lens

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.

Zooms Vs Primes

©Neil Turner, October 2014. Shooting my own shadow with a 28mm f1.8 lens.

©Neil Turner, October 2014. Shooting my own shadow with a 28mm f1.8 lens.

Talking and writing about photography on the web seems to have become a whole series of two sided contests. Sometimes it is interesting and a genuine dichotomy (Nikon Vs Canon, Mac Vs PC) where there are absolute direct comparisons to be made and a range of technical and personal preferences to be considered. At other times they are silly (film Vs digital, DSLR Vs mirrorless) where it is comparing bananas with pineapples. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes sits the Zoom Vs Primes debate. Everyone has their own views and everyone’s work is different.

An amazing 14 years ago (and 14 years into my professional career) I wrote a short piece about choosing lenses and why you might like zooms for some jobs and then have the ability to choose a focal length for others. It wasn’t all that long before then that I’d had to use primes all of the time because zoom lenses weren’t up to the job in terms of quality. For me it all changed in 1995 when I switched to Canon EOS for the first time and the original 70-200 f2.8L and 28-70 f2.8L lenses which, along with the auto focus on the EOS1N, changed everything for me. For ages the only Canon primes I had were the 20mm f2.8 and 300mm f2.8L and the vast majority of my work was shot between 28mm and 200mm.

I’ve spent a lot of my career in press pens and fixed positions where I cannot move and where it made sense to use zooms lenses to compose but weighed against that I’ve also done a lot of work where I have a lot of freedom to move around and can position myself so that I don’t need to use a zoom to fill the frame – I’ve been able to “zoom with my feet”. Here’s what I said in 2000:

There are two ways that you can choose which of your lenses to stick on the camera:

  1. You can say “there’s my subject and here I am, let’s see which focal length on my zoom works best”.  Sometimes at sports matches and political events you have your position and that is that, or…
  2. You could say “I want the effect that my experience tells me a 28mm lens will give me so I’ll select that focal length and move to the right position to make that happen”.

Either of these could be a valid option and, in many cases, the first is decided for you by circumstance. Most news photographers use zoom lenses because it makes sense to have fewer lenses when you are never quite sure what kind of work you will be doing on any given day.

Personally, I use a combination of both approaches. If a position forces me to choose a certain lens then I’m with option 1. Given complete freedom to shoot what I want I’d go with 2. More often than not I’ll go with, say a 24-70mm lens intending to shoot at the 24mm end and get in a position to shoot that way. I will shoot several frames and then start to move around, zoom in and out and shoot a variety of similar images, each with subtle differences. I try to make a point of shooting with just about every focal length available to me on every job. Sometimes I am right about lenses first time but often I’m not. What had seemed like an obvious task for the 28mm ends up being a spectacular 200mm shot and vice-versa but the result is that you often end up with images that are just that bit better.

I nearly always shoot on location so I cannot preplan every detail. Going equipped with a range of lenses is vital. Your choice of lens will depend on so many questions running through your mind. How is this image going to be used? Big, small, upright, horizontal, front page? Double page, back page, website, magazine or newspaper? Is it going to have copy running over it? Will it have more than one usage?

If I cannot answer any or all of those questions, then I’ll shoot every variation I can. Shall I start with a long lens, if it’s a portrait then being further away may relax the subject and I’ll get in with the wide when they are more comfortable. Background, what’s behind them? Can I use a change of lens get rid of a poor background?

Answering self-set questions and making compromises is the key to news photography. Choosing the right lenses helps to reduce the number of technical compromises that you are forced to take, giving you more time to make the creative compromises that you want to make.

