Friday, 29 April 2011

Spring flora - Yockletts Bank

In search of orchids

I have been waiting for the wind to die down this week to get myself over to Yockletts to check out the orchids. I awoke around 6.30 and peeked through the curtains and, whilst it was not still, there was just a light breeze, so I decided to give it a go. A quick coffee and double check of my gear and I was out, arriving at 7.30.

It's still a bit early for the lady orchids but I walked around the site and warmed up on bluebell and wild garlic.

There are often fine cobwebs on the flower heads which one invariably does not see until loaded onto the computer.

Wild garlic
I used manual focus / live view which worked pretty well. The hardest thing is trying to get a background that does not compete with the subject and getting a brief lull in the wind to keep the flower heads still. One thing that you need to be aware of is that live view eats batteries, so make sure that you're well stocked before you leave.

On my way round I noticed this great growth of fungus which I had to capture.

Having almost given up hope I stumbled across my target species, albeit an example not yet if full flower but it was in a fairly sheltered position which made it fairly easy to photograph.
Lady orchid

I continued round and located this individual that was more advanced. It was difficult to get the shot that I wanted without treading on other plants nearby.

Now that I know the lie of the land I am to get over again in mid May when they should be at their best and other species should be making an appearance too.

A little Strobism

I have recently returned from holiday with the family, back in Cornwall. (You don't go to Cornwall for years ... then two trips there come along at once!)

I won't be showing very many of the pictures that I took there on this blog, but one thing I was practising with my son, Peter, was using with flash, outdoors and off camera. While we were away, Peter and I made quite a number of pictures taking the general approach of finding an interesting background and setting exposure that would under-expose it by about 2/3 to 1 stop. Then an SB900 flash was used to provide light for the subject, the flash held away from the camera and controlled either by the pop-up flash on the D300 (Nikon's creative lighting system) or by a radio trigger.

Here are a couple of examples, taken on the beach at Widemouth Bay, around sunset. The first one is by Peter -- a self-portrait with the shutter triggered by a wireless remote (you can get the impression of it held his hand), with the camera on a tripod. The flash was held by me (voice activated lighting stand) and was triggered by the D300 pop-up flash.

Peter -- self-portrait

The second one again is of Peter, but this time I pressed the button. This time the flash was triggered using a radio trigger, and I held both the shutter remote and the flash.

Peter -- with wet feet

I like the way these two came out -- adding some controlled lighting to a situation like this really brings out a lot of interest in the picture.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Carpet of blue

Phil picked me up around 2pm and we headed over to a small piece of woodland near Ruckinge to take in the bluebells. The warm weather having bought them all out in a frenzy we did not want to miss the opportunity.

The carpet of blue that greeted us
The hazel was in leaf
I used a couple of reflectors to light the undersides but the direct sunlight was playing havoc reflecting off the track

I tried a similar shot from a lower angle, using the out of focus flowers in the background
A lone white mutant flower head
Again, alongside its true relatives
Technical footnote

For the close-up shots I used the following:
  • Camera mounted on a tripod
  • Mirror lock-up
  • 2-second timer release (cable or remote release an option too)
  • 100mm macro lens (on a 1.3x crop sensor giving effective focal length of 130mm) with apertures between f/5 and f/8
  • Auto white balance
  • Focusing was manual using live view with 10x magnification
  • Viewfinder blanking cover (to avoid stray light entering the camera body and altering exposure)
  • Two white reflectors, one below and one propped behind the flower heads to give a more even light distribution
  • Exposure compensation to expose for the highlights (validated via histogram)
  • Adjusted ISO to keep shutter speeds above 1/125 to compensate for any wind movement (although it was pretty still most of the time)
  • I used small twigs as props on the stems of some of the taller flowers to dampen any movement

Wednesday, 20 April 2011


Lake District - March 2011

I've got round to processing a few more images from my trip to the Lakes, based in Ambleside. I found the landscapes looked good in monochrome, with the moody skies and snow-capped fells.


Skelghyll near Ambleside
Kirkstone Pass after an overnight fall of snow

Trebarwith Strand - March 2011

I've recently purchased Lightroom 3 and have been familiarising myself with some if its features. I can see I'm going to have to buy a book to get the best out of it but found it very handy for preparing a shot I took at Trebarwith a few weeks ago.

