Choose a theme to take a giant leap with your creativity
A friend and I were looking at the picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Eagle lunar lander are reflected Buzz’s visor. It’s an evocative, powerful and unique image.
My friend then pointed at a Bamburgh sunrise photo and said, ‘Do we really need to see yet another photo of that?’
Searching online for Bamburgh Castle sunrise images we found 110,000 results. This is not surprising; it’s a beautiful view and the most liked image on the Northumberland Gazette’s Facebook page is often of that very scene.
Yes, I’ve been there to photograph it too. There is something special, even spiritual, about watching the sun rise or set over the sea. Many photographers want to capture it to relive that moment.
Is there anything wrong with capturing a photo of something that has been shot so many times before? Of course not. Studying and copying what others have done before us is a super way to learn creativity.
Furthermore, to create our own art that is good enough to hang on the wall for ourselves and others to enjoy is a goal worth aiming for. It’s relatively easy taking photographs of beautiful scenery at dusk and dawn as those times provide perfect light for landscape photography. Almost any photographer of any level of skill can get an okay sunset shot, even with a camera set to auto.
“But, they are clichés!“ my friend said.
I understood the point, although didn’t agree with the sentiment. If people enjoy shooting that scene and others like looking at them, then that’s fine. What was really bothering my friend was revealed in the next question. “How do I get originality into my photos?”
To achieve uniqueness and a photographic style is a challenge for anyone, but not impossible. You can learn creativity.
Start a project to hone your creativity
Come up with a story you want to tell and take a series of photos to illustrate that story. Try concentrating on one theme, or a group of related subjects, and stick to photographing that for a few weeks or even months. Shoot that same subject from different positions and angles in changing light. Adjust the focus, aperture and shutter values. With each press of the shutter release button you will hone your skills, learning from each photo you take. You will create an interesting collection of images.
If you have another hobby then record what you enjoy. Many ornithologists photograph birds. I’ve met wood-turners, gardeners, hill walkers, painters, needle-workers and an engineer who created still life images, photographing both their products and the tools they use. Perhaps you are interested in the people living on your street, or the way wildlife thrives in a local cemetery. Do you have a particular political view? Maybe you care about the environment and want to record a conservation project.
Working with others is also great for inspiration. Try bouncing ideas off each other and even sharing a project. Take risks and experiment. With small steps, you can make a giant leap with your creativity.
How else can I get inspiration
Top photographers are always learning. So, look at studying a new area of photography you haven’t tried before. Read, watch videos, go on a course or workshop. Photography is often a lonely pastime, but I can’t emphasise enough how shooting with another person, helping each other to get a great shot, can improve your work. I am lucky, because I teach photography I spend a lot of time with photographers of all levels, and get inspiration and learn from them all of the time.
Four people in the last week have asked me about buying a camera. With Christmas not that far in the future this is probably a good time for me to write about this.
I usually reply with a question: What sort of photography do you want to shoot? The needs of a wildlife enthusiast are very different from those of someone who just wants to take holiday snaps. Cameras are expensive pieces of precision equipment and you’ll want the system, design and model that will best suits your needs and budget.
Don’t Fall for Reviews or Personal Recommendations
Publishers don’t win advertising revenue by featuring unfavourable reports of their sponsor’s latest shiny new kit, so I’m sceptical of professional camera reviews. I read separate reviews of the same camera in two popular photography magazines. One reckoned the camera was a technological wonderment, the second gave it a mediocre rating. The first review was adjacent to an advert for that manufacturer – a manufacturer that didn’t advertise in the second magazine.
Reviewers also fuss over tiny performance differences. It makes good reading, but the small variances within similar price brackets make little difference to the majority of photographers.
There are some cameras that are game changers, but in the most part, similar priced cameras are similar in both design and features.
When looking for a camera a few months ago, I asked other photographers for their advice and was met with vigorous promotions of the brands they invested in. You’ll never hear a photographer saying, ‘I bought X but made a terrible mistake and wish I had got Y instead.’ They endorse the brand they use with an enthusiasm to put sales staff to shame. They’ll also decry rival brands with equal gusto.
I’m not going to recommend the brand that I use to you (I use Olympus). For me it is the perfect system to meet my needs. But that does not mean it is necessarily the perfect brand or model for you. That is a decision only you can make.
My Recent Decision
My main DSLR still takes fantastic quality pictures, but it’s six years old now and technology has moved on. I need performance beyond its capabilities for my work. Researching the market, I found a bewildering array of models.
