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.


6 Aug 2010

The camera you don’t leave at home is the best one

The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much. Annie Leibovitz

One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. Dorothea Lange

I’ve had several conversations recently about the various attributes of camera models and the individual criteria for choosing a new one etc. and where the concept that the camera with you is worth a thousand times more than the one you’ve left at home, has cropped up.

There’s little point in buying some mutts’ nuts camera model if it’s so large that you’re reluctant to carry it or find it tedious to use, or needs too much thought to be spontaneous. Much better to have something you’ll enjoy keeping with you and will use readily and enjoy doing so.

Over the years I’ve accumulated several cameras which fulfill different functions – and the trick is to use the right tool for the job. There are some occasions where only my DSLR, appropriately set up and with the right lens, can secure a shot – where only a DSLR has the right functionality – perhaps needing the speed of reaction time to capture something fleeting, or it’s low light abilities. Both of the photographs below would have been difficult with something less.

Please click any of the photographs for a larger view.

I blogged last month about these swallows feeding their young and how incredibly fast the whole process was.

The Annie Leibovitz quote above especially resonated with me in respect of live music photography – when I’m working in the pit, the world around me vanishes and I’m totally in the zone. There are few things I get the same buzz from. I worked as an official photographer at the Isle of Wight festival in 2005 when REM headlined – one of the very best days of my life.

But the camera that I perhaps take most photographs on is what I think of as my middle camera – it has some of the reach and functionality of my DSLR in regard of focal length options, from its 380mm equivalent maximum focal length at 10x zoom to the 25mm (1″) minimum focus distance of its super-macro mode – a focal range now becoming more commonplace in many inexpensive compact cameras. So as a camera to stick in my rucksack, it’s the lightest option giving the widest range of features.

It’s also the one I use for my jewellery photographs as the small sensor gives me a greater depth of field for the available light I have and the minimum focus distances in macro and super-macro mode allow me to work close to the subject in the confined space I have available.

During a walk one spring evening, we came out of an area of deep shadow under trees and saw these lovely shafts of evening sunshine through the trees and over the bluebells.

But there are some days when that’s even too bulky to carry – the days when I go out for my lunchtime walk and just want to pop something in my coat pocket. So I have a compact camera too – it has limited zoom range at 3x, but excellent low light capability, so it makes a great social camera and just lives in my handbag. It too has served me well for several years. I was even able to take some street photos of a mugging that the Police put into evidence.

We were parking up outside a restaurant to meet with family and this scene adjacent in the evening light made me glad I’d put my little camera in my bag.

But pondering this concept of choosing a camera that you will always keep with you, set me thinking about the various photographs over the years that I’ve just snatched when an opportunity arose and I was glad I had popped a camera in my pocket, or had it in my handbag as we went out shopping.

All of these photographs were such opportune images, just moments that make you chuckle and you were glad you were able to record, if only because no one would have believed you otherwise.

This was an especially surreal moment, we were travelling over Kirkstone Pass in the English Lake District and I did a double take, I got the most fleeting of glances of the Tardis in a gap in the dry stone wall. I made my husband reverse back to try and see it again, he clearly thought I was bonkers. And there it was on the moor. It was actually a smaller model and two men with camera gear and tripods were either filming it or photographing it, but I was very glad I had my small camera in my handbag. Who on earth would have believed me.

You might need to click for the larger image to read the writing. I guffawed loudly when I saw this – I know what they meant, but it was still funny – had the staff been sampling the wares? I was trying to very discreetly take the photograph without being seen by staff, but an elderly couple wanted to know what I was doing and just didn’t get it at all and went off loudly discussing about how odd I was taking photographs of cat food. By the following week the sign has been replaced with a printed one ‘excluding’ that particular variety. Shame.

This scene in Kendal has always made us chuckle – everything you could possibly need for a wet afternoon’s entertainment in one place. Go and buy a monkey at Cheeky Monkey’s, get it drunk at Dickie Doodles then take it to get tattooed. If he’s enraged by his treatment, he can then visit his MP to complain.

How small are the people who live here – and not much of a view.

