Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Steve McCurry Retrospective

Went to see a retrospective of American photo-journalist Steve McCurry's work in Birmingham at the weekend, and came away impressed on three levels.

First, and most importantly, the images, have a strong story line, an emotional 'hook' that makes you wonder how the people depicted got to that point and/or, what happened next? Good examples would be of a little boy crying whilst holding a gun (presumably a toy) to his head, and another of a smiling elderly tailor up to his neck in monsoon flood water, carrying a battered sewing machine on his shoulder.

I'm intrigued how I could create such strong emotional connections with images that are not of people, but of landscapes, or even if that's remotely possible? And, if not, what does that mean for my photography?

Second, the quality of the work is superb: timing; saturated colours; pin sharp details at exhibition size. All very impressive, and the latter especially so when you consider many are from 35mm film taken 20 years ago.

A sudden squall sent Birmingham shoppers scurrying for cover & this
parasol hurtling down the street past the window of the coffee shop...

Thirdly, what a great place Birmingham City Centre is these days, great shops, architecture, museum and a really nice atmosphere. We had lunch in one of the many restaurants over looking the canal. Even the weather was pretty good, despite the brief storm depicted above!

You can catch the exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, details here, it's on until mid October. If you can't get there, Steve McCurry's website is here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

TFTW: The Art of Science

This is my first in a series of Thoughts For The Week (TFTW), usually posted every Monday from now on.

My early educational background was in science, and the discipline instilled in me then has stuck with me, even if not much else has! To me science is an iterative process, about recording measurements, evaluating these objectively, and then designing some new tests (experiments) and repeating the process - in order to substantiate (note I didn't say prove) a theory.

In business, quality control and process improvement techniques follows similar lines - Six Sigma is a good example. However, in my experience, in business today the scientific approach is the 'path least trod'. Data is frequently incomplete or inaccurate, or is simply measuring the wrong thing. Managers jump to conclusions, perhaps fearing that patience and diligence will be mistaken for inactivity or indecisiveness.

The result is often impulsive actions that fail to achieve the improvements desired. This despite quite rigid and clear rules of statistical analysis that specify a minimum number of data points needed to make accurate and valid predictions. I vividly remember sharing the early results of some analysis with a Manager, carefully explaining why we needed to collect a little more data before drawing a conclusion. Despite their apparent agreement and wise nods, I had barely left the room before the Manager was sending an email stating 'our conclusions'.

In public life, the problem is made much worse by the plethora of media channels, and the appetite of the media for 'sound-bites' and neat packages taking up just 2 or 3 minutes. An example from the last few weeks here in the UK was an interview on the BBC. Oxford County Council has withdrawn funding for speed cameras in Oxfordshire, and the interviewee tried to give the impression that there would be an '80% increase in speeding' in the county as a result. Where was the science behind this? They had examined the results from 2 cameras (out of 72) over just 5 days since the removal of funding. I was pleased that in a later follow-up interview, a County Councillor was able to make the point that this 'analysis', and therefore the conclusion drawn, was flawed.

This post is not about speed cameras, but by coincidence, another example in the same week happens to be on the same subject. Here a Police Officer publicly accredits a reduction in road deaths to the use of speed cameras. So consider this quote from the UK Office of National Statistics (click here for the full article):

'The total number of deaths in road accidents fell by 7 per cent to 2,946 in 2007 from 3,172 in 2006. However, the number of fatalities has remained fairly constant over the last ten years.'

Firstly, I would suggest that a 7% variation from year to year for one year is statistically insignificant (note ONS doesn't draw any conclusions on this point). Now, just have a think about that second line. This is in a decade when there has been big improvements in vehicle safety - both passive and active*. The role played by speed cameras is at least unclear - we need some more science - proper analysis - to know and understand what's really going on.

Sadly, with a few exceptions, there seems to be little will (or schedule time) for today's journalists to challenge the sometimes outrageous claims made by interviewees. This is even when, as I hope I have demonstrated above, the raw data is in the public domain. I don't believe that there is any excuse for this, and I fear that things will only get worse unless later generations get the grounding in basic scientific techniques that I had, and are thus equipped to challenge, disregard or validate what the media feeds them.

*Passive safety is designed to reduce injury as a result of a collision (i.e. air bags, seat belts), active safety helps you avoid having the collision in the first place (i.e. ABS, ESP).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blog Posts

After some feedback, I'm going to to be changing the format of the Blog over coming weeks.

