Advice

Switching to FujiFilm X Series

I honestly thought I would use nothing other than Nikon cameras. I’d been through a few in my time first as a rally photographer and lately, as a urban/landscape photographer. Over the years the D70, D90, D5200, D7000, D7100, D600, D750, D800 and D4 have all at one time or another been the camera of choice and I’ve had great experiences with them all as well.

As you’d expect, I built up a fair collection of Nikon fit lenses to go with this little lot so switching systems was something I just couldn’t envisage. I had a brief flirtation with both the Sony FX mirrorless range and a few Fuji cameras as well but it never stuck, I always went back to the Nikon gear, but there was something about the Fuji that kept nagging at me…

You’d think after having already had a X100s, X100t, X-E2 and X-T1 and eventually sold them all on, I’d have ticked Fuji off the list but no, there was something about them I just couldn’t quite get out of my system.

Edinburgh Castle in Autumn - Fuji X-T1, Fuji 10-24mm

Edinburgh Castle in Autumn – Fuji X-T1, Fuji 10-24mm

I lasted another 6 months and then started looking seriously at Fuji kit again. My reasoning being that I hadn’t gave it a proper chance before, I had always compromised and never had a equal lens lineup to the Nikons. By this time I was carrying around a Nikon D4, 70-200mm, 24-70mm, 18-35mm and more often than not, the big Tamron 150-600mm. The weight of the kit was started to become back breaking and I started to get problems with my shoulders that seen me in near constant pain.

This time I didn’t go into the Fuji kit by halves, I reckoned I needed enough so I wasn’t constantly turning back to the Nikon kit so bought a Fuji X-T1, 16-55mm f2.8, 10-24mm and 55-200mm. I wasn’t plugging the big zoom gap that I liked to use so much for my landscapes but for now, this was enough. I also opted to keep my old Sigma 105mm macro and use that with the X-T1 via a Fuji to Nikon adapter. I always used manual focus for macro anyway so wasn’t a huge deal.

This time it stuck. For as good as the next year, I shot nothing but Fuji only making a brief trip back to Nikon land twice to my D800 and felt the Fuji results better both times. This was the revelation I was wanting. The kit weight was a fraction of the Nikons and image quality, where it mattered was every bit as good. I missed the high ISO and blistering shutter of the D4 but for 95% of the stuff I did, Fuji worked and worked perfectly.

Edinburgh Castle at Sunset - Fuji X-T2, Fuji XF55-200mm

Edinburgh Castle at Sunset – Fuji X-T2, Fuji XF55-200mm

Over the next year I added a Fuji X-Pro2 which was a huge step up over an X-T1 which I eventually traded for an old Fuji X100s. Next to come up was the Fuji X-T2 which quite frankly is possibly the perfect camera. Into this little mix also came an X30 for travel use and while not an X series, I also added a Neo 90 Instax.

Lens wise, I kept what I had but have added the 50-140mm f2.8, 100-400mm and 2x tele. Even with this lot in the bag, it’s still lighter than the Nikon kit was! My usual carry around kit is the X-T2, 10-24, 16-55, 50-140 and 2x tele. If I need it, I’ll put the 100-400 in there as well.

And… here’s where the biggest change comes in. I’ve started doing something that I hadn’t done for years, street photography. The Fuji’s somehow cry out for it? I’ve been back to taking walks with only the X100s in the centre of Edinburgh at night, the camera set on auto ISO (200-6400), f2, min shutter of 1/60th and the Mono film simulation mode. It’s been a revelation and for me NOT to shoot in RAW is unheard of but I’m so pleased with the JPEGs coming from the Fuji’s I don’t really need to.

Sugarhouse Close, Canongate, Edinburgh - Fuji X-T2, Fuji XF16-55mm, Classic Chrome

Sugarhouse Close, Canongate, Edinburgh – Fuji X-T2, Fuji XF16-55mm, Classic Chrome

The X-T2 has also had some good outings. It’s been quite liberating to just take the X-T2, 16-55mm and a spare battery and just wander off to see what I find, freed up from the shackles of a kit bag, being forced to think in other ways without the luxury of a suite of lenses. It’s been inspiring and sparked a creative bug that was fading up until now. I use much the same settings with the X-T2 (and X-Pro2) but love using Classic Chrome when I shoot these.

What started out as a weight saving exercise transformed the way I take pictures now. I still have a highly capable landscape setup when I need it but I also have versatility in a manageable package, something I was lacking with large full frame cameras. Having shot full frame for a few years I had zero hesitation in going back to an APS-C sensor, it didn’t even cross my mind to be fair. Full frame isn’t the be all end all of photography, what it is though putting yourself in an expensive upgrade route and committing to large and bulky kit. I don’t miss using full frame one little bit.

So where now? Next plan is to add some primes to the lens collection, probably the 14mm, 23mm, 35mm and the 60mm first and maybe, just maybe I’ll set about trying to acquire a X-100F as well. Whatever happens though, I’ll be sticking with Fuji for the foreseeable future and my advice to anyone thinking about doing similar? Do it, but do it right and you will love it!


New Year Fireworks, Location Guide

27We’re just a few hours away from the biggest firework display Edinburgh, the capital city of fireworks puts on every year. Yes, I know it’s short and the end of Festival ones are a good 40 minutes long but the festival ones are largely naff, the midnight display though is a belter. BUT, where to watch or photograph it? I’ve had the pleasure of photographing this a few times over the years so here’s a run down of what to expect at some of the better vantage points.

Princes Street
Are you mad? Crammed in with 80,000 “revellers”? The view will be incredible and in windy conditions you are better closer in but you’d toil to use a tripod of any kind. Will be great to view but unless you want to shoot high ISO and handheld I’d be looking elsewhere.

Calton Hill
No doubt, Calton has a view and a half AND you’ll also see the light and laser show on the castle rock but it’ll be busy, very very busy. There’s also building work going on up Calton that takes away some of the prime spots for photographs and large parts of the hill will be sectioned off, especially if there’s any fireworks going up from Calton as well. Photographing the festival fireworks from up here usually means you will be part of a mass of tripods all clamoring for the best view. If you have the patience to deal with it, you will get some great shots. The thing to watch out for is the fireworks smoke, it’ll drift towards the Calton direction tonight so get shots as soon as they start as you might be in the smoke as the display progresses.

Arthur’s Seat
Hundreds of potential viewpoints but the park will be shut so it’ll be a long walk no matter where you go, you’ll also get the full force of the wind tonight. That said, if you get high enough the pics will be fantastic.

