Performing the ritual of “The Selfie”

For as long as I can remember I have shot pictures of my wife and I on holiday with a compact camera at arm’s length. I have examples in the family album dating back to 1984 and, whilst I’m not claiming to have invented “The Selfie”, it really isn’t anything new in our house. We started doing those pictures just because there was never anyone else around to take the picture for us and so it was very much a second best picture. Slowly and over the many holidays that we have enjoyed together it became something of a tradition to do at least one of those arm’s length couple pictures but we always liked to get a passer-by to do the picture if we could. It is a phenomenon that I am fascinated by and I often shoot pictures of people as they perform the Ritual of the Selfie.

Olympic and Commonwealth Gold medallist Laura Trott posing with riders on The Mall in a break between media interviews during the Freecycle event - part of Prudential RideLondon. 9th August 2014.

Olympic and Commonwealth Gold medallist Laura Trott posing with riders on The Mall in a break between media interviews during the Prudential RideLondon Freecycle event. ©Neil Turner, 9th August 2014.

I was prompted to compose this blog post because I suddenly realised why it works so well. One of the media team working with Prudential RideLondon had offered to take the picture and the three young women dutifully posed but their faces didn’t come alive until they rescued the phone and performed the ritual of the selfie. There seems to be a confidence and a joy in taking your own picture of yourself and your friends or, in this case, you, your friend and an Olympic and Commonwealth champion. Is it because these days that can see themselves in the screen and only shoot when they are happy with what they see? I believe that there’s an element of that in it but the sense of self-reliance is just as important as far as I can see. There is a joy in The Selfie that is missing from a perfectly well taken group photo. Time after time we all saw people enjoying taking self portraits during the event and that’s the case almost everywhere almost every day.

Where I depart from the celebration of The Selfie is where media outlets and PR companies encourage people to do it and post them as part of marketing campaigns. For me the innocence and joy of the ritual gets lost when it is prompted like that. Where I also have an worries about it is when people do it dozens or even hundreds of times a day. I had a link request on EyeEm the other day from a guy who have over 6,000 images on his account and, from what I could see, they were all of himself.

I don’t object to The Selfie at all. In fact I indulge in the ritual myself from time to time. All I’d ask is that marketing people without another great idea stop trying to make something from them that isn’t really there. Photography is about a lot of things and fun is right up there as one of the most important.

The one "selfie" that I do like of mine - under water at the beach in Bournemouth in the summer of 2013. ©Neil Turner.

The one “selfie” that I do like of mine – under water at the beach in Bournemouth in the summer of 2013. ©Neil Turner.

Working other people’s files

From time to time I work with teams of photographers as an editor. It’s part of the ‘rich portfolio’ of roles that I have these days. 80% or more of my work is still shooting pictures and that’s great but for the other 20% of my working life I enjoy doing some other photo-related stuff. I’ve written before about teaching and running workshops and one of the workshops that I do is about sharpening up your workflow. For me the best way to help others improve their workflow is to sit down with them and go through how they work and then refine what they already do rather than to throw everything out and start again.

Editing other people’s work is a whole other matter. Imagine being in a deadline driven environment where you have several photographers all shooting RAW and where you have to occasionally grab their memory cards and do some of their edits for them. On one recent job I handled CR2 files from Canon EOS1DX, EOS5D MkIII and EOS5D MkII cameras as well as NEF files from Nikon D4S, D4, D3S, D3, D800 and D610 cameras over a two week period. Some of the cameras were left on factory settings and others had been set up by their owners to the point where none of the settings were left unchanged. RAW files obviously allow you to return the completely unchanged state but I am a believer in the idea that you trust the photographer to have made changes on purpose and to respect those changes wherever possible as you come to edit their files.

