29 May 2016

Garden birds and daft squirrels

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.    Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

I think this time of year may well be my favourite – long days, warm sunshine without humidity and excess heat and with pristine new foliage and plants emerging with all the summer ahead of us. I love that point, usually in mid-May, when the natural world just explodes into life.  There’s often a period of warm sunshine and spring showers and that combination of light and water seems to conjure up some magic in the things that grow and we go from the hint of things about to develop to being surrounded by lush bright green foliage and an increase in bird song and insects buzzing.

I have several bird feeders in the garden and when I fill them and the clean the bird bath (just what do birds do to get the bottom of it full of grit every time I top it up?!) I make a point of standing still nearby until the birds return to them, so that they’re used to me being there and associate me with the supply of food.  I decided to put this to the test by taking my camera outside one day when the area was in sunshine and hoping that they’d tolerate me taking some photos and many of the frames below are as a result.

One particular supposed ‘squirrel proof’ feeder has been in use for many years and the lid long since became dis-attached –  a combination of rust and persistent efforts by the squirrels to remove it.  I’d had it wired on and this necessitated unraveling the wire and replacing it tightly each time I filled it.  On a couple of recent occasions, the lid was either loose or had been completely removed and I wasn’t sure how a squirrel could get it unwrapped so easily.  Until I saw him in action – his technique comprised getting his nose under one edge of the lid and using brute force to lever the lid back, away from the opening.

I walked past the kitchen window the other morning and something moving outside caught my eye, but took several seconds before my brain could compute what I was seeing.  This supposed ‘squirrel proof’ feeder was swinging violently and there was a mass of grey fur protruding from the top.  The silly squirrel had only entered it nose first to get at the seed, which was quite low in the feeder and had seemingly got stuck.  He extracted himself after a struggle and as he stayed put on the adjacent branch, I grabbed the camera, hoping that he’d find the proximity of the seeds too tempting, which he did.

He just shimmied into it until his mouth met seeds and proceeded to eat until I took pity on him and took him some seed of his own out.  He again had a heck of a job backing out of it and then sat on the branch above, not three feet from me, looking at me as though everyone tackled their breakfast in the same way, so what was I laughing at.  I love how squished his ears are and I wonder where his front legs are, as he’s only seemingly hanging on by his back legs.  I’ll need to wire the lid on especially tight, as I don’t want to be responsible for him getting stuck in there.

Gallery:

You can click on any of the photographs to see a larger version and then run through them in sequence.  There are captions to accompany each photograph.

17 May 2016

Will I ever figure it out?

“A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.”     Arnold Newman

I’ve been taking photographs for a very long time now, but I still have a perpetual and on-going battle with some aspects of image production.  The word battle is perhaps rather negative and might give the wrong impression – perhaps tussle would be better.

My current (and I’m prepared to bet that I’ve blogged about it before too) opponent is image file formats and software and how to get the best possible image from the files you download from the camera.  I suspect this is a matter that will never be put to rest, due to the persistent and alarmingly fast march of technology.

Dropping some pounds:

I decided a while ago that I’d enjoy my photography more if I ditched some weight.  Whilst my own personal battle with the pounds is truly perpetual, thankfully the camera poundage was rather more easily fixed.  Upon delivery of my latest acquisition at the weekend, I reached a stage where I felt very happy with my current gear.  That doesn’t preclude the rather obvious caveat that if I had the pennies I could make myself even happier, but for now, I’m very content.  I think it’s perhaps the greater simplicity I’ve brought to bear on my gear selection that removes the dilemma of which lenses to take on any one given day.

I think an insect has laid some eggs in the flower at the bottom left and then glued the petals around them to keep them safe.
I think an insect has laid some eggs in the bluebell at the bottom left and then glued the petals around them to keep them safe.

I sold a couple of heavier lenses that overlapped considerably in their focal range and replaced them with one much lighter and smaller lens that covered a good percentage of their range – a net difference of around 600g lost from my bag.  So my lightweight Canon 100D body is paired with the ‘kit’ lens at 18-55mm, supplemented by its companion 55-250mm.  Both have Image Stabilisation and a ‘stepping’ motor which makes focus fast and almost silent – and the IS helps with my habit of preferring to hand hold, even though I’m already pretty steady.

