Scavenging starlings

©Neil Turner, October 2014.

©Neil Turner, October 2014. Hengistbury Head, Dorset.

Anybody who knows me or my work would put wildlife and nature photography somewhere near the bottom of my interests. We were out as a family at the weekend having a drink and a snack at a cafe when a table of people enjoying an all-day breakfast behind us got up and left without clearing their plates. A mass of starlings descended and grabbed anything edible off of the plates. All I had to do was turn around and grab a few frames!

Canon EOS6D with Canon EF 50mm f1.4 lens.

Empathy

empathy

As photographers we have a vision. We know how we want our photographs to look and we know what kind of response we are trying to encourage from our viewers and from our clients. When we don’t get the reaction that we were looking for or we don’t get any reaction at all then we have either got it wrong or we have a vision so unique that nobody else gets it.

One of the qualities shared by pretty much all of my favourite photographers is the ability to empathise. The best of the best can do it on just about every level too. They understand the feelings and motivations of those that they are photographing every bit as well as they understand those of the target audience. It doesn’t matter if that’s the doting parents of a newborn baby in a studio in the northern hemisphere or the parents of a critically ill child in the southern hemisphere – having the ability to imagine yourself into the position of those whose lives will be effected by your photography is a key skill. I find it hard to think of a genre of photography where empathy wouldn’t be right up there with an understanding of composition or light as a piece of the jigsaw that comes together to make us ‘photographers’.

Somebody reading this is gesticulating at their screen and shouting about being single-minded and determined and not letting emotion get in the way of doing a good job and they have a valid point. Having empathy doesn’t always mean that you have to act on it. There will always be situations where you have to put your ability to understand everyone else’s needs and desires to one side and shoot the pictures that you need to shoot in the way that you need to shoot them but the great photographers – even the single-mired great photographers – have empathy.

If your are finding it hard to agree with this idea then I’d ask you to look at some pictures and try to work out whose feelings, needs and desires the photographer concerned might have been taking into account and/or ignoring when they shot them. I would hazard a guess that the pictures that have the most impact will be those where empathy is a factor and those that are just eye-candy are those where empathy isn’t a big part of the formula.

If you haven’t seen Pixelrights – check it out…

pixelrigts_ss
When friends of yours start up a new business it is natural to wish it well and then forget all about it until you see those friends again. That’s kind of what happened with me and Pixelrights. Shaun Curry, one of the founders is an old mate and when he rang me out of the blue a while ago to explain his new business venture I was happy for him and offered my support as I would with pretty much any of my friends.

A few months later Shaun got back to me and asked to ‘borrow’ a couple of pictures for their development website. Always happy to help I sent him a couple of JPEGs and signed up for email, Facebook and Twitter feeds to remain abreast of their progress. Once more, nothing much happened and then Pixelrights offered to develop the new website for The BPPA and suddenly there I was having an in depth explanation of their ideas complete with a demonstration of what their idea could offer.

Passive supporter becomes active advocate over the course of one afternoon. I love the idea and I really love the fact that these are people doing what they are doing for money AND for the love of what they might achieve. So what is Pixelrights? Here’s a cut and paste from their own concept page:

Working in photography and the visual arts ourselves, we wanted to create something that we would not only use, but also enjoy using. We saw the need for simple, functional yet sophisticated portfolios which would serve photographer’s interests and needs, in an honest manner with no marketing trickery.

Pixelrights provides a secure, simple, classically-presented choice of website designs, backed up with state-of-the-art technology, all for a single price. There are no hidden charges to remove branding, no divisive price plans and no subscription fee traps.

What it actually provides is a portfolio of the simplest form with good image protection and the option to allow carefully controlled and monitored sharing. There are quite a few design options and there will probably be more by the time the current “Beta” phase is completed. I have three folios on my pages and I have a range of hidden galleries which are invite only so that clients can go and look at images that I have uploaded for them to Dropbox making use of a cool and simple interface. The whole point of a beta phase is to gather opinions of users and make things even better and that’s exactly what is happening.

I’d strongly recommend that you go and check out Pixelrights for yourself and the best way to get there is via my members page. Make sure that you look at the features and the pricing because this is a good idea from good people with an awful lot of backing from working photographers.

