Finding Your Vision

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This is my vision.
This is my vision.

“Finding Your Vision” is the title of one of the presentations I give from time to time around Camera Clubs and Photographic Societies. This particular presentation is however about 5 years old and with an upcoming presentation in June I need to bring it up to date. The core message of the presentation is however unchanged and states “your performance as a photographer is based on three aspects of photography that are inter-related”.

The three aspects that I am referring to are:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Vision
  3. Skills

Your weakest area will be the one that limits your performance. Unfortunately as photographers we tend to focus (no pun intended) on the third one; skills.

Now let me take a moment to define Inspiration and Vision as these are often confused so I need to make my definitions nice and clear.

Inspiration is the motivation you have to pick up a camera and take a picture. What is it that inspires you to do this? Why do you take pictures? Is it a feeling or is it that you are trying to achieve something? And keep in mind that not all subjects inspire everyone to the same level. I am very motivated by capturing wide open outdoor spaces. Still life photography, action photography and quite a few others don’t inspire me so my performance will always be second rate with these subjects.

This is actually the reason for the image above which I will be incorporating into my new presentation. This is typically a scene that inspires me to reach for my camera.

Vision is effectively how you imagine the scene when you come to photograph it and this will cause you to answer questions such as how should I frame the subject, what mood do I want to convey etc. Other aspects of vision include imagining how you want the finished image to look once it has been processed without worrying how to process it. Vision is linked to inspiration as if you are not inspired by a subject you won’t spend the time to develop your vision of the scene.

Returning to the image above, here is the starting image. Hardly exciting but to me it was. I know it was because I took around 100 images trying to catch the right moment. You see I had a vision of the finished image.

Starting image
Starting image

When I decided to take this image I did so because I was inspired by the location. I then had to decide how I wanted to capture and represent it i.e. develop my vision. When I came to actually process it I refined my vision further.

Examine the image and I hope you will see that I like reflections, clouds and other aspects of the outdoors. I also hope you can see that my vision is about trying to simplify the elements of the scene. I like order, balance and symmetry which is why I have placed the horizon in the centre of the frame and tried to emphasise the reflections of the clouds. I have also tried to compose the clouds so that they are balanced on the left and right of the frame with the water movement emphasised in the centre. The colours in the scene were too intense so I switched to black and white which also helped me emphasise the elements in the frame. I could have pushed this emphasis further but this again is not my vision. I like the processing to appear more believable even though they are quite a departure from reality.

The final element of my trio is skill. If you don’t have the skills to capture and post process your then you will struggle to realise it. We have all had times where we have an idea for an image but it never looks quite how we want it to. This is because we don’t have the skills yet to achieve our vision or perhaps we didn’t slow down sufficiently to employ our skills fully.

Next time you are wondering how to improve your photography come back to these three points:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Vision
  3. Skills

Find your weakness and develop it.

Seeing in the Shadows

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GX1 Infrared image using 14-45mm lens and converted with PhotoNinja and Silver Efex Pro.
GX1 Infrared image using 14-45mm lens and converted with PhotoNinja and Silver Efex Pro.

My infrared converted GX1 continues to draw me in and has become somewhat addictive. I often see comments from people saying getting an old camera converted is making good use of it. If you have an old camera and are considering getting it converted I would however suggest thinking twice. Not because it’s addictive and will move you away from standard photography, but because I don’t think old cameras are really that usable when converted. I have three reasons for this:

  1. Shooting infrared becomes much easier when you are able to see the IR results in live view, something that a lot of older cameras don’t have. Trying to compose an image through a viewfinder often leaves too much to luck as you attempt to maximize the IR effect. Live view is a real bonus in this respect and I would consider it almost essential for IR work.
  2. The sensor quality of the older cameras is not really great for IR. Most of the data in an IR image is captured in the red channel with the other channels being interpolated from this by the camera and RAW converter. This means your image quality can be much lower than expected so using an old low resolution sensor can lead to disappointing results.
  3. Simply using an old camera can be frustrating. It’s quite amazing how much the technology has moved on in the past 5 years and how much you will miss some of the features you now consider standard.

The purpose of this post however is to share the image above of Whitby Abby and mention a strange effect I have noticed. When shooting Infrared I find I can often use the camera handheld when a traditional camera would struggle with low light levels as was the case with the image above. The other thing I have noticed is that there is less contrast in shadows and this allows the Infrared camera to reveal more detail. Certainly in the image above a standard GX1 would have shown dark shadows and bright highlights. With the image above I actually needed to boost the contrast as the shadows were too light.

I don’t know if this information will be useful to anyone but I thought it worthwhile sharing in case.

