Monday, 31 December 2007

Gear Review: Nikon D300

In September, for no other reason than a convincing salesman, I put myself on the waiting list for a D300. I was fairly high up on the list, and confident I would receive one in the first batch.

Come the release date, November 29th, my dealer, Schweitzer Foto Nivo, called me to inform me that I indeed had been lucky enough to get one on the day of release. Unfortunately, time was not on my side, and due to studying for an exam and a business trip to the US, I was unable to really use the D300 until my Christmas vacation to Japan.

The first couple of days of the trip were to be spent in Tokyo, which would give me more than enough subjects to test the D300 out on. My first stop on the trip was to electronics city in Akihabara, where I was lucky enough to pick up the new Nikkor 24-70mm F2.8 lens (more on that in a later post), so for most of the time this lens stayed on the camera.

My first impressions of the camera are probably fairly similar to those of a lot of other people - great camera, a D200 on steroids, and a D3 in a smaller package. The D300 has lower noise (maybe as much as 1.5-2 stops) which should be good for gig photography, better AF (for wildlife photography), and higher frames per second capabilities (again useful for the wildlife).

Taking a look at the 3 points above in more detail, lower noise than the D200 was what most interested me about the D300. The noise levels in the D200 had been what had most annoyed me about the camera, and I was always losing out when trying to shoot poorly lit concerts. I was unable to shoot higher than 640iso (with the occasional forage up to 800), and this wasn't really enough for the locations I shoot at.

So the advertised stop extra high iso was a welcome feature. And my first tests with higher ISO, at the Tsukiji fish market (1600iso) and on the Tokyo Metro (800iso), seem to be very positive. (NOTE: just click the image if you want to see it unclipped)

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Tokyo Metro

I also shot a test shot at 3200iso, just to see what the results are like. Whilst not perfect, it certainly shows promise. The shot below is uploaded as shot - no noise reduction or sharpening was applied. It looks fine at this resolution, but when viewed larger the noise becomes more noticeable. But definitely good enough for many purposes.

Kyoko - test shot at 3200iso

The new AF system, in the form of the CAM3500 module, is also a welcome improvement. With the D200 I had 11 focus points, with one cross type, which, whilst generally enough for general photography, I didn't find sufficient for photographing medium sized objects moving, for example birds. The gaps between the individual sensors meant that the AF would lose track of what it was tracking, leaving it to hunt unnecessarily, and lose the shot, even when set to AF lag long (or whatever Nikon calls it). Now, with the 51 sensors (with 15 cross) of the CAM3500, they are packed tightly together, and the 3D AF system really means that even small objects with unpredictable movement can be tracked successfully.

The D300 was also advertised as being capable of 8fps. This is true, although this comes at a cost. On it's own, with the EN-EL3e battery inserted, the camera can pump out an impressive 6fps, but in order to achieve 8fps, one needs the MB-D10 (which I have), and either AA batteries, or the EN-EL4e battery delivered with the D2X or D3 camera. If you are not an exisiting pro shooter, this means the purchase of the EN-EL4e battery (around 125 Euros) and the MH-21 charger (around 125 Euros) to go with it, as well as the BL-3 battery cover to go with it - a fairly pricey way of getting to 8fps. Granted you should also be able to get to 8 with AA batteries, but these won't last for so long.

In addition to the main 3 points above, there are a number of small improvements over the D200 worth mentioning:

- Larger LCD display on the back
- the ability to see shooting info pre shot (useful for tripod shooting)
- Live view (basically the ability to see the image on the rear view LCD, a la point and shoot camera). Live view in itself has some limitations (slow, hard to focus) but in the situation where the camera needs to be very low or very high, I can see it having some use. I have used it for a couple of shots, and it seems usable
- In built sensor cleaning. The camera can be set to clean the sensor each time the camera starts up, or on request. Will be very useful for keeping the sensor clean whilst on location
- Better battery life. Supposedly using the EN-EL3e battery it is now possible to get close to 1000 shots per charge. To be honest I haven't experienced this yet, but I was using the LCD quite extensively

So, definitely a number of pros for the D300. What about the cons? To be honest, there are very few - most of the features of the D3 (excluding the FX sensor and better high iso performance) available in a package around one third of the cost. A high speed camera with a great AF system. I have only two minor, and I mean *minor* points to complain about.

Firstly, it is no longer possible to choose the AF focus point on the LCD display on the top of the camera. I used to use this function on the D200 when the camera was mounted on a tripod to predetermine where the camera would focus. Now, instead of seeing the focus point, you see all 51 points simultaneously.

Secondly, if you want to be able to set up your image review to display highlights on the images, it is no longer possible to have a display of just the image when going through image review. With the D200 I had my image review set up to show me one full screen image with no annotations, and a second full screen image to show me the highlights. Now, if image review with highlights is enabled, it is no longer to have a clear full screen image as well. Admittedly two very small points, easily outweighed by the other great features the D300 offers, but nevertheless worth mentioning.

So, in conclusion, am I happy with the D300, based upon the limited amount of shooting I have done with it? Yes. For me, the improved auto focus system and the lower noise at high ISO were enough for me to upgrade. The D200 is still an excellent camera, and I expect both of my D200s to stay with me in the future, but progress is good, and the D300 is certainly an example of this.

Nikon in Tokyo

One thing I noticed whilst in Tokyo was how readily available Nikon cameras and accessories were.

In a time where Nikon D3s are rarer than hen's teeth, pretty much every store in Tokyo had one on display, and the larger ones claimed to be able to deliver out of stock (maybe a reason why the rest of the world is having such difficulty finding them). Although some of them said they would only sell to people resident in Japan at present.

Also relatively rare (in European terms) lenses were available off the shelf - I was in store that had all the Nikon big guns (400, 500, and 600) in stock, although my temporary excitement disappeared when the shop realised they were advertising the VR version a bit too early....

I was also able to stock up on Nikon accessories, all at low prices compared to Europe. Things like Nikon NC filters, lens caps, gel filters, extension tubes, and the coveted BL-3 battery cover for the MB-D10 were available even from electrical superstores....

Nikon Accessories

But what impressed me the most were two dedicated Nikon stores - one in Ginza, NikonHouse, which only stocked second hand Nikon (but had a good selection at reasonable prices - warning, the owner doesn't speak too much English), and another one in Shinjuku (whose name I forgot to write down, but you will find it if you walk down the main street in Shinjuku) which sold everything Nikon, both second hand and brand new. Also in Ginza you can find Nikon Plaza, which is one of many Nikon showrooms in the city, run by Nikon, and also housing NPS. Here you can play with new Nikon gear, although unfortunately they also were unable to show me the 600mm :(

Nikon House

Happy New Year!

As 2007 ends, I wanted to wish a Happy New Year to all of my loyal readers - thanks for stopping by and reading from time to time.

I hope 2008 brings you success in all that you do, both in your personal and professional lives....

I'm currently in Japan, with my new D300 and 24-70mm, returning to the Netherlands in a couple of days. And I promise one of my resolutions for 2008 is to write more blog posts!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Well, I've been a bit lazy the past couple of months with regards to keeping this blog up to date. I've started a new job, and that seems to be taking up a lot of my time.

But I did have time to update my website - stop by and take a look, I've put a gallery up of a lot of the stuff I have done earlier this year.

Asides from that, I'm getting ready to take delivery of my new D300 towards the end of next week. Stay tuned for a hands on review.....

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Gear Review: Nikon 85mm F/1.4D lens - the cream machine

Sigal 9
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
Back in the days of 35mm film photography, 85mm was seen as the ideal focal length for a portrait lens. It was slightly longer than a 'normal' 50mm lens, and this was felt to be more flattering to models, as it compressed the background just enough to look good.