You learn something new every day

It is one of the universal truths of photography that you never stop learning. Almost every time you pick a camera up something happens that you squirrel away in your memory banks that will make a difference to how you shoot something else at some time in the future. Normally these are small things but this week I was shooting the wonderful Talvin Singh performing at an arts festival and something happened that made me scratch my head because I’d never experienced anything quite like it.

©Neil Turner, October 2104

©Neil Turner, October 2104

The two pictures above were taken within a fraction of a second of one another under ‘exactly’ the same lighting without flash and with identical settings (manual everything apart from focus) on the same camera with the same lens and have been processed through Adobe Camera RAW identically. So why are they different? The answer seems to be LED stage lighting. You might conclude that both pictures are ‘quite nice’ and move on but that’s not really an answer when you are shooting something that has a moment that you absolutely have to capture. I’ve had issues with un-balasted HMI lighting and of course strip lights but this was in another ‘issues league’ entirely.

It appears that these brand new lights installed in a state-of-the-art theatre are an absolute nightmare for stills photography. Now that I’ve experienced this, I have been reading up on it and it seems to be a known phenomenon where the lights cycle between the red, green and blue LEDs in the light at a speed that the human eye chooses not to detect but that a camera shooting at shutter speeds of 1/125th of a second or higher has a real problem with. The higher you go, the worse it gets. Of course you could shoot at 1/60th of a second and all would be reasonably well – apart from any movement being a little/lot blurred.

Being a complete anorak I decided to shoot a series of tests at an even higher shutter speed (having first racked the ISO up a way) to see what happened:

©Neil Turner, October 2014

©Neil Turner, October 2014

That makes shooting under these lights at the kind of shutter seeds you need to freeze action nigh on impossible. Once I had realised that there was an issue I dropped down to 1/100th of a second and then to 1/80th and shot lots of frames. The first five frames above were shot at 1/400th and the last one was at 1/100th – what a difference.

Most of what I have read about LED stage lights concerns white balancing – well that was the least of my worries here. It was almost as if shooting with shutter speeds in excess of the cameras maximum flash synch speed (the highest speed at which the entire chip is exposed at the same moment) was part of the problem. The LED stage lights in this theatre were effectively pulsing or flashing and the only way to get a consistent image was to work with that pulsing and use shutter speeds below the maximum flash synch. I have read something on what appeared to be a well-infomed website which implies that this only happens when the lights are dimmed – which makes some sense. I haven’t got enough experience with this to work out whether the speed thing is a coincidence or whether it is directly related but I now know how to shoot in this one venue with these lights.

Shooting with shutter speeds that are a long way below “ideal” some of my pictures were sharp and many weren’t – but the job got done. Constant reference to the screen on the back of the camera is frowned on by a lot of people but this case proves that there are times when it is exactly the right thing to do. Imagine having had to shoot this on film with no LCD…

Presumably more and more theatres and venues will use these lights and the problem will grow. Maybe there’s a solution out there already?

©Neil Turner, October 2014.

©Neil Turner, October 2014.

Techie stuff: Canon EOS5D MkIII with a 70-200 f2.8L IS Canon lens. 1/100th of a second at f3.2 on 2000 ISO. WB set to daylight but adjusted in Adobe Camera RAW removing quite a bit of magenta and adding a small amount of yellow.

Tonality – the black & white conversion app

Screen grab from Tonality 1.1.1

Screen grab from Tonality 1.1.1

I was intrigued by a recommendation that I read from a colleague for Tonality. I rarely go outside Adobe Camera RAW these days, even for black and white conversions, but I was tempted to have a go at something new and so I went to the Apple App Store and bought it. After a few attempts at fiddling with it I dismissed it as a very interesting application that I would master one day when I had the time. A few days ago I was asked by a client to convert a lot of images supplied to them as colour Jpegs into mono Jpegs with a slight tone over them. In the past I would have gone straight back to the RAW files and started again but I had the idea of giving Tonality a go.

Like so many of the corporate jobs I shoot, the client would rather I didn’t show they images on my personal blog and so I grabbed some other interesting pictures from my ongoing personal work and applied the same sort of presets to them. It had taken me less than five minutes to become familiar with the sliders and controls and probably another five minutes to create the ideal and very subtle split toning effect that the client had been asking for. The two versions of a photograph taken on the beach at Bournemouth that you see below were a quick test for this blog post. The colour image is a Jpeg converted from a Fujifilm X20 RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW and the black and white version underneath was converted into black and white using the “adaptive exposure” auto setting in Tonality from that Jpeg.

