Tips

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


Photographing fireworks in Edinburgh

Well, it’s been quite a while since I last blogged hasn’t it? Not quite sure how that happened, I’m guessing the whole Facebook page has just got in the way, and if you’ve never seen it, my day to day stuff can be seen on Facebook here: http://www.facebook.com/realedinburgh

Anyway, a subject I’ve blogged on before was about never being afraid to take the same photograph twice, three times or how many times you want to take it. You can re-create a composition but you will never recreate an image. What might be a mediocre image one night might be that killer shot the next. Never let anyone tell you “oh you photograph the same stuff all the time”. As a photographer you capture light and that light is never the same.

Another advantage of revisiting was clear to me this week when I made a 2nd trip to catch the fireworks at Edinburgh Castle which mark the end of the nightly Military Tattoo performance. My first attempt at the early show on Saturday wasn’t great as it was still simply too light so another mid week visit was in order when the show finished around 90 minutes later.

Wednesday night was that night. Warm with reasonably still conditions which were perfect. Heavy rain forecast but fingers crossed it would stay away till the fireworks had finished at least. If I’m honest, when I left the house at 9.30pm I had little enthusiasm for driving into town and hiking up Calton Hill in the dark with a bag full of camera gear after a long day at work but the sight of Edinburgh Castle from the outskirts of town all lit up and standing out like a sore thumb had me inspired enough to get going!

Calton Hill has a somewhat unsavoury reputation at night but at this time of year it’s filled with tourists in the dark and the front end of the hill isn’t particularly dark either. If you’re hesitant about going up there, don’t be, you’ll be only one of a few photographers up there more than likely but stick to the front of hill where it’s well lit and you’ll be fine and the views of the city are unbeatable.

Having shot this exact same sequence on Saturday night this gave me 3 valuable insights.

1. What time the fireworks will start (in this case, 10.30pm)
2. Where the fireworks launch from (to the right of the castle away from the Tattoo lights)
3. Roughly what will be coming, ie huge bursts or low level bursts.

Number 3 was particularly important and I was pushing the limits of what I could get in the frame using a combination of the Nikon D7100 and Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM rather than the wider 18-200mm VRII. Using the Sigma was important as it’s oh so sharp compared to the 18-200mm lens and that makes a massive difference with these shots.

With that little prior knowledge I knew the first burst was a huge red firework so I could get setup with the camera in portrait mode. I also adjusted position to put the lit front of the castle and the Balmoral clock in the centre of the firing zone so I could get both focal points in the shot.

Sure enough, 10.30pm and there goes the first shots, it was all very calm and all I had to do was wait and hit the remote at the right time, almost too easy but then again, with the forward planning most of the guesswork was out the way. This was the first shot of the night.

Tattoo Fireworks 14 August 2013

The next few minutes were more or less a scramble of bigger fireworks with some lower level stuff but I knew what I was after was still to come. Not that I didn’t rattle off shots in the meantime. Using a fairly short exposure, around 1.3s at ISO400 and f8 was suiting me perfectly and allowing a good range of shots.

Now, this prior knowledge paid off again. I knew there was a gap in the fireworks and after that long-ish gap was the bursts I was looking for. A series of low level bursts in an arc above the castle. Knowing this was coming I had plenty time to flip the camera to landscape mode, zoom in a bit more and make sure the focus was spot on.

Sure enough the expected bursts came and the shot I had planned was in the bag.

Tattoo Fireworks 2 - 14 August 2013

A previous visit along with a little planning had paid off and it’s another classic example of why you should do your homework and never be afraid of doing a shot again. Armed with this knowledge now I might have another go at these fireworks from a different location and see what the outcome is. The best of this is I’ve got fireworks shots now from a premium location, a location that will be packed to capacity for the main event on Sunday 1st September at 9pm. Where will I be that night> Not on Calton Hill that’s for sure, I’ve already got my shots from there!

The 2nd image above is for sale as matt prints or canvas up to A0 size, which can be ordered from here: http://goo.gl/ZMTkar or by visiting my website at http://www.realedinburgh.co.uk

If you want to try these fireworks yourself the Tattoo is on till the 24th August (except Sunday). Monday to Friday the fireworks will start about 10.30pm and last approx 10 minutes off an on. On Saturday they start at 9.00pm and again around midnight where it’s a longer display.

The main Edinburgh fireworks event takes place at Edinburgh Castle on Sunday 1st September at 9pm and lasts for around 45 minutes.


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:


Fireworks and Wind, Edinburgh Festival 2012

Well, that was probably the most challenging night I’ve ever had shooting fireworks in Edinburgh. Fireworks are never particularly easy but add in a fairly brisk westerly breeze and it makes it even more of a challenge as the burst gets blown in the wind leading to nasty trails. Not the best but I got around it to an extent.

The location of choice for the 2012 Virgin Money Fireworks Concert at Edinburgh Castle was the old favourite of Blackford Hill. I went for Blackford over the Crags this year as with the wind coming from the west the smoke from the fireworks would drift towards the Crags but off to the South, Blackford would be fine.

Blackford has the added advantage of being flat onto the back of the Castle so you are shooting the bursts as they are, rather than through them which you do from Calton or the Crags. Inverleith is the same as Blackford but looks directly onto the Front of the Castle, arguably a better location but Blackford is higher too which I think helps.

The setup for this year was again 2 cameras on the go. The Nikon D7000 had a Nikon 18-200mm VRII on this year for some wider atmospheric shots and the D90 had the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 for those closer in shots, both tripod mounted (obviously) and both with remotes attached. The D90 was set to high speed drive so with the remote engaged I could leave it to snap away while I manually triggered the D7000.

As I said earlier, the wind was a real issue. Any wind causes the fireworks trails to trail with the wind too leaving you with messy trails, the solution I used was to try and keep the exposures short, against the conventional way of shooting fireworks.

Most exposures I kept down to 1s or under, especially on the closer in shots, wider could stretch a bit longer and I wanted the lights from the city too. The upshot of this wasn’t the glowing long trails of usual shots but the shorter trails and quicker exposure combated the nasty drift from the wind. In this mode I was able to rattle off nearly 600 images from the 2 cameras which gave me plenty to cherry pick from to get the best. All in, not as good as previous years but I certainly handled the conditions better than I have on previous windy nights.

Just as an aside, I know the whole display was geared up to be viewed from Princes Street but a lot of Edinburgh watches it from other locations too. This 2012 display was pretty poor from any vantage point that didn’t look onto the front of the Castle. Long gaps of nothing visible, and I’m talking 5 minutes upwards was the order of the night and certainly not as good as previous years. I even missed the finale as there was a massive gap with nothing notable happening, not until I packed up and was halfway back to the car at least.

Roll on the Hogmanay fireworks and hopefully no wind!

You can view the whole set at:

Festival Fireworks 2012 1

or even head over to Facebook to http://www.facebook.com/RealEdinburgh and hit the like button and see them there was well!

