Saturday, 19 December 2009

Canon EOS 7D Review Lists

A couple of links to sites with a list of reviews for the Canon EOS 7D. Both were kind enough to link to my own mini-review.

Northlight Images
Planet 7D

Some links are listed on both sites, but look out for the one by Ole Jørgen Liodden that also looks at weather sealing, with a photo of the 7D half buried in snow.

New Series of Images of The Meads

I've uploaded images of The Meads, near Bridgwater, part of the Somerset Levels. One image is embedded below, but a bigger selection will ba available on my main site, when I've finished uploading.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Out and About with the 7D

After the almost constant rain of the last six weeks or so, it's been a pleasant surprise to see the sun and get some decent light. I've spent my spare time so far, using the Canon EOS 7D with my newest lens, the EF 50mm f/1.4. In many ways, it's almost been like relearning photography, as I have always tended to shoot my landscapes wider, to get wide open landscapes with alot of depth of field. Of course, at 50mm, you don't have as much depth of field to work with and coupled with the 7D showing up the effects of diffraction to a greater degree, due to the higher pixel density, I'm having to modify the way I shoot. At the moment, it's a bit hit and miss with the depth of field, as I'm trying to stay with f/8 to f/11, so I'm trying to work out the best way of finding the hyperfocal distance, when the scale goes from 3 metres to infinity and I need around 7 metres.
Some experimentation has shown up the diffraction problems. last week, I photographed the same scene at f/8 and f/16 and apart from the nearest foreground, the f/8 image was much sharper than the one taken at f/16, enough to make me realise, I didn't want to be shooting at f/16, unless I really needed the depth of field. It may mean that I have to consider not including foreground as close as I normally like to, which will reduce the depth in my images, but if I need something like that, then I can still use the 40D, with the smaller image being the compromise.
On a slightly different note, while I was out this afternoon, I had the perfect opportunity to test out the tracking, when a buzzard decided to land in a tree in my chosen scene. While the image is a little noisy, because the head was in deep shadow, with the sun directly behind the tree, the focus tracked the bird as it took off, without any problems, until I lost it momentarily, as it passed the sun (I didn't fancy pointing a 400mm lens at the sun).

Durleigh and Hamp Brooks, The Mead, Bridgwater.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Odd Phenomenon with Canon 7D at High ISO

This evening I decided to play around with the noise reduction settings for high ISO. The ultimate aim was to try to determine whether it would be better to switch the noise reduction off and control it in Lightroom instead and the tests would also determine for sure whether noise reduction had any effects at all in the RAW files, even if in theory it shouldn't.
It was full darkness and heavy rain, with the street lit by artificial lighting (i.e. street lights). I was using the Canon 50mm f/1.4 at 1/50th sec handheld on ISO 6400. Because I wanted to test the detail level, I was trying to focus on areas without the risk of blown highlights and as a consequence the contrast was quite low, making it a challenge for the AF system.
However, I didn't get as far as testing the detail level, as I noticed on the screen, that the camera just didn't focus properly when high ISO noise reduction was set to Standard, if it was compared to the focus when it was switched off.
While this is a static scene and therefore can't be extrapolated to wildlife such as birds in flight, it does make me wonder if this is one reason why there have been reports of some 7Ds not coping very well with birds in flight. Also, I can't judge whether it occurs at all ISO settings or just at higher settings. I do know though, that until I've tested further, I will be keeping the high ISO noise reduction switched off until I can test further.

Visit Avalon Light Photoart for nature photography prints and licenced images.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Event Photography and Carnival

When I went to Bridgwater Carnival a couple of weeks ago, little did I know that I would develop any sort of interest in event photography. I went mainly because my mum was coming up for the weekend and she had never been. It had taken me six years to decide to go and had it not been for my mum, I probably still wouldn't have gone. From a commercial point of view, it makes sense for me to go. The day is pretty much a non-starter where nature photography goes, as I can't get anywhere, with the roads being closed early and it doesn't take much effort to spend a few hours watching, so at least I can make some use of the day. However, since I looked at the results, I have been planning how I can improve next time. I even considered attending Glastonbury Carnival at the weekend and may have done, if not for the weather and logistical problems. While I'm happy with how most of the photos came out, I know I can improve and if I'm alone, I can get into position early, to get the best vantage point.
I'm not going to develop a full scale interest in event photography, but if the opportunity arises where it doesn't take up much of my time that could be better spent elsewhere, then I'll take it.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Bridgwater Carnival 2009

Last night, I went to my first Bridgwater Carnival, depsite living here for six years now. The last carnival I'd seen was about 20 years ago, which happened to be Burnham-on-Sea, so part of the same circuit and things are a bit different now. The lighting was nothing short of impressive on many of the carts, but that I expected from photos, but what really took me by surprise, was the movement, not just the performers, but also the carts themselves. It was also virtually impossible to see the towing vehicles on many of the carts. Some of the carts must have cost several thousand pounds to produce. The joint overall champions were Joust, by the Gremlins Carnival Club and Ramses Revenge (Curse of the Mummy), by Ramblers Carnival Club.
The other new experience was one unique to Bridgwater. Gone are the days of the home made fireworks, but the tradition of squibbing remains. It was difficult to see much through the crowds, but it was certainly worth the experience.
The first set of photos have been uploaded to the gallery linked below.

Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival 2009

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Canon EOS 7D Hands on Mini-Review

The EOS 7D is the latest DSLR camera from Canon. Its principle target use is for fast moving subjects, so is ideal for sports and wildlife. I principally shoot wildlife and landscapes, so that will be the emphasis for this mini-review. It should also be noted, that I don’t generally do reviews and will be comparing it to the 40D, the camera it is replacing for me. That said, this review isn’t a direct side by side comparison, but more of a report of hands on experience so far on an early release camera (firmware 1.0.7), with reference to shooting in similar conditions with the 40D. There are others much more able to do scientific comparisons, so I won’t attempt to pre-empt any results they may achieve and report on. In addition, I have very limited videography experience, so I haven’t tested the various movie modes, other than a little playing around.

