Hot off the press ...

At last!

After nearly 2 years work on it, my new photography book has been published today ...

Hardback, 200 pages, fully illustrated in colour ... I think it's a bargain at less than £10 (even cheaper on Amazon). But them I'm biased.

Judge for yourself. If you click on the image above you can take a peek inside.

The idea was to write a book that imparts good, solid information in a light-hearted and accessible manner. It is part of a wider series on all sorts of topics - from Tax to Sex - published by the UK publishing company "The Greatest in the World Ltd."

The production of this little handbook has involved a long gestation period ... but was worth it. Producing specific photographs to illustrate the techniques was, itself, an interesting challenge. And a learning process for me, too.

My book is currently on sale at Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon France. Just the Christmas present for that keen photographer you know.

I should soon have copies for sale here in Switzerland - at a heavily discounted rate. Signed, if you would like.

Watch this space for further details.

The power of a photograph

A recurrent accusation levelled at the American Democratic presidential candidate, Barak Obama, is that he is a Muslim.

Why should it matter? After all, the US Constitution states, "... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (Article 6, paragraph 3.)

Unfortunately it matters in this particular election because certain people in the USA are assiduously associating being a Muslim with being a terrorist. And other people are believing them.

I guess they haven’t seen this photograph:

Elsheba Khan at the grave of her son, Specialist Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan.
Copyright: Platon

This was the photograph that moved President Bush's former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to publicly endorse Barack Obama. On a TV programme, Meet The Press, Powell stated that he was troubled by members of the Republican party insinuating that Obama is a Muslim and therefore associated with terrorists (see the full interview here).

This is what Colin Powell said:

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afganistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was a mother in Arlington Cemetry, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian Cross. It didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American.

A major dust-up

So there I was, late one winter’s afternoon on the Lac de Joux - a lake in the Jura mountains that freezes solid - when this guy in a balloon comes in to land on the ice.

Everyone rushes forward to watch. Great composition! I take a couple of steps to one side to get the sun behind balloon and fire away.

But, when get home and look at the images ... what’s that far off in the sky? Above the silhouette and to the right. A second balloon?

No, it’s the dreaded sensor dust.

This is a problem that particularly affects digital cameras with interchangeable lenses.

Some people get very stressed about it. They change lenses as little as possible (which rather defeats the object of having such a camera) or they buy little lens-changing bags.

I’ve seen these bags on sale in photographic shops. You put the whole camera and replacement lens into one, zip it up, put your hands into sort of glove-like things and change the lens. Then you take the whole lot out again.

Meanwhile, whatever you were going to photograph has long since vanished. Oh ... and every time you open the bag, dust gets inside, anyway.

Face up to it. Dust on the sensor is inevitable. Even if you don’t change lenses, a zoom lens acts like a giant air pump, sucking air (and dust particles) into the body every time you shift from wide angle to telephoto. Then the shutter mechanism wears with use, producing microscopic particles.

If you want to see just how much dust is on your sensor, try this. (Warning. This is not for the faint-hearted.) Set your camera to aperture priority and stop down to the smallest aperture possible (probably f22). Take a picture of something completely plain and light-coloured – a clear blue sky is best, but a white door or wall will do. Don’t worry about the shutter speed. It will be horrendously slow for hand-holding, but that doesn’t matter. What you’re looking for is already sitting in the camera, jiggling about as you do!

Examine the image in your image editing program. If you’re feeling really, really brave you can apply the ‘Automatic Contrast’ setting to the image. That’ll show up every last speck.

But maybe I shouldn't have told you that. Provided your sensor isn't like Miss Havisham's wedding table it's not so important. Most of the time the spots will be invisible and the few times that they do intrude (like above) you can easily remove them with an image editing program.

In fact, dust even used to be a problem back in the old darkroom days. You had to be sure your negative was spotless before printing, but that was well-nigh impossible in the red-lighted gloom ... coupled with the fact that most of the darkrooms I've worked in were not exactly the most dust-free environments.

Then, when the spots and hairs showed up on your print as little white dots and squiggles you had to remove them with a camel-hair brush and some retouching pigment.

It's a whole lot easier nowadays.

PC Plod pounces again

Remember my blog about Jane Sweeney, the well-known travel photographer who got hassled in London for using a tripod whilst taking photographs. (Here, if you don’t.)

You’ll be glad to know that the ever-vigilant British Bobbies never drop their guard. Here is a another potential terrorist ... or maybe voyeur ... or maybe child-molester (unfortunately Plod can’t quite make up his mind on this point) being stopped in his nefarious tracks ...

A fair cop. Whatever the guy was doing, it can’t be good if he’s carrying a camera.

I’m so glad that Plod is on the ball. Makes me feel much, much safer when I visit the UK.

  1. In the UK it is perfectly legal to take photographs of anyone or anything in a public place, provided you are not causing an obstruction. You do not need a licence (despite what this police officer is implying).
  2. Only a police officer with a search warrant can confiscate your camera or demand to see photographs you have taken. And no one, not even the police, can force you to erase photographs you have taken. That would require a court order.
As a matter of interest with regard to point 1, if you are in the UK you will probably be photographed, without your realising it and without your consent, dozens if not hundreds of times each day by ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

A more complete account of photographers' rights in the UK can be found here. And click here for details of those in the USA.

Despite what they looked like ...

... the olives were delicious.