A few choice shots…

Festival Fireworks 2012 1

Festival Fireworks 2012 11

Festival Fireworks 2012 15

Festival Fireworks 2012 18

Festival Fireworks 2012 8

I even got the lead shot on BBC News this year too!


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


In search of the Aurora Borealis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

1. You MUST shoot in RAW.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18mm shot:
Newhaven Star Trails

50mm shot:
Telegraph Star Trails

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


So you got a DSLR for Christmas? What now?

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

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

Month 1

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

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

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

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

Months 2 – 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Months 5-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

Months 9 – 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


High’s and Low’s with Fireworks Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Son et lumiere 9

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

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

New Year Fireworks 2012

So, lessons learned?

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

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


The easy guide to photographing star trails

So, star trails. Striking images certainly but surprisingly easy to do with the right software.

First things first, to make your life a million times easier, if you’re using a Mac, download StarStax and on a PC, Startrails.exe, Google them, easy to find and both a free download. This is the software that will combine your final set of images into the star trails shot. If you really enjoy spending ages with Photoshop you can blend each image separately but these make life a lot easier.

Other than that all you need is a camera capable of doing 30s exposures, a tripod, remote control and a nice dark area where you can see plenty of stars. Don’t underestimate the power of light pollution to ruin a shot, the example below was taken in my garden in a built up area of Edinburgh, the light pollution is easy to see so try and get out of town somewhere.

The effects of light pollution

With everything in place you now need to locate Polaris. It’s not essential but if you can keep Polaris in the image then the stars will nicely rotate around it. To find it look for the Plough, one of the more well known star clusters. It’s in the shape of a soup ladle (roughly) so follow the handle around to the scoop and locate the last 2 stars in the Plough. From there in a straight line around 3 times as far away as the 2 stars are from each other will be a slightly duller star, this is Polaris. Or even easier, get one of the smartphone apps such as Star Walk on the iPhone and use that to locate Polaris.

With this done compose your image. You want a 30s exposure that doesn’t overexpose any foreground interest but shows up a lot of stars in the preview image. Usually you’ll be around f7.1 or wider and ISO400 or above to get what you want. The more stars you see on the preview, the more trails you’ll get in the final image. Shoot in RAW mode too if possible. I’ve also found that the wider the lens the better. You’ll want to be on manual focus, and with focus set to infinity.

Once you’re happy with the shot it’s time to settle in for the long haul. You’ll need at least 40 shots to get a decent trail in your final image. The more the better but you’ll be there longer to get them. A decent compromise is around 60 shots if you are picking up a lot of stars. You’ll either need to fire the shutter every 30s or if you have a programmable remote set it to 30s exposure with 32s delay to give the camera time to process each image.

With your shots in the bag, it’s time to thaw out and start the process magic.

First thing to do is to process the first RAW image, how you do it is personal preference but make sure that you get a decent mix of stars in the sky, the sky kept darker and don’t blow out any foreground. Once you have a image you’re happy with, save the settings and then process every image with the same settings. It doesn’t take that long to do with ACR or Lightroom, and save each as a jpg.

Now, open all the jpg’s in your processing software, either StarStax or Startrails.exe and start it off processing them using blend lighter to combine the images. After less than a minute you’ll have the stacked image. If you find cloud has passed through the shot you can exclude these images and start again but remember you’ll get breaks in your trails. Best plan in this case is to try and blend again missing the offending frames and see if it’s any better, sometimes the cloud doesn’t matter that much.

Save the final image and open it in Photoshop or similar. From here you can do your final adjustments, usually darkening the sky, upping contrast and that it, and this is what you should get…

FRB Star Trails 29 Dec

This panoramic shot was slightly different to do. Had I shot this with the bridges at the bottom of the shot the verticals of the bridges would have been hugely distorted, to get around this I shot a single long exposure image with the bridges in the middle of the frame where the distortion isn’t an issue. I then moved the camera to where I wanted the bridges in the final shot and shot the multiple star images. I finally took the long exposure image, moved the bridges to the bottom of the shot and extended the sky with content aware fill, I then blended in the star trails image and selectively erased the bridges until I had the correct verticals version overlaid with the star trails. A bit more mucking about but a much more pleasing final image.

Forth Bridges Pano Star Trails

So, a final checklist…

Warm clothes if doing this in winter, a simple MUST have.
Sturdy tripod
Camera capable of 30s exposures
As wide a lens as possible
StarStax or Startrails.exe software
Remote control for camera
A clear night
A dark(ish) location

That’s it. Off you go and shoot those stars!


Photographic ambitions for 2012

With the year drawing to a close and a new year looming ominously on the horizon rather than reflecting on the year past I’m going to look forward to the new year and the new photographic challenges I’m going to set myself, some of these I might achieve, others will be dependent on the full co-operation of Mother Nature but if I tick all these off I’ll be a happy man come this time next year.

1. To capture the Aurora

The night sky has become quite a fascination in recent months, the increased hours of darkness seem to make you more aware of what’s “up there” and without a doubt the Aurora must be one of the most magical of these night-time phenomenons. If I lived in Iceland I suppose I’d be quite blasé about photographing natures greatest light show but it’s not something you get in Central Scotland a lot. Now I’m a bit more up on how to make an educated guess on when it might happen this year will be my first attempt at really giving it a go. Locations might prove difficult near Edinburgh but I’m intending on a scouting mission to see where further North I could reasonably get to from Edinburgh at short notice and even North Berwick/Dunbar area seems possible so who knows, all I need now is a decent magnetic storm!

2. The Milky Way

Sticking with the night sky, this is one I’m looking to tick off the list sooner rather than later. Having had a few goes at capturing the Milky Way from up in the Pentlands with minor success a trip to the dark skies area of Galloway Forest Park will be on in the not too distant future. The Milky Way is visible to the naked eye in the dark of Galloway so it should easy with the camera, shouldn’t it?

Stars over Harlaw
Best attempt at the Milky Way from the still too light Pentland Hills

3. More attempts at star trails

Despite knowing the theory behind star trail shots for a long time I’d never actually tried it until a couple of weeks ago and there is a massive sense of satisfaction when you start to blend those stacks of images and see the pic grow in front of you. Aim for the year though is to try and “star trail” as many of the Edinburgh landmarks as I can, obviously some are easier then others due to light pollution but it’ll be an interesting project if nothing else.

Forth Bridges Pano Star Trails
Star trails at the Forth Bridges

4. Lightning

This has to be the year I get the lightning shot. We had some cracking storms this year but every time I was caught out without the camera or my storm chasing skills took me in the wrong direction. The nearest I got was capturing the huge anvil cloud that hammered Edinburgh in the summer causing widespread local flooding. My aim though, has never been to capture lightning from the garden or anywhere mundane, oh no. I want it in a classic Edinburgh shot so you might we see me heading to Calton Hill if the skies start to rumble.

