Behind the Camera: ‘Sunset on Venus’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

I’m a bit of a night owl (OK, I’m a total night owl), and that means I see a lot more sunsets that I do sunrises (well, OK, I do, through my eyelids, but I don’t think that counts).

But a sunset is just a sunrise in reverse, right? 😉 If I need to catch a sunrise, the easiest way for me to do that would be to stay awake all night.

I take a lot of shots over at Porth Swtan (if you’re a regular over on my Flickr stream you will already know this). You might think that I get bored with shooting the same place as much, but nothing could be further from the truth. The more you shoot a place, the better you understand it. The light, the shadows, the waves, the wind, the sun, the moon, and the stars.

And what’s the difference between taking a hundred shots of a hundred different places, and a hundred different shots of the same place? One is geography, the other light and shadow.

My take on it is that the more I shoot of the one place, the better I learn what works and what doesn’t so that when I find myself at an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar light, shadows, waves, wind, sun, moon, and stars, I’ll be better able to deal with it and get the best shot possible. It also means I spend less time behind the wheel driving from place to place and more time behind the camera taking shots.

That suits me just fine.

A shot like the one above is all about the light, and so I knew that I wanted not only to catch the sky, but also the reflections off the water and the stones. Fortunately the tide was on the way out so the rocks were still wet enough to act like tiny mirrors. But these reflections were very vulnerable, so care needed to be taken not to lose them to the overbearing sky. With that in mind I kept the sky in check with a graduated neutral density filter, giving my camera time to drink in the light off the rocks.

Post processing tip: Rapid ‘blend if’ image blending

Here’s a great tip by Jimmy McIntyre who shows us how to quickly blend two images together using Photoshop.

Not only does this work well for interiors, but it also works for landscapes and cityscapes.

Post processing tip: ‘Step by step, rung by rung, climbing Jacob’s ladder’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

This was a quick shot that started with Kat yelling “hey, come see this!” And yeah, it was worth going to see.

But when it came to processing the image, I discovered a nasty, time-consuming surprise that I had to deal with.

Dozens of them. Tiny ones. All over the shot.

There must have been a flock of starlings making its way through the shot. I could have left them in the shot, but when I sharpened the image it made the birds look like I had a bad case of dust on my sensor. Initially I thought they were dust spots, but to get that many showing up at F8 against a dark background would be crazy (usually they show up at around F16 to F22 or higher, and against a bright background.

So away they had to go using Lightroom’s spot healing brush.

How bad was the problem? This bad!

Each one of those is a bird I had to spot heal out of the image. And I kept finding more and more to deal with!

Bottom line though, the spot healing brush does a good job.

Behind the Camera: ‘Whatta Blast’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

Crashing waves are Mother Nature’s way of showing us the power she has without having to drop an asteroid or crack open up a volcanic vent. The power they have to smash rocks, move boulders, and make the ground shudder from the force of their impacts is quite amazing.

I love them!

Last night I took a quick trip down to a local beach expecting to take shots of a peaceful sunset. I’d noticed that the sea was rough earlier in the day but the stillness and warmth of the spring evening had lured me into a false sense of security (and serenity). As I was making my way down the slipway to the beach, what I was greeted with wasn’t calm and tranquility but violent turbulence. The tide was high (and getting higher) and water was rushing partway up the slipway. The waves were also crashing against the wall of the slipway, sending spray and foam ten feet into the air.

There were also a lot of photographers at the spot (and more came while I was there). Now I’m not antisocial (honestly) but when it comes to photography, unless I’m shooting with Kat I much prefer to be a Lone Wolf. I connect better with the environment that way.

Ideally I would have found another spot to shoot, but I was racing against the sun and jumping in the car and going somewhere else was out of the question (unless it was going to be a night shoot) so I had to make do. I decided that the best thing to do was to break away from the crowd of photogs at the top of the slipway and make my way closer to the water. Like my grandmother was fond of saying, I’m not made of sugar or salt so I won’t melt. My camera and lens were also relatively weatherproof too, so I wasn’t too worried there either.

Also, I was wearing my super-duper new Muck-Boot willies. These are awesome for keeping my feet warm and dry (but at the same time stopping them from feeling clammy), but as is the case with most rubber boots, the sole can be a bit slippery, especially on the beach, and especially around that evil slimy green seaweed. So to deal with this I’ve kitted the Muck-Boots out with ICESPIKES, which allow me to cling to wet and slippery rocks like a limpet. They’re awesome!

So, I got close to the water (which meant getting splashed – but I kept a lens cloth handy to dry off my glass), I got low, and I shot. I lot. I just put the camera on high-speed continuous shooting and let it rip. My 64GB high-speed x1066 speed Lexar Compact Flash card (thanks Lexar!) could keep up with the shooting and I knew that once I got back to HQ that a combination of Photo Mechanic 5 and my Lexar Workflow card reader would make short work of all the images I’d captured.

