Creativity

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.

Bamburgh Castle

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.

photographing the unexpected.
Try turning the camera in a different direction. This was shot within minutes of the picture of Bamburgh Castle above.

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.

Creativity
Shot on a trip to Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, in the company of a couple of other photographers.

Zen and the Art of Wildlife Photography

I find photography Zen-like. Concentrating on the subject, composing the shot and making fine adjustments to the settings is totally absorbing. It distracts me from the troubles of the world. I also love the experience of encountering creatures in their natural habitat, something I can find spiritual. Putting together those two elements together – wildlife photography – should be my idea of bliss. But,  photography can detract from the experience of an encounter with wildlife. Even on a photo-shoot, there are times to put the camera down and just experience life.

Wildlife photography and the art of leaving the camera behind.

It’s sometimes important to put the camera down and just be in the moment. I’ve been lucky enough to stroll through the African bush with a Samburu guide,  camped in the shadow of Kilimanjaro  in close proximity to a pride of lions, stopped the engines of  a small boat while a whale circled and swam beneath me, dropped the sails on a yacht to stop and watch a kingfisher dive into the water, seen elephant and rhino roam the savannah, climbed a mountain and come face-to-face with a stag, watched golden eagles sore on the Isle of Skye, and scuba dived on coral reefs off Zanzibar and Australia. On most of those occasions, I didn’t have a camera with me.

Elephant, Wildlife Photography
Elephant, captured with an Olympus Mju 35mm compact, on safari in the Masai Mara 1999
Lion, Safari, Olympus
Lion, also photographed in the Masai Mara in 1999 using an Olympus Mju compact film camera. The simplicity of the camera gave me more space to enjoy the experience of being there.

I don’t understand people who go to a concert and watch it through the screen of their mobile phone. Likewise, seeing a lion in its natural habitat is best experienced without a lens between you and it. Take a photo, but put the camera down too.

When you do pick the camera up…

Do I consider myself a wildlife photographer? Not really, although I really do enjoy capturing images of wildlife. True wildlife photographers spend huge amounts of time studying animal behaviour. They also tailor their equipment to achieve first-class shots. It’s an expensive, technical and time-consuming hobby. I would need to put in a lot more work, money and time before I awarded myself that title.

That doesn’t mean I don’t ever photograph wildlife. Where I live now, on the coast in Northumberland, there is a scattering of islands giving good opportunities to get up close to sea birds. This is great as, besides taking photographs and seeing wildlife, I love being on the sea.

Capturing reasonably good images of wildlife is achievable with relatively basic equipment and by learning a few techniques. That is something that more of my clients seem to be asking me to teach them. It’s a treat for me as it often means trips out on the water.

Black Headed Gulls
Black Headed Gulls over Coquet Island

When I do take my camera…

In my home town is Puffin Cruises. If you are ever in this neck of the woods, you should try them. They have a converted fishing trawler and a former lifeboat. You’ll see from the water a whole array of sea birds that nest on Coquet Island, as well as the huge colony of grey seals that live on its far side. You may get to photograph dolphin too.

Dolphin, Puffin Cruises, Amble
Bottlenose Dolphin shot from one of Puffin Cruises boats in July last year.

During the summer, you are guaranteed to see puffin.

Puffin and Sand Eels, Olympus E-5 with a 150mm lens f/8, 1/1250, ISO 250 Flash.

Seascapes on a Puffin Cruise

Being at sea offers excellent photographic opportunities and not just of wildlife. Apart from seeing the puffin, you’ll get some close-up views of the Lighthouse on Coquet Island.  The trip is great value at £10 per head for adults.

black and white, Coquet Island
Coquet Island, 2018, Olympus OM-D E-M5 ii.  26mm, f/3.4, 1/2000, ISO 200 CPL filter.

Photographing The Farne Islands

If you want to get very close to the sea birds, then a trip to the Farne Islands is worth considering. A more intense trip than the Puffin Cruise, it is worth the £70 in fees – if you can cope with the noise and smell of guano from thousands of birds. That money pays for the boat ride and landing charge made by the National Trust (the landing fee is waived for members). You’ll spend 5 hours between Staple Island and Inner Farne. Shorter trips to just one of these Islands are available too. I have just booked a day again with Billy Shiel.