The old, old Nikon Vs Canon debate morphs into a NEF Vs CR2 debate. As a long-time Canon user myself I thought that I’d find the CR2 files far easier to work with and I was ready to spend far more time getting NEFs right. The biggest shock was that it was entirely the other way around. Files from the latest Nikon cameras can be easy to work with. Really easy. I realised after only a few hours that, as long as the in-camera settings weren’t eccentric, NEFs from the D4, D4S and the D800 were not only easy to work with (requiring relatively few adjustments) but that the quality was uniformly high. In contrast the imported CR2 files from all of the Canons looked a lot less impressive as they landed in Photo Mechanic and then in Adobe Camera RAW. On average, it took more clicks of the mouse (maybe 50% more) to get the CR2s looking as good as they should.

Needless to say, this was quite a revelation. It isn’t as if I hadn’t worked with other people’s files before but this was the first time that I had seen the results of so many different people’s work from so many different cameras in such a compressed space in time. The pictures were all coming from top class photographers and the end results were largely indistinguishable from one another but the route to get there was certainly different. There are way too many variables to draw any definitive conclusions from this but I can say the following;

  • Any reservations that I might have once had about the NEF file format are long gone
  • The results achievable from both NEF and CR2 full-frame cameras are on a par with one another
  • The idea that the colours rendered by Nikons and Canons are inherently different has a small toehold in fact
  • The RAW files from all of these cameras are incredibly versatile and you can get the desired results from either
  • Given the choice I’d go with the NEF from a well set up D4S as the file from other people I’d prefer to work with

Since that event where I worked all of these files side-by-side I have also had a long play with NEFs from a D810 and a D800E. They both require careful handling because of the absence of a low-pass filter over the chip. This gives greater apparent sharpness and a degree of “pop” that is hard to describe but on the flip side it is much easier to mis-handle the files and introduce noise and chromatic problems when using a RAW converter or Photoshop itself. To get around this you find yourself constantly switching between degrees of magnification on the screen to check the effects of any changes to contract, highlight, shadow, saturation or sharpening that you apply. I found this to have a significant slowing effect on my workflow but I also loved the quality of the images produced. The D810 is a camera that I’d happily add to my list of those producing desirable files to work with.

So, NEF Vs CR2? Out of the blocks the NEF files that I’ve worked with over the last few months streak into an early lead but the CR2s catch up along the back straight and they are neck and neck at the line. For now…

Shadows

© Neil Turner, July 2014. Shadows on the south bank of the River Thames in London.

© Neil Turner, July 2014. Shadows on the south bank of the River Thames in London.

On my way to a meeting today walking along the south bank of the River Thames I was taken by the quality of the light as it formed shadows through the trees. A pair of office workers out for a stroll stopped and had a chat and we passed a very pleasant few minutes talking about light and London. The conversation was interrupted a few times as people strolled through my composition and I grabbed a frame or two. This was my favourite of maybe a dozen very similar frames.

Another picture shot on my Fujifilm X20 and added to the blog just because I liked it…

Image rescue software

sandsk_rescue_proI just thought that I’d post a very quick note about the free one year licenses that I got with two new Sandisk compact flash cards that I bought today. As someone who relies on their cards for a living it’s great practice to replace and update your cards so every few months I buy a couple of new ones.

Since I went freelance and got to start making my own purchasing decisions almost six years ago I’ve been buying ever larger and ever faster Sandisks. I don’t always buy the fastest or biggest but they tend to be faster and/or bigger than the last batch. Anyway, you get the idea.

This time it was a couple of 16 gigabyte 120 mbps CF cards that work nicely with the Canon EOS5D MkIII cameras each of which came with a one year license for the Rescue Pro Deluxe software. I was prompted to get a couple of new cards because my last one year license for the software expired a week or so ago. It struck me that this is quite a good way for Sandisk to keep me loyal and for me to keep up to date with the software. Every twelve months I need to buy at least one new card and by doing so I keep the software running. By buying two new cards, I now have two computers with valid licenses!

Everyone is a winner.

