I did it on the spur of the moment, a last minute decision. A couple of days before entries closed for the first round, I became aware of the Amateur Photographer of the Year (APOY) competition. Actually, that is not strictly true. The UK based Amateur Photographer magazine has organised it for several years and I have occasionally entered it. The last time was over three years ago. Despite some success with my shot that time, I had not participated since. (The story of that photo is worthy of a post of its own and I have an article in preparation.)
The APOY Competition
The competition is held over eight rounds over the course of the year, each with a different theme. The top 30 images receive points, 30 for first place and down to 1 for 30th. Readers of the magazine receive a free entry, although by paying a fee it is possible to submit up to three images in each round. Only the highest placed one will receive any points, though. That is a change from last year. A very good nature photographer was successful with multiple entries in some of the rounds. He racked up sufficient points in his speciality to win the overall APOY competition by a wide margin.
Sigma sponsors the competition and the winner of each APOY round receives some of the company’s gear with a £1,000 value. The person with the highest tally when all eight rounds are complete is the overall winner and receives £2,000 worth of equipment in prizes. As a contest, it is real test of photographic ability and diversity. And there are some worthwhile prizes, to boot.
What changed this time? The theme for the first round was “Best of British” for photos taken within the British Isles and I had an image which I thought could do well. Looking at the list of topics, I have others which I thought might be appropriate for the later rounds. Being a reader of the magazine, I had nothing to lose by entering and considered that it would be an interesting challenge. Until last year, it was only possible to submit one entry per round and I decided to stick with that ethos. The process to determine which of my photos would succeed best is certainly a challenge which prove to be instructive.
Strangely, for the first round, I was more concerned with semantics than aesthetics. My shot, above, comes from Sark which is one of the Channel Islands and closer to France than the United Kingdom. It is British but not part of the United Read More
In my previous article, I looked at the performance of my Russian made Helios 44M lens when used for distant subjects. In this follow-up post, I will look at how well the lens does in rendering out of focus backgrounds. That might not have been a primary consideration for either the designers or the original users. In the years after the second World War, it became the standard lens supplied with Zenit film cameras. These days, it is more likely that the subject will be close and the background deliberately thrown out of focus for a bokeh effect. That is the current fashion and exploits the features of the lens which many find desirable. In particular, the Helios 44 has achieved renown for swirly out of focus areas.
The link to my earlier blog article: How sharp can a £23 lens be?
Shooting For a Bokeh Effect
What, then, to shoot? To maximise the out focus effectively means positioning a subject close to the camera for optimum background blur. One of the subject clichés for this type of work is flowers and I mainly went with that. To compensate for a lack of originality, I told myself this was purely a test which I did not expect to yield any portfolio worthy images. In the event, the snowdrop shot above is one which turned out better than expected. It is a decent enough image although I would be unlikely to want to use it in a competition.
My technique when making these images left much to be desired. Handholding a manual focus lens at close distances is always going to be hit and miss. With the emphasis very much on miss. Achieving an acceptably sharp shot is difficult simply because it is almost impossible to maintain the distance between lens and subject after focusing. It is slightly easier with a mirrorless camera which has focus peaking, in this case my Fuji X-E2. The 1.5 crop factor meant that I had a full frame focal length equivalent view of a 87mm lens.
That was useful for the type of shot I was creating, although a hindrance when trying to produce swirly backgrounds. . Put simply, Read More
Is it really possible to get good results from a lens based on a design dating from 1928 and produced by the Russians at the height of the Cold War? There has long been the suggestion that Soviet production standards were not particularly high during that period. Supposedly, there was significant sample variation and defective lenses could get through quality control. Suffice to say, every manufacturing process has a level of inconsistency. Even today, lenses from the same production line in a modern factory will not perform identically. What hope, then, for the Helios 44? A lens made by the bucketload and which was as cheap as chips.
What follows is not really a lens test. I simply wanted to see how the lens performed in a specific circumstances and that is what I report here. Shooting resolution test charts does not hold much attraction. For me, it is the look and technical quality of the final image which matters.
The Helios 44 has a 58 mm focal length and a maximum aperture of f/2. It is based on the 90 year old Carl Zeiss Biotar design. It appeared in many versions and was the standard lens for the Zenit range of SLRs. Due to their low cost, those cameras were the introduction to photography for many people in the heyday of film. Literally millions of the lenses were produced over a period which spanned decades.
