Canon make no less than three versions of the “nifty fifty”, the f1.8, f1.4 and f1.2. The pricepoints are wildly different, starting around the £100 mark with the f1.8 and finishing around ten times more expensive with the f1.2. That’s a lot of difference, so is it worth it? And perhaps more pertinently, to whom is it worth it?
To start at the beginning, the 50mm lens is probably the most widely used Prime lens in the lexicon of photography. Almost every photographer I know has at least one, most, like me start with the 1.8 which is probably the best value lens on the planet being sharp as a knife and only let down by the noisiness of the focus and the comparative flimsiness of the build.
The 1.2 is quiet and built like a tank. It weighs a lot more, but then its a small lens and balances the Canon 5D very nicely. You get the feeling you could shoot all day with this lens without putting the camera down or needing the services of an osteopath afterwards. One reason this focal length is so popular is that it more or less mimics the human eye in terms of breadth and depth of view. What you see is more or less what you get.
Another reason its popular with street photographers is it allows the photographer to stand slightly further away than the 35mm does and its size doesn’t tend to attract very much attention – the same is true of the 35mm incidentally.
The 1.2 is known as a “bright” lens. What this means is that in common with the 35mm and the 85mm it works well in low light. Wide open, we can enjoy the benefits of f1.2, the widest aperture in the Canon range, with the one caveat that depth of field, if you are close to your subject, becomes razor thin. This is one reason the lens is popular with portrait photographers – if you can get your model to be still for the time it takes to set the focus on the eye, then you can achieve stunning depth of field and wonderful bokeh with this lens.
In terms of colour and clarity, the colour definition this lens enables is fantastic. As for clarity, at f2.8 it is as sharp as any lens in my collection – I’ve heard people complain it softens at wide apertures, but that’s what this lens is for – which brings me to the point of the article – who is it worth the money to? In my opinion, primarily portrait photographers needing that tiny depth of field. Street photographers can easily get by on the 1.4 I’m sure, at lots less money than this.
And what do I think of this lens? Well, things to like are plentiful, build, weatherproofness, sharpness, clarity, bokeh… the list goes on. I’m not a portrait photographer but I do cover events from time to time and this is a fantastic lens for that purpose. In tandem with the 85mm I don’t think there’s a beatable combination. Let’s hope that I get more events so that I can pay for the damn thing!
The annual obsession with poppies very nearly passed me by this year, in fact it would have done had I not been asked to join a meeting in Portsmouth on Wednesday.
As I drove west on the A27 from Brighton, I saw the most amazing field of poppies, at least a quarter of a mile square, absolutely wall to wall. Naturally it was on the other side of the dual carriageway and I was already running slightly late. I filed it away for later.
On the way back, the weather started to deteriorate and rather gloomily I started to work out the possibilities of catching this field in the early morning. A few spots of rain duly appeared, as if to mock me as I approached Shoreham.
To cut a long story short, the rain stopped and so did I, right next to the field. Jumped over the fence and followed a well trodden path into the centre of the field. Given the weather and the fact I only had my Canon G1X to hand, I decided to bracket the shots and try to make something of them later in HDR Efex Pro. All of the shots were taken three times at normal exposure and + – 1 compensation. The idea was to get the detail in the sky as well as the texture of the flowers. No tripod, very steady hands!
This is my favourite from that mini-shoot because the inclusion of the green field on the left gives shape to the poppies and a sense of depth. Some of the other shots had more dramatic skies, but it’s a subjective choice.
Tomorrow, I’m off on my travels again. First stop Arles for the photography festival, second stop Spain. Watch this space for a big announcement in three weeks time!
Sunday was the day of the Brighton leg of the World Naked Bike Ride. Brighton has considerable history in this endeavour and despite the last three years being hampered by less than clement weather, we expected and got a very decent turn out. One aim of the ride is to increase motorist’s awareness of the fragility of cyclists on the roads, and a more effective way of achieving this noble outcome I cannot imagine!