There will be a longer post on a Monday, my 'Thought for the week', not always on a photographic subject. Interspersed between these will be some shorter photographic posts that will be less gear-orientated and more focussed towards locations, tips, techniques with more example pictures.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nikon RAW Workflow

If you want to get the best image quality out of your digital SLR, there's no doubt you should be shooting in RAW format, .NEF in Nikon speak. I'm convinced that, for the time being, to get the ultimate image quality from the latter you should be using Nikon's own conversion software, Capture NX2*.

However, there is a big frustration with NX2 when it comes to fitting it into your workflow. Frankly, the user interface is so clunky you'll want to spend as little time using it as possible. Workflow to me has three phases:
  1. Uploading and rating images
  2. Conversion from RAW to TIF files
  3. Post-processing (stitching, sharpening, etc.) and output
Adobe Lightroom 2 is an excellent product to handle all of the above but unfortunately doesn't allow you to call NX2 as an external editor, or rather, it does - but only after converting the NEF file to TIF in Adobe Camera Raw and passing this, not the original raw file, to NX2.

The solution I have found is not to use Lightroom, but instead a much older product, Adobe Bridge. Bridge installs by default with Photoshop CS4, and I have configured it so I can quickly rate my images red/amber/green (green's will always get processed, some ambers might, red never). Once this is done, I filter the view just the greens, and then I can open these NEFs directly in NX2.

Once I have processed the files, any further post-processing on the resulting TIF files will be done in Photoshop CS4. Incidently, I also use NX2 to crop images since it lets you specify an aspect ratio i.e. 3:2,5:4 etc and provides a very useful cropping guide.

*A new version of Adobe Camera Raw may change my opinion, but for now I'm sticking with NX2.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mountain-top photography (5 - the weigh in)

OK, so over my last few posts I've summarised the gear I'll be taking into the mountains.

The synthetic sleeping bag has been replaced by a Mountain Equipment Xero 350 down bag. This weighs in at about 750 grams, and also is about 5C cooler (+20C to -5C). This should be OK as I found the previous bag a little on the warm side.

My only concern is that down's insulating properties reduce dramatically if it gets wet, which brings me onto the Rab Ultra bivvy. On the plus side, it is incredibly light and packs down really small, but it feels rather flimsy and I just hope it's as moisture and condensation proof as my old heavyweight bivvy is!

My pack is now down 3.5 kilos to 11.5 kilos (25lbs), excluding water. I'm tempted to ditch the stove, pan and just take snack bars, which would probably get me down to around 10 kilo, but that feels like a sacrifice too far at the moment.

OK, that's it for now I've bored you to death over my weight issues (some would say I could save more weight by not going to the pub so much).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mini Review: Golite Pinnacle Rucksack

Back in July (scroll right and down to navigate to these posts), I wrote a series of posts about my kit for mountain-top bivvies, and how I was changing this to try and reduce my pack weight, hopefully leaving me more energy for photography!

The major changes I made then (down sleeping bag, ultra light bivi bag and close-fitting Optech neoprene pouches for camera protection) meant that not only did my pack weight reduce significantly, but so did the volume. This got me thinking about a smaller, lighter rucksack. After a bit of internet research and reading a quick review in Trail magazine, I duly mail ordered aGolite Pinnacle rucksack, taking a bit of a risk as I was unable to find a local dealer to try one out.

Amazingly, the Golite pack is 2 kilos (4.5lbs) lighter than my 90 litre Berghaus C7, yet still offers a 72 litre capacity and takes a 3 litre hydration bladder. This looks good on paper, but I was concerned on 2 counts: durability and comfort. I find the Berghaus's Bioflex back system to beextremely comfortable, even when carrying heavy loads, but only use in the field would tell how the Golite compared. As regards durability, I read plenty of reviews commenting on how tough the lightweight fabric is, plus I would be loading up with only around half the 18 kilo maximum payload specified by Golite.

The fact that the Golite lacks a waterproof cover didn't both me either as, I always line my pack with waterproof liners (rubble sacks!). Even so, to keep the pack as dry as possible when exposed to the elements all night on my wild camps, I also bought a Sea-to-Summit waterproof cover (well worth the extra 100 grams), which coincidently came in almost exactly the same colour as the pack.

