Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Hopefully Achievable Goals

I don't really make New Year's resolutions for all the obvious reasons but I do have some very achievable goals in terms of my photography. All that's required is some time, commitment and around £250 which isn't too excessive.

First thing I need is a flashgun. Photography is all about light and a flashgun just makes complete sense. I'm not talking about any majorly sophisticated lighting setups; just one flashgun to start with. It will open up so many doors for me. I can pick up a used flashgun for about £150.

Along with the flashgun I need a stand to mount it off-camera (and a sturdy swivel head), and either a reflective/shoot-through umbrella, or a softbox. Softboxes are more expensive but from what I've seen they provide a nicer sort of light. At a push I'll just get a diffuser which is cheap as chips. All these things can be done on a budget if you're willing to accept lower quality (which I totally am).

Lastly I need something to trigger the flash when it's not mounted on the hotshoe; either a cable or a wireless trigger. The cables I've seen seem very short, and I've been recommended a £12 infrared wireless trigger off eBay which I'm happy to try out.

What I'd ideally like to do is clear out as much as I can in the spare bedroom at home and set up a mini studio. Nothing too extravagant; a desk/table and some black, white and/or coloured vinyl backdrops will suffice. From here I can do a lot of still life and maybe even try out water droplet photography which looks incredibly difficult and rewarding.

Hopefully I should be able to achieve all this within the first six months of the year. I just need to get my finger out and really commit to the project as a whole. And motivation has never been a problem for me, has it???!


Just as an aside, I used the Canon properly for the first time at a New Year's Eve party. As I was using the slow kit lens I boosted the ISO to 1600. Needless to say I was blown away by the results; with the NR on Strong the noise was negligible. Barely noticeable. I haven't looked at the RAW files yet though so the jury is still out. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Drama Drama Drama - and Joy!

I've been completely neglecting my blog lately. Truth be told, the reason for that is that I've been neglecting photography too. I have struggled to get motivated and inspired, and have come up with excuse after excuse as to why I haven't been shooting.

I haven't been completely rubbish, to be fair; just not very artistic. I've been to the rugby club with Ste a few times and taken some shots of the teams playing, and I've also taken some shots of my friends' babies. These sorts of shoots really pushed my little Sony a230 to its very limits in terms of digital noise though. This is an example of a night-time rugby shoot I did under floodlights:

The Sony simply couldn't produce anything I would be happy with at ISO levels of 800 or higher. This is one of many factors which led me to a big decision: it was time to upgrade my camera.

I agonised over my choice, due to budget constraints and trying to forward-plan, and eventually after researching the crap out of every camera out there, I settled on the Canon 550D. It was a big decision to jump ship to another brand, because it means the lenses I already had would not be useable and I'd have to sell those as well as the old camera.

So I whacked the 50mm lens, the Sigma zoom lens and the Sony camera with kit lens on eBay. What followed was a few weeks of frustrating hair-pulling on my part, culminating with an evening of tears swiftly followed less than 24 hours later with a day of joy. The two lenses sold pretty quickly and I got more for both than I had anticipated; £100 for the Sigma (bought for £150) and £102 for the 50mm (bought for £104).

The camera itself looked very positive to start with; the first auction was bought at the Buy It Now price of £230. Joy! But then 24 hours later an email came in from eBay; the buyer was suspicious, they had closed his account and refunded all my fees. Upon checking my spam folder I saw that he had even sent a fake PayPal email to say the funds had been paid. This was a bit of a blow and I immediately mistrusted eBay and listed the camera on the Friday Ad. Again, almost immediately a buyer emailed me saying they would take it. He lived in Bristol but was working in East Anglia so could I ship the camera for him? Sure, says I, give me the address and send the money to my PayPal account. The address comes through -- Nigeria. Forgive me but Nigeria doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to not scamming people on the internet. So that was another bust.

I advertised privately on Facebook and Twitter and through friends for a while, then got to the end of my tether just before Christmas and relisted on eBay. Luckily this time, the camera sold for £196. To say I was relieved doesn't cover it. The night before the end of the auction I had a major freakout over money and savings, and ended up crying over a plate of slightly-burned scrambled eggs at 11pm while my dear boyfriend Ste raced home from the pub to calm me down.

Anyway, it sold to a legitimate buyer who paid up straight away. While all this was going on I was shopping around hardcore, looking for a good deal on the 550D. Naturally, every Joe Bloggs who fancied a play with a DSLR had gone out and bought this model in the lead-up to Christmas. Hey, I'm not trying to be a bitch here -- the 550D has a great Auto mode and Live View so it will still be perfectly useable for all of them! Fuckers.