Edinburgh Storm 8 July 2011
The storm that hammered Edinburgh retreating over the Pentland Hills

5. Better Fireworks

I really enjoy fireworks photography, it’s just a pity there’s only really a few brief chances a year to have a go at it, the only chance I really had to experiment was the 30 minutes of the Festival Fireworks. Despite some decent results I still feel it’s all a bit hit and miss so this year I’m going to try and step up a gear and put all the experience of the last few years together and see what I can come up with!

Festival Fireworks 1
Edinburgh Festival Fireworks 2011

6. Extreme Macro

As the summer arrives and the insects become plentiful my attention generally turns to macro photography. I really learned a lot last year with regards to using flash in macro and the results showed but what I really hanker for is to get REALLY close in. The Sigma 105mm f2.8 Macro is a great lens but 1:1 is no longer enough, I want magnification and it seems reversing/coupling rings are the way to go along with focus stacking. Fiddly and frustrating but my god, the results when you get it right!

Ready to Launch
One of my better macro attempts over last summer

7. More Street Photography

I’ve really enjoyed my Real Edinburgh photo project this year. Wandering the streets of the city capturing everyday life has both been enjoyable and eye opening and despite the dark nights doing their best to slow the project down I intend to keep it moving through the year, it’s been too enjoyable not to.

So that’s mine, some things I’ve never done, others I want to improve at. Why not leave a comment and let us know what you want to get from your photography in 2012?


Tackling image copyright theft in the real world

What do I mean by real world? Surely all avenues to deal with copyright theft is “real world”. The big difference is, do you have the financial means to back up any threatened legal recourse when dealing with those who would infringe your copyright? 99/100 of us don’t. If you can hire a lawyer to deal with on your behalf, go right ahead and you’ll probably do ok from it, but if you can’t you’ll have to use different tactics.

First things first though, how do you know when someone has been nicking your work? Luckily for us those nice people at Google have made it very easy for you to see where your work is being used, on the internet at least. If you have any online photo account, Flickr etc there is a VERY good chance your work is being ripped off. Try, just for instance, picking the most popular image on your Flickr photostream, have Flickr in one window and a Google image search in another. Now click on the Flickr thumbnail and drag it into the Google image search and within seconds you’ll be able to see where that image is being used.

Most of the time you will find a stack of results that are Flickr, the search will pick up where people have added the image as a favourite and then there’s all those sites built up around the Flickr api but now and again if you check a few you WILL find instances of copyright violation.

I should point out here, this only applies as long as you don’t grant a Creative Commons licence, if you do move on and accept that your hard work is going to be distributed and mangled as anyone see’s fit. If not then read on.

From a quick search of Flickr thumbnails I found many instances of unauthorised use. These seem to fall mainly into 3 categories.

1. Blogs

Blogs are far and away the biggest of these infringements. Really though, are they worth bothering about too much? Most bloggers are just ordinary people and if you really disagree with the context your image is being used then contact them and request a removal or at least a credit, don’t weigh in with both feet demanding a million pounds and their first born in compensation, be fair, ask them politely to remove the image and if they don’t most blogs are hosted somewhere by someone so complain to the host, be it WordPress, Blogger or similar.

2. Sites where the content is user generated

The biggest issue here is those free wallpaper sites but the likes of Facebook will also turn up fairly regularly. The wallpaper sites will generally respond pretty quickly to removal requests, others will spout on about DCMA regulations but will usually remove. Don’t expect any payment, you won’t get if from these sources as they don’t upload the content and as long as they remove it, you have little recourse. Facebook ask you to fill in their automated DCMA form and are actually very good at suspending accounts where the violation has taken place.

3. Commercial Operations

This is where you take your chances. If a commercial website is using your image then you must demand payment for the unauthorised use. Don’t threaten legal action unless you can back it up. It’s usually better to send a polite email, pointing out the image, where your original version sits, the copyright notice on the page the image is on and request a realistic amount as compensation. Don’t ask for a tenner, you’ll get laughed at; similarly don’t ask for a million pounds. Be realistic, if it’s a huge multi-national go in higher they can afford it and it’ll likely be a pittance you’re asking for in their financial terms, if it’s a smaller company don’t be a dick and try and bankrupt them over it, be realistic but don’t undervalue your work and be prepared to negociate.

In some cases you’ll get emails back apologising and informing you they have removed the image, if it’s a small local business I’d accept the apology and move on, if it’s bigger stick to your guns and continue to demand payment for the image, a lot of the time you will get some sort of compensation just to go away if nothing else.

At the end of the day, if you don’t want images nicked, then don’t upload them to the internet. It’s a simple as that. If it’s a major bugbear of yours then watermark them to make the image unusable to anyone else, remember though it also spoils that image you worked hard to get and want to show off.

The biggest single bit of advice I’m going to give you though is this. Whatever you do, don’t be an utter tool about copyright violations. Don’t try and bankrupt a small business, don’t try and extort money from a little amateur blogger. Most of these people use the image without realising about the copyright. It’s not right but we all make mistakes don’t we? Stick to your guns with the bigger organisations though, they DO know the law and they CAN afford to pay you. How much is down to your negotiating skills!


A year in pictures, month by month

As we near the end of the year I’m going to take a look back over the last year and pick my favourite shots each month. I’d love to see what other photographers rated as their best shots by month too!

January

The year started well as I’d make the decision to shun the traditional Scottish Hogmany in favour of staying sober so I could get some shots of the fireworks from Edinburgh Castle at midnight. Standing on Bruntsfield Links stone cold sober while all around you could hardly stand was “interesting” to say the least, at least I got this shot as way of compensation.

Edinburgh Hogmanay Fireworks 2011 - FP, Explore #2

February

February was a pretty difficult month for me personally, as I spent most of it ill, a culmination of 5 months of feeling like crap. The intense low temperatures in February didn’t help although with the Western Harbour frozen solid it did let me get some killer reflections in the ice.

Western Harbour Reflections

March

March was the month of the “Supermoon”, although cloud cover did all it could to scupper any chances of a decent shot. Funnily enough it was a freak weather condition that sorted out my favourite for March. This shot from Calton Hill after some late winter snow was sheer chance. 10 minutes before it was clear and 5 minutes after it was clear again, for 5 minutes the Castle disappeared into the fog.

There used to be a castle there

April

April was the start of my long exposure period. A Helipoan 10 stopper was bought and the long exposures commenced. To be fair I really enjoyed it at the time but couldn’t see past it. Everything had to be at least 60s exposures or it wasn’t good enough. I did get some nice shots out of it though, of which this of the Falkirk Wheel was one.

On Top of the Falkirk Wheel

May

Still in long exposure mode I found the bridge to nowhere in Behlaven Bay near Dunbar. It took a few trips to get high enough tides but finally I got a shot of the water all round the bridge.

