Saturday, 16 February 2019

When is macro not macro?

I'd been thinking of taking a new direction for my black and white woodland project for some time. A close up direction. Having tried close focusing normal lenses I wasn't getting the kind of pictures I had in mind, so I stuck an extension tube on my 50mm lens the other day and gave that a try. It worked to a degree.

I had a few problems with it not focusing close enough for some ideas I got. I could have messed about with different extensions but it seemed like a good enough excuse for buying a shorter macro lens than the one I have (which I don't use for close up photos very often). At the back of my mind was using the shorter macro as an alternative for the 50mm. Don't ask me why! Anyway, I took the plunge and by Friday I had another new toy to play with.

Some people test lenses by shooting brick walls or test charts and then zooming in on the files to check for edge to edge sharpness. I stick the lens on a camera and go take the sort of pictures I always take. Then check that they are in focus where they should be. Job done. Despite the accepted wisdom these days being that a 60mm macro lens on a 35mm sensor camera is less than optimal, I happen to prefer it to the longer lens. At least for 'creative' pictures. I might not be using it as a true macro, but it gets closer than a standard lens would while still giving a broader view than a longer lens would.

As a non-macro lens it's fine, if slow to focus. IT even works for sheepscapes.

My plan today was to leave the zoom lenses behind for my visit to the sheep sale. The 'new' macro went along for the ride to keep the usual selection company. In the end I wished I'd taken one fast zoom and the 20mm as I kept finding myself lacking reach or framing too tight. The light was as awful as ever with warm foregrounds and cool backgrounds, vice versa or worse!

I got one or two different pictures for my troubles but didn't manage to nail anything that stood out.

The pregnancy scanning was tricky to photograph well. A combination of the light and my restricted position accounted for my poor effort below.

It being a sale of traditional (Lonks and Gritstones) and rare breeds (Hebridean and Whitefaced Woodlands) I intended to photograph the traditional breeds mostly, but in the end I came away with more pictures of the Woodlands. The seem a more placid breed, and are very photogenic.

I'm not one of those people who waxes lyrical about the way certain lenses 'render' images, but there is something about the 28mm f1.8 Nikon I have which strikes a balance between sharpness, depth of field and the quality of the out of focus areas which appeals to me. Maybe it's just the focal length which does this, or maybe not. I do like the lens though. And it's a lightweight.

Capturing action in the sale ring is always difficult for me. Aside from the timing and focusing, getting a decent vantage point tends to beat me. I was using the flip down screen again, and again finding it frustrating. I think I have two choices. Abandon it for anything moving, or try a different system. Given that the latter option costs money, lot of money, I reckon I'll be taking the other choice. Maybe I should invest in some knee pads? Or a folding stool?

Sale ring inaction is much easier to deal with.

The over-long and repetitive gallery tells a slightly better tale of the sale. It's a bit of a mishmash with not much in the way of standalone images. That's the story of my photographic life!

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Carry on clucking

Gale force wind and accompanying rain didn't encourage me to go out yesterday. If the wind hadn't woken me up early and I hadn't promised to attend the poultry show I might well have stayed home. At least I'd be indoors taking photographs, which was a more tempting prospect than a sheep dog trial. Plus there'd be the mart café to provided sustenance.

The poultry shows held at the mart always coincide with a auction. I have gone as far as I think I can with poultry auctions, so didn't spend much time in that area. There was a big entry of dead stock in the sale and the bird section was so overbooked that there is to be an extra sale in a month's time, which I'll probably miss through being elsewhere.

The only 'new' picture I got was of some smashed eggs dropped outside the sale ring.

I hadn't expected much more from the show and initially felt like I was going over well ploughed land. The light in the show shed seemed even worse than usual. Very dark to start with as the rain was falling but brightening later. It was still variable in intensity depending where in the shed I was, and the artificial lights were their usual inconsistent colours. I set a tungsten white balance which seemed to do a better job than the auto setting - as it did in the sale ring, but the pictures still needed tweaking on the computer.

The pre-show checking of birds entering the building is one thing that has proved difficult to photograph in the past. When I saw the appropriate name on the carrying box below I hoped it might make for a picture, the cock's comb visible in the other box was down to luck. A better effort than many I've made of this element to showing poultry.

The judging was more of the usual. I'd gone armed with the long, fast, zoom with this subject in mind. It works well for creating out of focus backgrounds and for tight framing to cut out clutter. It can lead to less involved framing though.

This lens doesn't focus very close, so when I was struggling to get some shots in focus I wasn't surprised. What did throw me was that I could focus closer manually. It took me far longer than it should have done to realise I had set the focus limiter at five metres to infinity when photographing the sheep dogs in action last weekend. Once I slid the switch to 'full' I was in business. After many missed shots.

The longer zoom has its uses, but I'm not sure they are all that important or do much more than a simple 100mm lens couldn't have done. Unsurprisingly, the majority of my pictures were taken with the 'standard' zoom. This does focus close, and has no limiter for me to forget has previously been engaged!

