Monday, 29 November 2010

The great ISO con?

I'd have thought that the main reason for wanting a camera that takes clear shots at high ISO values would be to use it in low light. Well, it is for me.

So why is it that the camera review sites post pictures taken at high ISO values in good light? And the low light shots are taken at low ISO values and slow shutter speeds? If you're going to stick a camera on a tripod it defeats the point of being able to up the ISO to maintain a fast shutterspeed and hand-hold or freeze action.

I know my D90s can produce detailed shots at ISO 2000 when the light is good, but when light levels drop then the colours fade, noise creeps in and the detail goes.

This bull was at ISO 2000 and is detailed enough. But it was shot in good light.

Yet this low light shot of mallards on ice was taken at ISO 560 and took some work to make presentable at this size. At 100% the 'detail' is grainy. Same lens for both photos, albeit at different focal lengths.

Some 'real world' low light/high ISO sample pics would be beneficial to accompany the reviews to give a clearer picture (ooh, bad pun!) of how the high ISOs perform in dim light, methinks.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Light and space

Sitting at my PC the other day I was struck by a shadow cast on the wall by light reflected from my pond. Two shots were framed, one deleted. The one I saved seems to have captured the quality of the light well. The wallpaper needs a lick of paint though...

Out in the cold wintry sun this afternoon I took a road little travelled. A bleak and deserted area of my locality. Not the best of photos but I like the diagonal and the negative space of the sky to the right. An area to visit again.

At the other end of this winding and rutted lane I saw a pale bird drop to the ground. Stopping the car I saw a barn owl lift back into the air and continue hunting. Not having a fast 500 on me (cough) I made the best I could of the 70-300, one stop of under-exposure and a correction and crop on the PC. Far from the best owl pic in the world, but a reminder of watching it hunt successfully.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Out with the plastic

Having had time to use my latest lens acquisition a fair bit now my fears are confirmed. I want more 'fast glass'.

For someone who habitually hand-holds and tries to shoot at fast shutter speeds to eliminate camera-shake fast lenses give the advantage of keeping the ISO low. They also make for nicely softened backgrounds which give an added perception of sharpness to subjects. Mind you that 17-55 is pretty sharp wide open. In my book at any rate.

Using both the 17-55 and the 70-300 (a sluggish f4.5-5.6) pointed up the difference today as dusk approached and I was shooting under tree cover. Looks like I'm going shopping...

17-55 - 1/160s, f2.8, ISO560

70-300 - 1/100s, f5.3, ISO1600

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A bloke with a camera

As per a previous post I have been distracted when out looking for wildlife.

On returning home and idly surfing it struck me that there are probably hundreds of 'wildlife photographers' out there since digital made it so much easier. All 'togging' away at birds and stuff. But how many of them take photos of anything else? How many want to or would know how? Do they have blinkers on when out with their cameras and long lenses? Do they own any shorter lenses? I'm sure that some must, but it strikes me that this upsurge in 'wildlife photography' is no more than making a digital 'tick'. The way some rush to photograph rarities and get their record shots make me think this is just another brach of twitching.

Maybe I'm being a bit snobby but photography for me is about making images, not illustrations which is what most wildlife photography (even the best) seems to be about. I was thinking about this just last night while leafing through the free booklet of pictures from the Wildlife Photographer of The Year competition. Only two or three from the selection stood out to me as being strong images that were more than illustrations or record shots. Photos that worked as images in their own right. Sure they are all fine examples of wildlife photography, but not of photography.

I then got to wondering if I could recall any photographs, or paintings, that were really memorable, strong images with visual impact that were about animals or birds. I couldn't think of many. Some famous paintings have animals in them (The Arnolfini Wedding has a terrier), Franics Bacon made a painting of a dog that sticks in my mind, and if you count carcasses then Rembrandt painted a fine ox. Likewise in photography there are well known images that feature animals, but aren't about animals although Kertesz's Landing Pigeon could be said to be about the feral bird, I suppose.

It's a fact that most wildlife photographs (especially those taken by amateurs) aren't about their subjects, but merely of them. The ones that are most interesting, which you can return to again and again (the trade mark of any successful image) contain more than just the animal posing against a plain or uncluttered background - which is how all the 'how to take good wildlife photograph' articles tell you to do it. The interesting, the satisfying, shots show behaviour, or interaction, or place the creature in it's habitat. The more you look at them the more they reveal - and I don't mean fine fur or feather detail. They are images about the subject, and if really successful they are about more than that.

I don't think this shot of starlings fulfils those criteria, but it has an abstract element of pattern to it, it's about perspective (all the birds are the same size but don't appear so in the image), it has a resonance with images of WWII bombing raids, and it's sort of about starlings flocking to roost. I hope it's a photograph first, and a wildlife photograph second. It's certainly not a pin-sharp starling on a twig with an out of focus background...