Belhaven Bridge Revisted 2

June

In June, I finally figured out how to time the tides at the Cramond causeway so I could catch the tide coming in from down at the water’s edge. After several goes and wet feet to be going on with, I had this shot in the bag.

Timing of the tide - Explored

July

July was a good month. A lot happened including the mother of all thunderstorms over Edinburgh. The shot of the anvil cloud retreating over the Pentlands was a tempting pick for this month but July was really about macro for me, and this may well be one of my favourite ever macro shots, taken in the Botanic Gardens lying flat on my back in the dirt getting funny looks from all around…

A Brace of Coneflower

August

August was a hard month to choose but this had to be the shot for the month. Probably one of the best I’ve ever taken and the first trip out with my new Nikon D7000.

Newhaven Cobbles - Explored

September

September was all about the Festival Fireworks or Leuchars Airshow. The Red Arrows pip the fireworks to the post for me, quite an awesome sight.

Red Arrows Leuchars 2011

October

This was an easy winner for October. I’d been playing about with twisting the zoom during long exposure shots and this was the result down on a still night at the Victoria Quay with the Scottish Executive building, a single exposure!

Scottish Executive Streaks

November

We got the best sunset I’ve ever seen one night in November and was lucky enough to be up on Calton Hill waiting for it. This was the pick of the bunch from that night.

November Sunset from Calton Hill

December

No contest here, December was the first time I had really tried to do a star trails shot and this was the result. 100 30s exposures over 50 minutes blended to get the final result.

Forth Bridge Star Trail - Explored


My photographic highlights of the year

With most of the year over and not a lot likely to be happening in December I thought it might be an ok time to look back over my photographic year and pick out my favourite shots by category. I’ve tried a lot of different stuff this year and been generally pleased with the results. I defintely feel I’ve improved as a photographer which is what pleases me most.

Sunset

Up until a week ago this would have been won by one of the Newhaven lighthouse shots I took this year but at the last minute I reckon this sunset from Calton Hill tied it for my top sunset shot so I’ll nominate the pair of them.

November Sunset from Calton Hill

Newhaven Cobbles - Explored

Sunrise

No contest in this one, I only manged a single sunrise all year but luckily, I do like it a lot. From the Cramond causeway.

Cramond Sunrise

Seascape

This long exposure shot of the wreck on the breach at Longniddry in East Lothian is my clear favourite, the Heliopan 10 stopper put such a nice colour on the shot.

Longniddry Sunset - Explored

In the city

I liked this one as it took me about 3 goes to get the shot I wanted, that’s going back 3 nights in a row, not taking 3 shots…

Holyrood X

Night

This shot of the Scottish Executive building reflecting in Victoria Quay on a still night was a real high point. A single exposure with the zoom effect coming from twisting the zoom during exposure.

Scottish Executive Streaks

Twilight

Another shot from the Cramond causeway gets the vote here. I figured out how to time the tide coming up the causeway fairly accurately this year so got a few variations on this shot.

Time to go

Macro Flower

I really felt I started to make some good inroads with my macro photography this year and this shot taken lying flat on my back in the Botanics was my favourite of the year.

A Brace of Coneflower

Macro Insect

I got a fair few decent insect shots this year, this bluebottle I stalked in the Botanics for ages and got a stack of shots.

Sooking the Hairy Leaf

Panoramic

I’ve got this one on a huge canvas in my hall, enough said.

Bridges Twilight

Danbo

Danbo didn’t get so much of an outing this year but I reckon the Buttercup Bokeh shot was the best of the year.

Danbo and the Buttercup Bokeh

Specialist Lens

Contenders in this category had to be from either my Lensbaby, digital Holga or M42 something or other lens, and the winner was… the lensbaby.

Edinburgh with a lensbaby

Street

I’ve done a stack of street stuff this year thanks to my side project Real Edinburgh, this was one of my favourites.

Any Spare Change

Abstract

Normally this would be a railings shot, I have a thing about photographing railings. I liked this shot of chained up bikes taken during the festival though.

Bicycle Bokeh

Monochrome

I took stacks of mono stuff this year, especially when I was learning long exposures. This from Calton Hill is one of the standouts to me.

Its all about the clouds

Documentary

The Red Arrows performing in Edinburgh was a highlight of the year and not something I’ll forget in a hurry, however I think this shot from the Leuchars Airshow pips the Edinburgh shots to the post.

Red Arrows Leuchars 2011

Fireworks

I love photographing fireworks and hiking 2 SLR’s, 2 tripods, 6 lenses and various other bits and bobs up Arthurs Seat for the festival fireworks this year really paid off.

Festival Fireworks 1

Scrappy

Finally, my wee dog, Scrappy, always features heavily in my photography. This is my favourite of him this year, soaking wet on a beach in Berwick with the mother in laws dog in the background.

Scrappy and Ollie at Berwick


Sighthill Eyesores go Kaboom…

It’s not everyday you get something this dramatic nearly on your doorstep is it? Three 20+ story tower blocks all being blown up at the same time, how could you not go for a look, especially if you’re a photographer.

This was the 2nd controlled demolition in Sighthill in this area, the last one about 2 years ago I spectacularly badly timed and realised right at the moment I was still in the house when I heard the boom. Not long after that, 3 similar blocks came down in Gracemount in Edinburgh but there wasn’t particularly good access to that one so I ended up catching it from around 2 miles away on Blackford Hill where you really lost any of the drama of the event.

For this one though, plans had to be made. Finding the website of the company doing the demolition, Safedem, was the perfect start, all the planned timings were on there, along with road closures etc. With this info in the bag, it was time for a quick scout around the area looking for a vantage point. The exclusion zone though was a problem and to get a view with nothing in the way Sighthill Park was the only realistic option. This gave the possibility of an added dimension of being the main spectator area hence, the chance to catch crowd reaction to the event as well.

Getting to the location was not a huge issue, living nearby I know the area well and parked up in Broomhouse and 5 minute walk had me in Sighthill Park just at 11am. Amazingly for Edinburgh, the sun was out and just to the left of the flats which was an issue, try to get all 3 in 1 shot and you also got the sun and flares regardless of how you did it. Options were to move further to the left but that restricted the view so I decided to go for each one individually.

I knew there would be a couple of second’s gap in-between each but which one of the 3 to focus on? As the warning explosion was set off I took a gamble on Hermiston Court at the right, which predictably was the wrong one which meant I had little or not time to compose and it was now a case of catch what you can. D7000 was on low speed drive, full AF and f8 giving nice quick shutter. From the shots I got I think I basically just get shooting an moving across the blocks till the buffer filled up on the D7000 then I switched to my D90 I had as backup.

