A challenge

The other day I overheard a kid - I'll call him Jack - who was eagerly awaiting the delivery of a new camera. It was an entry-level DSLR. And he said:

"I hate my friend right now. He says I won't be successful in photography with my D40. It's too small."

Oh dear. Listen kid. It's not your camera that's important. It's your eyes and brain behind the lens. Take a look at this ...

... three photographs taken using a tripod from exactly the same spot. They were taken one after the other, within the space of a few minutes, using three different cameras:

  1. A 7-year old, 3 megapixel Point and Shoot: Pentax Optio 330
  2. A medium-level 6-megapixel DSLR: Nikon D70s
  3. A top-of-the-range, 12-megapixel DSLR: Nikon D3
Can you tell which camera took which photograph? (Warning. The photographs are not necessarily in the same order as the list.)

The answers are in the comments section.

Did you get them right? Even if you did, I think you'll agree that it was pretty difficult. You had to look closely.

In other words, if you want to take photographs for your family album (though statistics show that 77% of photographers never print their images), photos to to e-mail to friends, photos to put on your website or on Flickr, even photographs to hang on your wall or use as wallpaper for your computer, almost any digital camera will give you excellent results. The images above prove that.

But, if that's the case, why does anyone buy an expensive camera (apart from wanting to impress friends)?

Because there is a difference in image quality, though you have to look hard.

If you are taking photographs for your own pleasure, most cameras will do a great job. But if you're intending to sell them they have to be the best possible quality. Whilst image taken with a 3mp point-and-shoot may look fine on your computer screen, it won't look so good if blown up to fit an A3 poster.

Here is a section from each image blown up to 100%. They're arranged in order of quality now, the 3mp point-and-shoot at the top, and the Nikon D3 at the bottom (I'd like to put them side by side, but can't seem to do it on Blogger):

See the difference? It's not huge, but it's significant.

So, Jack, don't worry what your friend says. He's a dweeb. Get out there with your D40 (a great camera, by the way) and take some stunning pictures. You're the key to beautiful images.

A little Tweet

I'm now 'Tweeting' about things photographic (and some that are not) on Twitter, under the name of PhotoZone.

If that means nothing to you, don't worry about it.

But if you want to follow me on Twitter, I'm here.

Or you can read my latest 'Tweet' at the bottom of the page.

Tweet. Tweet.


Why not enter a photographic competition?
  • Entering a competition sets you a challenge
  • It can expand your photographic horizons
  • The process makes you think about what you want to achieve or to say with a photograph
  • You can compare your work to other entries
  • You could win an amazing prize
  • Not to mention the glory
  • And something good for your CV.
But, be careful. Read the rules and conditions very carefully. A surprising number of photographic competitions take 'all rights' to all entries.

Here's an example from the rules of the 'PictureYourself' competition, currently being run by the UK's National Trust:

"If you submit any material to us, you agree to grant The National Trust a perpetual, royalty-free, worldwide, non-exclusive licence to use your contribution in all media. This includes the right to copy, edit, publish, grant sub-licences and exercise all other copyright and publicity rights over the material."
(Full terms and conditions here)

What this means is that, by simply entering, you give your photograph, to the National Trust. Effectively they own it.

Now, if you win first prize (which in this case is a camera worth £230) you could could argue that you've been paid for your image. Fair enough ... although that's a very low price for selling the copyright to a high-quality image.

But in this case, as in far too many other competitions, the National Trust take all the rights to all entries.

In other words, if you have a magnificent photograph - and doesn't everyone submit their best? - which doesn't win, the NT gets it for nothing.

Is that fair or reasonable?

Look at the quality of some of the images that head the competition page. They're pretty good photos.

If you think the terms of a photo competition are not fair or reasonable, here's an image you can submit:

The original is available from the Pro Imaging web site here. This web site also has further information on suspect competitions and how to spot them.

And, by the way, no need to submit this to the National Trust Competition. It's already been done. At least twice.