The original Carl Zeiss factory was in Jena. It ended up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany after the Second World War. Having access to the tooling and the remaining personnel who did not flee to the West at the end of the conflict, the Russians had a basis from Read More
I came across this religous ceremony, the Blessing of the River Thames, by chance. The story is that I had travelled to London Bridge for an organised photo walk around the Borough Market area. Unfortunately, having mixed up my dates, I discovered it had taken place the previous day. Oops. The organiser is a friend and he informed me about this religious event in an exchange of texts after I realised my mistake. Every cloud, I suppose. Ironically, my mate had been there the previous Sunday when he thought the ritual was going to take place.
The blessing is a short service held each January on the first Sunday after Epiphany. This became the source of confusion about the date on the part of some sources. Epiphany fell on a Saturday this year, which apparently resulted in the ceremony occurring eight days afterwards. I do not understand sufficient about the Ecclesiastical calendar to proffer an explanation.
The ceremony involves the clergy and congegration from Southwark Cathedral to the south of London Bridge and their conterparts from the church of St Magnus the Martyr to the north. Each processes to the middle of the bridge where they meet. During the service, the clergy say prayers for those who have any form of association with the river. This year those prayers included one to remember those who lost their lives during last year’s terrorist attack in the area. Read More
Let me tell you about the competition judge who came to my camera club recently. The toughest, baddest, meanest judge I have encountered. You might possibly have seen someone harder; this guy was exceptional in my experience. He set the bar high and few of us fallible, flawed mortals managed to reach it. Even the slightest deviation from perfection met with a harsh penalty. Seldom have our images been subjected to such exacting scrutiny. He left no one in any doubt that attention to detail is necessary at every step to produce a successful result. A lesser judge would have struggled to gain acceptance with such a tough love approach, but he carried it off
Having work critiqued can be uncomfortable. This was a shock, especially for the club’s newer members. For some it provided the jolt needed to move their photography on. To take a greater interest in what happens after releasing the shutter to produce the final image. To investigate the depths and mysteries of applications such as Photoshop from which they had hitherto shied away.
It was not the ideal occasion, then, to enter the photo above. It was a digital projected image competition and as soon as it came up, large upon the screen, both the judge and I saw it. Two large areas of discolouration on one of the Chelsea Pensioner’s tunic. It was unmissable. So how had I missed it? How, indeed?
First, I needed to find the cause. The lens was the obvious culprit. Well, you know what they say about inept workers. The lens fell under suspicion purely due to its provenance. A Vivitar 70-150 f/3.8, some 30 plus years old, bought for £24-95 including postage from eBay. Lenses designed for the film era do not always perform well on digital cameras. My initial thought that the discolouration might be due to reflection between the rear element and the sensor’s shiny surface. A quick look at the initial capture proved the lens had done its job. Admirably well. What had happened was down to me.
I had processed the image in Lightroom and one of the application’s benefits is the History function, which keeps a persistent record of the adjustments applied. Even after closing the application, it is possible to step through the changes. The Vivitar was on a Fuji X-E2, which incorporates simulation of some of Fuji’s films when it creates JPEGs. The image started off as a Raw file, but Lightroom replicates those simulations. I had chosen to use the Astia/Soft setting and that is when the change in hue occurred.
It was subtle on my monitor, hardly visible at all. Only once I knew where to look did it become at all noticeable. It was when I output the final image as a high resolution JPEG that it become really conspicuous. My error was failing to check that the final image matched what I was seeing in Lightroom. It had never been a problem previously so I did not bother. The message, which the judge reinforced, was that issues can arise at any stage; attention to detail is all. It was not just those new to photography who learnt some painful lessons that night.
In the event, the shot achieved just 5 out of ten, which is about as low as it gets. To be fair, I had not expected it to do particularly well, but had hoped for a bit higher. My club has a lot of competitions, with three images, mainly consisting of new work, for each and every one. It is not easy to achieve a consistently high standard in both print and digital categories. My preference is to reserve my best work for prints. I am there more to make up the numbers when it comes to digital.
Apart from the discolouration, the judge did not like the expression of the woman on the right. I think it quirky and quite like it, but accept that it can be a distraction from the main subject. Some judges might agree with me, but competition is always a lottery. Based on the scores awarded to other images that night, it was always going to be an also ran. Even with perfect processing.
This is the reprocessed shot. I changed the film simulation to Provia, which now that I look at it again seems a better choice and the colours are more realistic. More importantly, I did no experience the change in hue. There is dappled sunlight on the former serviceman’s tunic and it was two of those areas which were the root of the problem. To avoid any potential issues, I applied a local adjustment to tone them down. I shall not be using the image again, so it became just a learning exercise. Hopefully, it is not a mistake which I will repeat.