Every reputable manufacturer produces fantastic cameras throughout their price ranges and I needed to find one that worked for me.
In the words of the song and album title by the late, great George Harrison, All Things Must Pass. I was met with a barrier that Olympus had discontinued producing DSLR cameras, and so the lenses I had would not fit their mirrorless range without an adaptor. That left me with a quandary. Should shift to a totally different brand and system and sell off my old equipment, or stick with the Olympus brand and adapt what I had to fit the Micro Four Thirds mount.
How I Made My Mind Up
I made a list of my priorities: exceptional low-light performance for photographing events without a flash; a fully articulating LCD screen to view when I use a low-set tripod and for macro work; lightweight, so not to suffer a neck injury from carrying it all day, and robust enough to take hiking or cycling in all weathers. If the camera could be made compatible with my existing equipment, that would also be a deciding factor.
I needed a camera of good enough quality so I could use it for shooting a wedding or party, but also slip in my pocket without damaging it. I wanted something discreet for candid street photography.
Because much of my work is built around training, a large, clear articulated screen with a live preview of depth of field was a must. Finally, I set a budget.
Ergonomics is so important; some cameras are just too fiddly for my large hands. After numerous trips to shops trying different models, I rejected plenty. Even on some large cameras, I found my fingers inadvertently hitting other buttons when I pressed the shutter. With some cameras, I could not hold them to my eye without them pressing uncomfortably onto my nose .
High pixel count is a marketing ploy. 16 megapixels – about the smallest pixel count on the market at the moment – is twice the size needed to produce high quality A3 prints. Wedding album photos are far smaller and many images I sell end up online, reduced in size to around 2 megapixels. Larger image files also take more time to upload and use up valuable storage space. I neither needed nor wanted a 50 megapixel monster.
The Perfect Camera For Me
There are two brands I am really adverse to. I won’t mention their names but one I think makes really ugly cameras, and artists should use great-looking equipment. The second brand, and this is purely anecdotal from conversations with other photographers, seems to break down a lot.
I did find and buy camera perfect for my needs. I decided to stick with Olympus. For me, it’s perfect. It fits my hands, it’s portable, it looks stunning, I can fit it in my pocket, it’s robust, it has a large, clear LCD display and viewfinder, the image quality is fantastic and it has game-changing image stabilisation.
If you are interested it’s an OM-D E-M5 mark ii mirrorless camera. At some point I will also buy an Olympus E-M1 mark ii.
As I said, this is not my recommendation to you. Like any other camera owner, I am pleased with my purchase, but I want you to find the right brand, system and model to suit your needs.
Which Camera System is the Best for You?
Like all aspects of photography, there are compromises to be made. There is always a trade-off to be made. Here is a quick run-down of the common camera systems with some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Digital Single Reflex Camera (DSLR)
The most expensive, but delivering (arguably) the best quality, DSLRs are large in size. They can be heavy to carry, but versatile for shooting many different types of photography. That versatility is brought about by buying a range of lenses. The quality of the lens has more to do with the quality of the final image than does the body of the camera.
Camera bodies usually come in three levels: entry, enthusiast and professional, with some overlap. The build quality and performance increases with each, as does the complexity of use and the price bracket. Prices range from a little over £300 to over £13,000.
Sensor sizes can vary. Cameras with larger sensors are bigger and they cost more. They do have greater dynamic range than another contemporary camera with a smaller sensor. Saying that, the performance of modern DSLRs (and CSCs) with smaller ‘crop sensors’ – up to half the size of a 35mm ‘full frame’ sensor – is outstanding.
Mirrorless (Compact System Camera, or CSC)
CSCs also can produce excellent quality images and come in the same three price brackets. The most expensive are around £5000, the cheapest nearer to £300. They too have interchangeable lenses. They are usually far smaller than DSLRs although share similar sensor sizes. Their small size is their big attraction. Saying that, some models are just as large as a DSLR, a marketing error realised by Sony whose sales of their over-sized mirrorless camera, the A7Rii, were disappointing.
Instead of viewing the world through a prism and a mirror like the DSLR, the viewfinder is electronic. This has an advantage that you can see pretty much how your photograph will look when you press the shutter. Information like the histogram and blown highlight and shadow warnings can be seen.
Most mirrorless cameras have a ‘contrast detect’ focusing system. It is slower to focus than the ‘phase detect’ system used when looking though the viewfinder in DSLRs, but is also more accurate in some circumstances. Modern electronics have narrowed the margins between the two systems and many photographers won’t notice the difference.
