Leigh Folk Festival 2015

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20150627_0292-Edit-EditLast weekend was the Leigh on Sea Folk Festival, a local event of performances held around the town over the entire weekend and the preceding days. It’s on my doorstep so I always take a look, but this year I was there in a semi-official capacity as a volunteer photographer.

It was great fun and very hard work. On the Saturday most of the action is centred around two stages in the library gardens and I spent the day moving between them and the smaller “busker’s square”. I also popped into the church, which was holding the open mic contest. That one was a particular challenge due to the low lighting levels, but it also made a nice break from the sun!

On Sunday the action moves to the old town, with stages in car parks and the wharfs. Unfortunately it rained heavily for a while, and the worst of the rain coincided with the parade. That didn’t seem to affect the crowds though, and it was as busy as I can remember in the years I’ve been visiting.

I really enjoyed doing the photography, and doing it officially made a big difference – it gave me a real incentive to shoot more pictures than I normally would, and the confidence to get to the front. I even jumped up on stage at the end of Saturday to get the crowd shot…

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If you think you don’t like folk music, don’t let the name put you off. The artists are a real mix, from traditional folk through singer songwriters to rock – and even a couple of choirs! Check out the website to get an idea of the range of artists and events, and the a gallery of my pictures here.

I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next year!

 

Is it real or is it Photoshop?

castle-finishedI’ve been messing around with Photoshop this afternoon…

I started out with an image I’ve used before – Hadleigh Castle, shot fairly early on a summer morning – and tried to make something a bit more dramatic out of it. I dug through my archives and found an old shot of Stonehenge that had a suitable sky and replaced the original sky with part of that one. I then did a bit of work to bring the colours a little closer and darken down the castle, before topping it off with a couple of bolts of lightning made entirely from scratch.

castle-originalIt’s extremely rough and ready. The lightning bolts don’t really look that good, in my opinion. The one on the right is a bit better, but the technique requires some randomness and is a bit hit and miss. They probably need a bit of fading to simulate the atmospheric perspective that would make them less sharp in reality. The colour matching is still off. The clouds should have a bit of colour in them from the same light that’s hitting the castle.

I was just playing with techniques, and I’m learning this kind of advanced photo manipulation for some projects I’ve got in mind. This was just practice.

There’s a huge amount to think about when making this kind of composite, and getting something convincing requires expert Photoshop skill and a good understand of how light works.

stonehengeThere’s nothing new in manipulating photos like this. I remember seeing an exhibition that featured a 19th century photo that had been made up of about half a dozen different glass plates, and you’d never guess to look at it. It’s just easier to do now.

For the most part, I won’t be using these techniques on this site – this is for straight photos, with just the basic adjustments. My rule of thumb is that if it can be done in Lightroom it’s “developing the RAW file” rather than photo manipulation.

Just remember you can never truly trust a photo!

 

Part II – the analysis

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Following on from the last post, I’ve been doing a little more technical analysis to convince myself I don’t need a new camera.

First off, noise at high ISO. Here are some crops of the image above, taken at various ISO settings. The full size view, which you can see by clicking on each one, is a 100% crop with no noise reduction.

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In order, these are ISO 3200, 1600 and 800. By 800 the noise has practically disappeared, but even at 3200 it really isn’t intrusive. To give an idea of how irrelevent it truly is at web sizes, the full frame shown at the top is the ISO 3200 version.

Also note that the ISO 800 image isn’t as sharp as the others. Camera shake, I’m afraid, even at 45mm and 1/125s. And that’s with VR on – really not good enough! It’s a reminder, should I need one, that the biggest limitation I have is not my camera – it’s my technique.

Finally I tried a little experiment with another image to see how it might pan out enlarged.

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I took a crop and scaled it to A4, A3 and A2 and printed the result. The A4 crop is actually a slight reduction from full size and in each case I sized to print at 300dpi. It really was a quick and dirty experiment, as you can see from a scan of the resulting print on A4 paper:

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It should give you an idea of how big the image would appear printed at each of those sizes. The final one, A2, would be near enough a 24″x16″ print. Looking at the print at arm’s length (and when do you ever view an A2 print much closer than that?), I reckon it’s good enough.