So has anything changed in the intervening years to make me come back and have another look at this debate? Yes – several things:

  • The resolving power of the camera chip is now so great that lenses need to be sharp to get the most out of that resolution
  • The amount of pixels crammed onto a chip means that you can “zoom by cropping” in a far more aggressive way that you could ever do before and still end up with a file easily large enough for a wide range of uses
  • Zoom lens quality has improved
  • The choice of super-high quality prime lenses has become far wider
  • The quality of digital images means that how a specific lens renders out of focus parts of the frame has become an issue for a lot of people
  • Photographers are constantly seeking ‘an edge’ and to challenge themselves to see their work differently in an era where we all have much the same gear

This debate has raged and it has ebbed and flowed. I’m not necessarily talking about how the worldwide photographic communities have seen it here, I’m talking about my own psyche and what happens every time I pack a bag to go and shoot some pictures. I love the discipline and the way that having three or four prime lenses in a bag makes me think but I have the it when I have primes and cannot move around as much as I’d like to. Short of taking three zooms and four primes on every job (I don’t have an assistant and my fifty year old spine would buckle under the weight) it is always going to be a compromise. Today I’m shooting an editorial portrait where I have plenty of time and it will be just me and the woman that I’m photographing so I’ve packed the primes. Yesterday I was at a job where moving around wasn’t an option and I went with just two zooms.

My internal debate doesn’t end there though. I am always looking back through my work and being self-critical and, if I’m being entirely honest with myself, I am probably a better photographs with zoom lenses. There, I’ve said it. Much though I love using a 135mm f2 I shoot better pictures eight times out of ten with a 70-200 f2.8. The same goes for the 28 and 50 against the 24-70. How can I ever hold my head up in the company of some of my favourite photographers who never use zooms now? Luckily they are all people who don’t care what you use as long as you get the pictures and the rest of my favourite photographers are shooting 99% of the time with zooms anyway.

It turns out that this is a silly debate after all because we are photographers whose goal is to produce the best and most interesting, creative, exciting work that we can within the bounds of what is possible and what is required. I’m going to persevere with my little bag of primes because I want to. When in doubt it will always be the zooms for me – aren’t I the fortunate one to have the choice?

A very old favourite portrait

I don’t know if it happens to you when you are looking for something specific but I often search for images and, quite by accident, find something I wasn’t looking for and then that sends me off on a trip down memory lane. I’ve certainly blogged quite a few times in the past about images that meant something to me – either personally or professionally. This portrait of former General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, John Monks (now Baron Monks of Blackley) was taken in his office at the TUC during an interview with the Times Educational Supplement about his appointment to the Government’s Learning and Skills Council in October 2000.

©Neil Turner/TSL, October 2000. John Monks, TUC General Secretary.

©Neil Turner/TSL, October 2000. John Monks, TUC General Secretary.

The reason that I like this picture is that when I shot it I was delighted to have turned a complete disaster of a shoot into a really nice image. The interview wasn’t going well and the room had a huge picture window which Mr Monks insisted was behind him. The room had dark walls, very dark furniture and no matter how hard I tried the pictures weren’t coming together. I had moved the light (I was working with a single Lumedyne battery powered pack and head with a 70cm shoot through umbrella) to the left of the interviewer and the picture was still boring. There was a decent reflection of the subject in the highly polished table but balancing the lift between the ambient coming through the window and the flash in the room was proving tricky. You need to remember that in those days we were shooting on 1.9 megapixel Kodak DCS520 cameras with tiny LCD screens and you could only get a basic idea of lighting balance.

I was limited where I could place the flash because at that time I was still using Wein optical triggers and the lights in the room had a fault which made them flicker – enough to trigger the flash every second or so. That meant reverting to the emergency back-up synch lead and all of the range restrictions that it placed on where the cable could reach and how it ran around the room.

Gradually I kept changing the shutter speed to allow more and more ambient light into the exposure. I had started at 1/125th of a second at f5.6 on 200 ISO and by the time I got to 1/15th of a second the ambient light really started to kick in and the light reflecting off of the blue tiles and glass in the courtyard outside his window magically took over and eliminated virtually all traces of the gloom and dark wood in the room. I managed to turn the main light off in the room without causing too much trouble – I had to do it because the ambient light inside the room was starting to have an effect on the exposure.

A colourless portrait of a greying man in a dull room sprang into life and I started to relax. This was one of the last frames, shot just as the interview was winding up and it was at 1/8th of a second with the camera resting on the table to try to make sure that there was as little shake as possible. I shot almost all of the interview on a Canon 70-200 f2.8L with a few frames on a Canon 28-70 f2.8L and my old 17-35 f2.8L. Apart from having overcome some difficulties to shoot the portrait, I genuinely loved the colours and I loved the placement of his spectacles. This is a gentle crop that got rid of anything that didn’t add to the overall feel and it quickly became a favourite for a few of the right reasons and many of the wrong ones. That means that it is a good picture and possibly worthy of a place in my portfolio back then but that I was too pleased with my own input to judge that properly!

