Saturday, 20 September 2014

Tour of Britain 2014 - Stage 5


Having booked a cottage in South West Devon for early September, I subsequently discovered that Stage 5 of the Tour Of Britain was passing very close by. Starting in Exmouth and finishing in Exeter, the 110 mile stage crossed large parts of Dartmoor. This was a photo opportunity not to be missed!

I then started planning what type of shots I wanted to take. This was a slow process and over the preceding weeks a clear picture of what I wanted crystalised in my mind - the key aspects being:

  • a wide-angle view of a spread of riders
  • capturing the essence of Dartmoor
  • no distractions (cars, spectators, buildings etc)
I did think about doing a recce a day or two before to find some promising spots but I had no way of predicting which areas would be busy; the last thing I wanted was to identify a great location only to arrive on the day and find 50 other photographers there or lots of spectators on the opposite side of the road. I decided in the end to try and get to the Eastern end of the moor a couple of hours before and pick a spot on the day.

Finding a location on the day (12th September 2014)

The target area I identified was between Widecombe on the Moor and Haytor Vale on the B3387 and Julia and I set off around 9.30 in the morning, with the riders' ETA being about 20 mins after midday.

The first thing that struck us was the sheer number of local cyclists making a pilgrimage to The Moor for a brief glimpse of their heroes as they flashed by. My one regret of the day was not stopping to photography a chap on a penny farthing that we had just passed in the car.

The route as it passes in front of Hay Tor (checkpoint where road and horizon meet) as we arrived.

Hay Tor is one of the most popular landmarks on the Dartmoor, as it is the first major one that you see when accessing via the town of Bovey Tracey (known as the "Gateway to the Moor"). As we approached it in the car it was clear that this was going to be a key spectator spot. We pulled over onto the verge to weigh up our options and I quickly realised that where we had stopped was actually quite a good spot: it was on a bend, Hay Tor was in the background and there were no distractions in front of us.

The photography starts

The plan was to use two camera/lens combinations on the day. My 1D MkIV would be tripod mounted with the EF 16-35 f/2.8 and a cable release to capture the main action. I would then use my EF 70-200 f/2.8 on the 6D body for a few grab shots of the crowd etc.

So, having chosen our pitch, we then walked up the hill to the checkpoint area to soak up the atmosphere (and grab a much needed coffee).

It's important to bear in mind how far British road cycling has come in the last few years. From what was a minority sport, to domination of the track at the last two Olympic games and successive Tour de France victories. This in turn, has led to a huge uptake of cycling by the British public and it appeared that all of those from the South West had descended upon Dartmoor and the surrounding towns for the day, making for a fantastic and friendly atmosphere, which I've tried to capture in the next few photos.

Four mates discussing the issues of the day

Dreaming of future glory.

The ascent to Hay Tor about an hour before the riders were due

'Crowd control', with the two outcrops that make up Hay Tor as a backdrop

The sponsor's merchandising stand

Final preparation for the main event

Having returned from the top of the hill it was time to set up my gear to capture the main event. It took me about 30 minutes to settle on the exact composition that I was happy with, but even then, a lot of it was going to be guesswork, as I've never done this type of thing before and I had no idea how spread out the riders would be. One thing was sure: I was at the bottom of a hill and they would be going fast!

Once I had set the composition, I locked down the camera on the tripod and attached the remote release cable. The camera settings were: aperture priority; 22mm focal length; f/8; ISO 1600; auto white balance. This would give me shutter speed of 1/4000th and keep both the road and the top or Hay Tor in focus.

While I was setting all of this up a couple and a dog walker stopped opposite for a chat. Still, there was still about 40 mins until the riders were due so they would have moved on by then - or so I thought.

Spectators in my field of view...DISASTER!
As time ticked on, I had to make a decision: walk over an politely ask them if they wouldn't mind spectating out of my field of view or just hope that they would be small enough in the frame and hence dwarfed by the cyclists that it would not really matter. I opted for the latter approach in the end - most unlike me!!

Luckily, Julia had her compact camera with her and surprised me by 'photographing the photographer'. You can see the low viewpoint that I chose, with the camera at about 45 degrees to the direction of travel. I wanted the lead riders to be big in the frame an those behind to appear much smaller.

Bring it on!

The action

There was a succession of police motorbikes and official cars passing by and the atmosphere built as these became more frequent. Before I knew it, the lead riders appeared at the the top of the hill. With the preparation done, all that was needed now was to squeeze the cable release button as they went by and hope for the best!

A group led by three Omega Pharma Quickstep team riders
The next two photos are of the main peleton. The first is taken by Julia from the other side of the road at, what must have been, almost simultaneous to mine, below.

The main peleton sweeps down the hill

Mark Cavendish at the front of the peleton
Two frames after the above shot the buffer (26 images) on my camera filled so I could easily have missed the main men. (Sir Bradley Wiggins is instantly recognisable with the tattoo and union flag on his right arm).