General Use and Feel

The 7d feels sturdy and well-built. It is significantly heavier than the 40D, which is by no means a light camera. I haven’t tested its weather-proofing capabilities and quite frankly, I don’t intend to deliberately put it out in the rain to see how it holds out. It feels a little different to hold, which has taken a bit of getting used to. It is more ergonomically curvaceous than the 40D, which I think in time I will prefer.
The menus on the whole, are pretty logical. They are an evolution from previous EOS cameras, including the 40D, rather than a major change. Because of the additional features, the menus are much more extensive on the 7D compared to the 40D. My biggest complaint with Canon cameras remains, the mirror lockup remains hidden within the menus, instead of a dedicated button like on Nikon cameras. Also, despite the ability to reprogram the functions of a number of buttons, it isn’t possible to assign mirror lockup to any of them. One feature I do like, is the Q or Quick Access button, this enables quick access to a range of features, including the AF system and focus point selection, but again, not mirror lockup. I do find the buttons are a little harder to activate with larger fingers, because of the slight recess.
The shutter gives a solid “thunk” when the shutter release is pressed. In silent mode 1, it seems quieter than on the 40D, although it is lower pitched in sound, so a direct comparison may be slightly skewed. This gives me the impression that it is much better for wildlife, but only time with shy creatures will confirm that though.

Exposure and Metering

This is one area where I tend not to use cameras to their full potential, possibly due to previous inadequacies, so it is the feature I have tested the least. I tend to keep the camera set to spot metering, even for landscape use. This allows much more precise control of the exposure, particularly for animals in shade or when using filters for landscapes and testing the various exposure ranges in a landscape.
From the limited use, I find that just like the 40D, I need to slightly overexpose, but only by around 1/3 stop. This does help to limit any noise from underexposure of shadows. The new metering system does have the potential to solve metering problems when using graduated filters and is something I need to force myself to try, as it could shorten the time taken to respond to changing lighting conditions in stormy conditions and close to sunset and sunrise.

Focusing System

The new focusing system is pretty complex and I’ve really only scratched the surface so far. No doubt with time, I will be able to refine my choices for different situations. Ever since the highly publicised problems with the EOS 1D Mk III, Canon has taken quite a pounding of the performance of its autofocus. Reading between the lines, there was a lot of hype and over-reaction, but there were definitely problems. There have been a number of occasions, where I haven’t been entirely happy with the autofocus on the 40D, but it was a significant improvement over the 400D, so the hyped AF on the 7D was of definite interest to me. In light of the controversy surrounding the 1D Mk III, suggesting that some people just didn’t know how to set it up properly, exacerbating the problems that have been well documented, I have been determined to do my best to test out different modes. While I haven’t completed a full test yet, I have tried out the main modes that are supposed to be the most useful for the sort of subjects I shoot.
Initially, I tried AF using my Canon 100-400mm and Canon 100mm macro lenses, but I have now tried some more extensive testing with my new 300mm f/2.8. With both the 100-400mm and macro lenses, I tested the ability of expanded point selections to focus accurately.
I had mixed results on the 100-400mm. With close subjects, focus was very good, but trying to focus on birds in flight that were small in the frame, seemed to reflect many of the experiences noted in some forums. That said, I had some fairly good results too. On one occasion, there was a marsh harrier, at some distance (about the same size in the frame as the expanded points), against a background of trees, with reeds in the foreground. Pretty much at the limits of the lens and with the 40D, it would have struggled. While I wouldn’t say that anything was good enough to sell, out of 70 frames, only about 11 were completely out of focus, with the rest being acceptable for personal use. Also, I had very good results with a kingfisher perched on a branch, in windy conditions, with leaves blowing in and out of frame, in front of the bird. I then tried photographing some mute swans in flight that were much closer than the marsh harrier, placing the central point of the cluster on the head. The results quite frankly were awful (unfortunately, I deleted them in disgust, so can't post them), but there also seemed to be a problem with the IS, as there seemed to be evidence of motion blur, despite a shutterspeed of 1/1600th second, plus they were almost “grab” shots, so the focus may not have had time to lock. Subsequent testing on a stationary subject at home (my back fence) showed that the lens actually front focuses quite badly, at least on the 7D, which presumably becomes more noticeable with distant subjects, particularly large birds such as a swan, where the AF may lock onto the wing tips, exacerbating any other problems. I have since adjusted the focusing, using the AF microadjustment (-20, the greatest adjustment possible), so I need to test further, as well as testing with the other AF modes.
For macro work, I almost exclusively focus manually, but I was interested to see how it would perform, considering some comments about the use of AF on the 7D when coupled with the new 100mm f/2.8L IS macro. As I don’t have that lens, I obviously couldn’t test all aspects, but I could test how the AF would cope with a swaying photographer, handholding at close distance with the original 100mm f/2.8 macro. Focus was ok, but not what I would want, when I used the expanded points selection. Following experience with the 300mm (see below), I want to hold off judgement until I’ve had a chance to test the spot and single point AF modes. Unfortunately, as autumn is upon us, with winter fast approaching, suitable insect targets are disappearing, so further testing may need to wait until the spring. Until then, for critical circumstances, I will continue to focus manually.
Next up was the 300mm f/2.8L IS, so far just with the 1.4x extender. This is one of the sharpest and fastest focusing lenses in the Canon arsenal, so if that couldn’t focus, then not much would. Of course, the narrower maximum aperture meant that depth of field would become an issue, making accurate focusing much more critical. Initially, I used the expanded points selection mode, just like with the other two lenses. As with the 100-400mm, if the subject covered a significant proportion of the frame (at least half), then it was possible to place the expanded points selection over the eyes for pin-point focus and in those conditions it worked very well. However, if the subject was smaller in the frame, so that the expanded selection covered more of the subject, then accurate focus was lost. At this point, I switched to single point mode, with much better success. I was able to use the single point to focus on the head of mute swans that were quite distant, to get sharp focus at the more distant ranges. The faster moving raptors aren’t around at the moment to test how it would cope with such a small focusing area on fast moving subjects and the slower moving buzzards and marsh harriers wouldn’t be much of a challenge for the AF system (other than wingspan problems and depth of field). I then decided to really test the AF system, with a very distant kestrel, that was little more than a speck in the sky with the naked eye. In fact, it was so small in the frame, it was smaller than the single point focus box. As a consequence, the single point focus showed the same problems as the expanded points for such a small subject, as I would have expected. In such conditions, I wouldn’t even have attempted anything with the 40D, as it would have failed miserably. I then tried the new much smaller spot focus, which was incidentally, about the same size as the very small kestrel. While it was by no means sharp, for such a distance, I must say I was impressed how it coped and some of the lack of sharpness is probably as much to do with compression of the moisture in the atmosphere. Initial testing with focus tracking using single point AF, gave good results, which will probably improve with practice.
In summary, the expanded points focus mode can be disappointing, but I suspect this is down to the size of the subject compared to the focusing area as much as anything else. My tests so far, suggest that for close subjects, the expanded points is fine, but for more distant subjects, the single point focus is much better for accurate focusing, provided the tracking can keep up or the photographer can keep steady enough. If spot focusing is required, then chances are, the subject is too distant anyway, so tracking moving birds etc., is more of a moot point with it, being more useful for static subjects, such as a kingfisher between leaves, which is a different type of challenge for an AF system. Also, some reported poor results may be due to lenses that need to be calibrated. Most will probably be close enough to optimum focus not to be noticeable, but some may require a significant adjustment.

