Thursday, 16 December 2010

Winter Set to Return

It's been an unusual winter so far in the UK. We often get cold weather (if not in the same league as parts of North America and Central and Eastern Europe), but this year has been unusual because it's been so cold, so early and for so long. The cold weather first hit last month and was deemed the earliest widespread snow for 17 years, although, we largely missed the snow, getting less than half an inch one night, althought parts of Somerset got much more. We certainly haven't missed the extreme cold and ice however, not to mention freezing fog on a couple of occasions. Over the next couple of days though, it seems we are likely to get heavy snow, as the cold waether returns after a few days respite (a balmy 7 or 8 Celsius).
Last Tuesday brought weather conditions I'd never seen before, even though we used to get much colder and snowier weather when I was a child, than in recent years. Although, I wasn't able to make full use of the conditions, due to a late parcel delivery, I was able to observe feeding birds in my back garden, including a robin (Erithacus rubecula) feeding on mealworms and hunting for other food in front of some Pyracantha berries, making for nice winter scenes. I also managed to photograph the hoar frost that slowly increased throughout the day, the first time I can remember seeing such a visible change in a short period. Every time I looked out, the crystals on the plants looked larger.
Over the coming days, I hope to photograph many more winter scenes, although the travel conditions are likely to limit the distance. I will also aim to produce a guide to winter photography, outlining some of the pitfalls and how to overcome them.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Photo Clusters of Guy Fawkes Carnival Carts Available

I have now created a number of photo clusters featuring some of the carts entered in the 2010 Somerset County Carnival circuit. They are aimed at performers who took part in the carnival, who would like a memento of their club's entries and will be available as either A3 or A4 prints, on high quality, heavyweight fine art paper. If you are interested and would like to know if your club's entry is available, please contact me, if you don't see anything suitable. They can be printed with or without a caption, according to preference. I will be adding further clusters to the gallery as I create them, so please drop back in to see other examples.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Glastonbury and Chilkwell Carnival

On Saturday it was the penultimate carnival in the Somerset County 2010 season. Having already attended Bridgwater in the rain and North Petherton, I decided to try something a bit different. I'm not a big people person when it comes to photography, so I tend to avoid them in my photos (perhaps why I concentrate on nature photography). This time though, I made a conscious effort to photograph groups of performers, as well as some individual performers. I didn't go for real closeup portraits, but tried to include them in the context of the carts thmselves. I also photographed some of the walking masqueraders, where the flash was essential, due to the lower light levels, and also some more detail shots.
The carnival itself was a success, with the rain holding off until the end (although people further along the route would have been affected by the weather much more). This season had seen a number of fires on carts, as well as some generator failures and even a model toppling onto one of the performers, but there was none of that at Glastonbury. On a more personal note, the photography also went well, with more shots I was happy enough with to upload, although the rain at the end pretty much ruined the shots of the last few carts. I've decided that flash photography in the rain doesn't work very well.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Bridgwater Carnival Photographs Available

Finally, I now have the photos from Bridgwater Carnival last Friday up on the website, available for viewing and for purchase as prints for any participants who would like a memento. Due to the weather conditions, almost all of them have streaks of heavy rain falling. There are also others, which require some work before they are of high enough quality to upload. I have also prepared the NOrth Petherton Carnival photographs, ready for upload. Again, there are others available, but I have witheld these due to the presence of teenagers at close range, to avoid any problems. If you were a walker and can't see yourself, please feel free to contact me to ask if there are any photos available.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Carnival Weekend

This weekend was the start of the Somerset County carnival circuit, starting with Bridgwater on Friday, before moving down the road to North Petherton last night. Even before the carnival started, things didn’t quite go to plan for me though. Even though, I’d charged all the flash batteries, two had actually failed, so there was only enough power to show the menus and not power the flash itself. So, resorting to plan B without flash, I waited for the first carts to arrive.

Runaway Train, overall winner by Gremlins
 The forecast had been for heavy rain and for once, the forecast was right. Just as the pre-procession passed and the first carts were appearing, the rain appeared right on queue. It had been light drizzle up to that point, but now it was a fullscale deluge. Had I still had the flash attached, it would actually have made keeping the camera even remotely dry impossible, as it was, it still got quite wet.

Despite the rain, only two carts had major technical problems, with one having to drop out entirely, just past where I was, so that it could go for repair. The other carried on in darkness.

Gargoyles by British Flag CC
Because of the flash problems the previous night, I decided to go to North Petherton Carnival, so that I could experiment and maybe get some shots that didn’t have streaks of rain throughout the image. As the night before though, just as the procession reached my point, the rain started. Luckily, it only lasted quarter of an hour or so and wasn’t anywhere near as heavy.

