Thursday, 6 November 2014

Digital vs Film, Colour vs Black and White, Old vs New, Ed vs Ed

As promised, a more comprehensive look at my changing photography styles. There's some crossover with the previous post but hopefully it will complement rather than clash!

I've been noticing a shift in my style lately. That's not an unusual thing - all photographers, probably all creatives, go through a gradual change of style as they gain experience, knowledge and equipment. Certainly for photographers choosing equipment is a big factor in determining their shooting style. It's part of the defining feature of photography as a discipline - a blend of art and science, with both parameters being infinitely variable.

For me, at this particular moment in time, my style is changing due to the availability of certain pieces of equipment. If that makes it sound as if I've taken a conscious decision to let my equipment define my style, that's not the case. It's more organic than that and opens up a small window into the workings of a photographer's mind (and let's face it, us photographers are complex beasts so we only want a small window opening!).

The pieces of equipment in question are a couple of film cameras. I started out with film as a kid in the dim and distant late 1980s and that's never really left me, so I feel a bit naked without a mechanical anachronism hanging around somewhere in the collection!

First up was a 1966 Canon FT QL, bought for the astronomical sum of £16 from everybody's favourite auction website. I bought it to replace my Canon AV-1, which is a really sweet little camera but doesn't give me the ability to shoot fully manually. In broad terms there's nothing wrong with that but I enjoy having control over every shooting parameter, even if I come to the same conclusions as the automatic systems!



Anyway, three days after I got the QL, I had a chance to do something that I thought was still far in the future - get hold of a medium format camera. It was an offer I couldn't refuse so I suddenly, and unexpectedly, became the owner of a Zenza Bronica ETR-Si and a couple of rolls of Ilford Pan-F to go in it. The 35mm Canon is now my take-everywhere camera and the Bronica lives in my camera bag for serious work. It's a glorious beast of a camera to use, and the 6x4.5 negative format - depending on who you talk to - gives me an image 'resolution' that's somewhere over twice that of my digital camera.



All of which finally brings us to the crux of the matter. Shooting on film is very different to digital. On the surface that's probably a strange statement to make and I'd agree with anybody who said as much. Regardless of the technology, you're looking through a viewfinder and a lens at the same scene, and you're committing that scene to storage by pressing a button. There should be no difference, and if you ignore the psychology of the situation, there isn't.

However.

Knowing that you're shooting an analogue camera does things to your mind. The combination of manual focus and a mechanical shutter release, coupled with knowing that the image will be recorded on a piece of valuable film that can only be used once, makes things so much more immediate. And certainly at this stage of my career, when money is tight and film photography is still the hobbyist side of things, I can't afford to blow roll after roll of film trying to chase one photo so each shot I commit to has to be reasonably spot on.

On top of all that, the lack of information in the viewfinder, and the fact that older optics tend to be of a higher quality, gives a real feeling of being 'in' the shot that's being composed. Things become a lot more intimate and the compositional mind tends to lean towards detail rather than expanse.
I've taken the decision to process my own films, so that means shooting black and white for me. Colour can be processed at home but it's a lot less tolerant than black and white and a much more complex procedure. Also, as I've alluded to previously, I'm very much in favour of black and white for art photography.

So taking all that as a whole, I've suddenly found myself in a situation where the side of me that celebrates monochrome photography has been forced - not necessarily in a negative way - to divorce itself from the side of me that revels in the wide-angled,big sky feeling of my digital photography (Incidentally, the digital side of my work is pretty much the opposite of what I'm writing about here. The equipment - my prized wide-angle lens - was purchased as a result of my changing style).

The upshot of all this is that my digital work - and I suspect this has been more obvious to the outside observer than to old tunnel-vision here - is getting more colourful. I initially thought that all of the shots that form my portfolio would be black and white. These days I'm wondering if I'll ever shoot a digital monochrome again! It's as if shooting on monochrome film has left me free to explore colour, and the potential of the digital camera to record and manipulate said colour, a lot more than would have been the case if the side of me that shoots on film had continued to dominate my thinking across both types of photography. And to be honest, I'm enjoying it. Finding something new to experiment with is the lifeblood of any photographer's technique and I'm no exception. Previously, my main concern was in reproducing colour as the eye sees it, rather than the colour that the camera's sensor picks up. And in hindsight, that's a bit daft, because everybody perceives colour differently. That was brought home to me not long ago when my partner was enthusing about the purples in a sunset and the best I could do was to mutter a sheepish "what purple?"