I managed some wide stuff with the D90 of the emerging dust cloud before switching back to the D7000 for even wider shots of the approaching dust cloud. I knew we were going to be hit by it with the wind direction. Confirmed by the water spray from the damping down that goes on prior to these demolitions drifting over us as well. But, there are times you just have to put up! To get upwind would have meant a lesser view so what’s a little dust?

I toughed it out watching the crowd start to panic at the intensity of the dust cloud and decided to save the cameras getting both packed away and heading immediately to the right where the cloud was thinner. It’s not a pleasant experience these dust clouds but thankfully I missed the worst of it and it passed reasonably quickly. It’s quite amusing seeing those who obviously arrived early and parked really close verging on distraught at the covering their cars got, and the amount of wee neds who has kindly scratched their name in the dust on them too. This was a demolition in Sighthill/Broomhouse, if you know Edinburgh you also know there are not the most well to do areas of the city and hence, this sort of thing wasn’t really a surprise!

The haul of shots though for the day was reasonable though and the best are below.

Sighthill Demolition 1
Glenalmond Court

Sighthill Demolition 2
Wier Court

Sighthill Demolition 3
Hermiston Court, this was also the lead image on the BBC News Scotland website for the story.

Sighthill Demolition 4
Start of the dust cloud

Sighthill Demolition 5
And time to go…


10 Stopper Comparison, Heliopan vs Hitech

With the recent purchase of a 2nd ten stop filter I finally had a chance to compare 2 of the them side by side. My original filter, a Heliopan ND3.0 has been well used and was a very good buy. However, the screw in can be cumbersome especially if you recompose for any reason.

The big problem with a screw in 10 stopper is that with it in place you can’t see anything at all through the viewfinder. This means you need to remove the filter to recompose and attach again for the shot. Either that or guess the composition, ramp up the ISO, take a test shot of a few seconds and adjust till you get the composition and then drop down to a low ISO and take the shot. Neither that handy if I’m honest.

Hence, the attraction of a slot in 10 stopper. In a perfect world I’d have bought a Lee Big Stopper, a proven product. Sadly, the Lee filter is almost impossible to get hold of right now thanks to supply issues at Lee and 2nd hand items are going for nearly double the price on ebay. Facing either nearly £200 for a Lee or a 6 month wait I opted for the new Hitech Pro Stopper.

Hitech claim this filter is made of a new IR resistant resin and they also claim to have fixed the light leak issues of the old filter by adding a 1.5mm gasket (for Lee holders, 3mm for Hitech holders). The filter comes in it’s own pouch and does seem pretty well made. Price is reasonable at £72 from TeamworkPhoto. TeamworkPhoto also supplied by Heliopan at a cost of £92 for the 77mm version.

So, how do they compare side by side?

10 stopper compare

This was a shot taken one after the other in dull conditions. Both shots were 90s exposures with a Hitech 150 0.9 GND in front of the 10 stopper. Same ISO, same lens, same f setting etc etc. The shot is a straight conversion of the RAW file to jpg for each with no PP applied.

As you can see, the Hitech does have a pronounced blue cast compared to the Heliopan which has a slightly warm cast but much better colour reproduction. Casts are not that hard to remove but obviously there is a lot less work to do with the Heliopan. The blue cast however, might be desirable in seascape type shots.

The Hitech also seems to let in slightly more light that the Heliopan, maybe not quite a full 10 stops? Other than that, all other areas of performance seem fairly equal.

So, it comes down a choice between the convenience of the slot in filter vs the colour reproduction of the screw in filter. Shooting for B&W, the slot in will be fine. Shooting for colour, I’d go with the fiddly screw in every time.

I’m going to keep the Hitech filter though, it’s got a place to be used where the screw in maybe isn’t convenient. The Hitech too unlike the other popular 10 stoppers in the market isn’t glass, it’s resin which should make it far less likely to end up in a million bits on some slippy rocks somewhere!


Where to Photograph Edinburgh Castle Fireworks?

OK, to the Festival is in full swing but on September 4th at 9.00pm nearly every camera in Edinburgh will be pointing towards the Castle for the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert. 30 minutes of MASSIVE fireworks over Scotland’s most iconic landmark. It’s a photographic opportunity not to be missed, but where can you photograph this from?

You can see the Castle from multiple locations around Edinburgh but some will be much better then other for photographic purposes so I’m going to give you a little rundown of some of the spots that might work for you and those you should avoid.

Princes Street
Bad move. A prime location sure, it’s really where the whole thing is designed to be watched from but it’s oh so busy and there is no way you’d ever get a tripod setup in that crowd. Possibly iif you were up Castle Street or Frederick Street but personally, I’d stay well away from here.

Inverleith Park
Plenty viewing down this way but arrive early and get yourself a prime spot above the duck pond on the edge of the slope so nobody can get in front of you. Arrive late and you’ll be kicking yourself as it will be heaving here. Also sadly has a bit of a reputation for drunks on fireworks night but it looks directly onto the front of the castle so you’ll get the bursts exactly as they were meant to be seen. Long lens needed.

Blackford Hill
Normally my favourite spot. Again, you need to arrive early as there is limited parking and it fills up quickly. It’s a prime viewing spot looking straight onto the back of the castle so you get the bursts perfectly. It’s a large area so no problems with getting a bit of personal space to get your shots. Again though, it’s started to get a bit of the drunken teenager element up there which was especially bad last year, normally higher up the hillside so stay down near the observatory.

Edinburgh Festival Fireworks

Arthurs Seat/Salisbury Crags
Again, another very popular location and the roadside parking will fill up very quickly. Get onto the high road at St Margaret’s Loch and drive around till you can see the Castle, if you can get parked you’re in a prime spot. If not, go round again and it’s all one way. If you can get parked you have the option of going up to the top edge of the crags, be careful though as it’s not that easy going, very rocky underfoot in places. The Radical Road, the high path around the base of the crag cliffs is shut for a rock fall so expect there to be someone in place that stopping you getting up that way on the night.

If you feel fit you could get higher up on Arthur’s Seat and get great views but be careful in the dark, the very top is likely to be busy as well. You look along the line of the castle from this angle so you tend to shoot through the bursts which can be difficult.

Calton Hill
So close to the city centre this is a prime spot and as such it will fill up quickly and early. Again, you’re shooting through the fireworks and if the smoke drifts towards you it’s going to be game over after the first few minutes, you take your chance! Plenty spots you can get a good view bit likely to be no parking anywhere in the same postcode.

Homecoming Scotland Fireworks Edinburgh - Explored

Regents Road
There’s a reasonable view of the Castle from here if Calton Hill is too busy. Again though, you’ll be shooting through the bursts which can lead to messy images.

The Meadows
From the east side there are some ok views but the buildings and trees are an issue, worth considering if you get caught out and can’t get anywhere better.

Bruntsfield Links
A prime city centre location. Loads of space, goood view to the back of the castle and you don’t need a monster lens either, a mid range zoom will be more than adequate here. This location will get busy but it’s just far enough away from the Princes Street area to make access in and out easy enough. Not much parking around the Links at the best of times but you should get something in the area.

