever.

2. A super wide lens. Your kit lens is fine but sometimes you just can’t get enough in the scene, so you need a super wide, something like the Sigma 10-20mm is a perfect choice.

3. A decent zoom lens. Now, here you have a choice. If you want to replace your kit lens and get a zoom consider a super zoom. These will typically allow you to go from 18-200mm in one lens. There are some great examples out there and they won’t disappoint. It’ll likely be pricey, around £600 but remember, it’ll do the job of 2 lenses for you.

4. A longer length zoom. It’s handy to have a good longer length zoom lens, 70-300mm is a popular range and there are some cheap examples about but if you can afford it, get a 70-200mm f2.8, the Sigma version is around £700-800 and Nikon and Canon’s versions are in excess of £1500 but what a lens, I’ve had my Sigma version for over 10 years and just could not bear to be without it. Very versatile and image quality is amazing.

5. 50mm f1.8 prime lens. One of the cheapest lenses you’ll ever buy, around £100 new but superb image quality and so versatile with that wide f1.8 aperture. You’ll have a lot of fun with one of these learning about depth of field. A must have for every photographer.

You might also want to consider a decent bag to carry all this kit around it. It needs protected, you’ve spent a lot of money on it so don’t skimp on the bag. Get a decent brand like Loewpro and it should last you for years and keep your kit in good order.

And that’s it. You’re more than capable of making your own way now, by easing yourself in through the year you’ve avoided giving yourself information overload, you’ve learned the basics and you’ve got the building blocks to move on to bigger and better things without having more debt than Greece on your Jessops card. Enjoy your new hobby for years to come!


High’s and Low’s with Fireworks Photography

The big problem with photographing fireworks displays in Edinburgh is trying to get something that’s not been done 100 times before. This year along we’ve had the half hour display from Edinburgh Castle for the Festival, a shorter display from the castle for St Andrews Day, a display from Calton Hill as part of the Hogmanay celebrations and just over 24 hours later, another huge display from the castle again at midnight for New Year. That’s quite a lot of opportunities with iconic landmarks.

For the Festival display I trudged high up on Salisbury Crags with what felt like 10 tones of camera gear but nailed the shots I wanted so it was all worth it.

Festival Fireworks 18
Nikon D90 with 18-70mm lens set for a wider shot of the city with the fireworks at the castle.

Festival Fireworks 1
Closer shot with a Nikon D7000 and Sigma 70-200 f2.8 lens.

The St Andrews Day display though was another matter. With no firm time for the display and a strong biting wind I had gave up on my Calton Hill location thinking they had been cancelled, thankfully when I realised that hadn’t I was only down by Regent Road so did get some shots, nothing I’d describe as killer though.

St Andrews Day Fireworks 2011 - Explored
Shot with a Nikon D7000 and Sigma 70-200mm f2.8

Ok, so it’s not bad and the Bank building in the shot rather than the castle is different but it’s not the shot I wanted, not the best of nights.

Next big chance was the Son et Lumiere on Calton Hill, the end of the Hogmanay torchlight procession. In previous years I’ve shot this from the hillside itself from the back of the 10,000 strong crowd but have never been that pleased with the results.

This year I decided to try something different. Earlier in the year I took some shots from the Holyrood side of the Radical Road around Salisbury Crags trying to get traffic light trails with a backdrop of the Parliament and Calton Hill. The idea struck me, why not try and combine the two? So that’s what I did. 2 cameras set up, D7000 with the Sigma 70-200mm shooting Calton close in in portrait format, the D90 with the Nikon 18-200mm lens shooting the wide scene on 15s exposures to get the light trails and the fireworks. And guess what? It worked. Exactly the shot I wanted and something I’ve not seen done before.

Son et lumiere 9

The good times didn’t last though. For the big New Year celebration fireworks I had scouted out an easy access location with a clear view to the front side of the castle. Trouble was, this was a daylight scouting mission and on arriving at the location with no time to get anywhere else, the error I had made was obvious. There’s a rugby club here and they had strong security lights on their clubhouse, right in front of the castle which caused a load of issues with light flares on both cameras.

To say this was a nightmare was an understatement, I had to spend the whole display fiddling with settings and compositions and came away with nothing I was happy with at all. Eventually I had to resort to blending two fireworks bursts together and then blending in another shot of the castle before the display to get anything approaching a usable shot. I’m not that happy with the results, it looks too perfect. No smoke obscuring the castle is the big give away. To the man in the street it’s a good shot but to a semi knowledgeable photographer, it’s a dirty big fake and that doesn’t sit that easily with me.

New Year Fireworks 2012

So, lessons learned?

Scout out new locations at night.
Use your existing shots for inspiration for locations and techniques.
Get all the info you can on the display.
Use 2 cameras on different settings if at all possible.

I’ve got a few months now before there will be anymore, I just hope I remember the lessons learned by then!


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