EOS 1D Mk4; EF 24-105 at 24mm; f8; 200ISO; 3.2 second exposure; 3-stop soft ND graduated filter

Monday, 11 April 2011

A stitch in time: the pleasure of panoramas

Childhood collages
Like many of my generation, whenever I went on holiday as a child with my parents I used to look at a beautiful scene, lift the Instamatic to my eye and be immediately frustrated by the fact that I could not "get it all in". One way I used to try to solve this was to take a series of overlapping pictures, which could then be stuck together at home to give a feeling of the place. Problem is, it never really worked. Just occasionally, it might be possible to get something that gave the right impression, but by and large it never worked very well. Part of the problem was that film always seemed so expensive, so I never took enough pictures. Even when I had my own budget for film, I never took the bull by the horns and took enough pictures to make a worthwhile collage.

Discovering digital panos
Back in 2004-2005, when I was reading the web forums in the run-up to getting my first digital camera, I came across many examples of photographers using stitching methods to create seamless panoramas. The idea of making seamless panoramas grabbed my attention immediately -- it hasn't really let go since.

Among others, I really enjoyed the work of a Pbase member rfc: I found his images of New York very inspiring. There is still recurrent a panorama thread running on DPreview, to which I have contributed occasionally over the years. In a completely different style, David Noton’s landscape panoramas are wonderful. Phil and I went to one of his talks about a month ago: seeing the images projected onto a large screen is breathtaking.

Manhattan and the East River at Dawn, 2008 (produced with PTGui)

An obvious question is why would you need to stitch panos? Wide-angle zoom lenses are common, and we have more megapixels than you can shake a stick at. In this context, why not just crop a wide-angle picture to a panoramic format? Well, of course, and go ahead if it suits the image – Phil recently posted a great example on Flickr.

For me, there is a conceptual difference between deliberately creating a stitched panorama and cropping a conventional wideangle image. Using a wideangle lens is not just about the width of the picture – it is about depth too (hence, you always hear about needing to include some foreground interest). Composing a panorama is a deliberate creative choice just to concentrate on some (often linear) feature and exclude everything else. Starting out with the idea that you are going to move the camera across the scene informs a creative choice in the composition. In any case, unless you carry fisheye lenses, even the widest of normal wideangle zooms may not cover the full width of the pano you might want to make.

There are other consequences too: even though we have no shortage of pixels in modern DSLRs for normal prints (e.g. up to A3 size), stitching can buy extra megapixels should you need them. For instance, a long, thin pano with an aspect ratio of 5:1 to be printed at 12 inches high would need to be 60 inches (5 feet) wide: at 240 dpi that’s over 14000 px on the long side, equivalent to a crop from an image from a conventionally-shaped sensor with 138 Mpx. Sounds an awful lot, but actually not hard to get by stitching multiple 12 Mpx images.

There’s also nothing standing in the way of stitching two-dimensional arrays either: should you need to print an image very large, this can be a viable alternative to buying or renting a vastly expensive high-res camera. No discussion of this can avoid the Gigapan: the ability now to generate images with seemingly infinite zoomability is one of the wonders of the digital age*.

Software for panos
Not long after I bought my first digital SLR, I bought the software package PTGui; it still works extremely well. One of its greatest advantages is the ability to produce a layered PSD file that can subsequently be edited to smooth out awkward transitions. PTGui is still my go-to program for difficult panos. (There is a version for making HDR panos, but I've never used it.)

As Photoshop has matured, so stitching capabilities have been included. The current CS5 is extremely good at producing panos from straightforward overlapping images. However, even though it produces a layered PSD, the editing capabilities of such PSDs are not as great as those from PTGui. By default CS5 only returns the relevant part of the image in each layer. PTGui can be set to return the whole of each layer after warping for incorporation into the pano; the layers are masked off by default above a layer containing the full blended panorama, so this means that by carefully painting on the layer masks it is possible to improve the look. This is particularly useful for people walking through the image who have been cut in half by a join: editing the layer masks in the PSD can usually get all (or none) of them in. This can even be done in very busy areas where a lot of people are constantly moving during the creation of the images. 

Borough market, London Bridge, 2008 (produced with PTGui)

PTGui has some useful tutorials, including one on using layer masks for helping with the final seamless pano.

In general, my first thought is always to use CS5 as the first option for making panoramas; but if there's going to be any kind of a problem with the stitch then I turn to PTGui.

Cincinnati and the Ohio River, 2010 (produced with CS5)

Stitching for when you haven't got the right lens on the camera
When I started out making stitched panoramas it never occurred to me that stitching could be used for more things than wide views. But I now use it surprisingly frequently.