Tonal and Dynamic Range

This isn’t easy to qualify, but I have been able to photograph some scenes with quite a high dynamic range, including some in which I was able to shoot without the need for a neutral density graduated filter. Tonal range seems to be at least as good as the 40D, certainly enough for most scenarios. No doubt a full frame sensor would exceed what the 7D can achieve, but it holds its own, to produce good landscape images, with plenty of resolution. One concern I have had, is that images from my zooms (even though they are L zooms) may appear soft, from the extra sensor resolution, but so far, I’m not finding too much of a problem, although I am yet to try out my 17-40mm f/4.0L, which is the lens that seems to be more affected on the 5D Mk II.

Noise Control

One of the features I was looking for in a camera to replace my 40D, besides a higher resolution, was better low light capabilities. High ISO capability is handy, but only so far as the quality of the images produced. If the high ISO settings produce high noise levels, then it limits the use of any photographs obtained. When I first saw the press releases, I paid close attention to the sample images in the pre-production reviews that were circulating, particularly the scant few that looked at wildlife. Sometimes I think too much is made of noise, people can sometimes lose sight of the fact that some images simply wouldn’t have been possible at low ISO. However, if the detail is obscured by the noise, then it is pretty much unsaleable. The 40D was pretty good up until ISO 800, provided exposure was good, but then it started to deteriorate, although in some circumstances you could get away with ISO 1600, if the background wasn’t uniform. So far, Adobe only offer beta support for 7D RAW files and I’m not keen on Canon’s software, so it isn’t possible to see the full potential yet, but I would say that the 7D is at least one stop better than the 40D, pretty impressive for those extra 8 MP. I’m hoping it will prove better than that, but time will tell. From the images I’ve seen taken with the 50D, it is an even bigger improvement in terms of noise control at high ISO. One thing that is certainly improved is the banding of noise that was a feature of previous Canon cameras at high ISO. The noise on the 7D is free of banding and is much more pleasing and less distracting as a result. The dedicated second DIGIC IV processor is certainly having an effect.

Conclusion

The Canon EOS 7D is by no means a miracle camera, but it has narrowed the gap in terms of noise control with Nikon. Whether or not it exceeds the capabilities of Nikon cameras is a matter of debate and may be down to personal choice, as most early indications, based on reviews suggest that the quality of noise is different and therefore not necessarily comparable. In addition, Canon have increased the sensor resolution, without any noticeable decrease in performance in other areas. If I’m honest, I would have liked to have seen the results if the sensor had stayed in the 16 MP range, but I’m happy with the results as it is. The frame rate is ideal for both sports and wildlife photography, where the moment can sometimes fall between shutter releases, making the frame rate vitally important. There are many arguments between full frame and crop sensors, but the fact remains, that the effective magnification from the crop sensor is very important for wildlife photography, where you often need as much reach as possible, plus it would have lowered the frame rate considerably. It has its downsides, but overall, the APS-C sensor in the 7D is what makes it so appealing to the semi-pro or enthusiast wildlife photographer. Professional photographers will probably stay with the 1D series, particularly when the eagerly awaited Mk IV is released, but the 7D would make an ideal second camera even for professionals, particularly where weight is an important factor.
Autofocus aside, there are very few limitations. It would be nice to have a bigger image buffer in RAW shooting, but that teaches you to choose your moment. Metering seems pretty good and with more testing it could be even more useful and noise control is also significantly improved over the xxD series. The autofocus still needs further evaluation to confirm its performance and best shooting modes for different situations, but it does look promising also. Overall, the 7D is a worthy upgrade from the xxD series and will also appeal to semi-professional and professional wildlife photographers as a second or backup camera. Will it tempt Nikon owners and is it a world beater? Probably not, but then it would have to be something pretty special to tempt Nikon owners to switch systems, having invested a lot of money in glassware. In this price range, after thinking about whether it would be worth switching to Nikon for a while, I think Canon just about has the edge, at least for a couple of months. Some of the early niggles will also be fixed by the first firmware updates too.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Photography Basics

All art forms have their techniques, which should be learnt, but photography is probably unique in the amount of technical expertise that is required to achieve good results. Some of this technique involves the use of additional equipment, such as flash, strobes and filters, but before any of this equipment is used, the basics must first be mastered. Despite the obvious differences, film and digital photography have much in common and while the method of capture has changed, the terminology is equally applicable, even the ISO or ASA.

