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.


18 Apr 2012

Nursing duties and more copper clay working

Just coming to make a new post and seeing my last one about ‘maybe that was summer’, it looks like that might have been the case. It’s funny that we were walking outside on that especially lovely day in shirt sleeves and finding spots in the shade for a rest and cooling drink, yet we went out for a walk on Sunday and donned thermal gloves, scarves and hats and were still jittering in the bitter cold wind.

I realise that the earlier unscheduled warmth and sunshine was the day out of place, but recent much colder weather has somewhat thrown both into sharp relief.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.
Hand sculpted pendant made in copper clay with leaves and buds.

I don’t have much exciting to report or interesting to show you at present, my husband underwent long-overdue incisional hernia repair surgery (major, life-saving surgery a few years ago hadn’t healed well and needed fixing) a couple of weeks ago, so we’d planned for a period of inactivity, had stocked up with food any any other supplies we anticipated needing and settled down for a short period of daytime TV and hunkering under the duvet on the settee recuperating. Well, he did, I was destined for passing things out of reach, the helping on with socks and taking over any household duties involving lifting, stretching or bending – and those will continue for a little while yet.

Copper clay earrings with twisted oval dangles imprinted with a raised flower design and hanging from matching feature oval earwires.

He’s recovered amazingly well; it would appear that general anaesthetics have developed somewhat since last time either of us had surgery and he was up awake, looking forward to his lunch and texting me as much less than an hour after he came out of surgery. It’s also true to say that he wasn’t quite so chipper once all the painkilling injections they had given him had worn off. But still, he was significantly better than ether of us had anticipated and has in fact already returned to work – supposedly on light, desk-bound duties – a week earlier than we expected and planned for. I’m not sure I’m thrilled about that, but he doesn’t seem to be taking any harm from it.

Antiqued copper necklace wrapped with molten buds and copper clay disc flowers.

So, aside from my nursing duties, I haven’t done anything very exciting lately, my productivity was somewhat reduced by having him at home. If only because I actually had someone to talk to and have a brew with. But I did at least remember to stop and eat lunch every day, which I don’t always do; sometimes until it’s almost too late to be worth bothering.

Earrings cold forged from a heavy gauge of copper wire, hammered and drilled and wrapped with a copper clay disc flower and molten bud. They will co-ordinate with the necklace above.

I’ve been working on photographing and listing recent creations and finishing some of the projects I had started. I occasionally have to force myself to do such tasks before I make something new – I reward myself with ‘making time’ when I reach key targets in my listing process – which when my head is overflowing with ideas or I’m dying to get on with something in particular, is quite a good motivator.

Antiqued copper clay earrings featuring a twisted flower button bead.

I’ve done some more work with the copper clay, as you can see from the photographs included in the post. I had a conversation with the technical support people who import the clay, as there were some aspects of my results that I either wasn’t happy with or didn’t understand why things were happening. One major consideration was seemingly drying time – the packet instruction was to file and fire it when dry, without any indication of how long that might take. Their web site wasn’t much more specific, but I’m delighted that as a result of our conversation, they very quickly made their instructions more appropriate, which I’m sure will help others like me just starting working with the material.

Entirely hand crafted earrings featuring polymer clay faux pebbles and copper clay flower dangles.

On small and especially thin pieces, they actually feel and appear dry within a few hours – later the day you’ve worked on them – especially if you keep them somewhere warm and turn them often, as I do. Although things look and handle as dry quite quickly, I’d always left them at least overnight to ensure that they were properly dry throughout.

Copper clay and hand made glass bead spotty earrings. I only had this single pair of matching beads amongst an assortment I bought and I’ve got them out several times looking for ideas with them and as soon as I saw how well the spots could be highlighted from this spotty texture sheet used on the clay, I knew the right partnership had just been waiting to find each other.

But it transpires this simply isn’t enough – they need a couple of days at least, any tiny molecules of unseen moisture remaining can evaporate and explode out of the clay as you first heat the piece – giving rise to cracks and in one case, quite an impressive pop which removed a section of the surface. In that case, it had dried for at least 36 hours, so I clearly need to leave them a decent time before being tempted to fire them. Although I’ve since fired pieces I initially made a couple of weeks ago and the same problems still occur so it’s not the only factor, maybe it’s just the nature of the medium, that some surface disturbance is inevitable when torch firing? It sounded like I was otherwise doing everything right – although my enjoyment of twisting the clay into more interesting shapes might be partially to blame.