For example, when walking around a city, I often prefer to carry just the D300 body with a single lens. So if I need to go wider than, say, 18 mm on the crop sensor camera, stitching is an easy way to go.

Here is a recent example. At the end of last year, I was in Covent Garden and there was an entertainer putting on a great show while balancing on a ladder. I got behind him with the aim of photographing him with his audience, but found that 18 mm did not include the whole scene. So I took two images, one for the top and one for the bottom half of the picture and stitched them using PTGui. Even though the entertainer was moving quite quickly on his ladder, I was able to get a pretty convincing stitch with just a little painting on the layer masks in the resulting PSD file. (I think it must have been convincing -- it has just been accepted for a competitive exhibition!)

The Entertainer, Covent Garden, 2010 (produced with PTGui.)
 On our recent trip to Cornwall, I saw some lobster pots on the quay at Padstow. I had the 105 mm lens on at the time: the pots would not quite fit in the frame nicely. Although I had shorter range zooms in my bag, I was reluctant to change lens because there was a lot of dust blowing around in the wind, and in general terms I prefer not to change lenses when there is a likelihood of a load of FOD landing on the sensor. In any case, it was much quicker simply to shoot overlapping shots and stitch them post hoc.

Lobster pots, Padstow, 2011 (produced with CS5)

General techniques
Producing stitches from digital image files is extremely easy, but there are a few things to watch out for. Although, technically, one should use a tripod with a panorama head which rotates the lens around the nodal point, mine are all just handheld or on a tripod with a normal ball head.

Two key points: (A) I find greatest success by overlapping each image by about one third to one half and (B) have the camera set completely on manual.

(A) -- Overlapping by a third or so is very easy, but I find it simplest to carefully look in each frame to identify a point which can be moved into the image from the edge. For example on the right-hand side of the first image that might be a tree: for the second image, move that tree about one third of the way across the frame. When panning the camera, be sure to stay in one place, and as far as possible, just rotate the top half of your body, keeping the camera to your eye all the time. It is also worth rehearsing the pano before taking the first one to make sure that everything you want will fit. Remember that stitching will give large files, so don’t be afraid of framing relatively loosely and then cropping afterwards. It often useful to hold the camera in portrait format when producing horizontal panoramas, so the lens cam be zoomed in as far as possible, giving the greatest resolution in the resulting pano.

(B) -- Successful stitches can only be achieved if the basic setup of each image is the same. Shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings must be the same all the way across, so set exposure to manual mode (M) on the camera. There's two viable approaches to determining exposure, the laborious and the easy. The laborious way is to take a series of spot readings across the scene and determine an optimal exposure accordingly. I usually choose the easy method: in this, exposure is chosen based matrix readings of what I consider to be the most important part of the scene, and then checking that any brighter parts of the scene are not blown. My aim is to get a zero-adjustment raw file for the most important part, and then - providing highlights are held - not worry about the rest. There is enough latitude in a 14 bit raw file that subsequent adjustment of the stitched image (which becomes a 16 bit TIFF or PSD file) that most usable scenes will work this way.

It is also important to have a consistent white balance throughout. On auto white balance if you are moving the camera so that one area of the final stitch is dominated by shade and another area is dominated by bright sunlight, there is a danger that the camera will change white balance between shots. For daylight panos I usually put the camera on 5260 K, which is roughly a daylight setting. (Incidentally, David Noton recently produced a very good piece on white balance for landscape photography, in which he argues that fixed daylight white balance is, in any case, better than auto white balance for landscapes).

Neutral density graduated filters work well with wide panos if the sky needs to be kept on scale. On the other hand, polarizing filters can be problematic since they don't give a constant darkening of the sky across a wide view.

One question that often arises is whether to have focus fixed. Normally, I'll set an aperture to give a depth of field that is sufficient for the scene, and choose a single focus point and then turn off auto focus once that is set. Occasionally, that won't work because the subject or field of view contains more depth than can be encompassed in a single aperture. On these occasions, it is possible to get a fully focused pano by moving the focus point with the camera, providing depth of field, as well as field of view, overlaps.