When my new rucksack arrived, I didn't even recognise it from the package - it packs down really small when empty! Unpacked, first impressions are good, obviously it is very light :-), but the materials feel robust and the construction is of good quality: it feels like it would take a bit of abuse. The hydration bladder pocket has a hook to hold the bladder upright, and there is a hole each side to feed the drinking tube through, so it can come over either shoulder, a nice touch. To save weight, you do loose out on pockets and compartments, as this is basically one big sack. For example, there is no lid, where you would normally find a couple of pockets. There is one large pocket on the back, which I quite like as it's opens wide so it should be easy to find things in there.

The Golite Pinnacle can be cinched down and used
as a daysack when you don't need the full 72 litres

Outside, you get conventional walking/ski pole pockets on each side, which is important as I use these to stash my tripod, legs on one side, column and head on the other, cinched in by the compression straps. There are also two small pockets on the hip belt - first impressions are they will be very handy for storing snacks, keys, torch etc. - you might even fit a small compact camera or GPS in there. The pack also has some elastic straps which in combination with the compression straps means it can be used as a daypack of around 25 litres.

So far so good, loaded up with gear, I would say it is 'comfortable enough'. What I mean is, I wouldn't want to hike all day with it, but for a couple of hours each way up and down, it is more than good enough, and the slight lack of comfort (compared to my Berghaus) under these conditions is made up for by a bit more spring in my step!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Mountain-top photography (part 4 of 5 - food & water)

It's rare to find running water easily accessible from UK summits, so I've really no choice other than to carry what I need. A 3 litre Source Widepac hydration bladder fits perfectly in my pack. I'll take water purification tablets as well, just in case.

Food: evening meal will be one of the excellent Look What We Found meals, available from UK supermarkets or direct via mail order. Heavy, and there's not a huge variety in the range, but tasty and easy to prepare. I've tried a variety of camping specific ready meals, and so far nothing competes with LWWF meals! Breakfast will be a Pot Noodle or cereal bars, and I'll have a few of the latter spare just in case.

It's important to keep your energy levels up, and I'm still surprised how time spent on a cold summit (especially if you are standing around waiting for the light) can increase your bodies' demand for sustenance. So, a good supply of cereal bars, jelly beans, fruit and nuts or chocolate is quite important. The trick here is to keep yourself energised and motivated for photography, without getting distracted by having to spend a lot of time preparing food.

Talking about cold, a hat and gloves is essential, even in summer. I favour a thin pair of gloves (those grippy types with small rubber pads) and a pair of mitts to fit over the top. If you buy the mitts slightly over size, they are easier to pull off and on for photography.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Mini Review: Lee Filters Big Stopper

Catrake Force, North Yorkshire

Imagine being able to shoot a long (lasting several tens of seconds) exposure on a bright sunny day. Tree and crops moving in the wind become abstract blurs, running rippling water turns to glass.

So how do you do it? Well, neutral density filters are simply very dark sheets of material placed in front of the lens to reduce the amount of light entering the camera. Ideally these should be colour neutral, i.e. no colour shift is added to the original scene (hence the 'neutral' bit).

Up until now, ND filters were pretty much limited to 6 stops, but Lee Filters have now launched their 'Big Stopper' 10 stop ND filter. Judging by my example, it is very neutral and pretty much spot on a 10-stop reduction in light (although I have read that there may be some variation in strength between samples).

It is made of glass, and has a foam gasket around the outside edge of one side. The filter goes in the filter slot nearest the camera, with the gasket facing the camera. This prevents light leakage or reflections from light hitting the back of the filter.

As usual from Lee, a great bit of kit that does what it says on the tin.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Mini Review: Hoodman HoodLoupe 3

Basically, the HoodLoupe 3 a loupe designed to fit over a 3" LCD, as fitted to most digital SLR's these days. It's well made and the optics give a nice crisp image. I've found it very useful for focusing using liveview, especially with my Nikkor PC-E lens, as it is sometimes difficult to check critical focus when the lens is tilted, even though I use a magnifying eyepiece all the time.

It works well and it's an experience more akin to focusing a medium format camera (well, almost). The HoodLoupe is quite bulky but comes with a nice padded case that can be clipped onto a belt or bag strap.

I bought the optional Cinema Strap that can be used to hold the loupe in place. As the name suggests, this is probably very handy for video, but I found it a bit fiddly and the rubber bands frequently got in the way of camera controls. Also, I managed to leave Liveview on for quite a while without realising, which apart from any risk of damage to your camera due to the sensor getting hot, drains your battery pretty quickly.

My only real gripe with the HoodLoupe 3 is the price - £75 from Warehouse Express.