Film and Sensor Sensitivity

In the days of film, film was categorised by its American Standards Authority (ASA) sensitivity, which later was reclassified by the International Standards Organisation (ISO); it is this latter designation that has been passed on to the digital age. It was often referred to as the speed of the film, because the higher ISO ratings allowed higher shutter speeds to capture faster motion. The slowest film in general use was ISO 25, but the most commonly used film was ISO 100, which was ideal for everyday use in a variety of conditions. Digital cameras typically start at ISO 100 or ISO 200 and some can go as high as ISO 12,800, something that was unheard of in the days of film, although some slide film could be “pushed” quite high, as much as two stops above its rated ISO in some films. The amount of noise (assuming equal noise reduction algorithms) is dependent on sensor pixel density. The more pixels in a given area, the greater the resolution, but the greater the noise characteristics. The smaller sensor size of compact cameras, is therefore more likely to produce high levels of noise, due to higher pixel density, when compared to DSLR cameras with the same megapixel resolution.
Each time the ISO doubles, it lets in twice as much light and is the equivalent to a full stop by that definition. However, higher speed films tended to have larger grains, giving a grainier appearance in the resultant prints. Likewise, increasing the ISO of a digital sensor increases the noise that is present. The combination of increased noise and higher levels of noise reduction, either in camera or in post production can soften the detail in an image. The amount to which this matters, depends on the subject matter, the more detail there is in an image, the more important it is to preserve the detail. An example would be the fine textures in bird feathers, where detail is vital.

Aperture

The aperture is measured as a function of the focal length of the lens; it is inversely proportional, so is usually defined by f/x, where f is the focal length and x is a number which represents the aperture size. Because it is an inverse, increasing the f number actually decreases the size of the aperture, so f/2.8 is wider than f/5.6. Aperture has a very important effect on the image and when used correctly, can be the make or break of an image. It can also be used to good creative effect. Each full stop allows twice the amount of light in as the previous aperture. Many modern cameras can be adjusted by a third of a stop. The full stops most commonly encountered are f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16 and f/22. There are narrower and wider apertures, but they are only available on certain lenses.
The size of the aperture has a big effect on the depth of field, this is the amount of the image that is in sharp focus, from the foreground to the background. A narrow depth of field results in a very small amount of the image being in sharp focus, while a deep depth of field results in most of the image being in sharp focus.
Wide apertures (such as f/2.8) are very good for portrait and wildlife photography. This is because they result in a narrow depth of field, which throws the background out of focus, helping to isolate the subject from an otherwise distracting background. Conversely, narrow apertures, such as f/16 result in a deep depth of field, which is an effect that is needed in landscape and architectural photography, so that as much of the image as possible is in focus.
Caution should be exercised though. Lenses are generally less sharp, especially at the corners, at their widest aperture, so often it is better to “stop down”. This is the practice of closing the aperture slightly. At the other end of the scale, with narrow apertures, you start to see the physical limitation called diffraction, this is where the light is bent as it passes through a narrow aperture and is a function of physics and not the lens. The resultant side effect of diffraction is again image softness. Some lenses start to exhibit the effects of diffraction earlier than others and natively sharp lenses are still able to produce sharp images at apertures affected on other lenses. Generally, diffraction sets in from around f/11, but it isn’t usually until beyond f/16, where the effects start to visibly affect sharpness. Sometimes, a scene is so expansive, that a very deep depth of field from a narrow aperture counteracts the diffraction to a great enough degree to make it worthwhile, but it is best not to go any narrower than f/16 unless absolutely necessary.
Just to complicate matters further, it isn’t just aperture size that affects the depth of field. Sensor size also has a role to play, the larger the sensor, the narrower the depth of field. Compact cameras have a much deeper depth of field, which makes it much harder to produce background blur, but does make keeping the whole landscape in focus easier. At the other end of the scale, full frame cameras (cameras with a sensor size equivalent to traditional 35mm film) have a much narrower depth of field, so much more care needs to be taken when preparing landscape shots. So-called cropped sensor DSLR cameras are somewhere in the middle, as they have a smaller sensor than full frame, but a much larger one than compacts. In addition, lens focal length is important, the longer the focal length of a lens, the narrower the apparent depth of field, as the increased focal length compresses the scene, making it easier to throw the background out of focus.

Shutterspeed

Shutterspeed controls the speed at which the shutter flips up and down, letting light onto the film or sensor. The longer the shutterspeed, the greater the amount of light that enters the sensor or film. Each full stop shutterspeed allows twice as much light as the next fastest. Like aperture, modern cameras are usually able to be adjusted by a third of a stop. Examples of full stops include 1/15 sec, 1/30 sec, 1/60 sec, 1/125 sec, 1/250 sec and so on. As can be seen, it is much easier to predict the effect on light, just by looking, than with the aperture. For example, 1/250 sec is twice the shutterspeed as 1/125 sec, so therefore will let in half the light. Faster shutter speeds allow the capture of fast motion, so are ideal for sports and wildlife. Slow shutterspeeds allow for motion blur, so are ideal for creating the silky effects of water in some landscapes.

Putting it all Together

The key to a good photograph though, is to get all the different aspects right and to do that, you need to understand how they interact. To get the right exposure, you need to get adequate light into the camera and it is how you control the different aspects, that determines the exposure. If you increase the shutterspeed by a full stop, you are halving the amount of light, therefore to compensate, you must either open the aperture by a full stop or increase the ISO. So for example, if you change the shutterspeed from 1/125 sec to 1/250 sec, you must open the aperture from f/5.6 to f/2.8 or increase the ISO from 100 to 200. Likewise, if you close the aperture from f/8 to f/11 to get more depth of field, you must decrease the shutterspeed, say from 1/30 sec to 1/15 sec or increase the ISO. It all sounds pretty complicated and it is to a degree, but the key is to practice; eventually it all comes together. Also, there are ways you can reduce the amount you have to think about each time, by using either aperture (Av) or shutter priority (Tv). By using these modes, you can set the camera, so that only one of either the aperture or shutterspeed respectively is varied by you. In aperture priority mode, you control the aperture and the camera adjusts the shutterspeed accordingly, if you need a faster shutterspeed, you can increase the ISO. The same principle applies with shutter priority. The more you practice, the easier it is to remember and eventually deliberately change things to get different effects, adding creativity. You’ll make mistakes to start with, probably alot of them, but it will come and remember, even the most seasoned of photographers make mistakes, they just don’t show them to people.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The First Photographs from the Canon EOS 7D are up