Blackford Hill
You won’t see the light and laser show as it’ll be on the other side but it’s a good location to watch the fireworks. It doesn’t get too busy at New Year either. If you head here, presuming you are in the main car park, head up the path until you get to the first grit bin, take a right here until you get to the view of the Castle, there are 2 benches here, to the left and right. There’s a path in front that curves off to the left towards another bench, follow that path past the bench until you get to a bit with a clear view to the Castle. You get some decent shelter here from west winds so it’s a decent place for photographs, you’ll need at least a 200mm lens, preferably more.

Inverleith Park
Of all the places I’ve taken pics over the years, this was one of the worst. The view is great, you’ll also see some of the light and laser show but hands down, this was the worst place I’ve tried to take pics. Setup well before the fireworks in the 10 minutes leading up to midnight the place will fill up with mostly very posh drunk people, nightmare scenario. If you do, setup on the slope lower down, you might get lucky but don’t even attempt it up by the tree line.

Bruntsfield Links
Great view, great place to take pics but horrible atmosphere. Last time I was there it was heaving, lots of aggressive drunks, random fireworks being let off. Hated it but the pics were good.

Carrington Road
At the end of Carrington Road looking over the rugby pitch of Fettes Police station there’s a decent view to the Castle. It’ll be quiet too, worth considering. You won’t see the laser or light show but a no nonsense location if ever there was one.

The Telly
You’ll see everything, including Ariel shots, the light and laser show, everything. It’s warm and inviting and where I’ll be tonight!

Where ever you end up, enjoy it, stay safe and have a happy new year!


Switching to Mirrorless

Like many photographers, over the last year I’ve been taking taking tentative steps into the world of mirrorless cameras. Well, to be honest, I’ve been dipping a toe in the mirrorless scene for a good while longer having had a Sony A7, Fuji X-E2 and Fuji X-T1 already but this time was different, both socks were off and I was knee deep paddling about in mirrorless cameras.

I’d gone into it half hearted before but that simply doesn’t work. One falter with the kit and you start wishing you had the old trusted DSLR with you instead. There IS a learning curve, no doubt about it, the cameras are similar but also very different from DSLR’s and it will take time to get into using them, as it does with any new bit of kit. With that in mind I strode forward, throwing caution to the wind and bought a shitload of Fuji gear.

I walked from Calumet carrying a Fuji X-T1, 16-55mm f2.8, 10-24mm and 55-200mm. I hadn’t even reached the car before buyer regret set in. £2.5k, just like that? What am I doing? Wonder if they will take it back?

But, I had good reason, in my mind at least. I had been having specific shoulder and neck problems and carrying about a Nikon D4 and a few f2.8 lenses plus a 150-600 puts some strain on that particular area no matter what kind of bag you use. You could use a roller bag I suppose but hardly practical walking over a muddy field not to mention looking like you were off on holiday every time you went out taking pics. No, the aim here was to lighten the kit and the Fuji X series was perfect in that respect but would it stack up in others, ease of use and image quality being the most important?

I’m happy to say it did, on all counts. Having a full kit meant I could leave the Nikon’s at home and really concentrate on using and getting to know the Fuji kit. That was the key, previously I had used the Fuji as a secondary kit to the Nikons, never really got to know it and it never quite clicked, this time it did.

I’ve shot nothing but Fuji X series since March 2016 and don’t intend to switch back to DSLR’s. I’ve since added a Fuji X-Pro2 and Fuji 100-400mm and a 2x tele all of which have been brilliant but the real jewel in the crown is the Fuji X-T2, this camera is quite simply one of the best I have ever used. It’s early days with it yet but by all accounts, from first impressions, it’s an outstanding bit of kit.

So why didn’t I go Sony and get that nice full frame sensor? Well, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Sony kit I tried, there was a horrendous flare issue with the Sony, which could have been either the A7 or the 70-200mm f4 but whatever it was, it killed Sony cameras for me. The E mount lenses are also big, they have to be for that FX sensor so that took away one of the main reasons for switching, weight. Price was another factor, the new Sony f2.8 lenses are eye wateringly expensive, sure the Fuji ones are too but nothing near the Sony prices.

So, do I have any regret in ditching Nikon? Nope.

Do I have any regret ditching full frame? Nope.

Will I switch back to a DSLR anytime soon? Not a hope.

Is there anything I can’t do with the Fuji the Nikon could? Not found anything yet.

Would I recommend it to anyone? Well, that depends on what you are after. It might not be for everyone but for me it meant I could further without kit weighing me down, it also meant I could take the whole bag with me rather than deciding what lenses to leave behind in the car.

The only thing to beware of is the expense. That DSLR kit you have, you probably built up of years of careful purchases. You will want to replicate it with the new kit and you’ll want to do in a matter of months, not years most likely and that will be EXPENSIVE! Selling existing kit will help finance some it but you’ll likely still find some significant outlay.

I now believe that these cameras like the Sony A series and Fuji X series are now the future of photography. DSLR’s won’t go anywhere for a while but in 10 years time or so, if the tech keeps moving the way it is just now, we’ll all be using mirrorless cameras and watching Canon and Nikon playing a serious game of catch up.


An irrational fear of tripods

There doesn’t appear to be a name for a fear of tripods, an as yet unrecognised but very real phobia. And yes, I did Google it.

When I say “fear” that’s probably too strong a word but from giving photography lessons I have noticed that a fair few of the people I’m teaching don’t own a tripod or are very self conscious of using one.

I have to sympathise with this though. I wasn’t a prolific tripod user when I started out, probably down to a mixture of dreadful cheap tripods and not really seeing much need. As I progressed into using filtration I soon started using one nearly all the time. At some locations this didn’t bother me but in the city centre I was very self conscious of using a tripod as if it were some sort of badge that marked out the weirdos of society.

I soon realised that especially living in Edinburgh photography tripods are like rats in a big city, supposedly you’re never far away from one. Look about in a city centre, you will see people using them at certain locations, they are nothing unusual at all and it’s a fear worth overcoming as the benefits to your photography are huge.

I use a tripod as a matter of course these days. Even in bright light when shutter speed isn’t going to be an issue I still prefer it. I can compose a shot, take it and then since the camera is tripod mounted I can make adjustments and be confident my composition remains unchanged. You’d be amazed at how handy this can be.

Combine a tripod with a wireless remote control and you’re onto a real winner, the perfect combination for all situations. It’s worth simply making this part of your photography workflow for all situations. Of course, by all means shoot handheld if the situation demands it. I only ever shoot action and macro handheld as using a tripod is simply too restrictive.

