28 Sep 2008

Photography holiday in Menorca

Photographs by Jeanette Suddard

Well, we came to the end of another photography holiday in Menorca the other day, and I think I can say that everyone had a wonderful time. There was just one new student in the group this time – Jeanette. She came with partner Phil, who has been to me for tuition in Scotland. Of course, Jeanette was naturally nervous to begin with because she is a beginner, but she quickly realised that the way I run these photography holidays is anything but formal.

And what fantastic progress Jeanette made over the week. At the start she had no understanding at all about shutter speeds or apertures; knew nothing about colour temperature, the direction of light or depth of field. However, Jeanette possessed the most vital ingredients for successful photography – she had a natural eye for a picture, she was mad keen to learn, and she just loved taking photographs.

I would like to think that after just one week working with me and with the help of all the others in the group – these holidays really are a sharing experience – Jeanette is now well along the way to becoming not only a competent photographer, but a photographer who can capture something special.

I’ll be showing you some of the pictures taken by the group in forthcoming posts – I think you will agree that some of the shots are really outstanding. But that is to be expected when among the team were regular Photoactive snappers Ken Terry and Maria Falconer. Some of their photographs are just superb. Among the subjects tackled and the places visited were underground chambers, a winery at Binifadet, and a horse trotting event. We worked in a whole variety of light including flash and mixed temperature light - just wait till you see some of the pictures that were produced.

The top photograph shows just how well Jeanette’s eye was working. She spotted this dramatic shot as we were waiting for the daylight to fade and the street lights to come on so that we could photograph ‘mixed light’.

The bottom photograph demonstrates a keen eye for pattern and colour… very well done Jeanette

19 Sep 2008

Compact cameras - how to take control

Gordon Stockley, who bought my DVD some while ago, emailed me the other day…
“I have been meaning to write for some time to say thank you for sharing your skills and knowledge via the blog. I have been reading it avidly since you drew my attention to it in an email and I have learned an awful lot from it (as I also did from your DVD). Thanks once again.”

Gordon went on to say he thought it might be useful if I gave some tips on using compact cameras like the Ixus 960IS. I think this is a good idea and will post one or two ideas over the coming weeks.

The biggest problem with compacts – no matter how many megapixels they boasts, or how good their lens – is the limitations of exposure control. However, while you cannot choose your exact shutter speed or the precise aperture you want, there are ways of manipulating things to get somewhere near the results you want to achieve.

Frankly, the first thing I do with any of these compacts is to disable most of the unnecessary automatic function such as Face Recognition, and Auto ISO. Above all disable the AiAF and set the focus area to Centre. Then you will always know exactly where to focus by half-pressing the shutter. If someone could explain to me why I would want a camera to focus on what it wants to focus on and not what I want it to focus on, I will try to understand. I also set the exposure area to Centre Weighted.

The M (Manual) setting on the Ixus is not really manual at all, but is does give you a greater degree of control than the fully Auto or the Scene settings. In M you can, for instance use the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) function. In other words, you can select an area of the scene from which to take your light reading – lock the exposure setting, then reframe and apply that exposure setting to your chosen composition. On the Ixus this is simple – just half-press the shutter and at the same time press the top of the multi-function ring on the back of the camera. AEL appears on the right hand side of the screen. The exposure is locked. To return to normal, just press the top of the multi-function ring again. AEL disappears.

The picture above is a good example of taking control of exposure and focus with a tricky subject.

The flower heads are in bright sunlight. The camera was set on M at ISO80. The background is very dark and a long way away. I first locked the exposure on a bright patch of light on the ground in front of the flowers. I then pointed the camera at an area at the base of the stems, half-pressed the shutter button and held it down to lock the focusing. I now had the exposure set and the focus locked.

Had I not done this, the camera’s auto focusing may have locked onto the distant background and the flower heads would have been out of focus. If I had not locked the exposure on a bright area, the camera’s auto exposure would have taken a light reading that included a lot of dark background – the flower heads would have been over exposed.

15 Sep 2008

Canon Ixus 960IS

My little Canon Ixus 700 has expired. I suppose it was my own fault, I put it in its soft case and attached it to my belt before donning old waterproof clothes and tackling a heavy outdoor job in torrential rain. After a couple of hours it was just as wet inside the waterproofs as it was out. My little camera drowned quietly in bed. The lens steamed up and refuses to come out to play, and it now raises only a pathetic bleat when I switch it on. I’ve tried taking out the battery and drying the camera out it in the airing cupboard, but to no avail.

Once I certified it as dead I immediately set about finding a replacement. It had to be just about the same size and weight as the old Ixus 700, but higher on pixels. Eventually I chose another Ixus – the 960IS.

It has been on my belt now for just over a couple of weeks and I am, so far delighted with the camera.
I really got chance to try it out the other day when I visited a Bloody Island in Mahon Harbour, on Menorca. I was there to explore new locations for my photography holidays in Menorca.

The camera behaved beautifully and did everything I could have wished. Even interior shots in very difficult light conditions proved no problem with judicious adjustment of the exposure compensation control in the ‘M’ Manual mode. This ‘M’ is not a true manual mode as it does not enable you to change the aperture or shutter speeds – it’s a sort of half-way house. But if you can work within the limitations, it is perfectly adequate for many situations.