The kit lens I have is an especially sweet copy and I’m very fond of it and the longer one, albeit only used a little yet, looks pretty good too.  I can do landscapes, stitching multiple shots, as required, for the panoramas I like to create (in place of the ultra wide lens I already sold to fund the camera body) and decently long shots at 250mm for wildlife etc. I also have various combinations of extension tubes and close up filters to allow me to get close to little things, something else I enjoy doing.  The bluebell shot above was taken with the 250mm at full zoom, as it allows me decent magnification, but from far enough away to prevent me casting a shadow over the subject in bright sunshine.

The weight and volume of gear I’d choose to take on holiday or on a day out has been more than halved, yet the flexibility remains.  The additional pixel density and image quality I have with the 100D means that I can easily crop tighter on a 250mm shot to make up the loss of focal length at 300mm I had on an earlier 8MP camera, so I don’t feel that I’ve actually lost anything.

Getting to grips with my Nikon:

I also supplement my DSLR kit with a supposedly ‘pocket’ camera for the times I don’t want to carry much – although the Nikon P7000 I’m currently using is a tad larger than is truly pocket-able.  But having reviewed lots of models that I might be able to afford second hand (after its predecessor just rolled over and died one weekend), I was swayed by the image quality and features and size seemed less important.  Having been a long term Canon and Fuji user (I still have several Fujis in regular use too), the Nikon ‘thinks’ differently, so it has taken longer to get to know and I’m only just getting to grips with it.  But I’m happy that it has a considerable amount of the image capability that I enjoy from my DSLR in a much smaller package (I miss a proper viewfinder though) – and I paid less than 15% of its original new RRP on eBay and it had only taken about 500 frames.  I also managed to sell the broken one for spares and accessories for about a quarter of that, so I feel I have a bargain.

The version on the left is the out of camera JPEG, exposed to protect highlights and the right hand version has been developed from the RAW file to put detail back into the shadows.
The version on the left is the out of camera JPEG, exposed to protect highlights and the right hand version has been developed from the RAW file to put detail back into the shadows.

I’m finding the Nikon image quality very good from RAW files especially.  It doesn’t seem very competent at retrieving highlights if you over-expose, but makes up for it by being very good in shadow areas.  I’ve got some outstanding results from areas that were totally black in the original JPEG.  This can often come at the expense of additional noise or other artifacts, but I’m not finding that to be the case – but highlights recovered can give rise to some very funky effects.  So I have at least learned one lesson this week – don’t over-expose the Nikon.

The montage left features some detail crops from test images I took to test exactly this.  I deliberately exposed the shots to preserve the highlights in a very high contrast scenes.  In the kitchen shot top, I was concentrating on preserving some detail in the view out of the window, which included some sky and in the garden shot below, I wanted to keep the white fluffy clouds in the sky with nice detail.

Both images consequently ended with areas of deep shadow, completely black in some instances, even with low in-camera contrast, but which I was able to get really good detail back into when developing the RAW file.  With the kitchen image, it is actually a blend of two exposures, one for the outside scene and one for the deep shadow areas – from memory there were over 3 stops of difference between them.  If you really needed a shot like that to work, you’d use fill flash or some other technique to get a better original, but these were deliberately shot badly to find the limits of the camera.  In the garden shot, you can see that the grey lamp post at the top is tonally almost the same between the two shots, I’ve only lifted shadow, not just lightened the image.

To JPEG or to RAW?

So the hardware is sorted, the software is the element I’m still at odds with.  I’m pretty sure that I’ll never come to a truly satisfactory conclusion and will never find a one size fits all solution.  I have my preferred way of working – I like to take pictures with the images manipulated in camera as little as possible, preferring to do my own post processing to taste later.  Consequently, I like to take RAW images and develop these in software, supplemented by the best possible quality of JPEG I can get out of the camera.  To achieve this, I lower all the processing parameters and the images I get off the camera tend to be rather flat and dull.  But this tends to preserve as much detail as possible and gives me a good basis to work with.

A large bumble rested for a while in this intense yellow tulip, allowing me to get some photographs.
A large bumble rested for a while in this intense yellow tulip, allowing me to get some photographs.

There’s a good argument that if I’m taking a RAW image anyway, I don’t need the additional JPEG, as one is always embedded with the RAW file. But having fallen foul of software no longer supporting early RAW files and preferring to use old image retouching software that doesn’t support RAW files, for me, taking both formats covers my options a little better and I feel happier knowing that I have both versions for the future.  I have tried extracting the JPEG from the RAW file, as taken, but this sometimes gives variable results.

