My Missed Shot

Things have been a bit quieter than usual on Dodge And Burn over the past few weeks, the reason being I have recently moved house. Amid the chaos of taking those first, tentative steps onto the property ladder, I haven’t been able to get out with the camera anywhere near as much as I would like. Instead, I’m using my time productively and have been reviewing my work from the past few months: editing images I didn’t  find time for, re-editing those I was never quite happy with, and casting a critical eye over my own efforts.

It was during this process that I came across the shot below. I didn’t remove it from my Lightroom catalogue, despite all the signs pointing to it being a candidate for immediate deletion. It is a shot that had a huge amount of potential but, unfortunately, no amount of post-processing will save it. I look at it and see a wonderful photo that never was. This might sound morose but I’ve kept this image as a constant reminder – a lesson to learn from. Photographers strive to put only their very best work into the public domain, but I wanted to do something different and take a bold step and post a ‘bad’ photo in order to highlight my own mistakes. So here goes…

This photo was taken in Chinatown on the day of the Chinese New Year. I decided to head out with my Nikon and a 50mm prime and turn my hand to some street photography for the afternoon. Although subjects were plentiful, getting a clear line of sight through the masses of people was the biggest problem; even lifting the camera to your eye was an effort. It was later in the evening that the crowds started to thin out and I stumbled upon this spontaneous moment.

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It is not a keeper, but there is something about the shot that keeps me returning to it. So I set myself four questions/objectives in order to determine what went wrong and to see what I could learn from it.

1) In a few words, describe why this is a missed shot.

The answer here is obvious: camera shake. Sometimes the answer might be more complex but don’t run the risk of over-analysing. I find that more often than not, a missed shot is caused by something fundamental such as focus, exposure, or composition.

2) Identify the underlying issue.

The short answer is negligence ;-) The practical answer is that the shutter speed of 1/30s was far too slow for a handheld shot. Search the web for “minimum handheld shutter speed” and there are many sites giving theories on how slow you can go. My advice is to experiment, as everyone is different. Over the years I’ve determined that I can handhold at 1/80s and get acceptable results at 50mm or wider. Any slower and it becomes more hit-and-miss.

3) Was this issue caused by human error or external factors beyond your control?

There’s no hiding – it was human error. I was shooting in aperture priority all day, at f/2.8, and was periodically upping the ISO level as the light started to fade. At some point I forgot to check the ISO and left it at 1600. Without increasing the ISO to compensate for the low light, the shutter speed dropped.

4) How can you best prevent this issue happening again?

Auto-ISO is probably the ideal solution. I’m not a huge fan of this function on any camera because I tend to find that it selects too high an ISO level, even in bright daylight. However, when the light starts to fade, engaging it and setting a minimum ISO of 3200 (or even 6400) should help to keep the shutter speed suitable fast. The other solution is more obvious: always keep an eye on your settings, especially in conditions where the light is changing/fading fast.

Lesson Review

Every time I look at this photograph I feel a pang of regret and visualise it the way I wanted it to be. The shallow depth of field blurs the brickwork into a pleasing pattern; the lady has struck a very elegant pose and gaze; the angle of the parasol and the way she holds it adds balance; the texture of her coat; the gentle clutching of the panda toy. It has many ingredients for a great shot. Unfortunately, all of these things – which just happened to fall into place, as is so often the way with street photography – have been let down by my own error. Not every missed shot has to teach you a dozen lessons: one can often be enough, as is the case here.

We’re all human and we will always take dud shots. More often than not we delete them without a second thought. There’s nothing wrong with that and for the sake of your hard drive, it is probably advisable! However, the difference with this example is that it is not a dud shot that would have been merely ‘OK’ had I kept a closer eye on the shutter speed. In my opinion, this is a dud shot that could have been a great shot. It is a real missed opportunity.

I believe that reviewing your own work – truly analysing and critiquing it – is more beneficial than having a stranger do so. Sometimes the lessons you learn are simple and can be fixed immediately; other times they are more complex and require more hours of practice to overcome. I’d encourage everyone to take a look back through your own catalogue (preferably more recent work) and find your own missed shot – the one that got away. Analyse it, find out what went wrong, and most importantly of all, take something positive away from it. Ask yourself those four questions and be completely honest about your own shortcomings. It’s an extremely beneficial exercise and aids your development, even when you don’t have a camera in your hand.

