Archive for Photography

War in the Park festival 2010

// September 4th, 2010 // No Comments » // News, Photography

I had the great pleasure of attending London’s underground War in the Park festival last weekend – and the even greater pleasure of missing the torrential downpour that left most people huddled under a tarpaulin serenaded by raindrops and the inimitable Country Al‘s Lonesome Guitar. I caught his set at the warmup gig in Brixton Market a week before, so don’t feel as upset about missing it as I otherwise would.

Country Al at War in the Park - pictured here with a harmonica, on account of me missing his Lonesome Guitar set

I’ve been to a lot of music festivals since taking part in Pitchshifter’s stage invasion that opened Phoenix ’95, and they’ve all got something different going for them but they all share some common commercial ground – even the boutiques like Winterwell, rising up to fill the gaps as the older boutiques like Bestival grow.

Bleak - acoustic set at War in the Park

War in the Park is a little different, entirely dropping the commercial angle and concentrating on an eclectic mix of acoustic music, poetry and spoken word curated by Anton and Yvonne of Bleak.  You are unlikely to watch Guns’n'Roses close off the day with a headlining set, but then again that’s rare even when you pay £150 for a festival they’re billed as headlining… instead you get to relax with a hundred or so chilled out people (and some bemused locals) in a park of Anton’s choice (it’s only announced a few days before) listening to some slightly more ethical musicians than Axel, more likely to hold forth on justice or sustainability than how annoying it is to be paid a lot of money to do something and then have to do it.

Joe Law crowd surfing to the poetry of SP Howarth at War in the Park 2010

Particular highlights were the first ever recorded crowd surf at a poetry gig, bravely performed by Mr Joe Law to the lyrics of SP Howarth, and an acoustic performance of Absinthe by Bleak – which they rarely play live but really should.  I’m reliably informed that it will be on the new album, but this is the same album that has been coming for several years so don’t hold your breath.

Closing set of War in the Park - not G'n'R, you can tell because they're there and they're playing music rather than bitching about stuff

I do feel semi-obliged to mention and review all of the other acts, but then again I’d just say nice things, if alcohol allowed me to remember all of their names. I urge you all to track them down here and listen to their stuff, in a legally responsible fashion. Herbal viagra optional.

Roll on next year’s War… in the meantime, photos of this year’s destruction are here.

Zenitar 16mm Fisheye on Full Frame 5Dmk2 – Distortion Examples

// August 14th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Photography

I’ve been using the lens a fair amount since I wrote up my first impressions, and I don’t think they’ve changed.  The poor lens cap regularly falls off, but otherwise I think it’s pretty much ideal for a special effect lens like this – light enough to carry around without noticing, good enough quality for the occasional snap when a good scene presents itself, and cheap enough that you don’t have to think too hard before ordering.

I used it more than I expected in Florence earlier this summer, getting this complete shot of the Duomo’s ceiling by sitting the camera on the floor, moving as far away as I could get and setting off the shot with a remote trigger cable:

Giant interiors are always pretty hard to capture with a more conventional lens and the fisheye works nicely with the columns.

I took a few other shots through a square metal grille which show off the distortion provided with the lens on a full frame body (click for larger versions):

Canon vs. Nikon – Unscientific Stats…

// May 30th, 2010 // No Comments » // Photography

I’ve been noticing two camera related things when I go out recently – firstly there are a huge number of people carrying SLRs around these days, and secondly they appear to be almost exclusively Canon.

Last weekend I decided to quentify the second point with a little test.  I walked down the (crowded) Embankment in London from St Paul’s Cathedral to Westminster Bridge on a sunny afternoon and counted up every brand I saw, 25 SLRs in total over about 20 minutes split like this:

If you were to take these stats at face value, it would look like Canon are outselling everyone else in the market combined by a ratio of two to one – no mean feat!  Three of those Canons were serious / pro-grade (L lenses), compared to one of the Nikons (and possibly some of the Others – I don’t know enough about the other brands to be able to say).

This is a very small sample taken in one place, but that one place was the middle of a very connected cosmopolitan city during tourist season so it probably represents a reasonable slice of the international market, with obvious UK bias.

I suspect the real global sales figures are not so extreme, but I still find this an interesting trend that quantifies something I’ve been thinking for a while.  Whilst Nikon currently has a signficantly higher mindshare among professionals than its overall market share, how long could they keep that up if most of the entry levels being sold into the market were Canons?  This generation’s pros are already set in their ways, but the next generation will be picking up whatever camera they can lay their hands on – either 2nd hand or their parent’s unused SLR bought back when they thought having an SLR would automatically make your pictures better.  Chances are it’ll be a Canon.

