Monday, 28 March 2011

The dreaded UV/protection filter debate

Quite why it should be that the use of a UV filter for lens protection should create such heated debate amongst some photographers is beyond me. The theory is that image quality will be degraded by a 'cheap' piece of glass placed in front of the lens. yet often those who argue against the use of a UV filter happily place resin filters in front of their lenses to create effects (e.g. Lee Big Stoppers to allow long exposures so they can take yet another milky sea photo like the thousands that have gone before), or use polarisers.

As a clumsy person who has twice managed to allow his camera to topple lens first into mud when it was on a low set tripod, and who habitually pokes his fingers inside lens hoods to remove lens caps that have already been removed, I tend to fit my lenses with filters for physical protection.

A while back I had been using one of my lenses sans filter as I'd put it on a new lens while I waited for another filter to turn up. Looking at the shots I thought they looked sharper and more contrasty than usual so I checked the lens. Blow me if I hadn't been using it with the filter on!

Only once have I noticed any adverse effect on image quality being caused by a filter, and that was a cheap UV filter on my Sigma 150-500. The out of focus areas took on a diagonal banding. As this lens has a huge hood I have managed quite well without the filter. So my advice is this: don't ask anyone if you should use a UV filter for lens protection, try it and see if it makes things worse or not, then do what makes you happiest.

Here's a quick quiz. Two shots, converted straight to jpeg from RAW with no processing at 100%. One taken with a cheap UV filter in place the other without. OK, I hand held so it's not strictly a fair comparison if you're a pixel peeper - but that's how I shoot 99% of the time, so it suits me. Answers on a postcard please!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Composition rules

Most photographers become aware of the 'Rule of Thirds' at some time or other. It is a rule that can be broken, and one that I believe some people understand instinctively. There is another, older, 'rule' that the ancient Greeks developed to give harmony to images, sculpture and  architecture and which I learned a little about (and subsequently forgot the detail of ) as a student. The Golden Section, also known as the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio. It is similar to The Rule of Thirds in that it encourages image makers to place the focal point off-centre - which in my opinion is all you need to know, the degree of 'off-centredness' can be varied (otherwise all your images will look a bit samey).

I was reminded of all this when I stumbled across a nifty little web-gadget for placing the Golden Section over a photo of your choice. Give it a try here.

When I uploaded a recent shot of mine I was quite surprised how it fitted the Golden Spiral. So much so I made a composite of the shot with the Golden Section and Spiral crudely superimposed on it for a bit of fun. I can assure you none of this was in my mind when I framed the shot, but it seems to fit quite nicely. Or am I seeing what I want to see?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Spring is sprung

I had a timely reminder yesterday that toads were spawning. Last year I missed the toads crowding into a small pond, but when I dashed over yesterday they were there in numbers. I grabbed a few shots in the late afternoon sun and planned a return visit today if the sun was playing ball. It was.

I couldn't make it to the pond until after lunch, and the light direction wasn't great. However I had planned for this and for getting down to water level by putting my chest waders in the back of the car. The pond is very shallow and all but dries up in summer, so all I had to do was paddle out, kneel down, and get close to the toads. Some of them were spooky and dived as soon as they saw movement, some didn't. Once I was in the water more would let me get close with the macro lens. Some seemed to see me as a rival and would approach me quite aggressively - maybe! Others came up and rested on my waders.

common toad

I'm really not suited to hand holding unstabilised lenses so the aperture had to be kept fairly wide so I could keep the speed up. Using the af-on button for focus helped me enabling be to turn the focus ring to trigger the shutter (with my finger pressed down on the shutter release button). A nifty trick for macro I find. Even so the depth of field was minimal making for many rejects. I spent about an hour with the toads, and maybe should have stayed longer but I was running out of picture ideas. And I felt a bit of a fool sitting in a pond with people passing me by...

common toad

A brief walk then followed when I heard my first chiffchaffs of the year and saw one flitting about high in a silver birch. Later on I heard larks up on high, and peewits beginning their whirling and diving displays. I might do some more wildlife stuff this week if the weather holds.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

I'll not be doing that again in a hurry

A while back I got the urge to shoot film. HP5 through my old Pentax ME like I used to do 30 years ago. Using the camera was great in some ways, less great in others.  It's small enough to hide in my hand, and the clunk of the mirror/shutter is sweet. Remembering to focus the damned thing was annoying at first, but not as annoying as waiting to get the film back - my developing tank being long since consigned to the bin.