Ever since I received the delivery of the Canon EOS 7D, the weather has been pretty awful, the sort of days that are totally uninspring, dull grey, uniform cloud cover or absolutely chucking it down. Not good for inspirational landscapes and not enough light for wildlife. I did manage to shoot a few successes with the help of flash in my back garden, but that was it.
Today though, it was a glorious day, classic autumn sunshine, with the soft golden light this afternoon. Even better, I had the afternoon off, so off I trotted to Shapwick Heath, one of the local nature reserves and one I frequent regularly and was so successful for otter sightings last year. I struck lucky quite early after arriving in mid-afternoon, as I had my best sighting of a kingfisher. It was a bit of a challenge for the autofocus, as there was alot of tree cover in front of it, with leaves and whole branches being blown in front of the bird. The focusing worked very well though, with a 100% success rate with the autofocus (much less with manual focus).

I was using the expanded point focus setting, which seemed fine for the static subject and wasn't fazed by the leaves and branches.

So my first real outing was deemed a success and so far, I'm happy with what I am getting. The noise seems an improvement over the 40D, if not a dramatic improvement, despite Adobe only providing early beta support for the camera.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

New Canon 7D has Arrived

My new Canon EOS 7D arrived this morning, courtesy of Warehouse Express. I haven't really had a chance to use it in anger yet, although I did go for a walk this evening. There was very little to aim at and the light deteriorated quite a bit, so the testing didn't go well. I definitely need to take more time to read the manual.
First impressions on the feel, it is heavier than my 40D and also looks larger. There is more of a ridge, than a curve, where my right thumb sits, so that will take a slight change in grip. The shutter sounds a little quieter than the 40D on quiet mode 1, although it is a deeper sounding thunk, so it's not so easy to compare. The Adobe RAW convertor and Lightroom aren't fully compatible yet.
Hopefully, I'll get a chance for some proper testing at the weekend. I'll probably write a comparison review once I'm more use to it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Untapped Source

I've created a new gallery at The Untapped Source, a site that specialises in fine art prints. It offers an outlet to a different market. I will concentrate on my landscape work there initially.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Calendars for Sale

I now have a number of landscape and wildlife 2010 Calendars for sale on my Redbubble site. They are printed by Redbubble on a heavy duty paper, much higher quality than you would find in the high street. Some people make use of the images after the end of the year to make framed prints, although the paper quality isn't as high as fine art paper of course. They are 15% off this week, so be quick for the best value. The calendars are one page per month, with a photograph on each. The pages can be viewed from the site.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Wildlife Photography

Wildlife is a popular subject for many photographers. Many will specialise in other subject matter to make money, but photograph wildlife for pleasure. However, it isn't straightforward. To be successful as a wildlife photographer takes more than being a good photographer, you also need to have good fieldcraft and know the animal. Many professional wildlife photographers will spend weeks or months on a project, trying to get close enough to get the shots they need. Some animals are used to people, so they are much easier to get close to them and get good compositions, while others take alot of patience. Even some insects are very difficult to get close to.
Equipment is also problematic, as the specialist lenses required are very expensive. While landscape photography requires a number of filters, the cost of the lenses in comparison is relatively inexpensive for good quality glass. While you may pay upwards of £1000 for a high quality prime lens, a high quality prime lens for wildlife work is upwards of £3500. Also, the difference in quality between a good wide-angle to standard zoom and a prime is minimal, so the primes are less attractive. However, with a few exceptions, there is quite a large difference in quality between telephoto zooms and primes.
I use the Canon 100-400mm L IS lens for most of my wildlife photography. While it isn't the highest quality, it is still good, plus it is light and relatively inexpensive. I do find that I'm always looking for more reach though. When the situation dictates, however, it is the ideal lens for tracking and stalking animals, because of it's relative lightness and flexibility as a zoom. I also use the Canon 100mm macro for my macro work, although I am considering a longer macro lens for some of the shy insects. Common to all macro lenses, the image quality is outstanding and despite not being an L grade lens, it has good build quality.
Using a telephoto lens takes alot of practice to get optimal technique. It is very easy to blame the lens for poor image quality, when it is simply a case of not applying good long lens technique. As with most photography, a tripod will give the best chance of a sharp image, but it isn't always practical. Image stabilisation is a boon, as it gives you a much greater chance of sharp images, particularly at slower shutterspeeds, but with the older lenses, you must remember to switch it off when mounted on a tripod. Beanbags and monopods are often more use than a tripod, as they don't need time to set up and are easier to carry unobtrusively. This is important when the animal you're stalking may only present a photographic opportunity for a split second. Having a good stalking technique though, will give you the best chance of being able to take a bit more time to get the composition right.
Stalking animals takes practice. They have a much better sense of smell than humans, so it is important to approach downwind of them where possible. Better still though, is to let the animal come to you. This is where fieldcraft and knowledge of the animal really comes in. You can either observe an animal and predict where it is going, so that you can get in place before it gets there or you can observe signs and stake out a likely spot. These are the sort of tactics that work for the Eurasian otter, particularly the coastal animals in Scotland. Even insects need to be approached carefully. It is important to be aware of where your shadow is, as the moment your shadow goes over the insect, it is likely to fly off. Instead, try to approach, so that your shadow is behind you. Failing that, try to make yourself as small as possible, so your shadow is shorter. It may be necessary to make the final approach by crawling. In all cases, you need to move slowly, so as not to seem a threat. Some insects have better vision in some areas than others, so learn where their blind spots are. While basic principles apply, each animal is different, which is why it is important to know as much as possible about behaviour.