Nikon has had two 85mm AF portrait lenses for a number of years - one that has a F/1.8 maximum aperture, and the other with a F/1.4. At first, with the exception of the aperture, the main difference between these lenses is the price - the 1.8 comes in at around €400, whereas the 1.4 is three times the price, at around €1150. But there is a lot more to the 1.4 - having a wider aperture lets approx 50% more light in than with the 1.8, and this means for a brighter viewfinder image when focusing, as well as a more useful lens for low light photography. The 1.4 also has a more pro build to it - the majority of the construction is a dappled metallic finish (similar to the 105mm DC), whereas the 1.8 is primarily plastic. And the 1.4 also takes the pro standard 77mm, whereas the 1.8 takes a 62mm filter.

Since the introduction of the of the DX format digital SLR, 85mm lenses have fallen out of favor with some photographers, feeling the 85mm lens (which becomes 127mm after the DX conversion) is a little too long to be used as a portrait lens, and this is part of the reason that they can be picked up on eBay relatively cheaply (I think I paid around €550 for mine a couple of years ago.) This is likely to change shortly though, as Nikon has now announced the full frame D3, so the 85mm becomes an 85mm lens again....

Probably the main selling point for the 85mm F/1.4, and the reason for it's nickname, 'the cream machine', is the bokeh that this lens can produce. Bokeh is a Japanese term for the area of the photo which is thrown out of focus through the depth of field used in the image, or basically the blurry bit.


Bokeh depends on two things - the aperture used, and the distance between the subject and the background - the wider the aperture, the better the bokeh, and the further the distance between subject and background, the better the bokeh. The examples accompanying this blog both show good bokeh - the first one of SIgal was shot at F/3.2, whereas the second one of Natalia was shot wide open at F/1.4.

The use of bokeh in a portrait helps the viewer to focus on the subject without the distractions of the background clouding his vision, and the 85mm F/1.4 allows just this - the autofocus parts of the image just melt into one another, making the background barely recognisable.

The F/1.4 is known as a superior performer, providing images that are sharp and contrasty. It is sharp all the way to F/1.4, and should be in every portrait and wedding photographer's arsenal of tools. Although this lens focuses relatively quickly on any modern Nikon body, due to the wide aperture and the amount of light that is available to assist the camera, if I have wish for the following release of this beautiful lens, it would be to add AF-S to the list of features.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Digital Printing online - a recommendation

Leopard in a tree.....
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
For reasons of space and running costs, I have never had reason to purchase a colour photo printer for home use. Although having my own printer would give me a lot more flexibility in to what I printed and when, I feel the cost per print is not much different to various online services.

So over time I have tried out a number of online photo services in the Netherlands, but have now finally found one company that, after a number of positive experiences, am going to stick with.

The company, ProFotoNet, a division of FotoSystems in Gouda, has a very simple to use website. It is possible to either download some software (for Windows) or use their online tool (for Mac users) to upload the pictures to their server.

Previously, Mac users were a bit limited to the browsers they could use to upload their pictures, but with the latest version of the online software I have successfully uploaded with both Mozilla variants (Flock) and Safari.

The quality of the images is stunning - they print everything on Kodak Endura paper, and I choose the Endura Metallica finish, which has a layer of silver in the paper to give certain colours a metallic look when held to the light. One of the reasons that the colours are so good, and can accurately represent the image as it is on the screen, is that ProFotoNet provides icc calibration profiles, to which the images can be converted before they are uploaded. But also without these profiles, providing the images are uploaded in either AdobeRGB or sRGB, they will do the conversion for you.

The best thing about the service is the price - a 10x15cm print is only 0,32€, a 20x30 print on Endura Metallic is 2,99€, and a 30x45cm print comes in at 7,50€. Admittedly this is a bit more expensive than somewhere like the Hema, but this is a pro service, and delivers pro results.

A couple of other things worth mentioning - firstly the speed: recently I placed an order at 10pm on Sunday evening, and received the order Tuesday morning by 10am. This is normal for ProFotoNet, I think they mention on their website that if images are uploaded by 3pm, they will normally be shipped out the same day. Also the payment is very easy - the prints are made on credit, and an invoice is sent along with he prints, with the request to make payment within 14 days.

As I said, I have used a number of services in the Netherlands, but this one by far gives superior quality at reasonable prices......

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Bird Photography in Scotland and Northumberland

Cleared for take off......
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
It's been a couple of weeks now since I came back from a camping trip to Scotland and the North of England. The aim behind the trip was to photograph the puffins on the islands along the east coast before they all flew away again for the summer. We had decided to camp primarily as a cost saving exercise, but we hadn't expected the weather to be so incredibly poor as it was.

Campsites along the route were fairly easy to find, but this probably had something to do with the frequent deluges that were making the ground almost uncampable. We started off camping near St Andrews, since the trip we had initially planned to Bass Rock was rained off. A short distance from St Andrews is the port of Anstruther, from where the pleasure cruiser May Princess starts her 8km trip to the island.

Again, due to the poor weather, two of our three planned trips were cancelled, but the third trip provided us with good enough weather to get a couple of good shots. It seems that the puffins are relatively 'tame', and don't seem to be frightened by the boat loads of tourists that are landing at regular intervals, but it is still necessary to keep a distance from them and show them respect. As for most of the remainder of the trip, the Nikon 200-400mm F/4G VR lens was invaluable here, and, when used together with my Gitzo 1348 and Markins M10/Wimberley Sidekick head was adequately supported to give me sharp images.

There are a number of spots on the island where it is possible to get a good position to shoot the birds, but I found keeping away from the crowds helped in getting better shots.

Our next trip was a couple of days later to Bass Rock. This is a trip organised for photographers by the Scottish Seabird Centre, and although rather pricey at around 80 pounds per person does give some very close up views of around 100000 pairs of Northern Gannets that inhabit this otherwise deserted island.

Landing on the island really depends on good weather and the right tides, as the 'dock' is merely a few iron rungs connected to the rock. It is a good idea to rationalise the amount of equipment taken onto the island, as everything needs to be carried to the top of the rock (and Beach Rollys are not welcome here....)

Northern Gannets, feeding on Bass Rock

It is not necessary to have a really long telephoto on Bass Rock, as many good shots (especially flight shots) can be obtained with lenses such as the Nikon 70-200mm F/2.8G VR lens, as shown in the shot above. One thing to watch out for though is 'messages from above' as the birds don't seem to be toilet trained..... your equipment and clothing _will_ get covered in white spots however hard you try to avoid it......

The final destination for our group was the Farne and Staple Islands, back over the English border. Both of these islands belong to the National Trust, and it is worth noting that regardless of which tour operator sails you to the island, you will still need to pay a landing fee of around 4.50 pounds to enter each of the islands. Worth considering joining the National Trust if you are staying a couple of days, as this will pay for itself in the long run.

We camped just outside Seahouses, and used Billy Shiels MBE ferries to get us to and from the islands. There is a photographers trip which takes you to Staple Island in the morning, and then onto Inner Farne in the afternoon for around 25 pounds, and this is worth doing if you want to visit both islands. Note that there are no facilities on Staple, and only a basic toilet on Inner Farne, so any food to be consumed needs to be carried over from the main land.

Puffin on Farne Island

Again, the 200-400mm comes in useful on both of these islands, but nevertheless it is possible to get close to the puffins, especially on Inner Farne where the pathway runs inbetween the puffins' burrows.

In addition to the puffins, Inner Farne is also home to a flock of arctic terns. Note that the terns will attack people as they disembark from the boat and attempt to walk up onto the island. This is because they are nesting either side of the pathway, and wish to protect their young. The peck from the tern can draw blood, so it is a good idea to wear a hat or carry an umbrella (or, as we did, carry your tripod above your head)

Arctic Tern

The three locations mentioned above definitely give the photographer a number of good opportunities for photographing puffins, terns, guillemots, and shags. With the exception of seasickness tablets and a good pair of walking shoes, there is nothing stopping anyone from taking images such as the ones displayed here.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Use of flash in wildlife photography

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
One accessory I found myself using more than I thought whilst on safari was my flash gun. I use a couple of Nikon SB-800, and love the capabilities of the Nikon CLS system, together with the intelligence of the TTL-BL mode, which provides perfect fill every time......