Be careful out there and, if you're tempted to enter a photographic competition by some fabulous prizes, read competition rules carefully before you submit anything.

I'm stuck at home ...

... with a broken leg, darn it.

But I still managed to produce some images for World Pinhole Day.

With its soft, ethereal feel, gigantic depth of field, wide angle of view and massive exposure times, the pinhole technique is well-suited to subjects such as landscapes, deserted places, misty woodlands and the like.

There can be an eerie, dislocated feel to pinhole photographs. If people appear at all they are either ghostly waifs, or they have to stand very still for the length of the exposure. Clouds and moving leaves melt into each other. Water becomes soft and dreamy.

Check some of the marvellous images that are now being posted in the World Pinhole Day 2009 gallery.

Unfortunately, I'm stuck at home with a broken leg. No chance of setting off into the countryside to find a suitable scene. I am somewhat immobile.

Even so, there are still opportunities. Some just a bit odd ...

And others eerie ...

Even though World Pinhole Day is over, you can still experiment with the technique. Here's how I made my pinhole camera at almost no cost at all.

Why not give it a go?

And here's the world's largest ...

... pinhole camera.

An entire aircraft hangar.

It produced a photographic print nearly 33m wide and 26m high.

Makes my efforts look puny.

Who needs a lens?

Or even a camera?

World Pinhole Photography Day is fast approaching, and all over the world photographers are eagerly preparing their equipment in readiness.

Last year I tried using a beer can fixed to my digital camera body. It turned out to be a bit of a disaster as it was a strong telephoto lens but, with so little light coming through the pinhole, I couldn't see what the camera was pointing at. And, when I did take a photograph I had horrendous problems with internal reflections from the silvered inside of the can.

Did someone get inspiration from me?
(Copyright paradefotos)

I hope so.

Or maybe we were just thinking in parallel. Almost anything can be used to make a lens.

And anything can be used to make a camera ...

(Copyright CK)

... or should I say a Spamera?

By comparison, my equipment efforts are tame this year. Here's how made my pinhole camera for next Sunday.

Why don't you take part too?

Fairies at the bottom of ...?

Once upon a time, two young girls - Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths - found themselves in big trouble. Despite the fact that they had been told not to play in the Cottingley Beck, a stream near their house, they had come home late, with Frances soaking wet.

Their excuse? They said that they had been playing with the fairies.

Elsie’s mother wasn’t fooled. She packed both girls up to the attic bedroom they shared, and they could well have gone without supper that evening (though this isn’t recorded).

Elsie, in an attempt to cheer up her younger cousin, suggested that they take a picture of the fairies. So, the next day, she persuaded her father to lend them his 'state of the art' camera,. As this was 1917 'state of the art' was a model called the ‘Midg’ that used photographic plates ...
And, thinking that this would put an end to the affair, her dad agreed.

Little did he know. To his astonishment the girls came back with a photograph of the fairies ...

He immediately dismissed the image as a fake, and the matter probably would have ended there except for the fact that, two years later, the photograph fell into the hands of someone from the Theosophical Society.

Theosophy was a fashionable theory in those days. It held that ‘nature spirits’ existed, and the photograph taken by these girls appeared to be concrete proof of this.

The photograph got passed up through the ranks of the Theosophical Society and the original glass plate was examined by a photographic expert called Harold Snelling.

Snelling peered at it closely and concluded that, “This plate is a single exposure. These dancing figures are not made of paper nor any fabric; they are not painted on a photographic background.” But what seems to have convinced him most of all was that the fairy figures were blurred. “What gets me most,” Snelling continued, “is that all these figures have moved during the exposure.”

In other words ... motion blur.

And on that evidence Snelling pronounced the photograph as real.

This added impetus to the story. It grew and grew until, finally, it reached the ears of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur was a bit more credulous than his astute fictional hero. He believed in fairies.