Anyone setting out to buy their own SLR will often end up buying whichever brand their mates have, because of advice bias from those friends – they’ll understand their brand better than the other – and also the potential to share kit.  This would again seem to reinforce market dominance for any brand that can gain signficiant market share.

The other effect this might have is to generate a skew in resources available for R&D.  No manufacturer can afford to have many new lenses being developed simultaneously, but if the sales skew generated significantly greater revenues for Canon it would over time start to pull ahead in the range of lenses it can offer, which might presumably have something of a feedback effect on its proportion of sales.  I have no idea how much of an issue this would actually be – both manufacturers have an excellent array of glass covering most needs, and 3rd parties like Sigma plug a lot of the gaps (like long tele-zooms); once you go above the really basic kit lenses though, most are sitll geared towards full frame sensors and a manufacturer who could make a more compelling upgrade path for crop sensor bodies might be able to do better.  I’ve no idea really but you can potentially see how Nikon might get upset.

However, it’s worth remembering that nothing stands still and a disruptive technology can easily humble a market leader within a few years – Apple is busy proving this in the mobile phone market, after all.

The most obvious candidate for that in higher-end photography would seem to be EVIL bodies – basically, everything people think of as “SLR” (interchangable lenses, easy to access manual settings, etc) without all the actual tedious and expensive bulk of  aSingle Lens Reflex moving mirror and prism.  Canon haven’t expressed any interest in that market that I’ve seen, because their SLRs seem to be selling very nicely thankyou and they’d probably rather not cannibalise those revenues before they have to – who knows if that’ll turn out to be a mistake.  Then again, they may have a crop sensor EF/EF-S compatible EVIL body just waiting in the wings for the day that their competitors have made the case for the concept to consumers, which will flood onto the market backed up by Canon’s entire lens catalogue.  I’d buy one as a backup body immediately.

Aperture, Light and Stops

// February 28th, 2010 // No Comments » // Photography

This is a diagram I drew to understand aperture numbers (the f numbers on a lens) and the concept of stops. In the graph, the gap between each bar is a stop (click to enlarge):

The most confusing thing was always the non-linear nature of stops – an increase of one stop of light means that the amount of light has doubled, a reduction by a stop means a halving of the light.

You can see the diaphragm of a lens here (the white circle in the centre, ie. the hole that lets the light through):

The Mechanics Behind the SLR

// February 17th, 2010 // No Comments » // Photography

A quick diagram I drew to explain the inners of an SLR, which is a mechanical setup that was developed to ensure the picture you see through the optical viewfinder matches the photo that will be taken:

This is how the mirror movement redirects the light to the sensor when a photo is actually taken:

Amusingly enough, you can view the complex mechanics that made the SLR so good for film as a drawback for the digital age – Live View, long a staple of point and shoot cameras, has been late in coming to SLRs because the whole mirror mechanism has to be bypassed.

Zenitar 16mm Fisheye on 5Dmk2 – First Impressions

// February 15th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Photography

I shoot most of my photos with wide angle lenses, so it was inevitable that I’d eventually buy a fisheye.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2


Given that ultrawide distortion is an easy thing to overuse though, I was looking for something in the £100-150 sweet spot – good enough to bother using, cheap enough to bother buying. Sigma and Canon models all come in over £400, so they were instantly out. That leaves two real contendors, with quite different characteristics:

  1. Zenitar 16mm f2.8 – 180 degrees corner to corner on a full frame body like the 5Dmk2, but useless on a crop sensor body
  2. Pelang 8mm f3.5 – projects a full circle on a full frame (ie. a circle in the middle of the exposure, with black all around)

As I have a full frame body, the 15mm was the obvious choice – it produces normal rectangular photos but with just enough distortion on the edges to be interesting. I am pretty certain that whilst the 8mm circle look can be cool, it would also get a lot less use than the more subtle 15mm.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2


I purchased my Zenitar for about £125 from MoscowPhoto on eBay. It arrived in under 2 weeks – a week faster than they suggested it would take.
The factory ships this lens with an old M42 mount, which usually requires an adapter but MoscowPhoto had fitted an EOS mount – this works perfectly and saves some hassle.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2


The lens looks very 70s, and it’s relatively lightweight, but for the money build quality is fine.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2

Picture quality is impressive for the money, as long as the lens is kept stopped down to f11 or f22. With such an enormous field of view that’s sensible anyway, as it would be hard to keep everything in focus at a wider aperture. There is a little vignetting, and in two of the four corners it is impossible to avoid small triangles of black, but it isn’t that noticable and can usually be hidden by the composition.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2

I don’t have the skills or the inclination to do any formal testing of the lens, but you can find my first batch of experiments on Picasa if you’d like to look. They were shot as S-RAW2, tidied a little in Lightroom and then shrunk to 1600px for Picasa, so not directly as the camera shot them, but a fair representation.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2

