Month: September 2013

The Lightweight Photographer Bulks up

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Typical stitched panoramic
Typical stitched panoramic

No I haven’t gone mad, but I do need a bigger camera – sometimes!

Some of you reading this will recall my decision a few months back to sell my Canon 5D MKII and switch to an Olympus OMD EM5. At the time I felt the EM5 would give me the quality I needed but provide me with a much lighter kit and greater shooting flexibility.

Well, the Olympus has met my expectation and more but it has a few limitations I can see now that I have been using it for a while:

  1. The hand grip isn’t large enough so after a while I find my right hand becoming tired because I need to grip the camera just a little too firmly. I suspect Olympus are also aware of this as they have addressed it in the new EM1.
  2. I find myself shooting a little too much material because the EM5 is so easy to use. Its size and weight make it ideal for hand-held work but that means I am not slowing down sufficiently. If I were shooting on on a tripod I would be slower and I suspect my work would appear more considered. As it is, I think I am producing more but lower quality work.
  3. You may be thinking have read point 2 above “why doesn’t he just put the camera on a tripod?” The answer is my third limitation – this isn’t a good tripod camera. It just feels too small when tripod mounted. It may just be psychological but I want my camera to feel natural when shooting both hand held and tripod mounted. The EM5 doesn’t do that for me.

My solution to the above points was to buy the two part optional grip for the EM5. This has made a tremendous difference to the feel of the camera. Initially I thought I would just use the first part of the grip which adds another release button and extends the body forwards. Having experimented further, I find that I prefer using both grips (the other part adding a battery pack and extending the camera downwards) when using a tripod. When I shoot handheld I like to remove the battery pack part of the grip.

Now, I have also been toying with a separate problem. I like to produce multi shot panoramic images which I later stitch together in software. I don’t however like the extra weight created by my panoramic head; it’s bulky, very heavy and slow to set up.

What a panoramic head does is to mount the camera so that it rotates around the nodal point of the lens, making stitching much easier because there is no parallax error. Providing however that you don’t use a very wide angle lens (or include the foreground), you can get away with mounting the lens over the centre of the tripod and dispense with the panoramic head.

Unfortunately, the above scenario limits the height and/or quality of the final panoramic as you can only shoot with the camera in a horizontal orientation. Try to flip the camera through 90 degrees using the tripod head and it no-longer rotates around the lens. This proves quite a problem for most stitching software.

My new solution to this problem is to mount the camera on an L-shaped bracket that allows me to set the camera on the tripod in either a horizontal or vertical orientation. In either configuration the centre of the lens is directly over the tripod and it makes switching between the two a snap. The bracket I have chosen is from Novoflex and is very light. You can see it in the following shot.

Camera, grips and Novoflex L-Bracket
Camera, grips and Novoflex L-Bracket
And now mounted vertically in the same L Bracket
And now mounted vertically in the same L Bracket

The nice thing about this set up is that it feels substantial for tripod work yet its very light to carry. Better still, I can easily separate the two grips by using the locking wheel on the back of the camera. This leaves the hand grip in place on the camera (ideal) and provides an easy way to reattaching the camera to the bracket when I want to work on a tripod.

Battery pack and front grip separated.
Battery pack and front grip separated.

At the moment I love this set up and the flexibility it gives me. I will however report back in the future once I used it for some serious landscape work.

Learning to Love your Location

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View above Delph in Saddleworth
View above Delph in Saddleworth, England. Click to view larger version. Captured with a Panasonic Lumix LX5

One of the things that I love about compact cameras (aside from the great quality you can now achieve with some of the “Pro” models) is that they are easy to carry. They are light and fit easily into your pocket or bag. This makes them the ideal photographer’s tool to have ready to hand at almost any time. It also means you can take a good quality camera with you, just in case when you are out and about. This is one reason why I first invested (a few years back) in the new breed of compacts and bought an LX5.

At the time I had heard good reports about the LX3 and LX5 but had decided not to invest as I was concerned about image quality. Once I saw some images and processed some RAW files for myself, I was convinced. This was also the ideal camera for me to take out when I was walking locally.

I am sure many of you reading this also have or would like compact cameras that allow you to capture images when you are out and about near to home. If that is the case, let me ask you, how often do you actually do/would you do this and what do you do with the images after?

The reason I ask this is because I don’t think that I take my camera along often enough. If I am out for a walk locally, I often don’t feel the landscape (I am after all a landscape photographer) is worthy of taking photographs. This is odd as I know people who travel to where I live to take picture and I have even seen magazine articles. Strangely I just can’t see it and can’t enthuse over the landscape. I think I have become blinded by familiarity and often find myself travelling for an hour or two to areas that I feel offer more potential.

Last night however I was working through my huge back catalogue of images that are yet to be processed, looking to delete some when I came across the image here. I have never really paid any attention to the images I have snapped locally but I found last night that I actually quite like this one. It’s not earth shattering but it gives a pleasant view of one of the villages where I live.

