fun

Best light of the year

©Neil Turner. Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall.

It is almost inevitable that when the best light of the year so far offers up a number of creative possibilities the only camera you have with you will be the one built into your phone. I don’t mind admitting that this has always filled me with dread and I have often missed the picture that I know I should have taken because the phone couldn’t do what a ‘proper camera’ can.

We were away in Cornwall last week for a few days and had just arrived at our hotel after the drive from East Dorset when we decided that a stroll along the beach before dinner was in order. We had been to Fistral Beach many times before but never really experienced the magic of the sunset there and when the light started to dip it was obvious that we were going to be treated to something rather lovely. These days I have an iPhone 7 which has a pretty good camera. I normally use it for snaps, record shots and general visual note-taking but when I needed it to produce the results using it with the 645Pro app allowed me to get exactly what I would have wanted if I’d had my Fujifilm X100S with me.

I was so pleased with the picture that I approached the man who features in it and sent him a copy whilst still on the beach. Photography is still a joy.

Thinking on your feet

My shadow using a monopod to get a high angle picture. March 2016 ©Neil Turner

My shadow using a monopod to get a high angle picture. March 2016 ©Neil Turner

I was out shooting a job yesterday and needed to get quite a bit of extra height. The best place to shoot the picture from was on the side of a grassy hill which was very wet and the client’s health and safety policies meant that it wasn’t going to be easy to use a step ladder – whilst building a tower was outside the budget. In an ideal world a proper pole-cam or even a drone would have been the best option but the light was right and I needed to improvise.

Having used the Canon EOS6D as a remote via their iPhone app once before I was reasonably confident that my idea would work but the app has been replaced/updated and it meant learning the new one on the job. I had a basic monopod, a tripod head and a Manfrotto Super Clamp in the car but no proper way to attach the phone to the monopod to use as a viewfinder and remote release. With a proper pole-cam you rest the base of the pole on the ground and it is pretty stable. You also have a cradle for the phone or even a tablet if you want to go bigger. I had to tuck the foot of the monopod into my belt to get enough height but I had about an hour so I went into full “1970s Blue Peter” improvisation mode.

The cradle that holds my iPhone in my car was pressed into service and that attached very easily to the Manfrotto Super Clamp. Having extended the monopod to its full height I then attached the clamp to the second stage of the monopod (about eye-level when the whole thing was in use I guessed). Then I stuck the tripod head onto the monopod tilting down a little and put the EOS6D with a Canon 16-35 f4L IS lens on it. Whilst all of this was being done I was downloading the latest Canon Camera Connect app from the Apple App Store.

After a few minutes messing with settings I had the system working. I could use the phone as a viewfinder and a remote release for the Canon DSLR and I set about shooting the pictures without leaving the ground myself. After a minute or two I decided that I needed more height to look down on the subject a bit more and so I tilted the tripod head down a little and when I put the camera back into the air the foot of the monopod was resting on my chest. Even with a camera as light as the 6D I couldn’t hold it up for more than a minute at a time but we got the shot and I only got pointed at (and laughed at) by a small handful of passers-by. I wouldn’t want to have to work this way very often but, having just edited and uploaded the pictures, I know that I have a “Blue Peter”** solution that works.

** Blue Peter was required viewing as a child growing up in the 1970s. They always showed you how to make useful things from odds and ends lying around the house.

The story behind a picture #4

Trying to interest tourists in the shell game on the South Bank in London. © Neil Turner, December 2015

Trying to interest tourists in the shell game on the South Bank in London.
© Neil Turner, December 2015

I almost always carry a camera when I’m out and these days I have to go to a lot of meetings with clients and potential clients – most of which are in central London. There’s always something to see and as I was on my way to a meeting just before Christmas I saw a small group of people trying hard to get passing tourists interested in playing ‘the shell game‘ on the South Bank near the Royal National Theatre.

