Monday, 26 November 2018

Time for a cull?

I'm trying to build up the courage to part with a load of lenses. To fight the feeling that I need to be able to cover all focal lengths so I can deal with any subject in any situation. The feeling needs fighting because I'm convinced that I make better pictures when my focal length range is limited to 28mm at the widest and under 200mm at the longest. I didn't miss the ultrawide zoom when I got rid of it, and I don't use it's not-quite-so-wide replacement. I could easily replace that with a single focal length. The trouble is that just like that box full of stuff in the garage that might come in handy some day, even though it hasn't come in handy for ten years, it's difficult to get rid!

As part of my therapy I take a single focal length lens out on my local walks, either to the Post Office and back or round the woods. The lens varies from day to day, but is always within my comfort zone.

When it comes to developing a visual style to your pictures I think this limitation is a good thing. It forms a way of looking for pictures. One of my long time ways of looking is for grid-like patterns. I saw one on a shed I have walked past loads of times down by the canal last week. I couldn't have replicated the picture the following day because there was a van parked in front of the building. Another reminder to take pictures when you see them instead of waiting until the light is 'better'.

With winter almost officially upon us it's turned colder of late. That made me wonder about going to a sheep dog trial on Saturday. The weather forecast was less than promising on the sunshine front, which would limit me for photographing the action with a longer lens. My options are 400mm at f5.6, or 200mm at f2.8. The latter to be used on an APS sensor with less than great high ISO performance.

After breakfast there was a hint of the clouds breaking up, and in the direction the wind was coming from, which happened to be the cold, cold, east. As hill country is east of me I took a chance. For once I was heading to brighter skies as I climbed into bandit country.

In addition to the longer zoom I had my standard zoom on a second body. I still find the wide end a bit too wide at 24mm. The difference between that and 28mm is trivial on paper, but I find it quite marked in practice.

My first move on arriving at the venue, which was the same one I had visited back in January when I had my first experience of sheep dog trials, was to walk up to the release pen. I'd taken some prints with me from back then and was pleased to be remembered by the two chaps letting the sheep out. I passed the prints over to one of them. The wind was as biting as it had been earlier in the year but this time I was on the right side of the wall where it was a bit more sheltered.

I'm not sure why, but I still prefer photographing sheep dogs rounding up the sheep to take them  to the release pen. They're doing what they were originally bred for. Something I heard being moaned about later in the day - that it's hard to get a real working dog any more.

Somehow or other border collies have it in their genes to be fixated on sheep. even when the woolly bleaters are a long way off collies will stare at them and follow their every move. At the Nidderdale show I watched to sit entranced by the sheep on the trial field, their heads swivelling like those of the crowd on Wimbledon's centre court, while the lurcher their owner also had was sniffing around the grass oblivious to the existence of sheep.

One picture I wanted to get was of sheep being released. It wasn't easy and I didn't get 'the' picture, but I did get one that is OK for now. This lot of sheep were well trained, or had good noses, as they needed no help to find their way to the starting post. The trough of 'provin' at the post might have had something to do with that.
After spending some time up the hill I made my way down to the more sheltered lower ground where the usual line of vans and trucks was in evidence near the handler's post, the judge's truck parked in line with the post. As chance would have it the light improved after I got lower down and there was even some afternoon sunshine. Albeit at a slightly awkward angle.

With it being dry and reasonably warm the entrants weren't sat in their vehicles, which gave me a chance to get a few photos. I should have taken a few more. I liked the sheep-fixated dogs in the two pictures below.

Photographing the action is something I still find problematic. It's deciding which of the three elements - handler, dog, sheep - is the one to have in sharpest focus. When they are all on, or close to, the same plane as can be the case at the pen it's not a problem. But when there is more going on then they can be quite some distance apart. If I was a sheep dog trial journalist then I guess I would always focus on the dog. But I'm not. I'm as interested in the people. Maybe more so.

Even at the pen there are challenges. It can make for static pictures, which have their place such as when the sheep are being particularly stubborn. It's good when movement can be implied, as in the frame below where the sheep are leaning, about to make a break for it. The dog's pose suggest action too. If the handler's stance had been more animated it would have made it a much better picture.

Something similar applies to catching a dog setting off for the start of its run. Getting a good shot of that is pure chance. It is for me! There's no clue as to when the signal will be made, and freezing the dog in the ideal shape is a matter of luck, even with a fast frame rate. This next frame is one of my better efforts so far. But again, the human is a bit too static.

If I was taking photos in a commercial capacity I guess it would be a case of making sure I got shots of each competitor and each dog regardless of how good or bad the pictures were. That seems to be the way that 'event' photographers work be they attending a dinner dance or a horse show. That approach maximises their chances of making a sale to as many attendees as possible. I suppose it earns a crust, but it must be mind-numbing if you really like making pictures. Thankfully I'm not doing that so I can wander away from the action and try to make 'landscape' pictures with tiny figures in them.

With the days being short and it being a nursery trial for inexperienced dogs which often didn't complete the course the trial was soon over, or so it seemed. All that remained was for the winners to be decided and the prizes handed out. More pics here.