My subjective opinion is that at f11 and above the field was sharp enough to make me happy shooting handheld, a tripod would no doubt help – at which point the key issue for sharpness would be focussing, hard to do across the whole frame. There is noticable chromatic abberation, but it’s a fisheye so I won’t lose sleep over it. Colour saturation is disappointing compared to good glass, with colours coming out quite flat, but you can compensate in RAW and for an occasional use trick lens I don’t think it’s an issue.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2

Shooting Tips

Using such a narrow aperture obviously does make it hard to use the lens indoors. I found it could be used handheld in a dark room at ISO 2500-3200, which after some judicious editing in Lightroom produced acceptable pictures – I doubt you could use them as professional stock photos, but they’d be acceptable for small prints, web use etc. Your mileage with other bodies will vary, of course – the 5Dmk2 is spectacularly good at high ISO, so they work well together in this respect.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2

In good light, handheld shooting was easy – remembering to manually focus was the only real issue, and was easiest done by guesstimating using the distance markings on the dial. Speaking of manual dials, it’s worth noting that everything will have to be done manually with this lens – the camera cannot read the Aperture you have manually selected, so you have to work in Manual or Tv mode and do some test shots whenever the light changes. In practice this really isn’t challenging, and doesn’t require virtuoso knowledge of light metering. Obviously shooting RAW and using a body with good high ISO is very helpful here.

Zenitar 15mm fisheye photo with Canon 5Dmk2

Overall, I’m really pleased with this lens and think it makes a great companion to a full frame SLR. The level of distortion can be subtle or extreme depending on composition and distance from subject, and works particularly well if you avoid aligning with strong horizontals and verticals. That said, it will take me a while to work out what sort of compositions it can usefully be used for, but it is light enough that you can carry it round just in case whatever the trip.

If you have a crop sensor body, however, you’ll need to look elsewhere…

Angles of View and Crop Factors

// February 5th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Photography

Here are some more diagrams I drew to try and understand photography, specifically to understand crop factors and lens lengths.

Sensor Crop Factors

Every camera has a rectangular sensor which captures light. A “full frame” sensor is the same size as an old film negative – 35mm from bottom left to top right corner. Expensive SLRs use full frame sensors, but cheaper ones (such as any Canon in the x0D, xx0D and x000D ranges) use smaller sensors. The size of the sensor is described as its crop factor.

This diagram demonstrates the common crop factors found in digital SLRs (click to enlarge):

This explains why a larger crop factor will reduce vignetting (the darkening around the corners of a photo):

Note that we are talking here about conventional lenses designed for full frame cameras. Most manufacturers now also produce lenses which only work on crop factor sensors, such as Canon’s EF-S lens. These project a circle which does not reach the edge of a full frame sensor; understandably, these will vignette worse than the equivalent length lens designed for a full frame sensor.

Camera Lens Angles of View

The focal length of a lens is the number, quoted in mm, which indicates how close or far away things will look through it. This can be considered as an ‘angle of view’ – a larger focal length will produce a smaller angle of view – and a closer image. Think of it as the angle from the lens to the left edge across to the right edge of the frame.

Angles of view for a “full frame” sensor (click to enlarge):

In contrast, here are the angles of view for a 1.6x crop sensor:

For easier comparison, here they are side by side:

Saving a Dull Club Photo

// January 31st, 2010 // No Comments » // Photography

Often when taking a club photo you’ll just miss that cool background strobe, and end up with an underwhelming dark portrait that isn’t really usable. That’s fine if you have plenty of good ones in the bag, but sometimes you need a little help. That’s where Lightroom comes to the rescue!

Here’s an example of a picture straight out of the camera, that had potential but came out dull (click to enlarge):

A dull club photo, straight from the camera. (click to enlarge)

Basic Brightness

If you are following the recommendations from my earlier post on club photography, you’ll be shooting in RAW. That’s essential to the recovery process!
Rule #1 of club photos is that you want colour and vibrancy, and no black space. To achieve this we can start with four basic tricks:

  1. Bump up the ‘Exposure’ by a stop or so – keep an eye on the histogram, moving it as far right as you can without clipping the hilights (as this is a RAW photo, you should easily have an extra stop to spare without losing quality);
  2. Reduce the ‘Blacks’ setting, which brings out more detail in the dark areas;
  3. Increase the ‘Fill Light’ – this adds brightness to the dark areas, without compromising the well lit faces;
  4. Crop the image to remove as much of the black border as possible – you might even consider turning a landscape orientation photograph into portrait, or vice versa.

