Checklists

So you’re off to shoot something specific – what do you take? What if the event is special or not repeatable? What if something goes wrong?

I don’t shoot photos under these sort of constraints, but I’m no stranger to the planning. I regularly (pre bug) go diving. Even the closest site is an hour from home. So I have often had that feeling of terror that I’ve forgotten something. If we’re out on a boat there’s also the dread of finding that something important is still in the car.

Enter the checklist. An A4 page printed on both sides. One is all the kit that has to go in the car. The other side is what needs to be taken to the boat. It’s laminated so I can mark it off as I go. It doesn’t stop me worrying, but I know that if the list is ticked, I’m good. I have also made up prepacked sets of equipment to help. All the underwater camera gear is in a plastic tool tray. There’s a camera bag with a rangefinder kit and there used to be one with a medium format kit. Ready to go without searching for bits.

pack list

There’s also the procedural checklist. In my work I’ve had to do some complex tasks, sometimes repeating them. I’ve also had to organise people to follow a standard procedure.

Enter the checklist again. In this case it’s every step to be taken, with no assumptions and total clarity on what needs to be done. And you tick each step as you go. Then, when you are inevitably interrupted, you can resume where you left off. You can also step back and list the tools or ingredients you need before you start. When developing film that means not just checking I have the chemicals, but that they are fresh.

The final step is the planning, which includes the alternative steps for when things happen. Where do I have to be and when? Where can I park or put my stuff? Who is my contact? What if it rains?

Run every scenario you can think of. Make notes. Draw diagrams or maps. The benefit here is that you can plan your alternates with a cool head and then know, when things go bad, that you can follow the plan. What happens otherwise is that you make bad choices under pressure. For example, the Apollo 11 guidance computer rebooted as it was landing on the moon. The engineer responsible in Mission Control had already played-out that scenario and made good decisions. NASA learned this after the failure of Apollo 1 but then forgot and had to learn it again with Challenger.

A more recent example used in a lot of studies for problem solving and decision making was BA flight 9. Gliding a jumbo jet with dead engines, facing trying to get over the mountains or ditch in the sea. They tried to restart the engines without success. So what did they do? Follow the documented engine restart procedure again.

Ok, so none of my decisions will ever be this critical. Mine are at the level of ‘what if I’m delayed?’ Or ‘what if the battery runs out?’. I use Waze to guide me when driving as it routes around congestion. I use What3Words to find and mark my destinations – I can be accurate to the correct door in a street and it feeds the destination into Waze. In the diving world we prepare a safety sheet for the place where we are diving. It has important telephone numbers, the nearest decompression chamber, access routes – everything you need to know when you don’t have the time to look for it.

Safety

There’s one more thing that helps avoid mistakes: labelling. I used to do chemical analysis in a lab, so I became a bit obsessive about labelling. Two clear solutions in beakers, which is which? In the lab I used a wax pencil. These days it’s white electrical tape. If I pick up a camera I know if it’s loaded or not, and what with. That label stays with the film through until it’s developed.

So there you go – the blogger’s guide to avoiding fup ducks:

  • Packing list
  • Method list
  • Alternates
  • Labels

Plans may not survive contact with the enemy, but planning does.

The hall of fame

What do you do with your pictures when you have taken them? Put them on Instagram? Print them and put them in an album? Ignore them and take some more?

There’s an idea I copied that makes me happy every time I look at it: the hall of fame.

Our previous house had a corridor between two bedrooms and this is where it started. I got a load of small picture frames from Ikea or anywhere I could get them cheap. They were all around the size to take a 6×4 print. I then went through my files and printed pictures of friends, family, relatives. I printed copies of old family portraits and snaps taken with phones.

Then the walls got covered in a random layout of pictures. In this case more really is more.

When we moved to the current house we had a study instead of a corridor, so it was lined with pictures. None of them is art – these are the snapshots of people and events that make you smile. This is why we carry cameras and why photography should be easy – to capture moments with people you love and like (and family).

fame

Because we are all working at home now and meeting by video, I know that covering the walls with pictures is not a common thing. In grim times it is a happy thing though. There’s my dad on national service, my granny in uniform and our kids pulling faces. Over there are friends grinning or fooling about and the pair of us gurning like fools.