Now, in my opinion, there are three main things that flash can be used for in digital photography - i) providing light where there isn't enough ii) providing fill light for heavy shadows, and iii) stopping the action.

When I don't have enough light in the wild, it is generally time to call it a day and go home, as the effect you get by trying to light up the darkness (especially at dusk) is very artificial, and doesn't really work (*), but the other two situations lend themselves to flash very well.

There are a number of ways you can use flash to provide fill. Firstly, as in the case with the cobra photograph here, a small flash will take the darkness out of the shadow areas on a subject, and provide just enough light to make the subject pop. With animal photography, this light will normally have the added bonus of a catchlight in the subject's eye. In these sort of situations, I will set the camera in aperture priority mode to provide the appropriate amount of depth of field, and use a spot of negative flash exposure compensation, normally around -1 to -1 2/3 stops so that the flash doesn't overpower the shot.

King Cheetah

A second example of using fill is shown in the king cheetah shot. Here, the subject is backlit, and a normal exposure would leave the cheetah's face in shadow, however by using fill flash, the SB-800 automatically works out the correct amount of illumination to get the exposure correct.

The third example of using flash is to stop motion. Because the duration of a typical flash is very short (anywhere from 1/1000 to 1/50000 of a second) it can be used in combination with a slower shutter speed to freeze the action in a frame. I used this method in my shot of the leopards in the tree to give the viewer the impression of movement in the frame. Here I chose a slow shutter speed (around 1/50s), together with flash. Then during the shot I panned the movement of the leopards ascending the tree. This gave the result that the background was blurred, due to my panning, but the short duration of the flash froze the action of the animals, giving a dramatic image. The ghosting behind the animals also adds to the image. Note that if you do want to have movement 'streaks' behind the subject, it is important to set the flash to rear curtain sync, so that the flash freezes the movement at the end of the exposure, as oppose to the start of the exposure (which would lead to the blur being in front of the subject)

Chase me!

The use of flash is a very creative tool in modern day photography, and is a skill that I am only just starting to appreciate. If you have an opinion on this, I would love to hear it......

(* there are definitely situations where the use of flash in complete darkness can be useful, but this typically requires a little more thought than simply placing the flash in the hotshoe, and is not a situation that I have had the chance to be in yet)

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Gear to pack on a safari

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan
I recently came back from a photo safari at Tshukudu Lodge in Hoedspruit, South Africa, organised by FotoCampus. In the first of a series of articles about the safari, I thought I would write about the photo gear that I took with me, what was useful, and what was not so useful.....

Due to the current luggage restrictions on airlines, it was necessary to be a little bit careful with what I carried with me. So I decided to purchase a Think Tank Airport International roller case to take my hand luggage on the plane with me. I figured that since my hand luggage would be weighing around 16-18kg, anything I could do to make it look lighter would help. And since rolling 16kg around on wheels looks a lot more effortless than carrying it on your back, that helped my decision.....

So then I was left with the decision of what to take with me on the plane, and what to have in my hold luggage. Obvioulsy my main lenses and camera bodies would stay with me, and I opted to put all chargers, cleaning equipment, batteries, monopod etc in the hold. This way I figured that if my hold luggage were to get lost or delayed, at least I would still be able to shoot, and there would be enough other people there who I could borrow chargers from if necessary.

I packed the following gear:

2x D200 bodies, both fitted with MB-D200 battery grips - I think the battery grip on the D200 makes handling so much better, and makes it a lot easier to take photos in portrait format. Definitely a worth €175 upgrade

200-400mm F/4G VR lens - this was almost permanently attached to one of the D200 bodies, and was used for around 45% of the shots

70-200mm F/2.8G VR lens - this was attached to the second D200 and was also used for around 45% of the shots

The above two lenses are, in my opinion, invaluable on a safari, since they give a good coverage of the range you will likely to be shooting at. 200-400 is especially useful for birding shots, but it is important to support the lens well. Since there was no space in the safari vehicle for a tripod (in fact I didn't take one with me) I had the choice between using a bean bag, or a monopod. I filled the beanbag with around 4kg of sugar beans, and found this to be a perfect solution. The roll bars on the vehicle made a good support, either sitting or standing, and by putting the bean bag on top, I found I could rest the 200-400 lens on the bag and get sharp shots.

The 70-200 can be used hand held, and at a stretch can be fitted with a TC-17e to give a reasonable alternative to the 200-400.

17-55mm F/2.8G lens - Used for some landscape shots, and when I had the opportunity to get closer to some of the animals (jn Tshukudu they have some animals as part of breeding programmes, and it is normally possible to get fairly close to them, albeit with a fence in between. Also good for 'atmosphere' shots of other participants, and for when the elephants charge the vehicle.....

10.5mm F/2.8G fisheye lens - Used a couple of times, but could have been left at home, not really a safari lens. However, due to it's small size, it doesn't cost any space to take it with, so it invariably finds it's way into my bag. Used for a couple of landscape shots.

12-24mm F/4G lens, 85mm F/1.4D lens - Didn't use either of these lenses, next time I will leave them at home....

TC-14e and TC-17e teleconverters - I really expected that I would use my converters, but didn't take a single shot with them. Wouldn't leave them at home, as they are always useful as a last resort.....

SB-800 flash - Used more than I expected to provide fill to darker subjects, or for freezing the movement of some subjects. I used this in conjunction with the Nikon SD-8a battery pack, which supplements the in flash battery power with 6 additional cells, and found this to provide a welcome improvement to flash recycling times.

Monopod - as mentioned earlier, good camera support is vital, and I used my Gitzo 1578L for this

Bean Bag - I took a bean bag that I had purchased for €10 locally, and then filled it with beans once I arrived. Mine is around 25x20 cm, and I found this to be just the right size. If you make your own, you will probably find using a zip to close it works considerably better than velcro or other fastners.

Cleaning kit - My sensor actually remained relatively clean, but I took my Eclipse fluid and sensor swabs with me just in case. I also took a microfiber lens cloth, and a rocket blower to clean the gear at the end of each day

Photo vest - A good photo vest with a number of pockets is useful. Each drive I carried my cameras in my hand, and put all the other accessories, lenses, and flash in the photo vest. There isn't really space to take a camera bag in the vehicle, so best to avoid taking one

Memory - I had 4x 4Gig cards with me, and this was more than enough for my two bodies. At the end of each drive I would copy the contents of the cards to two external 120Gig drives, via my MacBook Pro.

Batteries - I took seven EN-EL3e batteries with me, but found I didn't use more than four in a day shooting.....

All in all, the equipment worked fine, and I was happy with the results that I achieved. I had a couple of issues with the D200 bodies and blinking battery syndrome, but was solved by switching lenses between bodies, and the wheel fell off the Think Tank. However when I returned, Think Tank were very apologetic and are sending me a replacement wheel kit. The problem shouldn't have occurred in the first place, but at least it was rectified through good customer service.

So did I forget anything? I think the gear I took covered pretty much all of the photo opportunities that I had. However I think taking a polarising filter would have been useful, as this would allow for better saturation in some photos. A tripod would have also been useful for some long exposure/night time opportunities, however it's use would have not been possible during the day drives, and would have been a hassle to transport through the airport (and the extra weight would have definitely ended up in having to pay for excess baggage....)

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Gear Review: Nikon 50mm F/1.8D lens

Sigal in the studio
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
I've got thousands of Euros worth of camera lenses. All of them Nikon, and all of them great in one way or another. But in terms of which lens gives me the best bang for the buck, it's got to be the standard 50mm F/1.8D lens..... it's sharpness, contrast, and colour rendition is equal to many of my lenses costing ten times the price. It's great as a low light lens also, with a maximum aperture of F1.8, meaning it can still keep going in low light situations where other lenses have given up a long time ago. But probably the best thing about this lens is it's price: only 100€ to you, sir....