The rest of the night went without a hitch and all of the carts were operational, although some had lost banks of lights. I now have alot of editing and processing to do. Hopefully, I should get at least some ready later on today.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival 2010

Tomorrow night is carnival night, it’s time for the annual Bridgwater Carnival. Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival, to give it its full name, is considered to be the third largest carnival in the world, only being superceded by Rio’s Mardi Gras and London’s Notting Hill Carnival. Of the three, it is the only one that features illuminated floats, as well as the more usual individual costumes. As such, it is the largest illuminated carnival in the world, not bad for a small town with a population of around 30,000. People visit from all over the country and in recent years, there have been entries from Brazil, along with some other countries. The festivities start in the morning, with performers on a purpose built stage, taking in turns to entertain the visitors. After Bridgwater, the procession moves on to the much smaller nearby town of North Petherton, before moving on to other towns in the circuit, such as Glastonbury, Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-Super-Mare.

Last year, I attended for the first time, although, I did visit the event in Burnham-on-Sea many years ago. The winner of the overall event was Burlesque Cabaret by the Masqueraders Carnival Club, who also shared the overall prize on the circuit as a whole with To the Trees, by the Gemini CC. The weather wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than it had been earlier in the day, so there were just the occasional showers, although some were quite heavy. As can be seen in the second photo, the moon did show itself for a while in between the showers. The weather forecast isn’t very good for this year either, but hopefully the rain won’t be as heavy as it looks like it may be. Good luck to the participants and hope anyone who goes, enjoys the show.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Fall and Rise of the Eurasian Otter

When I was growing up in the 1970′s and 80′s, the Eurasian otter was scarce. Decades of pollution in the rivers of the UK and much of Europe as a whole was having a serious detrimental effect on otter survival. Being an apex predator, any pollutants were concentrated, causing organ damage, ultimately leading to premature death. Even less severe cases of pollution were probably enough to reduce the fertility of otters, which for a species that perhaps lived 3-6 years in the wild and reproduced every 18 months or so, was a serious concern. In the early 1980′s, the situation had become so bad, that the otter had disappeared from many countries in central and southern Europe and much of England and Wales too. There was a real danger that the Eurasian otter would become extinct in most of Europe. Only in Scotland, where there were populations of coastal otters and Northern Europe, were they still widespread. The only other areas in the UK, where there were still healthy (albeit small) populations, were Southwest England (mainly Devon and Cornwall) and parts of Wales and inland Scotland, particularly higher ground, where the effects of pollution were lessened.

It was during this time, that I had an ambition, or perhaps given the situation, it was more like a dream. I wanted to see an otter in the wild. Of course, not only was the otter population plummeting, but they are also largely nocturnal in most habitats, which made the chances of seeing one, pretty remote.

Fast forward to 2008 and the otter population was much more healthy, at least in the UK. Many areas had been repopulated from the west and they were slowly spreading east. I visited Scotland and was finally able to fulfill my dream of 30 years earlier. I caught sight of my first wild otter, running along one of the supports of North Kessock bridge, near Inverness, before it dived into the surf. It was around 6.30 am and bitterly cold, with frequent snow flurries, but it was worth it. My ambition was achieved, but I wanted more. I then spent hundreds of hours in the summer, observing otters in the daylight, much closer to home at Shapwick Heath. Unlike most populations, the otters on the Somerset Levels show themselves at all times of the day. It is probably in part due to the local diet, where freshwater mussels make up a large part of what they eat. One of the reasons that otters are nocturnal, is because their favoured prey items are less active then, so they can expend less energy catching them.

Over the past ten years in particular, but really since the 1990′s, the otter population has become stable and even increased slowly. However, the past has shown how precarious that recovery may be. Pollution, while lessened, still occurs and a recent incident involving paint thinner almost certainly had some effect in parts of the Somerset Levels. There is also a new threat, this time from a fluke carried by oriental fish that have escaped into the Somerset river systems and have since spread further afield. This bile fluke (Pseudamphistomum truncatum) can contribute to death and certainly debilitates infected otters. Generally, parasites are adapted not to cause serious harm to their host, it’s in their interest for the host to survive. However, the otter isn’t the natural host and as is commonly the case with accidental hosts, it causes serious harm to the otter’s internal organs.