To the photography. I tried a completely different approach this year, rather than docuenting the event and hoping to get a few decent pictures, my aim was to get one shot that epitomised the Brighton ride. In so doing I sacrificed variety in favour of what I hoped would be a better ‘hit rate’. It had to be light hearted, exuberant and happy, I wanted to make people smile. This much I knew. In addition, I wanted it to have a context, i.e.. to show Brighton recognisably and to grab the attention in a way that precluded a documentary approach.
Having decided on the outcome, I made some further decisions about the way that I would achieve it. From the technical perspective, I figured a wide angled shot from low down would give me dramatic pictures that would stay the right side of decent as knees and thighs would mostly obscure the vulnerable areas. Having made that decision, then I knew that if I wanted to feature the sky I would have to use HDR based tone mapping in order to bring the detail out of the silhouettes I would get by exposing for the sky. I knew that because the ride was in motion, I could not rely on bracketing to give me detail in both sky and riders and I suspected that if I exposed for the riders I would be left with a blown out sky from which it would be impossible to retrieve the detail. I did consider using flash, but decided against as I didn’t want to blind the riders and cause a painful accident!
Setting the camera to automatic I pre-focused the lens to the distance I hoped the riders heads would be at. The photographs were taken using a wide angle Canon 17-40mm f4 L lens, held at kerb height on the very edge of the kerb, about a foot from the wheels of the bicycles. I set the camera to P mode as I knew I wouldn’t have time to fine tune the settings if the sun went behind a cloud. This allowed me to make eye contact with the cyclists in the hope they would respond positively to the camera.
I scouted the route and decided that the place that best suited my aims was on Western road, at the top of Brunswick Place, looking towards the sea. That gave the classic Brighton architecture prominence in the shot. I set up my position about half an hour before the riders were due, tried a few practice shots on unsuspecting passers by to work out the angle and focal length and settled down to wait.
The outcome was exactly what I had anticipated. I got a reasonable degree of interaction with the riders, and out of about twenty shots, at least four perfectly usable one. Gratifyingly, the shot I posted on Flickr has been featured by the Japanese web magazine Gigazine in their picture feature on the World Naked Bike Ride, which has resulted in over a thousand hits a day on three consecutive days this week. I’ll never make a glamour photographer, but the experience does prove the effectiveness of ‘trailing’ previous photographs on Flickr – the new viewers are casting their attention to the Shanghai shots and even the American architectural shots preceding the naked bike ride.
I think this experience has proved beyond doubt to me that when I really compose a shot ahead of time, the outcome is generally more reliable than shoots that rely on spontaneity alone. There is a place for both approaches, but I’ve been very considered about my photography for the last couple of months, the US and China trips had pretty severe time constraints so I planned meticulously. I think its paid off.
The notion that what is in effect a second lens, inserted between the real lens and the camera, will not detract from image quality is counter intuitive to the point where I have never seriously considered using one of these devices to extend the reach of my lens.
The lens extender is not the same thing as the extension tube that we use to magnify small objects for macro photography. Both devices maintain the electronic link between lens and camera, but the extension tube has no glass, it achieves the required magnification simply by moving the lens away from the sensor.
The Lens Extender is designed to work with Canon L series lenses and is in effect a second lens. The reason I became interested was that during the course of a landscape photography workshop I was unable to get the framing I wanted, even at the maximum zoom length of my lens. A quarter of a mile walk may have done the trick, but I would then be shooting from a completely different angle. So longer lens? Or Lens Extender? The lens extender costs approximately 30% of the price of a longer lens. That sharpened my attention.
So what’s the pay off? The lens extender loses you a full stop in maximum Aperture, so the f4 becomes an f5.6. This shouldn’t be an issue for landscape photographers who will tend to want back to front sharpness and will often opt for the lenses comfort zone – around f11. I tried some test shots with the 70-200mm lens. I discovered that autofocus was struggling, but that’s not a major issue, I tend to use manual anyway with landscape photography. There appeared to be some chromatic aberration introduced around high contrast edges, but nothing that couldn’t be addressed in post. In the viewfinder, I thought there was some vignetting, but that disappeared when I imported the images into Lightroom. As for sharpness, this is a crop from a larger photograph shot at a distance of 150 metres. At full magnification you can see the detail of the seagull sitting on the chimney. Its as sharp as it probably needs to be!
