27 Jul 2015

Appraising camera equipment and workflow

A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.  Dorothea Lange. 1895 – 1965

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cameras and photography recently and appraising my equipment and image processing workflow.  My photography has meant different things to me at different times in my life, but has been an important constant since childhood.

On a recent walk, we saw Foxgloves that were as tall as I'd ever seen, this patch were as tall as me.
On a recent walk, we saw Foxgloves that were as tall as I’d ever seen, this patch were as tall as me.

Ideally, I’d like to swap my now rather heavy DSLR for a smaller, lighter model, as my use for it has changed in recent years.  But at the moment, I can’t make the numbers work for me or justify the additional expense.  I was lined up to trade in my heavy DSLR for a lighter modern model, but the retailer concerned reduced their part-ex offer to me at the last minute, so in rather a fit of pique and annoyance, I asked them to just return my old camera to me and took the new camera out of my shopping cart.

I took ownership of a new (at least to me) computer a few months ago and am gradually replacing software for the multitude of things I use my computer for, so image editing processes were important things to consider.

A favourite spot for bluebells, this is an old photograph I revisted in RAW format as it had been overexposed in the patches of sunlight.
A favourite spot for bluebells, this is an old photograph I revisited in RAW format as it had been overexposed in the patches of sunlight.

Until my last computer got too tired to handle it, I habitually took all my photographs in a RAW format to process later and would never consider buying a camera without that functionality.  But I had more recently started working just with JPEGs – it seemed a better solution with the bridge camera and compact I was currently using as walkabout cameras.

If you’d like to see an even larger version of the bluebell woods to the right, I’ve also uploaded a large version of the file – sometimes with detailed images like woodland, you need to see them large to appreciate the details.  I wish I was there right now, perched on a log with a cup of coffee, a book to read and to just enjoy the birdsong.

But having installed several trials or free programs for RAW conversion, now my computer can handle it, I started looking out older photos from different cameras to test with and it has been fun to tinker with images again.  The program I’ll probably settle on using is so feature-full that it’s going to take some time to learn in order to get the best from it.

This is a spot we stop at regularly for our picnic lunch, as there's a parking spot adjacent and it's very tranquil and peaceful.
This is a spot we stop at regularly for our picnic lunch, as there’s a parking spot adjacent and it’s very tranquil and peaceful.

Although I have concluded after several days with the programs open and periodically tinkering with them, that I’m still getting better results with JPEGs with the two general purpose walking cameras I’m using, the RAW format files just don’t seem to work as well (almost certainly down to some degree to my own ineptitude) as the cameras own purpose designed processing algorithms.  Whilst I can certainly improve exposure, tonal range and colour, it seems to be at the considerable expense of noise and deteriorating image quality – probably due to their tiny sensors.  So the exercise has been worthwhile, even if what I take from it is ‘as you were’.

The light is always filtering through these trees in an afternoon when we tend to visit, I must try and get there early in a morning when it's shining the other way.
The light is always filtering through these trees in an afternoon when we tend to visit, I must try and get there early in a morning when it’s shining the other way.

But revisiting some of my old RAW files from the DSLR (and the previous model), those certainly do very well.  I’ve got great results even with quite old files with the new apps and have rescued images I’d written off as unusable.

It has however thrown into sharp relief the quality of image that I get from the DSLR (even though it’s a 10 year old model) compared to the newer digicams and made me even more determined to get a smaller walkabout DSLR model.

I’ve salted a few of these recently re-worked images above.  It has been enjoyable, whilst I count down the weeks to some holiday time, to look again at some of my favourite spots as I work on the images.  It’s not quite the same as being there, but for now, whilst we have another summer of unseasonably poor weather, it’s been a little treat.

On the BBC's Springwatch, Chris Packham gave a word of the day and one day it was 'shivelight' to describe shafts of sunlight breaking through woodland canopy - as you know, one of my very favourite things.
On the BBC’s Springwatch, Chris Packham gave a ‘word of the day’ and one day it was ‘shivelight’ to describe shafts of sunlight breaking through the woodland canopy – as you know, one of my very favourite things.