It's also a happy coincidence that, at the moment anyway, colour prints seem to be a lot more popular from a commercial standpoint. And for the record, that had to be pointed out to me - I'm quite rabid when it comes to matters of artistic integrity so the concept of abandoning my values just to come up with a popular product is anathema to me.

In the long run, hopefully, the black and white will return - once the darkroom I'll be sharing is up and running, I'll be able to make my own prints from film and once I'm back into the swing of doing that I'll be selling those through the website as well. I suppose I'll have effectively become two photographers by that point. Call the men in the white coats...

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Prints now available from the website... at last!

At long last, and after a lot of messing around with print profiles and suchlike, I've found a printer that I'm happy with and am pleased to be able to say that my website is now also an online store.

To keep things simple for the time being, it's mainly unframed and unmounted prints for sale. I'm not offering any framed or mounted prints other than Canvatex, which is a sort of hybrid between a studio block and a canvas. The reason is simple: if I listed every type of frame and mount available, navigating the website would be a nightmare of biblical proportions. Also, the choice of frame/substrate is such a personal choice, dependant on decor, lighting, personal taste and so on, that I think it would do the prints justice if the customer handled that end of things. Having said that, if somebody has a specific requirement I'm happy to fulfil it at my end if that's what the customer wants.

Of course that's just a starting point; if I find over time that there's a demand for certain things, I'll include them as options in the store.

In other news, my collection of film cameras continues to expand, slightly unintentionally, starting with a quick purchase of a 1966 Canon FT QL for the vast sum of £16 on eBay. This was to replace my Canon AV-1 which can't be operated in a fully-manual mode. A few days later, and completely unplanned, I had a chance to acquire a Bronica ETR-si medium format camera, which is a seriously nice piece of equipment. I simply couldn't turn down the offer so I've ended up with two 'new' cameras in the space of a few days.

I'm shooting with both at the moment - the FT QL lives in my car, while the Bronica is part of my landscape kit alongside the EOS - plus there's still a film in my Canon AV-1 to get through. It shouldn't be too long before the darkroom's up and running and whilst shooting on film is strictly hobby photography at the moment, I'm already beginning to think that it would be nice to split my store into sections for digital prints and darkroom prints.

I'm putting together a more comprehensive post exploring the difference between shooting digitally and on film for the near future - I should have it posted fairly soon as long as I don't use up all my spare time accidentally buying even more cameras...


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The other side of the camera, and some product photography.

Well, I'm back in action after a very hard few months following a family emergency of sufficient magnitude to very nearly kill off this project of mine. But I'm back on track now and managed to get out to Derbyshire in the company of Ash from Knightvisions Productions, who was filming me as I chased a shot above Winnats Pass. The idea is to use the resulting footage in place of a written biography on the website, which hopefully won't be as 'dry' as a few paragraphs of blurb about me.

Being in front of the camera is an odd experience, and I've got nothing but respect for the people I used to film in my old job, many of which had no training whatsoever but still managed to come across pretty well. The feeling of being scrutinised by a machine is quite powerful. I think I'd get used to it eventually; in fact, based on the experience and a few questions that got my mind working, I'm thinking up some video ideas for the medium future. Nothing definite or concrete yet but there are possibilities there.

With the whole shoot being about me chasing the light to find a decent photo, the pressure was really on to get a decent shot, and to be honest I was getting a little worried as the evening closed in and the clouds refused to cooperate. Fortunately, at the last minute the clouds broke up enough to let the sun through and the only way to describe it is to say that Winnats Pass filled up with liquid, golden light. I think I did it justice:



It was nice to know that I can still come up with a decent shot under pressure! I'm still working on the video (this is the first week where I've been properly back in action) and my editing's very rusty but it should be up on the website in a couple of weeks.

I've also been doing some product photography for Mary from Crabtree Crochet, an interesting job which really brought home the need to tailor your shooting style to the client. She's got a very friendly, village-y image that would have suffered if I'd just waltzed in, set up my light table and shot everything on a white background. A good proportion of the shoot involved discussing the feel of the shots and building a small set that put that feel across, and also that could be replicated, as part of the job was to give her a starting point for doing her own photography. For a small business making a relatively large number of products it's simply not financially viable (for both the client and photographer) to hire me or any other photographer every time you want to sell something on the net, and it would be fraudulent of me to pretend otherwise. That's the basis of my blueprint for a product shoot - I'll take the first lot of photos for you, then show you how and why they came out the way they did, and then show you how to replicate that yourself with minimal outlay so you can continue along the same lines without having to fork out too much money for somebody like me.