Sometimes when you shoot pictures through an interview it all goes well and you listen to what’s being said because you are so relaxed. If the pictures are going badly you pick up on the mood of the interview but don’t really hear the conversation. This was definitely a case of the latter. I had no real idea that the interview had been a tough one!

Cool watchmakers

©Neil Turner, July 2013. Alex Brown and Ian Elliott of Elliott Brown.

©Neil Turner, July 2013. Alex Brown and Ian Elliott of Elliott Brown.

I promised to share new work as and when I could and to add a bit of technical detail whilst doing so. This two person portrait shot on a sweltering July day in Dorset for a leading UK business magazine is a great example of the kind of picture I get asked to shoot. The story was a simple one about a new business partnership designing, making and selling very high class mens’ watches.

There was a limited amount of time for the interview, the pictures and a short video grab and so when I got my slot the two subjects, the reporter and the Picture Editor all jumped into my car and we headed about three quarters of a mile from the company offices to shoot on some open heathland because the style of picture I was being asked for needed an expanse of deep blue sky. We couldn’t shoot at the offices because there just too many tall building around and I had to rely on some local knowledge to find the right spot.

The location was far from perfect because I would have liked a decent amount of shade to put my two subjects in. That wasn’t going to be easy and so I had the reporter holding a large black reflector aloft to give me some artificial shade. There was only the slightest breeze but that was enough to force me into something of a ‘plan B’ which was to move into the shade of some tall bushes about fifty yards away. The downside of this was to lose the unbroken blue sky from behind my subjects (you can see some scrubby heath behind them in the bottom of the frame) but it did allow me to balance the flash (single Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with a 32″ x 24″ soft box) with the sky without the subjects being in direct sunshine themselves. Free from his reflector holding duties, the reporter was happy to hold onto the lighting stand to make sure that it didn’t blow over. No matter how light the breeze, soft boxes act like sails!

I have described shooting from the shade a couple of times before and the basic principle is an easy one: the subject is in deep shade and only lit by the flash whereas the rest of the scene is metered normally and the skill comes from balancing the two halves of the exposure. In practice on a bright and sunny day this almost always means the ambient exposure is going to be 1/200th of a second on 200 ISO at somewhere between f16 and f22. All you then need to do is to get enough power out of your flash to balance that. This sometimes means that you have to lose your light modifier (soft box/umbrella etc) if you don’t have a lot of power and almost always means moving the flash quite close to the subject if you want to keep the light modifier in place. Compromise… I’ve used that word once or twice before too. The camera was a Canon EOS5D MkII and the lens was a Canon 24-70 f2.8L.

The two guys in the photograph make some very cool watches. It’s a new business by the name of Elliott Brown and their first collection goes on sale about now.

©Neil Turner, July 2103

©Neil Turner, July 2103

Cleaning glass

©Neil Turner, August 2013, Bournemouth.

©Neil Turner, August 2013, Bournemouth.

I was looking through a few pictures from this summer this morning when I decided to post this picture just because I liked it. The young man in the photograph is a nephew who has just started his own window cleaning business in the Bournemouth area using filtered water and a long pole instead of ladders, squeegees and chamois leathers. I hope that it takes off and I hope that he gets around to putting this on his website. It was taken with my Fujifilm X20 when I was working at the kitchen table on some pictures that I needed to get to a client and the X20 was the camera that I had to hand.

One thought this morning led, as they inevitably do, to another when I read a posting on a Facebook group by a photographer who has never cleaned their own lenses or their own digital camera chips. Cleaning lenses is too easy to go to the bother of driving to a service centre and parting with money. Obviously if you are at a major sporting event and Canon or Nikon are there you’d be a fool to not take up their offers of free cleaning and checks but beyond that you should learn to do it yourself. I say that as someone who never uses filters on a day-to-day basis as protection and as someone whose home is over 100 miles way from the nearest Canon approved service centre. I also say it as someone who used to be a staff photographer based in London with an employer who picked up the tab for pretty much everything and got quite lazy there for a while! I tend to use the Eclipse solution designed for camera chips along with either a very old quality cotton handkerchief or a soft cloth designed for spectacles. Once I’ve done the glass I usually give the outside of the lens a quick wipe down too – there’s no sense in having dirty gear.