This black and white image still makes my tummy do funny things. My husband was critically ill in November 2005 and spent a couple of weeks on a life support machine, literally fighting for his life. During that time, they’d had to cut his wedding ring off. When we’d married we each put our rings on during the ceremony and neither of us had ever taken them off since – mine still hasn’t been off my finger since 1982. With a solid then 23 years of marriage under our belts, we were superstitious about such things and the removal of his ring was quite emotionally significant for both of us – it upset our son too, as he fully comprehended its symbolic relevance.

It was a long time after he returned home and was recuperating that we felt like addressing it. I knew if I left it some time, an idea of how to deal with it would present itself and so it came to me one day in the shower – to bridge the gap in the ring where it was cut off (or rather chewed off and left in a terrible mess) with something even stronger, to make the bond again but even stronger than before. This was going to need a diamond in the gap. So the jeweller that made my engagement ring was visited with the idea and she did an amazing job of sourcing a diamond to match mine and used the same style of setting.

I took that photograph late in the evening of the day we collected it, hence it’s all shiny and new looking after its restoration. He was just absent-mindedly watching TV after dinner, with his hand at rest and I liked the way the low level of the side light was catching it, so I reached gently into my handbag for my little camera – I didn’t want him to see what I was doing as he’d move and the moment would simply be gone.

So photographs like these are as much about the moment and the memory as they are the image itself – the quality doesn’t matter so much, although I love how this came out after I’d worked the monochrome version. But it’s the emotion it evokes that matters and almost 5 years on, my stomach still does a somersault when I see it.

29 Oct 2008

What camera should I buy for small item photography?

This question comes up routinely in the Etsy forums and other crafting sites, so I thought it timely to add my thoughts on the matter here.

My comments supplement my writings elsewhere on crafted items photography – see my tutorial at http://www.boo.myzen.co.uk/artisan.html – I recommend it as supplementary reading to explain some of the terms used below.

Knowledge and understanding may negate the need for an upgrade:

For most posters, who are crafters, not photographers, it doesn’t really matter so much what model of camera you have, as knowing how to use it properly. Knowledge and understanding is a far more important tool to have in your arsenal than specific models. Learning appropriate tricks and how to get the best from your camera may serve you better, so only upgrade your camera when you know this is the limiting factor. See my tutorial referenced above for some small item photography pointers – and there are other tips here in my blog. It might also help to spend some time with the camera manual and acquaint yourself with various camera features like exposure compensation and white balance – the use of which will solve most of the problems I witness.

OK, so which model?

You will be best suited to choose a camera that has the specific features for the type of shots you intend taking. For some people that will be the option to get close to small items like jewellery, for others, good exposure for outdoor shots, or good colour rendition might be more pertinent.

It might help initially to write a list of the features you think you need – I don’t necessarily mean camera buttons you might press, but aspects of your work where it is vital that the camera performs well. Maybe list what your current camera is falling short on, or where you already think your photos have room for improvement. This will help you hone in on what to look for.

More megapixels are not necessarily better:

There is a current trend with camera manufacture, especially at the low and mid ranges of the market, to have become fixated on megapixels – the public started this numerical obsession and the manufacturers have pandered to it. I’m not alone in thinking that this is a retrograde step in camera development. I’d prefer quality over quantity any day. So please don’t be seduced by large numbers alone.

Don’t be too worried about the amount of megapixels a camera has – a bigger number is not necessarily better (in this context), and in many cases, is absolutely not a measure or indicator of superior quality. I often get asked, when toting my large black DSLR – “how many megapixels is that?” as though that were all that mattered and when I answer, you can see their chest swell in pride as they declare that the silver matchbox in their pocket has more. They depart, smugly thinking that theirs is clearly a superior piece of technology.

For posting item photographs on-line to sell, the features a camera affords you in terms of allowing you to actually secure the shots you have in your mind as you start, is far, far more important than how big the pictures are. And knowing how to get the best from what you have.

What is a megapixel?

‘Megapixels’ (MP) is the term of measurement applied to the physical dimensions in pixels of the resulting digital photographs. A megapixel is simply 1 million pixels of screen area – something like 1280 x 780 pixels – a typical modern computer monitor is about this sort of area and therefore about a megapixel. So as you can see, having 10 or more megapixels is certainly more than you need for web based photographs. Large resolution images of big MP numbers are only really necessary if you plan to make enlargements of your images in print form and for fine art and professional uses.