The village you see in the picture is of Delph in Saddleworth and I am on top of the hill above Dobcross. You probably haven’t heard of either of these but both have been used as Film and TV locations. Dobcross was used in the film Yanks amongst others whilst Delph appeared (briefly) in the Film Brassed Off. They must have been chosen for a reason.

What I think I need to do is to open my eyes to the beauty of the location where I live and not go out with a pre-conception of the type of image I want to capture.

Keeping it Real

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Real colours or not?
Real colours or not?

Over recent years I have noticed an increasing trend towards what I would call Unbelievable Realism in photography. To my mind, this is most noticeable (and objectionable) in the area of Nature and Landscape Photography.

If you are wondering what I am talking about, it’s the amazing colours and saturations that seem to dominate, increasingly dramatic images. I have a friend who calls this fast food photography and I have to agree. I look at a series of these photographs and find myself skipping through, quicker and quicker, trying to get to the next one to see if it is even more dramatic. At the end, I feel exhausted but strangely never fulfilled. There is seldom more to these images than the immediate hit of colour.

It’s easy to see why this is happening. In the days before digital, you had to work the magic in camera. It was a skill you developed along with your eye for a good image. Now, you still work the magic in camera but it’s only part of the story. For example, if you shoot RAW you can’t stop with the in camera image or it looks dreadful (especially if you use techniques like exposing to the right). At the same time, software for manipulating the images has become increasingly advanced, capable and in some cases easy to use. Magazines and website are also flooded with such images so those new to photography see this as what they need to aspire to rather than developing their own vision.

As a user and enthusiastic advocate of plug-ins, I have to admit that these may be causing part of the problem. These tools make it very easy for people with little experience (who also may not have developed their personal vision/eye yet) to produce dramatic effects. I too have found myself guilty of creating images that have too much impact at times and stray into the area of unbelievable realism. It’s very easy to push those sliders just a little too far and not realize you are doing it until it’s too late.

What I would like to propose is an alternative approach to Landscape and Nature photography where we try to keep it real. In the picture above you can see an image that I have tried to process a number of times.  The difficulty I have experienced is that the image, no matter how I process it, has never appeared real to me. Often the grass comes out too green, the sky too blue or the sunset too orange and saturated. The subtlety of colour and the balance between the colours just isn’t right. What unfortunately I am missing is a good reference point to work from. So far the above example is the best I have been able to produce but I think it’s a work in progress.

To end, I would like to pose two questions to anyone reading this:

  1. Which approach do you prefer when looking at other peoples work, the drama of “Unbelievable Realism” or the subtlety of “keeping it real”?
  2. Which approach do you try to adopt for your own work?

New Image Factsheet for Download

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Want to know more about how this image was produced, then download the free Image Factsheet
Want to know more about how this image was produced, then download the free Image Factsheet

I’m sure some of the regular readers will recognise the image above as I have posted it in the past. My reason for posting it again here is to let you know that the image processing fact sheet to accompany this is now available for free download from the Lenscraft website.

Download Image Factsheet Now

The factsheet explains a little about how the image was captured and then describes the post processing techniques I used to produce the final version above. If you want to see the starting image, it’s also in the factsheet.

I hope you enjoy.

Big Print from a Little Camera

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Print mounted in my front room
Print hung in my front room. I won’t tell you about the fun I had trying to hang this. The house is 200 years old and the walls are somewhat uneven and the plaster prone to crumbling when drilled.

Here’s something that I have wanted to do for a long time, produce a large print from a Micro 43 camera. When I say large, this one is 62″ x 25″. As you can see from the picture here, the print is just a few inches short of the length of the Sofa (which is a 3 seater).

The image was shot in Death Valley and is actually 4 images stitched (with a 50% overlap). The images were shot using a Panasonic GX1 which was tripod mounted and the stitching was done in Hugin. In case you are not aware of Hugin, it’s a freeware stitching application (that’s the simplest way to describe it) which I absolutely love. Here is the resulting image which I have previously shared on this blog.

One of the images I found time to prepare for my recent presentation. 4 images shot on a GX1 and stitched in Hugin.
One of the images I found time to prepare for my recent presentation. 4 images shot on a GX1 and stitched in Hugin.

And in case you are interested, here is a section from the bottom right which is shown at 100%. This section has been taken after the image was resized to create the print above. This is approximately a 200% increase in the print size and was achieved using Akvis Magnifier.

Image section at 100% magnification following a 200% size increase in Akvis Magnifier.
Image section at 100% magnification following a 200% size increase in Akvis Magnifier.

I had the image produced by White Wall and I am very impressed with the quality and service. It’s actually a Lambda print on Fuji Crystal Archive DPII. The print has then been bonded onto Aluminium Matt Acrylic glass and the whole thing has been framed. I have to say, I am impressed and can certainly recommend White Wall from my experience.