Cleaning camera chips is a whole other matter. Getting it done professionally every once-in-a-while makes sense but at up to £50 + VAT per camera I don’t want to get my chips cleaned as often as I want to get my windows at home done. Of course the “self-cleaning” mechanisms built into today’s cameras really help. In the past it was common to get sizeable amounts of dust on the chip which needed to be removed. These days most of the loose stuff goes away with one or two cycles of the built-in cleaning option. Much of the rest can be loosened or removed using a decent air blower (the rubber bulb type) and if all else fails you can buy the right chemicals and sensor swabs to do a thorough job. If I get an offer of a free clean or I’m having a camera serviced then I always get the chip cleaned too. Canon build in a small sticky strip to catch and keep the dust shaken loose by the piezo-electric motors that do the automatic cleaning every time you turn the camera on and off. The service centre replaces that strip when you take your kit in for an overhaul or repair and it is useful to bear in mind that the strip is only truly effective if a) you have the camera with the baseplate pointing to the ground when the cleaning is in progress and b) the strip gets changed regularly.

Because of the distance I live away from the major repair and service centres I find myself cleaning camera chips using the Eclipse solution every couple of months. It definitely has an effect because I then have to re-calibrate the white balance shifts on the cameras. The end result is that I save a bit of money, a lot of time travelling to and from the service centre and an awful lot of time in post-production not having to remove dust spots. When I travel for work I always take some cleaning kit. I was in India a few years ago now and the dust in my ‘weather sealed’ EOS1D MkII cameras had to be removed on an almost daily basis. I’d hate to think how bad it would have been after a week there without having the kit to do my own cleaning.

It doesn’t have to stop with lenses and chips either. Laptop screens, computer monitors and keyboards are all easy to keep looking their best if you take ten minutes to do so. I used to throw my Domke F-series camera bags into the washing machine (which is how my beautiful grey F1X ended up salmon pink thanks to a stray pair of red socks) and these days I get the vacuum cleaner into my camera bags a couple of times a year.

Smash Up!

The caption that goes with these photos simply says “Badminton England takes to the streets to celebrate ‘Smash Up!’ a new way to play in schools, featuring music and text message breaks.” The client , Badminton England, asked me to go along and get a range of stills at a video shoot which would be the basis for a campaign to promote “Smash Up!” The idea was simple: take a few of the best young badminton players in the country to a skate park in east London and get them to hang out, play a few rallies and generally have fun.

This presents a couple of challenges that a lot of working photographers would be familiar with:

  • Fitting shooting stills around a video crew who have limited time and a lot to do
  • Taking pictures that can be used for promotional materials and not just interesting and creative ones

Experience really helps here but so do people skills and it took me a few minutes to work out who was who and what my best options were. There were a lot of skateboarders and BMX riders at the park and they were dressed much the same as the very young video crew. The folks from Badminton England were a bit easier to spot and my plan quickly evolved into one of keeping out of the way when they were shooting the wider video shots and then to get stuck back into the general image grabbing when the video guys were reviewing their work or setting up their next shots.

Very near the beginning of the morning they were shooting some sequences with two of the young badminton stars and three cameras and so I needed to be out of the way. Next to the skatepark is a railway arch with some decent graffiti and so I went with one of the other players and a BMX rider with my lights to see what we could get.

©Neil Turner, August 2013. Young badminton champion and BMX rider in the railway arches.

©Neil Turner, August 2013. Young badminton champion and BMX rider in the railway arches.

And this is one of the frames selected by Badmiton England to be released with the video. Reasonably simply lit with a 24″ x32″ soft box on an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra from the right hand side of the picture, the player stands as if she is about to receive a serve whilst the BMX rider who was lit by a second Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with no diffusion messed around in the background. We shot versions of this with both of them in action but this was the better shot for the purposes of publicity. There was almost no ambient light in the tunnel and so the whole shot is lit by the the two flash heads (running from a single pack). The camera was a Canon EOS5D MkII with a 16-35 f2.8L lens at 1/125th of a second f9 on 200 ISO.