Edinburgh Hogmanay Fireworks 2011 - FP, Explore #2

North Bridge
Prime spot but likely to be jam packed so not worth considering.

Johnstone Terrace
Right under the back end of the castle, likely to be busy and you’ll need a wide lens. So tight underneath you’ll be out of view of some of the smaller bursts.

Corstorphine Hill
Huge lens needed from up here but at the view point round by the back of the zoo you get a clear view of the Castle with Arthur’s Seat behind. About miles walk in from Cairmuir Road but very limited space.

Craiglockart Hill
Good viewing point, pretty long lens needed. Probably not as busy as some other places.

The Braids
Braid Hills Road is a popular spot and unless you’re there early you have no hope of parking, get there early though and from the Comiston side you get a good view, once that’s full though the further you go towards the Liberton side Blackford Hill gets in the way but there are views from the Liberton side. Up on Braids Hill itself is too far away to be practical, better headed for Blackford Hill instead.

Ferry Road
There are quite a few spots along Ferry road that have a clear view towards the front of the Castle, you’ll need a big lens though.

Some LONG range alternatives
For something a bit different you might try the beaches of Fife which mostly have a clear view towards the city and the Castle will be easy to pick out. You’ll need a decent big lens and will be more photographing the city with the bigger bursts above rather than the castle.

Longniddry Bents no.3 car park also has a clear view to the castle; you can get the skyline nicely with a 200mm lens.

I’m sure there will be more spots, how about telling us some more in the comments?


Living with a Nikon D7000

So I finally took the plunge. From first thoughts about upgrading my DSLR I went from hankering after a Nikon D7000 to a D300s to formulating plans for a D700 then a D3 before I went full circle back to a D7000. Then decided on a D300s. In the end it was driving me mad, my old D90’s sensor was verging on minging, no matter how much I cleaned it, it never seemed clean and I had to make a decision. In the end it was the increased pixels and buying into the latest Nikon technology that swung the deal for the D7000.

This camera is laden with nice new features from Nikon and it’s a bargain at the price. I picked up mine from Jessop’s. Ordered online and picked up in store for the sum of £863, a good as any of the online retailers. A word of warning though, this camera will be easily available for under £800 if you look around. Check it’s not a grey import before you buy as if it is there is NO warranty on the camera. I don’t know about you but spending £900 without a warranty seemed a risky move to me.

So, with camera bought along with a spare EN-EL15 batter (pricey!) and a nice new Lowepro backpack capable of holding 2 DSLR’s and indeed living in it’s so big I was a happy man!

After living with the D7000 for over a week now and having had the chance to use it in a variety of ways I can assure anyone thinking of making the move, especially from a D90 that you will not be disappointed.

The D7000 is actually slightly larger than the D90 and feels very well built indeed. I’ve added a 3rd party eBay sourced battery grip with a genuine Nikon battery and it’s a chunky bit of kit. Not as big as a D3 but big enough and heavy enough to give you confidence that you’ve bought something built to last.

As I had a few Sigma lenses I was wary about having issues with them, especially my old 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM but was pleasantly surprised that it worked perfectly. Same went for my Sigma 10-20mm which functioned exactly as expected. Sadly, there the nice surprises stopped. My 2 year old Sigma 28-300 works but no longer auto focus’s on the D7000 and worse still, my 105mm EX DG Macro does not work at all. Nothing. Not even in manual mode with this lens fitted so it’ll need to go back to Sigma for re-chipping. Thankfully, Sigma seems to do this as a free service.

If you’re used a lower end Nikon, i.e. D90, D70, D5000 etc then the ergonomics of the camera will feel very similar. It’s considerably smaller than the D300s/D700 but certainly not difficult in hand at all. Button layout is pretty good with most things easily accessible in familiar places. The only odd one is the focus selector where the AF button has now gone and is unmarked on the focus A or M switch at the side of the lens mount. Took me a while to work that one out. Not that I was that bothered, the new 39 point focus system is astonishing, very very quick and accurate in auto mode.

The only complaint I have at the moment is that the rear screen while excellent seems to by default show the images a little dark so I’ve lightened mine up slightly. I’d certainly recommend using the histogram to check your exposures as the screen doesn’t seem all that accurate.

So after around 1000 shots with this camera was it worth the money? You bet it was. Total cost so far was:

Nikon D7000 – £863
EN-EL15 battery – £59.99
3rd party battery grip £37.99
2 x class 10 8GB SD cards – £8.99 each on eBay.

Under a grand a cracking bit of nice new kit to play with!

Check out a few of the sample images below from the D7000.

Newhaven Cobbles - Explored
Taken at sunset at Newhaven Harbour in Edinburgh.
Nikon D7000
Nikon 18-70mm DX AFS
Stacked Hitech 150 0.9 and 0.6 soft ND grads
Helipoan ND3.0 10 stop filter

National Museum of Scotland - Explored
The main hall of the National Museum of Scotland
Nikon D7000
Sigma 10-20mm EX DG

Big Seas at North Berwick - Explored
Big waves on the beach at North Berwick, East Lothian
Nikon D7000
Nikon 18-70mm DX AFS
Stacked Hitech 150 0.9 and 0.6 soft ND grads

Kevin Cruise
Kevin Cruise performing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Nikon D7000
Sigma 70-20mm f2.8 EX HSM

High Tide and the Road Bridge - Explored
Forth Road Bridge at high tide
Nikon D7000
Heliopan ND3.0 10 stop filter
Hitech 150 0.9 ND Soft Grad

Cramond Island Sunset
Cramond Island Sunset
Nikon D7000
Nikon 18-70mm DX AFS
Stacked Hitech 150 0.9 and 0.6 soft ND grads
2 shot stitched panorama¬


Holga? On a Digital SLR?

Holga? On a Digital SLR?

I think I first discovered “Lomo” photography with the iPhone Hipstamatic app. Of course, that’s not real lomo, not in the purest sense of the word but it was roughly in the spirit of proper lomo. What it did do was spark of an interest that saw me buy a Holga 120N with build in colour flash and go out shopping for film 120 medium format film.

What I didn’t reckon on though was the cost of this film business. Around £4-5 for a roll of film and £13 to get 12 5×5’s processed was steep, especially when you are used to digital. One B&W film was developed and I bought a roll of colour 120 film at the same time. That roll has sat, exposed in the Holga for over a year now. I love results but simply can’t be bothered with the hassle of the developing and the cost. Of course I could learn to develop myself but that’s not a route I fancy if I’m honest.

So, the Holga gathered dust and I turned my attention to Lensbabies to get a fix of strange effect photography. The Lensbabies are great but I wanted something more Holga like. The digital Diana F lenses that appeared a while ago seemed to be a possible answer but they only really worked full frame so that was them out of the running.