Free Lightroom Printing Article

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Natural colours like these need special attention when printing. I have found Lightroom to be a particularly good solution.
Natural colours such as these found in the Artist Palette in Death Valley need special attention when printing. I have found Lightroom to be a particularly good solution. Click the image to see a larger version.

Last week was a big week for me. After 5 years of painfully slow service I decided to replace my PC. The PC in question is an old quad core HP with 1TB storage across 2 hard drives running Vista 64bit and 4GB of memory. It was state of the art 5 years ago but is now painfully slow. To give you some idea it takes 40 minutes to start up. My new PC starts in under 30 seconds running Windows 8. I also want to say that I now hate Microsoft with a vengeance for what they have done to the Windows operating system and the amount of time I am now wasting trying to find my way around.

Anyway, the point of this blog post is that it took me most of last week to migrate my computer data and install all my software to the new system. In all this activity I forgot to post that I had just added a new comprehensive article to the Members area of my Lenscraft website covering Printing in Lightroom. So if you are a Lightroom user you can download it for free by following this link – you do need to be signed in as a member but joining is also free.

Alternatively you can wait for it to be published on ePHOTOzine some time in the next few weeks.

Lightweight Panoramic Photography

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Death Valley panoramic created from 4 Panasonic GX1 images stiched together in Hugin.
Death Valley panoramic created from 4 Panasonic GX1 images stiched together in Hugin.

I am and always have been a fan of panoramic photography. I’m not sure why but the format (usually somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 ratio) really appeals to me and makes sense as the way I see the world. Unfortunately, to create good panoramic images you need additional equipment beyond just the digital camera and this tends to go against my lightweight ethos.

Typically to make a good panoramic I need a tripod, panoramic head and stitching software. Unless you are prepared to spend tens of thousands of pounds (or dollars) on a digital panoramic camera, panoramic images need to be shot as a sequence of overlapping images which are then stitched together in specialist software.

I should at this point mention that I am a real stickler for quality so if any aspect of my images is lacking (in my mind) I will not be satisfied with the finished panoramic. This means that I don’t like to handhold my camera when shooting image sequences and always try to mount my camera on a tripod. I would also like to use a panoramic head to avoid problems of parallax error where objects in the various images don’t align correctly, as the stitching software will either distort the images to make them align or leave “ghosting” traces of objects. I do have a panoramic head for my tripod but it’s so heavy and bulky that I seldom take it with me.

This combination of problems means that I need to rely on stitching software to do a good job of aligning and merging images. Until now I had been using either Photoshop or Panorama Factory to complete my stitching. Photoshop seems to do a reasonable job but feels a little clunky and doesn’t give me the fine tuning/image optimisation that I want. It also has a habit of distorting images when I don’t want it to and not aligning all the objects along a stitching seam correctly. It’s usually close but not quite good enough.

As I have never really felt completely satisfied I tried out and invested in Panorama factory. This does a nice job of aligning the elements of the image as well as offering lots of power, but really does need a panoramic head to work properly. It often leaves some areas which are not quite sharp e.g. where fine details such as grass didn’t align exactly between images. My solution to date has been to output the panoramic image as a layered Photoshop file. This allowed me to fine tune the blending to remove blurred areas by adjusting the masks in the layered file. This is time consuming and quite complex even when you know exactly what you are doing with Photoshop masks.

If I am totally honest with myself I shouldn’t have invested in Panorama Factory if I wasn’t prepared to use a panoramic head but I was swayed by the cost. You see, when I did my testing a few years back PTGui was really the best option given how I wanted to shoot but I was put off by the cost. PTGui is only a graphical front end for Panorama Tools (which is a freeware package) and I just wasn’t prepared to pay a hefty license fee for something built around the genius of another’s work. This was the wrong decision and I think I should have purchased PTGui.

As I have now decided to make panoramic work a major feature of my photography I have recently downloaded the trial version of PTGui and PTGui Pro once more. I have to admit that I am very happy with the ease of using the software which can be highly automated saving me time and effort. This sits well with my lightweight philosophy. The only problem; I am still reluctant to pay the license cost as I would need the Pro license.

That’s when I came across Hugin which is also a graphical front end for PTGui. It feels remarkably similar to PTGui in terms of operation and it appears to be just as capable with very similar features to the Pro version of PTGui. The image above was created from 4 images captured on a Panasonic GX1 which was tripod mounted. I tried the stitching in Photoshop and Panorama Tools but I could see problems. PTGui did a great job but so did Hugin with an almost identical result even down to how it determined the stitching – not surprising given they both have the same stitching engine.