Mind you, I ate them before I looked at the photograph I'd taken.

All right ... I'll admit ... they didn't look that bad. But they didn't look terribly appetising, either, did they? And food photography is all making things look so appetising that the viewer's mouth waters. The object is to get the customer to buy the stuff.

It's a tough call.

There's a saying in photographic circles - "If you can photograph food, you can photograph anything."

Hot foods grow cold, succulent foods dry out, ice cream melts, cereals get soggy, vegetables wilt, and fruit turns brown.

Here are a few tricks the professionals use to overcome this problem:

- A quick burst of spray deodorant gives a nice frosting to a bunch of grapes.

- When photographing breakfast cereal, professionals use PVC wood glue (or white emulsion paint) instead of milk. The cereal flakes float on it and don’t go soggy.

- To make a glass of champagne look beautifully fizzy, add a pinch of powdered asprin.

- A roast chicken will look deliciously browned if brushed with old engine oil.

And here’s one freelance food photographer’s description of the process photographing lasagna, for a picture on the box...

Lasagna is a real pain to shoot. It just collapses. One way round this is to build up layers, using foam board about 5mm thick, cut slightly smaller than the layers of pasta. Once you've built up the layers you pipe in the meat and bechamel sauce around the edges, to hide the board. You brown the top layer of pasta with a blowtorch, and pour over fresh tomato sauce.

That's what intrigues me about photography.

It's an art form that captures everything from the gritty reality of war to a luscious lasagne (that's actually foam-filled), from a milk-drop coronet to the moon rising over Hernandez.

Snap 'n slim

Do you want to lose weight? Get slim and sylph-like? Then take photographs of your grub before you stuff it in your mouth.

Apparently, one of the techniques for losing weight is to keep a 'food diary'. That is, you write down details of everything you eat. Then you can go back and ...

"Yikes! Did I really eat all those chips/cream cakes/chocolate biscuits!"

... you shock yourself into slimming.

Trouble is, not everybody writes down everything accurately. And after a substantial meal accompanied by a few glasses of wine it can be difficult to remember exactly what has passed your lips.

Now researchers have found that a more effective technique is to take photographs of your food. They say that taking photographs seems to concentrate your mind at just the right time, before consumption. You can read more details of the research here.

Yes ... well ... maybe. But there could be another side to it. Food photography is a highly specialised field. Unless you know what you’re doing (and use all sorts of weird tricks) the finest haute cuisine can come out looking disgusting.

By way of illustration, here is a photograph of a dish of olives that I've just, this moment, been given as an aperitif. They are delicious olives - spicy, with herbs, garlic and a few small cubes of cheese

And I've photographed them exactly as they are.
The only thing I've done is to place the dish on a piece of white paper out of my printer, to simplify the background, and I've bounced the flash off another piece of white paper held above the dish, to diffuse the light. Other than that it's a straight shot, taken as they sat on the table in front of me ...

Do they look yummy?

Another possibility is that the would-be slimmers simply couldn't face eating their food when they saw it as a photograph.

I nearly gave up my Nikon.

Did you ever take the fancy for an ex-treme telephoto lens?

This has got to be the largest one ever made for a standard camera ...... and it was for sale on E-bay (see here).

It's focal length is 5200mm.

And how would it fit on your camera?

Look closely at the red arrow. There's your camera, already attached.

A snip at $55'000? You bet. With this you'd be able to get pictures of a tiger's teeth at 2 kilometres.

Unfortunately, the seller's just withdrawn it.

Drat! And here I was, about to sell my Nikon gear and switch to Canon.

It takes time.

Last weekend, at an altitude of 2’300 metres in the Valaisan Alps, I found a strange little chariot.

It’s Halley’s Comet, one of the sculptures on the Footpath of the Planets (Sentier des Planetes). This is the entire Solar System, laid out to scale in the mountains high above the village of St Luc.

Within a minute’s walk of the Sun I came to Mercury. Then, shortly afterwards Venus, the Earth and Mars. At an average walking pace I was ... to the same scale ... travelling at three times the speed of light. Jupiter takes a little longer to reach ... then Saturn ... Uranus ... and, after several hours walk, Neptune.

I didn’t reach Pluto. To some other members of my party, a hot chocolate at the Wiesshorn Hotel was more alluring than the outer reaches of the Solar System. Anyway, Pluto isn’t a planet any more – according to the International Astronomical Union. (Though, for what it’s worth, I disagree.)

Halley’s Comet is just past Neptune, in the same position in this model as it really is at the moment. (I’ve checked.) Someone ... I don’t know who ... moves it across the mountainside regularly.

Unfortunately, although the first photo I took shows the surroundings well, the sculpture is rather lost against the background.

So I put the flash on my camera and, to the consternation of a party of passing hikers, lay flat on the ground. This image is the result ...

And whilst it shows the sculpture well, it gives little idea of its environment.

Which is better? And would it be possible to show Halley's Comet and surroundings without the sculpture getting lost in the background?

I don’t know. That would have taken some time, and hot chocolates were calling. Not many people want to hang around whilst a photographer scrabbles around trying to find a perfect viewpoint. It takes time.

I love photography, and coffee. But ...

... this may be going a little too far.

Gizmodo, the gadget website where I found this, describes it as 'nerdy cool'.

Yeah. But with that ridged lens hood flange around the lip, surely you'll get coffee all down your front every time you take a sip.