Monday, 22 November 2010

The loss of context

While I was deleting shot after substandard shot from a morning's photography I got to thinking about my old contact sheets from the days of film. When I look at them I can see how the images that were selected to print were arrived at. How one shot is subtly different to another similar shot. How some almost work. I can also see images that never stood a chance, but were tried nonetheless. Contact sheets are akin to sketch books, where things are tried out and used for future reference. They illustrate directly what was in an artists mind. That's why art historians, and students, study them. It's why artists keep them in the first place.

Any avid reader on photography will have come across contact sheets that contain iconic images. Images that are often viewed alone with no context at all but the caption or it's place in the photographer's oeuvre. Even when those images were made for documentary purposes as part of a set of shots.

Take, for example, Diane Arbus's famous photo of the boy with the toy hand-grenade. On face value it is one among many of her photos of 'freaks'. A young boy with spindly legs, grimacing,  tense arms by his sides and his braces in disarray. Clearly a deranged individual. Yet a look at the contact sheet reveals a different story. There we see a happy, well turned out, child enjoying a day in the park, happily posing for the camera like any well-balanced youngster would. Placed in the context of the contact sheet the iconic image takes on a new meaning. The image is the odd one out, not the boy.

Henri Cartier-Bresson made many many  incisive points about photography. "My contact sheets may be compared to the way you drive a nail in a plank. First you give several light taps to build up a rhythm and align the nail with the wood. Then, much more quickly, and with as few strokes as possible, you hit the nail forcefully on the head and drive it in." (

Leaving aside the long term future storage and retrieval of images, digital workflow and the 'need' to maximise file storage space has probably already robbed photo-historians of the light taps. Only the final hammer blows will remain.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

It's about the light

Since I stumbled upon this narrated slide-show the title of this post has been going round and round in my head whenever I put a camera to my eye. It's made an impact on me and got me thinking about the light far more than I used to.

Of course, photography is all about light. It's how the image is formed, but it is also what makes many images more compelling than others. You don't always need 'good' light to make strong images if the subject matter and/or formal elements suffice, but images that are predominantly about light do have a strong visual impact.

Close-ups of animals' eyes are a bit of a cliché, I've taken one of a horse in the field behind my house before. It's quite a nice image, but the one I took (of the same horse) yesterday evening is more striking. With the sun setting after a dull afternoon I wandered round the garden looking for a subject. The horse came to the fence, I saw the way the rosy sunlight caught it's head and did my best. If I'd nailed the focus on the eye on another shot it would have been a killer, but this one will have to do. ISO 6400, slight crop, noise reduction with Neat Image, light selective sharpening.

(Click the pic to see it better on a darker background)

The image is about light, but it's about shape too, and colour (which is light dependent), and focus, and horses, and... Like all photographs it's about whatever the viewer reads into it. But if it hadn't been for the light I might not have taken the shot.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

I am not a wildlife photographer

Okay, so I'm doing the wildlife photographer pose in the above self-portrait, but even when I'm out trying to find wildlife photos I keep seeing other subjects and getting side-tracked.

This morning I set out hoping to catch the incoming tide driving waders within range. I think I got my location a bit out and there wasn't much happening. It was also hazy, making shots of flocks of small birds hard work. It was still good to be out in the cold of a November morning watching what was going on. There was certainly a variety out on the tideline - oystercatcher, sanderling, redshank, curlew and more, plus a bonus group of eider that I only identified when reviewing my batch of rubbish photos on the PC.

Pick of the bad bunch was a big crop of a little egret in flight - a first.

All was not wasted, however, as my eye was caught by a garden chair. After struggling to get the horizon level I framed one right, then did a B+W conversion by decomposing the RGB channels and mixing them to get the tones I wanted. It's easier to desaturate the image, but splitting the channels gives more control - it's a bit like using filters when shooting B+W film.

I'm definitely not a wildlife photographer, just a bloke with a camera.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A slippery slope

It all started when I bought my macro lens. I'd been well pleased with the cheap Sigma 70-300 for my dragonfly photography and for bird and landscape shots too. The images were sharp and clear. However the focusing was slow and the lens a bit clunky so I lashed out on the Sigma 150mm/f2.8. The very first time I tried it out there was a noticeable difference in the contrast of the images. A case of getting what you pay for. Build quality was improved too.

My next lens purchase was a Nikon 70-300 as the agricultural nature of the Sigma was getting me down. This time the images weren't as markedly improved, but the lens handled much better and was much more nicely built. Another case of buy cheap buy twice - or three times in the case of the cheap Siggy!

Then I made my big mistake. Walking into a camera shop to purchase a UV filter for the new 70-300 I looked in the secondhand cabinet and spotted a 17-55mm/f2.8 Nikkor. Unwisely, having a camera with me, I asked to try it. Apart from it being big and heavy compared to the 18-200 I had bought with the camera it was faster to focus and felt far more robust. Chimping a few pics snapped outside the shop it looked pretty good, but you can never really tell on the LCD screen. I handed the lens back and went home where I popped the pics up on the PC. Oh dear. They looked rather good at f2.8. After lunch I returned and handed over my debit card. Now I wish all my lenses were fast and equally well made.

