fujifilm

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.

What makes this photo a Flickr favourite?

Waiting for people and texting their friends outside the Apple Store, Covent Garden.

Waiting for people and texting their friends outside the Apple Store, Covent Garden. © Neil Turner. November 2015

When I rejoined Flickr a couple of months ago my main aim was to learn the ins and outs of how it works so that I could help an important client build their Flickr profile. One of the side-effects is that I have become quite interested in how and why some pictures get no attention and why some others get loads. This was made all the more interesting when one single picture of mine went from the normal 100-200 views and 2-3 likes to having over 10,000 views and around 130 likes.

I don’t think that it is any better or worse than most of the rest of the (178 and counting) pictures I have uploaded so why did it get so much attention?

I genuinely don’t think that it is because it is a wonderful image so maybe it is because someone influential in the Flickr-sphere decided that they liked it and that prompted their followers to also like it. Maybe it is because I uploaded it on the right day at the right time in the right groups to get so much attention.

The truth is that I don’t know – and that’s a problem because that means that I have yet to master or even comprehend the vagaries of Flickr. If you remember, that’s why I rejoined the sharing site – to acquire a zen-like understanding of the medium.

Some things appear to be obvious though:

  • Black & white pictures get more attention and more likes
  • Certain people follow everything you do
  • If you interact with lots of people it helps to raise the ‘like count’
  • Likes don’t put food on the table
  • Social media takes a lot of work

The really interesting thing is that a potential client did see one of my photographs on Flickr and is keen to buy it for use in their business and so whilst likes don’t put food on the table having the right people seeing your work does. Whether Flickr will ever bring the financial returns that justify the amount of time spent working with it is still unclear but that’s the same for all social media.

Is the picture at the top of this post any better than any of the 176 (and counting) others on my Flickr Photostream? If you know why it attracted a comment of “Nice capture” when so many others didn’t, please let me know!

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.

Electronic viewfinders and me

©Neil Turner, February 2015. The cliff tops at Boscombe on a dull winter's day.

©Neil Turner, February 2015. The cliff tops at Boscombe on a dull winter’s day.

A few months ago a colleague whose work I know and love said that it took him a little while to get used to electronic viewfinders and now that he has been using them for a while he cannot remember why he had been so resistant to them in the first place. Resistant to electronic viewfinders? That summed up my attitude until a couple of weeks ago too. After carrying my beloved Fujifilm X20 around with me I decided that it was time to give an X100S a run out. The lack of a zoom lens and the small jump in size and weight is compensated for by a big increase in the higher ISO quality (which isn’t to be sniffed at during the winter time) and a few more megapixels (allowing a bit of judicious cropping here and there) and so for the last few weeks I have been shooting my personal work with the X100S. The idea hit me that now I had the option of using the electronic viewfinder (to be known as the EVF from here on in) instead of the optical viewfinder (known from here as the OVF) and that’s what I started to do.

For the first few days I was getting annoyed by the EVF to the extent that I had to have a few days off from it. During that time I shot some photographs that I really liked and I had to force myself back to using the EVF with something of a heavy heart. That was just over a week ago and I am now really pleased to announce that I have got the hang of shooting using an EVF. Welcome to the twenty-teens, welcome to the world of the EVF enthusiast and welcome to a wide world of possibilities I hear some of you saying. Not quite.

The current situation is that I am perfectly capable of shooting with an EVF and that I can see why some photographers have made the switch but not me. I still prefer the OVF to the extent that I don’t want to use the electronic version and to the extent that the kind of work that I have been doing with my Fujifilm cameras isn’t as fulfilling without the old-school optical set up. If I were tempted to buy a Fujifilm XE-2 or an XT-1 I’d have to forego one of the main pleasures that I derive from using kit that, despite some huge flaws, makes me want to go and just shoot pictures.

I’m not going to tell all of the EVF enthusiasts I know that they are wrong but I am now in a position where my choice to carry on using OVFs and DSLRs is made from knowledge and not from ignorance. There, I’ve said it.

Quiet documentary image

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Flowers and a memorial plaque to four local surfers on Boscombe Pier.

©Neil Turner, January 2015. Flowers and a memorial plaque to four local surfers on Boscombe Pier.

The light on the beach is almost always interesting and whilst out walking this morning I shot a few frames of a small bunch of flowers tucked behind a memorial plaque to four young local surfers on Boscombe Pier. I guess that I would call this a documentary image and it is yet another different way for me to shoot a beach picture. For me the photograph is a great deal stronger for having the back of the gentleman in the frame.

Tech stuff: Fujifilm X100S, 1/170th of a second at f11 on 320 ISO. RAW file processed through Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop CC2014.