He took the photo to be proof of their existence and even went so far as to use the image in an article he was writing about fairies for The Strand Magazine (Doyle, Arthur Conan. "Fairies Photographed. An Epoch-Making Event." The Strand Magazine, Dec. 1920)

He also suggested that more photographs be taken. The girls - now young women - obliged and made more bizarre photographs of fairies and gnomes ...

After this, the story refused to die. In fact, it wasn’t until 1982, when both ladies had been tracked down by an investigative journalist, that Elsie finally admitted that the photographs were fakes.

But, even so, a small, mystery remains. The Midg was quite a crude camera by today’s standards, and the closest it could focus was 4 feet (about 1.3 metres). On top of that it had a maximum shutter speed of 1/25th sec.

So, the two girls managed to create their models without being seen, smuggle them out of the house, set them up and photograph them hand-held in the gloom without the benefit of a test run, and get a photograph that fooled an expert of the day.

Were they natural-born photographers? Or did they just get fed up with all the questioning and say they faked it to shut everyone up?

Maybe the fairies were real ...

More on this bizarre story here.

Making ... Marathon Runners

A painting starts with a blank canvas and from there, out of imagination and perception, the painter builds an image.

A photograph, on the other hand, exists in its entirety before it is made. The photographer watches what is taking place and captures an image. Sometimes that image only appears for the briefest of moments.

This means, to make good photographs, the photographer should have the techniques of the art, and the rules of composition embedded in his memory. They should be so firmly fixed that they become second nature, allowing concentration on the ever-changing sequence of images.

To give an example ... imagine a painter wishing to paint an image of a marathon race. She will watch races, study human form, anatomy and motion, maybe even take photographs to help. But when she sits down to paint she will select what she shows and how she shows it.

The photographer is more constrained. To achieve his image he must select a point from which to make the image, choose camera settings, and make the photograph at an instant when the elements of composition come together ...

When photographing this race I felt that a high viewpoint was necessary to eliminate distractions, and found one as quickly as I could (it was on a fire escape). I decided on a medium telephoto zoom lens (50-200mm) giving me the ability to bring the subject as close as possible if need be, but I ended up using it at 65mm. I switched off the autofocus as, in sports photography you can miss shots whilst the camera is trying to focus. Instead, I focused on the tarmac. I set a relatively fast shutter speed (1/350th sec) shutter speed as I felt I didn’t need motion blur. Runners, particularly if you capture them in mid-air, are obviously moving fast. And I used a medium aperture (f8) to give best lens resolution.

I had to do all that fairly fast as the runners weren’t hanging about. Having done it, that left me free to concentrate on the composition.

Make lots of photographs and get to know your camera well. That leaves you free to concentrate on design and composition.

Photography and the UK police

Extracts from an article entitled "Put enough cameras on the police and even the serially deferential wake up" by Marina Hyde, in today's Guardian newspaper ...

Who watches the watchmen? Or, to translate Juvenal another way: who polices the police? The answer this week was a New York fund manager, of all unlikely superheroes ... The man came forward (with his film of the incident) because "it was clear the family were not getting any answers" ...

... Not that turning our cameras on those who train theirs on us is without risk. Indeed, one might judge it fairly miraculous that the man was not forcibly disarmed of his camera phone, given that it is now illegal to photograph police ...

... it is something of a shame that certain elements of society have only recently woken up to the possibility that the police might not be the faultless, justice-dispensing force of establishment myth, and only because ... they have seen it with their own eyes ...

The full article can be read here.

Ian Tomlinson

On Wednesday 1 April, during the G20 protests in London, Ian Tomlinson, a City of London resident, was walking home from work at a newsagents shop when he passed a line of policemen dressed in riot gear. Tomlinson had nothing whatever to do with the demonstrations, had his back to the police and his hands in his pockets.

Less than five minutes later he was dead.

Subsequently the police issued a statement that, "[He] suffered a sudden heart attack while on his way home from work."