There are however a few things to watch out for when producing a print of this size as its quite an investment:

  1. Ensure that you download the colour profile for the paper/print process you are going to use. You should then soft proof your image and check for out of gamut colours. When I did this I found that some of my orange highlights were out of gamut and if I hadn’t corrected this the image would have appeared flat.
  2. Sharpen your image at the final size before you upload it. The White Wall ordering workflow allows you to upload your JPG or TIFF image. It’s then possible to select a larger image and have the system scale this for you. I preferred to scale my image first so that I could sharpen this for the final output.
  3. If you follow my approach and scale your image before upload, I suggest printing a number of sections from the finished image (at 100% resolution). This enables you to judge the quality of the finished image before committing to the transaction.
  4. Now that I have the print I have checked the sample print I made and can directly compare the sharpness and detail. The White Wall print is very good and compares favourably with the image sections I printed on an Epson 3880. The Epson is however slightly sharper. If I were repeating the exercise I would add a little more sharpening. At the time I used Nik Sharpener Pro which allows you to set variables such as viewing distance and resolution. I used a viewing distance of up to 2 feet and a resolution of 2880 x 1440. Looking at the results I should probably have set the viewing distance to “6 to 10 feet” or perhaps even used the Continuous Tone option at 300dpi. It might even be an idea to contact White Wall and ask for a little more information on the Lambda printer as well as recommended Output Sharpening levels.

The only regret that I have is that I picked the Matt Acrylic Glass. One of the things that prompted me to do this was a visit to the gallery of Rodney Lough Jnr. when I was in San Francisco. The images in the gallery appeared to use a similar process (although it was suggested they did this in house and it was unique – I doubt that).

My reason for choosing matt acrylic was to avoid reflections but it doesn’t really. I really wish I had gone for the gloss and tried to counter the reflection with some good lighting – something I still need to invest in for this print.

I suspect I will try another print but this time on gloss and not quite so large.

The Lightweight Portfolio

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At one time this was the style of image that I wanted to be known for.
At one time this was the style of image that I wanted to be known for.

If you read this blog regularly, you will no doubt already know, that I try to base my entire approach to photography around being lightweight. This includes lightweight equipment, simplified workflows and even simple editing tools. Einstein had it spot on when he said that you should make everything as simple as possible, but no more. E=MC2 is pretty simple as equations go, but boy is it powerful.

Now I’m not going to try to compete with Einstein, but we need something just as simple, elegant and as powerful a concept in photography. I think that something is the Portfolio.

Looking back, professional photographers always developed a portfolio and use this as a tool to gain work. This is still something that is stressed in photography schools, but somehow it seems to have been lost in the wider photographic community. How many of you reading this have a portfolio of work that defines and illustrates what you as a photographer do? I’m not talking about a random collection of images that you post on the internet, no I mean a well thought through and constructed portfolio.

Many photographers have websites and many more still use photo sharing sites to upload their work. Look on Flickr and you see millions of people sharing many millions of images. Somehow the lines between sharing good work and creating a portfolio have become blurred and we have lost sight of what a great tool this is for developing ourselves.

These days I'm happier producing simple, softer images.
These days I’m happier producing simple, softer images.

So, here is the exercise if you chose to accept the challenge:

  1. Select a theme or type of photography for which you would like to become recognised, for example seascapes.
  2. Look back in your images and select the 10 images that you would like to use to represent this theme, and show your expertise in this area.
  3. If you have more than 10 images you need to refine the selection so that you are satisfied these 10 represent the very best work you can possibly produce in this area.
  4. If you have less than 10 images you need to get out with your camera and shoot some more.
  5. When selecting your body of work, remember this must illustrate the style and approach to photography that you would like to be known for.
  6. The work must also fit together as a body, so that each image compliments the others, but no single image stands out.

Now for the crunch question – are you satisfied this body really illustrates you and you capabilities? If you became famous because of this portfolio, is it what you want to go down in history for?

Remember, 10 images that reflect your style, skill and vision. If you take less than 2 months to put this together then you cheated.

Lightweight Approach to Architecture

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Nantes Cathedral
Nantes Cathedral

It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to do architectural photography that you needed to be looking at cameras or lenses that would provide tilt and shift facilities. How the world has changed. Yes, correcting convergence and shift problems is better within the camera but it’s also very costly, especially when compared to the capabilities of Photoshop.

It’s now possible to shoot with your average camera and lens before correcting the problems in post production. It also becomes very easy to apply different levels of adjustment and experiment more. If you don’t get it right first time, just open up the image and apply some more adjustment using Photoshop’s Transform feature.

The image above was shot on the Olympus OMD using a 14-45mm Panasonic lens at 14mm focal length. The adjustments were applied using the Transform – Distort adjustment in Photoshop CS5. No visible softening of the image took place, even when viewed at 100% magnification on screen. The subsequent “artistic look” to add a vignette and soften the area outside the doorway was added using OnOne Perfect Photo Suite 7. The conversion to Black and White was made using Nik Silver Efex Pro. Most importantly, the amazing doorway is Nantes Cathedral in France.