Extreme Sheepherding

Okay ... so this has nothing whatsoever to do with photography, other than the fact that a video camera was used to make it.

But as a Border Collie fan - and owner of this blog - I'm gonna pull rank.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Baa-Studs present

Extreme Sheepherding ...

They couldn't have done it without the dogs.

Border Collies forever!

Fruit Shoot? Shoot!

The California Rare Fruit Growers Association (CRFG) is running a photographic competition for images of rare fruit. They call it their Fruit Shoot 2009. First prize is $100, and the total prize money is $375.

But if you're thinking of entering, consider the rules very carefully. One section states:

All entries to this contest become CRFG property, and the contestant relinquishes all rights except the right of attribution.

In other words, whether you win or not, by merely entering you are giving away the copyright to your image(s).

Bear in mind that the vast majority of people enter their very best images for a competition.

That means, for a mere $375, the CRFG will be getting a selected photo library of rare fruit.

I guess that's a bargain from their point of view.

It's less of a bargain from the photographer's perspective. You may be able to sell a good shot of some rare fruit to an advertising agency (for example) for rather more than $100.

At risk of being boring I say again ... read the rules of any photographic competition carefully. There are far too many like this.

Spectacular sunset season

Watch out for spectacular sunsets over the next few days, and some wonderful photo opportunities.

Why now?

Because on June 12th the Sarychev Peak Volcano, in Russia, erupted and belched an enormous plume of sulphur dioxide and dust into the stratosphere.

(Copyright NASA)

This plume is now drifting around the world at northern latitudes.

It has already crossed North America and, at the moment, it is drifting across the North Atlantic. It will probably reach Europe over the next 48 hours.

When it does, if experience from other volcanic eruptions is anything to go by, the skies could show some astonishing colours at sunset.

Purple and violet are some of the colours you might see. They're caused by fine volcanic aerosols that scatter blue light. Other signs to look for include a bright yellow "twilight arch" and long sun-rays and shadows - all great opportunities for photographers.

So keep your eye on the sky!

(More details, and photographs, here.)

First Impression? Good!

Do you suffer from those computer programs that have every bell and whistle you could possibly imagine ... and then some?

How many of the bells and whistles do you use?

Here's a really neat program - a free image viewer that's so stripped down you've probably never seen anything like it. It's called First Impression.

No bells.

No whistles.

Not even a user interface, menu bar or toolbar.

In fact, no anything on display. Just the image. Here's a screenshot from my computer. I'm looking at a photograph of sunflowers that I took last year ...

... with Windows Explorer in the background (that's what all the junk surrounding it is). The image - nothing else - just sits in front of whatever other program you're using.

So, if there are no menus or toolbars, how do you do anything useful with it?

Everything is behind the scenes. You can move from image to image using the spacebar and backspace keys. And if you want to do something more exotic, like rotate, resize, or resample the image, all you do is right-click and a make your choice from the menu that pops up.

Without the bells and whistles it's very quick, and the program file is tiny - just 234KB. So it’s ideal if you're using a netbook that may be a bit short on memory. What's more, you don't need to install it, nor does it make any registry changes or add DLL files to your computer. It runs directly from an executable file, so you can carry it around on a USB stick if you wish.

Less is more!

You can download First Impression from here. I recommend it.

To Burst or not to Burst ?

Is 'burst mode' - when you set your camera to continuous shooting - the best way of catching high-speed action?

I'm not so sure.

Last weekend a big motor-racing championship race came to the tiny town where I live.

No, it wasn't Formula 1 (even though Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost live just down the road from here).

It was the 2009 European radio-controlled Buggy Racing Championships and, naturally, I went along to get some action shots.

The 'cars' were only about 40cm long. Their 'drivers' were in a stand beside the track. But, nevertheless, the racing was fast and furious. The buggies streaked down straights, skidded around corners, rattled over 'washboards' and leaped great jumps.

Now, the difficulty with any motor-racing photography, whatever the size of the vehicles, is getting a sense of action. Use too high a shutter speed and the cars will come out looking as if they're parked. Use too low a shutter speed and everything will be a blur. You want the shutter speed to be just fast enough to give some motion blur, but not too much.

Location is important too. A shot on the straight is generally pretty boring. To get an idea of the action you want to capture tyres skidding, smoke swirling ... something to give a sense of speed and drama.

I positioned myself where the buggies roared off a ramp an into a sand-pit. I wanted to catch the moment of landing at high speed, the sand flying.