Forsaking the geese for a while, having just an hour or so spare at dusk I've been trying to shoot starlings coming in to roost. I guess I was hoping for some shots of them in swirling misty clouds, but I've not seen that happening to the degree you see on the wildlife programmes. However I have got some ideas for capturing rather different images to the now clichéd ones. As roosting time is fairly predictable and short-lived I should be able to sneak out whenever there is suitable light. Fast lenses would help keep the ISO lower. Which is just the excuse I need to splash some cash!

My first attempts were against a nice sunset but the 150-500 was too long to get the masses of birds in the frame, and I wasn't in the best position.

 Early arrivals

Second time out I got better views but the 70-300 was still too long but the 10-24 I had on the second body was too short and I had to crop. The first wave of birds settled in the same reedbed I was using for cover. That's how close they came. They don't half make a racket before they get their heads down!

 The flocks merge

I swapped for the 150 macro (f2.8)  and grabbed a blurry, but atmospheric, shot of a small flock joining the roost.

Coming in to land

Third time lucky? They give rain for tomorrow.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Using what you've got

I had to catch the last post today but I slipped a camera in the car just in case. Not least because there promised to be a sunset again. Not having time to get organised for another swan shoot I took the body with the 17-55 on it intending to try some landscapes/skyscapes in the little time I would have available.

By the time I was out on the mere the sunset was well underway. A few attempts were made, but there was no point of interest in them despite trying some shots of the huge round bales, with and without various degrees of fill flash. So I gave up when the sun had finally sunk below the horizon.

A few pink-foots had flown over while I was there and I made a stab at them. There's something there to work with using this lens.

 As I headed back down the lane I realised there were more geese in the stubble than I'd thought, and  quite close to the car - for pink-foots! I slowed down, stopped and watched. A jogger came towards me and the geese got restless. All of a sudden the majority of them burst skywards as only geese can do in a honking flurry of wings. Two shots were taken in the gloom and this letterbox crop was the best and works better at a large enough size to see the geese on the ground in slightly more detail.

Again it gives me ideas to use this lens again. If I can get in the right position with geese in the right location and the right light I might be able to work something out.

The lesson here is that you can work with what you've got in terms of lenses to make images. In fact I think, and may have mentioned it before, that restricting yourself to one lens for a while can help you see in a different way. Even better if it's a non-zoom. The same goes for trying a long lens for landscape or, as in this case, a very short one for wildlife. Have a look at Eric Weight's site for more on this sort of thinking.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Trial and error

The level of ignorance exhibited by some enthusiats in most hobbies manifests itself on the internet. On a photography forum some goon asked where the skill was in taking lots of shots in the hope one will work well. Henri Cartier-Bresson, no mug with a Leica, reckoned he took one good photo a year if he was lucky. I bet he didn't take just the one. In fact when you read up on him and see the shots he took before and after one of his iconic images you'll see some pretty ordinary stuff. Photography is, and always has been, about making selections. from selecting what to shoot to the final crop. Selecting one frame from many is one of the steps along the way.

If you don't take lots of shots, trying lots of different approaches to the various elements - framing, point of view, exposure and so forth - you will keep on taking the same old photos time and again. Tom Hogan extols the benefits of 'playing' on his site today. A telling phrase being to "Examine the results and see if there isn't something potentially useful in what you just discovered." Making selections again.

Making rubbish images, or images that nearly work, is all part of the creative process. Painters do it all the time. If they aren't making preparatory sketches they are scraping paint off canvas and starting again. No image emerges fully formed and perfect without a few mishaps along the way. Omlettes and eggs spring to mind.

And so it is that I'm trying to pull off a couple of images that satisfy me about the winter migrants that have moved in locally. I don't want the pin sharp close up, I want to give some feeling of place and time of year setting the birds in context and, if I'm lucky, creating an atmosphere. So far all I have managed are what I think of as photographic sketches. I don't have particular images in mind that I am trying to capture, but I know what elements will be involved.

The two species are pink-footed geese and whooper swans. With the geese I want to put across the huge flocks that fill the skies, the watchfulness of the birds on the ground, the openness of the landscape and the chill of the air. For the swans I have a more specific image in mind, a group flying to roost against a setting wintry sun.

These are two of my better sketches so far.

Having too many distant birds in the sky adds clutter and they become cyphers. Too few and they don't put across the sheer number of birds. Getting flocks in the frame with no birds chopped in two is a major problem!

When dealing with smaller groups of birds in flight you still have problems with composition. Each one needs space around it. Each one must be in an pose expressing motion. And you don't want stray birds of other species in the shot either, unless they add something to the overall image. The sky has to make a complimentary background too. When making images with paint you can move elements around to suit. When working with a camera you have to wait for things to move into place of their own accord. Sure is tricky - and frustrating!

Luckily the swans are flying to roost at an easily accessible spot a few minutes from home at the moment, so an hour at dusk when the sky might be suitable is an easy option. If I take enough shots one might turn out well enough eventually.