In Live View (looking at the image on the back LCD screen) a DSLR will also usually uses contrast detect. Some mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1, have both focussing systems available.
There are mirrorless cameras without a viewfinder. They rely on you using the live view screen, like taking a photo on a phone. These are cheaper and often smaller, but can be difficult to use in bright light. Furthermore, holding a camera at arms length is unstable. Some have viewfinders you can purchase separately that are mounted on to the flash hot shoe.
The Bridge Camera are so called because they bridge the gap between compacts and DSLRs/CSCs. They are similar to CSCs in most respects apart from having a single, permanently attached zoom lens. They are often marketed on the range of this zoom, and are sometimes called super-zooms because of this.
The image quality is good, though not as good as an interchangeable lens camera. No lens can perform exceptionally well across a wide range of focal lengths because of optical limitations; images will be soft at the zoom’s extremes and colour fringing (chromatic aberration) may be noticeable along high contrast edges in the picture; you may see a purple or green fuzzy line around the edges of a person pictured against a bright background.
The sensor is also much smaller than in CSCs and DSLRs and this can bring a noticeable difference in image quality. The smaller sensor also makes it more of a challenge to get a blurred background.
If any one component of a bridge camera fails then the camera becomes unusable, if you scratch the lens, the whole camera is out of action.
Compact and Phone Cameras
The compact camera market has collapsed since the advent of the camera phones. There are still some models available, but many are more like small bridge cameras than what we used to think of as compacts.
The ubiquitous camera phones are the backbone of services like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook where people can quickly and easily share images of what is happening in their life. They are familiar to almost everyone and so I won’t wax lyrical about them. The quality of the images has come on enormously. They are not as versatile as the cameras listed above, but they serve a purpose and can produce great results.
Consider Buying A Pre-Owned Camera
Do you use Flickr? It’s a photography sharing site owned by Yahoo. Images are not heavily compressed as they are on Facebook, and photo metadata, which may include your copyright details, are preserved. Facebook strips images of their metadata.
One of the great things about Flickr is that one can search for images taken by a specific camera model. Choosing cameras that are now ten years old, I searched through images taken with the Olympus E-3 and E-510, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Nikon D40X, Canon 40D, Sony A700 and Pentax K100D Super. There are still fantastic photos being taken with those cameras. Much newer models are available than these for a lot less cost than they were new.
There is an old saying that the most important component of any camera system is the one holding the camera and looking through the viewfinder. Flickr proves that point; you don’t need the latest model to capture great images, you need the photographic skills. (If you lack those, contact me for training!)
Newer models will produce better results in extreme lighting conditions and may achieve faster shutter values. But, all the cameras listed above still produce excellent images and they are available second-hand for a song. If you have a restricted budget, then do think about buying second hand.
If you don’t like the camera then you can sell it on again and the resale value won’t change that much. A used camera also means a far lower carbon footprint. Older cameras are likely to have had firmware updates. Plus, the raw files will be compatible with software like Lightroom, On1, Photoshop or Elements. That’s not always the case with new cameras.
Check out user Reviews for Older Model Cameras
User reviews will also tell you if an older model has common flaws and how long they last. Check the shutter count against the life expectancy of the camera as the mechanics of a shutter will wear out. My pro-level DSLR should be good for between 250,000 and 350,000 shutter actuations, consumer end cameras have a lower life-expectancy of around 50,000 shots.
Where to Buy
Reputable dealers like Camera Jungle, Wex and MPB all sell used camera equipment. Their descriptions are accurate and cameras come with a guarantee. Some great deals can be found on online auction sites too, but there is an increased risk of buying a stolen camera. If buying privately, do ask the vendor for photos of the serial numbers of both the camera and the lens. If they refuse, don’t buy. There are internet-based services that help track stolen camera equipment using the serial number.
What if I Really Want a New Camera
Low light and high ISO performance have improved enormously in recent years and I needed that facility for my work. If you do need very fast shutter values in low light, then a new, high-end camera might be what you require.
Look for discounts from retailers selling open box, returned and display models to save you a few tens of pounds. You may consider ‘grey’ goods, cameras built for overseas markets. Take care. You can get caught out by import duties and not all camera manufacturers offer a worldwide guarantee.
