Archive for May, 2011

Photography and planning around nature

In the time I’ve been seriously taking photographs, one thing I’ve discovered is that a little research pays dividends before you travel to a location to photograph it. I used to just turn up where I fancied and snap away, now with a bit more experience under the belt I usually have some idea of what kind of shot I want before I get there and it’s pointless going if the conditions aren’t going to be right!

Here’s a perfect example, this is the Belhaven Bridge just to the east of Dunbar:
Belhaven Bridge
At this location, high tide covers the walkway to the bridge so the bridge looks as if it goes nowhere with deep water either side, it in fact, spans the Beil water as it exits into the sea at this point which you can see at low tide. So, using the Tide Times website, I knew when high tide would be so headed down there for that. Sadly, it didn’t co-incide with sunset which you could check out on Suncalc.

Arriving later than hoped the tide was peaking but not covering the walkway. I know from research that night at the high tide height was 4.6m so; it follows logic that the walkway was just on the verge of being covered so waiting for a day with a tide predicted to be higher than 5m will give me the shot I want. The perfect time to take this shot will be a high tide, 5m+ co-inciding approx 20 either side of sunset. High tide and sunset co-incide on 24th May but with a predicted tide of only 4.2m it’s not the perfect night to get the shot, better to wait a couple of weeks and try again.

Tides also play an important part of decisions where harbours are concerned. I love long exposure shots but high tide, long exposures and boats bobbing about don’t go! Nobody wants blurred boats! In this instance, it’s better to forgo the 10 stopper and use a faster shutter and wait for a lower tide, or at least the boats in the front of the shot to be grounded. Of course, you always have the option of cutting the boats out of the shot altogether, but unless there’s something else as a good focal point then this leaves you with limited options.

This is Newhaven Harbour at high tide, boats left out of the shot:
Easter Monday Sunset

And at low tide, with boats!
Harbour Streaks
Both shots long exposure but with very different results.

Clouds are another feature of nature to keep and eye on. Nice blue skies are all very well, and indeed welcome in some cases but a bit of cloud cover always helps. To try and give an example, this is the top of the Falkirk Wheel on a day with little or no cloud cover:
On Top of the Falkirk Wheel

and a few weeks later on a bright day with loads of clouds of giving nice contrasts in the sky:
Falkirk Wheel up top

I know which shot I prefer…

Fast moving clouds, by which I mean heavy broken cloud, are great for long exposure photography. Huge dark clouds with little or no definition are not! Clouds can also add a lot to sunsets as the light bounces off them and in HDR photography you can create dramatic scenes with a nice cloud cover:
Storm Clouds over Edinburgh

So, before you head off. Keep an eye on the:

Weather
Cloud cover
Tide times
Tide Height
Sunset/Sunrise time
Sunset/Sunrise position

And plan accordingly!

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So you want to upgrade to a digital SLR?

You’ve had your compact camera for ages now and while you like the convenience you’re thinking of making a step up to a DSLR aren’t you? It’s hardy surprising, 10 years ago a DSLR was very much a luxury item, you could by a car for less than most around at the time, these days with entry level DSLR’s wit kit lenses coming in at under £400 for everything you need to get started it’s becoming a more and more tempting proposition for many.

But… before you rush off to your local camera dealers, or start furiously researching best prices online, ask yourself, what do you actually want from your camera? Do you just want to take pics of your mates drunk in the pub or just a few snapshots of the kids? Then, save yourself some cash and stick with your compact, it’s more than suited to the tasks in hand. On the other hand, if you find yourself getting a real interest in photography, feeling the urge to try and take better pictures and find you use your camera a lot then go right ahead, you won’t be disappointed.

Actually, that last statement is a lie; you will be horribly disappointed and equally frustrated when you move up to a DSLR. Just because you have a “proper” camera, it won’t make you a photographer overnight. There will be a lot of learning ahead, trial and tribulations and probably tantrums and tears as you get to grips with your new toy but rest assured, its worth it all as eventually you’ll get the results you want if you persevere.

What you have to remember is, this is a proper photographic tool you’re investing in. Even a cheap one will blow most compact cameras out of the water but you have to change your way of thinking. Don’t use it like a compact; don’t stick it on auto and snap away, what’s the point of that? Your compact can do that! What I’m going to detail isn’t how to use your camera but the things you should stick at to learn how it works properly. What to focus on to help you get the most from your new camera.

First things first, what equipment do you “really” need?

Ok, so obviously, you’re digital SLR. Be in Canon, Nikon or any other makes, it might seem unimportant but think on before you buy. That Pentax might be a great deal as you eye it up in Jessop’s, but think further down the line. Is there a good supply of lenses for it? How do the prices look? It’s important as typically once you buy into one system and start to add more lenses you won’t want to switch to another. I bought into the Nikon system and have since added 9 lens to my collection, to switch to Canon and re-buy all these lens’s would be horribly expensive so choose wisely. My honest opinion, go Nikon or Canon, a safe bet all round. Try both in the shop; see what you prefer as both will be very capable performers.

