Back in winter 2013, I visited Bamburgh in Northumberland with a friend. We had both been to the area quite a few times and we had high hopes for our trip. As we made our way down to the beach for what we were sure would be an amazing sunrise, our expectations were sky high. As it turned out, there was some faint colour in the otherwise stormy sky and we found ourselves battered by the wind and rain.
The following day was equally disappointing but for different reasons. We went down to the beach again and readied ourselves for the sunrise. It was already raining hard and the wind was making it very difficult to shoot, even with a sturdy tripod. We sat in the car wondering what to do, waiting for the last moment when, if the sun broke through we would run down and catch the scene.
What happened next was amazing. The sun did break through and lasted only a few minutes, but the sunrise was like nothing I have never seen before. It was as if a weeks’ worth of amazing sunrises were compressed into a few minutes. If I described the scene as nuclear it would not be an understatement. But I’m not going to show the shots from that sunrise. They simply look unreal. The best word I can use to describe the images now is vulgar. Even the unprocessed RAW files look fake.
What I am sharing though is one of the many “failed” images from the first morning. I happened across this image looking for examples to use in my Nik Silver Efex book (I decided the original needs an update).
But here’s the interesting things. There were dozens of great images from that first morning and I had been blind to them. I suspect the disappointment of the trip lingered long in my memory
when it failed to meet expectations. It’s only now when I come to work on the image, having separated myself from the shooting, that I can really see the beauty of the morning.
This last weekend was an interesting one as I was back in Northumberland photographing. I didn’t sleep much the night before which is often the case when making an early morning start, however this time it wasn’t the early start causing this; it was the howling wind. All night long the wind continued and well into the next day.
In the morning we sat in the car just before daybreak watching the huge wave’s role in, creating huge plumes of spray from the top of each wave. It was at this point that I realised my lightweight tripod just wasn’t going to support my Canon 5D with filters; at least not without showing signs of vibration. In the end I decided I had to use my old Manfrotto 055 tripod which is much heavier and was in the car as a backup.
Most of the results from the dawn shoot using the Manfrotto were vibration free and very crisp. Later in the day I switched back to my lightweight Velbon tripod which although still windy, t performed very well given I had a large DSLR mounted on it.
The following morning was pretty much a repeat of the day before except the winds were even stronger. So strong in fact that I struggled to use the Manfrotto tripod with the 5D and ended up trying to shield the camera whilst holding down the tripod. I did manage a few wide angle shots with the smallest of my lenses but I wanted to use a long lens and in the strong wind I couldn’t.
My solution was to switch the 5D for a Panasonic GX1 with 45-200mm lens. This gave the equivalent of a 90-400mm lens on the 5D. Interestingly the smaller profile and weight of the camera allowed it to sit solidly on the Manfrotto tripod. So, although the Lightweight Velbon tripod suffered in the strong winds, so did the 5D and best of all, the lightweight GX1 solved the problem.
My recent Light weight photography has been a little unusual in that it has required me to use a tripod. Ordinarily I can get away without a tripod as I can shoot with a wider aperture because of the GX1’s greater depth of field. In fact I recently mentioned that I had trouble slowing the GX1’s shutter speed to blur water motion and ended up buying a 4 stop Neutral Density filter.
Now I’m sure if you have been involved in photography for more than a few months you will have purchased a tripod. I will also push my luck and suggest that the tripod falls into one of two broad categories:
The all in one tripod which is very lightweight, has a head attached that can’t be removed and tends to be cheap. These are the typical first tripods people tend to buy often because they can’t see the value in a more expensive make. They also tend to break easily but before they break they are incredibly frustrating to use. I will refer to these as amateur tripods purely to distinguish them from my description of the next category.
The professional class of tripod will be quite different from the above. It will comprise a separate head and legs for which there are a number of different designs and manufacturers. The head will tend to have a quick release plate for fast attachment or removal of cameras. These tripods are far more sturdy and reliable as well as being easy to use. A good one will last years and will probably set you back quite a bit of money.
Any serious photographer will I’m sure gravitate towards the second professional class of tripod. The only problem is that these seem to be larger tripods that are HEAVY. Sure you can get carbon fibre tripods if you have deep pockets and by the time you have attached a head they are still HEAVY. Worst of all, if you want to travel with your tripod most are too large to fit in your case as well as being too HEAVY.
About a year back I came across a solution to the problems of size and weight that surprised me. The tripod legs were made by Velbon (it’s a Rexi L) and the head is made by Manfrotto (it’s a 3 way pan Magnesium alloy). Paired together these weigh less than most carbon fibre legs. More astonishing still is that the tripod legs are about 30cm when collapsed yet extend to be a full sized tripod – this is also my ideal travel tripod. And did I forget to tell you about the very reasonable price for this kit. I paid less for the legs and head on Amazon than I did for my full sized Manfrotto legs (which aren’t even carbon fibre).