It is my practice that if the JPEG is good out of camera, I’ll work with that, but if it needs something more, I’ll be happy to develop the RAW version.  Of all the images I publish here, I think they’re probably about half and half from each format.  Generally speaking, landscapes need to be worked from RAW, macros and close ups are often fine from the JPEG.  There have been a couple of images recently where no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get a better image from the RAW than the camera had managed with the JPEG, so why fix it if it ain’t broke.  The bumble bee in the yellow tulip above is one such example.

RAW development software:

It’s the developing RAW files that is the core of my issue – I have several programs to do this and not one satisfies my needs.  Cameras that can take RAW files do provide you with software, which is, as you’d image, perfectly set up to get the best from their own equipment.  But they can also be limiting in terms of features and are often very specific to one model of camera.  As this development software can be heavy on computer resources, having several open together might not be practical either.

This was an image I considered lost until I tried it in different RAW development software.
This was an image I considered lost until I tried it in different RAW development software.

What frustrates me is that if I were to develop the same image in three pieces of software, in addition to my usual JPEG workflow, I could end up with 4 different versions – each of which has good and bad bits.  One application is very good with sky colour, another has better colour tweaking options, one leaves skies noisy but is good with grass texture, another is good with shadow detail etc. etc. Couple this with the fact that the resulting image sizes will differ slightly and corrected lens issues and perspective manipulation will result in slightly different shapes, I can’t just layer the resulting image files and blend the best from each, more’s the pity.

I do love working with RAW images and the option to get the resulting image better than the camera could manage at the time – it’s very satisfying to get a workable image from a file that initially looked totally lost, as the river scene above, which had a blown sky, flat green foliage (it was the end of August and the subtlety of trees just starting to turn was lost) and deep detail-less shadows.  As I like to take landscapes and scenics, these often need more help than the camera can manage, due to the wide dynamic range you’re likely to encounter, from white fluffy clouds to deep shadow under trees.

So the only way forward is to start with my preferred program and if I don’t get the results I want, try it in another and see if I like that better.  You only need to look at my work bench and see that I regularly use about 20 different pliers – clearly one pair isn’t suitable for everything, so software is just the same – as always, the best practice must be ‘the best tool for the job’.

Gallery:

With some of the lovely weather we’ve had recently, I’ve been out in the garden and a little further afield and these are some of the photographs I’ve taken.  They’re a mix of Canon DSLR photos (file name will show a ‘d’ suffix) and also from my more compact Nikon P7000 (‘n’ suffix).  Some were processed from the JPEGs and some from the RAW file.  As an experiment, I’ve taken some of the closer shots using close up filters in front of the lens (on both cameras)  – I usually use extension tubes between the camera body and lens.

If you’re interested in how shots were taken, I usually leave the EXIF image in gallery images, so you should be able to access it with a browser plug-in.

 

18 Apr 2016

It’s bluebell time again – what a treat

Oh! roses and lilies are fair to see;
But the wild bluebell is the flower for me.
Louisa A. Meredith. The Bluebell. (1922)

On visiting a place that is set in fabulous grounds, I saw that in the week since I was last there, the  bluebells have all burst forth in flower.  We’d commented last week that they were just emerging and would soon be at their peak, so were thankful that the sun was out this time and I walked the last few hundred yards so that I could both enjoy them and take some photographs.

Forget-me-nots and primroses nestle at the base of this tree.
Forget-me-nots and primroses nestle at the base of this tree.

Over the last couple of visits we have enjoyed very good patches of primroses at the edge of the woodland and whilst many exposed patches are now passing their peak, with faded flowers, some in shady spots are just at their best, now snuggled up in the fast growing grass with bright blue forget-me-nots and a few pink primulas.

Whilst summer tends to offer up blousy, vibrant and colourful blooms, designed to make the most of the insects that are most active in warm sunny weather, I am personally very fond of the more subtle, diminutive blooms of spring.  Those little delicate things that have to time their peak in that niche of time between improving weather, longer days and warming sunshine and the time when the trees gain their foliage, blocking out the light to the woodland floor below.

A gorgeous carpet of bluebells spread through deciduous woodland.
A gorgeous carpet of bluebells spread through deciduous woodland.

Bluebells are perhaps some of the more obvious woodland flowers at this time of year, because their spreading carpet tends to look at its most intense when glanced from a distance, where perspective foreshortens the distance between the blooms, deceiving the eye into thinking that there are more than there probably are.  You can see that illustrated in my photographs, especially on the left, where there seem to be many more in the distance than the foreground, but in reality they’re evenly spread.  When you get close to bluebells growing, they’re often quite thinly spread out, but en mass at a distance, they’re much more impressive.