Don’t Forget the Lens
High-end cameras don’t always come supplied with a lens because you are expected to choose lenses to meet your needs. Cheaper cameras are usually supplied with one-or-two reasonable quality kit lenses.
Good quality lenses make far greater difference to the quality of your photos than a change of camera body. Buy the fastest lens you can afford, i.e. the one with the lowest -number.
If you are stuck choosing, please do contact me either on social media or by replying below and I’ll gladly help you choose the right model for you.
This article is an extended version of two of my columns first published in the Northumberland Gazette.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Although the sea state was the same for these shots and I took them within half an hour of each other, changing a shutter speed can make so much difference to a photo. I shot this first one in low light before the sun rose above the horizon, exposing the frame for several seconds.
Compare the stillness of that to the following picture, which had a shorter exposure time. This next shot was the one I planned to get.
I checked the weather for the few days beforehand and knew there would be a good swell from the constant wind direction. The wintry rain clouds would break up as a frontal system passed, also changing the wind direction overnight to blow against the waves, lifting the spray from the tops that the low sun would catch.
I checked the sunrise direction and worked out where I would have to stand to capture it rising next to the lighthouse.
It was touch and go. There were still occasional showers and the cloud cover was heavier than I had hoped, too heavy to let the rising sun light the entire sky with colour, but the planning paid off.
I was on my toes as the tide was still coming in and I retreated up the beach
a couple of times while waiting for the shot. I readied for that with all unused equipment stowed in my bag.
I hoped to run along the beach and capture another image with the sun sitting on top of the lighthouse, but it disappeared behind the cloud before it got that high. The window to get a picture of the sunrise lasted about two minutes. The sun quickly disappeared behind the clouds and the light became flat again.
A check of the weather, the tides and sunrise time and direction made getting up early worthwhile this morning. I love watching the sunrise and I love photography, so what better thing to do than get up early and get some shots. I prefer sunrise to sunsets as the air is cleaner and there are fewer people about.
To get these shots I had to do a bit of scrambling over wet rocks, in the dark and carrying my tripod and camera bag. I made sure someone knew where I was going and I carried a phone.
I was a bit unsure about the cloud on the horizon as there is often a bank out at sea which hides the sunrise completely. When I got to the beach it looked like I was in luck.
A crescent moon was high in the sky and it was not easy getting it into one shot, so I created a vertical panorama, stitching two landscape images, one above the other.
Just before the sun rose above the horizon it painted the clouds with reds and oranges. Over the island the roosting gulls all took to the air.
The light changes rapidly and constant attention needed paying to the exposure. I needed to reduce the exposure by two stops in less than a minute apart, which means the brightness of the scene doubled twice in a minute, and I could have reduced the exposure of the following shot even more. I adjusted the shutter speed, leaving the aperture at around f/11, giving me a good depth of field that I didn’t want to lose for these images.
The reds faded so quickly it was like a switch being pulled. Then the golden light of dawn started breaking through. The sun started to appear above the horizon. Not only was the luminosity changing rapidly, but the colour of the light too.
Bright sunlight, like snow and water, can trick the camera’s sensor into under-exposing and so I over-exposed these shots by 0.7EV.
Shooting into the sun needs care. Looking at the sun through a lens can damage the eye, so I used live view for these shots. I also find Live View with the fully articulated screen easier when I am using a tripod.
My camera has a slip-down cover for the eye-piece. I use this to stop light leaking in through the eye piece when the shutter is open. I also have plate that replaced the eye cup that does the same job. If you don’t have either of these your camera then a piece of gaffer tape can do the trick. Leaked light can look like sensor dust.
Once the sun was up it was time to go and have breakfast…
but I just couldn’t resist shooting one last panorama from the cliff-top.
I have just bought a set of filters. I had some that I had inherited that I had forgotten about until a few weeks back and I have been intending to get a full set for some time. The ones I bought were a relatively cheap set, but the results seem okay. When I have worked out which ones I’ll be using the most I’ll buy some better quality ones of those.
The first shot is using and an ND Graduated 2. This was just after sundown.
Yesterday evening I headed back at around sundown and took this 25 second exposure using the ND8. The tide had been doing out for about an hour when I got there.
Just before the sun went down I shot this with the ND2 Graduated filter. The light was low enough to achieve a three second exposure. This was an hour later and the tide was rushing out.
One of the effects with the neutral density filters is a reduction in contrast, which needs fixing in the processing. The ND filters also have a slight magenta cast to them which can be fixed in camera or in Lightroom.