For landscapes though, that just isn’t an issue and getting used to setting up on a tripod and attaching your remote is a worthwhile few minutes spent before taking any pics.

A quick word on tripods though, these are the perfect example of the buy cheap buy twice philosophy. I lost count of how many tenner in Tesco’s type tripods I burned though before I moved onto cheap and nasty Jessops efforts. I wasn’t until the death of yet another sub £40 tripod I moved up and bought a nice Giottos with a tilt and pan head. It’s been abused for 3 years now, submerged in sea water, covered in sand and made a few trips at speed in a downwards direction when the carrying photographer doesn’t see the mud in the dark on Blackford Hill. Asides from me breaking the tripod head a few months back it’s still going strong. I reckon it’ll be like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. He had the same broom for years but it had 6 new handles and 8 new heads only it’ll be legs and heads in my case.

The point being though, for £130 I’ve had a stable, well performing platform to work from for the last 3 years. Well worth every penny.

Using a tripod also allows you to explore some other functions you might never have used on your DSLR, such as Mirror Up. or mUP as it’s called on the Nikons. Mirror up essentially means you press your remote once to flip up the DSLR mirror and then again to start the exposure. The benefit of this is that you can totally eliminate any shake from longer exposures. Flick up the mirror, wait a second or 2 for the camera to settle and then take the pic. Not a massive thing with wide lenses but tripod mount a big zoom and you’ll get to love the feature.

I suppose I should make some reference to tripod heads as well. There’s a bewildering array of them out there. The ball head seems to be the current favourite but if I’m honest, I hate them. Fiddly is the word here. I prefer a good old fashioned tilt and pan, 2 levers to do all you need it do to. Simple and functional. If you ever take pictures in the dark that’s what you want but at the end of the day it’s all personal preference.

Think too about the weight of a tripod and max height of a tripod. If you’re 6ft 6” and your tripod only goes to a max of 120 cm you’re going to get backache using it. Get something appropriate for your height, that does mean the taller amongst us will be paying more unfortunately.

Weight is a factor too. 7 stone weakling doesn’t want a full aluminium tripod with a heavy duty head on it to carry about for a days shooting, carbon fibre is more expensive but a hell of a lot lighter. The payoff may be that it’s not quite as usable in strong winds. I’ve got an aluminium one and at times I can learn to hate it with the weight in it but first windy day and I can see why I stick with it.

Again it’s down to personal preference and how you intend to use it. Do you only ever take pictures 5 ft from your car? Then buy the cheaper aluminium one. Do you hike up Ben Nevis before breakfast for the sunrise? Then you might appreciate a carbon fibre one. Do you struggle to open a packet of crisps? Get the carbon fibre. Are you Geoff Capes? Get the aluminium one. You get the idea.

So, shrug off that coat of self consciousness and go forth and be proud of your tripod, your photos will thank you for it!


Edinburgh Fireworks made easy

A photographer living in Edinburgh has, shall we say, a good few opportunities at fireworks photography. With 22 Tattoo performances each with fireworks at the end of the performance, St Andrews Day, Son Et Lumerie, New Year and of course the huge 45 minute end of Festival display we’re somewhat spoiled for choice. We even had fireworks at midday at Edinburgh Castle this year, a strange experience if I’m honest!

So, how do you go about getting the best from all these opportunities?

What I’m going to detail here is my method for these shots, this is how I’ve taken the shots below. It might not be how everyone else does it but it sure does the job for me.

So what do you need? A camera certainly, a DSLR is best but any camera that you can control the aperture and exposure time will work, we’ll be in full manual mode for this. You also MUST be tripod mounted and using a remote control. If you don’t have a remote and your camera has a self timer set it to the lowest setting (typically 2s) and use that. It’s far from perfect but can be used if you have to.

Next job up is planning. This is essential and the key to getting the best shots. Think about where your display is going to be and what vantage points you might have. This year for the Tattoo in Edinburgh I’ve been out in a range of places. Calton Hill, Salisbury Crags, the lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat and right under the Castle in Johnstone Terrace. Each of these requires a different approach which must be planned for.

Calton requires a long lens but a shorter zoom can also be handy, Salisbury Crags is similar. The lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat only need the long lens as your so far out from the Castle. Johnstone Terrace meanwhile called for a super wide lens as you can get so close to the action. This is what you need to think about before you head off. Also think about access to the location, how easy is it? Can you get a car in there or will you have to walk?

Think about the light, will it be totally dark? You’d assume so but the early performance of the Tattoo on a Saturday night finishes at 9pm and it’s still fairly light in which case you’d be best of facing away from the sunset for the shots where the sky will be darker.

Do your research, there will be stacks of info on the net about times of fireworks etc, make sure you know when to expect them and get setup in plenty time. Search sites like Flickr for pointers on locations, you might find a great place you never thought about.

This is the hard part really but once you have this info getting the actual shots will be a hundred times easier. Performances like the Tattoo fireworks have an additional advantage in that they are the same every night. You can learn the sequence of the bursts and prepare for particular bursts you know are coming.
Once you’re at the location get your camera tripod mounted and your remote hooked up. Decide what composition you want to use, remembering that the fireworks themselves will be high above where they will launch from, in a lot of cases a portrait orientation works best for the bigger bursts, landscape for the lower bursts.

Do make sure you have some context to your shots. Get some land interest in them. It gives the fireworks a sense of scale and it will really improve the final image. In my case this is nearly always Edinburgh Castle so it’s easy to work with. I take test shots before the display starts where I make sure the Castle isn’t overexposed and there’s enough light coming in from the ground to show the city.

I like to use in nearly all cases, ISO400, f7.1 and an exposure time of around 1s. You can adjust this to get a nicely balanced image. ie, if the ground in your shot is too dark, go up to f5.6, if it’s too light, drop down to f11 or more. Ideally you want to keep that 1 to 1.6s exposure. The further away you are the longer you can chance but at close quarters 1s is more than enough to get big trails and minimise the chance of burning out the fireworks.

With the camera set up, the test shots taken, the image looking nicely balanced is all about hitting that shutter at the right time now. Don’t just rattle off shots, watch the display and hit that shutter when you see a nice trail develop. You’ll get a good few shots at it and on the longer displays time to play about with settings. Just don’t panic, keep watching the display and hit the shutter when you think it’s right.

Take loads of shots. You’re dealing with a real unknown in fireworks, the more shots you have the more chance you have of that one killer image. Simple as.

When it comes to processing fireworks shots you have to be careful with them. If you shoot in jpg there’s not a lot you can do but if you shoot in RAW make use of the fill light to bring out the land element and use the recovery slider to take out any burnt out areas as much as possible. Pay attention to the curves too but above all don’t lighten the image too much.