The idea is simple; one of the group pretending to be a tourist plays the game and wins whilst other members of the group stand around playing the joint roles of lookout and interested bystanders. It took them about ten seconds to realise that they were having their photograph taken and whilst some of them hid their faces the others tried to block my view and make me move on. It was a cold and damp day and they weren’t getting any trade so my presence probably angered them but I stood there, shot some pictures before moving on.

My favourite frame was the attempt that the man actually conducting the game made to hide his face as he approached me to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to take his picture!

Shell game players hides his face with £50 notes on the South Bank in London. © Neil Turner, December 2015

Shell game players hides his face with £50 notes on the South Bank in London.
© Neil Turner, December 2015

Technical stuff: Fujifilm X100S, 1600 ISO 1/125th of a second at f5.6. Converted into black and white in Photoshop CC2015

Getting to grips with my Sony RX1

Stage door of the Apollo Theatre, London. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

Stage door of the Apollo Theatre, London. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

A week ago I was shocked when the lovely folks at Castle Cameras here in Bournemouth got in touch to let me know that I’d won a new camera in a Sony competition that they were running on their Flickr site. I had completely forgotten that I had entered and when they told me to come and collect my shiny new Sony Cybershot RX1 I popped up later that afternoon. I spent most of the rest of that day playing with the camera and (shock horror) reading the instruction manual. I checked out what “the internet” had to say about the camera and stuck it in my bag determined to give it a proper outing at the first opportunity. You can see the winning picture here.

The weather hasn’t been great and I have been a bit busy with the day job and so it took a full six days before I got a proper chance to take some pictures. I happened to be in London with about three hours to kill yesterday and even though the weather was poor I was determined to have a wander and see whether I could get to grips with the RX1. I don’t really write full-on product reviews because there are other people that do it so much better than I can and this particular model Sony has been around for quite a while. It is, however, a very close contemporary of my beloved Fujifilm X100S and I was keen to find out whether the Sony could do two things:

  1. Outperform the the X100S for image quality, handling, battery life etc
  2. Be as much fun to use and be as nice to use as the Fuji has been

My first worry was that the Sony doesn’t come with a viewfinder of any description other than the large and very clear LCD on the back of the camera. The cheapest viewfinder that Sony sell is just over £300 which would make the RX1 more than twice the retail price of the Fujifilm X100S. I was excited by the fact that the Sony has a full-frame sensor and the write-ups for the fixed Zeiss 35mm lens meant that I was actually looking forward to some low-light photography. So I headed out with a fully charged battery and a 16Gb SD card to see what I could see. Walking from Mayfair through China Town and Soho to Covent Garden and back I was looking for pictures that might once day grace my personal work folio and/or my Flickr stream. As is often the case on these days with no particular brief a theme started to suggest itself and for the first hour or two I found myself snatching pictures of people texting and I started to build a gallery in my mind.

As it got darker the texting pictures started to dry up and it was then that my favourite pictures of the day started to happen. Dusk, as I have written before, is just about my favourite time of day to take pictures and yesterday was no exception. Here below is probably my favourite picture from the day:

31 January 2016. London, Greater London. London on a cold and wet January Sunday afternoon.. Soho Neil Turner

Soho, London on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

There’s only one problem with this picture. It wasn’t taken on the Sony RX1. Why? Because the battery had given up twenty minutes previously and I didn’t have a spare. I had taken my Fujifilm X100S “just in case” and I’m glad that I did because this picture wouldn’t have worked on my iPhone! The X100S has poor battery life and because of that I carry three spares when I go out for the day. There are lots of things that you can do in the set-up menu to restrict the battery-drain including using the optical viewfinder. The Sony RX1, on this evidence, has a bigger problem than the Fujifilm with power and I would bet that the big bright LCD screen is the biggest part of that problem. It doesn’t end there either because Sony don’t even bundle a battery charger with these cameras – they expect you to charge the battery in-camera which means that you have to switch the thing off when you might want to keep shooting. I know that there are plenty of after-market chargers available for these common batteries but really? At that price? I understand that batteries get a bit better after a few charge cycles but less than two hours from brand new one is unacceptable. On the day I had my external battery which I use to recharge my iPhone with me and I spent the final hour walking around shooting with the X100S and with the Sony RX1 plugged into that external battery in my bag. I would bet that adding a viewfinder and refining the power settings on the Sony would be a big help but this camera needs to wow me if I’m going to spend £300 to find out.