Anyway, in lieu of a Christmas bonus (please don't ask) my company ended up giving us each £50 of high-street vouchers. I saw that they could be used in Comet and on the Comet website the 550D was £620 so I thought I could get a pretty good price for it overall. Then the best bit of news ever: a friend of Ste's works in Comet and she could let me use her 10% discount. That would mean an additional £62 off. Amazing! I ended up paying £508 for the camera, and when you take into consideration the money I got back from the sale of the old equipment, it wasn't too big a payment.

There was a huge amount of not-in-stock drama but they ended up selling me the display model in the end. Quite unexpectedly actually, as I had gone in to pre-order one for when they were in stock. So I spent the rest of the evening alternating between delirious happiness, and confusion over the Canon menu system.

Comparing the Canon 550D to the Sony A230 is like comparing a strapping teenage boy to a slightly colicky baby. The baby is still cute and wonderful and you love it and all, but it doesn't really do what you want it to do, and if you try and push it too far it just collapses. Nonetheless I have some observations.

1) The Canon's rear LCD is astonishing. Like, to the point where I'm not 100% sure whether the remarkable difference in shot quality is due to the 18MP sensor or the rear LCD, and I haven't had a chance to download them to my laptop yet to look properly.

2) Canon's in-camera noise reduction makes me quiver with joy. I tested it last night on ISO1600 with the NR on "Strong" and on the LCD it looked really good. Again I need to get the shots onto the laptop to know for sure.

3) The menu system is going to take some getting used to. It's not bad, just different. Although I do have one legitimate criticism of the Canon in comparison to the Sony; on the Sony it was very easy to access the different metering options, whereas in the Canon this is buried among a large number of other options. On the plus side, it does give you the option to build your own custom menu which you can access very quickly.

4) DOF preview. Maybe I'm just being a retard but I can't see what it actually does, either on Live View or through the viewfinder.

5) Speaking of the viewfinder, again I was blown away. Maybe it's just that the dioptre has a wider adjustable range than the Sony but the clarity is astounding. The viewfinder is still pentamirror just like the Sony but it was much brighter and clearer and seems to have a wider frame coverage too.

6) The kit lens -- you have to turn it the opposite way to the Sony one when zooming which has already confused the hell out of me on more than one occasion.

7) The body itself -- not massively bigger than the Sony but noticeable enough for me, the feel of the grip in my hands is more substantial and quite frankly makes me feel like a million dollars when holding it.

Obviously it's going to be a while before I can change settings without staring intently at all the buttons with a frown on my face (I had memorised all the Sony buttons) but I can already tell I'm going to get a lot more out of this camera than I did the Sony. I'm going to shop around really hard for a long zoom lens and might even try a couple on the camera before buying this time. I doubt I'll be able to afford a faster lens than the Sigma I had before but as long as the high-ISO performance is as improved as I expect it to be, I don't think that will be an issue.

All in all I am delighted. I have a 50mm f/1.8 lens on order already and can't wait for it to show up. I have some reservations about the Canon version of this lens -- it only has a 5-blade aperture as opposed to the Sony's 7-blade, which means a chance of harsher pentagonal bokeh; also the minimum focus distance is 45cm as opposed to the Sony's 34cm which means I won't be able to get in as close -- but for £72 I can't really complain all that much can I?

I'm hoping this will reignite my passion and get me shooting a lot more again. I have a maternity shoot for a friend tentatively lined up for the end of January (although I would really like to get an off-camera flash before then if I can afford it) and generally speaking I have a few ideas of shots I can try at home, too.

Wish me luck guys!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

What A Difference A Crop Makes

I feel like I've seen that title somewhere before. I'm probably plagiarising it without realising, so I apologise, it's not intended, blah blah blah.

Looking back over some of my older shots yesterday I realised I've unconsciously started getting into the habit of cropping a lot more severely than I used to. I've always been a big fan of bokeh and I guess previously took that to mean, I ought to include a lot of it in my shots.


Blammo - subject covers like 4% of the shot, and the rest is crazy blur.

In some respects a nice bit of contrasty bokeh can be kind of cool and interesting.


Here for example, I like the bokeh because it's quite contrasting to the subject and thus makes the subject stand out more while complimenting it at the same time.

I guess it's a matter of picking and choosing when a severe crop is necessary. All my recent hoverfly shots needed a close crop otherwise the flies themselves would have gotten lost:



The only problem with this, as you can see, is that on my crop sensor camera I start to lose some detail the more severely I crop. THIS IS THE ONLY TIME I WILL COVET MORE MEGAPIXELS. If I ever manage to afford a macro lens I will be able to get much closer, fill the frame a lot more, and thus won't need to crop off as much, thus losing less detail.