Fireworks are not the easiest of subjects to get right but following these guidelines should put you on the right path, the rest is up to you!

Virgin Money Fireworks Display, 1st September 2013

This is the big Edinburgh display and here’s a run down of locations you might want to consider.

Calton Hill – Iconic views but really really busy. In my opinion, best avoided.
Arthur’s Seat – Incredible view from the top, take a long lens. The lower slopes have some good vantage points too, long lens again.
Salisbury Crags – Incredible viewpoint, big and medium zoom’s work well. Can be busy.
Blackford Hill – Stick to the lower slopes near the observatory, more sheltered and away from the idiots who seem to always be at the top of fireworks night. Get’s busy and limited parking but a great flat on view. Big zoom needed.
Inverleith Park – Great view of the front of the castle flat on but gets very busy again.
Princes Street – Forget it. Simply not worth it.
Johnstone Terrace – Can be spectacular but only the biggest fireworks will be in view. Very wide lens works best.
Braid Hill Drive, get’s very busy, need to be there very early better off at Blackford Hill. Ditto Braid Hills.
Regents Road – Will be busy but nice scenic view over the top of Waverley if you can get a spot.
Grassmarket – Will be busy and probably plenty drunks too. Good view though.
Kier Street, great view to the castle from here, very close so wide to medium zoom will be enough.
Bruntsfield Links – Great spot, very close a wide lens to medium zoom is best. Can be very busy.

Here’s a few of mine from the Tattoo this year.

From Calton Hill, this arc of fireworks was good to me this year!
Tattoo Fireworks 24 August 2013

Tattoo Fireworks 21 August 2013

Tattoo Fireworks 2 - 14 August 2013 - Explored

Tattoo Fireworks 14 August 3

From Johnstone Terrace, right under the display
Tattoo Fireworks 22 August 2013
From Salisbury Crags, sunset and fireworks at the same time!
Fireworks at Sunset

From the lower slopes of Arthurs Seat
Tattoo Fireworks arc 23 August 2013


Edinburgh in the springtime, a photographic guide

So, we’re well into February and that means the winter (might) be about to step away to make way for spring. Not that it’s always that easy to tell with the Scottish weather, not being unusual to experience spring, summer, autumn or winter all in one day, or indeed, in one hour.

However, at this point the sun starts to travel further over the sky, rising and setting in different places and reaching a higher transit point in the sky, all of which makes a different to the images you might take. Whether you’re an Edinburgh resident or just passing through this will hopefully help you make the most of the spring time months.

March and April typically mark the end of the sunset season from up on Calton Hill, after April the sun moves to far to the west to really make a big difference to that classic Edinburgh castle shot so catch it while you can.

Edinburgh Sunset 17 March 2012

April also marks the start of being able to get some decent sunset’s from down near the Edinburgh coastline. The sun starts to dip below the horizon over the water rather than inland and there are plenty of places to take advantage of it such as Newhaven Harbour the Forth Bridges.

Newhaven Sunset 18 March 2012

Forth Bridge Sunset

You will have to keep a close eye on the weather though, rain is never far away at this time of year, not that it should stop you getting some very nice images indeed. This was from Blackford Hill last year.

Storm over Edinburgh

Fog is another pretty regular feature in spring but as photographers that’s a good thing isn’t it!

Cramond Causeway 24 March 2012

It’s not all making the most of adverse weather though as this shot from along the Union Canal shows!

Ashley Boathouse in Spring

So there you have it, changeable weather but who comes to Edinburgh for the weather, you all come here for the history and some of the most incredible city views in the world don’t you!

If you are travelling to Edinburgh you could do worse than check out Roomwise.com for accommodation around the Capital. Loads of choice at reasonable rates too, what more could you want?


What camera should I buy? A beginners guide…

I get this question a lot from people looking to get into photography. What camera should I buy?

The eventual answer though depends on budget available and what you want to do with it but in the main my answer to a beginner is usually the same, buy the absolute best you can afford.

Lets forget about compact and bridge cameras here, someone looking to get into photography properly needs some sort of interchangeable lens system. You simply don’t get that level of felxability with compacts or bridge cameras no matter how good they are. You get convenience but ultimately you need a DSLR of some sort.

I’m also going to rule out the new wave of compact system cameras for the beginner too. Even with the interchangeable lenses these cameras look like a nice easy route into photography, well made, small and portable but with the added bonus of being able to change the lens, and there-in lies their main problem. Have you seen the prices of lenses for these systems? Additional lenses are both expensive and limited in choice hence why I’d always advocate, stick to a DSLR.

I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say, forget about everything else except Nikon or Canon. Yes, I know there are other makes but these 2 are the big players, the VHS to the Betamax of the rest. Now I’ve probably offended every Pentax, Olympus, Fuji, Panasonic and Sony owner out there (and more) lets get down to camera choice.

It really doesn’t matter if you go Canon or Nikon, both are similar, both have massive ranges and are supported by a myriad of 3rd party companies too. Whatever route you go, you won’t be disappointed.

So, what to actually buy? This comes back to the opening statement, spend as much as you can possibly afford, it’ll save you in the long run. If your budget only stretches to the entry level DSLR and kit lens then great, go for it. If it can go further then start looking up the ranges.

Taking the Nikon range for example. Buy a Nikon D3100 and you’ll get a nice camera with a fairly bog standard kit lens, but the entry level DSLR doesn’t have the top screen with all your setting on it. The D3000 never came with a port to attach a wired remote of any kind either, both, in my opinion, big things to be without. If you can push the budget that little bit more, the D5100 would make a far better purchase.

I’d actually go as far as to say that if you are really looking at the bottom end of the market, seriously consider the 2nd hard option. For D3100 money you’ll pick up a used D90, a far far better camera that will last you for ages. If you can afford a D5100, consider a used D7000 and you’ll never have to think of cameras again for ages.

In my humble opinion, the amateur photographer needs look no further than the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7d, after this you get into full frame territory, serious cash and I see simply no need or justification for a amateur photographer to venture into this territory. A D7000 to all but another expert photographer match a D3 in terms of image quality. In real terms, the D3 will be far better, but in the real world, 99% of people will never be able to tell any difference and if you really learn how to use it, your D7000 will produce the most amazing and striking images.

And so lenses. Simply get the kit lens, it’ll be fine to start out with and you have other things to worry about. Factor in the cost of a reasonable tripod for starters, cheap tripods won’t last, spend at least £100 and it’ll last for ages.