This is the piece that popped alarmingly when fired, thankfully mostly on the back, but I’m not sure how I feel about the finished item anyway, so it may well remain in my personal collection.

The rest of their advice seemed to boil down to taking a course and learning to do it properly! Nah, where’s the fun in that!

26 Mar 2012

Maybe that was summer?

Here in the UK we’ve just had an unseasonably early warm spell – wall to wall sunshine with lovely warm temperatures and the summery feel was further enhanced by the start of British Summer Time when the clocks are put forward, giving us longer evenings in which to enjoy it all.

It does tend to lull you into thinking that summer has actually arrived, but the ice on the car this morning soon put that idea to bed. But it did present an ideal opportunity to make a start on my post-winter tidy of the garden and start preparing it for summer and we took the opportunity yesterday to take a proper day off and escape to the Lake District for a day in one of our most favourite places.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

I love this particular spot, the lighting is always lovely as the path meanders through the trees, but it’s hard to do it justice; sometime you just have to be there.

We usually spend a long week over the Easter period up there and always very much look forward to it through the winter months, but this year we’re having to fore-go it for a variety of reasons; but largely because my husband has to undergo surgery shortly and they’ve scheduled him for next week, just before the Easter bank holiday weekend.

The sun was rather hazy initially as the early morning mist burnt off the sky, but through the trees that did give everything a lovely glow.

In order to minimise the time off work at a busy time of year and to protect his regular salary, we’ve decided that taking some of his recovery period from his holiday allowance is a better use of the time on this particular, unusual, occasion.

So, mindful of not being mobile for some time and not getting such an opportunity again for a few weeks and the really glowing weather forecast, we set our alarms early on Sunday morning, packed a picnic and headed to one of our favourite spots along Thirlmere near Keswick. The roads were decently busy on the way up and we expected a lot of other people to have had the same idea and thought it might possibly be busy, but we pretty much had that particular place to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t pass another soul on our favourite lake-shore walk – we usually pass at least a couple of local dog-walkers, who love that spot as much as we do.

As the afternoon drew on, the light had a fabulous golden golden glow.

So, it couldn’t really have been much better for us. If I’m really picky, the sunshine was hazier than it had been the day before when we worked in the garden and the modest spring cold I have was seemingly further irritated by tree pollen, but on balance, it was a pretty fabulous day. We did all of our favourite things – walked amongst trees, listening to the birds, took a few photos, ate a good lunch sat outside in sunshine, snoozed a little, read a little, walked some more, ate some more and headed home to a great nights sleep after all that fresh air. For me, life doesn’t get much better.

The day had started with a decent breeze, but by early evening, it had either dropped or changed direction and Thirlmere was beautifully calm and the reflections were quite fabulous.

Further work with Copper Clay this week:

I’m really enjoying my continuing tinkering with copper clay this week – it has been a steep learning curve and it is evident that my tried and tested routines and methods with copper sheet and wire will need some revision when using the clay for components, but it does add a lot of new facets to what I can achieve and opens up a whole host of ideas to try – like my mind doesn’t already overflow with more ideas than I have time to make reality.

Copper clay flat ‘button’ beads given an uneven shape and a light imprint of a flower design, double wrapped on a balled headpin.
21 Mar 2012

New adventures in Precious Metal Clay

As mentioned in my last post, I was about to start tinkering with precious metal clay – copper clay specifically.  I have resisted somewhat so far for a few reasons; firstly, I wanted to ensure I’d already got a good grasp of basic metalwork before I went off on that particular tangent, I felt it was important for me to understand metal fairly well in order to get the best from it.

 My collection of first finished pieces using PMC/copper clay.   Two textured heart pendants with earrings, a ‘painted’ leaf pendant with bail, a fancy beadcap over a teardrop shaped glass bead, copper washers separating faceted carnelians, plain bead caps with large labradorite beads and a ring featuring little leaves and bud.
A highly polished and textured heart pendant and a little leaf pendant made by painting clay paste over a real leaf and adding a bail – which I did between layers of paste to integrate it fully on the back.