I even went back over some older shots this morning and had a look at what a crop would do for them:

Busy Bee


What was I thinking?! I MUCH prefer the new crop. Also I think I've grown out of that phase of adding texture layers to everything in existence, too.

A crop can make a huge amount of difference to your composition as well as helping you cheat a little and get more fake focal length out of your lens. I'm going to experiment a lot more from now on and try not to include bokeh just for the sake of bokeh.

I've said "bokeh" wayyy too much in this post now. I'm just gonna go crawl back under my rock.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Aperture Masks (and an OMG moment).

I've had a really good day today; a bunch of smaller but wonderful things all happened throughout the day to make me smile. You can't argue with that sort of karma can you?

Anyway, this week a post went up on the Digital Photography School site showing a how-to video on how to create "custom bokeh" by the way of aperture masks. I won't go into details on how I did it, as the article/video does a much slicker job than I possibly could.

How To Create Custom Bokeh

This technique, I am sure, is old hat, however it was the first time I had seen anything like it, and from the video it looked so easy I had to give it a go.

My bits and bobs are crudely cut and taped together. I used a sheet of black card as my backdrop and my Christmas lights for the bokeh. I ended up having to arrange everything on my bed as it was the only place with the right light. Really I ought to try and set myself up a little mini-studio or something. I also ought to get myself an off-camera flash.


So I looked at the video, and at my teeny weeny little cut-out shapes, and thought, this can't POSSIBLY work. Surely my viewfinder would be all hazy and even my subject would suffer as a result.

Well, through the miracle of SCIENCE, it does work, although don't ask me to explain how. Something to do with light refraction and all that jazz. Anyway, these shots are very rudimentary until I have the time and inclination to set something up a little better, but nonetheless I think this is incredibly cool and I can't wait until Christmas when I can go out and buy a bunch of tacky coloured lights and try some other setups.




Yeah, those are salt and pepper shakers, you gonna make something of it?!

Anyway, it was incredibly easy to do although the star and butterfly shakes created enough weirdness at the front of the lens that a) auto-focus didn't work, and b) it distorted what I saw enough that I wasn't even sure whether I had the subject in focus on manual (turns out I did but out of sheer luck I think).

What I'd like to do is commandeer a corner of the spare room and get some really big bits of card that I could stick various swatches of coloured paper on. Ultimately I'd like to get an off-camera flash but I wonder whether a diffused desk lamp might suffice in the meantime. Anyway, with this setup I could set up my tripod and manually focus before putting the mask on, would be able to adjust the lights behind on-the-fly, and I could generally be a lot more creative.

Watch this space I guess?


I don't need to mention yet again what a big fan of Ree Drummond's I am. She runs regular photography assignments on her site wherein she sets a theme and asks her readers to submit their shots which comply with this theme. She'll pick five groups of semi-finalists, from which she'll then pick a group of finalists and eventually a winner. I always submit a couple of shots even though mine are NOTHING compared to some of the amazing work other people submit. This week#s theme was "Funny"; I dutifully submitted a couple of shots and forgot all about it.

Only to log on this morning and find that she'd selected one of them as a semi-finalist.

I had a major freakout. I don't expect even to be picked as a finalist, let alone as a winner, but to be noticed at all among the tens of thousands of submissions Ree gets each time she puts a contest on. It also is wonderfully gratifying, to know that something I shot is worth the attention of a total stranger. I literally couldn't stop smiling all afternoon.

I feel inspired today. I hope the weather is reasonable this weekend, but even if it isn't I might give the aperture masks another play. As long as I'm shooting it's all good. :)

Friday, 20 August 2010

Sweet Discovery!

In my previous post I mentioned that I really wanted to get Photoshop Elements because of the huge wealth of preset actions you can get on the web, which apply predefined edits to a shot to give it the look you want.

My main reason for wanting to get PSE was because the available scripts I had found for GIMP were limited and underwhelming. Well, I did a little creative Googling (and by "creative" I mean, I Googled "GIMP scripts" and looked further than the top couple of results) and came across tons of really amazing scripts, and curves presets. I've been happily playing with them a lot, although the results have been quite mixed purely because I only have a limited number of shots on my laptop. Still, I've found them really fun and cool.