A 50mm lens has pretty much always been in Nikon's lens line up, and in the times of 35mm film, and before zoom lenses had become as popular as they are today, was considered a 'standard' lens to have - the reason for this was, at 50mm, it gave the closest field of view to that of the human eye, which for most people is around 55mm. This meant that in terms of perspective, what you saw through the viewfinder of a 35mm SLR fitted with a 50mm prime was pretty much as you saw it when the camera was taken away.

In the 90's, as the quality of zoom lenses became better, and their respective prices lower, the 50mm lost it's popularity, as people preferred to go for something a little more flexible, but now we are into the digital age, with a crop factor of 1.5x, the Nikon 50mm becomes a useful 75mm in 35mm terms. So right in the middle of the range considered good portrait lenses in terms of perspective.

The first picture in this blog entry, taken of Sigal using studio lighting, is an example of this. It enabled me to get a good working distance to the model, and by using selective focussing and a wide aperture (in this case f2.2), I was able to throw most of the image out of focus, keeping the eyes sharp, and making sure that is what the viewer's attention is naturally drawn to. If I recall correctly, with this image I had absolutely no need to apply any sharpening in post processing.

Due to the size of the lens, it always goes into my bag when I go out taking portraits, and invariably gets as much use as its bigger brother the 85mm f1.4D.

Air Traffic

Another situation where I have found having the nifty 50 in my kit bag invaluable is when shooting gigs. In fact, so much so that now I typicaly go to gigs with just the 50mm attached, leaving all the other lenses at home. This has the advantage of a camera setup that is relatively compact, and no need to worry about all the other gear getting knocked or covered in beer. And again the field of view of the 50 is just right to get frame filling portraits, providing you have managed to get a good position near the front of the stage, as can be seen here in the shot of Air Traffic when they played at Paradiso in Amsterdam earlier this year. But of course the most important characteristic of shooting in low light situations such as concert halls, is this lens opens right up, giving enough light for the AF to work, and a wide enough aperture to keep the shutter speed high enough to get sharp results.

Lily Flower

The gig shot was taken wide open, at f1.8, as was the lily above. The 50 can focus relatively close, and gives good opportunity for creative shots with limited depth of field, allowing the photographer to focus on a specific part of the image, and leave everything else to fade away to blur. The 50 is also an ideal way into macro photography, since it can be used either in combination with an extension tube, with a close up filter, or with a lens reversing ring (such as the Nikon BR-6)

So again, this is a great little lens that is small enough to take anywhere, sharp enough to cut your finger, and cheap enough to fit into anyone's budget. The only downside of the lens is that it hasn't yet been upgraded to a AF-S lens, but in the sort of photography I use this lens for, fast focussing speed isn't that important.

And for those of you shooting Canon, I've heard equally good things about their 50mm F1.8 EF lens...... :)

You can see more examples of shots taken with this lens in my flickr photostream.

Monday, 30 April 2007

Queen for a day

Queen for a day
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
Today (30th April) was Queen's Day. This is when the Dutch spend the day outside celebrating the (former) queen's birthday. This year we were blessed with good weather, so around 500000 people gathered in Amsterdam.

The day traditionally starts with the vrijmarkt, which is where anyone can set up a stand and sell whatever they feel like getting rid of. My friends Vincent and Tamara were there too, with Vincent professionally dealing with his customers and selling all sorts of quality items. Highlights included back issues of National Geographic circa 1994, a purple elephant with a leg missing, and a toy train....

Vincent at Vrijmarkt

After the vrijmarkt I went for a wander in the center and in the Jordaan, in search of photos, but was suprised how empty parts of the Jordaan were (and how unphotogenic the center was), so didn't come away with any shots. However on the way back to my bike, passed by the gay QDay festival on the Amstel, which as always was a great excuse for people to dress up as Queens for a Day..... came across many people dressed as Queen Beatrix, and others clothed as Dancing Girls/Guys....

Queen for a day

Photographically, I decided to stick with a single prime for the day, and went with the 10,5mm Fisheye. When used close up this gives powerful images, and also includes a lot of the background to add to the atmosphere of the image. The images shot here were taken using fill in flash, since I find the fisheye accentuates areas in the shade, so a nice pop of flash does wonders.....

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Dust Bunnies and Sensor Cleaning

Dust Bunnies
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
One of the negative sides of using a digital SLR for photography is the effect of dust bunnies. This is a condition that occurs when particles or specks of dust end up inside the camera body and on the sensor. Unfortunately it is very difficult to avoid getting dust on the sensor, since unless the lenses are changed in a class 10 clean station, dust is going to get inside the camera body, and ultimately on the sensor.

The effect of dust can be greatly magnified, depending on the aperture that is used to take the photo. With a very wide aperture (i.e. f/1.4 - f/4) the effects generally won't be noticable, but as soon as the aperture is changed to give greater depth of field, for example in landscape photography, the dust particles become more evident, and can often be seen in a light blue sky on a bright day.....

One area of digital photography that has a big problem with dust is macro photography. Since depth of field is greatly reduced the closer the focusing point is to the object, macro photography requires the use of a narrow aperture, often in the range of f/16 - f/22, in order to get enough of the image in focus, and then the dust bunnies start intruding into the image. This is evident in the first photo in this blog entry, which was shot at f/18, where each of the small black circles are caused by particles on the sensor (you might need to click the photo to see a larger version where the dust is more evident).

Now of course, a photo like this could be fixed in post processing (take for example the shot here, which was taken the same day, and had the same problems with the dust spots on the raw image, but was fixed by playing with levels and using the heal tool in Photoshop) but that takes time, so it is better to start off an important photo session with a clean sensor......

First to check if your sensor needs cleaning - find a white wall, set your camera to f/22, and take a photo of the wall in good light. Then look at the picture at 100% on the computer, and see if you have any dust bunnies as with the photo above. If you do, chances are cleaning the sensor will help you....

The first way to clean the sensor is to use a air blower, like the Giotto Pocket Rocket, which can get rid of many of the looser dust particles. Technique here is important though - if your camera has a mirror lock up function, use it, or otherwise use the bulb exposure setting, and make sure you hold your finger on the shutter button as you are cleaning to make sure the mirror is out of the way. Then hold the camera with the sensor pointing downwards, and squirt a few puffs of air into the chamber. It is important that your sensor is pointing down, as this will help any dust particles to fall out of the camera, as opposed to just being moved around inside the camera. ***NOTE*** Do NOT use canned air to clean the sensor - this is actually liquid air, and will cause more damage than good.....

Now take another test picture of the wall - if the dust bunny situation has improved, great, otherwise you might need to use a more intensive method to clean the sensor.

The way I do it is to use is Sensor Swabs/Pec Pads (see picture), with Eclipse optic solution, which is a methanol based solution.

(Edit 2008: Some newer cameras, for example the Nikon D300 and D3, now use Tin Oxide coatings on the sensor. You shouldn't use the standard Eclipse fluid for these cameras, instead use Eclipse E2)

Sensor Swab

If you buy the swabs, there are instructions on the packet, which I advise you to read, but in short the procedure is to put a few drops of the fluid on each side of the swab, then lift the mirror as before, and clean the sensor with a reasonable amount of pressure by moving from one side to the other of the sensor in one sweep, and then back again, using the other side of the swab. This should be enough to get the sensor clean, but remount your lens, take another test shot of the wall, and if that hasn't helped, clean the sensor again.

A note of precaution - cleaning the sensor using a liquid sounds risky, and of course it can be - a single scratch on the sensor is going to make the camera pretty much unusable, so it is important to take care when cleaning it. Only use sensor swabs once - they come in sterile packages, and should only be opened when they are about to be used. Also make sure you buy the correct size sensor swab for your model camera (for Nikon D series this is Sensor Swab size 2), as using a swab that is too large could damage other parts of the camera, and using one that is too small won't do the job properly....

But realistically the hot mirror filter that is in front of the sensor is pretty rugged, and it would take quite some effort to be able to scratch it. Give it a go - you will be impressed how easy it can be to get your sensor back in tip top clean condition.......