What about the low-light performance? There’s no arguing that here the Sony is very, very good. At 3200 ISO it is a match for any of the Canons that I use in the day job and so I’d say that it is as much as two stops better than the Fuji when shooting RAW based on the evidence of the few pictures that I’ve taken.

Which brings me to the Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 lens on the Sony RX1. I’d rate it at somewhere between very good and excellent and, again, a fair bit better than the 23mm f2 on the crop sensor Fujifilm X100S. Surprisingly, the Zeiss lens suffers from some barrel distortion but the lens correction algorithm in Adobe Photoshop’s Camera RAW sorts that out with ease. I will do a direct comparison between the Sony and a Canon 6D with a Canon 35mm f2 lens at some point and I would expect it to be far too close to call.

So far the Sony wins on image quality and lens quality and the Fujifilm wins on battery life. Their respective pluses and minuses on the handling tests mean that they are pretty much even when shooting with the LCD but that the Fuji is streets ahead because it has the electronic and optical options when you don’t want to use the LCD. I’d rate the Sony as the marginal winner on exposure accuracy and a clear winner when it comes to auto focus speed and accuracy – although this was only a fair fight when using the LCD screen to focus.

For build quality the honours have to go to Sony (given their respective pricing that should be a given) but the difference isn’t as wide as you’d expect. The two cameras have OK menus but neither wows me with them. I suspect that is largely due to the fact that I find Canon’s menu systems to be both easy and familiar.

The kinds of pictures that I like to shoot with these kinds of cameras aren’t paid work. They come under the categories of food for the photographic soul and fun. This is where the Sony loses out badly. I don’t like shooting with the LCD very much and that means that I would have to pay out a lot of money to find out if the Sony can catch up. They offer two different viewfinders and that’s expensive if you want the choice. The newer RX1R MkII has a small electric viewfinder – which would be most welcome.

At the end of day one with the Sony I have some choices to make if I want to continue to take advantage of the superior image quality on offer. Do I:

  • Spend £300+ on an electronic viewfinder?
  • Spend £50+ on spare batteries and chargers?
  • Hope that after spending the money, the camera becomes more fun to use?

I’m off to Norway for a two week job next week and I’m going to take the Sony RX1 with me. One afternoon in poor light with a failing battery isn’t enough time to make my mind up about such an interesting camera. That means that the spare battery purchases will happen anyway. If I find that by the end of February the fun quotient of the Fujifilm outstrips the quality one of the Sony then I may just end up selling my prize camera on.

Diminishing returns?

Crow takes flight from railings on the cliff tops at Fisherman's Walk,  Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, October 2015 © Neil Turner

Crow takes flight from the cliff tops at Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, October 2015

Most photographers have personal projects that they spend their spare time working on. Mine is to document one of my favourite places on the world – the area of Bournemouth known as Fisherman’s Walk. It’s a lovely place that is very close to my heart and I often just pop along there (it’s three miles or so from home) with a camera or two over my shoulder and see what is happening.

The light by the sea is almost always interesting. No matter whether we have dull clouds or sparkling sunshine there will be something happening and that is why I keep going back to the beach, cliff tops and gardens that make up the area.

I have titled this piece ‘diminishing returns’ because that’s what happens with most projects: they start slowly and quickly develop with a flurry of great pictures and then it tails off again. That is unless you really work at it. Commercially speaking all projects need to have a finishing point. They need to have a date where you say ‘enough is enough’ and stop working on it. At that point you need to publish the book, stage the exhibition or just post the web gallery and call it finished. If they are truly ‘personal’ that will probably never happen and because it is a labour of love and there always seems to be more scope for pictures.