The joke here is that I haven’t ever had a Sandisk card go wrong on me. I have rescued a card belonging to a colleague (Transcend Card) and I have had some fun ‘rescuing’ a few very old and very small retired cards of my own.  Earlier today an ancient Lexar 512 Mb card threw up some images shot on a Canon EOS1D in 2003 and some more shot on a 1D MkII in 2005. A 2GB Sandisk card went through the process a few minutes later and that had some personal stuff from 2008 along with a couple of jobs from the same year. If I can find the right card reader in the loft, I also have a PCMCIA card dating from 1998!

This could become addictive…

Stage two of the RAW argument

Ten years ago the “should I shoot RAW” debate was raging between all kinds of photographers. Slowly but surely the vast majority of us have moved over to the RAW camp having realised that you not only get better quality but can also save time if your workflow is good enough. OK, so you only get 300 images on an 8 gigabyte memory card but memory is cheap these days and all of the other advantages of shooting Jpegs (unless you are offloading files straight from the camera) have disappeared one by one.

So that’s stage one of the RAW argument out of the way.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.39.41

So far, stage two has appeared to be a whole series of “my RAW converter is better than your RAW converter” arguments played out endlessly across social media. Proponents of one system produce videos that “prove” their point of view on YouTube and then those links are posted on Facebook, Twitter and who knows where else until someone else comes along and “proves” the exact opposite. Some of them even try to sell you expensive and largely pointless plug-ins and actions that promise to take your photos and turn them into masterpieces in a single click of a mouse. Is it all valid comment or is it just hot air? I’m leaning heavily towards the latter.

Buying, learning and mastering every single quality converter would be expensive and mind-numbingly dull. Few of us use any software to anywhere near its limitations and some of the claims for various applications go largely un-challenged.

A few years ago people started to talk excitedly about Capture One as being a gold-standard amongst RAW converters. It would have been around version four that I persuaded my then employer to send me on a one-day course to learn the basics of the workflow. It was good. It was actually very good and I bought it (well, my employer bought it for me). Fast forward to version six and I wrote glowingly about it on this blog saying that I really liked it despite a few flaws. Well of course that was comparing it to Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop as it was then. Both applications have upgraded since then as have Aperture, Canon DPP, Nikon Capture, DxO and a range of others. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages that skilled users of each piece of software can and will point out to anyone who will listen. Those skilled users can also get the very best out of a file using their chosen converter. Capture One Pro 7 is wonderful but so is Adobe Camera RAW 8.5 and so are lots of others.

And here is the first major conclusion – as long as you have the RAW file, you can endlessly go back and rework those files with every new and supposedly better application you try or buy. For the record, I don’t believe that there is anything other than a tiny difference between the best of them when it comes to image quality if the person doing the work has the skills and experience to get the most out of the files or the software. The old “this application is better at recovering highlights” comment that you hear so often is not only subjective but largely a thing of the past. As new versions come out and as new cameras present us with new variants of the RAW formats then differences do become apparent. A quick upgrade to your chosen application and those problems go away again.

Here is the second major conclusion and the principle piece of wisdom that I want to impart: It’s all about the interface. How you interact with the application has a greater influence on what you get out at the end than anything else. Application A does a great job but so do Applications B and C. If you are comfortable with B then choose B and don’t stress about the relative merits of A or C until such times as B can no longer deliver the quality from your files that you and your market demand. Changing workflow and moving to a new RAW converter is painful, time-consuming and throughly depressing (unless you are a geek like me). My heart goes out to the Aperture users who are facing having to do just that at some time in the near future now that Apple have announced that they are stopping development.

As software gets better, the files we process through that software gets better and our wok flows become more embedded someone, somewhere will do some “testing” and pronounce that they have the perfect workflow and Groundhog Day will be upon us for the zillionth time.

I sometimes end up working with other photographers files and the difference between types of files is astounding. Canon 5D MkII files next to Canon 5D MkIII files require different handling but the difference between those and something like a Nikon D4S file is astonishing. Not better, not worse but different. Different to the point that you have to tweak your technique. Using the exact same software, workflow computer and set-up the two types of file react very differently to the same treatment. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my third and final major conclusion from stage two of the RAW debate – Not all RAW files are created equally so don’t assume that you can work the same way with them.