 

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”

- Vernon Sanders

 

Tips For Photographing Basketball

The relentless, end-to-end action of basketball makes it a fantastic sport to photograph. The opportunities come thick and fast all over the court. However, for these very reasons it can be extremely tough to get winning shots. So I thought I would share with you some of my top tips, based on my own experiences. They won’t guarantee you keepers every time, but will hopefully improve your hit rate! If you have any tips of your own, please share in the comments section below.

1) You can’t cheat the need for shutter speed

DSC_8207EBasketball is a very quick sport, so if you want to freeze your action completely I find that shooting at 1/500s is a good baseline to work from. But don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re shooting down the court, head-on with your subject, then you might be able to get away with slowing down the shutter speed a fraction. However, if you are standing on the halfway line and shooting square-on to the court, then I would recommend keeping it at 1/500s, if not faster.

As for which shooting mode to set your camera to, I use Shutter Priority the vast majority of time and occasionally turn to Manual if the lighting is particularly awkward or I want a little more control over my depth of field. Which leads me onto my next tip…

2) Stop down a little, if you can

DSC_8435EFast glass for any sport is nearly always a must. With basketball, the combination of rapid action and often inconsistent/downright awful indoor lighting means that you will likely need to get your hands on a fixed f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens. The wide open aperture will help you achieve those fast shutter speeds and maintain a good exposure. However, be aware of just how shallow your depth of field will be when shooting at f/2.8 or wider.

In the UK, a regulation court is 28m long. Imagine you are shooting from under the basket and your subject is approaching the three point line (10m away, give or take). Using a focal length of 150mm at f/2.8 your depth of field is just 50cm (and even less on a cropped sensor body). This doesn’t give you a lot of room for error. So if the conditions permit you to stop down even a little bit, try it. You will lose some subject isolation but increase the chances of getting the shot in acceptable focus.

3) Frame with the player: go portrait

DSC_7122EWhen I first started shooting basketball I chose landscape orientation by force of habit. However, even with some of my favourite shots, I always felt that there was something missing. It was only when I flipped the camera to portrait that it dawned on me what the issue was. Basketball is a game where the action typically centres on two or maybe three players at any one time; it is not too common where you will have a shot with four or more players in the frame, except perhaps rebounds. Shooting in landscape can therefore leave a lot of negative space around your subject(s) and result in a flat image.

By shooting in portrait orientation, the framing is tighter around the player and allows for full body compositions. This is really effective when shooting head-on into a point guard who is dribble up court; they might not have anyone challenging them at this point so landscape orientation will leave a lot of dead space either side of the player. Of course there are times when landscape is preferable, such as when under the basket and the action is happening right in front of you. Otherwise, go portrait and tighten up the framing to make the viewer really feel part of the action.

4) Unleash AF-On mode

DSC_7308EThere has to be a pretty exceptional circumstance for me not to use autofocus during a game. On top of this, I utilise the AF-On function. A lot has been written about this on the web so I’ll keep my definition short: it separates the action of focusing from the shutter release, so the user can control each independently. It’s a device that can save you a fraction of a second per shot but, as any sports photographer will tell you this, this can be the difference between capturing the perfect moment and missing it entirely.

So what does this mean in practice? Well, you keep your finger pressed on the AF-On button (or if your camera does not have a dedicated button you can assign it to the AE-L/AF-L button) and the camera will continue to adjust focus automatically as soon as a subject passes across one of the focus points. It happens quickly and smoothly, leaving your trigger finger ready to hit the shutter release, knowing that you won’t lose precious milliseconds waiting for it to adjust the focus. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you try it, it’s hard to go back! Without any doubt, my hit rate has gone up noticeably since using the AF-On mode.

5) Keep an eye on the lighting (or lack of it)

DSC_8609EThere is one thing that will significantly influence how you shoot any game: the lighting. Depending on the competition level and the sport centre’s own facilities, the quality of lighting will vary considerably. Regardless, I always set my white balance manually, dialling in the best setting on the Kelvin scale and using live-view for guidance. Fluorescent bulbs are notoriously inconsistent in the light they emit so shoot in RAW and any colour imbalances can be easily corrected.