Composition is just as important in wildlife photography as any other form. It is very easy to get the standard shots, like a side on deer or the top view of a butterfly, but try to think of different angles or look for specific behaviour. Also, don't necessarily go for the close up, sometimes it is much more interesting to photograph a subject, in context with it's environment. Think about depth of field, for closeups, you want to blur the background, so go for a wider aperture, conversely, a context shot may need the background in focus, requiring a narrower aperture. Also, make sure that the shutterspeed is fast enough to freeze the subject or wait until it freezes, unless you are deliberately looking for motion blur or are going to pan. This may mean that you need to increase the ISO setting. While you should always use the lowest ISO setting possible, you shouldn't be afraid to increase it when necessary. It is better to get some noise, than get a blurred shot because the shutterspeed was too low. Bear in mind also, that too much noise may be so distracting, that it renders the image useless for anything but personal pleasure, so learn when it isn't worth bothering.
Learning wildlife photography can be quite difficult, partly, because the opportunities for practice are less than landscapes and you don't always get a second chance. I have enjoyed learning the techniques though and look forward to perfecting and learning more.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Photographic Passion

In my last blog entry, I talked about my thoughts and decisions surrounding my photographic future and career path. I talked of how I'd considered what subject matter I shoot and whether I could make money from it. My conclusion was to continue to shoot what I enjoy, instead of switching to something more commercial. But what is it that I enjoy?
When I was younger, before my long break from photography, I shot mainly railway scenes, trying to combine them with beautiful scenery when I could. I also photographed at many air displays, shooting both static exhibits and fast moving jets. At the time, I was using a Zenith 11, which created some challenges. To start with, the light meter wasn't through the lens and it tended towards underexposure, by as much as one and a half stops. That was surmountable though, I just had to compensate, compensating further when using a telconverter. More problematic though, was the maximum shutterspeed of 1/500th of a second, very slow for such fast moving objects as jets. I coped though, probably more so than now when I need to pan. Later, when I was too busy concentrating on a career in science to practice photography, I was limited to photographing historic architecture while on holiday.
When I took up photography seriously again though a couple of years ago, switching to digital at the same time, it was landscapes that I concentrated on. I have spent many hours practicing and perfecting my technique on photographing landscapes in my local area and getting used to using various filters. I enjoy landscape photography and the challenges it provides, the chance to visit the local area and to go for walks. However, my real passion is for wildlife.
From a very young age, I watched wildlife programs on TV. As with many children, African wildlife spurred the imagination, largely in part, because that was the biggest subject matter shown. It is only in more recent years that more local wildlife has been shown on TV. However, one British animal that did feature in my imagination was the Eurasian Otter, although at the time, I wasn't aware of other otter species. Being from Devon, in the UK, I was never far away from Tarka country, the area in North Devon where the story of Tarka the Otter was based. Throughout my childhood, the otter was seriously endangered and it was thought that it may soon become extinct. That is possibly why it caught my imagination, it had that air of mystery about it and it could be a constant dream to see one, but at the same time a dream that seemed unacheivable. Often dreams never match reality, so it would seem that my dream would never be sullied by reality. Now though, the otter has recovered significantly in Britain, so that dreams can become reality. I saw my first otter in Scotland, in March 2008, underneath the Kessock Bridge, just outside of Inverness and was hooked. I then spent several days over that spring and summer searching for otters on Shapwick Heath in Somerset, a place that is considered to be one of the best places to see them in England, largely because they don't stick to their usual nocturnal habits, but also because the population, while still being vulnerable, is much healthier than it once was. This year, they don't seem to be as numerous, but they are still visible there and in other areas of the Avalon Marshes.
Alongside my burgeoning interest in otters, was my interest in macro photography, in particular dragonflies. Wildlife photography generally is more difficult because of the fieldcraft involved and the element of luck, you can't expect animals to be present on tap, but macro photography allows you to photograph other subjects while waiting. Of course, they are also part of the story, without insects, other life wouldn't exist, fish and amphibians need them to survive, just as the otters need the fish.
Having decided that I wanted to continue to photograph wildlife and having decided it wasn't as easy to teach myself, as I could with landscapes, I attended some photography workshops with Laurie Campbell, one of the prominent Scottish nature photographers. I had already attended a wildlife week at the Aigas field centre, nearly Beauly, Inverness-Shire and the photography workshops they organised seemed very good value. Laurie is an inspiration. The first workshop was awful weather, yet he demonstrated how it was possible to take photographs in even the worst weather and it forced me to try new things, even still life images of plants and motion blur shots of birds at a feeder. It literally broadened my horizons.
So with my passion for wildlife reaffirmed and a new found reason for my landscape work, it better equipped me for the next stage in my progression. And so the quest for more than just record shots was born. I am now looking to create more artistic work, starting with macros, where I can practice, but with ideas for larger plans and projects slowly forming. My recent shortlisting for the British Wildlife Photography Awards has shown that I have made some progress, but there is still more I need to do. It's been frustrating not being able to get out with my camera over the past few weeks, but hopefully I can soon get on with my planned projects.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Photography to Sell or for the Pleasure?