It makes me happy.

One lens

My first camera didn’t have a zoom lens. It was a while before I could afford a second lens, so I learned the basics with a “standard” lens – a 40 degree angle of view. This is supposed to match the normal field of vision of the human eye, which it does not. Perhaps the ‘perspective‘ (meaning diminution) matches, which is more likely.

Zooms were great though – my favourite is a Pentax 24-50mm. I’ll bet though that a lot of zooms are used at one end or the other of their range and not much in between. There used to be a number of point and shoot cameras that offered two switchable focal lengths rather than a zoom. I know I had one for a while. It made a lot of sense – easier to make, quicker to use and probably got exactly the same shots.

I wonder though if sticking to a single fixed lens might be a useful exercise? I know that 35Hunter does a thing of using one camera with one lens for one month. I’m not sure I could be that disciplined. If anything, it would be the one month that was hardest. I’ve regularly been out with one camera and one lens, but I will change the combination depending on where I’m going. Not at all like the old days where the camera and lens of choice were the (only) ones I owned.

These days I have more lenses but I find myself swapping them less often. After that initial period with only my standard lens I had the standard hobbyist set of wide, standard and long. In those days it meant 28mm, 50mm and 135mm on 35mm film. (That’s 65, 40 and 15 degrees angle of view) I was constantly swapping lenses. The main reason was that I had them with me – I used to carry a huge bag stuffed with lenses and gadgets. As I got older I tended to cut down on the camera gear and carry things that were more useful, like drinking water or a map.

So what’s the big deal? I think I might have a go at the 35Hunter 1:1:1 challenge to see what effect simplicity has. Even though I take great joy from being able to play with different kit, it would be interesting to go back to the basics and my roots and see what happens when I have to work within constraints (and not the Konstruktor challenge). A good starting point could be that I’ve got a couple of cameras loaded already. I’m going to flip a coin and carry just one of them until it’s done, then swap to the other. Make that three – I’ve just found another one that’s loaded and part shot.

Choices

Which should it be then? The Pentax is loaded with Kentmere 400, the Mercury with Kentmere 100 and the Ricoh with some Kodak colour print film. The Pentax it is. If nothing else, it will get some part-used film finished.

Have a go yourself. See what happens.

National Geographic

Despite the death of printed media, National Geographic seems to have continued to circulate every month since 1888. It has always been a pioneer and a showcase for photography. I confess to only flicking through copies in waiting rooms though – it was always both out of reach and not a thing we did when I was going up.

There was always that hint of imperialism too, in a ‘look at the quaint natives’ sort of way. I could be totally wrong about that though. Like I say, I was never a regular reader. All that I can really remember about it was the great photography.

Then I found a best of book in a charity shop. It’s called Through the lens: National Geographic greatest photographs. And it probably does what it says on the cover.

img_20201114_07495914023703385206484456.jpg

First impression? That photography got technically better. Look at a landscape (yes – yawn) shot on slide film and compare it with the digital stuff, even on somewhere like DIY Photography. Modern photography has finer resolution, wider dynamic range and endless opportunities for post-shot manipulation. Look at a National Geographic page and you see slide film – saturated colours, blocked shadows, high contrast. Technically you are looking at pictures spanning more than a hundred years. Some of them would be thrown out of a local camera club competition for not being sharp. But then you look at the pictures and begin to understand that the content matters more than the quality.

Remember Steve McCurry’s picture of the Afghan girl? It was on the front cover in June ’85. Seventeen years later he found the woman again and took another picture of her, holding a print of the original shot. You could say it’s a straight ‘stand against that wall, hold this, look at me, click’. But the girl was remarkable for her eyes and the woman is veiled. It makes you want to know the story.

Perhaps that is the best side of National Geographic – pictures that provoke interest and stories that explain and understand. Rather than a prurient interest in ‘foreigners’ it’s about confirming that we are all the same. Really – if the entire population of the world was wiped out except the people of Peru, humans would still retain 85% of their genetic diversity. (Superior; Angela Saini). So there is no them, only us.

[Which hasn’t stopped an idiotic political party segregating people by their names.]