Each visit I learn more and improve on the images I took the year before.  I don’t take a fraction of the kit I carried on my first visit and I don’t fire the shutter as much, knowing what images will work and what won’t. I always take time to speak with the excellent resident wardens and learn a lot from them.

I am planning another trip to the Farne Islands in a couple weeks. Equipped with the knowledge of where to stand to get the best shots, what settings I should use on my cameras and what’s not worth shooting, I am hoping for another improvement on the previous years’ photographs. Photographers can and should always improve their techniques and their images.

Puffin showing wing movement
Even at 1/1000th of a second, the flapping of this puffin’s wings still shows movement blur. Inner Farne 2016.
Puffin, Inner Farne 2016
Guillemot on Staple Island
Guillemot 180mm
Razorbill on Staple Island 200mm
Shag on Staple Island
Shag 300mm

If you fancy a guided trip to the Farnes or on a Puffin Cruise, or even a pre-trip lesson, give me a call.

 

Reality?

There is no such thing as reality

Happy New Year! A purely human arbitrary concept, chosen in the past by our ancestors, it doesn’t correspond with an annual astronomical event of any importance that dictates when New Year’s Day should be. In reality, it is only 365 and a bit days after the last time we, in the West, set the daily counter to 1. Other cultures choose other dates. Our ancestors could easily have chosen any other day in the year. Perhaps we should wish each other a happy New Day every day instead.

Really! There is no such thing as reality

I really enjoy challenging what we perceive. Our perceptions are not reality, they are all a contrivance of our brains. Interpreted partly from the data sent along the optic nerve, much of what we think we see is actually invented in our minds. We use more stored information to create the world around us than what our eyes detect; what we already know about the world contaminates everything we see. We also perceive the world half a second after events occur.  What we think we see is not reality at all.

Sunrise over the Sea shot with a telephoto lens changes reality
A telephoto lens makes the rising sun appear enormous

Our anatomy and memories trick us too

Furthermore,  our eyes’ construction is limiting. Detecting only a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, most light we cannot see. Also, the structure of our eyes are as unique as fingerprints. How you see the world may be quite dissimilar from how I see it.

Like old, fading photographs, memories blur over time too. Suggestions change what we recall and other events intermingle with what we remember. There is no absolute truth in what we remember seeing.

Photographs distort reality

Can we apply this same fluidity to reality when creating a photograph? We do it all of the time, often unintentionally. When viewing pictures, we subject them to the same filtering and corruption by our eyes and brain as when we view the rest of the world. Furthermore, the photograph itself is not reality, just an interpretation of it.

A telephoto lens can make the sun seem huge in a frame. A fifteen-second exposure smooths out water and makes flashing beacons appear to be lit all at the same time. This is not how it appeared to me standing there taking the shot.

15 second exposure of Coquet Island with the smoothed sea. This is not a reality we would perceive.
A fifteen-second exposure. The flashing beacons appear permanently lit and the ripples on the water are smoothed out.

JPEG vs Raw

Your camera’s internal computer processes raw data from its sensor. If it is set to take JPEGs then the processor will be pre-programmed – probably by a technician on the other side of the world – how the picture should look. If you apply a digital filter in camera, the processor alters the data.  Applying differing luminosities to the millions of red, green and blue coloured pixels making up your image, the camera then adjusts them according to whatever filter you choose.

Throwing away the redundant data in a process called compression, the camera records one usable, shareable and widely compatible JPEG file onto the memory card. All modern cameras can produce great results in this way.

Moonrise above Coquet Island lighthouse from Hauxley Beach, Amble, Northumberland/
A path of golden moonlight across the sea

The camera always lies

A talented photographer I know takes amazing photos. Setting to record only JPEGs, her finished images straight from the camera look great, almost every one a wall-hanger. Her work-flow takes me back to my youth, entrusting my rolls of Kodachrome to a local laboratory to develop, process and print. Her methodology emphasises the importance of getting the composition and exposure just right.

Another option is ‘shooting raw’. The camera records the all raw data from the sensor into a file on the memory card without any processing. That gives more versatility. It lets you make the adjustments instead of the camera. Raw file developing, using tools like Lightroom or On1 Photo Raw, is non-destructive; anything you do to the file can be undone. Nothing is thrown away or lost as it is with a compressed JPEG. Akin to creating prints from a film negative, you can produce any number of different-looking JPEGs from that raw file without damaging the original.