Secondly, I felt the silver clays were too expensive to just tinker with and until recently, copper clay, which I felt would work well alongside my other work, could only be kiln fired – and that wasn’t going to be practical just to try it out.

But when I saw a new copper clay on the market that could be torch fired, it felt like a good time to at least give it a try.  I already had a series of designs and ideas in my sketch book, as well as components to supplement other work that I just couldn’t buy or easily make by other methods.  So I hoped that it would work as well as the ideas I had in my mind and having never even touched any PMC before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and although I’d done a lot of reading, planning and thinking, I did open the packet for the first time with a few little butterflies in my tummy.

Rings are one of the areas I want to pursue more as I have all sorts of ideas for them – but I need to make several first to work out the correct sizing allowing for shrinkage etc.
I’m somewhat disappointed with how the ring looks in the photographs at this scale, as it looks very polished and pretty cute in reality and the photos really don’t flatter the texture of the copper clay at all.

I perhaps should have started with a few simple shapes or test pieces, but I had so many ideas filling my head, that I just dived in on working on something from the outset – I think I personally learn best and am most productive when I actually make something proper that I fully expect to finish and to work properly.

I’ve never been able to find solid copper bead caps the right sort of size for many of the things I make, but using copper clay will allow me to make my own to fit perfectly.  These are simple and quite small ones – the biggest drawback is the time they take to fire properly and the necessity to only work on a couple at a time when torch firing.

It proved to be a very steep learning curve, from how quickly the clay dries, to how brittle and easily damaged it is in clay form and how long it takes to fire and sinter properly and how bloody hard it is to get the firescale off!  Funnily enough, some pieces come clean with the first dunk in hot pickle, others resist everything from repeated pickling, tumbling and wire brushing and had to be hand polished clean.

This fancy bead cap was made from a sketch I drew some time ago – and proved a steep learning curve.  I fired it according to the packet instructions and I don’t think this was long enough as the lovely little feature collar I gave it chipped when first tightening the wire wrap against it (I took it apart, trimmed the collar down and re-made), suggesting that it was too brittle and not sintered for long enough.  I’d be afraid that the points might break off, so this will remain in my personal collection.

The oxidisation process is a little different too – I’ve oxidised and antiqued very many pieces of copper – but the PMC doesn’t take it evenly, or darkly and the LoS solution goes cloudy and pink making it hard to even find small pieces in it.  And some pieces were almost polished clean again after a quick tumble.  So that part clearly needs more thought too – having thought that I’d settled on a very reliable method that always gave good results, clearly PMC copper will need a slightly different technique from raw metal.

I absolutely love working with it – it’s nowhere near as messy as I was expecting, having seen many illustrated tutorials where the copper clay artist illustrated had stained brown fingers and all their tools were stained and messy too.  I found it much cleaner than I was anticipating and it didn’t even really stick much to anything other than itself – it worked very much like polymer clay, but needs to be worked quickly.  I found that for the most part, I didn’t need to add any sort of release to my tools.

I like that I can refine the shapes at the clay stage and get it close to a finished surface with much less effort than with the finished metal.  I like that I can either just roll it back up and start over if it doesn’t work, or grind it up and reconstitute it if I don’t like it once dried – so there’s much less wastage than other techniques.  It drills and carves easily when dry and I’m really looking forward to putting some of my design ideas into practice.  I’m already delighted with how it’s worked and can’t wait to make some more pieces.

These earrings are perhaps my favourite finished piece – I made the undulating textured washers specifically for a design I had already made other polymer clay components for, but when fiddling with them to see how else I could use them, I loved how they looked with these Carnelian faceted rondelles, so I’ll need to make some more for my other project.

The one thing that I’m not entirely happy with is that it doesn’t photograph well.  The clay-like texture persists on the surface a little, even after firing and polishing.  When seeing even highly polished pieces in photographs, little speckles of texture dominate every surface, especially when seen on-screen so much larger than life-size – as tends to be the case when showing jewellery items in photographs.  I was very happy with the finish I got in some of the pieces after a little polishing, some before and some after firing, yet was bitterly disappointed with how they looked in the photographs, so this might need a different approach too.  So very much to learn, but it will be a lot of fun to do so.