DO; buy the camera with the kit lens. It’ll be cheaper than buying the body only and adding a lens to that. Most kit lens will be in the 18-55mm range which is fine for a wide range of applications and it’s enough to get you going. The camera shop will invariably try to see you a UV filter to go with your new toy. No harm in that, it’s good for protecting your lens and does cut down haze but… think about it first. If the shop is trying to sell you a branded UV filter you may be paying upwards of £30 for it. They’ll sell it mainly as lens protection and there’s no doubt that it will protect your lens front element, however which in a camera bag etc, your lens cap will also do that and while it’s in your hands, the chances of scratching the lens is minimal. I have no UV filters anymore, I had 9 scratch free lens’s and believe me I am the worst in the world for chucking them back in the bag minus lens caps. Don’t waste your money on a UV, just treat your lens with respect, look after it and if you have the cash invest in a polarising filter instead.

Used properly, a circular polariser will enhance the blues in sky, make the contrast to clouds better and cut out glare from water, shiny surfaces etc. A million times more useful than a UV. More expensive sure, but look about online, you’ll get unbranded ones that while certainly not as good as your Hoya’s etc it’ll be more than adequate for starting out and you’ll get more proper benefit from it than you will a UV.

Also invest in a tripod of sorts, how much you spend is up to you. Tripods can range from a few pounds for small spindly effort to hundreds of pounds for the all signing and dancing carbon fibre models. Go mid range, even going to about £50 will pay dividends in the end. You’ll almost certainly upgrade it if you really get into this stuff no matter what you buy. While you at it, get onto eBay and get a remote control too. Needn’t be one of the mega bucks ones, a simple IR or corded remote for a few pounds is adequate.

Finally, a bag. You’ve got minimal kit so a small bag will do right? Well, depends if you’re going to add more as you go along? Eventually, that small bag will be overflowing and you’ll need another one. I bought a Loewpro mini trekker many years ago. £60 seemed a fortune for a bag but it’s still going strong although bursting at the seams now. You get what you pay for here!

So now you’ve got your kit, what first? Well, forget auto mode. Stick the camera on Av, aperture priority mode and leave it there. Learn about depth of field, how to focus, the difference of aperture vs. focal distance etc and you’ll get a pretty good grounding. Aperture is all in photography. Take a pic of something close to you, say 2ft away at f3.5 which your lens will probably do, then take the same pic at f22. Look at what you have and you’re on the way to understanding the cornerstone of photography.

Do; use your tripod and remote switch often. Not just in low light, if you photographing landscapes get into the way of using it, even in good light with fast shutter speeds. I originally shied away from the tripod, feeling a touch self conscious using it out in public, now I rarely take a shot handheld.

Now, this next statement will have some photographers out there crying in disbelief… and this is all the more important if you’re photographing landscape, cityscapes etc… LEARN ABOUT HDR PHOTOGRAPHY. For a few quid you can buy Photomatix Pro software and you’re on your way. HDR, which spat upon by most advanced or pro photographers is a post processing technique where you combine 3 exposures, one normal, one overexposed and one underexposed to get an final composite image with an increased tonal range. In shot, it can make an average picture look stunning, especially to a beginner. Read all about it and learn how to do it. Why? Because if you do, you will be amazed at the results, so will your friends and family and that encouragement will drive you on. I love HDR; it gave me a real boost while I was learning. It let me do things my camera and kit were not capable of doing in a single shot and these results spurred me onto more. I rarely do HDR anymore as I’ve increased my understanding of filters etc but in the short term it will give you great incentive to take more and to experiment and that can’t be a bad thing can it?

Sign up to Flickr or Blipfoto. Get involved in the communities, you’ll find plenty people willing to offer advice or even some tuition to help you along. Remember to not make it all one way traffic though, the more you put into these the more you get out. Upload regularly, learn and be inspired by others and you’ll be surprised how quickly you come on.

This will all keep you gripped for months but eventually you’ll want to add more kit. It happens to us all; maybe even upgrade your DSLR? You could spend forever but spend wisely. Think about what you’re getting, what you’ll use it for and most importantly spend as much as you can afford. Cheap lenses especially are rarely good lenses.

Initially for lens purposes think about adding a 50mm f1.8 first. This is a prime lens, i.e. no zoom, it has a large maximum aperture of f1.8 to allow some great depth of field shots and most importantly, they are cheap in lens terms, around the £100 mark. Every photographer should own one.