©Neil Turner, September 2014. Bournemouth.

©Neil Turner, September 2014. Bournemouth.

©Neil Turner, September 2014. Bournemouth.

©Neil Turner, September 2014. Bournemouth.

 

I don’t know what you think but I am really impressed by the job that the auto has done and, whilst I could fiddle and get it even better, I am more than happy with it. I can hear you saying that this is also easy to do in Photoshop (and quite a few other apps and plug-ins) but the point is that it was done in Tonality and it was really easy. The application is capable of a lot of good stuff as well as a lot more completely over the top special effects that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

When I get more time, I’m going to get right under the skin of this application. Until then, it will be used on my personal project work. If a client asks for toned mono images again, I will definitely look as using Tonality for that too.

The UK price is £13.99 – which is a little bit dearer than most Apps that I would buy just to have a play. It’s a very simple app that achieves its goals.

Three important things

Many, many years ago I started to post technique examples and opinions on my website. By 2002 I had about fifty articles on the site and over the last couple of years I have been recycling many of them because I still thank that they are worth reading. None of it is unique wisdom and much of it can be found in the form of YouTube videos by other people. I like to think that I was marginally ahead of the curve back then at least. Here is one of my favourites…

There are many things that help make a great photograph – a good photographer, the right equipment and luck can all play a part but there are three things that, in different proportions, are absolutely essential.

  1. Light: Possibly the most important element to making an ordinary photograph into a good one.
  2. Composition: Getting all the right elements in the right places.
  3. Subject Matter: It’s true that what you are photographing can very easily make the difference between good, very good and great pictures.

Light: You not only need the right quantity of light, but the right quality and direction of the light are vital too.

  • Too much light can be just as much of a problem as too little. A picture that relies on shallow a depth of field for it’s impact will be hard to achieve if there is too much light to work with wide open lens. Of course if there is too little light to freeze the action when that’s vital to the picture, that’s also a problem.
  • Many pictures rely on hard shadows and extreme contrast for their effect and others need even and soft light to make the photograph work.
  • What direction the light is coming from in relation to the subject matter is important. Strong backlight will be perfect for some subjects and ninety degree side light will do it for others.

Composition. Whatever else is going on in the picture, this is the element of the total package over which you have the most control.

  • What lens you use is an absolutely critical decision to take in terms of the composition. What you can see through the viewfinder is utterly controlled by this decision.
  • Where you position yourself in relation to the subject is another crucial decision.
  • Confusion is the greatest enemy of clarity! How successful you are in keeping extraneous details out of the photograph has an enormous bearing on the final result.

Subject Matter: All great photographs tell their own story, and that’s just as true for a product shot of ball bearings as it is for Pulitzer prize winning documentary images.

  • If what you are photographing tells it’s own story, then you need to strip the content down so that the story isn’t confused.
  • Some things aren’t that interesting, so you need to add content. Telling the story sometimes requires the photographer to set the context.
  • Photographs don’t always need to be great art. Sometimes subject matter is all, and nothing else matters. If there is only one picture of a vital news event and it’s out of focus and taken from video it may well qualify as a great picture.

Three elements that go together to make great pictures. Sometimes light takes the lead and other times the composition is the most important. It doesn’t matter if one element is dominant, but photographs where all three are well balanced and well done then the image is guaranteed to be a winner.

There is, however, one extra element that you can’t legislate for. Magic. Like many things in photography, you know it when you see it but you cannot measure it or define it. Well composed and lit pictures that have great subject matter are (relatively) easy to come by, but once in a while they have magic too.

Canon’s EOS 6D – pressed into service

With Photokina drawing the crowds in Germany and with both Canon and Nikon announcing important new DSLRs I have (typically) been having a good look at a camera that has been on the market for ages. I bought my EOS 6D for a very specific reason; the ability to use it as a remote and control it from my smart phone. It performed that task rather well and I will definitely be making use of that function again but I also wanted to blog about what it’s like as a daily working camera.

Canon's small, light full frame DSLR. ©Neil Turner, September 2014.

Canon’s small, light full frame DSLR. ©Neil Turner, September 2014.