Anyway, the shoot went well, although I think this guy had issues with me trying to photograph his friends:



Saturday, 19 April 2014

Photographing the International Space Station

Bit of a long post I'm afraid, but I wanted to give a blow-by-blow of what it's like when everything comes together!

With the weather improving and a few clear night time skies coming along, I've been able to indulge the side of my photography that I do purely for fun - the night sky. It's not something I often have time for, especially as, without a telescope, I'm pretty much limited to taking shots of star trails which involves several hours' worth of commitment. However, a conversation on Facebook revealed that the International Space Station is very visible at the moment from the UK, so I thought I'd have a crack at that.

I'd never actually seen the ISS before, although (excuse me while I date myself here) I did see Mir in the late 90's. So a reconnaissance mission was in order, and I headed out to a particularly dark field that I know in Lincolnshire. Having found out rough times and directions from the internet, I set the camera up and right on cue the bright dot of the ISS rose out of the west and hurtled across the sky. And I mean hurtled - it's very fast and extremely bright compared to other satellites. It's a proper event and well worth putting aside a few minutes of the night for.

I managed to get off a couple of shots, nothing special but useful for dialling in exposures and composition. Previously, although I knew the raw data, I didn't really know how much sky the station would cover and how quickly. Here's one of the test shots, a 30-second exposure with a high ISO setting:


This was using my 10-22mm lens at it's widest, so you get a real impression of how much ground the station covers in thirty seconds - horizon to horizon usually takes roughly five minutes.

Based on the above, I came to a few conclusions. I figured I could get away with halving the ISO setting to reduce the chances of getting a noisy image. I also decided that the next shot would be a multiple exposure (more on that in a moment), in portrait format, to capture as much of the very high trajectory as possible.

The final piece of the puzzle was the location - I wanted somewhere that would complement the sky and ISS rather than a bland bit of farmland. A road with traffic would be ideal - light streaks from the cars to balance out the station. I live near the A46 and it's orientation is ideal - diagonally to the projected path of the station. Fortunately the Highways Agency had anticipated my needs when they built the new dual carriageway, by heaping up a great big pile of earth to build a bridge. Voila, one high bank overlooking the road.

You've probably gathered by now that the key to astrophotography of any kind is to plan it like a military operation. Photography is always a balance between science and art and this stuff definitely veers sharply towards science.

Anyway, a couple of nights later, I scrambled up the bank and set the camera up with plenty of time before the ISS was due to appear, giving me a chance to take some practice shots, and test my remote shutter release, which is actually an Android app. I started a continuous sequence of thirty-second exposures a minute before the ISS was due to appear. The beauty of using a programmable release is I could just sit back and enjoy the sight of the station flying by.

Why a sequence of thirty second exposures? Simple really - as a digital camera takes a photo, the sensor heats up, and the image becomes noisy. Breaking up the exposure into chunks reduces the chances of this happening or, at worst, puts the noise in a different place in the image. It means more work afterwards but it's worth it from an image quality standpoint.

Here's the raw sequence of the station passing overhead:


The planning really paid off, with the station sailing across the frame perfectly. There's a bit of luck in there as well - the road was nice and busy, and the clouds over Nottingham really add to the composition.

And so to the processing. All the images were tweaked in Lightroom to bring out the stars and the station, and to improve the colour balance, then sent to Photoshop to be composited together. Photoshop is fine for a small number of images like this; for a large batch of images, for example star trails taken over a few hours, I'd use a dedicated stacking program. Having blended the images, all that remained was a bit of cloning to cover the gaps between exposures and a final crop to improve the composition. I have to admit that I'm really proud of the end result, both from a technical point of view and simply because this puny human on the ground can take a photo of a spacecraft, 200 miles up, moving at 17000mph.


If you want to see the ISS for yourself, it's well worth signing up to NASA's email alerts, which tell you when to see the ISS in language that non-astrophysicists can understand. You can do that from their Spot The Station microsite: http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Film!

The past week or so's been a bit of a blast from the past. I've been wanting to get back into film photography for a while, and finally took the plunge and ordered a few rolls of Pan-F to go in my well-used (okay, it's battered) Canon AV-1. I've only taken it out once so far, as part of a filming project, but I'm enjoying the mechanical feel of film photography again. I've got access to a darkroom so it hopefully won't be long to see how far my developing skills have atrophied!