Out of the blue a couple of week’s back I spotted a Holga lens on ebay, Nikon fit Holga lens to be exact. I done a little research and yes there was indeed a genuine Holga lens with a Nikon DSLR fit. Prices range a bit on ebay with some UK sellers selling them for more than an entire film Holga but I eventually picked one up from a Hong Kong seller for the huge sum of £11.99 delivered to the UK which only took a week to arrive.

When it did arrive it was a pleasant surprise. It is genuine Holga. Exactly the same as the lens on the film Holga. It’s not the best built item in the world but what do you want at £11.99? Trying it out on a Nikon D90 you have to obviously go full manual as there are no electrical connections and the first thing you will notice is how dark the image in the viewfinder is. You really need to ramp up the ISO to use handheld and it simply does not let a lot of light through. Remember though, this is Holga so what’s a little noise in an image here and there?

First impressions are that the lens is VERY Holga like. You pretty much get everything you get from the film except the light leaks. Vignette, soft focus etc are all there. Even looking through the viewfinder with this lens is a whole different experience.

One issue though is that on a crop sensor it’s quite a zoom lens, in the region of 100mm to get exact, however you can get a wide angle adapter for it for the sum of £8 from Hong Kong which I’ve bought and it does the job nicely simply slipping over the top of the lens.

I’m not suggesting for a minute this is REAL Holga or lomo, which the devoted will arguer forever has to be done on film but it’s a nice second on the more versatile digital format. At around £20 for the lens and wide angle adapter it’s a no lose situation to give it a try. Lomo isn’t for everyone but if you have even a passing interest in this style of photography you could do a lot worse than check out a digital Holga lens.

Below are a few sample images I’ve taken with this lens.

This was my first attempt with the lens on an overcast evening.
Forth Bridge Holga

These next 2 were taken on a tripod just after the sun set.
Belhaven Bridge Holga 2

Belhaven Bridge Holga

This last shot was handheld in very bright sunlight. I’ve upped the vignette and used a light leak style overlay in the final image processing.

Holgafied Boats


The never ending quest for decent photographic filters

About a year ago I made my first serious move into using filters in my photography. At that point the furthest I had gone down that route was a few cheap screw in circular polarisers, ND8’s and UV filters, which were fine for what they were but the more I read about filters and seen what other people were doing with them the more I wanted to stick a toe in this whole new world of photography.

Cost was an issue, isn’t it always, so I lowered expectations and bypassed the pro systems like Lee or Cokin Z and stated to look at a P series system, the 85mm slot in filter range. This seemed perfect as the filters were reasonably priced and there was a huge range to choose from. After some initial research I discounted Cokin’s range of ND filters as they got a terrible feedback online with dozens of complaints of purple colour casts on shots taken with the Cokin ND’s.

Eventually I settled on Formatt Filters Hitech range which seemed to be a decent alternative and bought a set of 0.3. 0.6 and 0.9 ND filters and a set of 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 ND soft grad filters. Throw in a P series holder and a 77mm and 67mm adapter ring and I was no more than £75 out of pocket for a basic setup. I quickly also added a Kood 85mm slot in circular polariser to this line-up and for just under £100 I was ready to go.

The journey though, was a rough one. I learned a lot about filters and found that Hitech filters did indeed colour cast, especially with more than 2 stacked together. A 0.9 on its own was fine. A 0.9 soft grad on its own was fine. Stack the 2 and purple skies all round. At this point I nearly gave up, disheartened by the new purchases as they seemed to be a step back rather than the step forward I had hoped for.

In this situation, rather than throw in the towel it’s better to try and understand what is actually happening and how you can best avoid it. To this ends I started to see which conditions the filters worked best in and also figured out how to remove the worst of the cast in Photoshop so it was less of an issue. I soon stated using them all the time and was getting some reasonable results.

By this time I had added a cheap sunset grad, Kood red soft grad, Kood light tobacco soft grad and a Cokin 81A warm up filter to the collection and found that each of them worked best in certain situations. It took a lot of trial and error but once the understanding was there it made the frustration a lot less. Once you understand that in the middle of the day a red grad will give a shocking false image and used on a sunset it will work nicely you can really move on!

The next step was delving into long exposure photography. Initially I done this by stacking a screw in ND8, first then attaching the p series holder fitted with the Hitech 0.9 ND, 0.9 ND soft grad and 0.6 ND soft grad. Colour casting was horrific but I was able to get exposures up to long enough to streak clouds and flat out water, although the shots could only be used as mono conversions.

The solution to this was to invest in a proper 10 stop filter. Some research suggested that screw in types were best as they avoided light leak so I attempted to get a B+W ND110, which was the first time I came up against the difficulty in getting good filters. These were nowhere to be found, most places were quoting 6-12 week lead times which were no good to me, I wanted it now! Another quick Google and it seemed that the Heliopan ND3.0 was as good as the B+W and luckily, there was a stack of new 77mm versions on EBay at £95 a go. Cheaper than the B+W but even better, available now.

The Heliopan changed everything. Long exposures with no cast were now possible. Even stacking one 0.9 grad in some situations was possible but it still gave horrible casts from time to time. Not the Heliopan, it was perfect but the Hitech was no doubt the cause of the problem.

This got so frustrating I ended up buying the Lee filters foundation kit with intent to move to Lee filters, no matter what the cost. I got the holder at a decent price and it lay there unused as I had no 100mm filters for weeks on end. The problem this time was the lack of Lee filters anywhere. There are just none for sale, or at least for delivery this side of Christmas it seems. Some places are quoting 16 week + lead times for any Lee resin filters and as a result of this the 2nd hand market for them is nuts. 2nd hand Lee grads are going for silly money with this shortage and the “Big Stopper” even worse!

Eventually out of frustration I looked again at Hitech filters. Some recent blog comment seemed to suggest that the company had a new resin it was using and the results were near comparable with Lee filters for a fraction of the cost. This was based mainly around the Hitech equivalent to the Lee Big Stopper but there was also a new range of 100x150mm Hitech filters.

A quick search on eBay shows these filters going for around £40-£55 but in one of these rare moments where you get an actual bargain on eBay I found individual 0.6 and 0.9 soft grads for sale, made an offer and now own both for less than the cost of a single filter from some of the other sellers, both brand new and unmarked!

A quick test with these in conditions I would have normally expected to see colour cast produced no colour cast at all. Even a 30s exposure in tandem with the Heliopan 10 stopper produced no cast which is an encouraging start. Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll try these in a variety of ways and conditions and report back what the overall impression is.

If it’s good then an investment in a Hitech 0.9 reverse grad may well be in order and I’ll have to possibly consider the new version Hitech ND3.0 as well. The screw in Heliopan is a terrific filter but screw in and out in cumbersome if you need to recompose. A slot in option might well be handy but only if it performs as well.