Crucially, look up into the rafters to see if any of the lights are not working. You might not think that one bulb can make a huge difference, but you’d be surprised. There’s a fair distance between those lights and the court floor and ‘dark’ patches can form which can potentially throw your exposures about. If you see that a bulb is out, make a mental note of where on the court will be affected and work around it. Hopefully it will be in the corner and not under the basket…

6) Track the player, not the ball

DSC_9080EWhen you first photograph a basketball game, it can be instinctive to follow the ball through the viewfinder. Don’t. It will result in you frantically jerking the camera back and forth in a desperate attempt to keep up with the action and you’ll be an endless source of amusement for the spectators! Whilst it can be tempting to follow the game, detach yourself from it and try to predict the moves. Identify the players and their roles. Will they be backing down in the post? Are they regularly driving to the hoop? Or are they constantly putting up threes from their preferred spot on the other side of the court? The more you know about each player’s strengths and habits, the more chance you have of being in the right place at the right time – which let’s not forget, plays a big part in sports photography.

One method I adopt is to dedicate time periods for a particular player. How long is up to you, but I often devote, say, 30 seconds to one player. During this time I remain entirely focused on them, whether they have the ball or not, and this leaves me perfectly placed to capture the moment when they are involved in the action. When the time is up, I move onto another player. You might be thinking that this leaves open the risk of missing action elsewhere, and you’d be right – it does. But remember, it is impossible to capture everything that happens; this tip will merely hedge the bets a little more in your favour. If you chase the ball you are chasing the game and this means you will rarely get that great shot, as you will inevitably always be arriving a fraction too late.

7) And as an overtime bonus…

…here are some final quick-fire tips:

  • Don’t forget about the reactions of the coach and players on the bench.
  • Blurred feet/hands are unlikely to ruin a shot, but a blurred face almost certainly will.
  • If you’re going to include the ball, make sure you get the whole thing in the frame.
  • Watch out for kits which lack contrast as this might throw your autofocus off.
  • Don’t worry about high ISO noise; with all the inherent difficulties of shooting indoor action it should be the least of your concerns.
  • Use a battery grip, if only for the portrait orientated shutter release, as it will help to prevent your hand cramping up into a claw.
  • Offence is exciting, but don’t overlook the simple pleasures of a hard-hitting defence.
  • Free throws are a good opportunity to capture pre-shot routines. And post-shot frustration.
  • Spot meter, as there can often be a great deal of distracting colours and contrasts in the background.
  • A lens hood might just save your expensive gear from a misdirected pass…

Behind the Mask: The BAFTA Portraits of Andy Gotts

I’m going to kick off the new year with a short post about the Behind the Mask exhibition, currently on at Somerset House. Before I do, you will have noticed that Dodge And Burn has undertaken a re-design for 2014. I really liked the appearance of the previous theme, but the use of side menus made everything a little narrow. For a blog that is regularly displaying photos, that does have its disadvantages. So, I’ve gone for a wider, cleaner look this time. I hope you like it.

Behind the Mask showcases the work of Andy Gotts MBE and his portraits of actors and actresses who have either won a BAFTA or been nominated (since 1954). I was pleasantly surprised by just how large this display is; give yourself an hour, minimum, to weave through the many rooms. The subjects are instantly recognisable: Al Pacino, Helena Bonham Carter, Robert De Niro, Helen Mirren, Sidney Poitier, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Lauren Bacall. The list goes on and on. You’ll be hit with an inevitable pang of envy to think that Gotts had access to seemingly everyone who’s anyone in the film industry. Given the sheer number of portraits on display, it was surprising to learn that it took him just two years to complete this project.

I’m a big fan of simplicity, when it comes to my own photography and other people’s, and I immediately connected with Gotts’ work. Many of the images are monochrome, against plain white or black backgrounds. But it’s his mastery of light that makes them so effective - especially those that utilise side-flash, helping to create really deep, brooding shadows. The end result is a great deal of intimacy; the subjects are solemn, pensive, laughing – even yawning. As for the most memorable? My vote goes to Samuel L Jackson (simply the back of his head), Tony Curtis (this is, reportedly, the last professional photo taken of him alive, with the USA flag projected over his face), and Heath Ledger (a shot that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, with his patchy, scraggly beard and howling expression).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition. Quite often with portrait photography there is a temptation, in the desire to strive for originality, to go too far with the shock factor. This isn’t the case with Behind the Mask. These are intimate portraits with no unnecessary distractions. To the viewer, it doesn’t come across that Gotts has tried to artificially uncover “the other side” of these celebrities in a bid to inflate the artistic license. Instead these are some very natural, extremely accessible shots. Viewing Behind the Mask might make you jealous of Gotts, but you’ll come away feeling as if you are that little bit closer to your favourite actors/actresses.