Each result is your interpretation of reality. Every one is different. Yet, none of them a true or complete record of the event.

Although more versatile, shooting raw has its disadvantages. File sizes are larger and raw file previews are not universally compatible.

Changing reality: to edit or not to edit

There is a school of thought that a photo should always be untouched and a direct record of what was seen when it was taken. For reportage, I agree; the picture must be an honest representation as possible. News photographers – quite rightly – lose their reputations for editing pictures to deliberately mislead.

In portraiture and art shots, I have no qualms about removing a spot from a face or adding blur to soften wrinkles. In most photography, we are trying to create something aesthetically pleasing. If a lamppost detracts from a landscape I can’t physically remove it as I do litter. Is there anything wrong with deleting it using a computer to make a stronger composition? After all, our brains do it all the time.

When photos are changed…

Editing changes reality
Besides removing a lamppost, I edited this picture to convert it to black and white. We don’t see in black and white and yet, whether you like monochrome or not, converting it doesn’t raise an eyebrow in the same way that other editing does.

For me, creating photographic art is very different from just recording an event. I do my best to remove a distracting object that would otherwise spoil the shot; I’ll pick up litter and put in the bin when making the photo and compose the shot to exclude distractions. In the above photo it was a lamppost that unbalanced the shot. There was no way I could fix it while shooting, so I removed it with digital editing.

It’s art, it doesn’t matter that I have changed it. Saying that, it isn’t something I often do, using the clone or other editing tools; I rather get the image right in camera. But, the above image is far stronger with the lamppost removed. It doesn’t hurt anyone by my removal of it and I am not deceiving anyone by doing so.

I could crop the image above to exclude the lamppost or used a longer lens as I did in the following shot. But, would that loose the feeling of isolation? I think so.

… they become art.

When creating a photograph, unless using a lens of the same focal length and depth of field as our eyes, we step further away from our usual perception of reality. Maybe, that is why we like unusual angles, very short and very long exposures, hyper-real imagery and high-contrast monochrome in our photography. By seeing the world in a new and unusual way that our eyes and brain cannot perceive, it looks new and unusual.

It’s that difference that can make a photograph compelling. It’s what makes it art.

Walking across the pier in Amble Northumberland

 

 

What Sort of Camera Should You Buy?

 

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.

A 1.5 second exposure taken with my new camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

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.

Modern digital cameras with the larger sensors found in mirrorless and DSLR cameras cope well in very low light situations, better than bridge or phone cameras. They can also take filters mounted to the lens that simulate low light conditions. This 40 second exposure was taken well after dusk and the island was barely visible to the naked eye.

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.

50 second exposure taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II just after dusk. Hand-held, but resting against a not entirely-stable fence, demonstrating the outstanding image stabilisation and low-light performance of this modern mirrorless camera.

Bridge Camera

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.

This image shot with an older bridge camera, although acceptable, shows the limitations in quality. I have applied significant sharpening, noise reduction and tonal adjustments to improve the detail.

 

This image of a sisal plantation was taken in 2004 with the same bridge camera. Its small sensor gives poor results compared to a contemporary DSLR. Note the blown highlights in the sky. Limited dynamic range is still an issue with a camera that has a smaller sensor, although the performance of newer models is much better than they once were.

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.

Compact cameras have tiny sensors but can still be useful. I would not have been able to carry my DSLR with me when I took this photo so I had to make do with what was available to me. The quality is not bad, but I had increase the details in the shadows and then apply significant noise reduction in post processing.

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.

This picture of a great grey owl I took in 2010 with an entry level DSLR, an Olympus E-510, back in 2010. The image quality, although from an old and lowly specified camera by current standards, still stands up to scrutiny.

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

The portability of a mirrorless CSC allows me to carry it almost everywhere. I was able to get lots of impromptu shots of these cranes operating here for a few weeks.

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

My personal need is for low-light performance. Using the combination of the fast f/1.8 45mm Olympus m.Zuiko lens on the E-M5 Mark II shows how  outstanding glass quality and the camera’s superb image stabilisation allow for shooting hand-held images that would have been unthinkable until recently. This was shot hand-held at 1/5th of a second.

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  f-number.

Old cameras shot with my latest camera that 100 years newer than the one on the right.