Human activity also remains a threat to the survival of the Eurasian otter as a species. Whille pollution is lessened, in the period when the otter all but disappeared, many fish farms have sprung up. This has now become a source of potential conflict, with calls from some quarters for an otter cull. This call, has largely come about due to ignorance. Many seem to think that otters have deliberately been reintroduced by scientists and conservationist on a large scale, which simply isn’t the case. Even some individual anglers have joined the call for a cull, with some heated debates on internet forums. The fact is, the greatest cause of depleted fish stocks in rivers is human activity. If a river is able to support otters, then it is a good sign that there is some sort of balance. Otters simply are not present in high enough densities to cause depletions in fish stocks and numbers would soon decrease, if there were insufficient prey items (i.e. fish and crustaceans) to support them. Only in fish farms, where they are allowed access, are they likely to cause a problem and that problem is one that is easily overcome. Fish farms are big business and many of the fish are prized oriental carp, worth thousands of pounds, so an otter let loose in a fish farm will cause alot of damage. However, it is the responsibility of any business to protect their assets. In the case of fish farming, it is very easy to keep otters out, by using fences. Otters won’t try to force their way through an electric fence, as it would cause them discomfort. Like many predators, they will go for the easiest prey, if the fish farm isn’t otter-proof, then it will be the fish farm, but if it has adequate protection, then the otter will go elsewhere, where they won’t get a jot of electricity. Also, to put things in a bit more perspective, there are an estimated 3500-4000 otters in England and Wales, with a further 4000-4500 in Scotland (many of which are around the coasts). Their diet consists of around 90% fish and crustaceans. In comparison, the American mink has a diet of around 40% fish and crustaceans, with the rest being birds and small mammals. The mink is much smaller than the otter, so will eat less, but population estimates for the mink are around 35000 to 40000, perhaps five times as many as otters. It is therefore likely that mink account for more fish predation in total than otters, not to mention the other problems they cause to native breeding birds and small mammals, such as the water vole, which has seen an 80% drop in numbers in the period that the American mink has been at large in the British countryside.

I now have several photographs of otters, but none that I am really happy with. Otters have provided me with hours of pleasure and I hope they will continue to do so for many years to come. While the otter is a protected species, it still faces numerous threats, mostly either directly (through pollution and altered habitat) or indirectly (through realease of non-native species, such as oriental fish) caused by human activity. If the otter and the whole of the habitat each one inhabits is to survive, we have a responsibility to protect our environment. We must preserve the otter for future generations to enjoy.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Two Images Licensed in the Last Week

It's been a successful week or so for me lately. Last week, I managed to licence one of my Bridgwater Carnival images, then yesterday, I licensed one of my kingfisher images. Purely by coincidence, I bought this month's BBC Wildlife Magazine and when I found the licence details, I thought there was a good chance, that it was part of Simon King's article on the Somerset Levels and lo and behold, there it was on page 86. Quite small and cut out and flipped, but it's always nice to get something in a well known magazine.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Autumn and Photography

Photography can be a productive time for the nature photographer. Not only do you have the autumn colours to add a dimension to landscapes, but you also have the closeup abstract of autumn colours, not to mention all the fungi that spring up, telling the story of death and rebirth. They are nature's way of recycling the old, ready for the new in Spring. Of course, they come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny Mycena spp. to the larger polypore fungi seen on tree trunks and at their bases. Many are simply white, brown or grey, but others add their own colour to autumn, with bright reds, pinks and purples, with a few yellows and even blues and greens. The weather may not always be at its best, with many dull grey days, but even these help to enhance the colours. Even on the dullest of days, it should be easy to find something in nature to photograph.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Back from Scotland

It's been over a week since I got back now, but it's taken some time to process the photos. I recently spent a week in Scotland, on my annual fix of the highlands. I was quite surprised to find that I took over 1500 images. Of course, many of those were duplicates (or near duplicates) and some were "misses", due to photographing fast moving subjects, where timing was involved (such as gannets plunge diving and slamon leaping). The results were very much hit and miss, and with the salmon shots there was a lot of guesswork involved in pre-focussing, unfortunately, my guesswork wasn't working well, with most being out of focus.
On a more positive note, I was able to execute some ideas I'd had for some time, with some selective focus shots of a toadlet and some common lizards. Also, I saw my first newt and white tailed eagle. There was one shot in particular that just came together and is another of my milestone images, mainly because I was able to execute a pre-conceived idea. The image was of a toadlet of the common toad, using selective focus head-on and it has become my first limited edition print, priced at £34.99 for an A3 print.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Quiet Blog and Trip to Spain

Things have been a little quiet on the blog recently and for that I have to apologise to anyone following. I've been having problems with the autofocus on the 7D, largely it seems, due to changes being needed to the microadjustment. Over the past few weeks, I have made some adjustments in the field and it now seems to be improved. I first noticed it when trying to photograph hobbies, not the easiest of subjects at the best of times. Because the expected "hit rate" for the AF is going to be quite low for such a fast bird, it was a while longer than it should have been before I realised there was a problem. Anyone else with similar AF problems should have a look at the microadjustment if possible and make some tests and adjustments.
I also purchased a 5D MkII, as I was finding that the requirement to keep to f/11 or wider on the 7D was limiting my landscape work too much, even with hyperfocal focusing. I'm happy with the improved dynamic range over the 7D and am finding it useful for macro work too.
In July, I visited my aunty and uncle in Spain. Landscape work wasn't ideal, because we were always out in the harshest light, apart from one day where it was partially overcast, but there were some interesting insect macros, such as an Egyptian locust, a Spanish swallowtail butterfly and a geranium bronze butterfly. It was also an interesting visit to Santa Jose Castle (Castell d'Alcozaiba).