Behind the Mask is on at Somerset House, from 21st January to 7th February. Admission is free.  

Photo of the Month: Conclusion

It’s the last day of 2013 and I’ve just posted my final Photo of the Month. The reason I chose to undertake this project was, just like the premise, simple. It is designed to not just get you shooting more frequently, but to go broader and learn to adapt to situations that might usually be out of our comfort zone. Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever been more consciously aware of my surroundings as I have this year, as in the back of my mind there has always been the question: “what would make for a great photograph this month?” Admittedly, that is a question we should always be asking ourselves but, let’s be honest, there can be days, weeks and even months that go by when our creativity takes a hit and that eye for sussing out effective shots lets us down. A project such as this helps to keep that eye in check and, I would like to think, refine it.

I am acutely aware that my shot discipline has improved as a result of devoting more time to thinking. Shooting more does not mean being trigger happy and mindlessly running up hundreds of exposures a day; it is about shooting with a greater purpose. My thinking time before I press the shutter has increased and if there is doubt about what I am trying to achieve, I feel I have become more disciplined in putting the camera down and reassessing. Diversity is another benefit. Reviewing the images I have selected throughout 2013, there is wildlife, landscapes, nature, sport, portrait, architecture, street and even an attempt at fine art. I doubt I would have shot such a range of subjects, had it not been for undertaking this project. The counter to this is to ensure that you are always learning; there is no point in photographing an endless array of subjects to increase your breadth without trying to improve your skills in that area and enhance your depth.

It is frequently said that the simple things are often the most effective and I certainly believe that a project such as Photo of the Month fits that bill. I’d recommend it to anyone, whether you intend to publicly publish the results or not. If the time-frame is too long then similar projects such as the classic “50 at 50″ (50 shots in 50 days, all taken at 50mm) might be more appealing. Or even better, go out and create your own personalised project: the key is to ensure that it is fulfilling a genuine and specific need. Photo of the Month was designed to get me shooting more regularly: without a shadow of a doubt it fulfilled that requirement.

As I write this post, I’m undecided as to whether I will take Photo of the Month into 2014. On the one hand, I have enjoyed it immensely and can genuinely feel the rewards. On the other, it is important to keep evolving and coming up with new challenges and goals. I never want a project to feel like it is becoming a chore and am a believer that you have to keep looking forward. I feel I have accomplished everything I can from Photo of the Month, so if I am to continue with it I suspect some new rules or parameters will have to come into play. In any event, watch this space!

To round off the project, and indeed the year, below is a gallery of all my selected Photo of the Month images for 2013. I hope you enjoy them and if you have any thoughts of your own or have a favourite from the twelve, please do comment below this post or click on an image and comment on one specifically. Thank you very much for following this project over the year and let me wish you all a very happy new year. See you in 2014!

Photo of the Month: December

New Day

One of the central aims of this project has been diversity – shooting different subjects as the situation and conditions permit. So I am bending the rules slightly here by returning to Richmond Park, just as I did in November. The goal I had in mind was to capture a winter scene and with fog forecast for much of the morning, this was a great opportunity. In fact, the fog density was just about perfect: not too thin so as to act as a distracting element and not so thick that the sunlight couldn’t penetrate it. I arrived at the park as the sun was coming up and the light was spectacular – truly golden – and the sky was a mixed palette of blue, pink, yellow and orange. Finding a suitable location and composition was harder than I envisaged as large parts of Richmond Park can be very open and lacking in features. So I sought out a spot which allowed for both middle-ground and background interest, whilst still allowing for the sunrise to be captured.

