Category Archives: Photography

Hans Aarsman

A few weeks ago I went to the Photographers’ Gallery for a lecture by the Dutch photographer Hans Aarsman. I’d never heard of Aarsman before, but the description piqued my interest, particularly the line "if, and how, artistic ambitions, aesthetics and useful photography can coincide". I’m so glad I went! Aarsman described his journey through photography, and I found strong echoes with my own feelings and development as a photographer.

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2008: Life

In part one of my “2008 and thereabouts” retrospective, I talked about what I’d been up to work-wise. Now I’m going to focus on my personal and family life. I find this side of things a little harder to talk about, and recall, if only because for most of the year, I spent five days per week at work (usually in London, away from my family) and the other two days recuperating. But here goes…

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5D Lust & Working Nights

The 30th November launch date for the Canon EOS 5D Mark ii is creeping closer, and my lust for it is growing. I’ve seen many, many posters commenting that Canon have “lost touch with what photographers want” with this new release – well, not what this photographer wants. It seems their main push has been to improve low light performance, and that’s exactly what I’ve been longing for. 25,600ISO doesn’t exactly look usable (though I’m sure I could coax something from it) but there are some amazing results at 3200ISO. Equally important for me, it’s full-frame, which means my 24mm f/1.4L comes into its own and I can finally produce some decent ultra-wide shots in next-to-zero light.
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Acolytes Action Squad

I just did a very pleasant photoshoot with Brian & Heather of Acolytes Action Squad (one of my favourite bands at the moment). They had an idea which tied in with the accompanying interview, and so we leapt into Heather’s car and I assumed the role of Junior in the back seat. After realising that my 24mm lens would never cut it that close up, I realised that I’d finally found a use for the Peleng fisheye which I borrowed off Gareth about a year ago. It was virtually impossible trying to focus it, and trying to get the scene properly lit without horrendous lens flare, but we got some pretty decent results.

Then I took the photos into Lightroom and started tidying them up and doing the grayscale conversions for Sandman. Lightroom makes it ridiculously easy to adjust the contribution made by various colours to the final B&W mix. I remember Guy telling me years ago how important it is to get this right, but Photoshop’s RGB way of doing it never made much sense to me. With the full spectrum separated out in Lightroom it’s much easier to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

Anyway, I got rather carried away. I’m not sure whether I’ll go with the extreme conversion below (made by removing most of the orange from the photo, hence destroying the skin tones) – or if I do, I’ll probably tidy up Heather’s face a bit – but it’s quite fun and seems to fit in with the general spirit of the photo. Seems to work like a partial solarisation, and it works wonders for Brian’s finger and gives his face a nice Darth Maul look.

Acolyte's Action Squad - photoshoot for Sandman magazine

Acolytes Action Squad - photoshoot for Sandman magazine

There’s a couple more photos from this shoot on Flickr (click on either photo above, and find your way to the rest of them…)

Canon EOS 40D “user modes”

On Saturday, I got to try out my most anticipated new feature of the EOS 40D – the three “user modes”. Yes, I know that for most people there are infinitely many other new features on the 40D to get excited about, and in fact everyone seems to have pretty much overlooked the addition of these three user-definable modes, but for me they were the killer feature of this camera.

A user mode is a completely user-definable setup for your camera: in the same way that most cameras come with pre-set modes for portrait, landscape, blah blah blah, user modes lets you define your own. And it lets you set virtually every single adjustable feature of the camera, from ISO, exposure and aperture to obscure custom functions, and save those under an easily accessible dial setting.

What’s even better is that on the 40D there is a menu setting which allows you to turn off flash firing (the 20D probably had this too, but I didn’t think to look). This means that, with my 580 EX flash mounted on the side of the camera, I could define my three settings thus:

  1. 1600 ISO, 1/80th at f/2.2, flash turned off – used for shooting candid shots throughout the nightclub.
  2. 250ISO, 1/20th at f/7.1, flash turned on – used for flash portraits with a bit of ambient fill-in light.
  3. 400ISO, 1/25th at f/7.1, flash turned off – used for soft & atmospheric photos of the spotlit performers on-stage.

The settings are easily changeable – for example, if the club is very dark, and setting number 1 still isn’t getting me decent photos, then I can just dial in a new ISO, exposure or aperture, go into the menu’s “camera user setting” mode (easily accessible because of the new user-definable menu) and “register setting”. Or if I just want to change the setting for a few shots, but retain the saved setting, I just dial in the new numbers as I would when shooting in manual mode – it will retain those settings until I switch to another mode or turn the camera off.

