Looking Back…

img_3197Looking back on 2019 I see that I took roughly the same number of ‘proper’ photos (ie with my actual camera as opposed to my smartphone) as in previous years.  What is a little concerning is that apart from a couple of organised events that I went to during the year, most of my photos have been taken during holidays. I haven’t been ‘going out’ very much other times specifically to take photos.

By contrast, the number of photos taken on my smartphone has increased by over 50% this year.  This is no doubt due to having a new and much better phone – the iPhone 11 Pro, with its multiple lens options.  Whereas in previous years I would often take either my Sony A7 or at least a compact camera pretty much everywhere with me, nowadays I only take the Sony when I envisage the opportunity for some ‘considered’ photography. I reckon my smartphone images are ‘good enough’ for family, occasions, and casual photos where I only anticipate viewing them on screen, and of course the phone is way more compact and convenient than a bag holding a camera body, lenses and filters.  As an aside, there have been a few photographs (mainly at night) where the enhanced processing and AI capabilities of the iPhone have yielded photographs I don’t think would have been possible even with the Sony…

A7304384-HDRIndeed, the whole issue of how much I can sensibly carry has caused me to slim down my photo gear – the bigger, heavier lenses have all gone, as has the filter system that went with them, and I now just have one camera body, a couple of smaller lenses and a few other bits and pieces in my bag. I’ve reduced the scope of what I can photograph somewhat, and maybe reduced the ultimate image quality marginally, but my backpack now weighs about 50% less, and is definitely more manageable. This hasn’t translated into going out more yet, but I’m sure it will – there have certainly been occasions over the last year or two where I’ve passed up on opportunities to go out shooting because I couldn’t face the prospect of carrying the gear! And that does make good sense – with my 70th birthday looming, and an obvious reduction in my strength, stamina and mobility, I’ve (finally) recognised that I have to adapt to change…

Porthleven sunset (2)So I guess it remains to be seen whether this slimming down of gear to more manageable proportions does result in me getting out and actually taking more photos. I do think a change of direction is called for anyway – for years I’ve considered myself primarily a landscape photographer, but am less and less interested in the genre. Some of that is the challenge of getting to often out of the way spots either very early in the morning or late in the evening, and I do find so many of the landscape photos I see as somewhat formulaic – sunsets, sunrises and sea, either all misty and ethereal or using very long exposures… After 60 years taking photographs I really want to try something different and more creative rather than replicating the sort of photos I see all over the internet.

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That’s looking forward, but a few of my highlights from 2019 are as follows:

Gran Canaria – we started our year’s holidays here, and although we didn’t travel far from our hotel, there was still lots to see.

Cornwall – we spent a week there in May and then a few days right at the end of the year. The coastline and sea is always the pull for me.

Ireland – we toured the Wild Atlantic Way – Ireland’s rugged West Coast, but the highlight for me was the Giants Causeway in Antrim, somewhere that’s been on my bucket list for a long time!

Santorini – a late summer holiday on this delightful Greek island. Lots of white houses and churches with blue roofs.

Liverpool – an evening trip with a bunch of fellow togs to photograph the lights around the Albert Dock area.

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A Tale Of Two Bodies…

I’ve really enjoyed using my Sony A7iii camera and lenses for the year or so I’ve owned them, except for one  (not so small) issue – the weight of it all.  OK, if I am just using one of the smaller prime lenses, like the 35mm f2.8 or 55mm f1.8, it’s just fine, but when I’m fully tooled up to go and take landscape photos, complete with 24-105mm, 16-35mm, 100mm filter kit, and tripod and ‘L’ plate, all in my backpack, the whole thing weighs a ton – well, actually about 12 kg.

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Porthleven Harbour – A6300

As I get older, that really does start to be a problem, especially if I have to walk any distance, or climb any hills to get to where I want to shoot… In truth, it’s limiting my enjoyment of my hobby.

So it seemed natural to see if there was a lighter weight option, even if it was only for these outdoor treks. (I sold my last camera, a very competent Olympus OMD kit, because it didn’t really deliver the landscape image quality I was looking for, and knew the full frame Sony was going to be bigger and heavier, but guess I underestimated it…) So what to do? Rather than get something completely different, I figured the smaller Sony A6000 series camera might do the trick – same lens mount, so I could (with reservations) swap lenses, and the body would act as a useful backup should the A7 fail.

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Valerian – A6300

The latest A6400 body looked very nice, with excellent AF, and menus and features very similar to the A7iii, but the best price I found was a fairly substantial £800+ for the body only. What I did drop on though was the previous model – the A6300, still a very competent camera, but with the latest Sony cashback and some odd price matching going on, this came in at just £455 net, including the kit 16-50mm pancake lens – not bad at all.