I feel it is the numerous subtleties that make this shot. The shadow detail and tones of the wind-swept grass in the foreground, and the alternating patterns of green and yellow. The thicker gorse that is being illuminated a deep red by the rays of the sun. The shape of the tree branches, especially the one on the left, and the fact they are so bare leaves no doubt about what time of year this is. The position of the sun, glowing through the trees, and that wonderful beam of light it is producing. And finally, the gentle touch of fog – most visible between the two trees on the right – allowing for the creation of atmosphere but not dominating the scene. If I could change something about this shot, it would be perhaps the inclusion of a more prominent foreground object – a red deer stag would have been nice! Nevertheless, I am really pleased with how this shot came out and think it is a fitting way to conclude Photo of the Month for 2013. I will post a separate follow-up piece to round off this project shortly.

Postcard from Prague

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© Stephen Wallace Photography

So, I’ve just returned from a short break to Prague and thought I’d share with you a few of my thoughts and impressions, from a photography perspective. First things first, I would thoroughly recommend the city as somewhere to visit, with or without a camera. It is a wonderful place and, unlike some other city-break destinations, it is not too difficult to lose the crowds. This might have been symptomatic of the time of year, but regardless, it appears to strike a good balance between having a bustling atmosphere and not feeling too tourist-heavy at every turn.

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© Stephen Wallace Photography

From the outset it became apparent that Prague is very much a destination for architecture and street photography. My visit was timed to coincide with the Christmas markets and this provided ample opportunity to capture candid shots of vendors, the food, lights, steaming cups of mulled wine and general festive cheer. You really are spoilt for choice around the Old Town Square. Away from the crowds, the winding side streets can be a maze but reveal more peaceful parts of the city, especially towards the north of Staré Město and around the Jewish quarter.

Historical Snapshot

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© Stephen Wallace Photography

Throughout the city, the architecture is an eclectic mix of Baroque, Art Nouveau, Neo-Classical and Gothic, among others, along with the occasional drab reminder of the days of Communist rule. The many bridges, museums, galleries churches, synagogues, theatres and government buildings all make for opulent settings, inside and out. Given the size and extravagance of these locations, I would recommend taking a telephoto lens to ensure you capture some of the finer details, as these will be lost when using even a standard focal length. The gargoyles of St. Vitus Cathedral are a notable example where extra reach is beneficial.

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© Stephen Wallace Photography

Effective cityscape opportunities were harder to come by. Whilst acknowledging that my visit was brief, I found suitable vantage points overlooking the city to be slightly limited; the best I encountered were on the hills on the north side of Svatopluk Čech Bridge. There are a number of parks dotted about to break up the sea of buildings, but the lack of foliage at this time of year coupled with unpredictable weather means that hedging your bets on getting a winning shot in the space of a few days is probably not wise. Snowfall would make all the difference, for sure. For two of the days I was there it was dry, but a blanket of texture-less grey cloud didn’t make for the best cityscape/landscape conditions.

Get Moody. Go Monochrome

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© Stephen Wallace Photography

To help counter this, I found myself shooting in black and white a lot during the day. Monochrome is by no means an absolute remedy for flat light, but it does give you a little more room to work with. Moody narrow side streets or classic shots of trams weaving their way across the bridges worked particularly well. If you fancy more gritty street photography then head to the outskirts of Staré Město or down by the riverside. Prague does have  a major graffiti problem – with the exception of the main tourist attractions, it is everywhere. The constant sight of tagging quickly becomes an eyesore, but in the right place it does make for some effective urban scenes. There is also a very obvious homeless population; if you were looking to create a social commentary on the homeless situation in major European cities, then Prague certainly has a melancholy story to tell.

Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

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© Stephen Wallace Photography

In terms of the technical stuff, I found myself using my Fuji X100S almost exclusively. It is not ideal for every situation – capturing those details in the rafters of the cathedrals does require a much longer focal length – but given the abundance of street photography opportunities, I was comfortable with it being my main camera. Oh, and leave the tripod at home. I saw a few people setting them up in the Old Town Square with frost-bitten fingers, but I can’t see the need. I was regularly shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 and modern cameras can handle it. The winter days are short and very cold – the evenings even colder; there is so much going on that, in my opinion, it’s really not worth lugging a tripod around unless you are looking for that one postcard image of the Astronomical Clock, or experimenting with slow shutter speeds.