The outcome? The downside is that it is more fiddly to put on the lens extender, then the lens than it is to just swap lenses. Again that is unlikely to matter much to a landscape photographer. Some aberration is introduced, but a very small amount. I would expect considerably more actually since we’re introducing a whole extra layer of light processing before it gets anywhere near the sensor! I guess the verdict is that this is a useful tool for landscape photographers. It is not the same as having a longer lens, but it is cheaper and lighter and both of those things count.
I’ll be adding one of these to my kit. In terms of lightness, that alone earns it a place. Last year I visited China, India and Spain. And in China, I really regretted not taking a longer lens. This year I’ve already been to Spain once and have trips to India and France planned already. I don’t have the room or the strength to carry a flotilla of lenses around so until I actually invest in that longer lens, this useful piece of kit will do a good job and save my aching back!
Last tuesday, flushed with the success of being awarded gold in the Brighton & Hove Camera Club Projected image competition I impetuously volunteered to give a short talk about my work to an audience more used to hearing from proper photographers like Guy Edwardes and established photojournalists like Toby Smith and Andrew Hasson. This week has been spent in the main trying to work out what I can talk about that wouldn’t come across as arrogant, patronising or fatuous!
Interestingly, for me at least, the realisation that I was going to structure the talk around a set of images meant that I looked at my portfolio in an entirely different way and this helped me to discover a few things about myself and my photography. It helped me to pick out threads of commonality that I wasn’t particularly aware of, or perhaps hadn’t considered before.
I started with digital photography about five years ago, but only began to take it seriously two years ago after I’d lived in Brighton for a year and a half. It’s been a hell of a learning curve and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I bought a Canon EOS 550D in spring 2010 and upgraded to a Canon EOS 5D Mk III this summer after realising that a lot of my work could broadly be described as landscape photography.
And that is an important step – I’d deliberately refused to specialise, reasoning that as a relative beginner, albeit one with a degree in Photography, Film & Television gained in 1984, I had a steep technical curve in front of me and I didn’t want to box myself into a corner by learning a limited set of techniques allied to a particular style of photography. So for twelve months I’ve dabbled with Street photography, Macro photography, Landscape, Urban, Architectural, Night, Travel….you name it, I shot it.
I have learned a lot of technology in the last two years, not least about light. I’ve been using Lee filters, Polarising, Neutral Density, and am leaning towards getting it as right in the camera as I can, before working on the picture in Lightroom. And all the while, reading , looking and learning from other photographers.
Realising that compared to many people in the audience I am a raw beginner encouraged me to think of a framework in which I had something to offer that would be interesting and I hope amusing. Eventually I decided to structure the presentation around the notion of deliberation. By this I mean that the percentage of my best work that could be described as happily accidental has fallen over the last two years and I am now much more likely to capture the image I set out to capture, even when time and conditions are unfavourable. Accident still plays a part, in fact I would say that experimentation and pushing the boundaries are just as important to progress as technical mastery, however I’m now in the position where I can be pretty confident of getting decent shots regardless of the conditions I’m working in.
I chose seven images to talk about, all of them flawed from a purely technical perspective, but all were in some manner experiments and in concept at least say a lot more about me as a photographer. These pictures represent where I want to be. I’m remembering the influences that made me go to Film School, the cinematic genius of Orson Welles, Nicholas Roeg, the german expressionists and american directors such as John Huston. And I’m seeing the influence this has had on my photography, the drama of “A taste of Evil”, the abstract expressionism of “Walkabout” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, the sweeping landscapes of John Huston all bring a sense of drama that I’m seeing in some of my own work.