Next thing to get was lenses and filters… The Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f4 lens would give me the same field of view as the 24-105mm on the A7iii, and the 10-18mm near enough the same field of view as the 16-35mm f4 on the A7iii, but physically very much smaller and lighter of course. I picked up very tidy used copies of both for decent prices, and then a Nisi M75 filter holder and a couple of grad/ND filters, again much smaller than my usual 100mm kit, and fine for these smaller lenses. With my smaller Manfrotto Befree tripod, and a smaller rucksack I already had, the whole lot came in at barely 6kg, just half the weight of the equivalent A7iii kit…  Good so far!

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Porthleven – A6300

Our trip to Cornwall was a great opportunity to try it all out, and I took both kits with me for comparison. I have to say that for ‘walking around’ the A6300 and the 16-70mm lens was a revelation – definitely manageable, although big enough to still need some kind of bag to carry it around in.  The shots from it were all good – lets face it, handheld shots aren’t really much of a test of absolute image quality, and any modern camera is capable of that.  But it was nevertheless still a ‘proper’ camera to carry around, and certainly overkill for ‘holiday snaps’ – I love using my iPhone for that.

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Hepworth Sculpture – A6300

But later on, I decided to try some ‘serious’ photography – sunsets, and some wider shots around Porthleven harbour and Kynance Cove. What was immediately clear was that the  daytime shots with lots of detail in were simply not as sharp or contrasty as I expected, especially towards the edge of the frame – ‘OK’, but not the superb quality which  I was used to with the A7iii. And then the evening shots… Hmmm – very noticeably lower dynamic range on the RAW files, and any significant amount of post processing to lighten shadows would see them break up somewhat, with lots of ‘noise’ in the darker areas.  Much harder files to process and ultimately not as good as the A7iii (to be expected, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so great.) Even the shots using grad filters to balance exposure weren’t perfect, whereas with the A7iii I could often get away without bothering to use filters, just tweaking everything needed in Lightroom.

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Lizard Point Lighthouse – A6300

So that rather put me off, and I reverted to using the A7iii for the rest of our trip. I took several panorama shots, and also some HDR merged sunset shots with the A7iii, and was very comfortable all round with it, accepting that the heavier weight was worth it for the quality.  When I got home I did some comparison sharpness shots at various apertures on both the smaller ‘E’ series lenses and the ‘FE’ full frame lenses and I was shocked at just how much better the full frame lenses are – even in the centre of the frame the 16-70mm wasn’t as sharp as the edges of the 24-105mm, and the contrast was lower too.  To be fair, the 24-105mm is a hard act to follow – it is excellent, and only a little less sharp than the primes at some settings. A similar story with the 10-18mm too – not as crisp as the 16-35mm f4, with some obvious smearing at the edges and corners. I did look at the possibility of prime lenses for the A6300, but there isn’t really a lot to choose from.

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Porthleven Sunset – A7iii (merged in LR)

Now I guess that for most folks, the A6300 and it’s lenses would be fine, but with my obsession for image quality, it just wasn’t going to cut it, so both lenses have gone back…  I still have the A6300 itself and the kit lens just now, and may well keep that for when I want something better that my phone, but don’t want to go out fully ‘tooled up’.  I think it was a steal at the price. I’ll probably keep the M75 filter kit too – if I choose to use the prime lenses I’ve got (24mm f2.8 Samyang, 35mm f2.8, 55mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8) on the A7iii, it will work fine with those and I can get a body, a couple of primes and the filters all in a shoulder bag.

So after all that, I’m back to where I was a few weeks ago – I reckon I will just have to put up with the extra weight of the A7iii and it’s lenses, and maybe not try to climb so many hills!

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Porthleven – 11 shot merged panorama – A7iii

 

From Dawn to Dusk (2)…

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Sunrise, Market Drayton – iPhone XR & Moment w/a

I’ve been taking at least one photo a day so far this year for my 365 project, but these have nearly all been iPhone shots. This morning started off pretty cold and frosty, and although I took the Sony A7iii for a spin, my iPhone did a pretty good job of capturing the morning light just across from our house. I love the wider perspective that the Moment 18mm wide angle lens produces. Good as a decent compact camera is, I reckon they have been been rendered obsolete by this latest generation of smartphones. For me, it’s either my iPhone, or for more ‘serious’ photos, the Sony.

So after that we went for a steady walk into Market Drayton (it’s about a 4 mile round trip).  In 1245 King Henry III granted a charter for a weekly Wednesday market, giving the town its current name, and although the market was on (today is Wednesday), it was pretty quiet overall.