We've all dreamt of that job, where you can combine pleasure with earning a living - so we can give up that mundane existence at work and I'm no different. I've been trying to sell my photos now since October 2007, when I got my first digital camera, a Canon 400D and signed up to Shutterpoint. As pressures at work got worse and the stress levels increased, I began to think of ways I could earn a living, enough so that I would be able to tell the boss to stick it one day. I'd been through the process before, thinking of things I could do, could I make use of my audit and quality training? Could I start up a mobile computer repair service? Both had been discarded for different reasons. In this new round of musing though, I was considering photography. Specialising in a saturated market though, means that sales are few and far between.
That was when I did some soul searching. Should I continue to photograph what I like, such as landscapes and wildlife, or should I shoot more commercial subjects? I probably have the greatest aptitude for historical architecture, probably from all the practice on holidays, visiting historical sites across Europe. Over the past couple of years though, I've concentrated on improving my landscape photography, to the point, where I think I can hold my own with alot of people and produce images with impact. It doesn't always work out of course, but I can tell when I'm in with a chance. My real passion though is wildlife, although I don't get as much opportunity to practice and I've produced a number of macro images in particular that I'm proud of. It gave me a real buzz to be shortlisted for the 2009 British Wildlife Photography Awards, even though I didn't get any further. Despite that though, it doesn't earn much money and that brings me back to the decision process I went through almost a year ago now. Advertising is where the real money is (although the recent recession has cut many advertising budgets) and anything showing people or human activity, especially children sells well. However, as a landscape photographer, it is almost the antipathy of what I do. To go from cursing under my breath to actively pursuing people would be quite a change for me, not to mention a whole new learning process. Another option would be electronics, food and other similar still life work, but I find such photography soulless. Many excel at it, but it has never really interested me. It was then that I decided, that the day I started photographing purely to make money, instead of photographing what I enjoy, would probably be the same day I put the camera back in its box, never to see the light of day again.
Having been through that thought process, if anyone asked me what they should photograph, my response would be "whatever you enjoy photographing". If you photograph something you enjoy, then there is a greater incentive to learn and improve, ultimately making you a better photographer and in a roundabout way, there is a greater chance of success, albeit, not necessarily in monetary terms. As artists, we are all looking for critical acclaim and while money is nice, I think that is what is important, to be lauded by your peers.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Landscape Photography Part 2 - Technique

In part 1 I discusssed the artistry behind landscape photography. Before I start on the technique, I'll say a little about micro landscapes. Micro landscapes are pretty much as the name would suggest, landscapes on a small scale. This could be a detail shot of a small area or perhaps even a macro image showing the minute details in a very small scene, maybe showing the habitat of an insect or other small animal.




Some assumption is made below regarding knowledge of photography basics, such as depth of field, aperture size and the relationship between the two. There are a number of articles available that describe the basics of photography if needed. I may cover some basics in a future blog entry.
Whether a micro landscape or a more traditional one, the basic technical issues are similar. Some form of support is essential. Normally this would be a tripod, but if the conditions dictate, a beanbag could be used or perhaps rarely, a monopod. Beanbags are particularly handy for low level perspectives or if the conditions are very windy. Some tripods are also able to be dropped down very low to the ground. Generally speaking, shutterspeed is a secondary consideration to aperture size and ISO setting. Unless conditions are windy and a faster shutterspeed is required to freeze foliage, then the slowest film speed or ISO setting should be selected, which for most digital cameras is ISO 100 (some may require the use of a "low" setting to achieve ISO 100 and some may offer ISO 50). Aperture is dependent on the scene itself and how much depth there is. For most landscapes, an aperture of f/8 to f/16 should be selected, occasionally narrowing the aperture to f/22. Most scenes contain quite alot of depth to them, so to get adequate depth of field, f/16 is needed, in order that the whole scene is in sharp focus. Sometimes a scene may not require as much depth of field, for example, photographing a waterfall or cascade from a distance, when there is very little background. In such cases, it is better to aim for a slightly wider aperture such as f/8 or f/11, as most lenses are sharper at the slightly wider apertures (i.e. mid-range). It is also preferable not to go narrower than f/16, as you start to get problems with diffraction, which is a physical barrier and one that will soften the image. At f/22 it is easily noticeable, but there may be occasions, where the need for more depth of field outweighs the effects of diffraction. Beyond f/22 though, the image is little more than a soup without much detail and should be avoided. A natively sharp lens will be sharper at f/22, even though the effects are just as great, so high quality lenses will still allow a higher quality image. One last thing to consider is the camera you are using or more to the point, the size of the capture device. Film cameras and full frame digital cameras will require a smaller aperture than crop cameras (smaller sized sensors) to get the same depth of field.
The key to taking a competent landscape photograph is to understand how the different settings on your camera interact with one another and what effect they have on the resultant image. The first point of call is your user manual, it is surprising how much useful information you will find, they don't just contain instructions for use, but also chapters on making the most from your camera. Being able to take a great landscape photograph however, is a different story. It is something that takes lots of practice, luck, swearing and visiting an area several times until the light is just how you want it. It is important to know your camera inside out, so that you can then concentrate on the creative side to try out different ideas.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Landscape Photography Part 1 - The Artistry

Landscape photography is perhaps one of the most varied forms of photography, ranging from urban landscapes, through to dramatic mountain scenes and even micro-landscapes; the small scale landscapes of small subjects. The basic rules and principles remain though, whatever the subject.
The key to a good landscape is maximum sharpness across the whole scene and to have a strong subject or lines. To get maximum sharpness, a tripod is essential. Even when you're able to use high shutterspeeds, there is some softening of the image if a tripod isn't used. Sharpness can also be increased by using mirror lockup and in fact for longer shutterspeeds, it is imperative. Weather conditions can also affect the quality of what may otherwise be a perfectly good landscape image. Wind is often the bane of a landscape photographer, especially without a solid, sturdy tripod. In very windy conditions, a beanbag may be useful, as the lower the camera is to the ground, the less it is affected by the wind. Foliage is also blown about by wind, so unless you're looking for more of an abstract image, the wind may dictate when you photograph your chosen subject landscape.
Lighting is the next key to a good photograph and may turn an average image into a great one. Bland, grey skies rarely make for an interesting landscape, but change those for deep, moody clouds and you can have a very dramatic scene. This image typifies the sort of image you can get on the Scottish Western Isles and proves, you don't need bright colours.

There are also other ways that you can make use of the light, for example, sun shining through the clouds onto the main subject or simply the angle of lighting, particularly in the golden hours after sunrise and before sunset.

Shooting during the golden hours gives you the best chance for a landscape with real impact, because it is when the light is at its softest, allowing for less harsh contrasts and the ability to use the lengthening shadows to add depth to the scene. This also increases the mid-tone contrast, which is the area in the histogram that gives the image the punch it needs to stand out.
Without a strong compositional element though, many landscapes fall flat, simply because there is nothing within the scene to attract viewers. The best landscapes are often simple when you look at them closely, even when they contain many fine details. Most of the best landscapes can be diluted down to an interesting foreground, which draws the viewer in, then there may be leading lines, either diagonals or s-shaped curves, pulling the viewer towards the main subject, which is likely to be on one of the thirds intersections. Sometimes, the main subject is the landscape as a whole, but there is usually a strong supporting subject on a thirds line in these cases and the leading line acts as a guide, taking the viewer on a tour around the image. Both of the above examples use the shore as a leading line from the corners to the distance, literally going through most of the scene.