Now you might be thinking that I am about to repeat my past mistake of not paying for the best tool because of the cost. I don’t however know at this stage which is the best tool. And, Hugin is freeware so there is no cost other than in my time to learn and experiment with the package. I might still decide to invest in PTGui but so far Hugin is doing a great job and meeting all my requirements. If you are interested in shooting and stitching panoramic I think this is a great package that’s well worth investigating and it’s free.

Printing, Always an Interesting Exercise

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Not taken with Lightweight gear but this is the colour image I was using to test my prints. It's quite challenging to print and shows up poor colours quite well.
Not taken with Lightweight gear but this is the colour image I was using to test my prints. It’s quite challenging to print and shows up poor colours quite well.

As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, I recently sold my printer, a Canon Pixma 9500MKII. The main driver for this was that I wanted to make larger prints, typically A2 or 17” wide panoramic. I also wanted larger ink cartridges because I do quite a lot of printing and I thought this might help reduce the overall cost. Well, my new printer arrived at the weekend, an Epson Pro3880 which is A2 and will print 17” panoramic up to 37” or wider if you use a third party RIP rather than the Epson print driver. Sounds great and it is, but there have been a few surprises.

First was a nice surprise in how small the printer was. It’s not much wider than the Canon (but it’s a little taller) and fits neatly at the side of my desk. I am also surprised about how little ink has been used in the 30 plus test prints I have made; this barely registers on the ink monitor. I had read reviews and comments by others about just how much ink is in these high capacity ink cartridges but I hadn’t really appreciated it until now. I’m sure however I will be crying when it comes to the cost of replacing just a single cartridge.

Now for a surprise I wasn’t prepared for; the Canon Pixma 9500MKII made nicer black and white prints (I didn’t check colour but suspect it was more vibrant). Before the Canon was sold, I made quite a few test prints on different papers (using high quality fine art and fibre based papers) in an attempt to pick a paper to standardise on. After this I started to use a Permajet paper called Fine Art Pearl 290. It wasn’t quite as good as Ilford Gold Fibre but the differences were so minor that most people wouldn’t spot them but it was excellent for both mono and colour work. As I still had a number of test packs available as well as paper I had purchased I decided to repeat the exercise and the results were very surprising:

As already mentioned, none of the papers could compete with the prints made on the Canon. This was despite producing custom profiles. Held side by side with the Canon the Epson prints looked a little flat where the Canon produced prints with a greater feel of depth.

All the papers tested with the Epson produced broadly similar results when printing in black and white. The main difference was the base colour of the paper. Some were warm tone whilst others were neutral and others still were bright white. The Ilford Gold was however better than the rest and was only marginally beaten by the Ilford Gold Mono.

Printing in colour revealed quite a variation between papers. The Ilford Gold again produced the best results with the other papers looking rather lifeless and flat. Only the Gold had a real depth to it.

This exercise was also repeated by another friend who has the same printer and his results are very similar. In a “blind” review of each other’s results (so we couldn’t be swayed by knowing the paper manufacturer), we came up with identical conclusions. We had to conclude that with the Epson the Ilford Gold was the best paper. This is a real shame because it’s a very expensive paper and the cost will tend to curtail the amount of printing I do.

The story doesn’t end there however because I decided to try out some Fotospeed PF Gloss 270. This is a standard gloss photographic inkjet paper that is around quarter of the price of the Ilford Gold and I didn’t expect it to be very good. Whilst I am not a fan of the Gloss surface I had to admit the results were almost as good as the Ilford Gold for Mono and marginally better for colour prints. This is quite a shock but makes printing much more affordable. I am now keen to try out the Satin or Lustre finishes to see if they are preferable to the gloss surface. If they are I think I will be buying this for my regular printing and saving the Fine Art Papers (Ilford Gold) for any print sales.

The downside to using standard photo papers for printing. They don’t feel as nice as the fine art papers to touch – not an issue when they are framed. They also don’t have quite as nice a surface finish – again this is hard to see if the work is framed and is probably my personal preference.

I hope this helps anyone out there struggling with cost and the difficult decision of which paper to print with.

My San Francisco Trip

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The Golden Gate Bridge captured on a Sony RX100 compact camera. Post processing in Lightroom and Viveza. This has a very tenuous link to the blog post.
The Golden Gate Bridge captured on a Sony RX100 compact camera. Post processing in Lightroom and Viveza. This has a very tenuous link to the blog post.

As some of my recent blog posts mentioned, I have recently returned from a trip to America. Part of this trip was a week in San Francisco, hence the image at the top of this post. The purpose of this post however is not to tell you all about my trip but to share a book I found whilst over in the US.

