pearls

Photography as a discussion

Pensioners at a bus stop in Bournemouth town centre on a wet afternoon. ©Neil Turner

About thirty seconds after starting to read yet another essay about photography that doesn’t include any pictures I normally categorise it as one of the following:

  • useful
  • derivative
  • nonsense
  • worse than nonsense

This week there was an exception – in fact quite a big exception. (more…)

Workflow “greatest hits”

The other day I was chatting to a young photographer and trying to explain why a consistent and logical workflow was so important. I confidently referred to my own (this) blog and the many years that I have been writing about photography in general and about workflow specifically. Much to my own embarrassment it took me a few minutes to find the posts that I was looking for. I made a note to come back and create some “greatest hits” lists of posts for various topics and this is the first one – workflow and Photo Mechanic. (more…)

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.

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.

Eye-Fi card workflow

eye-fi_cards When I was rounding up 2013 I mentioned that I had a lot of success using an Eye-Fi card to wirelessly transmit pictures from my cameras (Canon EOS5D MkIII and Fujifilm X20) to either my iPhone, iPad or laptop where I can do a quick edit and caption before sending them to clients. Inevitably I got a couple of emails using the “ask me anything” feature of this blog asking me to describe my workflow. It is similar between an EOS5D MkIII and the Fujifilm X20 except that the former has twin card slots (one CF compact flash and one SD secure digital) whereas the latter only has the SD slot. I like to shoot RAW which means that in the X20 I have to do an in-camera RAW conversion to create a Jpeg to send out. I have two cards (shown left) – an Eye-Fi branded 8Gb Pro X2 and a Sandisk branded 4Gb one. In practice, they both do much the same job but the orange Eye-Fi one has more options should you want to work differently. Without further ado, here is how it all works on the Canon…

Getting the the settings on the card, your camera and your phone/tablet/computer right is the key to getting everything working well:

  1. Setting up the Eye-Fi card. When you get the card it should come with an SD card reader and by far the best way to set things up is to use that reader to load the card into a computer. There are lots of options that will appear once you have loaded the supplied “Eye-Fi Centre” application. This workflow is all about working in what the manufacturer calls “direct mode”. I choose to only transfer the files I want to my iPhone and so on the card I have selected “Selective Transfer” via the Eye-Fi Centre application. This means that only images that I have protected in the camera menu get transferred. On the Canon I have assigned the “rate” button to protect images for speed. It is also useful to add a couple of wifi networks and to define which file formats to transfer using the application whilst the card is in the computer because it isn’t possible to alter some settings once the card is in the camera. This whole process takes a few minutes and if you get it right, the whole thing test a lot easier from here on in.eye-fi_screenshot
  2. Setting up the camera. In the EOS5D MkIII menu there are three things that I’d recommend you do. The first is to assign the “rate” button to protect selected images. The second is to get the camera to write RAW files to the CF card and medium size Jpegs to the SD (Eye-Fi) card. Finally, you need to enable Eye-Fi transfer from the camera menu. This way you can use the review function with card 2 (the SD slot) and then every time you protect an image written to the Eye-Fi card it will automatically look to transfer that file to the device you have nominated.
    eos_screens
  3. The receiving device. I use an iPhone and an iPad and the whole process is eventually controlled by the free app that Eye-Fi make available through the Apple App Store. There are equally useful apps available for Android powered devices and the functionality is pretty much identical. Apart from loading the app the only other thing you have to do is to download and authorise a small change to your wifi settings on your phone which simply installs the settings for the direct mode to work. Once you launch the app you get an opening window which then gives way to the gallery window which in turn tells you what is happening about transfers. Below you can see the card paring screen and the gallery screen.eye_fi_phone
  4. Editing your pictures. Once you have the image on your phone or tablet you can then use the apps of your choice to edit and caption your image before shifting them on. My personal favourite is Photogene4 which has some good image options such as clarity, contrast, saturation, straighten, crop, sharpen and the ability to add IPTC captions – including defaults such as the EXIF time day and date as well as any pre-loaded captions and copyright information. I find that it’s a good idea to write some generic captions using Apple’s Notes app and then copy and paste them into Photogene4. The app also has the option to upload to a wide range of sharing sites as well as to email and ransomer images to FTP servers – making it really useful for work.photogene
    From shooting a frame to having it uploaded to my own FTP server normally takes twenty to thirty seconds if there is a good phone signal and the various uses that I’ve found for this rapid upload range from offering images to people I’ve photographed to providing almost instant pictures for corporate clients to use for their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds at events. This is a very versatile piece of kit and I haven’t even come close to describing everything that it can do. I like the way that this workflow actually does flow and I love the effect that it has had on a couple of clients who really appreciate what it offers them. My first Eye-Fi card was £24.99 including VAT – possibly the best investment that I’ve ever made!