Who needs fireworks?

November 10, 2006

It’s not that dislike fireworks. Just that most photographs of fireworks always look a little too similar to me. When making plans for last weekend, I briefly toyed with the idea of going to a big display, or perhaps finding a vantage point that looked out across London. I decided against, and headed out of town instead.

My reward was a pair of stunning sunsets, much more pleasing than any man-made spectacle. And probably better for the environment too; though it might be that all the smoke being blasted into the sky added to the richness of the colours.

Saturday at Capel Fleet and Sunday on Brighton beach

Capel Fleet sunset
Capel Fleet sunset, originally uploaded by CoeurDeLion.
Brighton beach
Brighton beach, originally uploaded by CoeurDeLion.

I don’t know whether Saturday’s sunset was isolated to that particular corner of Kent. But I’ve seen several pictures that show a lot of south-east England enjoyed Sunday’s spectacle.

Who needs fireworks when you can enjoy sights like those…


Shoot first, think later

November 8, 2006

Sometimes when I’m taking a photo I must look like I’m doing a little “dance”. I’ll shuffle from side to side, bob up and down, and rock back and forth. It’s amazing the difference a slight change in viewpoint can make to the framing and the final effect. Other times, you don’t have the luxury of seeking out the perfect spot or the defining moment. You see something, possibly no more that a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. And if you waste any item the opportunity might be gone before you act.

The bike in Southend Shakedown was parked by the side of the road, its engine ticking over with that distinctive resonant throb that Harleys have. The rider was waiting for his pillion passenger to finish packing the panniers and settle herself behind him. You couldn’t fail to notice his helmet. Even in the middle of a big bike rally, it stood out from the crowd.

In the days when I shot film I used the same body and lens for close to 20 years. By the time I’d lifted the camera to my eye it was switched on and my fingers were hovering over the key controls. I could take a picture in a single flowing movement, with no pause from picking the camera up to pressing the shutter release. I’ve had the 350D for the best part of 18 months now, and although I’m much more fluent using it I still don’t feel that it’s quite the natural extension of me that the A1 was.

Even so, I managed to get four frames off before the bike pulled away. This was by far and away the best of them. Passing riders heading for home made the background a little too fussy in the other frames. The pillion passenger was wearing a high gloss jet black helmet that was just and shiny and provided an interesting contrast to the rider. It’s an interesting image, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good.

Southend Shakedown

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t think about the reflections in the helmet. That, after all, was what caught my eye in the first place. But what would have happened if I’d stopped to think about what I was seeing? Would the reflections have been improved if I’d changed my position a little? Could I have eliminated the hot spot caused by the sun’s glare? Should I have waited until there was no passing traffic so I could step out into the road and take the shot from there?

The chances are that if I had hesitated, especially if I’d tried to find another place to stand, then the bike would have pulled away and I’d have been left with nothing. Even before I went digital I always subscribed to the pros’ adage: film is cheap. When, and only when, you’ve got something in the bag you can allow yourself time to see if you can improve the image. Until then, just remember to shoot first and think later.

Tech spec

September 25, 2006

I’ve never thought that going into the nitty-gritty of all the settings used when taking a photo is particularly interesting or helpful in most cases. There are some instances where you might wonder: “How did they do that?” On the whole, though, I don’t really see that it matters in the slightest whether the shutter speed was 1/250th or 1/500th. But I know that some people do find the detail interesting, so just for them, the facts and figures for Southend Shakedown are…

Camera: Canon EOS 350D.
A more than worthy replacement for the Canon A1, my camera of choice for the previous two decades. It remains to be seen whether the body is quite as robust as the A1 though.

Lens: Tamron 18-200mm XR Di_II LD.
Although a zoom with such a wide range is bound to compromise some image quality, the convenience of carrying one lens rather than two or more outweighs the disadvantages (at least until I can afford a Canon 17-40mm L and am convinced you can see the better quality with the naked eye).

ISO: 400.
I always used ISO 400 film in the A1, preferring to suffer a little grain than have to use a tripod if the light was marginal. The 350D is widely reckoned to be virtually noise free at ISO 400, so I see no need to break the habit of a lifetime.

Exposure mode: Aperture priority.
A fairly recent switch for me.
Way back when, the biggest single factor (apart from cost) for choosing Canon was that they offered shutter-priority automatic exposure and Nikon didn’t. Using the old guide that the slowest “safe” speed for hand-held shooting was the reciprocal of the focal length, I knew that if the shutter was set to 1/250th then I shouldn’t have to worry about camera shake when using my Vivitar 70-210mm Series 1 (which in those days was the lens that saw most action).
Because I’ve read a couple of reviews that suggest that the Tamron is a little soft when used wide open, then, providing it’s pretty bright, I tend to use aperture priority more now, to keep the lends stopped down to f11 (ideally) or f8 (at least).

Focal length: 200mm.

The finished image has only been cropped by a whisker, so is pretty much full frame.

Shutter speed: 1/160th sec.

A little slow for my liking with the zoom at full stretch. But I had to work quickly, so had better things to think about than opening the aperture to shorten the shutter speed.

Aperture: f11.

White balance: Auto.

The EXIF data says the colour temperature was 4850K.

Colour space: Adobe RGB.

Post-processing: The RAW file was converted to a 16-bit TIFF with DxO Optics Pro 3.5 and then edited in Photoshop.

Strike rate

September 20, 2006

Sometimes when you hit the shutter release you are pretty certain that you’ve got something good. Other times it’s not until you get home that the full picture emerges (the LCD screen on the back of the camera doesn’t let you see anywhere near enough to be certain). Southend Shakedown definitely falls into the latter category.

I very rarely go out with any pre-set ideas about what type of photos I am going to take. That’s why I’d probably struggle as a professional because I don’t like working to a brief. For me, it’s a much more intuitive reactive process; something catches my eye, often for reasons that I can’t put my finger on, either at the time or later.

Some days, the pictures just seem to flow, one after the other. It’s akin to the way some sportsmen will talk about “being in the groove” or “the zone” when they are performing well. On other occasions it seems to be more of a struggle; for whatever reason nothing really catches my eye. So I’m always interested in what I’d describe as my “strike rate”, the number of pictures I think are worth putting on display expressed as a percentage of the number I took. What was intended to be a fun day having a few drinks with friends yielded 35 from 93 for 35%. By my self-critical standards, I think this is on the high side so it’s probably a measure of a good (in the productive sense) day. And yes, we enjoyed ourselves too, but that’s another story.

Southend Shakedown

September 19, 2006

Southend Shakedown, originally uploaded by CoeurDeLion.

This is widely regarded as my “signature” photo, so is the obvious choice to launch this blog.

One post a week (or thereabouts) featuring the best of my work.

The story behind the picture, what prompted me to take it, and any other discussion about the process (both creative and mechanical) of taking photos.