Monday, 9 April 2007

Spring time

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
So, Easter has been and gone, but in Holland the last weeks signalled a change in the weather and we are now experiencing bright spring days, just the right weather for flowers to spring into bloom. Of course the Netherlands is well known for having the right weather for cultivating flower blooms, and the world famous tourist attraction, Keukenhof, is only testament to that, attracting thousands of tourists every day.

One of our friends gave us a muscari plant recently, and it also burst into bloom this weekend. Whilst it hasn't produced the deep blue blooms that are often associated with this particular flower, it nevertheless has given me a perfect subject to play around with my camera, and some of the results can be seen in my flickr photostream.

I am lucky to have managed to obtain a good secondhand copy of the Nikon 70-180mm F/4.5-5.6 Micro zoom before they either disappear from the face of the earth, or begin to command insane prices on ebay (Nikon recently discontinued this, their only Micro zoom, leaving only fixed focal length macros in their collection) and the flexibility of the zoom makes this an ideal lens for flower photography, and allows the photographer to get in much closer than just a bloom or a petal.

There are a number of choices to make with macro photography. Firstly the light source - should it be artificial, or available light? When shooting in the great outdoors, the subject and it's surroundings often dictate this, since any subject movement close up is greatly amplified, and needs a high shutter speed in order to freeze it, which is not always possible, so flash gives a number of advantages.

When using flash for macro, a close up flash kit such as the Nikon SB-R1(C1) is ideal. The top shot accompanying this blog was taken with the SB-R1, and two SB-R200 light sources either side of the lens. Due to the size of the muscari blooms, I was also shooting with the PK-13 (27,5mm) extension tube, and the Nikon 6T close up lens, and I wanted to get the in focus blooms to stand out a bit from the background. Now one of the nice things with the SB-R1 kit is that light fall off is pretty quick, so you end up with a nice black background, but in this case it wasn't happening initially, as the ambient light was too high, so I stepped the shutter speed up to 1/250s to aid the separation. (this also works inversely - by using slow shutter sync you can also balance the ambient light to give the background detail as well)

However, such a close up flash kit isn't always necessary. Today I was at Keukenhof, where wielding the Sb-R1 around would have been impractical, so instead I worked with the SB-800, but took it off camera and used the SC-17 connecting cable so that I could control where the light was falling on the subject. Works just as well, and with Nikon's advanced TTL flash, exposures were spot on.


The second shot was taken with ambient light. This required a longer exposure to balance the exposure, and I ended up shooting at 1/3s. This gave the nice effect that the background (a white wall) was also exposed well, and I felt this gave the photo a dreamy quality. Of course outside this shot wouldn't have been possible, as even the slightest breeze would have left the picture unsharp, but there is nothing wrong with shooting specimens in a controlled environment inside (assuming of course you haven't taken the flowers from the wild with the sole intention of photographing them ;)

Another choice to be made with macro photography is the aperture to be used. This will have a dramatic effect on how much of the picture will end up being in focus, since the depth of field in macro photography is greatly reduced. Take for example the two shots accompagnying this blog - the first was shot at f/16, leaving a fair amount of the bloom in focus, whereas the second one was shot at f/5.6, leaving very few of the blooms sharp. In my experience, the more 'artistic' shots will use a lower aperture, whereas the 'documentary' shots will be shot at higher apertures.

In the age of digital SLR photography, shooting higher apertures brings its own challenges in the form of dust bunnies. It is an unfortunate fact that sensors do collect dust over time, due to their static charge, and regardless of how carefully lenses are changed, dust will end up on the sensor. You can check for dust on your sensor by shooting a white wall at f/16 or higher, and you will probably be suprised by the results. During 'normal' photography, you are less likely to notice the dust since (at least in my case) you don't use the higher apertures so often, but since macro photography means you are more likely to, this either means cleaning the sensor before a macro session, or using spot removal in Photoshop or Lightroom to try and remove the spots in post processing.

Needless to say, the use of a sturdy tripod and a cable release are imperative in order to get sharp results, but I'll leave that for another day.......

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Going Retro

Tim, Bromheads Jacket
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
Started this week off on a training course in the UK, and whilst using the frequent breaks to do a bit of browsing, realised that the price of medium format camera systems has dropped significantly since the last time I took a look. Of course this is primarily driven by the introduction of digital, not only in the consumer and pro segment, but also in the medium format/studio segment of the market. Although the cost of going digital in combination with brands such as Hasselblad or Mamiya is still way beyond the means of most photographers, it has made for a steady flow of bargain priced analog medium format kits making their way to eBay.

So I bought one.

The package arrived this Saturday, and I was amazed at what I had obtained with my meager outlay of less than 500 Euros. This got me a Mamiya 645 Pro body, an 80mm F/2.8 lens, and a 150mm F/3.5 lens, together with a waist level finder and a prism finder.

The kit can still be bought in the shops today, albeit an updated model, and would cost 6 or 7 times what I paid for it. And in it's heyday would have cost double that again.

From first inspections it seems an incredibly well made system, totally interchangeable, and pro build quality. But compared to my Nikon Digital SLR system, it requires a completely different way of thinking.

It's manual. Manual focus, manual film drive, manual exposure. And it doesn't even have an exposure meter.

It's big. Although fairly ergonomic (it fits into my left palm, and I can use the left index finger to focus the lens, which occurs oh so smoothly, and use the right hand for the shutter release and film advancement crank), it won't be winning any prizes for portability.

It's cumbersome. For example, loading a 120 film (remember that stuff?!) requires taking out the insert, manually winding a film onto the spool, putting it all back together, and then advancing to frame one by turning the crank 4 or 5 times. Then the opposite to unload the film again at the end.

Compare this to the fast focusing, fast shooting, and high picture taking rate of the digital world, and you have yourself a completely different kettle of fish. But although I have no intention of replacing any of my digital gear with this beast, I hope that it will find a place in my photography. I see the larger frame size as being an ideal camera for portraiture, studio, and landscape, and the deliberate slow down in taking pictures, and higher cost per shot, will hopefully teach me to think a lot more before I shoot.

I've shot a few test rolls, and it is a joy to use. Keep an eye out here and at Flickr for some of my first shots......

Now there are certain situations where I see no place for the Mamiya.....

The shot accompanying this blog entry was taken at a concert I visited last week by Bromheads Jacket, who were playing at Paradiso, Amsterdam. It was the second time I had seen them at this venue, the previous time being at London Calling, late last year, and this time they played in the 'small room', which benefits from, in my opinion, much better lighting than the main hall.

Bromheads are known to incite their crowds into fairly lively behaviour, and this concert was no exception. It was a pretty tough job keeping the camera steady whilst being pushed from side to side by the people in the mosh pit, but I was pleased with the results I achieved, which can be seen in the following section of my Flickr photostream.

At one point the lead singer, Tim, decided to go crowd surfing, and I was able to pop up the built in flash on the D200 (I normally never use flash at concerts, instead relying on available light) and chase him round with the rest of the fans, ending up with a shot that conveyed the mood quite well. Of course I would never have risked my camera in this situation when I only had the one, but now I have my second d200, plus a decent insurance policy, it doesn't take a second thought ;)

Imagine doing that with a medium format system.......

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Software Review: Adobe Lightroom

Up until now my post processing workflow has been relatively disorganised - I shoot everything in RAW to give me the most flexibility when back behind the computer, but how I process the NEFs has really depended on my mood. Typically I would use Adobe Bridge as my 'organiser', then tag the photos with red if I decide after looking at the preview that I would like to do some more work on the image. Once I have done a quick review of the images, I would open up each red tagged shot individually and use Adobe ACR to make fine adjustments to the exposure, and then open the shot in Photoshop to do the real hard work, using layers to play with hue, saturation, levels, curves, and sharpening until I have the end result I am happy with.

However, for 95% of the images, Photoshop has really been a bit of overkill, since I am only using the basic functionalities, and basically just an expensive memory hog.....