I was at another major show last week – The Southampton International Boat Show to be precise and I wanted to carry as little gear around with me as I could. Most of the work was going to be shot using EOS 5D MkIII cameras which have become my favourites (although they are far from perfect) for day-to-day jobs but I had a problem with one of them and decided to use the 6D as my second body once it had performed it’s (not able to post the pictures here) remote task. I had quite a bit of confidence in the camera having used a borrowed one when it was first launched and so I stuck a 16-35mm f2.8L lens on it and away I went.

Press day at the Boat Show is a mixture of dull press events, glitzy celebrity appearances and the search for different and interesting pictures that nobody else has. I found myself drawn to the official opening despite there being over a dozen other photographers there. To get something different I managed to get on board the tall ship Phoenix to see if I could shoot a different angle to everyone else. It wasn’t much of a gamble as the value of having the same picture as everyone else was pretty low on this job for me and I managed to get this nice frame of a couple of the invited children at the helm of the moored ship.

The sons of the late Olympian Andrew "Bart" Simpson at the helm of the tall ship PHOENIX alongside Europe's largest temporary marina. ©Neil Turner, September 2014.

The sons of the late Olympian Andrew “Bart” Simpson at the helm of the tall ship PHOENIX alongside Europe’s largest temporary marina. ©Neil Turner, September 2014.

Anyway, back to the EOS 6D. It is a tiny bit smaller than the 5D MkIII and it is a tiny bit lighter. It has fewer buttons and fewer megapixels (20 for the 6D and 22 for the 5D MkIII) and it only has a single SD card slot compared to the CF + SD combination on the 5D MkIII. It doesn’t have the same amazing auto focus and it isn’t as well built as the 5D MkIII either but, and it is a big but, it is really nice to use. It fits in your hands well and the controls are easy to use even with the camera to your eye – ergonomically speaking it ticks a lot of the boxes for me. I haven’t used it with a big lens attached yet and I suspect that with something like a 70-200 f2.8L IS it might feel a little unbalanced without a battery grip but with the 16-35 and with a range of primes including the 135mm f2L it feels great without a grip (I’m not a grip fan). The shutter sound is OK and the ‘quiet’ option is also pretty good.

I have written a lot about processing RAW files from various cameras recently and I found the 6D files to be remarkably similar to the 5D MkIII ones and that is a big plus for me.

As always there are a few things that I’d like to see changed on. Canon have this amazing knack of producing “almost perfect” cameras and the 6D is no different here. In no particular order:

  • I’d like them to add the ability to add custom file names in camera in the same way that you can in the 5D MkIII and the 1DX – surely this could be done as part of a firmware update?
  • All Canon cameras need to have the ability to lock the diopter adjustment on the eyepiece. Having to put bits of gaffer tape on every camera is getting boring.
  • I know that the camera already has built-in wifi but better Eye-Fi integration and the option to assign a button (the Q button?) to “protect” an image for transmission would be great.
  • Twin card slots on a MkII would be far better than the single slot that this version has. 2x SD would be fine.
  • Similarly, USB2 on a camera of this generation is poor.

I don’t shoot a lot of on-camera flash and I was caught out on this job where I only had a single 580exII with me. With not much time to work I found that the flash exposure with an older lens wasn’t great. It works well with the newer lenses and flash but the technology has left a couple of y older (but still great) L series lenses behind.

There was photocall with a couple of celebrities (Eddie Jordan and Claudia Winkleman) on the Sunseeker luxury yacht stand and I managed to steal the former Formula 1 team boss onto the bridge of a £3.8 million boat for a quick shot. I had to flash it and the head linings of the boat made a low but useable place to bounce from. Sadly my “exclusive” was ruined when a local agency photographer jumped in and did much the same shot. You win some and you lose some!

Former F1 boss Eddie Jordan on the bridge of a £3.8 million Sunseeker. ©Neil Turner, September 2014.

Former F1 team boss Eddie Jordan on the bridge of a £3.8 million Sunseeker. ©Neil Turner, September 2014.

So what about the 6D’s performance as a working camera then? It is good without being brilliant. Lovely to use but not perfect. I could have written the same summary of just about any camera I have ever used but for anyone needing a full-frame Canon body on a tight budget it really does represent a great buy. It will get used again soon and I will add anything that crops up. Anyone want to lend me a 7D MkII for a day?