So I shot. And shot. And shot.

Waves are predictable in an unpredictable sort of way. You can see the waves coming, but it’s hard to know whether they’re going to break with a bang or a whimper, so you just have to shoot and keep your fingers and toes crossed. Sometimes you catch a beauty, sometimes you miss it because the gap between the shutter closing and reopening is just a fraction of a second too long.

F2.8 at 100 ISO was giving me a reasonably fast shutter speed of around 1/400 of a second to around 1/250 of a second, which was fast enough to freeze the action. I had my canon 70 – 200mm lens at its widest most of the time because I just couldn’t be sure where the action would be (or, more precisely, what action I’d want to focus on, as stuff was happening all around me). For stability my camera was on a tripod, but I still needed to keep a steadying hand on it as the waves crashing over the wall of the slipway could move it, not only causing unsharpness but also threatening to dunk my camera and lens into the still frigid Irish Sea.

At some point I thought I had enough wave shots so I switched from my telephoto to a wide-angle lens, but I’ve not had a chance to look at those shots yet!

By the time I was done I was cold, a bit soggy, and in need of a restorative cup of tea, but on the way back I stopped to chat to a nice couple who were up on holiday from Derbyshire. They’d enjoyed the sunset with different sot of glass in their hands – a glass of wine! They seemed eager to talk, and since I was no longer in photog mode I was happy to chat. It’s great to come across people who seem to thoroughly enjoy this area because it also helps me see this place through new and different eyes.

Yesterday was a great day!

Tip of the Day: No-fuss lens changing

I’ve noticed that people tend to get very anxious about changing lenses on their DSLR, almost as though they’re doing something that they’re not supposed to do.

The whole point of owning a DSLR is being able to change lenses. I know that initially it looks a big scary there inside a DSLR, but as long as you follow a few simple rules, you’ll be fine.

  1. RTFM – Read the Friendly Manual that comes with your camera.
  2. Change lenses with the camera off. Not only does this result in less dust being attracted inside the camera (because with the camera off there’s less static charge to attract the dust), but it also means that the camera gets a chance to properly recognize the lens when you switch it on.
  3. Practice changing lenses in the comfort and safety of your home before you have to do it outdoors in the cold/wet/dark.
  4. Different lenses and cameras have different markings to show you how to align the camera and lenses properly. Know where they are.
  5. Work close to the ground (kneeling/sitting) if you can, with something soft underneath you (camera bag or coat). That way if you drop something it doesn’t have far to go.
  6. Keep your back to the wind to reduce dust/dirt getting in your camera.
  7. If your camera is mounted on a tripod, leave it there because it’s one less thing to hold.
  8. Start by pressing the lens release button and part rotating the lens ready for removal. With that done, remove the rear lens cap from the lens you want to use. Now fully remove the lens off the camera, pop the lens down, pick up the lens you want to attach and fit it. Then pop the rear lens cap on the lens you removed. Work slow and methodically.
  9. When you’re done, turn the camera on to check everything is OK. This way you can be sure that the camera is detecting the lens, and also with most modern cameras, this will give the sensor a quick clean.
  10. Tricks like “one-handed lens changing” that you might see on YouTube are for people with big hands or deep pockets.

Behind the Camera: ‘Raw Power’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

The trick to taking a shot like this:

  • Get low to the water. Lower than that. LOWER!
  • Backlighting is best because this allows you to see through the water, so that means early morning or the evening.
  • Fast shutter speeds to freeze the action. Either a fast lens or a higher than average ISO.
  • Zoom in close. If that’s not an option, crop tight.
  • Shoot. Lots. Of. Images. Dozens.
  • Don’t bother trying to time the waves. Just fire away. You can always delete images that aren’t cool afterwards.
  • Try not to get (your camera) wet!

Sensor Gel: Moose Patterson says “service life too low for the price”

One of the things that every DSLR photographer will have to do eventually is clean their camera sensor (even if you don’t change lenses, eventually the sensor will get mucky).

Sensor Gel Stick

I use Visible Dust products to clean my gear – with great results – but I’m always on the lookout for something “convenient” and “time saving,” so I’ve been interested in a new product called Sensor Gel Stick. It seems handy to use, especially in the field (when away from the home/office) but the $50 price tag seemed a little steep to me so I’ve been keeping an eye out for reviews.

And today ace photographer Moose Patterson gave us his verdict on the product.

“I did use the hell out of the thing which is more than most would in a year, but I still find the service life too low for the price.”

Bottom line, he says he used “the hell out of the thing” since January but over the past few weeks it’s lost its stickiness.

Now, I’ve no doubt that Moose has used the hell out of this, and that a few months in his hands is more than a year of use for normal folks, but that still feels like a short lifespan to me.

The makers are reformulating the gel (partly so it doesn’t stick to and damage Sony sensors) so things might get better with the MkII version, but for now I’m giving this a miss.