Skywalking for example was an image I planned fairly meticulously. The inspiration was a sequence from the film “Walkabout” directed by Nicholas Roeg in which a girl becomes lost in the australian outback and there is a wonderful point of view shot of people walking towards her, rendered indistinct by the heat haze they seem to float above the desert floor. This shot was taken at low tide and sunset on Brighton Beach, reflected in a large puddle and flipped 180 degrees to get that other worldliness.
‘My Bird Sings’ is a different kind of shot. One that I’m particularly proud of given that it was taken in a tiny window of opportunity (about 90 seconds) in very difficult lighting. The picture is a very private moment shared between the lady cleaning the floor and a bird, singing on the window. I knew the moment wouldn’t last so my challenge was to capture enough detail to be able to bring the lady out of the shadows, without blowing out the window entirely. I composed the shot into three zones, leaving a lot of foreground to emphasise the privacy of the moment. The camera is an interloper here.
The final image, “Hope” was one that presented itself by accident. I was in the right place at the right time. as soon as I saw this couple, the picture was fully formed in my mind. The pose reminded me of second world war propaganda posters – people looking up into the sky at the sparring fighter planes. Without wanting to validate the prime minister’s ridiculous assertion that we are in the economic equivalent of a war, I saw in this couple’s demeanour an element of hope for a future. Another private moment.
I rarely shoot people and don’t think of myself as a people photographer. For all that, people bring another dimension to some photographs and I am seeing more opportunities as I continue my journey.
Finally, the evening wasn’t just about my journey! There were nine other photographers presenting, none of them less than fascinating! It made me realise more than ever the value of the advice my tutor at Film School gave me “Don’t worry about ‘style’, you are who you are, your ‘style’ is in everything you do.” Looking at the variety and quality of work on display yesterday I couldn’t help but agree.
I really enjoyed the experience of presenting to an expert audience. Beyond that, it’s an interesting way to get to know people in the Club and encourages interaction. I certainly hope to do more in the future – must go and shoot a few more photographs first!
Brighton’s annual Beach of the Dead festivities kicked off today at 3pm in the old paddling pool opposite the West Pier. Zombies of all persuasion turned out in force. Last year’s turnout was estimated at 4000 people; today, in spite of the dismal weather, Brighton’s zombie population turned out in style.
Last year I’d found a good spot on the route and taken some decent shots, but this year I decided to go early to the gathering place and get some more deliberate shots. The weather being dismal, I elected to set the ISO at 400, rather than my usual setting of 100, so that I could have more room to manoeuvre in post processing. I used flash in all the shots because I knew I’d be shooting against one of those horrible grey skies that actually reflect a lot of light and make it difficult to achieve a balanced exposure. By using flash, I knew that all the detail I needed would be available in the RAW file as shot – in theory a little judicious tweaking in Lightroom would be all that I’d need to bring these pictures to life. Heather Buckley explains this process in some detail in her recent blog post Brighton Zombie Walk – Beach of the Dead Photography
I turned up at the meeting place an hour before the parade was due to start and found a few excellent subjects straight away. The costumes take weeks to construct and if the photographers at times outnumbered the zombies, this year the zombies fought back – almost all were armed with cameras of one type or another, some point and shoot, some full pro level DSLRs.
As the place filled up, I kept an eye out for the killer costumes – the most challenging part was getting the zombies to look threatening, The atmosphere pre-march was jolly and convivial! There was real cognitive dissonance in the spectacle of a crowd of zombies, chatting, smoking and drinking, with big smiles plastered across their features. George Romero never had this problem on set! In some cases it took all my powers of persuasion to get them to look cross. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.
I took maybe 150 photographs over the course of two hours. I had made a decision to shoot in AE mode so that I wouldn’t have to worry about the camera settings – I knew with the Canon 5D that it would focus in split seconds and that was all I needed – with the flash on ETTL and the camera effectively on autopilot I knew that all I’d have to do was compose.
Out of the 150 I rated about 20 usable in terms of content – in a crowd, you have people walking behind the shot, peering at the subject, even walking in front of the camera – it just isn’t possible to control the whole environment. I elected to concentrate on getting the shots in as little time as possible and leave everything else to the technology. I think the shots turned out better than last year, what do you think?