In Part 2 I will talk of some of the more technical aspects of landscape photography and visit micro-landscapes.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Macro Photography

Macro photography is arguably one of the more difficult forms of photography to master, it is certainly more technical than some others and it is important to understand the effects of depth of field. In many ways, depth of field is one of the biggest hurdles a macro photographer has to overcome, either by using a narrow aperture or to embrace the narrow depth of field in such a way that it becomes a form of creativity. At wider apertures, the depth of field can be measured in millimetres. Almost without exception, manual focus should be used because of the narrow depth of field, even at f/16.
True macro is considered to be 1:1 or life size (or larger). Many zoom lenses are marketed as macro lenses, but typically, they are around 1/3 or 1/4 life size and they certainly don't have the sharpness associated with true macro prime lenses. The choice of lens is dependent on what sort of subjects interest you as a photographer and what backgrounds you want to include. At their closest focusing distance, all macro lenses will blur the background to an equal degree for any given aperture, although the focal length will determine how close it focuses. For example, a 100mm lens will have a closer focusing distance than a 180mm lens, but if both are 1:1, they will both blur the background to the same degree. However, the 180mm lens will include less of the background, making a pleasing background easier to achieve, as it will potentially have less distracting background elements (such as bright objects). For best results a tripod (or monopod/bean bag) should always be used, although sometimes it simply isn't possible.
Shorter macro lenses are good all-round lenses (50-60mm range), useful for a range of macro (and non-macro) subjects, although trying to get close enough to insects would be a challenge, so they are best used for still life or where there is limited space. The medium sized macro lenses (90-105mm) become more useful for insect macro photographs, so are perhaps even more useful as all-rounders, although in confined spaces, it may be difficult to fit larger subjects in the frame (i.e. non-macro images). If insects are likely to be your main interest, then the longer (150-200mm) lenses are going to be the most useful, although they do come at a price and they tend to be less sharp than the medium focal length lenses, also some sort of support is essential. Luckily, because you're further away from the subject, it is much easer to set a tripod up, without disturbing the subject and sending it flying away. Another advantage with the longer macro lenses, they are compatible with teleconverters (extenders in Canon land) and not just extension tubes. Teleconverters and extension tubes both increase the magnification (and converters also increase focal length of course), but the 2x converters can reduce image quality quite a bit and extension tubes prevent infinity focus. Most (but not all) of the shorter macro lenses are unable to make use of teleconverters, although they can make use of extension tubes. Short of getting specialist macro lenses (like Canon's MPE-65 5x macro lens or microscope attachment), this is the greatest magnification you can achieve.
There isn't really a bad macro lens in terms of image quality and they all have a high reputation interms of image quality. In the two most poular mounts (Canon and Nikon), Nikkor, Canon, Sigma and Tamron all make excellent lenses, with Sigma offering the greatest range of focal lengths. Sigma and Tamron also make lenses in the other popular mounts, along with other options from the camera manufacturers. It may also be possible to get adaptors to use other lenses, such as Zeiss, Leica and M42 mounts.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Shortlisted for BWPA Awards

I found out today that a number of my images have been shortlisted for the 2009 British Wildlfe Photography Awards. It's a good feeling to get past the first hurdle and I always imagined that the best chance I had of getting anywhere with awards, was for landscapes, even though I prefer to photograph wildlife. I was quite pleased when I saw the categories, as I knew I had a good chance of finding some invertebrates and as it turned out, I had a couple of coastal images I felt were suitable.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Singh-Ray Filters

I first came across Singh-Ray filters after reading an interview of an exceptional photographer by the name of Mike Dawson on Better Photo in 2008. I already had some neutral density filters form Hi-Tech, but the results weren't ideal for sunsets. Singh-ray are known for their high quality in the United States, but they aren't available in the UK. However, they make special reverse graduated neutral density filters, especially designed for sunsets and sunrises and are the only manufacturer that makes them that I'm aware of. Instead of having the darkest part of the filter at the top, the graduation is darkest at the centre, gradually decreasing towards the top, with the bottom remaining clear, as with a standard ND grad. I have been using them now for a year, with some results I'm really pleased with. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, most of my sunset work has been done using a 3 stop reverse grad. I've even been considering a 4 stop version, but I keep hoping the exchange rate will be more favourable first. I also usually couple it with a warming circular polarizer, instead of a slightly cool cast you get with most CPL filters, it warms the image up a little, again ideal for sunsets.
The filters have been instrumental in developing my style, without them my only option would be HDR, which is a technique I'm not over fond of, except as a tool for occasional use. They make it possible to make use of striking lighting, without resulting in blown highlights.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Having spent a week on the Isle of Skye, one of the Scottish Western Isles, I have now created a new gallery, within the Scotland collection. Although the weather wasn't ideal, it did allow some moody landscapes and a couple of sunset images. I also updated the Birds gallery.


Isle of Skye - Images by Richard Winn

Monday, 4 May 2009

New macro images of blue-tailed and red-eyed damselflies uploaded (Ischnura elegans and Erythromma najas).


Macros - Images by Richard Winn

Friday, 1 May 2009

Greeting Cards

Greeting cards and 7x5 inch (18x12 cm) prints are now available for purchase direct from the galleries. Even small images, not suitable for the standard A4 prints are now available for print sales and not just personal use downloads.

Avalon Light Photoart specialises in landscapes from Somerset and the English Westcountry as well as wildlife images.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Monday, 13 April 2009

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Photographic Website Up and Running!

Avalonlight Photoart is a photographic site specialising in landscape and wildlife images. After several months of inaction, it is now available, selling prints and downloads, as both private and commercial licences. Currently prints are only available in the UK, but it is hoped that worldwide delivery will be available in the future.


Spain and Spanish Islands - Images by Richard Winn