I’m not discounting a switch to Lee in the future but for now while there is no availability there’s nothing to lose in trying the Hitechs, if nothing else it’s letting me use that nice new Lee filter holder at last!


Photography Location Guide – The Gormley at Ocean Terminal

Ocean Terminal is best known in Edinburgh as the last docking point of the Royal Yacht Brittania. If you’re so inclinded you can board the Queen’s cast off boat for a tour down here or if that’s not you’re thing, Ocean Terminal itself is a huge many floored shopping centre with plenty of shops, coffee houses, restaurants and even a cinema to keep most people entertained.

For photographers however, there is a much better prize on offer in this unlikely setting. To find it, continue past the front doors of Ocean Teminal and either park in the surface carpark at the far end at the Debenhams or if that’s full there’s the multi-storey right next to it. Just to the side of this is a path named Britannia Walk which runs right along the side of Leith Docks which in iself can be a nice photographic opportunity depending on what’s docked in here at the time.

Continue down the walk and you’ll see Britannia docked on your left, straight ahead though is what we’re here for! Leading out into the docks Western Harbour is a derelict wooden pier, which in it’s own right is an intersting enough subject but a couple of years back an Anthony Gormley statue (think Angel of the North) was installed at the end of the pier as part of the Gormley 6 exhibition which placed 6 statues of the artist at strategic points along the water of Leith with the last one being situated here.

This area can be a magnet for local photographers so don’t be too surprised if you’re not the only one here with a camera. The pier itself isn’t great for access as it’s in a very deep section of the docks and the only option of a shot of it is over the railings which isn’t a great hardship here. It’s ripe for long exposures but do watch out for light reflection up of the shiney railings which will be under your lens which can have an effect on images. You can shoot this pier in a variety of ways some of which are showen below.

While you’re here though, take a look over the harbour to the flats on the other side, these make a great shot in still conditions, especially at night. You might also be lucky enough to see some of the cruise boats that visit Edinburgh in here, not the bigger ships as they dock typically at Hound Point at South Queensferry but some sizeable liners and naval vessels make regular appearances in here too.

Again, it’s a nice shot for sunset in summer, late May to August typically being the best time to attempt this shot.

Sunset long exposure shot along the pier:
Gormley Sunset 26 April 2011

Long exposure to the left of the pier:
Old Pier Mono

Closer shot of the Gormley:
Gormley 6

Effect achieved by twisting the zoom on the camera during the exposure:
Twisted artwork

Newhaven Flats on a still day:
Western Harbour Reflections

Newhaven Flats on a still night:
Western Harbour Night Reflections


Photography Location Guide – Newhaven Harbour

Newhaven Harbour is one of these undiscovered gems that 9 out of 10 tourists will never find with they visit the city which is a pity as it’s one of the most attractive areas along the Edinburgh coastline. Situated just to the east of Leith Docks and west of the larger Granton Harbour this small harbour provides a wealth of photographic opportunities.

Getting to Newhaven is easy; simply head along the A901 which hugs the Edinburgh coastline, if the Firth of Forth is on your left coming from the west of the city or on your right coming from the east then keep going and you’ll eventually find it. There’s lots of free parking in the area, either in the free bays along Starbank Road to the South of the Harbour or if you turn hard left just part the harbour and follow the road around you can park on the cobbled area right next to it.

By far the most striking feature of this small harbour is its lighthouse. One of the best and most accessible local examples you’ll find in this area. You can walk right out to the base of the lighthouse and it’s hard to take a picture of Newhaven without if featuring in some way or another.

At low tide the harbour all but drains of all it’s water creating plenty of opportunity for long exposure shots of the boats as they beach on the harbour’s muddy bed. At low tide to the north of the lighthouse the large jaggy rocks of the sea defences are exposed and a bit of careful exploration can take you over the seaweed line right down to the rocks for some dramatic shots up to the lighthouse.

At high tide the harbour fills up quite a way and the water will come quite far up the cobbled slipway which is again a popular shot with local photographers. The boats themselves at the harbour are mainly leisure boats but there is a mix of working boats in there too although you don’t that often see many boats coming or going from here.

You can get pretty unrestricted access around the north, west and south edges of the harbour, only the eastern edge is restricted access. At low tide if you’re careful you can pick your way around the seaweed covered walkway at the bottom of the slipway right around to the lighthouse, be warned though, it’s exceptionally slippy!

Newhaven is one of the best locations in Edinburgh for a summer sunset; the sun comes down over the Firth of Forth giving ample opportunity to photograph the lighthouse or boats at sunset without any other objects in the way of the sun.

This is one of my favourite locations in Edinburgh and one that I visit often, especially during the summer months. Below are a few examples of shots you can expect to take away from Newhaven.

Long exposure of the lighthouse at sunset:
Easter Monday Sunset

The slipway at high tide:
Newhaven slipway

Looking along the exposed rocks at low tide:
Lighthouse Low Tide 2

Boats at low tide:
Newhaven Low Tide

Boats at high tide:
Newhaven Harbour 2


Photography Location Guide – Aberdour Old Pier

This is one of those locations that just begs to be given the long exposure treatment. The Scottish coastline is littered with these old piers if you know where to look for them and they make fantastic subjects as they age and deteriorate.

This particular pier gave me some amount of issues trying to find how to get access to it but once you’ve found it it’s really rather easy!

Arriving in Aberdour from the East drive though the village and you’ll go past the railway station which is on a large S bend. Around 100 yards on your right from there you’ll see signs pointing to Silver Sands down Hawkcraig Road. Follow the road down until you arrive at a large car park. Drive to the far end of the car park and park up to the left where you’ll see an opening in the trees. Walk though here and turn immediately to your left and follow the road. After a very short walk you’ll get to a little fork in the road, keep left and walk down the very steep hill towards the houses at the bottom. Continue along the little gravel lane and when you come out from between the houses that’s you at your destination!

The beach here is all medium sized loose rocks, a bit tricky to walk over to make sure you exercise some caution which approaching the pier. When I visited here, it was about an hour before high tide and it was a pretty good guess at a decent time catch the subject. You have good access all round and indeed even underneath the pier so you can get shots from a good range of angles.

While you’re here don’t forget the view you also get of the Edinburgh skyline where you can clearly make out landmarks such as Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, the Hub spire, St Giles bell tower and the Balmoral Clock. A range up to around 200mm will get you a reasonable shot of Edinburgh from here.

This location is also interesting for the views of the various little islands dotted around the Firth of Forth including Incholm and its Abbey and the “back end” of Cramond Island. Again, a longer lens will let you get something of them from here too.

This location is best for sunsets in the winter, in the summer the sun sets off up to your right over the harbour.

All in, a nice location with loads of potential if you find yourself over on the Fife coast!

To the right of the pier:
Aberdour Pier 2

Directly underneath:
Aberdour Pier

View towards Edinburgh:
Storm clouds over Edinburgh