With care, I could probably get an A1 print out of the camera. This shot was handheld, at ISO 400 – if I was shooting landscapes with a view to making massive prints, the camera would be on a tripod at ISO 100 and I’d take a lot more care over the post-processing.

So what would a 24MP full frame camera give me? A bit more leeway, mainly, if I was making large prints – they’d be slightly smaller enlargements and therefore a little more forgiving of less than perfect technique. That’s about it, really.

Given how rarely I ever print anything, there really is no need to change my camera – although I do have to work on my technique! It’s been a useful exercise in that respect.

I don’t need a new camera

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I really don’t need a new SLR. I just need to convince myself I don’t.

20141213_0037My current SLR is a Nikon D7000 that I’ve had for nearly three years. At 16MP, it’s been overtaken by the current generation – 24MP is even available in Nikon’s entry level D3200. So it begins – the nagging feeling that I want to upgrade.

The thing is, though, I don’t really need more megapixels. How often do I print to A3 or larger? Almost never, and my first DSLR, which only had a modest 10MP, was perfectly capable of decent prints to that size anyway.

So what else has improved? High ISO performance is, amazingly, better on the current generation of 24MP cameras. I say amazingly, because in general cramming more pixels onto a sensor of a given size ought to increase the risk of noise. Again, though, my current camera performs perfectly adequately. Most of my shots are taken in the ISO 100 – 400 range anyway, and the 7000 is good enough for the rare times I need to venture into the higher range.

There are a few other things that have improved, but the real boost in image quality would come from jumping to a full frame camera. I’d rule out the 36MP D800. Too expensive, and with RAW files taking about 76MB it needs a lot of storage, both on and off camera. The D750 is tempting. At 24MP it’s inline with the current DX generation, but the larger sensor should mean less noise.

20141213_0024Of course, going full frame means new lenses as well – all of my current lenses, with the exception of the 50mm 1.8, are designed for DX cameras and won’t cover full frame. Any change would require major investment. So why do it? Just for the remote possibility that I might want top notch prints at silly sizes? Just in case? It really doesn’t seem worth it.

I’m trying to convince myself… when the urge to splurge on a new toy gets hold of me it takes a lot of willpower to resist it, even when it’s a lot of money.

I’ve been putting my current camera through its paces to try and convince myself I don’t need a new one, and will be posting a more technical run through soon.

The best camera

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There’s an old saying that the best camera you own is the one you have with you. You might not get a great picture with a cheap compact, but you won’t get any picture with that expensive DSLR if it’s on a shelf at home.

IMG_20140729_204336Although I enjoy photography I’ve never managed to get into the habit of carrying a camera everywhere I go. When I do it tends to stay in a bag all day anyway. Most of my photography is planned, and I’ll go out with the specific intention of taking pictures. Sometimes, though, I see something worth photographing when I’m just out and about.

These days we all have a camera with us all the time. The humble phone camera has come a very long way since the feature first appeared. My phone’s camera has an 8MP sensor, and they’ve improved since then. It takes a surprisingly good picture in the right conditions. The shot at the top was taken yesterday on my way back to the car after a shopping trip, and the others from local strolls over the year (as always, click to enlarge).

IMG_20140729_204336-2The main limitations are the size of the sensor and lack of a zoom. I’d actually argue that 8MP is more sensible on a camera phone than higher resolutions. Most camera phone pictures end up, like these, as small images on a website anyway and 8MP is still plenty enough for a decent size print. Going to higher resolutions on such a small sensor would only increase noise and ultimately reduce quality.

I was surprised by the quality of my camera. The sectional enlargement shown here is at 100% with no sharpening applied in post-processing. The detail is pretty good, and there’s no evidence of colour fringing even though this is exactly the sort of situation in which you’d expect it.