So I took the camera down to Stardust bar and (with a bit of assistance from Mozaz) shot lots of photos. Here are the results (they get better towards the end, as I was getting finding my groove with the camera settings).

Two weddings, plus one camera, minus one lens

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Last week, I photographed the wedding of Kate Marshall and Jack Corrigall. I’d met the couple last year, when I was covering the Liverpool Biennial for FAD magazine: Kate was one of the artists exhibiting at the Noise Festival. The Noise crew were such a nice bunch that I hung out with them all day (and I was interviewed by BBC2 about the exhibition), and that evening at the after-party in Korova bar, Jack ordered some champagne, stood up on the table, and proposed to Kate. As usual, I was snapping away, and when I got home I emailed them my pictures from that evening.

Six months later, Jack emailed me asking if I would be official photographer at their wedding, in a field by the River Dart in Devon. I was flattered, and delighted to accept.

As this wedding photography thing is becoming a bit of a habit, I decided I needed a second camera body, just in case the unimaginable happened – I’d hate to be stuck halfway through a wedding with no working camera. I’d been pondering what to get (and how to afford it) for the last month or two, and had more-or-less settled on a Canon EOS 5D when, blow me, Canon go and anounce a new successor to my workhorse 20D, the Canon EOS 40D. Although not quite as swish as the 5D, the new camera has a host of new features that I’d been begging for, plus it was a lot cheaper (don’t let all my recent purchases fool you into thinking that I’m made of money: I just have a very “understanding” credit card company). I took my life into my own hands and ordered the brand new model, on the day of its release, from Digital Rev in Hong Kong via Ebay.

I wasn’t even sure that the camera would arrive in time for the wedding, but I knew it was the camera I needed. Thankfully, it got there just minutes before I was due to set off on the long drive to Devon. I didn’t even have time to get it out of the box before leaving, but I had a stop-off at Keith’s house in Minehead that night, during which I put the new camera through its paces.

The 40D was wonderful – a few different muscle-memory moves that I needed to learn after becoming so intimate with the 20D, but still all pretty intuitive to me. Here’s a brief and very subjective review which I posted on the Urban 75 photography forum:

Most immediately obvious is the huuuuge 3″ display – this makes it much easier to confidently review and delete photos while on the go (the 20D’s 1.8″ screen looks pathetic by comparison).

Not part of the specs that Canon sells the camera on, but also important to me, is the shutter sound. It’s a lot quieter and somehow less harsh than the 20D’s sound. Perfect for stealth photography, accoustic concerts, etc.

ISO display on the top LCD and in the viewfinder is a real bonus, and having ISO adjustable by 1/3rd of a stop is much more useful than I had expected it to be. Automatic ISO adjustment seems a bit of a gimmick that I can’t really see myself using much.

The menu screens are much more intuitively organised than the 20D’s single long menu, and there’s even a user-customisable menu, where you can put all of the settings that you change frequently. Added to this are three user-customisable camera modes – something I have long been begging for – I haven’t got to grips with how to set them up yet (because my manual’s in Chinese), but I can see this being the single most useful improvement in this camera, because it means that when I’m out shooting at night I can quickly switch between flash and non-flash modes without having to dial in big changes to the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Burst mode runs noticeably faster and longer than on the 20D: for me, this meant lots more wonderful photos of the “confetti moment” at the wedding I photographed last Friday. The downside is it will mean lots more 10Mb+ files clogging up my hard disk

Subjectively it seems that high ISO performance is a little cleaner, and auto-focus in the dark a little more reliable, but I’m not really the sort of person who runs side-by-side tests, so I couldn’t say for sure.

The very different button layout from the 20D has been a bit of a challenge to my muscle-memory, but after one long wedding day and night, shooting 600-odd photos, I’m getting used to the new design.

The larger LCD display means that exposure settings are always displayed above the photo, which I find very handy, and the four different display modes contain a wealth of useful information (although again muscle-memory was only used to three display screens, so this kept throwing me), although I’m a bit peeved that to turn the flashing highlight alert on and off you have to edit a menu setting, whereas on the 20D one info screen had highlight alert and another didn’t.

The addition of picture styles is really, really annoying – I’m not quite sure why anyone would want to use these, and the button that controls them is just sitting there waiting to be knocked by accident. I’ve already had one photo come out in monochrome by accident.

Liveview also seems like a bit of a gimmick, although I can see some occasions where it would come in handy. I haven’t encountered any yet though, so haven’t tried it out (oh yeah, and it’s another thing where I need a bit more than my Chinese manual to work out what to do).

The auto-focus on button ought to be really useful, but I need to learn to adapt my way of photography to properly take advantage of it. I think this may take me a month or two.