There are few sights that would gladden my heart as much as a carpet of bluebells amongst deciduous trees, illuminated by the glow of warm spring sunshine, it feels like such a treat – and one that is often hidden and you have to seek out to enjoy.  They seem to be early too – it was over a month later last year when I made a similar post about bluebells – those photographs being taken on the 23rd May.

 Mini Gallery:

You can view the images in sequence by clicking on any photograph and using the next and back arrows.

 

15 Apr 2016

It’s April, what happened to the weather?

The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them:
there ought to be as many for love.
Margaret Atwood

With the longer evenings since the clocks went forward, last Saturday was the first day that we had the opportunity to visit our favourite spot at Beacon Fell in the early evening.  We’d been on a visit to family and thought we could come back the ‘scenic’ route and whilst it was likely to be far too cold for a picnic and the timing might well be wrong, we packed a flask and books, thinking we could at least enjoy the scenery for a while and have a little peaceful interlude.

This little chap and several mates dashed to the fence to see us as we passed and weren't spooked at all. If it hadn't been lashing down, I would have got out of the car and tried for some better photos.
This little chap and several mates dashed to the fence to see us as we passed and weren’t spooked at all. If it hadn’t been lashing down, I would have got out of the car and tried for some better photos.

The weather in the morning had been glorious, despite a frigid wind, but the forecast clearly showed it worsening as the day progressed, but we were determined to get out anyway.  It didn’t give any indication however of just how badly it would worsen.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen weather quite like it before.

It was spotting with rain as we closed the miles to our very favourite spot and the intensity increased to the point that by the time we came to a standstill, we were reduced to a robust negotiation as to who should venture out to the back of the car to fetch the flask and our books.  My husband grabbed the bag he thought everything was in, which thankfully at least included my pocket camera and the flask.

The rain increased still further and we commented on how it was now clearly sleety – from the way it made little bumpy splodges on the car windows.  Then there was a gentle thud on the roof of the car and then another.  We demisted the windscreen, wondering what it was and could clearly see great big dollops of snow in amongst the rain.

It was the oddest phenomena.  Sometimes in summer when it rains very hard, you get a lot of leaves coming down with the rain, torn straight off the trees by the ferocity of the raindrops.  At a glance, this looked similar, but the lumps among the raindrops were big white dollops of snow, big enough to look like leaves and to make a sound when they hit the car.  Normally rain is all of a similar texture, with largely evenly sized droplets, but this was torrential and substantial rain, with visible lumps of snow falling at the same time.  The snow pieces were at least twice the size of a 50p piece and dropping slower than the rain around it, drifting down at a leisurely pace.

The rain that fell that day had great big lumps of snow in it and as the cloud lifted, we could see that more of it had been snow at slightly higher levels. I felt rather sorry for the tiny lambs out in the sudden blast of cold and unpleasant weather.
The rain that fell that day had great big lumps of snow in it and as the cloud lifted, we could see that more of it had been snow at slightly higher levels. I felt rather sorry for the tiny lambs out in the sudden blast of cold and unpleasant weather.

I variously tried photographing and videoing this strange weather experience, but nothing I got could do it justice, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it.  We listened to the Grand National horse race on the radio, then concluded that it was at least improving a little, the sky was tangibly brightening and the cloud lifting – at the zenith of this weather, the hillsides adjacent were completely hidden, but as they re-appeared, they were dusted with snow.  Not something I would have put on the list of things I might have expected to see today.

We headed home whilst it was still light, hoping that the better weather to follow would show itself so that we could enjoy the scenery on the way home.  There were at least some new lambs in the fields now, having not yet seen many, so I did manage to snag a couple of photographs and you can see above how wintry and cold the weather had been.  I must admit to being a little concerned at the tiny new lambs shivering away in this unexpected wintry snap.  The following day was thankfully sunny and spring-like, so I’m sure that they enjoyed that much better.

My work this week:

I worked several existing designs for orders and to replenish stock and made one or two variations of ‘classic’ designs that I have in shop that have sold consistently over the years – spiral earrings for example, have always been a favourite and I made a couple of pairs of un-hammered simple spirals.  As with all seemingly ‘simple’ designs, poor workmanship has nowhere to hide, so you have to work with care.