So it may be that an older model, probably to be had at a much better price (my current jewellery camera was bought as a clearance item at half price, when it was superseded by new goodies), may offer you more than adequate quality for these purposes. Any camera in the range of 4-6 MP will give you good quality photographs for screen viewing – allowing some capacity for cropping and choosing the best bit of the photo, then still reducing it in size for screen display. The working features, performance and appropriate results are far more pertinent factors in making your selection.

Which model will be best for you will depend on your particular personal needs. Any recent model from Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus etc. will do the job more than adequately – the limitation in getting good results, is almost always the photographer’s lack of understanding, not the camera. Learning some good practices and technique will serve far better than buying a new camera for many people. And maybe putting some of your budget into a table top tripod or bean bag will help you get the best from your camera.

Look at exactly why your photos aren’t satisfactory before thrashing the plastic. If lighting is an issue, which it is for most of us – look at my DIY lighting diffuser tutorial for some ideas of how you can improvise for free at home with items you probably have to hand.

Beneficial features:

If you have smaller items, choose one with a good macro feature – Canons have good macro which is why so many crafters use this marque – macro focusing it allows the camera to focus when much closer to the subject and therefore fill the frame with your item so that you can see lots of detail. Fujis also have features like super macro which is good for very small items like jewellery – allowing you to get as close as an inch away from the object.

Another feature that may be very worthwhile is a countdown timer. Many cameras have the option for a 2 second or 10 second timer and with close and macro work, this may prove to be a very valuable tool. Especially where light is low and you therefore can only achieve a slow shutter speed, which may mean that you record movement while handling the camera.

Being able to place the camera on a tripod or other improvised stand (a folded towel on some books is good, I use a home made bean bag filled with polybeads) will be a great help with eliminating movement. But even then, just pressing the shutter button, if you’re heavy handed or your support has some spring, is enough to jiggle the camera as it takes the shot.

But using the cameras timer allows it to settle from your hand movement before taking the shot – the 2 second timer will probably be enough in most cases. Sometimes you may be casting a shadow or impeding the light by standing over your scene – or causing reflections or a colour cast (bright clothing can often influence the appearance of reflective items) by being close at hand, so using a timer allows you to set it going and withdraw until the shot is taken.

I have a range of cameras and work as a semi-pro photographer – but for my product shots, I use an inexpensive digicam (Fuji now, a Canon until recently) – the perspective and handling of them when taking close shots in a confined space is ideal – much better than my unwieldy DSLR.

The small sensors of current digicams mean that they offer a good depth of field for a given lens aperture compared to larger format cameras. What does this mean? Depth of field (DOF) is the amount of your subject, from front to back, that is within acceptable sharpness. Whilst a shallow DOF can be used creatively for interest, you often want as much of your creation in focus as possible – and this feature of smaller cameras is useful for helping to achieve that. In short, for the same scene and lighting, it is easier to get more of it in focus than with a bigger camera. There is also the added benefit that if you move between focusing and taking the shot, you have a greater room for error and less likely to have out of focus failures.

Pick one up and handle it:

I would also strongly urge that you ensure that you handle a camera in the flesh before purchasing – no, I don’t mean go shopping nekkid. It gets old very fast if you can’t easily reach a button you use regularly, or keep catching one each time you use another feature. My recommendation for buying is to make a shortlist of suitable models on paper first, based on your wish list discussed earlier and price and availability etc. Then find them, where possible, in stock on the high street and handle them. Ensure that you can reach function buttons easily, can see the display etc. etc. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in its company, ensure that you’re going to get along.

Helpful links:

See this site – Digital Photography Review (DPR) for reviews and feature lists of all current and recent models: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs.asp

This is a very big subject and I’ve only tickled it a little, so I’ll no doubt add more on this subject over time. I urge you to also visit my tutorial on small item photography for more explanation of features like macro mode and depth of field and how they apply when taking small item photographs.

Also see my tutorial article on making my own lighting diffuser, for free, from found objects.