After this look for a decent zoom, something up to around 200mm. There are a load of cheap lenses out there up to 300mm but believe me, image quality at 300mm is crap, don’t be swayed by it. I bought a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM, expensive yes at over £600 but I’ve never needed another big zoom since, it’s so good it does it all!

These 3 will be more than enough for most but you may also get the urge to add a wider lens at some point, a valuable addition to any landscape photographer’s camera bag. True macro Len’s are also popular, by true macro I mean 1:1 reproduction. Don’t be fooled by lens’s which have 1:2 or 1:3, these are general purpose lenses with a macro function, NOT a true macro lens. There is a massive difference, believe me.

You might also notice the huge array of filters available. I would recommend getting yourself a P series holder and some 85mm filters, starting with a set of ND and ND soft grad filters. These will fit any lens regardless of size as long as you get the adapter ring for each lens. Much more convenient that the screw in systems.

Above all, have fun with it. It won’t all be easy going, you’ll get days you look at what you took and delete the lot but stick with it, you get it in the end and every now and again you’ll get an image that actually excites you then you’ll understand why you do it!


Flickr or Blipfoto?

For over 2 years now I’ve regularly used 2 photo sharing websites. The almighty Yahoo monster that is Flickr and the smaller Edinburgh based Blipfoto. To date I’m approaching 2000 uploads to Flickr and nearly 600 in Blipfoto. Both sites are heavily focused on the social networking theme but the main difference between the 2 is that you can only upload one single image a day to Blipfoto, and only on the day you take it making it more of a photo journal than Flickr.

So, why do I upload to both?

I get different things from both sites. Like I’ve already said, both sites could be termed as social networks. You have the ability to follow certain peoples uploads on both, add comments and favourites. Where the big difference lies though is that Flickr is very much a give to receive mentality. Comment regularly on others work on Flickr and in turn you’ll get a load of comments back yourself. This though, in my opinion, leads to sycophantic commenting by some who are just desperate to collect as many comments as possible on their work, genuine or not.

Blipfoto on the other hand is a very giving community. People comment because they like your photo, not because you drop by every day and leave a one word comment on theirs. Of course the give to receive thing does happen, you see some very average pics with stacks of comments but it’s not the norm, at least in my experience. It’s a more genuine, friendlier atmosphere on Blipfoto.

If your looking however to the more technical side of photography and a strive for the best images you can take then Flickr is the place for you. With so many uploads to Flickr of course it has it’s fair share of dross but cut through it and you will find a whole host of very talented individuals posting regularly and a lot of these are happy to share the settings, filters, techniques etc used to get the shots.

Blipfoto on the other hand suffers badly from the photograph anything brigade. It’s very nature of a photo a day leads people to photograph anything just to keep up their perfect tally of a photo every day. Looking at it’s front page of most recent uploads there’s less beautiful landscapes or creative images than there are quick snaps of peoples kids, cats, toilets or indeed anything that will let them post a pic with the minimum of effort. That’s not to say the photographic content is suffering as there are some incredible photos uploaded to Blip, you just have to look a bit harder to find them.

Another side effect, I’ve found, of this photo a day business is that it really does get you out taking pictures. Of course, some prefer to not leave the confines of their house and photograph the back grass growing in order to fulfil and upload but for me it gets me out and about nearly every night and as a consequence, I will happily credit Blipfoto as part of the overall package that makes we want to be a better photographer. I very rarely compromise by Blipfoto uploads these days, I won’t post and iPhone shot for the sake of it, I’d rather not upload so this actually does make me get up of my arse and get out with the camera. From my own journal on Blipfoto I can see that my own photos have massively improved since I first started to upload. Out practicing every night has to pay dividends in the end. Flickr doesn’t give you this drive and there’s no incentive to upload every day.

I won’t go into the features of both sites, suffice to say that if you subscribe to either you get access to a whole host of exclusive features that will just about satisfy anything you need from a photo site.

So, which do I prefer? Well, ask me this 2 years ago and the answer would have been Flickr without having to think about it. Now, after spending lots of time on both sites, watching them evolve, becoming immersed in their communities if I could have only one, it would be Blipfoto.

I strive to upload every day to Blipfoto and to upload as best an image as I can. Flickr now is largely an online depositary for my images. Comments on Blip tend to mean more to me that those on Flickr, I’ve been called an inspiration lately on Blipfoto; I’ve been told I photograph the same old crap on Flickr. See what I mean about the friendly thing? There’s no doubt that Flickr has opened more photographic opportunities for me and it’s where I go if I’m looking for ideas of locations, how to use particular filters etc but it’s just not got that feel good factor anymore.

If you’ve never tried Blipfoto, sign up a free account and give it a go, but please… try and resist photos of your kids, granny on the bog, your dinner, sunsets on your mobile phone but most of all… please don’t blip your cat!