My next blog post was going to be some pictures from a recent trip, but an announcement yesterday from Adobe has superseded that intention. It relates to a major application which not just I, but many photographers worldwide use to manage and process our images, Lightroom. While I have Photoshop, I find that I rarely venture into it nowadays. Lightroom has its limitations, but Adobe has provided a sufficient range of adjustments to allow quick and easy processing for most purposes.
Adobe’s statement is both significant and controversial. It marks the next stage in its transition from applications running on users’ own computers to accessing data and functionality via the Internet. Access can still be from a conventional computer, but equally from a mobile phone or tablet. So called cloud computing, in other words. As part of that, in future users will no longer store images on their own machines. Instead, they will be online in the Cloud.
Until now, Lightroom has been available in three differing forms. Originally, at its introduction in 2007 it came solely as standalone software with a perpetual licence. Users paid once and could use it for as long as they wished. That was the usual software supply method back then and is still the one many consumers favour. Over the years, Adobe added many significant enhancements. By version 4 it had matured into a strong and versatile product, with two major iterations since. Compared to what had gone before, the updates in those later releases were relatively minor.
In 2015, Adobe made a fundamental change to the traditional software pricing model. It announced that future versions of its main applications would only be available by paying a monthly subscription as part of its Creative Cloud initiative. Lightroom was an exception. There was both a standalone edition (Lightroom 6) and a Creative Cloud version (Lightroom CC). Adobe committed to provide updates to Lightroom 6 to support new cameras and fix bugs, but new functionality would only made be available for Lightroom CC. There have been some useful additions to Lightroom CC in the past couple of years, but in essence the two versions are very similar.
During this period, Adobe also introduced Lightroom Mobile, a foray into cloud computing which allowed users to control and manipulate their images from their mobile phone or tablet. As it turns out, this was a harbinger for the way Adobe wants to operate in the future.
The significance of the announcement is that it marks a major shift towards the Cloud Computing model. The details are widely available across the Internet and as this is an opinion piece I will only summarise the main specifics.
- Updates for Lightroom 6 will cease after the end of 2017. There will be no Lightroom 7 and the sole options to run up to date, supported software will be by paying a monthly subscription.
- Lightroom CC becomes Lightroom Classic CC. The main change is a revision to the code to make the application run faster, although there are other improvements. As before, users install the software to run on their own machines.
- There is a new Lightroom CC, which only runs in the Cloud with image files stored there as well. At present, the new Lightroom CC does not have the same range of functions as its Classic sibling, but that will change over time.
Adobe’s Lightroom Strategy
What Adobe has done is commence the move away from purely supplying software to the provision of a service. Moreover, that is where it sees the future and it will be encouraging its users to migrate. Inevitably Read More
There are some places which I visit regularly, not because of their photographic potential but simply because I enjoy being there. One such place is the Swannery at Abbotsbury. It is situated at the end of the Fleet, a lagoon which lies behind Chesil Beach. Usually swans are very territorial and do not nest in close proximity. However, availability of food and the brackish water make such ideal conditions for rearing young that they tolerate each other and assemble in numbers.
The Fleet was formed after the last ice age, so it is likely that swans have nested there for thousands of years. In medieval times, there was a monastery at Abbotsbury and the monks took advantage of the easy availability of swans as a source of meat. There were strict religious dietary requirements which only allowed the consumption of fish on some days. Apparently, the meat has a fishy flavour so the monks applied some inventive logic. If it tastes like fish, it must be fish. As a consequence, they actively managed the colony, a practice which continues to this day. Not that anyone eats swan these days and the place has become a tourist attraction.
While I find the setting to be calm and restful, there is more to a photograph than that. Public access is restricted to specific areas and opening hours do not coincide with the best light. Swans are large, heavy birds which makes flying strenuous. Take-off requires a long, energetic run-up across the water and landing also requires space for the bird to come to a halt. Seeing a swan in flight, while not rare, is not that frequent either. That limits the opportunities for action shots, especially as swans moult during the summer and are flightless for around six weeks.
The challenge is to find something a bit different. In the spring, when they are laying their eggs, swans are not very active. They seem to spend most of their time resting so when I was there earlier this year I took some close-up shots. Then, as often happens, I moved on to something else and forgot about them. I came across them again when I decided to enter my club’s annual monochrome competition. It is a good one to do as entry is limited to prints, my preferred medium for the presentation of photographs. I had two images which I knew I wanted to enter, but needed a third. For a while, I was going to use one of a staircase at the Tate Britain building, but that is becoming a common subject these days. The swan it was to be.