With the show being the fiftieth the society has held it was a nice touch that they had special rosettes made for the event. Piled up they made for a picture to help tell the story of the occasion.

Something that has been missing from my show photographs is the unglamorous aspect of doing the admin. I took quite a few shots using the flip out screen and live-view over the day. I even used the face recognition feature while so doing. It's not as slick as it could be. I was tempted to seek out a mirrorless camera just to have live view and face detection that works much better on a flippy screen. The temptation lasted only until I evaluated the costs involved!

My main gripe with using live-view with my cameras is the slow process of moving the focus point around. That's where a touch screen comes in useful. Dragging the focus point with a thumb is speedy. I could have done with it to photograph the chicken below as I wanted the tea tin in focus. Using the four-way selector to move the point took ages.

The day had worked out better than I had expected. It's funny how simply getting on with taking photographs can result in a lack of inspiration at the outset ending in a successful conclusion. Not a big collection of great pictures, more the addition of a few decent ones to the overall body of poultry show work. Two or three good pictures and half a dozen 'useful' ones from 500 or more seems like a good hit rate to me. Nobody takes five hundred great pictures in their entire lifetime!

The reason I had about two hundred more pictures than a usual day's haul was that I had my new regime of taking more shots of one view had been in action. The most time consuming part of sorting the all those pictures out was the editing - editing being sorting out the good from the bad, the useful from the useless, not the fiddling with how they look. When whittled down to 57 (still too many really) for a gallery (here) it took me just a few minutes to process them. Adjust white balance, correct exposure, highlights and shadows, then export to the gallery and some jpegs for this blog. Easy peasy.

Friday, 8 February 2019

A question of style*

A small step forward was made the other day in setting up the Fuji for candid shooting grab shots. I'm not sure why it worked but setting the camera to shoot continuously managed to get more frames in focus and more taken. For some reason it hasn't always managed to focus and fire. Maybe I've not held the shutter button down long enough for the sloth-like camera to find focus! Now I've got a faster computer selecting from multiple frames is not the chore it used to be, so this makes it a practical technique.

The scanning of my Dusty Negative Archive is back on the go. Again the speedier PC is making life easier. Although it took a bit of fiddling and a software upgrade to get the temperamental scanner speaking to the new PC.

I've reached early 1981 and it looks like I was having a period of experimenting with slow shutter speeds.
It's also become obvious that I had pretty much found my 'style'. What made me choose the subjects  I still choose to photograph I really don't know. I'm sure I was unaware of photographers picking similar subjects, and I certainly don't know where my way choices of viewpoint and framing came from. I assume there was some outside influence, but can't think what it might have been as it doesn't strike me as if it came from the photographs I was looking at. There are similarities with photographers whose work I know now from the same period, and a little earlier, but I don't remember being aware of them at the time.
Style is distinct from 'look', which is what a lot of people think they are searching for when they talk of finding their style. Look is all about the processing along the lines of filters which can be applied to phone camera pics or in compact cameras. It's superficial. Style is about how you see the world. I've probably said that all before!

Something that digital does much better than film is allow for failures. If I had had an endless supply of film, and the cash to develop it, I might have taken my photography further back in the 1980s. Looking through the negatives I'd try three or four attempts at something then stop. No doubt for fear of wasting film. With digital I don't worry about wasting a dozen frames. Although I usually give up before reaching that total. There is a law of diminishing returns with ideas. The initial spark has a freshness, but repetition tends to make things stale. Too much thinking isn't always a good thing.

My woodland project is coming to a close. Even so I have found some fresh directions to take now I have a better grip on where it's going. Some of it is experimentation with technique as the project is not about making 'great photographs', more about metaphor, symbolism and mood.

* The post title comes from this oldie but goody.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

No business like snow business

At long last the grey skies have cleared, probably temporarily, giving way to snow and frost. Bad weather makes good pictures. Or it can do. Snow is often followed by cold, still, bright, days. So it was last week. I saw the distant hills clad in white and was tempted to drive over to  take a closer look. Two things held me back. An impending delivery to wait in for, and a lack of any real subject other than the snow.

The delivery failed to materialise until Saturday lunch time. By then it was too late to travel far so I set out on one of my usual local drive routes. Not having anything in mind to take photographs of I resisted the temptation to take the 'do it all' lens and fitted the consumer mid range zoom. If I'd taken something with a longer range I might have got some half decent pictures of unexpected lambs. I'd imagined it would be a week or two too soon to see any lambs in the fields, but I was wrong. Most ran away from me, and even the two that didn't required the image to be cropped to make a picture. C'est la vie.

In an attempt to make the best of what I had with me I tried some sheepscapes. Without much satisfaction.
Carrying on my journey I was passing a local fishing venue which I expected to be iced over. The sun was still shining so it was worth a look. I wished I'd got there sooner while the sun was higher and less of the lake was in shadow as there were some interesting patterns on the ice that I might have been able to make some abstractions from. I did what I could, but it wasn't much.