Enter Adobe Lightroom......

Lightroom has been designed from the ground up by Adobe as a photographer's workflow replacement, and has been labelled by many as being Adobe's response to Apple's Aperture tool, which has a very similar set of functionalities.

I downloaded an early beta copy of LR when it was first released and only available for the Mac, and quickly dismissed it - it didn't seem logical, and forced me to import all my photos to a separate library before I could work on them (which effectively doubled the storage space I needed for image storage). After playing with it for 30 minutes or so it found its way to my dustbin.

However, on Patrick's recommendation I took another look at the final release version, and was pleasantly suprised. In between the previous release I had tried, and this release, Adobe had acquired Pixmantec, the makers of RawShooter, a very flexible RAW workflow tool for the PC, and have integrated many of the features into Lightroom, making it a very flexible tool.

There are five main parts to the product: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, and Web. The idea behind this is first of all the user 'imports' his newly uploaded files into LR's Library (in this release however this is virtual - the images remain in their intial location, and information about the images is loaded into LR's database), then the user organises them, tags them, labels them, etc, and moves onto the next stage, Develop.

There are a number of ways an image can be developed - firstly, using the 'Quick Develop', LR will assign what it feels are the best automatic exposure settings to the image, and although this is still using Adobe Camera RAW, I have to say these settings are much more accurate than what I have experienced previously with ACR. You can either leave it at that (which I doubt I would do much), or you can fine tune the development stages, by altering contrast, saturation, hue, exposure, curves, and a number of other settings. The curve alterations has changed from Photoshop, and instead of working directly on the curve, you adjust the settings by using a number of slide bars below the graphical curve, and although this takes a bit of getting used to, in my opinion it is a lot easier to work with it like this.

One welcome addition to the develop stage are a number of presets, including various toning options (cyanotype, sepia), b+w conversions, and something called 'direct positive'. From what I can work out, this adds around +1.15EV to the exposure, and plays around with the contrast to give a very striking image which works especially well for fashion type images. Of course one can take this preset effect and adjust it to one's own preference. See the attached photo of Heleen for an example of how this can work


Within the Develop stage you also have the ability to do split toning, which basically gives the possibility of making toned images to your own preferences, and not just relying on the preconfigured Sepia and Cyanotype examples. Again some examples of these split tones can be seen in my Flickr photostream. Develop also supports the export of your images, and these can be automatically converted to jpg (or another format) images, assigned a colour profile, and then opened up in Photoshop or saved to disk. It is also possible to associate the export action with a Photoshop droplet, which could then, for example, add a custom frame around the edge of each image (the ability to add borders is something I feel is sadly missing from the product).

Once the developing has taken place, the next step is to display the images, and LR supports this with the Slideshow function, which allows you to show selected images as an onscreen slideshow. I really like this function, as you are not restricted to a single directory as the source for the slide show, but can instead set up a slide show based upon tags or labels, and add music (from directly within an iTunes playlist for example) and custom fade/slide progressions to the show. Ideal to show to a prospective client. The slideshow can also be exported as a pdf document, although of course the music does not get exported along with the pdf.

The Print stage allows you to set up an image for printing, and is something that I doubt I will do, since I still send away all my images to a pro lab for printing, but it seems a fairly flexible way of sending the image to a local printer.

The final stage is Web, and here Adobe has expanded the web templates from within Photoshop to give around 20 html and flash based web site designs. These can be customised to show your name, exposure details, and the colour schemes etc can be adjusted to your own personal tastes. It is definitely a very easy way to publish the images to the web, and can even upload to an ftp site automatically.

Overall, for a v1.0 Adobe has done a very good job in creating a market ready product, and I feel they have learnt from some of the weaknesses that Apple Aperture has. It uses many of the good Photographer's features from Photoshop, and expands on them to make them more friendly to the image maker. I am still discovering much of the product, but can already see that it will have a place in my workflow from now on. I will still use Photoshop from time to time, for example if I need to do cloning in an image, or play with some of the more advanced filters available, but for most of my standard stuff Lightroom will do the job.

It is available as a free 30 day trial from Adobe, and I would encourage you all to give it a go and let me know how you feel about it.....

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Trip Report: Bavarian National Park (continued)

Bavarian Water Landscape
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
One of the afternoons on the trip had been set aside for a walk to one edge of the forest to have a go at some landscapes. However this plan was quickly changed as it appeared that the recent high winds in the area had led to a number of trees falling, and blocking the pathways that we needed to use. There was a note from the forester warning of the danger, and since the fallen trees were covered with quite deep snow, we decided it wasn't worth starting the hike, especially since we were not sure how far we would be able to get.

So instead we decided to concentrate on the stream and treescapes around the car park area that we had parked in. I found it a perfect opportunity to use my recently purchased Neutral Density filters to play around with some long exposure times to get the water in the stream to blur out. The first example shown here was exposed for 30 seconds using the 12-24mm wide angle (at 24mm), and the second one for 25 seconds, using the 70-180mm Micro lens at 90mm.

River stones

I felt that using the long exposure added a bit of interest to an otherwise uninteresting subject. The ND filter allowed me to extend the exposure time for long enough to get the water to blur the right amount.

Of course, both shots required the use of a tripod and a cable release ;)

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Trip Report: Bavarian National Park

Lone Wolf
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
Spent the last five days in the Bavarian National Park with FotoCampus on an expedition to photograph the animals and landscapes around there.

The park itself, covering 200 hectares, is a "Tier-Freigelaende", meaning the animals housed there (over 45 species) are able to roam freely within their allotted enclosures, and care has been taken to simulate accurate living environments for each species.

The animals are enclosed within fenced areas, mainly to provide safety to the visitors, but also to protect the animals from the natural food chain that would otherwise be in place. Some of the animals represented include red deer, otters, wild pigs, wolves, bison, owls, lynx, beavers, wild cats, and brown bears. In terms of photographic opportunities, we concentrated on the brown bears, wolves, lynx, and wild cats.

The park is very popular with photographers, as it is one of the only places in central Europe where so many types of animals are accessible by visitors, whilst at the same time being able to roam freely. This of course creates many photographic opportunities, although this sometime is accompagnied by a long wait for some action.

We were lucky with the weather, as although there had been no recent snow fall, the temperatures were still around zero, and there had also been no rain, so there was still ample snow on the ground in many parts. This of course meant we needed to use some exposure compensation to avoid the snow influencing the scene, but the benefit of digital is that this is relatively simple to calculate by using the histogram on the back of the camera.

Since the park is spread over a large area, a lot of walking is necessary to reach the animals we were interested in. The wolf in the photo accompagnying this blog was at the top of a hill around 2km from the car park - and after pulling the beach rolly loaded with all my gear up quite steep inclines to get there, I was ready for a break before we had started.....

This shot was taken with my D200 and 200-400mm F/4G VR lens attached. Since the light forced me to use relatively long shutter speeds on occassions, the need for good technique was evident. It was difficult to get the nice sharp images one would expect from such a lens, and I really needed to work on my long lens technique in order to get good results. Still, after 4 days of trying, I think I am beginning to appreciate exactly when and how to use the lens.

More in a later blog......

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Gone fishing

Self Portrait
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
Will be away for a week or so, off to the Bavarian Forest in Germany for some wildlife photography together with Claus Brandt of FotoCampus.

But I will return soon hopefully with some good shots to share with you all..... :)

Monday, 12 February 2007

Magic Eraser

Sigal 13
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
Sometimes a photo needs a little extra to really stand out. In 'real life' we have the advantage of being able to see things in 3d, which gives us the immediate benefit of being able to separate a person from the hustle and bustle of the background they are standing in front of, but with the photographic medium we only see in 2d, so a confusing or busy background can often do nothing other than spoil the picture.

One way I like to separate my subject from the background is by using the magic eraser and standard eraser tools in Photoshop. With Magic Eraser I am able to click on a single point in an image and remove that patch of colour from the image that I am working on, leaving a transparent layer in it's place. I can then fine tune the area that I have deleted using the standard eraser tool.