Lots of other little improvements, all add up to make a package which I absolutely love and can’t wait to make more use of. My only problem: Adobe haven’t yet released a 40D RAW plugin for Lightroom, and the Canon DPP software supplied is all greek to me, so it’s taking me a lot longer to actually process the hundreds of photos I’m ending up with.

So, I arrived in East Cornworthy ready to take pictures. The wedding was fabulous – bride and groom arrived sailing a dinghy down the River Dart. I met some wonderful people, ate some great food (the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten, plus far too much apple and blackberry crumble – the king of crumbles!), and took some great photos. The resulting wedding photos are here – n.b. at the time of posting these are unedited, because I uploaded them before Adobe released their RAW plugin for the Canon 40D, I will replace them with edited photos in a week or two, but for now some of the photos will appear rather dark.

Another week, another wedding – yesterday I was at Aston Hall to celebrate (and photograph) the union of Andy and Alex, both of whom I know well from the Washington. The wedding was a little more traditional, but again loads of fun. Unfortunately, I had camera problems… at least, I assumed at the time that they were camera problems. The ceremony itself had just started, I was crouched on the floor at one end of the room, next to bride, groom and registrar. Shooting away when I started having big problems with the auto-focus. I was using my Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC zoom lens, which is not the quietest of focusers, and every little squeak it made as it hunted for the right focus point made me feel painfully self-conscious. I tried pointing at all the obvious contrasty spots which would normally help, but: nothing, it just wouldn’t focus for love nor money.

I was already feeling rather nervous, due to the seriousness of the ceremony and the importance of getting good photos, plus the room was rather warm and I was wearing a jacket. I was sweating, as they say, like a pig. My mind wasn’t thinking straight. I was just desperate to get some good photos. I switched to manual focus and fired a few shots that way. It worked fine, but then the viewfinder went noticeably darker. I fired more shots, and it lightened up again. It seemed to randomly switch from dark to light after certain photos. And it wasn’t just the viewfinder: some of the photos were coming out way too dark.

I tried to think of solutions: presumably, this was down to my new camera. Either there was something wrong with it, or I’d enabled some menu setting which I didn’t fully understand. I fiddled with the menus, trying things almost at random. At one point, I managed to enable liveview, something which I hadn’t previously worked out how to do even when trying. Nothing helped though. In the end, I shot off as many photos as I could, and luckily about 1/3rd of them were acceptably bright. At the end of the ceremony, I cursed my new camera, grabbed my 20D back off my assistant, and used that for the subsequent formal shots.

The formal shots went OK, but then I experienced the same problem again – this time, while using my 20D, but with the same Sigma lens. So… something must be up with the lens. But what? I switched to using my two Canon prime lenses: slightly more awkward than the zoom, but at least they worked every time.

Over the course of the day, as my mind recovered from its earlier panic, I wondered whether it might be a problem with the iris diaphragm which controls the aperture of the lens. This would certainly explain the darkened image in the viewfinder (it occurred to me at the time that the view appeared as if I was holding the automatic depth-of-field preview button down, even though I wasn’t). It might also explain the auto-focus problem, as auto-focus was having to operate in a much darker environment (in fact, I subsequently discovered that auto-focus operates by comparing the relative position of the images coming in from opposite sides of the lens, and if the iris is closed down beyond f/5.6, all that the AF sensors will see is the black backside of the iris). I was less certain how this would explain the dark images – after all, if I was using manual camera settings and the “stuck” aperture was the one that I had selected, then the photos should still come out as I’d planned. However, I was also using a flash with E-TTL “through the lens” metering, and it’s possible that the narrow aperture was messing up the results of the metering.

Today, I tried the lens out again – the problem had got even worse, and I was able to determine (by looking directly into the lens) that it was indeed due to the iris sticking. Damn! Gained a camera, lost a lens.

Photos from Andy and Alex’s wedding coming soon.

Hey, Hot Shot!

Thanks to Paul for pointing out that I got an “honourable mention” in the Summer 2007 Hey Hot Shot competition run by New York’s Jen Beckman gallery. This is a pretty big deal: Hey Hot Shot seems to have a lot of Kudos in the art photography world, and I (like many others) picked up on it via a post on Alec Soth’s blog (Alec, as well as being a darling of the art photography scene, is a very sassy guy [as you’ll see if you delve into his blog]).

As Paul also pointed out, an “honourable mention” may be better than actually winning the competition:

I **think** you have to get the prints mounted and framed then posted somehow to the USA? Then obliged to go to the opening. Flights, hotel bill, etc = all adds up to a lot of cash … from my miserly perspective, an honourable mention is better than actually “winning”… Nice one.