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Photographs in Horner Woods

On Sunday, I made a trip to Horner Woods on Exmoor. My target was to photograph dippers and grey wagtails, although I wasn't expecting much, as I thought there would be too many people about. I was also planning to look for signs of otters on the higher reaches of Horner Water.
As it turned out, it didn't go too badly. I don't often photograph still life, particularly flowers, as I don't feel it is a strong point of mine, but I have been thinking more about photographing wildflowers recently. I was able to experiment a bit while I was there on some forget-me-nots and dog violets (the dog violets didn't quite works), as well as some ferns (I went a bit too far with the selective focus). I also struck lucky as well though and spent about half an hour or more observing and photographing a pair of grey wagtails. It was a little dark to be able to keep the shutter speed high enough, even at a high ISO (I wouldn't want to go higher with the 7D, as it is on its usable limit), but I was able to get some atmospheric photos when they were in the filtered sunlight.

Latest Photography Uploads - Images by Richard Winn

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

All About Somerset

The United Kingdom, often called interchangeably (although often incorrectly), as Britain or the British Isle, is divided into counties. The rural counties are sometimes referred to as "the Shires". One of the rural counties in the southwestern peninsula of England is Somerset. Traditionally, it stretches from Bath in the northeast, to Yeovil and Sherborne (among other towns) in the south and Exmoor in the northwest, although there have been some boundary changes over recent decades.
In terms of geography, it is probably one of the counties with the greatest variety. The Somerset Levels are in the heart of Somerset and encompass a large part of the county, as they stretch from the Quantock Hills in the west, through the catchment area of the Rivers Tone and Parrett and the Brue Valley, to the Mendip Hills in the east. It is an area of many Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and nature reserves, run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Natural England, with nationally important populations of many species, including the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) and hairy dragonfly (Brachyton pratense). Parts of the Somerset Levels are just 50 metres above sea level, particularly the Avalon Marshes area in the Brue Valley, so are prone to winter flooding, although modern pumping and drainage systems have limited the extent. This has however, had an impact on the wildlife, leading to many reserves trying to recreate and manage these nationally important wetland areas, one of the largest areas of wetland in the country.
At the other extreme, the county has three upland areas, some of the highest in Southern England. To the east, you have the chalk downs of the Mendips and the Polden Hills, which are important for many of the rare blue butterflies and orchids. In fact, following the reintroduction of the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) in the area, the lower reaches of the Polden Hills, which jut out into the Levels near Glastonbury and Street, now contain one of the most important populations.
To the far west of the county, straddling the border with Devon is Exmoor, the second highest and largest moorland area in the south west, behind Dartmoor. Exmoor, is relatively wild (although not as wild as Dartmoor). It is a granite outcrop, covered by open moorland and heathland, forming a typical upland heath, with gorse and heather predominating, in between ancient natural woodlands on the lower slopes. It also boasts some of the highest cliffs in Britain, with the northern edge dropping into the sea to form steep cliffs favoured by peregrines. Otters also frequent the rivers of Exmoor, probably in greater numbers than on the Levels, despite the lower prey density. Slightly to the east are the relatively unknown Quantock Hills. The Quantocks are very similar in terrain and wildlife to Exmoor and are in fact like a miniature version. However, they do contain more extensive woodland, with Great Wood at its centre. However, unlike Exmoor, the steep cliffs are absent, with a more gradual descent to the Bristol Channel, before lower cliffs dropping onto the ancient rocks of the beaches around Kilve and Quantoxhead.
Further along the coast to the north east, the beaches change to the sand and mud along the Severn Estuary, forming the beaches of Burnham-on-Sea and Weston Super Mare, before going on to Clevedon.
There are a few famous landmarks and tourist sites in Somerset. The largest is of course Exmoor, but in the Mendips, there is also the Cheddar Gorge, with its many caves, such as Wookey Hole. Glastonbury is also famous, due to the music festival (actually held at Pilton) and from the legends of King Arthur. Glastonbury Tor is probably one of the most popular tourist attractions in the county and the surrounding town attracts many mystics and pagans amongst the more usual tourist.
While many know of Somerset, relatively few have actually visited, simply using it as a thoroughfare on the way to the more popular Devon and Cornwall. It is a place of contrasts, upland and lowland, natural and manmade, but it maintains its rural roots and has kept some of its ancient traditions and ideals, with a low population density, probably among the lowest in England.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Message of Nature and Photographers