There’s also the joy of being nosy. We’re social animals, so we spend a lot of time watching each other. It’s why groups of teenagers can’t just have fun – they have to have noisy fun so that other people know they are having fun. A person I know loves darker evenings, as people put their lights on but don’t pull their curtains. She’s not interested in the people as such but loves seeing other people’s houses. And it’s why I think empty landscapes can be boring.

Anyway – if you can get hold of some back issues of National Geographic, see what you think. And do get over the sharpness thing.

Kissed with a seal

This was written prior to the latest lockdown.
——————————————————-

Back in the water for some socially-distanced diving! Yay!

I should explain. There’s a group of us. Our reason for being a group is to take people diving who have physical and learning disabilities. Because you may not be able to walk on land but you can fly underwater. Covid stuffed that, as it did so many other things. We can’t safely do the necessary close contact and the pool we use has had to close. The side effect was diving withdrawal. I was showering with a scuba mask on. I was diving in lakes. We all needed time in the brine.

Then we got the opportunity to dive with the seals at the Farnes. The first attempt was cancelled due to the weather – we have to be able to get back on the boat so the waves can’t be too high. But then Poseidon smiled and we got to do some safe, well spaced and properly masked dives from an open boat (we’re missing it, not dying for it).
It was an auspicious start, looking at the rolling waves, as we left from luxury.nothing.twitching. Getting back on the boat is a serious business – we went to the outer group of islands near the Longstone lighthouse. Even the shortest swim to shore from there would be three miles. On the open water on the way out we lost sight of land when the boat was corkscrewing between wave crests. (Follow the link to the Farnes above and see how many ships have run into them).

We do try to get to the Farne Islands each year when the new seals are born. We are not there for the newborns but for the youngsters – probably last year’s babies. They are inquisitive and fun and both they and the adults seem to be comfortable with divers in the water. (Serious aside – if you do visit one of the places where the newborns are on land, do not disturb or bother them. It’s unkind for a start, and then realise that the mother weighs more than you and has teeth and claws. So take the longest lens you own.)

Sealed with a kiss
Sealed with a kiss

How close you get and how much interaction you have are totally controlled by the seals – they are beautiful and sleek swimming machines, and I’m a fat old bloke in a rubber suit. But if you’re lucky they will come over to see what you’re doing, nibble your fins and try to steal anything shiny. The yearlings behave just like puppies and mouth at you in the same way.

Farnes

 

I have dived there before with a video camera as it’s small and has nothing to fiddle with but an on/off switch. This time I wanted to get some stills as well. So it’s my working-man’s dive camera – a humble Canon Ixus 750 point and shoot in a housing with an extra external flash. I’ve been fighting with this for a while to get the lighting balance right between the external and built-in flashes, but I think I’ve finally got it.

It’s a joy though, both to be back in the water and interacting with the seals. These are wild animals but they are inquisitive and happy enough to come up and nudge you.

Farnes

 

There were a lot of seals in the water. Even some of the mature seals came over for a look, which is rare. They must have missed the taste of diver during these lockdown times.

Farnes

 

Yes, it’s British diving, so it’s cold and murky. But who would want to miss an opportunity like this?


And for the photographically inclined, this is where autofocus and auto flash exposure pays off. Despite being in a quite kinetic environment, the majority of my pictures worked. I could never have done this with a Nikonos.
You also want the widest lens you can, to get as close as possible, to reduce the amount of murky water between you and the subject.
And just occasionally, you need a camera that you can work one-handed so that you can fend off a seal who wants to steal the shiny thing. I haven’t shown it here because it’s just a blur, but I have one shot of a seal pressing its nose against the end of the lens.

So that was my first and probably last sea dive this year. It reminds me why we do it.

Minimalism

I should have known. I would have known if I’d thought about it. Just as there is Rule 34 for the internet, so in photography: if you can think of it, there’s a movement and special interest group for it.

I was surprised to learn that there was a minimalist photography competition. Then I was surprised that I was surprised, as I said.

Not that it’s a bad thing – quite the opposite. I like the Zen balance of the fewest number of elements or the counterpoint of simple shapes. I’ve heard the idea that you should dress-up to go out and then at the door remove one item. Minimalism is, to me, the removal of all but the essential (don’t try to picture me going out in just my underpants).