And if that wasn't retro enough, I was going through old cameras with my father and we dug up his Lubitel/Polaroid hybrid:


He built it sometime in the 80's from instructions printed in Amateur Photographer magazine - basically, saw the back off the Lubitel, saw the front off a Polaroid, glue together. I got hold of some film for it, which is super rare, and tried to take a few photos. Unfortunately the film was way too far out of date and all I got was creamy brown sludge on the prints, but it was still fun. There's something very rewarding about such a completely mechanical process.

The Phoblographer has some better photos that I took of the camera: http://www.thephoblographer.com/2014/04/08/take-look-super-cool-lubitel-instant-back/#.U0SDOPldV8G

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Site Revamp

I've spent the last couple of days tweaking my website - a few things are changing and it needs to reflect that.

Firstly, I'm dropping most video references - my heart's in photography and the video side of things means that I'm spreading myself too thin. I'm not giving up on video entirely, I'd be an idiot to ignore that side of my skills, but at the moment, photography is more important to me.

Secondly, my photographic style is evolving. I'm taking a lot more colour shots, playing with weather more, and generally being a bit more dynamic about things. I want the website to reflect that so I've gone for a frontpage that shows that off a bit.

There's a still some tweaking to do - I'm not happy with the drop-in code for social media sharing/following - the results are clunky and I need to find a workaround in terms of positioning. That's the downside of working with a template - whilst I save a lot of time compared to coding my site from scratch, I have to fit certain things around somebody else's design and that's not always the best solution. But in general the site looks a lot better, streamlined and slick. And in terms of functionality it should be easier to navigate, and when I start selling, the shopping side of things will be easier to integrate.

Luck

Took a trip to Minninglow in the White Peak the other day. I had a rough idea of the shot I wanted to get; the forecast was for sun/clouds with a strong wind. I grabbed myself an ND filter before Christmas so the plan was to get a wide-angle shot of Minninglow with the clouds streaking overhead.

Minninglow itself is an incredible place; a burial chamber overtopped by massive beech trees, surrounded by a ring of shrubs, all on a hilltop. This post from the always-useful and absorbing Modern Antiquarian gives a good overview:  http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/1912/minninglow.html

I've been visiting the place on and off for years and recently access has become a lot easier with the addition of a concessionary footpath - previously you had to go and find the landowner for permission to visit. As well as being historically interesting it's a very peaceful place and ideal for just sitting and watching the world go by.

Anyway, I arrived at about two o'clock and had a mooch round inside the enclosure, trying to find an angle that would do the trees and tombs justice whilst still getting a dramatic backdrop for the clouds that were building up. I found a few "possibles" but nothing mind-blowing; same story outside the enclosure; from close up the outer shrubs obscure the taller beech trees. Time was getting on and the buildup of cloud to the west was getting closer but not at the rate I would have liked.

WIth the composition not working out, I decided to drop back down to the footpath and head for the standby location - there's an embankment on the High Peak Trail that affords a good, but distant, view of Minninglow. It's probably where most decent photos of the hill are taken from and one of the most common views as it's very near the car park. It was close to sunset by now, and although the clouds were starting to fill the sky, they were still avoiding Minninglow. At this point I had to make a decision - try to grab a few shots, or get to the car, drive to the other side of Minninglow and see if there were any shots there. Being pushed for time I opted for the former, and didn't get anything decent as the sun had descended into the cloud layer. Got quite a few shots that document the location, but nothing that I'd consider to be a fine art shot. Shots always look different with a few days' separation but, at the moment, the best photo of the day is the one I took with my phone to post to my Facebook page...



So the lesson here is probably that no matter how much preparation has been done, at the end of the day luck plays a part. The clouds didn't behave as expected, and when they did it was too late and the light had gone. Arguably I should have taken the gamble and got myself round to the other side of the hill but time was really tight on that one.

But I'm not complaining. Minninglow is one of my favourite places in the UK and I got to spend an afternoon there. And the nice thing about landscape photography is that your subjects are always there to have another crack at.


Monday, 3 February 2014

Incoming awfulness

Just a warning, really, to anybody visiting my website over the next couple of days. I'm in the midst of reevaluating my priorities and part of that involves a bit of a site redesign - so it's going to look a bit rubbish until I've sorted out new images in the correct resolution.

More on the changes soon.