In my last blog entry, I outlined my views on reality in photography, but why is it so important to portray reality in nature photography? You can argue about photography only showing what the photographer wants the viewer to see, but that is slightly different to manipulating the image as seen. Sometimes manipulating the viewer is wrong, but sometimes it is needed to put a message across, it's no different than a newspaper article putting a slant on a story. Photography is also telling a story, if you are making a documentary point, then it requires different ethics to an image that is simply an artistic creation. For example, near where I live, I could photograph an idyllic rural scene, with a country pub next to the canal. This would paint a picture of a quiet drink next to the canal, but in reality, right above my head would be the M5. If I was simply making an artistic photograph, there would be nothing wrong in this, but if I was photographing the pub for an estate agent and then sold that quiet scene, it would be unethical. The same would be true if I was trying to portray an animal in a similar manner. The key is to declare any concepts and manipulation.
If we as photographers portray a false impression, then it is harder for the public to trust what we tell them. It is already difficult, with people having the assumption that anything can be done (or rescued) with Photoshop and other editing software. But again, why is it so important? Does it really matter what people think? It depends on the purpose, for an artistic creation, it doesn't matter at all, but if we want to inform the public of a particular problem, then they need to trust and believe in what we are saying. For example, a few weeks ago, I came across an article (from last year I think), calling for the culling of otters, as they are decimating the stocks in fisheries. It's only 15 years, since we came very close to losing the otter entirely in England and Wales, yet already there are calls for controlling numbers. In 2003, it was estimated that there were around 4,000 otters in the country, which is barely enough to maintain a healthy population, let alone increase numbers. Further, more recent evidence comes from here in Somerset. The 2008 annual survey for the county estimates around 65 otters FOR THE WHOLE COUNTY, with a significant proportion of these otters on Exmoor, which isn't considered to be a highly productive area, due to low prey density. If you add to that, the death rate was high at 27 for part of the year (with a high proportion being cubs) and it starts looking more and more bleak. The report for the survey (written by James Williams) suggests that the known births, assuming survival, is only enough to maintain the population and not expand it. Many of these deaths were road deaths, but as part of a study, post mortem investigations were carried out, which showed a high level of a bile fluke, caught from imported oriental fish, another threat to health and survival. The dangers from pollution aren't averted either. Just last month, the South Drain that runs through the nature reserves of Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath and Catcott Heath was contaminated from an industrial plant in Glastonbury. Several dead fish were found as a direct result, plus a dead swan was found, but the cause of death will remain unknown, as there seems to be a reluctance to investigate properly. Considering the effects of pollution and the resulting decline in the otter population since the 1960's, this makes alarming reading. Just because the toxins implicated in the decline are now banned, doesn't mean that an environmental catastrophe can't be caused by a new agent. If pollution can happen in a nature reserve, without too much noise being made, what hope is there in the countryside at large? You only have to look at the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, which quite frankly, is in an appalling state, yet it is home to otters. Gross pollution with everday waste, such as bottles, cans and even shopping trolleys, is obvious, but there are also signs of chemical pollutants, judging by some of the scum.
The Somerset Levels, with all their waterways represent an important area for otters and their survival, but they are also prone to pollution from the runoff of agricultural pollutants, the source of the original toxins that caused all the problems up until the banning in the early 1980's.
The public needs to heed the messages hidden within the recent and past events, but for nature photographers to help get that message across, they have to be trustworthy, otherwise it will do more harm than good.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Reality of Photography

In recent months, there has been much debate on about whether or not nature photography should portray reality. It reached a head, following the disqualification of "The Story Book Wolf" from the 2009 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, after many discussions over its authenticity as a "true" wildlife image. The accusation was, that the wolf was a captive wolf, as it closely resembled one such wolf that was for hire. The evidence centred around the resemblance and the likelihood of a wild wolf behaving in the manner portrayed in the photograph. Ultimately, it is only the photographer and perhaps others associated with the photographer, who knows the truth behind the accusations, but it has sparked a more widespread debate.
Recently, I received a comment on one of my photographs that had been uploaded to a stock photography site, stating that it was nicely taken, but didn't look real due to the "Photoshopping". To say I was confused and irritated was putting it mildly, as I aim for reality in most of my photos and don't have the patience for lengthy processing. Also, the photo in question had, had a simple curves adjustment to increase the contrast and nothing else.