The new computer is now up and running, along with a new (and much better) monitor. It took me a while (and some money) to get the slide scanner to speak to the new machine, but that is running smoother than before now. Among the latest batch of scanned negatives I found my earliest sheep pictures. From 1979! They aren't up to much. Apart from me being new to taking photographs and visually naive they were taken over a gate. Even so in teh pictrue below I can see a hint of one way I still like to make pictures.

I like to kid myself that when I'm on form I'm a more sophisticated photographer these days. By that I don't mean I dress more stylishly! What I'm on about is the way I look for pictures and arrange the framing. There's still a lot of instinct involved, but I'm also considering what the picture has to say along with how it works in visually abstract terms.

This week's sheep dog trial was to be held on the Sunday rather than the usual Saturday. I was hoping all week that the snow, which had melted quickly here near the coast and sea level, would still be in evidence on the tops. It was. Apart from providing a different atmosphere to the pictures snow would serve as a cleaner backdrop in the same way that a sandy beach does when the subject consists of figures (human or animal). It's akin to the way many Lowry paintings look with almost silhouetted figures on a plain ground.

Hoping also that the sun would shine I took a chance on using two light weight lenses with variable apertures. They are both sharp enough for my uses. So long as the aim isn't to make large prints which will be inspected at close range by nerds most lenses are 'sharp enough' if you ask me. As it turned out my recently purchased lens performed better than expected in terms of focusing accuracy on moving targets. And on static targets it proves plenty sharp enough.

As anyone with a brain (and a good eye) will tell you subject separation by use of background blur is not just a function of aperture. Focal length, subject to background distance, and subject to photographer distance all play their part. With a bit of thought even slow lenses can do the job. There is also, for my way of working, a benefit of having less background blur. Too soft a background and context is lost. There are times and places for both approaches, of course.

Snow, again like a sandy beach, poses exposure problems. While I was aware of this and compensated for it I wasn't able to see the camera screen too well thanks to the bright sunshine. The histogram was as much use as it always is to me. That is to say no use. Mainly because the subjects were relatively small on large light backgrounds. All this meant that I was amazed to find that hardly any of my pictures needed the exposure altering when I got them on the PC!

The bright sunshine and the need to overexpose slightly from the camera's meter reading meant that I had the luxury of using fast shutterspeeds (1/1000th or more) and small apertures (f7 or smaller) most of the time without the ISO rising into the thousands. Great for freezing the action. I could so with more practice at photographing fast moving dogs though. Or I could if it were to be my livelihood. As that isn't the case I'll stay as I am!

Looking for different viewpoints is the continual challenge. Sub-framing can provide many opportunities. Doing it for the sake of doing it is just using a trick. If you can make the frame and the subject relate to each other contextually to tell the story it's much better. I'm not sure if the two pictures below count as examples of sub-framing as they are only partial frames.

The first one breaks the rule of never having anything large and out of focus in the foreground. Pah!

It took me a few shots to get one which worked reasonably well. Not perfectly. The right hand dog shouldn't be cutting into the frame edge for one thing. There are other flaws. The picture below is one I'm happier with. Again it wasn't the first or only frame I took. The first was a snap as soon as I 'saw' the picture possibility. I had to move to get the two figures lined up with teh dip in the quad's seat. Then i had to wait for the three dogs to all look to the right and then hope I got something reasonably interesting and 'readable' happening in the background. Much closer to a decent picture. I think the green quad works better than a red one would have too. More harmonious with the muted background colours.

For some reason I still find the pictures that aren't of the trials themselves more interesting. Probably because they are taken from closer to what's going on. This time I went up to the release pen and timed it right to get some shots of the sheep being driven back and into the pen. Being able to use the wider lens made for pictures which feel more like the sort I like taking.

The weather forecast predicted sleety rain to arrive around 2pm. It was bang on time. With just four dogs more to run I beat a hasty retreat. There's a load more photos to be seen here.

Today's experiment of using 'consumer' zoom lenses worked well. I often see photographers (I use the term loosely) moaning about the weight they carry. It amazes me when they list what makes up that weight. There's all manner of stuff they probably use once in a blue moon, but there are always far too many lenses, and always the 'best' lenses money can buy. Fast lenses are always heavy. Unless the fast aperture is essential (usually for light gathering purposes rather than 'bokeh' delivery) I'm coming to the conclusion that I can manage with slow lenses. Lenses that weigh a fraction of their faster counterparts. Indeed, most of the time I could manage with the 'do it all' lens. The reason I didn't take that route today is that when I did try it for sheep dog action it proved less than ideal. Even by my low standards. The new lens fared much better. Just as well because I had no back up!

There's more than one way to reduce your gear's weight than switching systems. Stop believing you always need 'pro' lenses and the cheap, plasticky feeling, 'consumer' lenses, and stop carting loads of useless junk around. Here endeth the lesson...