IMG_20140729_202952Dynamic range is also surprisingly good. These shots have been edited to be more dramatic, but the camera did a great job of retaining shadow detail while avoiding blown out highlights. That only really leaves the lack of an optical zoom as a limitation, although with 8MP at least you have plenty of room to crop for web sized images.

I will never start carrying a camera all the time and keeping the battery charged, but I always have my phone with me. In the sense of that old saying, it truly is the best camera I own.

 

Fireworks

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It’s the time of year for fireworks, and since I haven’t had a go at firework photography since the days of film I thought I’d have a go.

20141108_0016-EditAlthough there are plenty of organised displays on the 5th itself, and the surrounding weekends, I decided to try the Southend seafront display. This takes place every Saturday during October and early November and the location has a distinct advantage. The fireworks appear over the amusement park, giving foreground interest that can be quite hard to achieve in firework photos. It’s all too easy to end up with a splash of colour against a black sky, and that’s not particularly interesting.

The display was a mix of smaller fireworks that burst low in the sky and the larger ones that burst higher and lit up more of the field of view. Knowing whether to zoom in to get a tighter crop or out to take in more the sky was a challenge, and totally hit and miss. Luckily the display was long enough, and I got a few decent ones.

It wasn’t worth combining several exposures or leaving the shutter open to capture more than a couple of bursts on one frame. Almost all of them burst in the same area, so they would have just built up to a solid mess of colour rather than fill a wider view.

The next problem was the weather. It had been spitting with rain, but the forecast was for heavier rain a little later in the evening.

20141108_0162Unfortunately it didn’t work out quite like that…

Even the spitting rain was a problem, as I was shooting straight into the wind. Small drops of rain were accumulating on the lens, and eventually they built up to the point where they were causing reflections.

This shot was one of the last I took and shows the problem at its worst, but it affected almost all of the shots. It just wasn’t possible to keep wiping the lens between shots as there wasn’t time, and in any case the effects weren’t initially obvious through the viewfinder.

IMG_20141108_194910The worst was yet to come.

Towards the end of the display the heavens opened. It was one of those ridiculously heavy downpours we’ve had so often this year. Within seconds I was soaked – and so was the camera.

I got it into the bag as soon as I could, but this shows the state of it when I got back to the car.

It’s supposed to be weather sealed, but I’ve never been brave enough to fully test it before. It’s certainly had a bit of test now…

I’m leaving it out to air for a few days and keeping my fingers crossed that no long term harm has been done… much as I’d like to, I’ve not really got the budget for camera shopping right now…

 

 

 

 

Never a bus when you want one

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This is a shot I’ve been wanting to try for a long time.

The light trails across Westminster Bridge with Big Ben in the background is a bit of a cliche, but I had to give it a go. I’m quite pleased with the way it’s come out, although it’s far from perfect.

I didn’t really have the right gear with me. An SLR with a sturdy tripod would be ideal, although using a tripod there would have been difficult and caused an obstruction. As it was, I had a reasonably high end compact and a table top tripod that I balanced precariously on a wall. The results are reasonably sharp – if the clockface looks a bit blurred, that’s more down to the burnt highlights bleeding into the fine detail than to camera shake.

I had to play with the raw file a fair bit, combining two versions of it to hold as much detail in the highlights are I could, while retaining some of the colour in the sky. It was almost impossible to keep the tripod in one position between shots, so combining separate exposures wasn’t an option.

There would have been more light in the sky, but that’s where the waiting came in. There really wasn’t a bus when I wanted one, and even when there was I had a number of efforts that didn’t quite work – figuring out the right exposure took a few tries as did timing the press of the shutter button. I was using a two second timer delay as a method of keeping the camera steady in the absence of a remote release, so getting the timing right was a challenge.

After about three quarters of an hour of getting increasingly cold, two came along at once and I got the timing right. They say you shouldn’t judge an image by how much effort it took to achieve, only by the final result. My verdict is this one isn’t too bad!