You might also want to consider:

Remote control of some sort, preferably wired.
A decent bag to carry this all in, buy something big enough to accommodate future purchases as well.
A screw in polarising filter
Some sort of slot in filter system, p series system with some Hitech graduated filters is a good cheap entry level into this world and it’s the one single item that will change you from a snapper to a photographer.

There’s about £250 in that little lot of extras, you don’t need them all straight away but this is what you need to consider to take the hobby at least semi-seriously.

Once you’ve used this little lot and got to grips with it then you can start looking at lenses. You might want a wider lens, a bigger zoom even? Both good purchases. The old trusty 50mm f1.8 is a great purchase, the cheapest lens you’ll ever buy and so versatile you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.

I don’t expect everyone will agree with my reasonings but from coming through the beginner route this is my findings and my recommendation. What you buy is of course up to you but hopefully there’s some food for thought in there!


Top Edinburgh autumn photography locations

Ah, Autumn, thank god it’s here at last. Whatever it throws at us it can’t be worse than the soggy summer of 2012. In photographic terms at least, the next couple of months are great for getting out with the camera. Sunset and sunrise are at sociable times, nice dark (hoepfully clear skies) and the trees turning those fantastic golden shades.

So here you are in Edinburgh, what’s the hot shots to try out the next couple of months?

Lets kick off with the top sunset location for Autumn in Edinburgh and it’s predictably Calton Hill. At this time of year the sun in heading back towards the Castle at sunset meaning all those fantastic cityscapes can benefit from the full burst of colour from the setting sun.

Calton Hill Sunset 31 August 2010 - Explored

Don’t forget the twilight too from up here, any direction is good, why not try Leith at twilight for something a little different?

Leith Dusk

Sticking with Calton Hill, the just after sunrise the National Mounment will be casting some nice shadows. Get up there early though, too late and the sun will be in the way of the shot.

Unfinished Shadows

Seafront locations are not at their best at this time of year for sunsets but the Cramond causeway can provide a nice sunrise.

Cramond Sunrise

On 5th October, the sunset at high tide at both at exactly 6.31pm, with a 5m tide it’s a perfect night to head out to Belhaven Bay outside Dunbar for the Bridge to Nowhere shot.

The Belhaven Bridge to Nowhere

It’s getting a little late in the year but 8th October might be a good night to try and catch the advancing tide at the Longniddry wreck found just off the number 1 carpark.

Longniddry Sunset - Explored

Nearer the end of October with the moon out the way it might be a good chance to try for the Milky Way before it slinks off for the summer, try the carpark at Harlaw Reservoir about 2 hours after sunset, give your eyes time to adjust and you should see the dense star cloud that forms the band of the Milky Way just off to the south west.

Milky Way at Harlaw 11 September 2012

There’s obvioulsy quite a few fireworks opportunities around November 5th but keep and eye open for the South Queensferry display for a chance to catch them over water.

Fireworks in the Ferry

There might also be a display at the Castle for St Andrews day, though possible not exactly on 30th November and it’s likely to be short display too.

Homecoming Scotland Fireworks Edinburgh - Explored

With the darker nights it’s also a pefect time to try those light trails shots, with Princes Street open again it’s an obvious choice but anywhere with traffic is possible, why not try Holyrood Park about 30 minutes after sunset?

Holyrood X

It’s also a good time to get those star trails shots in, Newhaven lighthouse, is a cold but worthy spot as you can get Polaris in the shot.

Newhaven Star Trails

Hopefully that little lot will give you some ideas for Edinburgh photography over the next few months!


Basic astro-photography from light polluted areas

This whole astro-photography thing is a pain in the cheeks at times. There I was sat in the cold with the telescope last night, tripping over wires in the dark, cursing the GOTO for not being spot on and finally chucking it all in after 30 minutes because the wind was an even bigger pain and it was impossible to get anything worthwhile at all.

I was this close → ← to chucking the whole lot on Gumtree and packing it in totally. Such was the severity of the huff. Thankfully I didn’t but what it’s taught me is not to attempt this stuff when the conditions aren’t perfect.

Less than perfect conditions though don’t stop you having some fun with a nice clear sky, never mind how windy it is and the even better news is that you can do this stuff with some nice basic photographic gear; this post from here on will be a telescope free zone!

All you’ll need is a camera you can control the exposure on (variable zoom will help too), a tripod and a remote control for the camera or at least one with a self-timer. The hardest part is getting the clear sky but even the odd cloud can add to a shot as long as your intended target is still visible.

To demonstrate what’s easily possible, these 4 shots were taken in central Edinburgh, in light pollution with a Nikon D90 fitted with a Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens.

The technique is simple enough, keep the ISO fairly low, around 400 to 640 otherwise the light pollution will run away with your shot. Exposure times will vary maybe from less than 1s in the case of a planet to a few seconds on a star cluster, even as long as 30s on a wide field shot. The whole idea is to get enough light in to give you the shot but avoid stars trailing to get a decent shot.

Finding interesting targets is your next challenge. The sky just now is best after midnight and even with the moon out the way there’s some nice stuff you can get. After midnight the Pleiades open star cluster will be getting higher in the sky and below it will be the brilliance of Jupiter, a nice photo opportunity, especially if you can include some ground interest to give some perspective.

Jupiter and the Pleiades

The Pleiades itself is a very nice target and fills the frame nicely at nothing more than 200mm. Keep the exposure shorter when you’re zoomed in like this. The diffractions spikes on this shot were added in Photoshop with a plug-in, it’s not the natural look!

The Pleiades Sept 13 2012

Sticking with 200mm try Jupiter as well! You’ll really need a shorter exposure with the planet so bright take a few at differing exposures and you should also be able to pick up the planets moons.

Jupiter 14 Sept 2012

Winter skies usually provide the best targets but at this time of year you can also get the summer triangle, an easily visible triangle of the very bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb.

Summer Triangle 14 Sept 2012

Light pollution needed be a killer but if you do get a chance to get out under really dark skies you might be lucky enough to catch this, the fabulous sight of the Milky Way rising in the sky above…

Milky Way at Harlaw 11 September 2012


An Astro-photo plan comes together for once!

Plan last night was to head down to Marine Drive in Edinburgh which is right on the coastline next to Cramond where there was a chance of photographing the moon rising over the water. Using The Photographers Ephemeris on the Mac it was possible to see where the moon would rise and there was nothing but water in-between last night. Better still, it was a fairly clear night so off I trotted.

Marine Drive is a funny place. Actually pretty dark, has great views over to Fife and is a prime spot to look for aurora, the only downside is that is seems to be a popular dogging spot which means you get random cars drive up, park, check what you’re up to and head off back up to the dark part of the road!