The way I like to use this with portrait photography, such as in the examples here, is to make a duplicate layer of the image, and then turn the background layer into a black and white image. Then as I erase the top layer, I am left with the black and white image showing through underneath.

It is important to have crisp, well defined edges between the black and white layer, and the colour layer, so I will normally get as close as possible with the eraser, and then zoom in on the image, and get really close, so that the only colour left in the image is the part that I wish to highlight. Toggling the background layer between visible and invisible can help to see parts that I have missed.

This can take some practice to get right, and an image created in this way will need a lot more time than a 'normal' image, but I think the results are worth the extra effort.

Rachel and Mike

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Jarvis Cocker

Some more shots from the recent Jarvis Cocker concert that I was happy with.

I liked the b+w conversion I made on the first one, and used a new method to achieve it. Instead of using a gradient map together with the channel mixer to find the appropriate levels of each of the three RGB colors in grayscale, I used a gradient map together with individual curves for R, G, and B to adjust the impact that each channel had on the shot. This also enabled me to bring Jarvis away from the background, and stand out a bit more (compare this to the unaltered shot here. Once I had done that, I used the color balance to give the picture the silver blue tone that it has.

Jarvis Cocker

The next one was achieved again by adjusting the individual channels. Red was pulled up, and green pulled down until the colors were as I liked them. I think the effect works, but would welcome your opinion as to whether you think the photoshopping is overdone.....

Jarvis Cocker

The final shot is pretty much 'as shot', with a standard S curve for improved contrast. I liked the color of the light and the sharpness in this shot.

Jarvis Cocker

More photos from this concert can be seen here

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Book Review: Michael Grecco - Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Celebrity and Editorial Photography Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Celebrity Editorial Photography: Books: Michael Grecco

New York born Michael Grecco started his career as a photojournalist for the Boston Herald, and worked his way up to become the (self proclaimed) Master of Portrait Photography. He now lives and works in Beverley Hills, on call to many of the rich and famous as their resident celebrity photographer.

When you first flick through his book, you may recognise some of the shots from the entertainment press, but although this book is a portfolio of much of his work, Michael has written it with the intention of providing portrait photographers, from beginners to advanced, with a technical resource book.

The first three chapters cover the camera, illumination, and the medium. The 'camera' chapter, and the 'medium' chapter (basically covering analog vs digital, and color palettes) don't really introduce much new, although they do set the scene quite well, but the chapter covering illumination really sets this book apart from many others on the same subject.

The book is approx 30cm square format, and each double page spread in the illumination chapter is devoted to a full page photograph, together with half a page of text explaining how the photograph was made, and half a page lighting diagram. So although the average reader is unlikely to have access to the same level of model that Michael does (the page on hard lighting is accompagnied by a photograph of Kate Winslet, and the page on high speed strobes by Jet Li....) at least he will have some ideas on how to replicate the same lighting situation with his own resources. This is something that I have found sadly lacking from many other books on lighting, and something I am sure I will refer back to in future when working in the studio.

The next chapter talks about 'Creativity and Conceptualization', and this is really where Grecco sets himself apart from Average Joe. He talks about how important it is to collaborate with the rest of the team (which is fair enough), but when you realise his team includes photo assistants, set builders, photo editors, wardrobe stylists, hairdressers, make up artists, talent scouts, location scouts, publicists, artistic directors, lighting technicians, etc etc, it makes you wonder if he has someone to press the shutter button for him as well ;)

But joking aside, he does make some very helpful suggestions about how to go about designing and visualising a picture, and in the following chapter, 'The connection' talks about the best ways to build up a relationshop between the model and the photographer.

The final third of the book is filled up with case studies, in which Grecco introduces more images from his collection, and talks about the way he made each shot.

The book is just short of 200 pages, softcover, but printed on high quality glossy paper, and written in an easy to follow language.

This is a great book for anyone interested in getting some new ideas in portrait photography, and also for those who want to see a high quality collection of celebrity images, but what really made the book for me was the presentation of and the story behind the images, combined with the technical details and set ups that he had used.

Blogged with Flock

Monday, 5 February 2007

Circle of Fear

Baby Seal
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
When starting out in wildlife photography there are a number of things that the photographer needs to think about. Apart from the obvious stuff, such as which camera, which lens, and which exposure settings to use, it is also very important to take into consideration the animal and the environment in which it is living.

When taking the accompanying photo, it was important to maintain the correct distance from the seal, since otherwise I would be entering the animal's 'circle of fear'. This circle is really made up of 4 rings - in the outer ring, the animal is not aware of your presence, and goes about his daily business without worrying about what you are doing.

In the next ring, the animal may be aware of your presence, but at this point he is not too bothered by what you are doing.

The third ring is where the problems begin, as the animal has now become fully aware of your proximity to him, and will prepare to flee. Obviously the environmentally conscious photographer does not want to be in this ring of the circle, as he will be upsetting the animal, causing him to depart from his natural habitat, in search of safer ground.

The final ring, or core, of the circle of fear, is the most dangerous for the photographer. This is where the animal is no longer sure that he can flee, and instead (depending on the animal) will prepare to attack in order to defend himself.

Normally a wildlife will restrict himself to the outer two rings of the circle of fear.

In order to take this photo of the seal, I was using a 500mm F/4 AFS Nikkor attached to my D200, with my Gitzo tripod as support, and I had spent the previous 15 minutes crawling across the beach on my belly in order to stay unnoticed by the seal. I was probably around 10-15 meters away at the point of exposure, and would estimate I was around the boundary of the outer ring and the second ring. I was at a safe enough distance so that the seal was barely aware of my presence, and I was safe.

Now in the case of the seals here, the risk of attack was not so great, but with more vicious animals, such as the bears I will be meeting in a couple of weeks in Bavaria, or the lions in Africa, the circle of fear may determine whether or not I return home....... ;)

Thanks to Claus Brandt of FotoCampus for teaching me the basics of the circle of fear on our trip to Helgoland :)

Sunday, 4 February 2007

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Book Review: Skin, Lee Varis Skin: The Complete Guide to Digitally Lighting, Photographing, and Retouching Faces and Bodies: Books: Lee Varis

Book Review:

I purchased this book on a recent trip to the US after reading recommendations from fellow photographers on the Strobist Blog. The title, "Skin: The Complete Guide to Digitally Lighting, Photographing, and Retouching Faces and Bodies" should give you an idea of what goes on between the covers, and this was the reason that I had purchased the book - I wanted to know a little bit more about using the digital medium to photograph people.

However, if this was all I was expecting, I was in for a pleasant surprise - the author, Lee Varis, has been working as a Hollywood photographer for over three decades, and in this time has seen many changes in the way photographers work. He was early in embracing the new digital medium, and used his first digital camera setup already in 1990. So with this book he has aimed to share some of the knowledge gained in 15 years as a digital people photographer with his reader.

I found his writing style easy to read and understand, and the book approached the subject in a well structured manner, starting off with chapters on 'digital imaging basics' and 'color management, workflow and calibration', before moving on to more in depth topics such as 'lighting and photographing people', introducing some new techniques that I hadn't thought about before along the way.

But chapters 4 to 8 are where the real fun starts. His approach is to go through a detailed look at many of the Photoshop features that relate to people photography, together with examples and exercises (a companion CD accompagnies the book). Although the examples he uses are specifically related to people, I found that the information I learnt has helped me in general regarding my use of Photoshop - the chapter on 'Tone and Contrast: Color and B+W' is an excellent look at different ways the individual channels play a role in both color and black and white imagery (I have already put many of these techniques into play in my b+w conversions), and the section on 'The Color of Skin', which basically explains contrast, tone, and the advanced use of curves, also provides a much needed overview of this genre.

Furthermore, Lee covers in some detail image retouching, and final print preparation, including a detailed methodology behind image sharpening.