Check out the album – Beach of the Dead 2012
Las Alpajurras is a region of spain I’ve wanted to visit for years. Situated on the edge of the Sierra Nevada national park, it has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I based myself in Orviga, a small town at the base of the mountains with good access to the white villages of Capileira, Canar and Bubion and the Moorish town of Lanjeron.
I got lucky with the weather, blazing hot sun for five of the seven days I was there. I took a great many photographs without really having a theme, the landscapes came off best, but I have some ideas ready for when I return – this region of spain is teeming with wildlife and the farming methods in the mountains are thankfully not particularly modern. People routinely live over the age of 100 apparently and I’d like to capture the spirit of this wonderful country on camera.
This was the first time I’ve used a Canon 5D Full frame camera, so I can’t really write about this trip without raving about the technology. I got my hands on the new Mk III for the trip and have been frankly blown away. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of this camera’s abilities, but things that impressed me mightily were the AF point selection – the camera supports 26 AF assist points which gives so much more precision to the business of focussing. The picture above is a radical crop of a shot I took from about 75 metres away from the subject. The focus point was on the head. The combination of the 10.1 megapixel sensor and the extended AF points meant I was able to put the focus precisely where I wanted it and have pixels to spare even after such a radical crop.
I also loved the speed at which this camera focuses – in combination with an “L” series lens I found myself checking a couple of times to see if autofocus was switched on. Very impressive.
This picture is my favourite from the trip – yes, it is an HDR shot, but it is very close to the idea I had when I shot the three pictures it is made up from. I exposed first of all for the Sky and then for the mountains in the middle and finally the foreground. I was after the layers and as a technical challenge, trying to get the dynamic range or richness of a picture shot with film. Don’t know if I succeeded in that, but I do like this image!
I used Nik HDR Pro to do the HDR conversion and then tweaked it in Lightroom. I like Nik software a lot – it works well with Lightroom and is so intuitive to use.
I’ll be returning to Andalucia, hopefully in November for a few days, and will be spending less time on business and more on photography.
So, Las Alpajurras and a Canon 5D – what could possibly go wrong? ! I must admit, I love this part of the world and this trip has fired my imagination with a vengeance. There’s a lot to photograph and a lot to explore, I plan to go back many times in the next few years and see if I can do the place justice. Here’s hoping!
Three days photographing Beijing was an opportunity i was never going to pass up. So I flew over to China last weekend, slept on Sunday, worked on Monday & Tuesday and spent the rest of the week grabbing as many photographs as possible.
Beijing is an incredible city, extreme in every sense, architecturally especially. The scale is breathtaking, an urban sprawl bigger than London and much more densely populated, it is strange and exciting and I had a wonderful time there.
I managed to get around the places I would never have forgiven myself for not photographing. The Great Wall is truly breathtaking, the Ming tombs extraordinary and the Forbidden City easily lives up to its reputation. One place I was not familiar with before the trip was the 798 Space, a converted factory from the bad old days, designed by East German architects, based on Bauhaus designs in the 1930’s. It is well worth a visit.The Worker’s Stadium is another impressive monument from the communist days, with it’s iconic statue and slogans extolling the virtues of work. China is a country that I suspect is misunderstood. In the west we have a view distorted by the prism of American foreign policy; the jobs are going to China, cheap Chinese goods are undermining our economies etc. In fact China is the second biggest economy in the world and probably the most robust. The financial crash that crippled the west was self inflicted and has impacted China too.
I digress, what did I learn about photography on this expedition? A lot as it happens. My trip to Tiananmen Square was blighted by extreme humidity – so much water in the air that visibility was down to about fifty yards. Hardly ideal for landscape photography. The glare from the sky was overwhelming. I underexposed all the external shots from that day with a view to capturing the detail so that I could bring it up selectively in post processing. Worked a treat. I could have used ND Grads, but there was no feature in the sky, just an endless expanse of grey. I’ve brought a lot of those images to life with monochrome treatments performed in Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro. I took a lot of detail shots inside the Forbidden City and here the 50mm f/1.8 really excelled. Such a great lens. Sharp as a tack.