The presets all behave differently depending on what shots you use them on. The only shots I have available to me right now are all nature-based with a lot of greens, so the results have been similar, but I think if I ran them over some more diverse pictures I would find the output quite different and cool.

So, some examples.

This is the original (with just some levels and sharpening applied):


Not bad; the composition, colour and bokeh are all fairly pleasing.

First I ran a "cold" curves preset. Curves presets are easy to create -- you just to the curves adjustments you want then you can export the settings into a file which is saved for later. You can see on this there's a more bluish tint to things:


This is a "warm" curves preset:


This curves preset is called "Forest" and is intended to bring out the greens. I think for this shot it's interesting but doesn't work perfectly; there is already a lot of green in the shot and this just pushes it a tad too far:


This curves preset is called "Purple Hue". Again doesn't work great on this particular shot but I think it could be really interesting on portraits or a more minimalist shot:


As well as curves presets there are also more complicated scripts you can get, which are more sophisticated edits. This one is called "Reminisce Warmth" which adds a quite contrasty vintage feel:


"Soft Muted" which desaturates, adds a gaussian blur layer look and again some more contrast:


And this is a "National Geographic" script, which is intended to give portrait shots a very high-contrast, slightly washed-out look; doesn't blow me away on this shot but I ran it over a portrait I had knocking around and it looked pretty good:


I've had a lot of fun looking through these and the many other presets I downloaded, and seeing how they work. I can't wait to try them on some more diverse work. If anyone is interested, all of these curves presets and scripts were picked up from deviantART.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Wish List

I don't think there's a single photographer I know who wouldn't get extravagant with their gear if cost wasn't an issue -- even those who have expensive equipment already. Long-term goals for me would include a full-frame camera and expensive lighting setups, but I also have shorter-term desires which I hope to be able to afford within the next year or so.

Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro Lens

I've always felt like I prefer the close-up style of shooting. There's something about being close enough to really *feel* your subject that appeals to me. The latest outdoor shoot I did has strengthened that feeling. Bottom line is, I'm an amateur, and as enthusiastic as I am, I'm only shooting for myself. I sometimes think I should challenge myself to do something different like landscapes, but then I think -- feh, as long as I enjoy what I do it doesn't matter if it's challenging or not.

This lens has some great reviews and while performance-wise it still falls a little short of the similarly-priced-and-focal-lengthed Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens, well, I don't have a Canon camera, and the Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro is generally reviewed as having very similar results to the Sigma, but costs almost £200 more.

Cost: £300 from Onestop Digital
Timeframe: Short-medium term depending on whether I can save up or clear some space on my credit cards
Level of desire: HIGH, damnit.

Photoshop Elements 8

Given that the full version of Photoshop CS5 costs somewhere in the region of £600 and is intended for professional graphic artists and photographers, Adobe also have a "lighter" version of the product for amateurs and non-commercial users called Elements.

Now, I currently use GIMP for most of my photomanipulation and I won't lie -- it's awesome. However I am a lazy, lazy person, and a feature that's available in both CS5 and Elements is something called "Actions" -- essentially from what I can gather, you hit record, do a bunch of edits, then hit stop and you can save that process as a preset Action to use again with ease. GIMP utilises a similar system with written scripts, but as it's opensource the creation of said scripts seems to be a little geeky and codey, and way beyond my capabilities. The best part about the Elements actions is that they can be saved as a little data file which you can then share with other users. GIMP also has this feature but looking at the script registry they just don't seem to float by boat all that much, and the ones I have used have been lacklustre at best.

Yeah, so essentially I want Elements so I can take edits other people have done and apply them to my own work. Whateva! Some of the actions you can get out there look fantastic and again, I'm not a purist -- if they make me happier with my shot then I want to use them.

Pioneer Woman has a bunch of actions available for free on her site which I think look really, really cool. And luckily for me, Elements 8 is totally affordable, so I can justify the cost. Anything that Elements can't do (rumour has it there are no layer masks?) I can run through GIMP, and as I understand it Elements has a built-in RAW converter which will make my whole process much easier.

Cost: £56.90 from Amazon.
Timeframe: Virtually immediate -- probably as soon as I get paid this month.
Level of desire: Extremely high -- I can't wait to see if I can make something of some of my more "blah" shots by running an action or two over them.

Sony HVL-F42AM External Flash

I have posted before about on-camera flash and how much I detest it. My hatred has until now left me feeling completely underwhelmed about any flash setups, but a little research goes a long way, and I know now that a simple external flash would be extremely useful in the long-run. I don't see myself ever getting into expensive and elaborate lighting setups just for a hobby, but I think one versatile external flash with all the necessary accessories will end up in my kit in the not-too-distant future.