After contacting the photographer who made the comment, I was able to ascertain, that he had looked at the EXIF data and assumed that it had been "Photoshopped", simply because I had edited it in Photoshop, so basically, even if I hadn't done any editing and had simply converted to a JPEG, he would have accused me of "Photoshopping". I think this is a sad reflection on how photography is now viewed and how people believe that anything is possible (including getting a good photo from a bad one) and that it doesn't portray what was seen. The reality is, that with few exceptions, you can't rescue a bad photo and probably most photographs are still a reflection of reality or at least the photographer's reflection of reality.
I find this attitude frustrating, but at the same time, I understand how it has happened. HDR photography has become widespread and in my opinion is overused, to the extent, that it is no longer original. In fact, there is a danger, that photographers are becoming clones, simply copying what has come before them, because it's the vogue, instead of searching for their own style. Don't get me wrong, I have used HDR, it is a useful tool when other techniques aren't possible, either because of the unavailability of graduated filters or because the terrain prevents their use. However, that is all it is, another technique to achieve the look you are aiming for and I usually use it to portray the reality, as closely as I saw it at the time.

That's not to say I haven't pushed the technique a bit further though. At times, I do experiment with post processing work, sometimes with the Orton Effect, sometimes with some infra-red and sometimes with HDR, but it's been a long itme since I did use HDR, really not since I acquired my reverse ND grad filter. Until then, it was the only tool I had to photograph sunsets effectively.

So in summary, there is a place for manipulated nature photographs, but only if used sparingly for an effect and I feel it should be declared where it isn't obvious. Certainly integrity should not be compromised when an image is used for a contest, otherwise the photographer and perhaps photography as a whole loses its credibility. The danger isn't so much in the act, but in the belief that anything is possible, the assumptions that have become widespread, the jumping on the bandwagon that has occured and the loss of creativity and ability to think for yourself as a result. To a large degree HDR has become popular because it gives the impression of a painting, which in some ways makes it fair game for the surreal and artistic licence. I feel that for the good of photography as an art form and for its continued evolution, editors, both of websites and of paper publications, must offer a more balanced viewpoint and selection of techniques. It's far too easy to feature HDR, just because of the impact, but if realism is shunned, then photography stagnates and doesn't develop.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Tigers: A Celebration of Life

I mentioned in my last blog entry, that I attended Focus on Imaging on Tuesday. One of the "events" at the exhibition was the pre-release of Tigers: A Celebration of Life, a book by Andy Rouse. Andy is one of the better known wildlife photographers in the UK and was commended in the 2009 Veolia Wildlife Phtographer of the Year with his image of two tigers fighting, with claws unsheathed.
The book itself is the culmination of a project and his love of tigers, stretching back to his early years. It is full of beautifully constructed images of tigers, from cubs to full grown adults. Unlike some photographers, he hasn't just gone for the close-up portrait shots, you so often see, but he has also gone for some wide-angle shots, showing the tigers in relation to their environment. If you're looking for photographs of tigers that portray the essence of the tiger, then this book is for you, but if you're looking for an in depth scientific study, then perhaps you'd be better off looking elsewhere. That said, there are also some conservation notes from Sarah Christie, outlining the plight of the tiger. Andy also has some advice on visiting reserves and looking for places to stay that help the local community and the environment. With just 4,500 tigers left in the wild, they are just as endangered now, as when I was a child, when I avidly read what I could. Tigers capture the imagination, like so few other animals can. I have a fascination with all big cats and while many animals come close to the same fascination for me as tigers, there is only one that exceeds it. As you might have guessed, it is an equally endangered animal and one with more mystery, it is the snow leopard.
For anyone interested in the book it can be purchased as a standard edition or a limited edition, complete with limited edition print from the 12th March 2010.

ARWP Store

More of his work can be viewed at his website.

Andy Rouse

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Focus on Imaging 2010

I spent most of the day today at the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, UK. It's always interesting to see what's going on and to try out equipment first hand. I attended on the Sunday last year and you could barely move. It was busy when I arrived at lunchtime, but it was quite a bit quieter in the afternoon. This made it much easier to try things and to talk to people.
Last year, I didn't buy anything, but I spent some money this year on some pretty good deals, including a very good price on Sandisk Extreme compact flash cards, cheaper than I've seen anywhere online at the Camerworld stand. I also managed to find a refurbished macro ring flash, which I've been looking for, for a while, just waiting for the right price. I didn't succumb ot the temptation of a 5D Mk II though, although it was a close call until I bought the flash. To top off a successful day, I found some more options for a heavier duty tripod, that I can use with my 300mm f/2.8 lens. Up until now, I thought I'd have to get a Gitzo tripod, which aren't cheap, but it turns out, that Giotto also make mor ethan one that also cope with the weight. All in all, a successful and interesting day, with a critique at the Futurenet stand that went well.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Depth of Field Confusion

