The Mischievous Photography Leprechaun

(This is an edited and expanded version of an article that was first published in the Northumberland Gazette.)

Northumberland is unique. We are so lucky to live here. It is truly a photographer’s paradise.

Getting great photos of our wonderful county takes a lot more than just lifting a camera and snapping. To make an image unique, something worthy of hanging on your wall and not just a record of what the scenery looks like, takes great light,  proper planning and careful composition.

sun setting

I take my camera everywhere with me. When I go for a walk it’s hung around my neck, when I ride my bike it is in the panniers and on family trips we have to make room for my camera bag in the boot of the car. There’s not much point in me being a photographer if I don’t have a camera with me. I know that if I leave it behind that mischievous photography leprechaun, Pan O’Rama I call him, will set up some fantastic subjects and perfect lighting for me not to shoot.

Despite carrying the camera, nearly all my best shots are from when I have planned them. But, I also know that however carefully I plan a shoot, Pan will also play his tricks on me.

As always, I spent a good hour the night before planning the shoot. I checked and to see which direction the sun would appear above the horizon, and at what time. I read the weather forecast, checking the wind speed and direction, and used Google Earth and an OS map to work out the best place to stand. I checked the tide times too. My camera batteries were fully charged, memory cards formatted and the camera setting adjusted for the shoot. I fitted the appropriate lens and screwed the filter mount to it. My filters were cleaned and packed and I checked my tripod over.

Coquet Sunrise

I’m good at waking up early. Creeping out of bed, trying not to disturb my family, I was outside long before dawn.

The skies were beautifully clear. I jumped on my bike and pedalled to the location to get that perfect shot. This was going to be competition winner. Landscape photographer of the year, here I come! Of course, Pan dumped a cloud bank across the horizon, completely obscuring the sunrise. The light was flat and there was neither colour nor interesting features in the too-heavy clouds.

Although things can go wrong, planned shoots do usually produce far better results than impromptu ones.  I drove up to Lindisfarne two days later, having added the important crossing times to my plan. From the car park, I hiked to the beach in the dark. I set up my camera on the tripod and carefully composed the shot and watched the beautiful morning light appear.

I did get the shot. Patterns and pools in the sand left by the receding tide lead my eye to Lindisfarne castle silhouetted against the glow from the early morning sunrise; pastel oranges complementing the retreating dark blue of the sky.

That mischievous photography leprechaun left me alone, chased away by proper planning and careful composition.


Street Life

The art of photography is wide-ranging, appealing to so many different tastes. Still life is the staple for some while capturing birds interacting with their environment is the aim for others. For me, the timelessness of black and white is king, while others yearn for colour.  Many prefer to carefully compose a landscape using the unadulterated natural lines of hills, water and trees. I think a person, animal or bird changes a scene to something far more dynamic.

The Walker

I think the same applies with architecture. Buildings, bridges, streets were put there for people and adding people into that environment changes the entire feel of the image. These are, of course, my subjective tastes and not everyone will agree.

The psychology, techniques and even the terminology of photography are similar to those of hunting. Heading out into the field, carefully aiming, breathing out and waiting for that split second to get that perfect shot, then gently squeezing the trigger could easily describe either activity. Photography is without the slaughter.

It’s not without its controversies though. I’ve always been fascinated with street photography. There was a trend a while ago for photographers to force their camera into faces, capturing unflattering views of people’s features close up. These did the reputation of photographers no good at all. Fortunately, times have changed again and projects like Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” and Max Gor’s “Raw Streets” work in London have a much more deferential approach to photographing strangers. Both Stanton and Gor’s excellent and respectful work are often on-location portraits and usually much less about the interaction with the urban setting, although Gor does some splendid candid work too.

In style, they are quite different from the great Henri Cartier-Bresson who stepped back and documented people interacting with their world.  The documentary, candid style that he pioneered is what really appeals to me.

When he said your first 10,000 photos are your worst, Cartier-Bresson was speaking in a very different time. His quest of trying to capture what he called the ‘decisive moment’ has been lost, swamped by the scatter-gun photography of multiple exposures and the trillion snaps a year that are vomited out by those seeking to record and share their every waking moment. If he lived today, I wonder if he would have said your first 100,000 photos are your worse. Photography for many has become more akin to dropping a cluster-bomb rather than hunting for that shot.

Saying that, there is  nothing wrong with shooting multiple exposures. For wildlife and sports photography it is a boon. My next camera, the Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii, has an unbeatable 60 frames per second frame rate. But, that is not why I am buying it. It’s the image quality, versatility and portability that enable me to get the images I love to take. I can think of no camera better to have on a street assignment or for shooting puffin on the Farne Islands.

Of course, if you head out into the street, recording what you see, you will capture moments in time that are uncomfortable, images that challenges the viewer to ask questions about the world we live in and even make judgements about the rights and wrongs of publishing some pictures.