When I work with students who are doing long-term projects I try to get them to distinguish between truly ‘personal’ work and self-generated commercially driven projects. Most people can see the difference but few can bring themselves to work differently unless, it seems, the self-generated project involves travel. Obviously any project that involves paying for plane/train/bus tickets has to be finite because the expense of continually going back to expensive destinations makes earning a living from the photographs ever more difficult. The number of times that I have been through the true cost of shooting longer-term stories and projects with talented and driven young photographers couldn’t be counted on a standard abacus. The number of times I have made one of them change the way that they approach their work could easily be counted on the fingers of two hands.

That’s why I want to get the concept of diminishing returns out there. That’s why I want people who read this blog post to start to see the difference between taking pictures to fulfil an inner need to document something special and shooting projects to pay the bills/pad the folio/impress the clients.

Imagine a project to document a place. Imagine that you have high hopes of getting those pictures used editorially. Spending money getting there and spending time shooting the pictures incur costs which have to come into the calculation when you try to monetise your work. Multiple sales to multiple publications has always been the gold standard and selling limited edition prints has become an almost obligatory add-on when the balance sheet comes into the picture. Totting-up what having some extra high quality work on your website is worth is a tricky one but being honest with yourself about the motivation behind what you shoot and how much it has cost you is very important if you want to call yourself a professional.

My frequent trips to Fisherman’s Walk fall into the ‘because I can’ category. I have no plans to market the pictures and I have never supplied them outside the worlds of social media. More importantly, I don’t really need or want to. Fifty pence worth of diesel and free parking for every visit makes this a cheap project in every sense bar my time and I would argue that a few hours here and there over a year is actually a great investment in keeping my creative soul up to date, charged and firing.

It is still the case that the returns are diminishing. When I first started to go there camera-in-hand I was getting three or four good and different images per visit. Now that’s down to none or maybe one. What is happening now is that I am getting slightly better versions of the original pictures – or at least ones that I prefer. In a commercial project that makes no sense whatsoever. When I am at the cliff-tops or on the beach I have more in common with someone indulging in their hobby, which is great because my career is a passion and it is a hobby.

To the students and teachers who read this I’d like to say the following:

  1. Decide when you start a project who the audience is and whether it is work or whether it is passion that is driving you on.
  2. Budget accordingly.
  3. Know when the returns have diminished to an unacceptable degree.
  4. Have the guts to pull the plug.
  5. Being a photographer is a joy but don’t let it become all that you are.

I know that I have at times been guilty of #5 and it isn’t good. There’s a difference between always having a camera around and seeing pictures and always having a camera in hand and missing daily life because of it. That’s why I go out specifically to take pictures – something that has never stopped being a joy.

The beach at Fisherman's Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, September 2015

The beach at Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth. © Neil Turner, September 2015

Dusk at the National Theatre

Dusk approaching at the National Theatre on London's South Bank. ©Neil Turner, March 2015.

Dusk approaching at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. ©Neil Turner, March 2015.

Interesting evening light plus some fabulously brutal architecture makes for some interesting photos. Whilst walking to meet up with a friend and colleague at the National Theatre yesterday evening I was drawn to this section of concrete staircase and shot a few frames in one of those “just because…” moments.

Fujifilm X100S 800 ISO 1/250th of a second at f8.

Early morning winter sun

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Early morning wintery sunshine on the beach at Bournemouth.

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Early morning wintery sunshine on the beach at Bournemouth.

It’s almost always about the light. Watery winter sunshine on the beach at Bournemouth this morning. I shot a frame and edged closer, then shot another before moving closer still. It was my sixth move that caused a few seagulls to finally move off and then I shot this just as the water came through my right boot.
Fujifilm X100S, 1/600th @ f9, 640 ISO.

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Early morning watery sunshine on the beach at Bournemouth.

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Early morning watery sunshine on the beach at Bournemouth.

The Pier has seen better days and I’m not sure that the potted palm trees do much for the area but they make good pictures.
Fujifilm X100S, 1/1200th @ f8, 640 ISO.

I was born less than three miles from where these pictures were taken and the beaches along this part of the coast still hold an almost endless fascination for me.