As those of you who have visited will know, Prague is a city with a fascinating history. It may sound like a bit of a cliché, but with 15th century bridges, trundling trams and classical buildings on ever corner, that history really does feel like it comes to life. I found myself being extremely disciplined in my photography, largely because there is so much to see. If you are only going for a few days, you won’t have time to spend hours waiting for that perfect moment to shoot Charles Bridge (unless of course you are prepared to make that sacrifice at the expense of the rest of your trip). One lesson I certainly took away from this visit was learning how to adapt my shooting in less-than-optimal situations. Reviewing the photos that I took, the overall number of ‘winners’ may be few, but I have a far more varied collection of  images of different subjects and styles.

Tips for photographing in Prague

  • Stating the obvious, but wrap up warm in winter! Once the sun goes down it gets extremely bitter and there is nothing worse than walking around feeling unconformable and miserable; it will kill your creativity.
  • Appropriate focal lengths? In my opinion anything from 35mm upwards. I would only go wider if you are dedicating yourself to building interiors. I have to be honest, I would have found a zoom lens handy. Something like Nikon’s 28-300mm would probably be a good choice (if a little long at the wide end on cropped sensors).
  • Unless you have a very specific shot lined up, ditch the tripod. If this is your first trip to Prague and you’re none the wiser, rely on the higher ISO of your camera and/or vibration reduction of your lens.
  • Mix it up. The lights and attractions of the Christmas markets beg to be shot in vibrant colour, but the tram-lined streets and Communist-era high rises outside the city centre make for great monochrome subjects.
  • Nothing will mark you out more as a tourist like a boat trip down the Vltava river, but do it! It is a great way to see some uninterrupted views of the city’s most impressive buildings, as well as close-ups of its many bridges.
  • Think in film. When it came to processing, I was more liberal in allowing natural noise in my black and white images, adding grain here and there, and even trying out some subtle cross-processing and film replication looks. With all its recent history, walking around Prague can feel like you are in a Cold War spy novel and I felt compelled to try and get some of that across in my photos.

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Photo of the Month: November

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It has been a really diverse month in terms of subject matters: landscapes, street, portraits, some corporate headshots, fireworks, and even a christening. I am, however, going to dip into some of my wildlife work for my photo of the month. While it would be nice to pretend that this shot was taken somewhere in the remote highlands of Scotland, it was in fact taken about one hour from my home in central London, in Richmond Park. Since the summer I have made it a goal of mine to get down to the park and attempt to get some shots of the deer. They are not particularly difficult to find at any time of year but I was especially keen to capture an image during autumn for two reasons: it is rutting season and the males have a full head of antlers, and the colours.

As is so often the case when working with wildlife, it was a mix of planning and good fortune that helped me to get this shot. I wanted to get to the park soon after lunch so that I could make the most of the low afternoon sun. It would only give me a couple of hours to work with, but the recent forecasts had deterred me from making a morning trip. I had been in the park less than 10 minutes when I came across a huge herd and in the middle was this red deer stag. At this point I shall put my hands up and confess that while I am a keen enthusiast, I am no expert when it comes to my knowledge of all things flora and fauna. But my limited understanding of deer has led me to believe it is a red deer (rather than fallow) due to its plain coat and the non-palmate antlers. If anyone can confirm or correct me, I’d be grateful!

The stag was directing the show; roaming about freely among the females and fawns and they would generally follow him wherever he went. While it was great seeing such a large herd in one spot – probably about 30 in total – it didn’t make for the best shot because there were just so many bodies and distracting elements to fight through. Getting a clear shot of the prize stag was proving difficult. After rattling off a number of unsuccessful exposures, I contemplated moving on. It was then that the stag, seemingly tired of the attention, decided to make off and head for some of the longer grass. As he ambled off, I had that awful feeling of a lost shot.

I then noticed the rest of the herd were not immediately following. The stag then stopped for a moment, turned back and the shot was created. I had a relatively unobstructed view of the stag, which was isolated against a backdrop of trees in this very small clearing. The sun was thankfully still out so I managed to capture this at 1/400s to freeze his motion – although to be honest he was quite still. I love the different tones and colours of the grass and, of course, his pose which reveals those magnificent antlers. I was pleased to see that I hadn’t accidentally captured any other deer (or humans!) in the frame; I think the effect of his stern stare would have been lost if other deer were visible.