That is true. He died of a heart attack. What the police did not state was ...

The man who shot that footage, a fund manager from New York who was in ­London on business, said he had attended the protests out of curiosity.

He said: "The primary reason for me coming forward is that it was clear the family were not ­getting any answers."

Had the police noticed that this man was filming, they could have arrested him under section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, confiscated his equipment and this footage would never have been seen.

Fortunately they seem not to have realised.

But they may be more alert next time.


More photographic evidence has come to light, on tape recovered from a damaged news camera, showing the force with which Ian Tomlinson was struck. No indication of why the camera was damaged is given.


More and more footage is coming to light on this incident. Here’s some taken at the spot where he collapsed.

In this sequence the police seem to be surrounding him. Use the timer (at the bottom). At 19 seconds it appears that a single plastic water bottle is thrown (but this is difficult to see) and other protestors call out to stop as there’s someone hurt. This contradicts the police statement that “... a number of missiles - believed to be bottles - were being thrown at them”.

Then between 23 and 30 seconds someone is jumping up and down, waving his hands and shouting 'Back up. Back the fuck up. There's someone hurt."

Finally pause at 56 seconds and count the number of police with their faces masked. Why do they need to wear masks?

From reading the reports it appears that the police released misinformation and untruths about what happened from the start.

Without film-makers and photographers being present the truth about this incident may well not have come to light.

In control again.

Following on from my previous post, there's another very important aspect to using image editing programs like Photoshop.

They have put control back into the hands of the photographer.

Back in the days of black-and-white, photographers could develop and print their own images, keeping full control over them. Exposures could be altered, parts of an image could be 'held back' in the printing process, images could be cropped to give better composition, and so on.

When colour photography became widespread and popular, this became much more difficult. If you could afford it and were willing to spend a lot of time at it, you could develop and print your own colour photographs. But it was a good deal more difficult.

And if you were using colour transparency film. such as Kodachrome, it was impossible. I remember the days of 'cropping' a colour transparency by carefully cutting out tiny pieces of opaque black paper. I still have some 'cropped' slides in a box somewhere.

I took this photo at a Swiss 'Lutte' competition, last year (see here for details on what 'lutte' is). I like the expressions on the smaller boy's face, but the composition is awful ...

Trouble is, when you're in a fast-moving situation like sports photography it's not easy to get the composition right. That handshake lasted about a second.

So I did a bit of cropping (and some other work too) in Photoshop ...

A great improvement ... in my opinion.

Now, had that been a colour transparency I would have spent ages with slivers of very carefully razored paper, tweezers and a glass slide mount trying to improve the composition.

The fact that so much can now be done after taking a photograph encourages us to look at the composition and qualities of a photograph much more carefully.

And, hopefully, to try and get it right in the camera where possible.

That can only be a good thing.

Is it cheating to use Photoshop?

That was a question posed on a photographers forum that I came across recently.

And one of the answers?

I think using Photoshop to enhance your images is cheating. I was proudest of my 35mm and 2 1/4 film photos that were perfect, directly out of the camera. Maybe just some cropping, but no manipulation of the image.

Although, as regular readers will know, one of my photographic beliefs is ‘GIRIC’ (Get It Right In Camera), and although you can easily overdo it with Photoshop:

(Image copyright: Rama)

... there is nothing wrong with image manipulation within reason.

Photographers have been doing it ever since the medium was invented. Here are two versions of an iconic image taken by Dorothea Lange in the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This is the version displayed at the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition, held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955 ...
(Copyright: Library of Congress)

And here is the same image used in the BBC’s television programme ‘The Genius of Photography’, broadcast in 2007 ...
Just like manipulating images in a darkroom, I believe it’s okay to use Photoshop (or any other image editing program) to ‘develop’ your images. After all, photography is an art form in its own right.

But remember one thing. ‘GIGO’. Garbage In. Garbage Out.

Photoshop can’t make a bad photograph good.