careful

Card readers are the new camera bags…

©Neil Turner, December 2014. A small selection of the CF card readers that I own

©Neil Turner, December 2014. A small selection of the CF card readers that I own

As I sit here about to hit “buy” on yet another new reader for compact flash cards I am feeling more than a little bit of deja vu. And when I say “deja vu” I mean multiple layers of it. Sure I’ve bought plenty of CF, SD and even PCMCIA card readers in my time and of course none of them has been perfect but that feeling is an identical replica of the feeling I get when I buy a new camera bag – it’s a complex emotion; optimism meets resignation as I want to think that “the one” that I am buying is as perfect as I long for it to be whilst knowing full-well that it is going to be just as disappointing and just as deeply flawed as the last one, the one before that and the twenty or more before that.

It appears to be part of the psyche of professional photographers that we have to seek perfection in the equipment that we buy and use without acknowledging that such a thing doesn’t exist and that it probably never will. In just the same way that there is a colossal amount of choice in the camera bag market, there are lots of different CF card readers out there. Where the two markets diverge is in the quality of the construction and the longevity of the products. I have camera bags that have lapped the world and lived in more car boots than I can remember and that are still perfectly serviceable whereas CF card readers are cheap, poorly made and don’t appear to be of professional quality at all.

It isn’t completely the fault of the manufacturers: the pin design on compact flash cards isn’t as tough as you’d like and the way that the current crop of USB3 readers with separate cables  experience problems with the cable to reader connection would imply that it may be the USB3 standard that is at fault rather than the manufacturers quality control or design. This is backed up by the number of portable USB3 hard drives that are being reported as failing due to that same connection. It wasn’t always this way. I still have a couple of Sandisk Firewire 800 card readers that are as good as new despite having a hard life and being pretty much obsolete and the ancient PCMCIA reader that lives in a box in the loft was a proper professional bit of kit.

The accepted wisdom was that readers with removable cables were a good idea because the cables were the part of the kit that was prone to damage but that’s no longer the case. In an almost heretical move I am leaning towards the idea that built-in cables, avoiding the car crash that is the USB3 standard, are once again a good idea – and that is why my finger is hovering over the “buy” button because Delkin Devices have produced a reasonably solid looking USB3 reader with a built-in, chunky cable. Of course I’m resigned to the idea that there will be issues – this is one of those moments where optimism is high and the deja vu is strong.

Here goes…

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-minded 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.

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.

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 workflows 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.