Published!

img011img013The last time I used my camera was back in May, and it was something completely different.

A friend of mine is involved with a local charity for the homeless, and in May their new centre was due to be opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although the local press were going to be there, and my friend is also a photographer, he asked me to go along and help out with some photos in the hopes that between us we’d get some publicity shots to promote the charity in the local press.

It was an interesting morning, and very different to my usual pace of photography. Press photography is hard! You really have to be on autopilot with the technical side of it, take loads of photos and hope that you catch the right moments.

img014The group shot in particular was tricky. Getting that many people to look at the camera at the same time proved to be an impossible challenge! I had time to take three quick shots, and a bit of Photoshop swapping of heads between them got a composite where the majority were looking at the camera, but inevitably there were a few who weren’t.

Most of the rest of the shots were formal groupings of the attendees with the Archbishop, and it was those that ended up in the local press. OK, so it was the free sheets and I didn’t get paid for it (it was for charity, after all!), but it’s still a buzz to see your photos in the paper!

20140517_0082-EditObviously very few of the photos I took were actually used, and naturally the papers concentrated on the ones featuring the people involved with the charity. This last one was captured while the Archbishop was giving an interview to local TV, but I quite like it as an informal portrait.

It was definitely a great experience and opportunity to take some photos I wouldn’t normally get to take.

 

 

Colour Calibration

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How does this picture look to you? I can guarantee one thing – it looks different to me, and to anyone else viewing it.

I’m talking specifically about the colours. I’ve viewed this picture on several screens – my computer, my phone, a couple of different tablets and another PC – and the colours were different on each. On the other PC, in particular, the colours were far less warm, and the lower part of the sky was a brighter cyan.

On my Mac, the colours are quite warm with a hint of a magenta cast in the clouds. On the tablets the colours are also quite warm. On the Windows PC, the cast disappeared and the overall colour was colder.

It’s a problem for photographers. A keen photographer may invest in colour calibration equipment to get the colours just right. That’s important when printing, so that soft proofs on screen are as accurate a reflection as possible of the final print. How often do we actually print though? I would imagine I’m like the majority of amateur photographers these days in that my photos are only seen on screen, and rarely printed.

That, then, is the problem with colour photography on the internet. You can tweak the colours all you like to get something that looks right to you, but have no control over how it’s seen by anyone else. No wonder I convert a lot of my photos to black and white!

Experimenting with star trails

20130814_0001-EditWe’ve had a couple of clear nights recently and with the prospect of seeing the Perseid meteor shower I’ve been spending some time in the garden of an evening. I didn’t have much joy – maybe two or three over the course of a couple of nights.

While I was out there, I decided to set the camera up and have a go at star trails. I was mainly aiming to try out the techniques and see what happened. I figured the level of light pollution where I live would rule out getting anything worthwhile, and I was pretty much right.

20130813_0007I started off with a few 30 second exposures, such as the one on the left here, just to get a feel for what I could capture. At that duration, with the aperture wide open, the stars are quite clear but the street light is starting to become obtrusive. The camera has picked up far more stars than were visible with the naked eye.

I tried the stack approach of taking a series of exposures of around five minutes each with a view to combining them in Photoshop. Five minutes is long enough to capture some movement in the stars, and as long as the gap between exposures isn’t too long it should be possible to get continuous trails. Unfortunately none of those experiments quite came off, but I’ve learnt some useful lessons.

Finally I decided to go for a really long exposure – almost 25 minutes (I was aiming for half an hour, but it was cold and I wanted to go to bed!). As expected the sky was getting really bright from the ambient street lighting and the sensor noise was building up. Still, with a little judicious tweaking of levels it was possible to see the stars rotating around the pole star (neither of these work well at thumbnail size, just click for a larger version).

For an experiment it worked out reasonably well, and I now have a better idea of what to do if I can find the combination of a clear night, no moon and darker skies a little further away from civilisation.