One of the secrets of getting outstanding quality with these small cameras is to keep the ISO as low as possible. When the ISO is raised to the maximum 1600 on this Ixus 960IS, the results are, to be kind – noisy. However, there are some situations when in order to get a picture with any sort of atmosphere (avoiding flash), that noise just might be a price worth paying.

So far I’m pleased with the Ixus 960IS and its 12 Mega pixels are providing me with some excellent quality images.
The camera was bought from Amazon for £222. Postage free.

Top photograph
The IS (Image stabilisation) has worked well – this shot was hand-held at 1/4sec. ISO200 and it is very sharp. I ave desaturated the colour in Photoshop because I think bw adds to the interest of the picture
Photograph 2
The Canon Ixus 960IS
Photograph 3
The Ixus 960IS has coped very well with the wide range of light strengths in this situation. I simply set the Exposure Compensation value to minus 1.5 to achieve even results and not ‘burn out’ the stronger light through the doorway

Photograph 4
Exactly what a compact camera is good for – giving you the ability to capture those fleeting moments without the hassle of carrying a heavy camera. This shot was snapped from a boat as it left Bloody Island, Menorca


9 Sep 2008

The Independent Newspaper

I thought I’d share this picture with you – it’s really a very old one, perhaps 20 year old!. I took it while working on an assignment for The Independent newspaper. As far as I can remember, they sent me to cover a press photocall to unveil a very special new type of one-man mini hot-air balloon. The idea was to cross the Atlantic in it, or perhaps fly over the Alps – but I don’t think that ever happened. I seem to remember that Richard Branson was involved somewhere along the line.

There was a gale of wind and rain blowing outside, so the balloon was inflated inside a huge hangar on a remote airfield in Shropshire. All the other national daily newspapers where there to photograph the event. I saw these occasions as a challenge – they brought out the seriously competitive spirit in me. I simply ALWAYS had to try to beat the pack and get the best picture.

It was very nearly dark inside that hangar and powerful floodlights had been set up. There was a general groan of despair from all the other photographers at what appeared to be the lack of opportunities for exiting pictures.

The great advantage of working for a newspaper like the Independent – at least in the days soon after it was launched – was that we photographers were totally free to photograph an assignment in any way we chose. We were never restricted by having to take the most literal pictures. In fact we were encouraged to look beyond the obvious.

The obvious photograph on this assignment, for instance, was a shot of the pilot suspended in his harness beneath the inflated balloon. But that looked totally boring when it was done inside a darkened hangar.

I have said it before – and I will stress it again – that with an understanding of light, a photographer can create interesting images out of very little.

It was obvious to me as soon as the flood lights were lit and the balloon was beginning to inflate that there would have to be an interesting picture if I could shoot against one of these lights from almost inside the balloon as it inflated. Remember that mantra – BACKLIGHT FOR OUTLINE SHAPES!!

However, that picture would need a sense of scale and a human element if it was to be interesting enough to get published.

I quietly asked one of the technicians to stand outside the balloon between me and the floodlight and open his arms to smooth out any wrinkles in the balloon as it inflated. I worked very quickly in order not to give the other photographers any chance to copy what I was doing. The timing was spot on. No sooner had I taken this picture than the balloon lifted off the floor of the hangar as it inflated – making any similar pictures impossible.
I think the picture was used across half a page - a worthwhile job.

The picture was taken with a Nikon F3, Nikkor F2.8 24mm lens. Fuji Neopan 400 film.

2 Sep 2008

Wildlife photography - spoonbills

I was out on the River Dee near my home the other day with wildlife ranger and photographer Keith Kirk. Some of my students will know Keith because I sometimes arrange for them to spend the day shooting wildlife with him.

The reason for our river trip was something very special – indeed it is a First for Scotland. Here in Kirkcudbright it has been known for some months that a pair of spoonbills have been feeding on the mud banks of the river. Well, it is now confirmed that the birds have successfully raised three chicks nearby. All five birds are now seen regularly feeding in the shallows.

This is an extremely rare and important event for wildlife in Britain. Although there is one instance of spoonbills having bred successfully in England, it is the first time in over 300 years that they have bred as far north as SW Scotland. Twitchers are now flocking to Kirkcudbright to see the spoonbills and, happily, the birds seem quite oblivious to their new fame.

Keith was shooting with his Nikon D300 and a 500mm Sigma lens. Due to the shallow water over the mud banks we were unable to get the boat very close, and Keith’s biggest difficulty was in keeping the camera still with the slow shutter speeds needed in the very low light. Although he pushed the ISO right up to 1600, and opened the aperture as wide as possible, he was still using a shutter speed of just 125sec. The motion of the boat and the movement of the birds did not help.

But just look at the picture Keith achieved – you can even see the rain spot bouncing off the wet mud.
If you would like to spend a day with Keith photographing wildlife in Galloway, Scotland, just contact me and I'll see if it can be arranged.

Top photograph by Keith Kirk
…and here’s one of the adult spoonbills striding past a resident heron. Under the conditions, that’s a great shot, Keith.

Lower photograph shows Keith at work photographing the spoonbills from the boat
Find out more about these rare birds on the RSPB site