The rear of the peleton
Well, it was all over in a flash. In less than a minute all the riders had swept by, followed closely by the team and event cars.

The Omega Pharma car

The Team Sky Jag

So, after the adrenaline rush, we walked out onto the moor for a picnic and watched the crowd slowly disperse.

It's all over!

Looking back

Now that the dust has settled and I've managed to process my images I'm pretty pleased with the results and that all the planning was worthwhile. Luck was of course on my side - I got Mark Cavendish and Sir Bradley Wiggins in the same frame and the spectators opposite me didn't adversely affect the shots.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Shoreham Airshow (UK) with a rented D810

DH90A Dragonfly landing in front of Lancing College Chapel
Last weekend I rented a D810, and on the Saturday spent the day at Shoreham for the airshow. I’ve not seen much aviation photography with the D810, and I wanted to know whether it would be a good practical option for this.  My D700 is great for aircraft, which is one reason why I’ve never been tempted by the D800, but the D810 has so many small improvements, it looked very enticing.

I picked it up on the Friday evening and took it out into central London to set it up and give it a first try. Everyone says how good it feels in the hand, and it really does. Once I’d got used to some of the controls, and customized “My Menu” to have my usual items in there (like battery info) and added crop modes (Image Area) and custom setting A6 to turn on/off frame lines, I felt good to go.

Spitfire N3200
The Vulcan banks

The Shoreham airshow is not particularly taxing on a modern auto-focusing system, as there are mainly vintage prop aircraft on display, and even my D70 was (mostly) OK with them ☺. Nevertheless, I wanted to try out the new group AF.

The pictures I’ve put in this post were all taken with the 200-400mm f/4 VR II, except for the monochrome C-47 (24-120mm f/4). All hand held. Just processed through Lightroom 5.6 (except for the banking Vulcan, which had a little additional help from Topaz Clarity). All images were recorded RAW (14-bit NEF, with lossless compression).
Moody Dakota: B&W with Silver Efex Pro 2
I've put a larger set on Flickr. The images here are larger than on Flickr, so worth clicking on these see the full size.

Slightly to my surprise, I found I was using the 1.2 crop a lot. Exiftool tells me that just about 50% of my selects were with the 1.2 crop. About 15% were in DX crop (which I’d expected to use for small aircraft at a distance, but fairly quickly discovered I didn’t really need). The remaining 35% were in FX mode, which was great for anything on the ground or that was large and in flight.

Matrix metering seems very sensitive to any sky in the picture. It is clearly trying to protect highlights (good!) but I found myself dialing in more exposure compensation that usual – up to +1.67 stops for flying aircraft (not helped by the bright grey clouds during the afternoon), and the highlights were still not blown.

F6F takes off. The Group area AF worked perfectly, following the a/c down the runway and not getting distracted by the background.

Focusing worked great. The 200-400 hunted only twice during the whole day (and I’m pretty sure that was due to user error). It locked nicely on to moving subjects and was not distracted by objects in the background. In fact, I don’t think I got a single grossly out of focus image all day. Having said that, I was pushing the shutter speeds at some points to see if the extra pixels would be less sparing on my hand holding technique. My keeper rate always falls off precipitously with any camera below 1/100 when panning at about 400mm, but as it happened, I found I could get enough sharp pictures at 1/80 to get nicely blurred backgrounds on take off or landing. So, all good.

I’m still trying to work out the best processing in Lightroom. Camera Standard and Adobe Standard are very different profiles for the D810, and I’m still trying to decide how best to employ them. Lightroom also seems to have an odd interpretation of the White Balance data. I set the camera to 5560K fixed WB. Lightroom interprets this at about 5950K and adds a tint of -4. Not sure what’s going on there, but not dissimilar to the way it treats my other Nikon images. Nevertheless, Lightroom handles the NEFs well, without much slowing down relative to D700 images.

I also stitched some panos. The image at the end is a three image stitch from FX (36MP) originals. For this, I exported full size 16-bit Tiffs from Lightroom and used the Batch Stitcher in PTGui. This produced a very good pano with no problem. 
RAF Display Typhon pulls vapour: from a 5 MP crop at ISO 800.

Anyhow, I don’t think the pictures in this post will show much that is particularly informative, in the sense that at web resolution, they won’t look much different to a D700 shot. However, the Typhoon shot is a 2841x1887px crop. That represents about 1/6 of the image area, so on a D700 would be a roughly 2MP image: that’s not really enough to do much with, so  that is one extra image I would have missed with the D700. And it was at ISO 800: not too shabby. I don’t like cropping images on the D300 either at ISO 800, so a double win for the D810.

Anyhow, the real test is whether or not the prints look good. I’m going to try to get some images sent off for printing this weekend, so I’ll post a follow up when I have them back.

Two Mustangs and a Spitfire await departure. A three image stitch from FX (36MP) originals. Stitched in the PTGui Batch Stitcher, which handled this with no problem.