I had taken the shot with the swan’s head level in the shot and wanted it at more of an angle. Rotating it removed more from the image than I wanted and resulted in too tight a crop. I needed to create a bit more space around the head and neck. Photoshop has a very useful Fill function, which has got me out of trouble on more than one occasion. I enlarged the canvas and used Fill in Content Aware mode to fill the empty space. Fortunately, the swan’s body consists of similartextures and it worked well. It is not a technique I would expect to be successful in all circumstances.
Head at the desired angle, I headed off into Nik Silver Efex Pro for the monochrome conversion. It remains the best software I have found and Google’s cessation of support is a concern. At some point, it will probably stop working if it becomes incompatible with another software provider’s update. Being mainly white, swans make a good subject for monochrome and I opted for a high key effect. Finally, I added a catchlight to the eye. It was not there in the original but judges, without exception in my experience, always want to see one. It is a dilemma. Pictorial purity or marks? I went for the latter.
My first attempt at printing was not a success. I chose a lustre paper and set the longest edge to 36 centimetres, my standard size for competition prints. It was way too large for such a subject and the paper unsuitable. I eventually settled for 24 cm and a matte paper, Fotospeed’s Smooth Cotton 300. It is one of their Signature papers, which bears Joe Cornish’s name and has his endorsement.
I finished it off by setting it in a mount made using Daler’s Cumulus Cloud mountboard. It is not a pure white and has a swirly texture, which I like. It sets the print off very well. Normally the orientation of a print and mount work best when there is an alignment of their longest edges. That works less with a small print in a large mount, which is 50 cm x 40 cm as is customary at camera clubs. I rotated the mount through 90 degrees so its shortest edge went against the longest edge of the print. Too central a positioning within the mount would have looked too static, so I weighted it towards the top.
So how did my makeweight image do in the competition? The rules state that the monochrome contest is only open for new work. In a sense, one of my images was not new. I have had it in competition elsewhere and it has always done well. It was, though, the first time I had used it at my club. If there is one thing predictable about judges, it is that they are unpredictable and there is no such thing as a certainty. Predictably then, while it got a reasonable score, it was the least favoured of my submissions. That said, it is this shot and was the most daring/riskiest of the three compositions.
The swan? Well that came top.
Yes, the blog has been a bit quiet recently. There have been plenty of good intentions to write something. Ideas mulled, even articles started, yet never coming to fruition. Maybe inspiration was not quite there or, as has more often been the case, life intervenes.* Luckily my livelihood does not depend on posting regular updates and I can write as a hobby. Besides taking a break can recharge the batteries, as it were.
So here we are, another post started. If you are reading this then you will know this is the one to have broken through the logjam. My topic is one I have visited before, namely using adapted lenses. Back in the days of film, I shot an Olympus OM for many years. Eventually I switched to Canon when Olympus failed to adopt autofocus. There followed many years of using Canon, which included the switch from film to digital. Nowadays, Fuji cameras are my usual choice.
I had, though, retained my OM gear. Being manual focus, second hand value was never great. I always wondered how the lenses, bought new at some expense, would compare to their modern counterparts. After many years the opportunity finally came when I acquired a Fuji X-E2, which has various aids for manual focussing. That was never especially easy using the optical viewfinders on most DSLRs. Admittedly live view helps, but is not always convenient. It has been the introduction of mirrorless cameras which has really revitalised the use of older manual focus lenses. An increase in prices over recent years is testament to that.
True, with an APS-C sensor I do not use the full image circle of a lens intended for shooting 35mm film, but that is not an issue for me. People using adapted lenses generally fall into one of two types. Those who have an interest in how the lens performs technically or those who want to use the rendering characteristics as an integral part of the final image. Modern lens designs are great at achieving sharpness, but on occasion something a bit less clinical can be preferable. While I have an interest in performance, once evaluated I tend to use adapted lenses as part of my everyday photography.
My latest acquisition is a mint Pentax K SMC 50mm f/1.4, which does not look as though it has had much use. The lens also came with its original leather case, which is immaculate. It is the same optical design as the Super Takumar 50 f/1.4 with all metal construction and M42 mount. That is the version designed for Spotmatic cameras and the one for which classic lens collectors will usually opt. Pentax introduced the K mount in 1975 and my example could date from any time since then. The company does not publish details about manufacturing dates, but there have been several variations of the mount which is still current in AF guise. Mine appears to be to be the earliest version, so my best guess is that it is around 35 years old.