Although I might not have learned many lessons while taking the photographs I learned one on the technical side back home on the computer. The smaller sensor camera is not up to use at ISOs over 2000. Not compared to the larger, more modern, sensor I've become used to. I'd be as well using that and cropping as using the smaller sensor. Much as I dislike cropping my pictures when it comes to distant action it's a cheaper option than purchasing either a more recent small sensor body or a longer lens. In the summer the smaller sensor was fine, but gloomy winter days show its weaknesses.

As the small sensor body is 'well used' and cost me peanuts I'll hang on to it. It's actually not bad for photographing chickens with a flash gun! One of the reasons I got the not-quite-ultrawide zoom was to use on the crop sensor body as a standard zoom. I'll not be doing that so another good reason to move that lens on. The really tricky lens decision is my trusty superzoom. Since using the 70-200 more and more I'm growing to approve of it at last. But... It doesn't go to 300 and focus close.

Small steps. Get rid of the least/never used lenses first, trying not to replace them with more oddities - there's this old 28-200 I've seen mentioned. Then make a decision about a second cull. I remember getting rid of the 150-500 and 14-24 were both quite liberating experiences as I no longer felt I had to use them to take pictures which weren't really in my style. The trouble now is that my focal length range has narrowed, but I have more lenses doubling up within that range. I really don't need four lenses that do almost the same job!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

I can't escape chickens...

After my foray with the slow zoom I was back at the mart with my fast zooms this weekend. It was poultry auction/show day on Saturday and I wanted to try my dreaded 70-200mm out at the show. I'm using this lens more and more these days, although I still don't approve of it! I'd be happier if it was a 50-150mm, but those only seem to be available for  crop sensor cameras on which they have an effective zoom range pretty much the same as a 70-200mm on a non-crop sensor. C'est la vie.

Despite my reservations I found it pretty useful, and even at shutter speeds slower than the usual recommendations for hand holding the vibration reduction did its job and got me sharp pics. Just as well because in artificial light any speed faster than 100th of a second results in widely fluctuating white balance issues.

What I most dislike about longer focal lengths is the way they tempt me to shoot candid pictures from a distance. The old 'sniping' approach. It is useful for throwing backgrounds out of focus though.

No matter what lens I'm using I try to be upfront about taking photos of people. Occasionally it pays to be unobtrusive. Early in the afternoon the light started to get interesting in places when the sun was low enough to shine trough the slatted end walls of the shed.

My other lens was my fast standard zoom. 24mm at the wide end is as wide as I like to go except in exceptional circumstances. Using the slightly clunky flippy screen is something I'm doing more and more of, but the way it works it is a spray and pray procedure when it comes to catching fleeting action. Every now and then it pays off though.

Just as I was thinking I had nothing fresh to get pictures of at poultry shows I got two. One of a bird being taken from a pen for judging, and one of a judge filling in his judging book. One taken with the longer lens, one with the shorter.

The auction proved far less productive. The only slight change was altering my viewpoint by sitting on the planks the auctioneers walk along over the sheep pens. The public are not supposed to stand on them so I didn't push my luck. Also I have a terrible sense of balance and would probably have fallen off anyway... Not a major difference to previous efforts, but a little. Again the longer lens was useful.

Lacking much in the way of inspiration I tried a few off-the-wall ideas which didn't work.

Clich├ęs are hard to resist at times. As is a black and white conversion.

Between this visit to the mart and the one previous I had been out and about looking for sheep in the wild. Well, in fields. I was in search of sheepscapes with a few ideas in mind. I got close with one, but wasn't 100% happy with it. What I'm looking for is variety of landscape away from the flat expanse of the marsh. Something to keep an eye out for when tootling round the countryside, I suppose.

Short winter days don't make it easy to have opportunistic journeys in search of photographs. On Friday I did manage to call in at the sand dunes on my way home from a work related task to see if I could find the Herdwicks spending their winter there. I've photographed them in the past. Not the same sheep, those will have been chops or mince a while back. Conservation grazing is all the rage these days. The way the anti-meat and anti-farming lobbies are working it might be the only way livestock will survive into the next century - that or on heritage farms, preserved to show future generations what life used to be like in the way we have coal mines as tourist attractions.

The light was flat and dull, meaning that when I did find the sheep (gimmer lambs by the look of them) there wasn't much point trying to take any photographs. I did, of course, just in case I forget to go back. And there was one chance which arose that had to be taken. It might not add anything to the big sheep project, but it's not a bad picture.

Today the sun shone, but I didn't get out until later than I ought. With nothing in mind I ended up at a nature reserve where there was another flock grazing for conservation purposes. Last time I'd looked in they were in an inaccessible area. This time I was surprised to see them blocking the footpath along the bank. Unsurprisingly they had the lowering sun behind them as I approached causing me problems as it wasn't lowered enough to provide 'interesting' light.

By the time I had walked past the sheep and returned things had improved and the sheeps' fleeces were rim-lit. With some careful exposure and some fiddling on the computer I got one passable picture. In both cases the 70-200mm was in use. I do seem to be getting the hang of it at last. Whether that is a good thing remains to be seen. I really don't want to be relying on it all the time.