Swinsty Reservoir

So I went and had a look at the minimalist photography awards. As you would expect, a mixed bag. Some is very good indeed while some is either too busy or just not very good. The way the competition is organised is interesting though and appears to be self funding. You pay to enter, the winners get cash prizes, probably covered by the entry fees, and get to download and print their own winning certificate. I may be totally wrong, but it has a sense of the vanity publishing industry for writers (give us money and we will print your book). I’m sure I must be wrong – the awards are backed by a magazine and the winners did get some press coverage.

Photography, like publishing, probably has a strong power law for the distribution of income: a few people make a lot and a lot make very little. There is a difference in the work involved though. Writing a book might take you a year, so it requires serious effort and commitment. Taking a picture is effectively free. This is why I hear of professional photographers being undercut by anyone with a camera and why people are asked to do work in return of ‘exposure’.

It used to be that book publishing was such an investment that there was strong filtering: a publisher would invest in a known quantity like a successful author but needed to be pretty certain before betting on a new one (hence the power law of income). The vanity publishing industry catered for the people who wanted to be published and were prepared to pay to obtain a box of books they could give to friends. And then along came print on demand. Now I can put my masterpiece online and give people a link to print their own copy. On the whole it costs less for the prospective author and probably sells as many copies. (I do know whereof I speak: I self-published a book that was later taken-up by a publisher, but that was due more to chutzpah than talent.)

What’s the photography equivalent? I suppose there are places like Instagram where you can effectively publish for free and places like Etsy where you can sell prints. Then there are ‘zines (who wants to even think maga in these times?). Most of these seem to be small-run, quirky, and are given away or sold for little more than cost (go read Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow about the margins and money streams in mainstream publishing). Small-scale guerilla publishing of pictures or words are marvellous and not to be dismissed. Just don’t expect to be Barbara Cartland. And I have no idea who the photographic equivalent of our Babs would be – Ansel Adams?

So why am I on my soapbox? I like minimalist pictures very much. I like a lot of the award winning pictures in this competition. Paying a fee to enter a competition may set a useful barrier to the less serious or committed (see above for the zero marginal cost of one photo) and it may build to a prize fund worth having. The winners probably got what they wanted and we’re all happy. So let me wind-in whatever neck I had extended and take the whole thing at face value. The correct judgement to use here is Occam’s razor, not Hanlon’s.

Go and look at the gallery of minimalist images and see what you think.

Update on shooting IR

Having converted a Panasonic camera to shoot infrared and built a little push-on hood to hold the special filter, I had second thoughts. Part of it was looking at the work of Pierre-Louis Ferrer on Petapixel and his own website. Obviously, I’m not that good, but I liked what he was doing.

I realised that I normally use mono film, so what was my reason for not putting the IR filter directly in front of the sensor? Besides, fitting the filter inside the camera did away with the fiddly lens hood.

I also had a close look at Ferrer’s work and I think he is using a luminosity mask to do split toning. He is applying a pale khaki tone to the highlights and possibly a touch of blue to the shadows.

So for my next trick I found a useful YouTube video on creating luminosity masks in Photoshop Elements (as I’m too cheap to spring for the full version, and it does all I could want). The basic idea is to create a mask that controls where an effect works, based on the brightness of the image. So you can do something like tone the highlights a delicate shade without changing the mid-tones or shadows.

On my first attempts I realised that the highlights in my IR images were totally blown out. Back to the camera and play with the settings. IR mono scenes are very high contrast and the camera was not holding the highlights. Since I actually want the shadows to go black, I set the camera to underexpose by one stop.

Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I had a chance to go out for a walk in sunshine (I felt like a battery-hen on day release), so I took the remodified camera. With a dog lead round one wrist I was very glad to not be fiddling with the filter.

YSP sculpture
First go with luminosity masking

So the update is that I’ve fiddled with and adjusted the camera and learned a new technique.

Not bad for a day out.

Infrared conversions

I have Peggy to thank for this.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the look of infrared photography. I even got to shoot a roll of the famous Kodak HIE before it dodo’ed.

I went so far as to convert an old Agfa Super Silette to IR-only by fitting (gluing) a piece of infrared filter behind the lens. That didn’t work too well at first because I misjudged the exposure. What I really wanted though was an IR-converted digital camera so I could see the results as I was taking the pictures. This involves removing the infrared absorbing filter that sits in front of the sensor. I didn’t have a spare dSLR and my various other digital cameras were too difficult or too expensive, so it went on the wish list.