If you can put up with that though it’s a prime photo spot with a few possible shots, doggers not included.

When I got there the eastern horizon was so dark you really couldn’t tell if there was any cloud there or not but with 10 minutes to go before the moon came up I used the view west for a few shots. Over an hour after sunrise there was a fantastic colour in the sky on the western horizon, too good to miss in fact when you also take into account the slowly receding high tide catching the last of the golden light.

These shots were the result, no filters, just a bit of PP work and that’s about it. The 2nd shot looks closer in towards the Cramond Island causeway.

Cramond Sunset 5 Sept 2012

Sunset over Cramond Causeway 5 Sept 2012

By this point though, it was clear there was cloud on the horizon as the moon hadn’t appeared but there was some hope, a very faint orange glow so worth hanging about for.

In the meantime I took a few shots of the planes on final approach to Edinburgh Airport. This is right under the main flight path and in the dark you can get some pretty dramatic trails.

2 things stood out on the sky at this point, the bright red star Arcturus to the west and the constellation of Cassiopeia, that distinctive W shape. After watching a few landings I got the compositions right and this was the result. 1st shot is past Arcturus and 2nd is past Cassiopeia.

Plane passes Arcturus

Plane passes Cassiopeia

Finally though the moon had started to show, that faint orange glow was now very obvious so on went the bigger lens, after some playing about I got the shots I was after. This might be better with a thinner crescent moon, as the exposures might be closer, as it was I had to really overexpose the moon to get any detail in the foreground.

Moonrise over the Forth 5 Sept 2012

Moonrise over the Forth 5 September 2012

Just a wee bonus, I was back in the car heading for home to get the telescope out when I spotted a plane heading right for the moon, a chance to get that elusive plane in front of the moon shot. With everything packed away I had about 20s to get the tripod out, extended and the D7000 adjusted and on top. No time for the remote so I had to press the shutter button and hope. This was the result, really not clear but I’ll get it next time now I know roughly where and when I can get it from.

Plane in front of the moon

All in, a good night for the 40 minutes or so I was there, much better than the dreadful night had with the telescope later but that’s a story for another day…


Easy time-lapse movies from still images

I stumbled across this earlier totally by accident but I can see it becoming a little obsession for a while.

While shooting the fireworks one camera had a really cheap remote control on it, the sort where you can push the button up and if you have the camera set to high speed drive it’ll just keep taking pics until you run out of memory space. This meant I just engaged that camera to run and I manually triggered the other one. The upshot was, I had long sequences of shots, one after the other which when flicked through in iPhoto sort of looked like a little movie…

An energy saving lightbulb lit up gradually over my head and I ended up going through all the pics taken on Sunday night with the D90 and found quite a few multi shot sequences.

These were all in RAW so I had a hell of a lot of processing to do, the trick being to take each sequence and process every shot in exactly the same way, I done this by saving the settings in ACR and applying to every shot in the sequence.

Next up with all the shots processed was to order them, as I saved with the default name I just ordered by name.

Now, using iMovie on a Mac you simply have to drag all the files in one go into iMovie. From here, highlight all the pics and set the time interval to 0.1 or 0.2s in the clip adjustment menu (little blue drop down in the bottom the highlighted pic. Now pick the Cropping, Ken Burns and Rotation menu, whatever Ken Burns is it’s a pain. Switch all the shots to Fit and click done. This will stop that stupid zoom in thing on every shot from happening. You might also have to go into File — Project Properties and change the Initial Photo Placement drop down to Fit in Frame.

With this done you can now preview the movie and make any further adjustments. Now go to Share — Export Movie and pic the best option for you. I picked the 1080p HD option but beware, 167 12mp frames ended up as a 70+mb .mov file. The .mov is fine for upload to You Tube, Facebook and Flickr so I would assume it’ll upload to other video services too.

And that’s about all there is to it, I’ve also now applied this to sequence of shots meant for a star trail that shows the movement of the stars once you give it the time lapse treatment.

You can check out the final movies on You Tube:


Garden Safari Photography

Summer is a time of mixed emotions for me. Sure, the nicer (!) weather is welcome and overall more pleasing temperatures but it’s also a time I ease off on any landscape photography. The daylight is harsh, the sunrise is too early, the sunset is too late and let be honest here, it does rain a lot in a typical Scottish summer. That’s why every year around June to August my attention turns mainly to macro photography.

The summer months are bumper months for macro lens usage, more flowers about and in turn, more insects which are my principal targets for close up shots. Living in Edinburgh with the Botanic Gardens just a 15 minute drive away is pretty fortunate, especially for floral stuff but it’s amazing what you can find with a little wander around your garden or any nearby grassy/bushy area.

Insect life in particular is rife at this time of year and if you know where to look then you’ll have a myriad of subjects close at hand. I have a particular patch in my back garden where some wildflowers grow; I leave this deliberately as every summer it’s teaming with potential macro subjects but any bush or even hedge if you look close enough will turn up some interesting beasties.

Flies are the most abundant. Approach your chosen area with caution, keep back and just look. I mean, really look. You’ll almost certainly find some flies, particularly evening, while the sun in still up but not as hot as earlier in the day. Most flies are quite tolerant of an approach as long as you are stealthy and don’t rush in on them. Set the camera up well away from your target and move in slowly. Using a macro lens I like to find the subject in the viewfinder from far out and slowly move in increasing the magnification until I’m at full 1:1 on the lens. Now gently move until the subject in focus, you might have to rock back and forward a bit to get it, microscopic movements but as soon as you see focus in the viewfinder, take the shot.

Even with a flash you might be lucky enough to get a few goes at this. Using a ring flash and a setting of around f16 greatly helps with the depth of field and getting any sort of focus at all. Always focus on the eyes, if only one part of your shot in sharp you want it to be the eyes.

If your subject flies off, just pull back slowly and scan the immediate area, they don’t always move far at all. Hoverflies are particularly good as they will fly off and seconds later come back to exactly that same spot so don’t abandon immediately unless you find another target to try.

Other good places to look are as simple as the grass, you’ll often find insect life on a daisy and indeed any plant of any sort is worth checking out. Try to look for surfaces that have warmed up during the day. Wheelie bin lids, car roofs and plastic garden furniture are all spots where flies sit and funnily enough, clothes lines and pegs are places I’ve found loads in the past.

Other things like spiders like little hidey holes, try windowsill outsides, clothes poles, vegetation near a wall and you never know what will turn up.