Friday, 9 November 2018


Every now and then I click a link which takes me to a website I should have found sooner. Last night was a case in point and I spent longer than expected reading bits and pieces on Peter Marshall's I'll no doubt be returning to read more. While I was there I realise that Marshall sometimes uses a slow zoom on the same model DSLR body I use, and high ISOs when required. I resolved to give that approach myself today at the auction mart.

It seemed to work pretty well. At ISO 10,000 it does pay to get the exposure right as lifting the shadows does make them quite grainy with some colour noise. But for web viewing, even quite large, the results are fine. Certainly for reportage/documentary/photo-journalistic uses. Much better than I'd ever have got with black and white film under the same limited lighting conditions.

The real upside to using the slower lens was that depth of field was increased. At times I was even stopping down to f8. Technically I've made a breakthrough by overcoming my reluctance to use much higher ISOs.

Seeing pictures which capture the experience and work visually, without being too run of the mill still remains a struggle. I see one or two.

Using the flip down screen for lower angles shots proved its worth once again. The problem is getting the focus right, although using smaller apertures made life a bit easier. Especially at wider angles. Close-ups of sheep are usually pot-luck with getting the eye in focus.

I tried the slow shutter speed 'trick' again. It'll work one of these days. There was one frame I wish I'd had a faster shutter speed.though. Sod's law!

After today's exercise I might give my superzoom a try in the mart's dim light at some point in the future. Although that might bring the temptation to snipe the dread candid 'character' shots.

Another website I found last night, maybe from the one I mentioned earlier (I forget the link trail I was following) was Life Force Magazine. I had a look through it today and enjoyed much of it. Not surprisingly the photo essays on fishing and farming topics appealed most. Whenever I get a bit stuck for motivation looking at the kind of photography I like usually does the trick.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Autumn light and other stories

Because the clocks had gone back I set off early last Sunday in the hope of finding some sheep with a backdrop of autumnal colours. The sun was shining, so I was full of confidence. I even found some sheep in field with a footpath running through it and some golden leaves beyond. Sheep being sheep they weren't for posing where or how I'd like then the sun disappeared. When the cloud moved away and the light was gorgeous my camera froze. I got one half decent picture which almost fitted my concept. Ideally it would have been a group of standing sheep. One recumbent sheep had to suffice.

Out of the wind back at the car I sorted the camera out. which was a relief. The sun had swung round by then, however, and was no longer lighting the leaves in the sheep field so I headed off elsewhere.

Autumnal sunshine on golden leaves is very alluring. Against my usual impulses I pulled over and tried to make a trraditional(ish) landscape picture or two. Pleasing in their way, I suppose - after quite a bit of fiddling on the computer.

As I was about to get back in my car I saw the light on a tree trunk on the other side of the road. Much more my type of 'landscape' picture. It still took me a few frames before I got the one I was after.

As autumn speeds towards winter the sun stays lower and lower. This means there's no need to get up early to see striking lighting effects. especially when there's a slate grey sky. Something I'm a sucker for.

Why some people are hung up on photographing only beautiful landscapes is beyond me. I get the impression that it's not photography that interests them, not even picture making, but simply looking at 'nice' views which they just happen to take photographs of.  It's the subject that concerns them, not the picture. For me photography is all about making the stuff I see, anything and anywhere, fit the viewfinder frame in a way that makes a picture with some sort of visual structure. That's not to say that there aren't times when merely recording something is enough. There are. But if both can be combined in one picture that produces something else. I don't manage it often, but it's what I strive for.

To me the picture below is as well worth taking as any of a mountain reflected in a glass-like lochan. Certainly it's more complex, in formal terms, as an image than most landscapes. Although I took it thinking about the abstract qualities of shapes and colours it also serves as a document, and maybe (if one chooses) as a comment. It's certainly not just a picture of a fence.

Most of my photographs, I would claim, have a documentary nature of some degree. And when they are primarily intended to be documentary I still try, but usually fail, to give the pictures a form which works in that abstract way. Cartier-Bresson referred to good photographs having a geometry to them. This is something which is more complex than the usual the 'rules' usually applied by amateur photographers. Leading lines, rule of thirds, that sort of basic nonsense. But there are other ways to make pictures work than shapes and colour. It's this way of approaching photography which keeps it interesting for me. Repeating the standard formulae would bore me stiff!

I was late getting to yesterday's poultry show, the judging was already under way when I arrived. This time I tried a slightly bolder approach, getting in closer, which I think was a good move. Hopefully I'll give it another try in a fortnight at another show.

The show was one of the biggest the club has held with over 800 birds exhibited in the purpose built show hall. This time round the championship row pens had been revamped. Larger but fewer pens, with name plates for easy identification of the section winners, and floral displays to brighten the whole thing up. Awkward to photograph - with or without birds in the pens!

A few more pics here.

As I was feeling uninspired after the judging was done I thought I'd have a dummy run at photographing chicken feet to make a grid. To do it properly would require the birds to be out of the pens and standing on a clean surface. Better lighting would be preferred too. Whether I'll ever get round to taking this idea any further I doubt. Planning isn't my strong point...