lens

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.

Canon 16-35 f4 L IS

Test shot with Canon 16-35 f4 L IS in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields

London. 08 December 2015 Test shot with Canon 16-35 f4 L IS in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields Photo: Neil Turner

A couple of months ago I cracked and bought the Canon 16-35 f4 L IS lens to replace my very elderly 16-35 f2.8L having borrowed both this one and the f2.8L MkII to see what all the fuss was about. I shoot quite a few pictures of buildings and having a 16mm lens is very useful – especially when the space is really tight.

My old 16-35 and just about every other super-wide lens I have ever used has suffered from barrel distortion, been less than pin sharp in the corners and generally required a bit of work to get great pictures that are as free from distortion as possible.

I was on a job last night in a tight space where the 16-35 f4 L IS was being pressed into service to do shots of an empty venue before an event. I hadn’t brought a tripod because I hadn’t expected to be doing these shots but I did my best with what I had. The photo above was taken hand-held at 1/60th of a second at f4 on 2500 ISO with the IS switched on with a Canon EOS5D MkIII. I have applied no correction to the uprights and the frame is un-cropped at 16mm focal length.

It was dark down there and the white balance did need a subtle tweak but apart from that this frame demonstrates just how little barrel distortion (can you see any?) this lens has even at 16mm and it also demonstrates how good the image stabilisation is.

The 16-35 f4 L IS isn’t a perfect lens. It’s quite large for what it does and whether or not the maximum aperture of f4 is accurate is something I am still thinking about (my gut reaction is that it is actually 1/3rd of a stop slower than it claims). The lens hood seems to jump off a little too often for my liking (maybe that’s the way I carry it) and my brand new lens has quite a stiff zoom action compared to an equally new 70-200 f4 L IS.

Those niggles apart my verdict is that this is a brilliant lens and more than a match for the f2.8 MkII one that I was otherwise looking at buying. It may not be the hard news lens that the faster lens undoubtedly is but for all other uses and for anyone who doesn’t need to shoot at f2.8 I’d say that this is a better option and represents way better value for money.

How rugged it will turn out to be isn’t something that I can answer yet but the signs are good because it feels really solid and there are no exposed moving parts to get filled with dust.

The addition of this lens to my bag means that I now have a set of f4 zooms and I am very happy with all three of them. Anyone want to get me a 200-400 f4 L IS to complete THE set?

The story behind a picture #3

Sitting in the window seat at Subway on Shaftesbury Avenue Photo: Neil Turner Photo: Neil Turner

Sitting in the window seat at Subway on Shaftesbury Avenue
© Neil Turner, November 2014.

This photograph falls into the ‘personal work’ category. I had been to a meeting in central London during the evening and had arrived fashionably on-time having failed to park in my favourite evening parking space near the location of the meeting. That had forced me to park a bit further away. As a result my walk back to my car at around 10.30pm was both longer and much more interesting than usual.

I nearly always have a camera with me and it is nearly always either my Fujifilm X100S or it’s little brother the X20 but on this evening I had a Canon EOS6D with a couple of fast prime lenses and so I shot some photographs of things that interested me as I walked. This shop window – a branch of Subway that stays open until the early hours was the very first thing that caught my eye and I was very interested to see just how good the EOS6D is at higher ISOs. This was shot at 3200 ISO with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second at f1.8 using a Canon EF 28mm f1.8 lens. For a DSLR this is about as unobtrusive as you can get – the quiet shutter mode is really good and the speed and accuracy of the auto focus on the centre focusing point means that you can ‘snatch’ a frame in really low light with quite a high degree of certainty.

Just around the corner I saw the potential for another nice image with the frontage of a theatre after the last member of the public had left the building. I composed, waited and finally got this frame as a solo pedestrian passed through the frame.

Pedestrian passes under the "Memphis" banner outside a west end theatre at night. © Neil Turner November 2014.

Pedestrian passes under the “Memphis” banner outside a west end theatre at night. © Neil Turner November 2014.

This photograph was also shot at 3200 ISO but was better lit at 1/640th of a second at f1.8. I was actually quite disappointed when I got back to my car and realised that I had a two and a half hour drive home. I knew that I had half a dozen good photographs and I sat in the car and transferred a couple of them to my phone using the camera’s built-in wifi before uploading them to EyeEm and Twitter. Then I drove home…

F4 and be there…

06 August 2015. Bournemouth, Dorset. Close up of part of a Canon 70-200 F4L IS lens. Hillcrest Road

06 August 2015. Bournemouth, Dorset. Close up of part of a Canon 70-200 F4L IS lens.

I’ve discussed zooms versus primes far too many times in far too many blog posts to rehearse the old arguments again and at the end of my recent post about zooming with your feet I mentioned investing in some new gear with a promise to follow it up with a blog post – so here it is.