In 5 minutes outside on a dull night I managed to photograph a few flies, a spider and a ladybird all less than 20ft from my front door. You really don’t need to travel far for macro photography, just stay where you are and eventually it’ll come to you!

All shots taken with a Nikon D7000, Sigma f2.8 105mm EX DG Macro and Marumi ring flash.

Spider Eyes

Ladybird3

Ladybird1

Fly


Photographing the sun with standard photographic equipment

The sun, the giver of life on this planet and so important to photography. It provides the natural light photographers crave after but it’s a subject in itself that few other than astrophotographers ever attempt. Loads of people will have a crack at photographing the moon but few will take on the dangers of the sun but it’s not as hard as you might think even with some standard photographic equipment.

Of course, using a telescope with a solar film filter or a dedicated solar scope will provide the best results but you can still capture those sunspots with possibly, what you have already.

Before we proceed though, a warning. Photographing the sun is dangerous, I cannot stress this enough. Blindness can occur in seconds and photographic equipment can be ruined just as quickly but proceeding with some caution you can minimise risks and catch pictures of the surface of the closest star to Earth. I accept no responsibility for any lack of sight or melted cameras that may result from the following, you try this at your own risk.

OK? Not freaked you out? Let’s get started!

Firstly you will need:

DSLR camera (preferably)
As big a lens as you have (I use a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele giving 400mm)
Tripod
At least one 10 stop photographic filter or enough filtration to get as much as 10 stops.

The 10 stop filter is essential. If you don’t have one, can’t get access to one or can’t replicate with other filters DO NOT proceed. Some filter sets come with 3 standard ND filters, 0.9, 0.6 and 0.3 which stacked will give you 6 stops, which is NOT ENOUGH but if you can add others in there to get to 10 stops on you go.

For extra safety I like to shoot with the DSLR tethered to my MacBook pro using the Nikon only Sofortbild software to control the camera but you can get away with a standard remote control on the camera, it’s just not quite as easy.

To get started, mount your camera on the tripod and add the 10 stop filter to the lens, set your focus to infinity and using the live view feature on your camera or laptop preview, locate the sun. Once you have it, cover the lens to stop heat build up. Now, switch on Exposure delay mode if your camera has it, close the lens up as much as you can, f22 or higher, I use f32 on my own setup. You should be in manual exposure mode, so set your exposure to as high as it will go, typically around 1/4000th and your ISO as low as it will go, typically ISO100.

Now, you’re good to go, uncover the lens, take the shot and cover the lens again. Now you can check what you have. You should have a white-ish disc, sunlight is white not yellow and if sunspots are visible then there will be darker areas on the disc. From here you can adjust exposure to get the best possible shot but DO NOT exposure for any length of time, keep the exposures in the region of thousandths on seconds, you do not need to go any higher at all.

If no sunspots are visible it may be that the side of the sun facing us has no activity on it at the moment, check http://www.space-weather.com for an up to date listing of active visible sunspots. If there are sunspots and you cannot see them on the shot you may be overexposing, dial in a faster shutter or up the f setting to as high a number as it will go and try again.

All going well, this is what you should end up with:
Sun 28 April 2012

The darker dots are the sunspots. I’ve also added a little false colour to make the shot look a little more like what people expect the sun to be.

It’s possible using http://www.space-weather.com to identify the sunspots and label these up on your shot.

Solar disc 14 May 2012

Solar Disc 21 May 2012

That’s all there is to it, it’s not that difficult with some pretty normal bits of photo equipment and take the proper precautions and you’ll be fine. Do please remember though, never look at the sun through the camera viewfinder, even with the filter on place and never leave your camera focused on it for long periods of time. Have some respect for the subject and you’ll be fine and get a shot of something not that many ever attempt.


Moon shots with a tethered DSLR

One of the things that really frustrates me about photographing the moon is getting the camera settings right. OK, it’s not that big a deal but every time you touch a big zoom lens to make an adjustment there’s a degree of shake introduced, even with exposure delay set to on there’s still a chance the camera won’t have settled by the time you take a shot. It’s tempting when experimenting with exposures on a subject like the moon just to quickly change the shutter speed and hit the remote, especially if there’s cloud in the equation where exposure times can change from second to second. What you invariably get are shots that look ok on the preview but on closer inspection are slightly blurred. No good to anyone.

The solution I’ve found, where it’s convenient anyway, is to tether the camera to a laptop. Most modern DSLR’s should be capable of being controlled remotely from a laptop and there’s a range of freeware out there to help you along. For this example I’m using Sofortbild on a MacBook Pro tethered to my Nikon D7000.

Here’s a pic of the setup with a bonus can of beer in the background…

When connected to the laptop the camera show’s this on its top screen and all settings are now changeable directly from the app window on the Mac.

Sofortbild is a Nikon only Mac based app but there’s stacks of options out there for all models. Other than the laptop and software all I needed was a mini-USB to USB cable. I bought a 5m one from eBay for less than £2. This lets me have a certain freedom from the camera, i.e. I can sit in the car with the laptop or in my shed etc. Sounds like overkill but when the winter comes around and the temperatures drop I’ll be the one sat with a heater on taking pics from the garden shed!

In this example I’m setup on a photographic tripod but it would be fine with the camera connected to a telescope or piggybacked. The downside to the photographic tripod is no tracking so you do have to keep adjusting it to keep the moon in view.

With the setup done in Sofortbild there’s a live view option so I can see what the live view screen on the camera will see although, bigger on the laptop screen. You can zoom in on this too so you can really nail that focus. Much easier than peering at the 3″ screen on the back of the DSLR.

With optimum focus in place now you can take a shot. Within seconds the final image, not a preview, is viewable within the app, you can zoom in and carefully check exposure and focus with much more accuracy than you ever could on the camera preview screen. If you need to adjust all the settings are there in drop down menu’s easily accessible and more importantly, you are never touching the camera at all. Even at 400mm the moon takes a couple of minutes to travel through the FOV so you have a good few opportunities at settings before you’ll have to adjust the camera’s position.

With Sofortbild I can also set it to auto import into iPhoto where I catalogue all my RAW files. All shots are stored on your laptop not on the memory cards which for me is a win situation. At the end of the day all the shots will end up on the MacBook for processing anyway so it cuts out a step of my workflow process.

I’ve certainly found this a cheap and highly functional alternative to using a normal camera remote. It might not be suitable in all conditions but if you can use it it will provide benefits the traditional methods won’t. For the outlay of an extra long USB cable it’s transformed the way I’ll be taking astro pics in the future and it’s yet another part of the astro photography learning process ticked off!