This image on the left, of a new path we walked over the weekend, is an example of what I mentioned above about working with JPEGs.  Due to the extremes of light, I took it as a large JPEG and a RAW file together (on my bridge camera) and spent some time trying to get the result I wanted from the RAW file and wasn’t especially happy with the result.  So I opened the JPEG and used my usual workflow and within 5 minutes had got a much better result.  I doubt that would be the case with RAW files from my DSLR, but certainly with this camera and its tiny sensor, I don’t seem to be gaining enough to be worth the effort.  It also trains me to ensure I get the exposure right at the point of taking the image and not allowing myself to be sloppy, knowing I can pull it back in processing, so perhaps this is a complimentary technique to ensure I keep my mind on good camera practice.

When you've had a nice walk, a picnic supper, sat and read whilst listening to the birds, what better way to end the evening than a sunset like this.
When you’ve had a nice walk, a picnic supper, sat and read whilst listening to the birds, what better way to end the evening than a sunset like this.

I do however have my camera set up to give me the best possible neutral file to work with, knowing that I like to post process my images to my preferred result later in software.  I keep processing parameters to a minimum, like sharpening, contrast and saturation.

This means that my images tend to come out of the camera looking a little soft, flat, dull and bland.  Which is fine by me, it preserves highlights and detail and gives me a good neutral foundation to work with.  This wouldn’t work if I wanted to print directly from the memory card or wasn’t prepared to work on images, but for me, that’s half the fun.  It’s not an approach that most people would wish to adopt, but I see it as a pseudo-RAW intermediate format; the best possible JPEG data is recorded, but it certainly needs to be knocked into shape visually.  So until I can find the pennies for a new DSLR, I’ll use my old one when that’s needed and make the best of what I already have.

My work this week:

I’ve not just been tinkering with photos and thinking about cameras this week, I’ve put in some quality time with some silver clay.  I bought some at Christmas when it was a good price, but this is the first chance I’ve had with the time to crack it out and get something made.  My copper wild rose pendant sold soon after going on sale, so I also wanted to try a smaller one in silver.  I scaled down the component shapes and worked in just the same way as previously, except I replaced the round disc I’d used as a base on the back of the copper one with a proper calyx shape, so that it’s as nice on the back as the front.

Hand sculpted wild rose pendant in pure silver.
Hand sculpted wild rose pendant in pure silver.

 

Each petal is hand sculpted and they're all different. The pendant hangs on a discreet bail loop behind the top petal.
Each petal is hand sculpted and they’re all different. The pendant hangs on a discreet bail loop behind the top petal.

 

The back of the pendant shows the calyx and remains of the stem to make the back structure interesting too.
The back of the pendant shows the calyx and remains of the stem to make the back structure interesting too.

 

I’ve always been very fond of simple, uncluttered jewellery and especially silver with sleek lines.  I wasn’t sure how sleek I could get with silver clay, so this pendant was a bit of a trip into uncharted waters for me, but it worked rather better than I’d hoped.  I also love marquise shaped stones and have had a few put aside for the right design for some time.  I decided that the greater shrinkage rate of copper clay might render it unsuitable for setting a stone with such a long perimeter distance (a lot of distance to shrink and potentially crack), but it worked perfectly in the silver, which I’m finding only shrinks around 5% from dry after firing.

This hand crafted silver pendant features sleek lines and a gorgeous marquise shaped Cubic Zirconia stone.
This hand crafted silver pendant features sleek lines and a gorgeous marquise shaped Cubic Zirconia stone.

 

Contemporary silver pendant set with a large marquise Cubic Zirconia faceted gemstone.
Contemporary silver pendant set with a large marquise Cubic Zirconia faceted gemstone.