The great New York press photographer Weegee is supposed to have said “F8 and be there” when asked how he got such great pictures. I’m not remotely interested in the debate about whether or not he actually said it but I am interested in the idea of apertures and, more importantly, maximum apertures.

For as many years as I’ve been shooting with zooms I’ve owned and used lenses pretty much exclusively with f2.8 maximum apertures. I have tried to count the number of f2.8 zooms that I’ve had in my career and it is at least thirteen and probably one or two more that have been forgotten. It isn’t just me either – 90% of press and editorial photographers shoot on a daily basis with a 24-70 and 70-200 combination and probably have a 16-35 or something similar in the bag as well. It made a lot of sense when you were battling against low light and film or chips that couldn’t function beyond a relatively modest high ISO. The downside was always the weight – 70-200 f2.8 lenses are big, bulky and very heavy and so I have been toying with the idea of replacing my f2.8 zooms with new f4 versions for quite a while.

Owning fast primes for those jobs where super fast lenses are needed has made the jump a bit easier whilst the quality of brand news lenses always gives your work a boost so I started the swap over three months ago with a Canon 24-70 f4L IS. It isn’t much smaller or lighter than the current Canon 24-70 f2.8L II but it has image stabilisation and a truly remarkable close focus (they call it macro) capability. The photo of the 70-200 at the top of this blog was taken with it without any form of accessory and I could have gone even closer had I wanted. I always tended to stop down to f4 or even f5.6 with most of my work using wider lenses and so this piece of kit makes a lot of sense and I have loved using it.

Jump forward a couple of months, throw in a great cashback offer from Canon UK and I bought the 70-200 f4L IS. This lens is half the weight of the f2.8 version and is brilliantly easy to work with. The image stabilisation appears to be very good and for much of the work that I do it is a perfect piece of kit when married to a Canon EOS5D MkIII. Next up will be the 16-35 f4L – a lens that I have borrowed and used and been delighted with. My old 16-35 f2.8L is still performing well and it isn’t a range that I use all that often and so I can wait for Canon UK to run another promotion.

Shooting at f4 isn’t a Weegee style philosophy but then neither was shooting at f2.8. I think that it is more of a practical reality where I have made a reasoned choice between speed and weight. Shooting wide open at f4 still gives some very shallow depths of field on the longer lens and owning fast primes is great cover for those extremely rare jobs where short bands of focus are needed. It makes great business sense to buy quality lenses that are almost 50% cheaper than the alternatives too – these days we all have to think about profit margins and the spiralling cost of doing business as a photographer is something that we all need to think about.

I haven’t disposed of any of my f2.8Ls yet but I haven’t touched any of them since their cousins came to town either.

Zooming with your…

©Neil Turner/Bupa 10,000. May 2015. A Police rider accompanies a detachments of Guards as they march back their barracks.

©Neil Turner/Bupa 10,000. May 2015.
A Police rider accompanies a detachments of Guards as they march back their barracks.

I was on a job the other day, standing next to a very young photographer in a ‘press pen’. He glanced over at the gear I was using and mentioned how much he would love to own the 135mm f2L lens that I had on one of my cameras. He said that he had never really got the hang of “zooming with his feet” in the way that so many of the photographers he admired had advised. He had also had it drummed into him by one of his tutors at college and it had left him wondering if he was doing something wrong.

Zooming with your feet is a great concept and it is one of the catchphrases in contemporary photography that appears to be beyond question. But is it? Is it actually as much a cliche as a universal truth?

There we were on a job where we couldn’t have zoomed with our feet even if either of us had the skills to do so. We couldn’t go forward – there was a metal barrier in the way. We couldn’t go backwards because there were other photographers and a couple of TV crews behind us – and behind them was another barrier. We had a tiny amount of sideways movement if we could change places with each other but, apart from that, we were in a very fixed position.

The event we were shooting was a fixed distance from us and so it was possible to get the right prime lens on the camera and then to shoot the job.

What my young photographer friend didn’t know was that I had my 70-200 lens in my bag but that I had some real concerns about its performance earlier in the day which is why I had grabbed the 135 and decided to use that.

As we had plenty of time to spare I explained my choice of lens and explained that a lot of press work means that zooming with your feet is somewhere between difficult and impossible and that to get the most from a fixed position a set of zoom lenses is actually the right choice. I went on to admit that I would be doing a fair bit of zooming on the job myself, except that it would be in the post-production – zooming with the crop tool is what I decided to call it.

And that’s what I did. The resolution of modern DSLRs is such that you can get a high quality Jpeg from 50% of the actual frame and the quality of the best lenses easily allows you do that and maybe more. Starting off with a lens wider than you probably need and then refining your crop in post-production was very common in the days of darkrooms and prints but when we were shooting 35mm colour transparencies or with the early low-megapixel digitals it became important to get the crop right in-camera. We have come full circle and some judicious cropping makes sense once more.