I switched to 'burst mode', which gives me 9 shots per second with my camera (a Nikon D3), panned around to follow a selected buggy as it came into view, and operated the shutter button at the crucial instant.

This is the sort of thing I got, time and time again ...

Well, maybe my reactions aren't quick enough.

But also, I was panning with the car, then pressing and holding down the shutter button when I thought the action was about to begin.

Immediately my vision through the viewfinder flickered on and off as the shutter operated so it was more difficult to follow the buggy.

On top of that, do the maths. Let's be generous (and make the maths easier) by saying that my camera could take 10 pictures a second. That's one picture every 10th of a second. If the crucial moment of action lasts 1/100th of a second (which is not an unreasonable assumption) I only have a 1 in 10 chance of catching it.

Of course, I didn't calculate all that at the time. But looking at the images I was getting I could see I was doing something wrong.

So I changed tactics.

I switched off 'burst mode' watched where the cars tended to land and focussed on that spot. Then I still panned round smoothly with a selected buggy that was approaching, but only operated the shutter once, as close to the instant of landing as possible.

This is what I got ...

Now, I'm not saying that every shot thereafter was like that. I got a lorryload of duds. But I began to catch many more dramatic ones.

The human eye and human reflexes are still a match for modern technology.

The plot thickens.

I've been thinking about the 'Be Careful Out There' story I posted yesterday. It raises a number of issues.

First - who's been ripped off? As I see it, there are two parties here, the photographer, Gina Kelly, and the Smith family.

The photographer owns the copyright to the image, and appears (but see below) to have had it infringed. As a photographer you own the copyright to whatever photo you take, no matter who or what it is of.

The Smith family have no legal rights to the image (unless the photographer has ceded these) but they do have rights over their likeness being used for commercial purposes. This is why photographers ask for a signed model release if, for example, they intend to sell an image of someone through a stock agency. The release grants the photographer, and anyone assigned by the photographer, the right to use the model's image commercially.

But there is another puzzling aspect to this story.

The image on the store-front is huge, well over life-size:

(Copyright © Extraordinary Mommy)

To get a half-way decent image this size you've got to start off with something which is already pretty big. Most major agencies that can provide the material for adverts like this deal with images that are 45-50MB. What's more, the the background has been expertly removed from the original photograph to create the advertising version.

So where did the photo for the advertisement come from?

The majority of blogging and social networking sites don't allow large images to be posted. The maximum size here on Blogger is 8MB. On Facebook it's smaller. Even putting a large original photograph on your personal web site is pretty impractical. It can be done, but it will take a while to upload and then will slow down the page enormously.

Did the photographer submit the image to a stock agency without the family's permission? Danielle Smith assures us that she did not.

Did someone, somehow, manage to steal the original from the photographer, remove the background and submit it as a stock image? Seems highly unlikely (though not entirely impossible).

Did it genuinely come off the web? If so, how did they do it?

Or is there another possibility?

One thing we can be sure of - the shopkeeper didn't commission that poster in his window. The shop is part of the Grazie Company which is a big Italian food conglomerate. I'd lay good money that this same image appears on shops all over the Czech Republic. Maybe even further afield.

So, whilst you have to admire the Smith family for not reaching immediately for the bludgeon of litigation, there are a few unanswered questions here.

It would be interesting to hear from both the photographer and the Grazie Company in order too get to the bottom of this mystery - where did the photograph really come from?

Image theft is becoming more and more common these days. It wouldn't be a bad idea if a few salutary examples were made.

Be careful out there.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - if you're posting your photographs on the web do not use high-resolution images.

The Wild West ... sorry, Web ... is full of cowboys and outlaws. Post a high resolution image and you have no idea where it may end up. You may even be in for a surprise, like the Smith family of Missouri.

For Christmas they had a photo taken by Gina Kelly, a professional photographer friend. The Smiths were so pleased with the result ...

(Copyright © Extraordinary Mommy)

... that that Danielle Smith posted it on her blog, and on Facebook, amongst other places.

A little while later a college friend e-mailed them from the Czech Republic. He'd seen their photo smiling out from an advertisement for the home-delivery service of Grazie, a grocery store in Prague ...

(Copyright © Extraordinary Mommy)

After she had recovered from her surprise, Danielle wrote:

I take FULL responsibillity for posting this picture with the incorrect resolution (read: too high) ... Now I know. And, for the record, I will not stop using pictures of my family on my site - I will however, change the format.