What really surprised me however is that Velbon was the manufacturer. You see they tend to make a lot of tripod that fall in the amateur class but the Rexi L is completely different. This clever size trick is achieved by having multiple section legs which often makes tripods unstable. No so the Rexi L which is very steady and supports my 5D no problem. My friend who also has one of these uses it with his Medium Format kit.
Recently I had cause to use my Manfrotto 055 side by side with the Velbon Rexi and I was shocked to find the Velbon was steadier, easier to use and I preferred it. In the end I left the Manfrotto in the car and just used the Velbon. So if your current tripod is too large or just too heavy take a look at the Velbon Rexi L. The links to Amazon are shown below. Velbon Ultra Rexi L Travel Tripod
I had an interesting weekend, making a photography trip to Whitby with a friend. Initially we went to shoot the coastal scenery but by 11:30 the sun had become so harsh in the clear blue sky that all attempts at Landscape Photography were thwarted. At this point we sat down, had a coffee and decided to switch our attention to nearby woodland where we knew there was a waterfall.
On arrival we could see the main fall some 80 feet below our path and down an inaccessible cliff. We knew that the falls must be accessible though as we had seen some pictures of it shot from the river. Walking along the path we found a trail that lead down to the river and then a further footpath leading back along the river to the falls. Neither of these paths was easy to walk as the one down to the river was extremely steep and muddy and it took all our efforts to stay upright. The path along the river was even worse, being very deep with mud that came over the top of your boots. Hopping between branches of fallen trees, rocks and tufts of grass was all we could do.
As we made our wall to the falls we came across a large tree that had fallen across the river, blocking it and a steady stream of water was cascading over it. This is the image you see above and it was shot on a Canon 5D MKII. The reason I tell you all this is that despite having my faithful and very light GX1 kit with me I insisted on taking the 5D. I also took a full set of Lee filters, a very large tripod and a large bag filled with all sorts of accessories that I didn’t need.
The result is a nice image but also a hard fall against some rocks as the weight of my bag caused me to slip, overbalance and graze my right hand quite badly. I feel confident I would have avoided this and still have achieved the shot had I left everything behind except for my lightweight kit. I need to listen to my own advice.
It sounds absurd doesn’t it that a little pocket camera costing a few hundred pound could outperform a DSLR costing almost 10 times as much? But that’s exactly what happened to me recently.
I happened to be driving through Somerset with the best part of the day free so I decided to take a detour and visit Wells Cathedral to take some photographs. I had seen some very impressive images of the inside and knew that the Cathedral encourage photography (providing you pay a few pounds for a permit). The only limitation I had to contend with was the low light levels and how to shoot without a tripod.
I decided I could use my 5D with a high ISO setting because of its low noise levels but I would take the LX5 along in my pocket as a sort of backup. With shooting underway, I found I was taking most of my images at either ISO800 or ISO1600 with my lens set to its widest aperture and the image stabiliser turned on. At these settings I was still only achieving a shutter speed of between 1/15” and 1/30”.
As I progressed with my shooting I started checking the LCD at 100% to see if the images were sharp. Unfortunately many of them weren’t, exhibiting quite a bit of noise from the high ISO and some camera shake. I decided to experiment a little with the LX5 and quickly found my favourite low light setting of ISO200 to ISO400 and f/2.8 was giving a shutter speed of between 1/5” and 1/15”. The resulting images did however appear sharp on the camera LCD.
Back at home when reviewing the results I found only about 1 in 5 of the 5D images were acceptably sharp whilst only 1 in 5 (or less) of the LX5 images exhibited camera shake and noise levels on all were acceptable. The problems I seemed to be encountering with the 5D were:
Camera shake was evident even though the image stabilizer was on. It seemed much easier to hold the LX5 steady whilst taking the photograph.
Because I could shoot with the LX5 lens almost wide open (f/2.8) I was able to maintain a lower ISO setting which resulted in quite good noise control.
The lens on the LX5 is f/1.8 and performs very well at this level. Stop it down just slightly to f/2.2 and the performance is excellent. With the Canon lenses (even though they were L series) I need to stop down at least 1 stop to gain good performance.
The Canon 5D is a full frame sensor so when used with wide apertures I was achieving very limited depth of field, certainly not enough for the compositions I wanted to shoot. Contrast this with the LX5 which has a small sensor so even at f/2.8 I got great depth of field.
So what of the pixel count difference?
Well the LX5 is 10Mpixel and the 5D 21Mpixel. This means I can realistically print the LX5 ISO400 images at A3+ after a bit of resizing. The 5D produces an image of this size without resizing but what use is that if the images are blurred through camera shake, lack sharpness because of noise or simply don’t have enough depth of field?
Finally I should point out that the LX5 was a joy to use in this environment where as the 5D was heavy, tricky and restricted my photography.
So now you know how it’s possible for the tiny LX5 to outperform the much higher spec and more expensive 5D. The message is know your equipment, where its strengths lie and what its weaknesses are. Shoot in the right way and you can achieve some spectacular results with equipment others don’t take seriously.