Shooting with prime lenses is something that I have discussed more than once before and it is something that I find myself doing more and more on jobs where I’m the only photographer or where I have enough freedom to go with the universal truth/cliche (delete where applicable) and actually zoom with my feet. The rest of the time it is zooms and now that I am using two distinct sets of lenses for different types of jobs I’ve decided to invest in some new gear – and I’ll be blogging about that very soon.

The hours before dusk

People exercising their dogs on the 'dog-friendly' beach at Fisherman's Walk as the sun begins to set.  © Neil Turner

People exercising their dogs on the ‘dog-friendly’ beach at Fisherman’s Walk as the sun begins to set.
© Neil Turner

You can’t publish a blog for more than a couple of years without repeating yourself somewhat and I have waxed lyrical about the light at dusk more than once before. It is especially useful when you are shooting subjects facing due south.

Through the middle of the day taking pictures looking out to sea at my favourite part of the beach near my home life is tough because you are shooting against the often strong sunshine. When there’s a cloudless sky by five or six o’clock in the afternoon and then through to sunset the angle and direction of the light as well as its colour and quality goes from nice to amazing. The type of activity changes too and the almost deserted beaches become the one place that draws me to go and take pictures because I want to.

I might also have mentioned my obsession with dogs on the beach and I am slowly but surely putting a body of those pictures together. I wanted a wide photograph that could stretch across a double page and have some headlines and copy run over it and I think that this picture from yesterday evening is a real contender.

The project will never be finished but there will come a day when volume one gets published in some form or other.

Techie stuff: Canon EOS5D MkIII with a Canon EF 135mm f2 L lens. 1/160th of a second f13 200 ISO

Mint in box

©Neil Turner, November 2014

©Neil Turner, November 2014. Canon EF 200mm f2.8L II USM lens.

There are lots of things about the world that I don’t understand. Some of them I ignore, some I oppose and there are others that I just go along with.

One of those that sits squarely in the latter category is the obsession with keeping the boxes for items of photographic and computer equipment that you are intending to use. I go along with it because people are actually prepared to pay more for a used item if you have the original packaging. Basically, it appears, you are prepared to pay me a premium for a secondhand piece of kit if I keep cardboard, plastic and polystyrene in my loft so that you can do the same during your ownership of that item.

It makes sense for collectables where the market loves “mint in box”. We have a few Star Wars items safely tucked away still sealed in their original packaging and I have a couple of Corgi model cars in their boxes too (the box for one on my desk is actually more attractive than the die cast metal contents anyway). But the logic of hoarding packaging for something that is in use is beyond me. Again, I get the concept of saving the instructions and any accessories (I have a massive box full of both of those) but not the packaging. It’s no big deal which is why I am now going with option 3 and just accepting that it is just the way it is. No sense fighting against it and ignoring it isn’t much of a principled stand!

I wasn’t always of that opinion. Somewhere there’s probably a whole load of boxes being safely squirrelled away that look exactly like the original boxes for the items they were bought with but they are just substitutes. When I bought my first two Canon EOS5D MkII bodies a dealer bought the boxes and instructions from me. I thought it a bit weird at the time but £20.00 is £20.00 and I sold them. He presumably “re-united” those boxes with cameras that were missing theirs and sold them on to some unsuspecting soul who thought they were getting the original packaging.

I’m not even sure why this is taking up an hour of my time thinking about why I find it so absurd – other than the fact that I am getting rid of some superfluous gear and one of the lenses really is “mint in box”.

“What gear is that?” I hear you ask – it is a Canon EF200mm f2.8L II USM prime lens that I bought a few months ago when I was going through a phase of using prime lenses for as much as I could while my 70-200 f2.8L IS (ditched the box for that one in 2003) was away having major surgery. The repairs cost less than I had expected and in the end I only used the 200mm lens twice – both times indoors for large groups of head shots. I had bought the lens as secondhand myself although Castle Cameras did (which I trust) say that it had barely been used and had been originally purchased through them a few months before that. So here we have it; a fabulously sharp current model lens with all of the correct bits and pieces – including cardboard, plastic and polystyrene – which retails for £569.00 new going for the bargain sum of £449.00 + delivery.

I am loath to stick it on eBay given the massive commissions that they now charge but the average selling price for one of these (and it would be impossible to be in better condition) is £473.91 on the auction site. The lens is registered with Lenstag and so I would obviously transfer that over. By clicking on the link you can check that it is verified – such a good system!

I will be clearing some more gear out soon. None of it will be ‘mint in box’ because 99% of my equipment gets used for many years before I sell it on but it will be well looked after, properly serviced and verified by Lenstag.