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.

A Piece of Cake

The Ingredients

Two-years BG (Before Google), I worked at an outdoor education centre in a remote village on the beautiful west coast of Scotland.  It’s a perfect location for landscape photography, if your camera is weather-sealed. We had a saying there that if you could see across the loch it was going to rain. If you couldn’t, it was raining.

Each morning, all the youngsters gathered in the drizzle. They listened eagerly to the well-rehearsed briefing from Jeremy, the senior instructor, discovering what they would be doing that day. Would they be sailing, kayaking, climbing a rock-face and abseiling, scrambling up a burn, or hiking up a mountain? The briefing would invariably end with, “Any questions?”  One day, trying to keep a straight face, a lass asked him, “How far is it to the moon?” This started a trend of us priming the kids to ask Jeremy questions he wouldn’t be able to answer. Ranging from “What do you call a man with a seagull on his head?” to “What are the ingredients of a sponge cake?” Jeremy’s life would have been easier if smart phones and Google had been invented back then.

The Method

I love teaching photography as much as I love taking photos. There is one question I am asked repeatedly on my courses. Unlike providing the recipe for a Victoria sponge, it is far more difficult to answer than it first seems: “What are the best settings to take a perfect landscape photo?”

Sunrise shot of migratory geese flying over the Farne Islands
Geese over the Farnes

I start by giving a simplistic reply, and you’ll find similar recipes using Google: with a wide-angled lens, choose a small aperture, maybe f/11 or f/16; use a tripod if necessary; include some foreground interest; focus somewhere between three metres and a third of the way into the frame and check your depth of field; ensure you have the most important ingredient, excellent light; set your white balance to match the light; ensure your horizon is level; add a sizeable pinch of good composition and bake at ISO 100 with a shutter value to achieve a correct exposure. Like cooking a sponge, you should get a good result and lots of ‘Likes’ on Facebook and Instagram. Piece of cake!

The Bake

However, just as creating a showstopper cake on Bake Off needs greater baking proficiency, elevating a photo from being mediocre to superb takes more in-depth photography knowledge. By learning different recipes, we discover what works well and what doesn’t. When we have enough knowledge, we can create our own photographic recipes and aim to become Star Baker.

The alternative to learning how to take photos is the cluster-bomb approach. Give an infinite number of typewriters to an infinite number of monkeys you should get a Shakespearean play. Give them cameras instead and some of their photos will turn out well. You’ll also end up with a lot of selfies, other dross and pictures you would not show your mother. Furthermore, the monkeys won’t have learnt anything about photography.

Pots and Flags
Pots and Flags

The Proof is in The Eating

If you are embarking on a voyage of learning all you can about photography then be prepared to put lots of time, effort and money into it. If you want your photograph looking just the way you envisage it, you need to know how to use your camera. Learn how it performs in different conditions, how the different settings affect one another and how changing those settings alters the look of the photo.

 

Dusk

Once you have grasped those basics, you can break away from the basic ingredients and create an image using your own recipe. After years of learning, work and practice you may become an overnight success.

A piece of cake? No, but it’s a great journey.

Misty Fields

A Point of View

Masts, Stays, Contrails and Clouds

Photography taught me to look at the world in a different way and think about what I see. It taught me to concentrate on the details and look for similarities and juxtaposed shape and form.

Boat bow
Bow and Cirrus

I learnt to appreciate movement and stillness.

Mast and Birds

What might seem commonplace to me can be unusual to someone else. An everyday view can become unique by choosing a new angle.

Fishing boat "Harvest Dawn" enters the Warkworth Harbour.
Harvest Dawn

All photos have a tale to tell. The wear and tear of the weather and the accidental piece of seaweed tangled around a mooring rope tell a story.

Bladderwrack entangled in the bow warp
Baltic and Bladderwrack

For me, a photograph tells a story by either a making a statement or, better still, by asking a question.

Harbour

Including people in the  shot helps to create a question. Who is it? Why are they there? What are they looking at? What are they thinking?

Gone Fishing

Sometimes the story may be obvious,

Lone Cyclist

and sometimes surreal.

Ape on a bin
Ape

After twelve years living in the same town and there is always something new to see, always new photographs to shoot.

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
Sundown

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 Sollumis.com and Photoephemeris.com 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.