Night Shooting

Yesterday evening I had a delivery of my brochures to make to a local holiday business. Walking back with Johanna I saw the moon had a huge halo, a   moonbow. Formed by ice crystals high in the atmosphere reflecting the moonlight, they are fairly unusual here and this was the largest I had ever seen. Johanna and I walked to the harbour and I grabbed a few shots.

Portrait of Johanna under the moonlight
Johanna and the Moonbow

This was a 5 second exposure (“Sit very still, my lovely wife!”) at 12mm, f/3.2. The foreground is lit by sodium lights, hence the off colour cast in the foreground. The wide angle of the lens distorts the horizon in these forst two shots, which I could correct in Photoshop, but I actually like the strangeness of the warped look. This first image actually works really well as a black and white, the version I am adding to my portfolio.


Moon with Halo over Amble Little Shore
Amble Little Shore Moonbow

This is a panoramic shot of three images stitched together.

Walking to the end of the pier, the moon was illuminating the sea nicely but it was too dark to focus or compose the next image, so this was a point and shoot shot. I set the camera on the tripod facing out to see, turned the focussing ring to almost infinity and increased the aperture to f/4.5 to give me a bit more depth of field. Using the viewfinder I checked the position of the flashing light to guess the composition, the other images were shot using Live View. It was a 50 second exposure at 20mm.

Coquet Island viewed from Amble
Coquet By Moonlight


New Lens. New Camera?

What better to get the photographic juices flowing than a new bit of kit.

My E-5 is a 6-year old camera now, and I still love it! I think the look of Olympus images is different from the other brands. I like that difference.

Since Olympus stopped making its Four Thirds DSLRs in favour of its Micro Four Thirds Mirrorless CSC, some excellent, used kit has been appearing on the market for a fraction of what it would have cost a couple of years back.  The £960 Zuiko 12-60mm ED SWD lens used to not lose much of its value at all in the second-hand market. I’ve just bought one in as-new condition for about a quarter of its original price. It’s really fast to focus and the image quality, when mounted on my E-5, is superb.

There are plenty of newer cameras that have double the pixel count, or more. But, my camera is well beyond more than adequate for printing images far larger than A3, and I never need more than that; Mostly, I am printing A4 or 5 x 7.  Most of my images end up only online. Besides, I don’t want photo files that are 25 MB each. (If I did need to print larger, I have software that allows me to enlarge images.)

My camera is so fast to focus (especially with the new lens). The high ISO noise control is good even at high ISOs. Some of the most modern camera’s can produce usable images at ISO 32000 or higher, but how often would I need that? With many of my shots I am trying to reduce the light reaching the sensor not increase the sensitivity!

The camera still fits my hands perfectly. It is a solid build with a magnesium alloy body, it’s splash-proof and I know my way around it in the dark.

But, I do need a new second camera. As more and more commercial shoots flood in, I need something to fall back on that is at least as good as the E-5. (My other camera doesn’t quite make the grade.)That has left me with a predicament and it is something I have been pondering over for months.

I could buy a second-hand E-5. But, there are so few on the market that they sell for a premium. Would I be better off spending that money on a new camera? If I do, it means changing to a different system; the Four Thirds DSLR system is discontinued. If so, do I  swap to a newer micro Four Thirds mirrorless compact system camera, such as the amazing Olympus OMD-EM1 mk ii; my dream camera. Or, perhaps I should consider the excellent and more affordable OMD-EM5 mk ii. Both of these have tremendous low-light performance; useful for weddings and parties. The EM5 good enough for the likes of Gavin Hoey, so it should be good enough for me. An adaptor would allow my lenses to work with all their high-speed functionality on these bodies.

Or, do I go full frame? That’s something I have resisted. Lots of professionals are now migrating away from these huge beasts and opting for something more portable and practical, better suited to documentary-style photography. But, there are artistic benefits of having a larger sensor. There are excellent full frame cameras on the market for less than the OMD-EM1 mk ii. But, that would mean me having to invest in a new set of lenses.


What do you think I should buy? If you seek advice about what camera you should buy, a photographer will always recommend the make they have. They will never admit to having made a bad choice and will enthuse over their chosen brand. (There is one brand that I will avoid just because of the number of incidents I have come across of them going faulty, but I won’t say what it is. I don’t want to upset you if it is the make you chose!)

When people ask me about buying a first camera, and they regularly do,  I sit down with them and search Flickr.  There are fantastic photos taken with any brand and any model. Variations in quality are down to the photographer and not the camera.   All cameras from any of the big makes are excellent and will perform as highly as the photographer’s skills will allow. (There’s an old saying that the best component in a photographic system is the one looking through the viewfinder.)

The next thing I always recommend going into a shop and trying different models to see what fits their hands the best. Ergonomics are so important.