Cost: - Less than £200 from Amazon.
Timeframe: Medium-long term. It's cheap enough that once my higher priorities are out of the way I can make a decision about it and not have to save extensively.
Level of desire: Medium. I haven't yet been at a point where I've gone "oh MAN I wish I had a decent flash" but I suspect as I start to branch into macro photography I will start to feel the need for it more (simply put, if I stick my lens really close to a subject, just by sheer physics there won't be as much light coming in, so a softly diffused flash may prove useful).

Neutral Density/Graduated Neutral Density Filters

A bit of a mixed bag this. These types of filters typically go hand-in-hand with landscape photography, especially the graduated ones. In short, neutral density filters allow you to slow your shutter speed without blowing out the shot; they stop a certain amount of light coming into the camera, so in order to achieve a properly-exposed shot one has to slow the shutter speed right down. This can give some stunning motion captures like the waterfall in the above link.

Graduated ND filters are filters which have the grey, light-stopping effect at the top of the filter, which graduates to clear at the bottom. They typically come in a square shape and have to be attached to the lens with a filter holder (the whole setup is then known as a "filter system" such as the Cokin brand sell) and thus can be moved up and down to suit the composition of your shot. They are used for landscapes. When shooting landscape typically DSLR cameras do not have enough dynamic range to expose the sky and foreground both correctly -- if you expose for the foreground, the sky will be too blown out and bright, but if you expose for the sky, the foreground will be dark or almost black. In some instances this can create a great silhouette effect, but if you are going for a dramatic landscape shot, ND Grad filters are really the only way to achieve this.

Personally as I've decided not to venture into landscapes for now, my desire for filters has decreased somewhat. Screw-on filters like a standard ND come in a set size and without really knowing what I'd use it for, there's no point in me buying one to fit my 18-55mm kit lens if I'm eventually going to swap it out (they aren't cheap!). As for ND Grads -- as you attach the holder to the lens, the adapters themselves which come in different sizes are very cheap and you don't have to replace the filters -- but there's just no point for me right now.

Cost: Ranges from around £50 for a standard ND screw-on, to £200 for a full filter system.
Timeframe: Longterm.
Level of desire: Medium-low -- not completely low purely because I know I want to try landscaping at some point in my life at which point I will want filters with a passion.

Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 wide-angle lens

For landscapes. If I start to shoot landscapes this is the lens I want -- it has great reviews, is highly popular and in the affordable price range.

Cost: Less than £340 from Onestop Digital
Timeframe: Longterm.
Level of desire: Medium-low.

Obviously aside from the above, if money were no object I would probably ditch all my current lenses and camera body and would buy a Canon 5D MkIII full-frame camera (and all the lenses again) and a really expensive, heavy-duty tripod. But the above items are all ones I believe I will be able to buy myself within the next couple of years at least. :)

Saturday, 7 August 2010

OH CAMERA, let's never fight again!

Short post filled with joy.

Today I was determined to get out with my camera for the first time in ages which hasn't involved an actual event of some kind. It was so worth it. We're into August now and while it's still summer, it's slowly winding down. There's the smallest hint of autumn in the air. Not much, mind -- I went out in bulky shoes and a cardigan and was sweating unattractively within minutes.

Anyway, I am so glad I went out. I want to go out again. Also as an aside, I have been berating myself for not being more diverse; shooting almost exclusively nature close-ups and the like. Well, today I figured, why the hell not? I could branch out into landscape eventually but it's difficult and requires the use of expensive filters to get evenly exposed shots of sky and foreground... the concept does intrigue me and I love looking at landscapes, but right now it's just not my thing. I want a macro lens. OH GOD I want a macro lens.

Anyway - the output of today's shoot!


There was something in the air today - the bees, (and fake bees like this one, I think) were so busy chowing on nectar and gathering pollen and doing all those wonderful things bees do, they didn't seem to mind me getting all up in their grill. ALL of today's shots were taken with manual focus, which is nothing short of a miracle - firstly, that I managed to capture these shots given how generally clumsy I tend to be, and secondly that the buggers stayed still long enough. I lucked into a few of them, without a doubt. Especially this one, which is my favourite of the day:


There's a really pretty wild sort of area in the park which is fairly sparse in the winter and beginning of spring. I wasn't expecting all the life that was there when I sauntered through today.



Heck, the insects were getting in my shot even when I wasn't going for it!


Today was a good day -- I feel very happy about the results, more inspired to shoot again, and as always, pining for better equipment.

Some day you will be mine!