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?

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…


© 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…

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