I also say to check out the second hand market. There are hundreds or even thousands of great second-hand cameras available and some great deals to be found. Older models still take excellent pictures, as they did when they were new, and can be picked up for a few tens of Pounds.  It’s also more environmentally friendly buying a used camera.

A word of caution. Although you should be okay buying a used camera from a reputable camera retailer, do take care when you buy elsewhere. Cameras regularly get stolen and are fenced on online auction and marketplace sites.

Ask to see a photograph of the serial number before you buy from a private seller. (Don’t just ask what the serial number is, crooks don’t tell the truth!) Serial numbers of stolen cameras are often listed online. Then, ask to see some historic photos posted on sites like Flickr from that camera. It’s relatively easy to compare the seller and check with the person who uploaded the images that the sale is genuine.

If the vendor is unwilling to do any of this, don’t buy it.

Here are some shots with my new lens.





When the Boat Comes In



Winter Inversion

Warm air is trapped by a layer of cold; an inversion. Low cloud fogging the valleys envelops the twisted dark forms of trees in the murky winter gloom of dawn.


A Walk Around The Toon.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne is full of big, bold shapes, so different from the softer forms of the countryside. The city environment is perfect for black and white images, which is particularly apt for The Toon and its famous two-tone football strip. I find that monochrome can add an edgy dimension to photos, as well as emphasising the repeating patters and stark outlines of the architecture.

The shapes of this office block seemed almost alien in design to me.

Another high-rise building with repeating patterns of the windows, each with different curtains or blinds and each hiding behind it a different story.

The same building appears again on the right of this shot, which again is about unnatural rigid shapes and the contrast to those brought by the solitary bird.

The road bridge across the Tyne is a great feature in itself, but it also makes a super venue to capture rare views across rooftops and of the other bridges spanning the river.



Long Way Down From Up Here


High Train

Of course cities are there for the people that populate them. This following shot was my personal favourite of the day.


Frugal Photography

I am a great believer in reusing and recycling. Our planets resources are finite and I believe that we have a responsibility not to make waste. This sits nicely with my mildly frugal attitude towards photography. I don’t believe that the best photography can only be taken with the latests camera with the most expensive, newest lens.

My tripod died. It was a good quality but 30-years old Slik. I bought it, second-hand, for a song. I really liked it. It was easy to use and the tilt-and-pan head on it would lock into place with absolute solidity. I could mount my camera in portrait mode with a long lens attached and it would not rotate on the quick-release mount, a big issue with cheap tripods.

The best thing about it was the weight. It was not so heavy that I would break my back carrying it, but it was heavy enough that it would not blow over. Northumberland has one of the highest average wind speeds in Britain. I remember when I first moved here and taking photos using a lightweight tripod just catching it before it toppled over in the wind with my camera on top.

I searched online for a replacement part. I found lots of bits from other similar tripods that had been dismantled, but not the bit I was looking for. The failing part must have been the weakest component.

Fortune must have been smiling on me that day. My lovely wife, Johanna, phoned me up. She had gone to meet a friend in another town and they had perused a charity shop together. She phoned me. “Are Manfrotto tripods any good?”

The tripod came without a head. My initial thought was to mount the Slik tilt and pan head from the old tripod. But, the screw-mounts were different sizes. The head had a ¼” female thread while the Manfrotto tripod had a larger 3/8” male screw. I bought a converter to fit the two together, but also bought a budget ball-head mount to try.

I took them on my first field test this morning and was really pleased with how they worked. The tripod was quick to adjust, stable and sturdy, and allows for very low-angle shooting. The head too was easy to manipulate and to lock in position.

These first shots were before sunrise. All shot  1/15 second a few minutes apart. (For those who are eagle-eyed, the clock on the tower has stopped!) The sky at dawn is filled with birds here and these blur with the long exposure time. For these types of shot I usually set the shutter speed to several seconds so the birds disappear altogether, but I wanted to capture their movement.

The sky gradually became more orange as the sun neared the horizon.

I walked farther along the river from the marina and got down to the water’s edge. For the quarter of an hour before sunrise, the light became much more subtle and a slight mist helped mute the colours. I ended up with a completely different set of photos.

This first one I chose to use the horizon to bisect the image across the centre to exaggerate the symmetry of the sky and its reflection. I find square crops really cry out for symmetrical images and so cut away some of the left hand side of the picture, which contained a bright orange buoy that I found distracting.

The reflection of the cloud makes good foreground interest in the shot and I find the loose line of the clouds and their reflection draw my eye to the wreck in the middle of the water.

Not all landscaped need foreground interest though. Turning the camera to  by 90° to face Warkworth I grabbed this shot. It’s often worth looking away from a sunrise or sunset because the light in the opposite direction can be quite special.

The soft pastels of the sunrise-lit mist against the icy blue of the sky were what made this picture for me. Do you agree that it doesn’t need anything in the foreground?