Agfa IR

That’s a bit of Lee polyester IR filter (730nm cut-off) behind the lens.

And then came Peggy’s article about Panasonic Lumix compacts. It seems that the sensor, and hence the filter, are ‘easily’ accessible through the back of the camera. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing was to find a suitable camera. There are loads on fleabay, but the prices vary quite a lot. There are even some that have already had the filter removed – it seems that people attach them to rifles as a night sight. Eventually one turned up that was the right type but suitably undesirable, so cheap.

The screwdrivers were the next issue. I have several sets of jeweller’s screwdrivers that I have accumulated, but the camera used particularly tiny screws. Eventually a specs repair kit yielded a suitably tiny screwdriver. And then as soon as I got the back off the camera I went looking for a magnet – I didn’t want to be turning the camera over to shake out any screws I dropped. A few swipes over the magnetic clasp of a camera bag made the screws stick to the screwdriver and we were away. It really was fairly simple to lift away the sensor and remove the IR filter. I then cut a tiny piece from my Lee IR filter (8 by 10mm) to go in its place. This makes the camera permanently IR only, but means that I don’t need to mount a fragile bit of filter gel on the front of the lens. Besides, I can always go back in and remove it now I know how.

Challenge two is to charge the battery. The camera came without a charger, hence it was cheap. I have a USB cable that fits the camera, but this doesn’t charge the battery. I tried hot-wiring the battery + and – terminals to a USB cable (which delivers 5v) and to a 4.5v mains adapter. No joy. It looks like the battery also needs the ground terminal connected, which is why proper chargers have three pins and not two. So a charger is on its way to me from China. <interlude with hold music> The charger arrived and did its chargey thing and then we were charged.

And it only darned well worked! The first shot out into the garden looked like it had been snowing. I immediately took the dog for a walk and photographed everything.

IR 1

So it works very well indeed. But… Now I know why nobody fits the IR cut-off filter inside the camera. It restricts you to mono-only pictures without the option of the weird false colour effect you can get without the filter. So how to fit a filter to a camera with a pop-out lens?

Taking the IR-cutoff filter out was easier than fitting it in the first place, as I knew the sequence and the non-obvious screw that has to be removed. Without the IR cut-off filter in front of the sensor the autofocus hunts a bit. This is probably because visible and infrared light focus at different points. Fair enough – the camera has a setting that gives priority to infinity focus, so that’s what I went for. That didn’t work very well, but the next option was to use multi-point focus rather than a single spot. That seems to work a lot better.

Back to the bits box, and the benefit of hoarding old junk is that you can cobble some of it into gadgets. There in the box, previously unloved, was a 29mm push-on filter. The outermost segment of the lens, when it telescoped out, was 29.3mm diameter. The push on filter was thin brass. The crude and violent use of a socket and a hammer spread the mouth of the filter to be a snug fit over the lens. In the same box was a lens hood that was a reasonable fit over the filter. A trial fit showed that it was too deep and vignetted the corners. A few minutes with a hacksaw took care of that. A dab of glue and hello push fit IR cut-off filter with wide angle hood.

SHADE

And now I can play. With the hood on and the camera in mono mode, I have the traditional Wood effect of white leaves and black skies. With the hood off I get the false-colour effect of purple leaves and weirdness. Most excellent!

IR 3

Plus, pop the filter back on and I can do the high contrast black and white thing.

Monk Stray

So, many thanks to Peggy for the tip that this could be done at home.

PS
I have refitted the cutoff filter in front of the sensor. The external filter/hood gadget worked but I was in constant danger of dropping something while fiddling it on and off.
There’s an update here.

Strap-ons

What’s the best way to carry a camera? The obvious answer is a bag, but what about when you want the camera handy?

Back when we wore flares and cheesecloth the answer would have been a neck strap. I’ve still got a box full of neck straps somewhere. You end up with the camera bouncing on your chest and it looks like you are advertising it.