The book in question is Desert Realty by Ed Freeman. It’s quite a large book in terms of dimension but doesn’t have all that many pages. The book is a collection of fine art photographic images of property (most in need of some loving attention) but more on that shortly.

I found the book in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where it was discounted from $25 to $10. For some reason (my wife rushing me away) I didn’t purchase the book. This haunted me for a few days until I was at the airport where there was a shop for MoMA and they also had the book for $10. This time I didn’t purchase the book as I didn’t have space in my hand luggage but instead looked it up on Amazon and purchased it on my phone. Anyway, the book arrived yesterday.

There are a few things I like about this book.

Firstly there is the excellent imagery so if you are interested to see this I suggest you look up Ed Freeman’s website where you can fine images from the Desert Realty exhibition/book. Well worth it.

Secondly Ed makes some very good distinctions between Photography and Art Photography. There aren’t many words in the book but they are well worth reading.

Thirdly and most importantly is the explanation of the images and how they were created, which is at the end of the book. Interestingly, if you start by looking at the images you seem to accept them as being very unusual images and to some extend real. You do however recognise that the colours must be faked but generally you think these places perhaps do exist in the desert. When you then move on to look at the back of the book and see the starting images you suddenly see the images in the book at highly manipulated and it jolts you back to reality.

The other aspect of seeing the starting images and reading the accompanying text is that it makes you realise how ordinary the starting images are. They appear almost like a collection of snapshots but it’s clear Ed is simply collecting material for the production of the finished image which he has in his mind’s eye. Don’t however expect detailed description and step by step instruction; this isn’t a how to book. It has however made me think twice about my own work and how I create my images.

Now there certainly isn’t a link between this work and Lightweight photography (I just wanted to share some thoughts with you) so I will point out that compact and Micro 43 cameras are probably the ideal tool to collect the starting material given their size and speed of working.

There, I feel justified now in making this blog post.

Day Out with an Olympus

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Shot at ISO 800 on the Olympus OMD, handheld with a 45mm lens. The RAW image file displays low noise, excellent sharpness and lovely colours.
Shot at ISO 800 on the Olympus OMD, handheld with a 45mm lens. The RAW image file displays low noise, excellent sharpness and lovely colours. I didn’t take any brilliant shots but it was a great day out.

I won’t bore you with the details but all of my free time (including that I use for blogging) has vanished, at least for the short term. I am actually putting this blog together whilst trying to eat some lunch. Yesterday however I was fortunate to have a day out on a photography course designed to allow you to try out a camera – the Olympus OMD.

This Olympus Experience Day was put together by Olympus with pro landscape photographer Steve Gosling. I like Steve’s work a lot and having been on his “Business of Photography” course some years back so very interested in attending this day. The course was held at the RHS gardens in Harrogate and whilst not my usual subject matter I found a few things to shoot and try out the camera. What I thought was good (other than the exceptional value of the day) was that I had an OMD to myself for the entire day.

At the start of the day there was a short session to help delegates understand how to use the camera followed by a questions wrap up at the end. In between Steve spent time with each person individually to answer any questions they may have. I think this is a great way to allow people to try before you buy and I wish more manufacturers would follow the model (other than Hasselblad and Phase One as I can’t afford their hardware). It was also a great day with an experienced pro photographer and opportunity to draw on his experience and thinking.

Now you know I was impressed by the day, what about the camera.

I really like this camera, but to be honest I didn’t expect to at the start of the day. I had read some horror stories about the poor menu system which is something I have experienced before with my NEX5. I actually found the OMD’s menus quite logical and was able to set up the camera relatively quickly. It was certainly much better in my opinion than the NEX5 (when first launched).

I tried the camera with the 12-50 Olympus lens, my 14-45 Panasonic lens and my 45mm Olympus lens. It handled extremely well with all and felt very solid in the hands. I wasn’t however that impressed with the 12-50 lens other than a very nice macro function it offered.

To me, the most important aspect of a camera is how it handles and the image quality produced. I have to say, this is an exceptionally well made camera which feels very durable. The image quality is also very impressive for a Micro 43. Much of the day I was shooting at ISO400 or ISO800, something I would avoid with my GX1. The image above was captured inside a potting shed at ISO800 and my 45mm lens hand held. It’s very sharp with no camera shake and is very clean in terms of noise. In fact I can’t believe how clean the images from this camera are. I will have no issues submitting ISO800 images to stock libraries and believe me; I am very picky about this.

So will I buy one of these cameras? I would certainly like to. The only thing stopping me is that I have just sold my Canon 9500 printer with a view to upgrading to A2, so that’s my current priority. I may therefore need to stick with my trusty GX1’s for a while longer.