Here are a few shots of the moon taking with this method.

This is a blend of 3 exposures blended in Photomatix Pro.
HDR Moon 28 April 2012

Moon in a twilight sky
Moon in a twilight sky

And just to finish with, here’s a shot of the solar disc taken with the same method and setup with the inclusion of a 10 stop filter on the lens.
Sun 28 April 2012


Adapting to the conditions, photography in the rain

]It’s been a funny old couple of weeks weather wise in Scotland. We’ve gone from sitting in the garden in shorts and t-shirt to snow, hail, torrential rain and even thunder and lightning. One thing about the Scottish climate, it certainly keeps you on your toes.

It’s been a very mixed bag for me photography wise. On one hand for astrophotography I want totally clear skies but for landscape I’d prefer a cloudy sky or at least some clouds in the sky. Clouds give you options, slow the exposure down and you can streak the clouds, or if you’re lucky enough to get huge high contrast clouds it can give a shot real drama. Clouds also help a sunset along no end; a slightly cloudy sky will always yield a better sunset than a clear sky will.

The last couple of days though have been really challenging, mainly due to the one thing that can stop play. Rain. Rain can be a real pain in the back end, water on the camera gear isn’t usually desirable although less of an issue with weatherproofed DSLR’s. It’s entirely possible to get some decent shots in rain though, you just need to adapt to the conditions. Remember too, rain can also come with extreme weather and nothing makes a better shot than extreme weather!

Certainly though, rain will stop you using filters, unless you want to sit cloning out rain drops on your shots for days on end. In these conditions I find it best to go simple. Shoot handheld, with the lens hood on and just bring the camera out when you want to take a shot. Balancing exposures will of course be an issue but there’s another weapon at your disposal here. HDR.

There, I said it. That dirty photography word, HDR. “Stone him” I hear you all cry. But wait! Why not? I’ve hardly used HDR for the last 18 months but the last couple of days it’s been a useful style to adopt. HDR is really down to personal taste but if done tastefully then I can’t see any reason why not? A bad shot will still look like a pile of poo in HDR but a good shot can look particularly pleasing if done properly.

My bad weather method of shooting HDR is as follows.

1. Low as ISO as you can, HDR always works better with a low ISO, I try to stick to ISO200 or lower.
2. Shoot 3 bracketed shots for everything, +2, 0 and -2ev. Most DSLR’s have an auto bracketing feature.
3. Turn on your high speed drive and if you have it vibration reduction, image stabilization or whatever it’s called on your camera.
4. Frame the shot, focus and press the shutter until you hear all 3 shots rattled off.

It’ll take about as long as a blink of the eye and you should have 3 shots, sharp, bracketed and not that far off the same position. Use features matching in Photomatix when you’re combining the exposures and you should be fine.

I like to bump up the contrast in Photoshop of HDR shots after the tone mapping is finished; I feel it gives a cleaner look with more tonal depth. Tone mapped images can look a little bland to me and bumping up the contrast finishes off a shot how I like it.

While you’re getting your shots though, do try to keep the lens pointed down when you’re not shooting and keep a close eye open for rain drops on the front lens element. They might not be that noticeable on the preview screen but they’ll be the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth if you find them once the pics are downloaded.

These shots were all taken in rain the last 2 days using a Nikon D7000 and Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens. All are 3 exposures combined in Photomatix Pro 4 and finished in Photoshop.

Forth Bridge in the Rain

Storm Clouds over the Bridge

Pier and Bridge

Crags to Calton Hill


Photographing the International Space Station (ISS) from the UK

Valentines Day this year saw the start of another series of visible passes from the UK of the International Space Station, which if timed correctly can provide a nice photo opportunity. Lot’s of satellites are routinely visible from Earth but with sheer size of the ISS makes it a worthwhile subject to hunt down.

When it’s visible essentially what you will see if a very bright dot in the sky moving at a fair pace. You won’t confuse it with aircraft as it doesn’t have any flashing lights, it’s a steady white light similar to a bright star moving across the sky. For it to be visible though you need to catch it when it’s not in the Earth’s shadow as the light is provided by the sun reflecting off its surfaces, if it’s out of reach of the sun, you won’t see it.

Predicting where it will pass is pretty easy if you have access to app’s such as Star Walk on the iPhone, or any similar night sky tracker that show’s satellite positions. With Star Walk you can locate the ISS and then fast forward time to see where it will be at any given time, what it won’t show you though is if it will be visible from your location or not.

To determine visibility you’ll need the Heavens Above website. Simply select your location in the configuration settings and then look at the ISS predictions for the next 10 days, this will show you all the visible passes. Remember to deduct 1hr from the time for current UK time. Also check how long it will be visible for, it might be only a handful of seconds, it might be minutes depending on the position of the Earth shadow. The lower the mag value, the brighter the pass will be.

Armed with this information, what you need now is a nice dark location with a good view to the West and South and a clear sky, the ISS will arrive from the West travelling east. On a shorter visible pass your best bet is to setup the camera looking approx South-West, if you have access to the Star Walk app, try to see which easily identifiable star constellation it will pass near, that will help you decide where to point the camera. At the moment, it’s passing very close to Orion, one of the easier constellations to find.

Usual star photography settings apply, you want to be (in a very dark location) around ISO1600, lens as wide as you can get it (f3.5-4.5 is fine) and exposure should be enough so the sky looks light but not blown out, you can darken the sky back down again in post processing but for now we want to be sure we’re picking up as much image data on the stars as we can. In more light polluted area’s you’ll have to drop the ISO to maybe around ISO400 to stop the image blowing out.

After that it’s a case of watch and wait. Take a few test exposures so you know what field of view you’re going to capture in the shot, as you see the ISS (it’ll be fairly obvious) approach your field of view, hit the shutter (with a remote obviously) and keep taking exposures until it’s gone or you’re sure it’s out your field of view.

You can always combine multiple exposures in a programme such as Startrails.exe or StarStax to get a full trail of the ISS over the frame later.

This is an example of pointing the camera to much to the South and not enough to the South West, the little streak on the bottom right is the ISS but despite having watched it for a good 20s before it went into the shot it then went into the Earth shadow and that was it, gone for the night! There are loads of opportunities though over the next few days so if you don’t get it first time, try, try and try again!

ISS over the Pentlands

If you get a dark enough location you might also be lucky enough to get some decent star shots in general just now, with the moon well out the way of the early evening night sky the stars are nice and bright to the point it’s even possible to pick out (faintly) the Milky Way just a few miles outside light polluted Edinburgh.

Stars over Harlaw


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!