Ammo
20 year-old me (bless). Ignore the bad hair and look at the thin camera strap and army-surplus gadget belt. I’ve never been one to let style stand in the way of substance…

You can sling the strap over a shoulder but like many people, my shoulders slope down, not up. I once had a photographer’s jacket – one of those waistcoat jobs with lots of pockets. That was in the days before it could be mistaken for a bomb vest. One good feature (the only?) was that it had a button sewn on the point of the shoulder. This was great for keeping a camera strap from sliding off, but I’m not sewing buttons onto all my jackets.

I’ve seen events photographers using a waistbelt or a bandolier arrangement that lets them holster one or more big digital cameras. Ideal for what they do but impractical for me. I can’t see the need in normal situations to be able to quick-draw my chip-shooters.

Generally, a camera is in my bag or in my hand. When the camera has a full length strap I generally loop a turn about my wrist. This keeps the strap from flapping in front of the lens and acts as a safety stop if I drop the camera. I’ve seen some of the street photographers using wrist straps. I admit that at first I thought they were a bit too groovy, like neck-beards or man-buns (see total lack of groove in the photo above). But since I was already doing something similar with a neck strap, I tried making one. Obviously I wanted to try this idea before spending real money on it. A bit of rope left over from replacing the dog’s lead and a strong split ring and I think it works pretty well. The length is right to let me carry the camera in one hand in and secure enough that I’m not going to drop it. OK – score one to the hipsters: it works.

Strap 2

So my basic walking-around kit became the camera in a shoulder bag if I don’t need it ready, and when I do the camera is carried in one hand with the wrist strap on. I’m right handed so this leaves my left hand free to use a light meter or change lenses. I like it – it’s discrete. I have been doing the same thing with a neck strap, which is to take a couple of turns around my wrist, but I wanted to see if this was better.

Strap 1
Spot the lens. I will be writing about it in future.

But while a bit of paracord is not as cool-looking as a dedicated wrist strap, it does give me the option of slinging the camera over a shoulder if I need both hands for something.

Vic would prefer I kept hold of the rope.

But hanging the camera from one hand for general strolling about – ideal. The only thing that is easier is my digital SLR, which has a prominent grip (for the right-handed). This makes it even more secure to carry the camera hanging from one hand with a couple of turns of the strap around my wrist.

On the whole though, and having tried the wrist strap, I find myself going back to the neck strap. I can double it round my wrist to give me the discrete hand carry, but it also lets me sling it over a shoulder when I need to open a gate or un/clip the dog’s lead.

So yes, I’m glad I didn’t buy an expensive wrist strap but also glad I tried the idea out.

Shooting pets

Is harder than you would think. I know a guy who specialises in pet photography and he must be a mixture of lighting technician, sports photographer and saint.

For a start, pets are usually smaller than people. This means you need to get close, but you also need to get low to be nearer their level (and besides, dogs can’t look up). But close means shallower depth of field. And since pets are often arranged horizontally rather than vertically the fall-off in sharpness may be more noticeable.

Fur also soaks up light. I’ve got some pictures that include a black dog and it might as well be a hole in the film.

Wet dog, direct flash
Wet dog, direct flash, pushed film. Not the ideal combination.

Flash can still be useful, as the buggers won’t keep still or pose. You have to watch out for highlights in the fur though, as it can be surprisingly glossy. Think of your subject being a mixture of Vantablack and mirrors.

Horse
A touch of flash can make them look sleek

You also run the risk of startling the animal. One time I was shooting someone jumping fences on their horse. I so wanted to use flash to get a bit of light into the subject and freeze the motion, but I was advised that startling a horse mid-air while standing that close was a bad idea (still not one of the ten worst things though). Dogs and cats (and many others) have also got reflective retinas, meaning their eyes light up like a zombie apocalypse if you get the angles wrong. But if you don’t use any lighting you can lose the catch-lights in their eyes and make the animal look like it was stuffed.

The best lighting seems to be big, soft sources like a large window. It means you can see the detail in the fur and the eyes.

C
Those really are his eyelashes

This is where digital wins totally over film. You can shoot hundreds of pictures and review them instantly. You’ve got autofocus. You can judge the exposure right off the back of the camera.

Or you wait until they are asleep.

Sparky

And even though I wouldn’t want my mate’s job, at least it’s not shooting weddings.