I would recommend this book to any medium to advanced Photoshop users, especially those working with portrait and fashion photography, although as I said, all of the techniques can be applied outside of the realm of 'skin' photography.

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Saturday, 3 February 2007

Night time in Cannes

Cannes at night
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
Spent much of the previous week at Cisco Networkers in Cannes, in the South of France. Since I was working during most of the daylight hours, my photography time was restricted to the start and the end of the day. Luckily there was room in my case for my tripod, so was able to get a couple of night time shots of the center of Cannes.

I had the 12-24mm wide angle zoom on my Nikon D200, and this was shot at 22mm, ISO100, for 15s@f16. I could have shot for a shorter exposure at a wider aperture, and due to the large depth of field of the lens, I would still have had enough of the photo in focus, but I always prefer to expose slightly longer to allow relatively fast moving objects (such as cars or people) to fail to register on the sensor, giving a cleaner final image.

Obviously these sort of images would not be possible without the use of a good tripod. But with the accessibility of cheaper compact digital cameras these days, more and more people are expecting their choice of technology to deliver good results, even in the dead of night.

A couple of tips for those people ;)

1) Don't use flash! The in built flash on the average compact camera will only reach a couple of meters. In the case of the scene photographed above, that would have left me with well exposed paving slabs, and the only part of the background image that would have registered would be the bright lights on the buildings.

2) If possible, use a night mode, manual mode, or bulb mode. The aim here is to get a reasonably long exposure time and a reasonable aperture for the depth of field....

3) USE A TRIPOD! Most cameras these days have a screw thread in the base plate, allowing a tripod to be connected. This will allow the camera to be held motionless during the period of the exposure, which is important in avoiding blur. Hand holding the camera for night photography does not work - even if the image looks reasonably sharp on the camera preview screen, when it is uploaded to the computer, you will realise that it is not.

In choosing a tripod there is no need to spend a large amount of money - for a compact camera there is plenty of choice around the 30Euro mark, and this will be good enough for what you need. It is also possible to find camera supports with extendable legs that are close to pocket size.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Shooting Gigs

Jarvis Cocker
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
If you look at my Flickr photostream you will see that I have shot a couple of concerts over the past couple of monthes, including the one pictured here, Jarvis Cocker, at Paradiso Amsterdam on the 22nd January 2007. Jarvis has been a favourite of mine ever since his Pulp days, and when I heard he would be playing in Amsterdam, I decided to take my camera along for a few shots. Since Paradiso in Amsterdam doesn't have such a strict door policy, it is fairly easy to get my camera gear in and out without being spotted :) Using the gear I normally take with me (typically my Nikon D200 and a fast prime, such as the 85mm f1.4 or the 50mm f1.8), I generally run into one of two 'problems' that need to be dealt with once I get back into my digital lab.

The first of those problems is noise. With the D200 there is a lot of discussion on the Internet about how good or bad the D200 is at dealing with noise, especially when it is compared with some of the higher end Canon models. I find shooting with the Nikon at high ISOs can generally deliver good results right up the ISO scale, providing the exposure is as close to spot on as you can get it when taking the image. But of course since the light at concerts is generally 'variable', I tend to try to keep the ISO set to 640 or less, with the occassional forage into ISO800 if I am feeling lucky.

I find at ISO640 I can get reasonable results, and using a combination of a noise reduction plug in such as Noise Ninja, and curves to deal with noise in the shadows, I end up with something approaching acceptable.

The second issue I am generally faced with is lighting and on stage effects, such as smoke machines. And until recently I was at a loss as to how to deal with occassions such as this rather greenish yellow image, caused by strong on stage lighting and some smoke.
Jarvis Cocker

But after reading some chapters in Lee Varis' excellent guide to post processing people shots, Skin, I realised that my solution may be also be in the use of some more complicated curves. I managed to achieve the result at the top of the article by playing around with my curves, but this time instead of adjusting the top level RGB curve, I went down to the Red, Green, and Blue channels individually, and changed them until I had got the skin tones and back lighting exactly to my liking. And I think you will agree the rework is definitely a lot better than the original.......

More shots from this concert here

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Before the Storm

Before the Storm
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
The weather last week in the Netherlands was somewhat dramatic.... a storm raged through Noord Holland, with winds of up to 130kph, causing devastation and loss of life. Obvioulsy not really a time for photographs (unless you want your camera to get *really* wet), but by the next day we had bright skies again. This shot was taken a couple of days later, before another downpour, and I was able to take advantage of the water that had fallen before to give me some nice reflections.

Although I think the silhouettes worked quite well on this shot, it reminded me I still need to get some graduated ND filters so that I can get a better exposure match when there is a vast difference in the brightness between foreground and background.....

Saturday, 20 January 2007

You're not from round here, are you?

Abandoned House
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.
During a recent trip to Dallas took the opportunity to venture out for a day to Fort Worth, a couple of miles down the road. The differences between the two cities were fairly stark - Dallas on the one hand is a thriving metropole, set up by the oil business, and maintained by the computer business, placing Dallas on the edge of America's second Silicon Valley. But Fort Worth still appears a fairly run down midwest place with a small town mentality. Although the center has some evidence of modernisation, the suburbs are still well and truly placed in the early 80s. Houses look like they would quiver, shake, and fall down at the slightest sign of a hurricane, and a lack of money has left many of them in a state of disrepair. Compared to Dallas, the citizens seem to be suffering from a lack of cash, and the large American vehicles they are travelling around in are definitely not this year's model.
Still, it's an interesting place for some photography, if you can escape without upsetting too many of the locals. I was with a friend, Philip, and on a number of occassions people came out to take a look at what we were doing. And the size of the dogs some people had roaming in their porches unleashed meant we didn't stay around too long in some places.
The photo here, severely warped with the help of a fisheye, was taken under the watchful eye of one of the locals. We had discovered some old derelict buildings on the edge of Fort Worth, which invited us to walk around some and take some pictures. As we arrived at the place, which was located near a factory of some sorts, the workers seemed to be leaving, and one big Ford F150 driver took an interest in us getting out of our car, stopping his truck next to ours. As we walked off, he drove down the street very slowly, and parked up adjacent to where we were taking photos (we were off road). Then as we moved along the site, so did his truck. He didn't say a word to us, but just kept gazing blankly at us. In a state where it is perfectly legal to carry a firearm around with you, it didn't make me feel particularly easy ;)
I discussed this with a friend later in the evening, and he told me that he had been out shooting in some woods a couple of years ago, also near Fort Worth, with another friend. At a certain point a couple of trucks pulled up, and a bunch of shaven headed white guys stepped out. They asked my friend if he had seen a young black boy in a white tshirt and jeans anywhere close that afternoon, as they would 'like to have a little word with him'. When half of the guys have baseball bats, it definitely makes you think.....
The Midwest, it would seem, still has a lot of steps to take to catch up with the rest of America......

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Car park management is not liable for any loss or damage to yourvehicle......

Was recently in the US, in Dallas, Texas, where I picked up two new lenses: the Nikkor 10,5mm Fisheye, and the Nikkor 12-24mm wide angle zoom. Spent some of my spare time playing around with them and trying new things out.

For this photo I used the fisheye, which has the ability to make a very ordinary scene look special. Here's an example of just that - this was a car I found on the top layer of a multi storey car park that I had originally had entered to try and find a good vantage point to take some night shots of Dallas. It seemed the car park was also in use as a junk yard for abandoned/stolen cars, and there were a number of cars up there in various states of disrepair.

This photo was taken at around 11pm, with only a small amount of light being provided by a couple of car park lights. The actual exposure used was 30 seconds at f7.1, and I exposed for so long to enable me to get the surreal colors, as well as the movement from the trees (it was a fairly windy night).

On a side note, one thing I learnt from the trip was always to take the right accessories along.... I had a tripod together with my Markins M10 ball head, but the camera plate on my D200 had become loose.... and of course I didn't have the allen key with me. Luckily I could fix it by jamming a few business cards between the mount and the body, and it didn't cause me too many issues.