Tornado GR4, Northolt, 2010 (produced with CS4, focus point moving as the camera moved)
The great thing about panoramas is that they can be produced from any digital camera, even from a camera on a phone. Some of the latest compact cameras even come with built-in mechanisms for generating a panorama automatically when the camera is swiped around. So, if you have not tried it, give it a go! If you have not got a current version of Photoshop, PTGui offers a free trial. There are many free software packages as well which I have not tried, so I can't give any recommendation, but you might try searching for panorama stitching software. Have fun!

Honfleur Old Basin, 2010 (produced with PTGui)

*Footnote: as an aside, the Gigapan image of the Obama Inauguration is wonderful at all sorts of levels. One of the things I like best about it is the melding of old and new. If you zoom in on the right hand side, there is an ancient-looking view camera. This was used to make Daguerreotypes of the Inauguration. The photographer, Jerry Spagnoli, is next to Annie Liebovitz, who is wearing a modern DSLR. The more things change….

Friday, 8 April 2011

Docklands in the Spring sunshine

Plan your trip

I had arranged a trip to London with my friend Ian for a spot of photography around the Canary Wharf area. If it is something that you are thinking of doing but are concerned about being hassled by security personnel then I strongly recommend the following:

  • Do some research. I recommend photographic do's and don'ts in Canary Wharf
  • Adhere to the rules and regulations
  • If you get stopped by security (we did four times!) be honest. Just explain that it is for personal and not commercial use (unless it is and you have a permit). If they ask to see some of your images, be happy to show them some on your rear LCD screen. If you are courteous to them they will reciprocate.
  • Don't abuse the privilege; you can get some great shots without overstepping the mark!
Just one of many opportunities to work with the glass and metal buildings
Light and lots of it!

We were fortunate to go on Weds. 6th March, you remember that really warm sunny day. And whilst sunny days are not always conducive to great photography, Canary Wharfe is a place where it can really help. Be prepared to use a polarising filter when necessary to reduce glare and maintain detail in the reflections on the buildings though.

I did very little wide-angle work as this was difficult due to having to cope with regions of wide contrast. Most of my shots were taken with my 24-105 and 70-200 lenses. I was looking to capture the form, structure and brilliance of the modern architecture, both in record and more abstract ways.

A set of striking gold pillars decorate the roundabout at the East road entrance

The orange umbrellas under the curve building were reflecting on its undersides

The good weather brought the bankers out in their droves
I played around with shadows and tones

Always looking for interesting patterns and recession.

Here, the underground sign punctuates the image
There are lots of interesting curves too.

Shooting people is easy with a telephoto zoom lens.

This chap is clearly in need of a sponsorship deal!   
The HSBC building dominates the skyline and gets in a lot of reflections too
Just a few more images to go now . . .

As well as the tips above you will need to keep a close eye on your exposures as all that light can trick your light meter. Use your histogram all the time to check this out and remember to adjust your polariser when switching your camera from horizontal to vertical shooting.

Impression of cornwall

This was the shot I wanted to get , I was going to convert to b/w but think it works better this way.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

People of Cornwall

A change is as good as a rest

As a wildlife photographer I'm like a fish out of water when it comes to taking photographs of people in the street. This is partly because I feel that I'm invading their space and also that I may be stealing a little bit of their soul. Anyway, I managed a few shots in Padstow and St Ives.

With it feeling like the first weekend of spring there was an air of relaxation everywhere; people just going about their daily business or simply chilling out.

Lazy days and Sundays

When it comes to relaxaion nobody was doing it better than this lady in Padstow.

One shop in Fore Street, St Ives had a mirror outside. Philip was trying to get a shot of someone in the reflection. I don't know how he got on but this is my attempt. Nice idea Phil, I should follow you around more often [steal with pride, that's what I say].

You've been framed!

As usual, the Sloop Inn was doing a roaring trade.
Beside the slipway in front of the Sloop Inn the local lobster pot maker was hard at work. He appeared to be having great fun as he effortlessly weaved away. Luckily for me he did look up for a couple of seconds, allowing me this grab shot.

Work should be fun . . .

Back to Padstow now and a shot of a barmaid from the Shipwrights, no doubt enjoying a well-earned break in the spring sunshine.

On the water's edge

The slipway in Padstow harbour is a popular place for families to get away from the hubbub on the quay above and eat their lunch.

 Looking the part

Towards the end of the afternoon we needed to make our way back to the ferry bound for our base in Rock. On the way we stopped for an ice cream at a parlour on the quayside and I did pluck up the courage to ask the manageress if I could take her portrait. Not everyone is as relaxed in front of the camera  - thank you!