When I first started getting serious about digital photography, I did quite a bit of reading. One of the things I read about was depth of field, in relation to aperture diameters. At that time (and since), I kept reading that crop cameras have a greater depth of field at a set aperture than full frame (i.e. sensors the same size as 35mm film). Due to the high pixel density of the 7D or more correctly, the small size of the pixels, diffraction becomes more of an issue, as the interference patterns start matching the pixels in size. For this reason, I started paying more attention to hyperfocal focusing, so that I could try to use wider apertures and still get sufficient depth of field for my purposes. This was where the confusion started, as all the hyperfocal distance charts suggested that full frame actually had greater depth of field.
I then started doing a bit more reading and it turns out, that the expressed wisdom misses out a very important point. The statement that full frame cameras have less depth of field is based around portrait (and to a degree, wildlife) photography, showing the same field of view. To get the same field of view, a full frame camera must be positioned closer to the subject than a crop camera. It is actually the distance between the camera and subject and the camera and background that makes the difference to the depth of field. The closer the camera is to a subject, the less depth of field there is, so it is another apparent effect and like the apparent magnification from the crop factor, it tends to be stated as an actual fact, when it isn't actually the case.
For portrait photography, where you are trying to frame in a certain way, whichever the camera, it is an important point to consider, as long as you realise it is a function of distance and not differences between the two formats, likewise for macro photography. However, for landscape photography, which was the reason I was looking at it, it is largely irrelevant. Technically, the depth of field for full frame cameras is larger, but in reality, provided the foreground is equally sharp, the slightly softer background is probably not very noticeable, as the differences are relatively small. Diffraction is probably a bigger issue than the narrower depth of field, as the larger pixels of the full frame sensor are less affected by the interference patterns, so the effects of diffraction are ameliorated and become noticeable at narrower apertures. This of course, then allows much more depth of field, which is where the real advantage of full frame cameras comes in for landscape photography.
It brings to mind the saying, "believe none of what you hear and only half of what you read". The more I learn about photography, the more I realise how many inaccuracies have crept into accepted wisdom.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Canon EOS 7D In-use Update

In October, I wrote a mini-review of the Canon EOS 7D. At the time, due to the poor weather, I had limited time using it. I have now had it for three months and have generated alot more testing time with it, with some good results.
In recent weeks, the UK has been thrown into its own mini ice age, with freezing temperatures and the accompanying snow and ice. In December I was able to test it in the cold conditions, photographing a number of different subjects, although mostly landscapes. It produced warm rich tones in the late afternoon evening sun and was able to get some shots of the cold frosty mornings.
It was last week though, when I was able to put it through its paces, photographing what it was intended for, action and in cold weather too (I think the camera coped better than I did at times). For the wildlife shots, I was using the Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS, with a 1.4x extender attached. On the Monday, I was able to get a couple of quick grab shots of a kingfisher before it flew off, despite being a very brief view, it focused quickly and accurately. This was followed by a series of shots of some cattle egrets delving in the dredged up material from the main drain at Shapwick Heath in Somerset. Not exactly challenging for the autofocus, but it was good results nonetheless. The next day, I got caught in an unexpected snow storm ahead of the main snow that was forecast for that night. I decided to try photographing a moorhen walking across the ice in the heavy snow, but the very large snowflakes, almost 2 inches across played havoc with the autofocus and the focusing was slightly out. Conditions were so bad though, that manual focus would have been impossible and as a reference point, we had almost an inch of snowfall in half an hour. Next it was back to landscapes in the snow and again, it coped without any problems, althoug following my usual practice of spot metering, I didn't test out its ability to meter correctly in the snow. At one point, a little egret flew over and landed, so I quickly switched to the 100-400. Unfortunately the focusing was off quite badly, it could have been due to the white bird against the white background of the snow, but I'm having continuing problems with this lens lately, so I can't draw any conclusions.
Finally, during a fit of insanity, I decided to travel back to Shapwick Heath on Thursday. Conditions were treacherous to say the least, with the road near the reserve being covered in compacted snow and the reserve itself being under about six inches. For a long period, nothing happened, but then a great bittern flew over in the distance, so for something to do, I tried photographing it. Obviously being so far away, the images aren't of any use, but the focus couldn't have been sharper. Then a marsh harrier flew closer, so I tracked it moving towards me, until it suddenly hovered and dropped into the reeds. As it was totally unexpected, I lost it in the viewfinder momentarily, but the camera regained focus quickly enough for me to get some shots of the initial drop and then a stoop, osprey-like. Unfortunately, the focus was on the wingtips and not the head, but I was impressed by the camera's ability to focus against a difficult background. A little later, I started to realise, that a shape in front of the reeds looked a little odd, so I took a closer look. It turned out it was a great bittern, standing in front of the reeds, almost perfectly camouflaged. That would be a good test of the autofocus. Again, it didn't fail.