Bring on stage three please.

Electrical safety for UK photographers

Most of us use some sort of mains powered gear and most of us fly with our equipment from time to time. The law regarding what you have to do to comply with the rules around safety of the gear can make pretty good bedtime reading – if you need to go to sleep quickly. Portable Appliance Testing or PAT for short is the stuff of myth and legend and here are a few key points that photographers should be aware of gleaned from the UK Health & Safety Executive’s many handouts on the subject.

Portable Appliance Testing (PAT)

Portable appliance testing (PAT) is the term used to describe the examination of electrical appliances and equipment to ensure they are safe to use. Most electrical safety defects can be found by visual examination but some types of defect can only be found by testing. However, it is essential to understand that visual examination is an essential part of the process because some types of electrical safety defect can’t be detected by testing alone.cutouts

A relatively brief user check (based upon simple training and perhaps assisted by the use of a brief checklist) can be a very useful part of any electrical maintenance regime. However, more formal visual inspection and testing by a competent person may also be required at appropriate intervals, depending upon the type of equipment and the environment in which it is used.

Electricity at Work Regulations 1989

These require that any electrical equipment that has the potential to cause injury is maintained in a safe condition. However, the Regulations do not specify what needs to be done, by whom or how frequently (ie they don’t make inspection or testing of electrical appliances a legal requirement, nor do they make it a legal requirement to undertake this annually).

The frequency of inspection and testing depends upon the type of equipment and the environment it is used in. For example, a power tool used on a construction site should be examined more frequently than a lamp in a hotel bedroom.

So what does this actually mean for photographic equipment? Cameras are not covered by PAT but the batteries and chargers are. Batteries used in 99% of cases are contained and sealed and therefore should only require a visual inspection. Damaged terminals or cracked casings can mean that equipment is not safe and the item should either be disposed of or inspected by an approved repair centre.

Please remember that all batteries now have to be disposed of under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS) directives aim to reduce he quantity of waste from electrical and electronic and increase its re-use, recovery and recycling. The RoHS directive aims to limit the environmental impact of electrical and electronic equipment when it reached the end of its life. It does this by minimising the hazardous substances of legislation controlling hazardous substances in electrical equipment across the community.

PAT covers all cables and all electronic equipment rated at over 40Watts – which means pretty much everything that we use. The cables, leads and plugs connected to class 1 equipment (everything we use apart from lighting) should be checked visually for damage, breaks and past repairs on a regular basis and should be checked properly on a cycle of between 6 months and 4 years depending on exactly what it is. In practice that means every six months for cables and every year for power adapters, extension leads and battery chargers. Heavy duty batteries and mains powered lights should be professionally tested at least every two years and more regularly if they are subject to heavy use.

Travelling with batteries

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) in association with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the United Nations (UN) set clearly defined rules regarding the air transportation of Li-Ion batteries.

From January 1st 2012, the 53rd Edition of the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations requires the independent testing of each type of Li-Ion battery, not just the individual cells, to ensure that the design and construction are compliant with the stringent United Nations regulations. This is a costly process for the manufacturer, but it should assure you, the customer, that the battery design is safe and of the highest possible professional standard. You should check with the manufacturer  of each type of cell whether they comply with the regulations before you travel by air or on certain rail journeys which feature long tunnels.

  • Check-in of Li-Ion batteries is not allowed unless the battery is attached to the camera or the equipment it powers
  • An individual may take on-board, in hand luggage, an unlimited number of Li-Ion batteries that have capacities of 100Wh or less.
  • Li-Ion batteries that have capacities greater than 100Wh, but less than 160Wh, are restricted to 2 items per person, in hand luggage.
  • Li-Ion batteries that have capacities greater than 160Wh cannot be taken as hand luggage or checked-in under any circumstances.
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