While some say that using film slows you down and makes you consider what and how to photograph more I can't really agree. Even with digital I turn the lens away from subjects without releasing the shutter. What did slow me down was knowing the shots HAD to work in black and white. With digital you have the option of colour or monochrome.

The two biggest handicaps are the lack of instant review, which is more a frustration than a handicap in truth, and the negatives. Nasty dust attracting negatives. Dust was always the bane of my printing life - apart from my horrible cheap Russian enlarger and it's distorting lens. One thing that HP5 does give you that digital can't is that look of gritty realism and instant nostalgia. The feel of the images is just the same as the ones I took in the late 1970s and early '80s.

For the look I can understand why people shoot film still. But for practicality and speed - I always have been an impatient photographer - there's no beating digital, even if the images may look a little 'clinical'. There's no doubting that digital images do look different to those from film. It's not a worse look, it's a different one, one I like partly because I seem to be able to make decent colour pictures from digital files when I never could from colour films (print or transparency). Much as I like the look of the HP5 photos I doubt very much that I'll be shooting film again, digital is so much more versatile and life's too short for all the messing about it requires to either print or scan the negatives. No wonder Garry Winogrand left thousands of rolls of film undeveloped before his death.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


A brief session at the beach drove home a few lessons in image making. It's all well and good freezing the action and getting the whole kitesurfer and board in shot, but that's the equivalent of birds on sticks. After a while of that I started doing different things, and I think it began to pay off. Tighter crops, slower shutter speeds made for better, if not perfect, images. I reckon.

I also managed to get this shot, which I've been after for a while.

And this one which I like for it's almost lack of subject.

My panning skills still need honing.

Tight framing for impact.

All good fun and plenty more scope for experimentation.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Vision. Perspective.

There's this avenue of trees that I've 'seen' a photograph in all winter. Sometime it was going to happen. Exactly what it would be like I had no idea. This happens to me a lot. I sense there's a photograph waiting to be made if certain things come together, but I couldn't tell you what that photograph is. It's more a feeling than an image that forms in my mind.

The other afternoon the sun came out late on and I decided to spend an hour looking for barn owls at the marsh. None showed up before the cold drove me away. A spectacular sunset wasn't on the cards as the sky was pretty much cloudless. There was nothing to hang around for. As I turned off the track onto the road the sun was a low orange disc ahead of me. As the avenue of trees came into view an image came to mind, but the sun was too high. Knowing that the closer I got to the trees the lower the sun would appear in relation to them I slowed down (there was no traffic behind me) hoping things would line up right. They did. I pulled over. Lowered the driver's window. Poked the long lens out, framed, and fired the shutter. A review on the screen and away I went.


Sounds simple. Technically it was. The complicated part was having a vague notion that there would be a photo to be taken one day, understanding how perspective alters objects' relationships to each other, and not getting rammed by a following car! Somewhere in my subconscious the composition had already formed and I knew what was required.  Very strange. I could have agonised over composition, trying different framings, but there was no point. It might have turned out more 'correct', but that 'not quite' perfect quality that gives an image vitality can be lost if the composition is too carefully considered.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Rules and how to break them

The technology packed into modern cameras makes getting perfect exposure pretty easy. You can read up on all the rules for making 'correct' exposures and apply them to the display on the back of a digital camera. Far simpler than the days of film. The display will even blink to show you where you have over-exposed and burned out the highlights. That's all well and good for 'average' scenes. But there are times when the exposure can't be got right for the entire scene.

I spend a windy weekend photographing kite boarders, and at one point when the sun was low in the sky trying to compensate when shooting into the light was impossible. So I worked with what I'd got and chose to blow the highlight big time, which needed very little work on the PC (conversion to black and white and levels adjustment) to get the contrasty graphic look I was after.

Shooting action like this is a whole new learning experience for me. Maintaining focus on fast moving subjects, keeping them in the right place in the frame and using the zoom while doing so is vastly different to photographing birds on sticks! My hat goes off to anyone who does this sort of thing for a living.

It's a test of the camera and lens too. I got a much better success rate with the fast 70-200 on day one, but the reach of the 150-500 was more suited to the job on day two.  I reckon Nikon's 200-400 would be ideal, but it would be an expensive luxury. Again digital makes it much easier. I made over 1200 exposures over the weekend and got less than a 10% hit rate of shots that were in focus, well framed and captured the action well. If I'd been shooting film I'd be skint, and probably disappointed.