A few days earlier, I'd heard that water rails were running about in one location. Normally, they are very difficult to see, let alone photograph, so I decided to see if they were around. I crept down the path and looked into the frozen wet woodland and there they were. I crouched down and took a number of shots, increasing the ISO to 1600. This was into high noise territory on the 40D, so I was rather reluctant to push it so high, even though intial tests showed the 7D to be at least a stop better at controlling noise. I needn't have worried, as the images were very clean, despite the high ISO. In fact, there was so little noise, that I was able to add some luminance smoothing in Lightroom to remove the slight speckles, without noticeable loss of detail.

I then laid down in the snow, to see if I could entice them to come out into the open a bit more. It was mainly the lens that was in contact with the snow, but even so, I would have been very wary of using the 40D in those conditions and I had a little more confidence after seeing a test video by Ole Jørgen Liodden. The hope for them coming out into the open wasn't entirely successful, but I did get some action shots a little further away of one water rail running towards the camera, which is a good test of the autofocus.

In summary, the 7D performed as well as I could have hoped. The autofocus was fast, assured and most importantly accurate. The results at ISO 1600 were extremely good with very low levels of noise, even more impressive when you consider the fact it is 18 MP. I can only imagine how the 1D Mk IV will perform. It also coped with the very cold weather conditions, some days as low as -4 degrees Celsius. All in all, definitely a good performer for action shots and not too shabby for landscapes either, provided you keep to f/8 or f/11 and not go narrower. The only marring factor is the result with the 100-400, which is more likely to be a problem with the lens than the camera.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Stealth Gear Extreme Photographers Suit

In the past couple of months I have found it very cold sitting in hides, despite wearing multiple layers and thermally lined trousers. Recently, I read a review of some new outdoor clothing by Laurie Campbell in Outdoor Photography Magazine, in which he viewed it favourably. The clothing in question was the Extreme Photographers Suit by Stealth Gear. As I know Laurie, I know how importantly he views the right equipment, so I decided to get one for myself.
The suit consists of trousers, a fleece jacket, photographers vest and an overjacket. The vest wasn't something that seemed that useful for me and I am yet to try it, but there wasn't much difference in price between getting the other items individually and the suit as a whole. In addition, the fleece could be zipped into the overjacket. All of the items are made from microsuede and are both windproof and waterproof. It only comes in one colour - olive green, which is actually ideal for a bit of camouflage. The sizings are a little eccentric, so I went for the small.
The suit didn't arrive too soon, as I had been freezing my proverbials off the previous couple of days and we had heavy snow the night after it arrived. The first test was walking through the town through four inches of snow, followed by an outing just outside of Bridgwater to photograph some snowy landscapes. It was actually still snowing, but I remained dry. Even though I'd got the smallest size possible, it was on the large side, but it did give planty of room for all the layers I was wearing. However, as it turned out, I probably didn't need quite so many layers, as I actually overheated. The next test was sitting a few hours in the hide. Again, walking to the hide resulted in overheating, despite having thinner layers than I was used to wearing and being even colder than it had been previously. Once in the hide, I was able to easily keep warm, well except for my hands and feet anyway.
It then had the ultimate test, crouching and lying in the snow, while trying to photograph water rails on the ice. Crouching wasn't too much of a problem, as it wasn't really in much contact with the snow, but even after lying in the snow for abouit half an hour, I didn't have any effect from the cold snow and I was completely dry. At one point a water rail came from behind me and walked across the pathway, but it was only when it got close, that it realised I was a person and flew into the woodland, even then though, it didn't alarm like it would normally, so I was able to continue photographing those in front of me.

While it isn't perfect, it is a very good piece of clothing that does the job it's supposed to, keeping you warm and dry in the most extreme of weather the UK can throw at you. The biggest problem is the sizing, while I'm not large, I'm not small either, yet the smallest size is large on me. This is something that Laurie Campbell also noted and I believe they are addresing this. There a a few stockists across the country, but I ordered mine online from Extreme Nature Gear and although their communication could be improved, I received it in a week, with New Year in between, so not bad delivery really. Full details of the features (which I haven't even begun to list, there are so many) can be found at both companies websites.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Winter Around Bridgwater

Like most of the UK and much of Europe, we have been having some pretty cold weather over the past few weeks. Last night, the Southwest of England had a rare dousing of heavy snow, giving the opportunity of photographs not normally possible. I have now uploaded a number of snow landscapes from near Bridgwater, to go with the earlier frosty dawn shots from December and some other snow scenes from last February.

Somerset Rural and Town Life Photographs - Images by Richard Winn