You should now have something a little more like this (click to enlarge):

Same photo, after brightening, showing crop marks (click to enlarge)

Bringing out the Background

That’s better, but there’s still a lot of dead black space. We can use one last trick to pull out more colour – use a Graduated Filter to increase the exposure on the black background another stop:

Using a graduation filter to improve the background (click to enlarge)

Note that whilst there is noise in the background, it’s relatively unimportant as the faces are the focus of the photo, and are still well balanced. The background is simply providing blurred colour to lift the picture.

The Salvaged Image

After only a minute or two of processing, we now have our salvaged photo – a significant improvement, without any visible loss in quality thanks to the wonders of the RAW format:

Hard and Soft Light

// January 23rd, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Photography

Ages back I had a plan to create a new site which explained photography using primarily diagrams with illustrative photos, and minimal text – built up as I learnt new techniques. One day I’m sure I’ll get round to creating it, but until then I thought I’d post up some of the diagrams and notes here!

Light Hardness

The hardness of lighting has a huge impact on a photo – soft light means subtle wide edges to shadows on the subject, wheras hard light would give a very defined sharp border between lit and shaded areas.
As a basic rule of thumb, soft light is flattering in a portrait, hard light is dramatic:

Portrait with softer lighting
Portrait with softer, flattering lighting

Portrait with harder lighting
Portrait with harder, dramatic lighting

The Strobist 101 course explains the basic concept of hard vs. soft light in some detail, with some nice setup photos. I tried to boil the lessons down to their essence:

Hard vs. Soft light - subject vs. light size (click to see full size)

In a nutshell – the bigger the light relative to the subject, the softer the light.

Hard vs. Soft light - impact of distance (click to see full size)

In a nutshell – the further away a light gets from the subject, the smaller it becomes relative to the subject and the harder the light is.

Certainly not rocket science, but I like to reduce things to simple rules and present them visually!

DIY Soft Box

While we’re on the subject, I may as well present my quick instructions for making a very portable soft box from a shoe box – a flash modifier for producing softer light.  It’s small, so only suitable for a limited range of uses, but it slips nicely into a camera/laptop bag next to the laptop and weighs next to nothing so there’s no real harm in carrying it around!

Materials: one shoe box, some sticky backed velcro strips, a few sheets of shiny white printer paper and about an A4 sheet of tracing paper – plus duct tape, if you want to make it look nicer and be more durable.
Tools: glue (something like Pritt Stick), and either good scissors or a Stanley knife.

DIY softbox step 1 - open up the shoe box

Step 1 – Open up the shoe box flat.

DIY softbox step 2 - mark where to cut

Step 2 – Mark out where to cut, which is driven by the size of your flash head – on the side flaps, put the head side on in the centre of the flap, and mark out diagonals to the top and bottom (it may be helpful to look at photo 5 to visualise how it will assemble in the end).

DIY softbox step 3 - cut with a Stanley knife

Step 3 – Cut out these diagonals, and most of the bottom of the box, with a Stanley knife. Fold the side flaps together, put the flash between them, and then fold the top and bottom flaps together; mark out diagonals on these top and bottom flaps so that you will be able to make a pyramid. Remember to leave tabs for the velcro (see next picture).

DIY softbox step 4 - stick white reflective paper inside, and tracing paper over the main hole

Step 4 – Cut the top and bottom flaps into shape, and then stick on the paper – white paper on all of the solid surfaces, and tracing paper across the big hole in the middle. If you have some duct tape, stick duct tape all across the back/outside of the box for strength. Add velcro to the tabs so that you can fold the box into a pyramid.

DIY softbox step 5 - use sticky velcro on the 'tab' cutouts and the back so it can assemble into a pyramid

This photo shows the softbox assembled, with the flash firing and at rest. Note that the flash head also has velcro around it, for quickly attaching modifiers – see Strobist for thoughts on that.

DIY softbox step 6 - undo velcro to pack it flat

Softbox flattened down for transport – it folds to about 1cm thick when it’s not under compression.

Art in Central London

// October 28th, 2009 // No Comments » // Photography

Last week I got to support some friends posing for the artist Richard Bagguley, dressed as a Roman soldier crucifying Jesus on Oxford St:

Richard was particularly looking for reactions from ordinary passers by, and has some genuinely interesting points to make. At the end of the video is a glimpse of André Camara, the photographer who’s story became the film City of God – who was just picked for the Brazilian 2012 paralympic rowing team, I discovered last night.

Jesus (SP Howarth) and my fellow Roman soldier (Andy) will be appearing in their play Baccus in Rehab at the end of November in Camden, which I strongly recommend – and not just because I designed the flyer and am taking the publicity shots!

One of André’s photos from the shoot was published in that weekend’s Independent on Saturday, and also appeared on the Express web site for a while but then got pulled down for mysterious reasons…