Care and feeding of my tripod

My tripod – currently a 3 Legged Thing Erica (OK, officially it’s called Eric, but that sounds weird to me, so Erica is a little less weird) – has a hard life. When it’s not thrown on the floor of the car, it’s being treated badly. Hip deep in sea water, knee-deep in sand, shivering in a freezing river, or chucked on the ground in between balancing a camera on its head. It’s a tough job. my 3 Legged Thing tripod in the sea But every so often I give my tripod a little TLC. Not too much or it might get used to it, but enough to keep it going, and I thought I’d lay out my care and feeding regime here. Don’t worry, before long you’ll be snapping more photos.

  1. Wash off any surface dirt/sand/crap. Usually water is enough, but if it’s bad then I’ll add a few drops of dishwashing liquid to the water.
  2. Next, I unscrew the leg sections one leg at a time (being careful not to lose pieces) and get the sand and dirt out.
  3. Next I lubricate the joints in the legs. In the past I’ve used Vaseline and silicone grease, but lately I’ve switched to a bike chain lube called Muc-Off. Don’t go nuts with it or everything will be slimy. I pay close attention to any areas showing corrosion or salt built-up.
  4. I reassemble the joint and move on to the next.
  5. Once all the leg joints are done I give the tripod a once-over looking for loose parts (which I tighten – the 3 Legged Thing comes with a handy toolkit) or stiff bits (which I lubricate).
  6. Before I collapse the tripod, I give the whole thing a final quick wipe with a rag that has a small amount of lubricant on it.

Job done.

Behind the Camera: ‘Nuclear Powered’ – Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey

Isn’t it funny how there are cool places right on your doorstep that you’ve never visited? This is how I felt when I ventured to Cemlyn Bay on the north-west coast of Anglesey the other day. Here was a place about 30 minutes away from where I live that I knew existed, drove past regularly, but that I had never actually been to.

Cemlyn Bay is an odd place.  You have a bay, a lagoon, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a nuclear power station all grouped cozily together.  My initial visit was during the daytime, but the mix of nature and nuclear physics intrigued me, as it’s a pretty diverse use of the land. Land use is a sensitive topic – as a photographer I’ve come to the conclusion that there are people who don’t like power stations, others who don’t like wind turbines, others that don’t like pylons, but they all like being able to plug stuff in and make it work at the flick of a switch. There is currently strong opposition in the area to the building of a new power station next to this one.

I had a crazy idea that it would be a good place for night photography. Maybe some star trails over the power station.

With Lyrid meteors were supposedly in the air and signs pointing to possible auroral activity, I returned with Kat a few nights later with the idea of a night shoot.

Going anywhere for the first time is always a gamble, especially at night. I’d sort of thought that the nuclear power station would make for unusual background interest to a night shot, but I’d underestimated in the daylight how bright the place would be at night. I suppose there’s no shortage of electricity there! The site was less than a mile away from me, and it was as night sky friendly as a major city.

After a few test shots I ascertained that I could capture stars despite all the artificial lighting, but it was a balancing act. Let in enough light to get the stars nice and bright and the power station became a featureless mass of light. Go the other way and meter for the power station, and the stars winked out of existence.

In the end I decided that I would take separate exposures, metering for the power station in one and everything else in the other. A 5 second exposure at F8 and ISO 1600 gave me a good shot of the power station, while a 30 second exposure at F2.5 and ISO 1250 gave me good stars and let me catch some meteors. I helped the foreground pop a little more with a splash from my LED flashlight. I shot a bunch of sky shots and picked the best one – the one with the shooting star – and blended it with the power station shot manually using Photoshop.

By the way, I’m not convinced that the meteor I caught is a Lyrid (which peaks on the night of April 22/23) as it’s not at the right angle to the radiant point for the Lyrids, but something made a fiery entry through the atmosphere at just the right time!

Oh, and the sky and water DOESN’T glow green around this area! It’s in fact yellow, thanks to the intense lighting, but I thought green gave it a NU-CLE-AR feel! This effect I pulled off with a little split toning in Lightroom. Sure, not the most politically correct effect to apply, but I like it.

On the way back from taking this shot I came across Britain’s Civil Nuclear Constabulary, an armed branch of the police force who protect these sites. I must have drawn attention to myself, probably with the light painting! 😉 All was cool though, and it’s good to know they are keeping a watchful eye on things.

Can an Aperture 3 workflow be faster than a Photo Mechanic 5 workflow?

I’m a huge fan of Photo Mechanic 5. It’s a program that has dramatically streamlined, maybe even revolutionized, my workflow, and actually made me love working with Lightroom a lot more than I did.

But is a workflow using Photo Mechanic 5 the best? This series of videos suggests that a workflow using Aperture might be faster.

I don’t use Aperture, and I don’t have any plans to switch from Lightroom, but this is still food for thought.