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Farm hand, Market Drayton – iPhone XR

Bumped into the local farmer on the way back home – they have 700+ dairy cattle and his pickup truck already bears the scars from contact with the cows. The Land Rover they used previously had lasted some 30 years – somehow I don’t think this pickup will last as long!

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Sunset, The Roaches – Sony A7iii & 16-35mm

The promise of some decent clear skies, and the fact that I haven’t used my Sony camera in earnest for several weeks encouraged me to nip up to The Roaches in time for sunset. It’s a fairly brisk 1/2 mile scramble from the road to the 1st level, but the views even from here are amazing (better still from the top). Pretty impressive colours in the sky tonight! Managed a few decent shots, for once using grad filters to balance the key and foreground. It’s a bit of a faff using them, but it really makes a difference. The Sony has amazing dynamic range, and it’s easy to extricate detail from deep shadows, but somehow getting the balance right in camera still yields a better result.

All in all a busy photo day…

A witch’s tale…

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Blake Mere Pool

Take the A53 north of Leek in Staffordshire, and then the first turning on the right after you pass Ramshaw Rocks and The Roaches, and along the road across Morridge moor you’ll find a small pool with a spooky story…

Officially known as Blake Mere, locally it’s also known as Mermaid’s Pool, and the legend tells of a beautiful young woman who rejected the advances of a local man named Joshua Linnet. Unable to accept the rejection, Joshua accused the woman of being a witch and persuaded the local townsfolk to drown her in Blake Mere Pond. With her final breath however, the young woman muttered a curse against Joshua and three days later his body was found by the pool, his life claimed by the ghost of the woman he wronged, his face covered with claw marks. It is said that her spirit still haunts the pool in the form of a demon mermaid…

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The Roaches after sunset

If you are not afraid of witches it’s a great spot for a photograph. From the roadside, there’s a clear view of The Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, and on a still day, the skies above are reflected in the pool. In summer the sun sets directly in front of you, and at the twilight hour casts an eerie glow across the moorland grasses. Just don’t stay around after night falls – you never know when the mermaid will show herself!

For a spot of refreshment, carry on along the road towards Leek, and after a couple of miles you’ll arrive at the welcoming Reform Inn – a great pub with good food.

Always Have A Camera Ready…

XT102980Last night was a perfect reminder – we were sitting at home having a drink when OH noticed the sunset colours developing and the cows at the top of our garden.  Encouraged by her (it was hard to tear myself away from a Sauvignon Blanc, even for a photo), I grabbed my Fuji X-T1 and raced to the top of the garden.  Managed to get maybe 6 shots off while the cows were suitably juxtaposed with the big old oak tree, and before the colours faded. No time to set up a tripod, all shots were taken with the camera balanced on a fence post.

Key thing for me, and the moral here, is to always have a camera set and ready to go – my X-T1 ALWAYS goes back in its bag with battery fully charged, fitted with the 18-135mm lens, set to Auto ISO 3200, and everything else on Auto. That pretty much guarantees a shot in all circumstances and is a good place to start.

For the technically minded – images were shot in RAW, then processed in Lightroom with a Fuji Velvia preset to boost the colours, a little clarity added, then cropped to suit.

Do I need graduated filters?

There’s a groundswell of opinion that the way to deal with the extremes of contrast in sunset and sunrise images in particular is to use a graduated ND filter. The principle is simple – set the filter so the darker part covers the brightest part of the image – usually the sky, and this then ‘holds back’ the light, giving a more balanced image. Sounds simple, but not so easy in practice. A tripod is essential to hold the camera still while the filter is correctly placed. That’s after you’ve worked out how strong a filter to use, and whether its a hard ‘grad’ (i.e. a quick transition from light to dark) or a soft ‘grad’ if a gentler transition is required. There’s also the small matter of carrying around the filters (up to 6 in a set) and the holder and adapters for different lenses, not to mention the cost of the filters themselves – could be £200 +.

Most decent digital cameras allow you to store the RAW image from the chip, and its generally possible to get quite a decent dynamic range by careful post processing – however with a really wide exposure range like the image below, that’s still not going to do the trick.

A very practical alternative is ‘exposure stacking’ – take one image exposed for the lighter parts of the scene (the sky here) and another exposed for the darker foreground detail. Then combine the two images in a programme like Photoshop to take the best bits of both. The image below was from images with 5 stops difference in exposure – far more than even grad filters could easily copy with, and was merged together in just a few minutes. Its a really practical way to cope with wide exposure differences – just remember to use a tripod so the 2 images correspond!

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EDIT: Since writing this blog back in May 2014, I’ve actually invested in a set of grad filters. I don’t use them that often as its possible to wring a lot of detail out of Fuji RAW images, but there are times when they definitely help.