Stopped down, the lens is very sharp from f/2.8 onwards, but performance at wide apertures is where the interest lies. It remains sharp but can confer the subject with an ethereal quality. Nailing focus at f/1.4 can be tricky at close distances when I will often prefer to shoot at f/2. It helps that the extra depth of field benefits most subjects. The compact Pentax has justifiably earned its place with my regular kit. It is surprising how often it seems to find its way onto my camera.
Flowers As Subjects
Finding subjects which benefit from shallow focus can be tricky. One of my uses is to isolate the background when doing family shots. That is personal work, which I do not publish. A lot of people resort to flower photography. So why should I be any different? I found this one during a recent trip to Sissinghurst, the gardens created and made famous by authors Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. I was fortunate that conditions were overcast so there were no harsh shadows with which to contend. Additionally, there was no wind so the flower remained still. A useful consideration when focussing manually. I have some shots at f/1.4 which are sharp, but I used a setting of f/2 for this one.
Admittedly my botanical knowledge is not that great. I tend to lump anything with a bloom under the general category of being a “chrysanthemum”, but even I can tell this flower is not one of those. That stated, I have yet to find out what it is, hence its working title is “Unknown Flower”.
* Interruptions to writing this article have included:
- a call from my motor insurance company
- a visit from the window cleaners, who turn up ad hoc every few weeks
- contacting a company which should have made a delivery but failed to turn up
- a cold caller wanting to speak to “Mr Emm”.
The phone rang. It was a friend who is also a keen photographer. “What are you doing?”, she asked. As it happens, I was in the middle of editing this image. I had just completed the adjustments in Lightroom and was about to convert it to monochrome using Silver Efex Pro 2. When I said I liked the shot, she wanted to see it. I simply selected the Black and White option in Lightroom and sent her a copy in its interim state. It be would be fair to say that she was unimpressed.
One suggestion which my friend made, and which I took up, was a square crop. I had been experimenting with a 4 x 5 ratio, but there was not much happening on the left hand side. A square crop made more sense.
With the revised composition and the monochrome processing complete, the image got a much better reception. The conversion to black and white, using Silver Efex Pro 2, had brought out tones and textures which not been previously evident. There were two points of criticism. The first concerned the out of focus area at the bottom of the shot. The suggestion was to crop it to have more of the image in focus. The other advice was to straighten the vertical on the left.
The best way to view an image is to print it. Which I did as I wanted to see how valid the points raised were, in particular whether the shot requires complete front to back sharpness. In my opinion, the bottles are the focal point and the bread board provides a counterbalance. A moderate crop is possible, but I would not want to go too far. I like the way that the light falls on the board and the darker area holds the eye in at the bottom. Moreover, having the foreground out of focus helps give the image a feeling of depth and directs the eye to the main subject.
Regarding the leaning vertical, yes, it is a distortion. Not due to the lens, though, as the photograph was taken in a 14th century house. The wall might have been straight once, but time has long since intervened. Given that diagonals provide more dynamic tension than horizontal or vertical lines, I see no reason to apply a correction. If correction is the right word, given that is how it was. From the age of everything in the scene, it should be apparent to the viewer that the building has acquired some character during its existence. The sloping wall is telling its own story.
Thus was not a photo which I expected to take. I had seen this lily a number of times as I walked past it each day to buy my newspaper. An attractive flower, certainly, but that was all. It was growing in someone’s front garden right by the pavement, but I had not thought anything more of it. On this particular day, heavy overnight rain had left water droplets which gave it that something extra.
Fortunately, I had my camera with me. That is not usually the case but on this occasion I was able to get a couple of shots. It shows that even on a familiar walk when there seems to be little of interest, the unexpected can occur. Carrying a camera can pay didvidends and this was one one of those times.
I did experiment with a black and white version, but after leaving it for a day or so before coming back to it, I decided I preferred it in colour. This is a subject which can look good in monochrome, but not on this occasion. There are actually very few colours and the yellow stamen lifts the image, giving added interest. Which is another lesson. It often pays to wait a while before making a final decision about the treatment of an image. The initial reaction is not always the best one.
This post is part of my occasional “Photo of the Day” series. I publish shots which I think might be of interest and tell the story behind them. They might not necessarily be portfolio standard images, nor the final version, but still be of sufficient interest for inclusion in my blog. If I do not show a shot on any given day, it does not mean that I did not take any photographs, just that I did not get anything worthwhile. For me, that is part of the fun of photography. Not knowing what I will find on a shoot when I have nothing planned.