© Neil Turner, August 2013. Rally taking place next to the skatepark bowl.

© Neil Turner, August 2013. Rally taking place next to the skatepark bowl.

Most of the morning was spent shooting action as it happened – either staged by the video crew or as it really happened. It was a case of hanging around with three cameras each with a different lens (16-35, 24-70 and 70-200 f2.8L series Canon lenses) and making pictures. The whole shoot was around two hours and I sent the client just over 90 pictures – 70 of which were these grabbed shots and the other 20+ were staged and lit images.

© Neil Turner. August 2013. Messing about at the end of the shoot.

© Neil Turner. August 2013. Messing about at the end of the shoot.

As fun shoots go, this was right up there. A client happy for me to shoot what I wanted and a video crew who understood that we both had a job to do under interesting conditions and with a very strict time limit. The campaign goes live very soon and I hope that badminton gets the boost in young players that it deserves.

images 34,59 or 78

Fujifilm X20 – the first update

So here is what I’ve decided to do about writing an X20 review: it’s actually going to be a series of short (ish) updates as, and when, I have got something new to say about it.

Typical UK road sign: the weight is given in metric units whilst the distance is in imperial. Are we European or aren't we? ©Neil Turner, April 2013

Typical UK road sign: the weight is given in metric units whilst the distance is in imperial. Are we European or aren’t we? ©Neil Turner, April 2013

I have been shooting with the new camera as much as I can and in as many different situations as I can. I’ve even used it as a third camera on a live commission. Most of the time I have been using the Fuji RAW mode so that I can get the most out of the files and so that I can compare the different ways that you can choose to work with the images. Most people prefer not to have to read long and drawn out musings when they look at reviews – they just want to cut to the chase and so here are a few likes and dislikes in the form of bullet points:

LIKES

  • The colours – straight out of the camera you have clean, realistic and accurate colours. This shouldn’t be a surprise from the company that brought you Fujichrome all of those years ago.
  • Smooth tonal range – at low ISOs the files have a wonderfully smooth tone
  • Handling – the X20 feels good in my hands and it is very easy to hand hold down to some pretty slow shutter speeds.
  • The manual zoom – it is a model of how other manufacturers should be building cameras – enough said.
  • Buttons and dials – related directly to handling but I felt that the way that Fuji have kept the number of buttons down whilst giving you a lot of freedom to customise deserves credit.
  • The optical viewfinder –  it works really well and the addition of shooting information in the viewfinder is a big bonus.
  • Auto Focus – it is good for a compact and tracks moving subjects rather well.

DISLIKES

  • The battery life is not good when shooting with the LCD screen on. It’s a good job that after market NP-50s are so cheap.
  • The Fuji RAW format (.RAF) takes a lot of computing power and a lot of getting used to.
  • Low light performance – I was expecting this camera to be a couple of stops behind a DSLR but I would estimate that it is at least fours stops worse than a Canon EOS5D MkII
  • Video – it is just not that good or easy to use… and don’t get me started on playback!
  • Battery clip – if the small clip that holds the battery in place lasts as long as I tend to keep my compacts I will be surprised.
  • Buil-in flash – it is as weak as consumer models and you have to remove the lens hood if you don’t want horrible shadows across your pictures when shooting flash.
  • Auto white balance – it isn’t that bad actually, except under mixed lighting when it is a bit unreliable.

I like this camera… a lot. That having been said, I am genuinely disappointed with the files at anything over 640 ISO and there is a build quality question mark on the battery clip – especially as you are going to be swapping the battery out for charging with great regularity. If I needed to, I could shoot some editorial assignments with the X20 and that isn’t something you could say about many compacts. More importantly, I would quite enjoy doing so and that isn’t something you could say about any other compact that I’ve used. Professional photographers talk about their “walk about” cameras and the X20 is certainly my choice for that task. It isn’t the “best” at anything but it does represent a good set of compromises and that, at the end of the day, is what you want from a small camera.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this will be a series of updates rather than a single “this is my opinion” review. At the recommended selling price the Fujifilm X20 is a little expensive but the price is coming down on a weekly basis and once it dips under £400 it will become a well-priced piece of kit.

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