Right on!

Remember, if you post a high resolution image on the web you're asking for trouble. Make sure any images you put out there are small (absolute maximum 1000 pixels the longest side) and are in the form of a JPG file saved at medium to low resolution. At that level the photo will still look good on a monitor but will be quite useless for printing at any reasonable size.

And the guy who was mis-using the photograph? Mario Bertuccio, owner of the Grazie store in Prague, said he found the image on the internet and used it in good faith. He has promised to remove it and says he will e-mail an apology to the Smiths.

The true culprit in this tale of copyright theft will probably remain unknown. It could well be one of the many web outlaws who steal suitable photographs and sell them through stock agencies. There are a lot of them about and they're getting bolder.

If you're worried about the theft of any of your images, you can run a check on them by using Tin Eye. Through their excellent search engine (the Google of images) I have found a few of mine that were being misused and, for the most part, have got them removed with an apology.

Be careful out there.

Move and bounce

When photographing, don't be content to stay in one place. Move around - find a new spot with a different perspective ... lower down ... higher up ... an angle from which the light is better.

Never be satisfied with the first spot you have chosen. It may turn out to be the best place to shoot from ... but it probably won't.

My first photographs of Pettina Gappah addressing the Geneva Writers' Group gave an impression of the location and what was going on but, as I discussed in my last blog, shooting from a distance through a doorway gave problems with the light. I was using my new 50mm f1.4 prime lens with no zoom, so I needed to get physically closer.

I shifted position around to the other side. You can move around discreetly, even when someone is addressing an audience. I did it by creeping through a corridor at the back and popping out on the other side of the room.

But the problem with the light was worse in my new position. Look at those huge windows behind ... and Pettina with her back to them.

I pushed things in Photoshop here. And you can see it. Over-exposed panels and side of the man's face behind her, and noise on the dark area of her dress.

I knew, as I was taking the photograph, that it was going to give problems with that light, so I got out my flash. I don't like using flash so close to a speaker, with it going off 'POW!' in their face. But, from where I was, I could bounce it off the ceiling ...

Beautiful! Pettina being thanked by Susan Tiberghien at the end of her presentation. The bounce flash worked well, casting just enough light on their faces to eliminate the shadows, whilst the background is not over-exposed.

I feel this photo shows a wonderful expression of friendship and support. But that's what the Geneva Writers' Group is all about.

I'm glad I caught it.

Swings and roundabouts

Sometimes it's a tough call for a photographer - use the natural light (also called 'available light') or get out the flash?

Natural light is best of course. After all, it's natural. But sometimes it's not particularly bright. Or it's coming from the wrong direction.

You may be able to compensate for the lack of brightness by opening up the aperture or using a slower shutter speed. But these options have their limits. Use too slow a shutter speed, for example, and you'll get a blurry picture, either because you can't hold the camera steady enough or because your subject is moving.

You can also increase the ISO rating - in other words, increase the sensitivity of the chip. But then you'll start getting 'noise' speckling your image.

I faced that problem yesterday. Friend and writer Pettina Gappah (author of the best-selling 'An Elegy for Easterly') gave a reading to the Geneva Writers Group.

When Pettina had finished reading and was fielding questions I got out my camera to record the event. It was a difficult situation. The meeting was being held in a room with large glass windows behind the speaker and the mid-day light was streaming in through them.

I gave it a go using the natural light ...

Then I tried using flash ...

Which works best?

The flash version certainly gives more even lighting (look at the figures in the background) but it has also brought out the 'junk' in the picture - the assorted audio equipment behind Pettina's head, for example. And it's thrown a shadow of her face on the wall behind her.

But ... why didn't I use 'bounce flash', i.e aiming the flash to reflect off the ceiling?

That would have solved the problem, but I couldn't. I was standing in a neighbouring room, behind some other members of the audience, and shooting through a doorway. If you're sitting near a door look at the way it is built into the wall and (unless the door goes all the way up to the ceiling) you'll see why bouncing the flash would not have worked.

The natural light option gives a better picture (in my opinion), It's the way the background is more muted, bringing out the subject, Pettina.

But it's a 'noisy' image. Here's an enlarged section of the door and wall from the background ...

So, there you go. It's 'swings and roundabouts (from a British saying - "What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts". In other words, it has as many advantages as disadvantages).

What would you have done? Which option do you think is best?