 

22 May 2011

A hidden gem we’ve walked past many times

I’ve just realised that this is my 100th blog post here – I had intended to mark the occasion with something more in keeping with the milestone, but it’s nearly midnight on a Sunday evening and to be blunt, my imagination and flair has totally deserted me, so apologies that it’s not something more worthy.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

Whilst we were away over the Easter period the Fuji bridge camera I had been given for a recent big birthday to use as a walk-around camera when I didn’t want to be weighed down with the bug guns, had developed assorted faults and is currently back with the manufacturer to be looked at, under warranty. There is clearly something amiss with the sensor and a whole collection of small, somewhat intermittent, but increasingly frequent, niggly problems – like it won’t switch off or on, won’t change mode etc. At first I put them down to quirks of the model, but when you lose shots because of them, or get home and find that several frames you took that day were totally out of focus, something really has to be done with it.

The fabulous gardens as Sizergh Castle in the Lake District – I have already published a photograph of this scene from a JPEG file – but having opened up the RAW file and seeing how much better the tonality of it is, as well as how much further detail I have been able to bring out, it has made me question my workflow all over again.

I had been happy with my Easter photos until I opened the ones taken with my DSLR. But considering this camera and lens combination cost about 7 times the amount of my new camera, it jolly well should show it up.

None of the very many photographs I took of this scene with different cameras really did it justice, with the low early evening sun filtering through the spring foliage and warming up the fragrance from the bluebells.

So whilst I’m without it, it has given me the opportunity to work on some photographs I’d taken recently that I hadn’t done anything with yet and to give further thought to some of my concerns over the image files I get from it – and my perpetual quandary since getting it on how best to use it – I’ve never quite been able to get colours right in landscapes (which I think my Easter collection helped me to make decisions) and can’t settle on just working with out of camera JPEG image files, or to do the extra work of using RAW files which give better results, but are more work – and the software provided for doing so is rather clunky to use, somewhat discouraging that approach and the frustration it invariably brings.

Bluebells nestled amongst bright spring green emerging foliage – one of my favourite things.

I was pretty happy with the photographs I took over Easter (largely as JPEGs) until I worked on both some images I took with the much larger and heavier DSLR (which at the time of buying, the cost – with the ultra wide angle lens I like to use – cost about 7 times this other newer camera, so it jolly well should show it up) and also some of the frames I took with the bridge camera in a RAW format and developed into images myself using software – a slightly tedious process, but certainly yielding better results.

So whilst I’ve been tinkering and trying different post-processing settings, which has been a really worthwhile process for me, I found a series of photographs I took before we went away at Easter and had temporarily forgotten about. We moved to this area about 29 years ago when we got married – we commuted to the area for work for 3 months initially, whilst we looked for a house and planned a wedding, moving here properly when we returned from honeymoon.

The area surrounding the reservoir was once farmland with assorted cottages and farms and it’s always fascinating to see the gateposts and walls remaining from such previous occupiers. I wonder how many modern gateposts would withstand the passage of time in this manner

On the moors above us is a reservoir which has a 2Km walk around it and we do this lap very often, having walked it many, many times in those 29 years. And regular readers will know how much I love walking in woodland and how important being amongst trees is for me.

Off to one side is a steep narrow path disappearing into the trees and we only recently set off up that path to see where it took us. I’m actually now pretty cross that we’ve walked past it dozens of times without ever realising that it adds an extra loop into the walk through a most unexpectedly gorgeous wooded area.

It just goes to show that even little gems like that can be right under your nose without you knowing, or appreciating it. I can’t see us missing out that loop many times in future – although I think it might be tricky walking if it’s especially wet or icy – which it often is when we do that walk.

The leaves were just emerging when we were up there in April, but I hope to be back there very soon when I expect that the green will have exploded from what you see in these photographs. I’m really looking forward to it – and to my camera coming home too – I’m sorely missing it.

Turquoise dyed magnesite beads with double coiled antiqued copper. I wanted something with smaller beads to match the large chalk turquoise beads I use in necklaces, for those that prefer a more discreetly-sized earring.

Work-wise this last week I’ve been a good girl and caught up a little on photographing my backlog of finished pieces. I can seemingly make much faster than I can photograph (that’s no doubt more to do with my motivation, making is so much more fun) and list pieces and I find the perpetual backlog really tiresome. But I set myself some deadlines last week and actually met them. I’m hoping to reward myself with some quality bench time to tackle some new ideas this week.