The Great Wall was a challenge in every way, 35 degree heat and 70 degree inclines do not make a good combination, especially when combined with a backpack full of camera gear. I was grateful for my Lee Polarising Filter and the tripod was a life saver – I used a long lens for most of the shots, to bring the architectural features into a more compact frame. The challenge with photographing a wall in the middle of the day in high summer is that although the scale is immense, a wall surrounded by green is not in itself particularly interesting. It would have been better to have gone in the early morning and captured the mist rolling off the hills, but I couldn’t organise a driver in time and that would also have meant climbing up to the wall on foot! The cable car took minutes, easily an hour’s climb on foot.
The kit I took with me was just about right for the trip, everything got used, it wasn’t too heavy (one day I walked at least 15 miles), the Kata back pack was comfortable durable, in fact the only hint of trouble came when the West German Security asked me if I’d bought it all in China. In fact Canon kit is just as expensive there as it is here, and I’ve never encountered a fake 7D!
I took two cameras – Canon 7D and G1-X. Lee Hard and Soft Grads, Polarising Filter and Big Stopper. My everyday lens, the 17-55mm, a 50mm prime and a 10-22mm wide angle plus the 70-300mm zoom. The Giottos Vitruvian tripod really earned its keep, very light and small when folded. Virtually no wind, so stability was never an issue. I was a little concerned I’d taken too much, and very concerned about the fragility of the filters, but as I said, everything got used and nothing was wasted.
Check out the images from the trip here: http://electricalimage.com/galleries/travel/china-2/
This is the time of year for Poppies to show their faces. Only this year there’s not been a lot of sun and finding the Poppy fields has proved rather more difficult than I expected.
This shot was obtained via a comment made on Flickr that mentioned there were Poppies in a field about twelve miles away from where I live. So into the car and off on the search. These poppies were about half a mile from the road and I needed to climb over several barbed wire fences to get to them! And I obviously wasn’t the first, there was quite a well worn trail.
To get this shot I used a Lee 0.6 Grad ND Filter to bring the sky down to the same level as the fields and the Lee Polarising Filter to bring the clouds out a little more and bring up the blue of the sky. I then shot nine overlapping exposures from a tripod , very low down to get close to the Poppies on the right hand side and to make sure the camera stayed in the same plane throughout. I used the Canon EFS 17-55mm lens, which has pretty much become my favourite lens these days. Wide enough to do convincing landscape photography but not so wide as to include my feet! More seriously I don’t get as much vignetting with this lens combined with the filters as I do with the EFS 10-22 Wide Angle lens.
In post, I used a program called AutoPano Pro to stitch the nine exposures together, imported the completed panorama back into Lightroom and made a few adjustments to light and shade to bring out the best of the shot. Its the firsttime I’ve used this program and I’m impressed with the results. I’m not sure if this is the best workflow – from the perspective of image quality I may have been better advised to do the adjustments before the stitching, but I was concerned I might mess up the matching of the shots.
More experimentation required, I’ll write up the results!
This photograph is one that I’ve been meaning to take for ages. The bandstand in Brighton is one of the most popular venues for weddings and if there isn’t a wedding there’s usually a photographer cluttering up the view. Today, I walked past and sure enough there was a photographer. It was a very grey day and as I walked, I started to think of ways of getting a good image.The flat grey sky wasn’t going to do me any favours, so I decided to go for a high contrast, bleached out look in post production. I stopped and looked back and the photographer was packing up. As an added bonus there were very few people around so I went back and took a series of shots quite fast, not worrying about the colour, but trying to get the geometry right.
This shot was desaturated and the contrast boosted in Lightroom, then converted to black and white. I used Silver Efex Pro to get the high contrast, bleached out look and was pretty happy with the result. Sometimes even the bad days are good!