I initially regretted the fact he didn’t turn another 90° to face the camera head on, but upon reflection I think this makes for a stronger shot. A fixed stare directly down the lens betrays the presence of the camera and risks making an image a one-dimensional story about the photographer and the deer. Capturing the stag looking at something out of shot leaves open a wider aspect to the story being told: it goes beyond just being a one-on-one with the camera and instead acknowledges the stag’s relationship with its surroundings. This image has grown on me a lot and the reason I chose it as my photo of the month is that it maintains a sense of natural behaviour.

Nikon DF: An Old-fashioned Gamble?

Having waxed lyrical for most of the summer about the Fuji X100S, my ears pricked up when Nikon finally announced the launch of their very own ‘retro’ styled camera this week: the DF. Press details can be found here. I don’t typically take a huge amount of interest in new camera launches. Lens, well that’s a different matter. But for me, until I discover something about my camera that is either broken or uncover an issue that is holding me back from getting the photos I want, I don’t upgrade just for the hell of it. My current DSLR is about three years old and I’ve explained at length my reasons for purchasing the X100S. In many respects I’m quite cynical about upgrading.

However, I have to confess that the announcement of the DF has intrigued me. Unfortunately, I think it is for the wrong reasons. The camera was only officially released on 5th November yet the discussion and analysis of it has been intense and there appear to be two camps emerging: those who get it, and those who don’t. I think I fall into the latter. I should stress that I haven’t been fortunate enough to get my hands on a DF so these thoughts are purely based upon my own gut reaction, but on face value, it seems to be a D800  wearing a FE mask. I think Nikon had a real opportunity to create something new and exciting but I don’t yet see who this camera is appealing to, other than former FE users. 

I hesitate to bring the X100S into this post again, but that was a camera (as was the original X100) that primarily sold itself on the back of its market leading high ISO performance; for others it was the unique hybrid viewfinder. The gorgeous looks that were wrapped around this technology were a bonus. The DF, or rather the marketing and promotion surrounding it, instead appears to be trading  heavily on the nostalgia aspect. Compare the specs of the DF and Nikon’s other FX cameras and judge for yourself: there does not appear to be anything new. The inclusion of the D4 sensor is noteworthy but with only one SD card slot, no video, no built-in flash and 39 focus points, this is a fairly stripped down camera. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but hopefully all the time and money saved hasn’t solely been deployed on the looks.

In my opinion, for the DF to be a winner it has to offer something superior, not equivalent, to the high-end FX cameras. Auto-focusing speed, ISO performance, dynamic range, colour rendition – it doesn’t matter what it is. My initial impression, however, is that this camera’s only selling point is its looks. If this turns out to be true, is it going to be enough to convince customers to spend their cash on the DF rather than the (cheaper) D800? Time will tell. Regardless, it is refreshing to see a new Nikon product generating such interest. If they get it right, this could be a fantastic camera. Get it wrong and it might just leave Nikon users, myself included, slightly bewildered as to the exact purpose the DF was meant to serve.

Photo of the Month: October

DSCF2446EA photo of firsts and lasts this month. It’s nice to be shooting landscapes regularly again after a bit of a break but I strongly suspect this will be the last shot of the year that resembles the English summer. Or at least the end of it. This was captured in early October in wonderfully rural Shropshire. Like most photographers, I’m sure, I do enjoy the simple pleasure of a corn field: the colour, the textures, and the lines. This was a relatively small field situated on uneven terrain and this helped to create the different tones on display.

What perhaps doesn’t come out quite as well as I would have hoped for is the extent of the dips in the ground. I shot this with a 35mm (equivalent) whereas something a little wider would have been ideal. To compensate for this, I decided to opt for a first (at least for the purposes of this project): cropping the image into a panorama. As shot, there was a lot of foreground – arguably too much – and I felt it dominated the image too much. So I chose to crop it with an aspect ratio of 3×1 and this not only accentuated the uneven land but also helped balance out the foreground, trees and sky into more even proportions.

As for other processing, I did a little bit more with this image then I would perhaps normally undertake. I boosted the shadow detail in the trees and applied a graduated filter to tone down the brightness of the sky. Just like my photo for September, this was an opportunistic shot. I missed the best light, had no tripod and, as mentioned, didn’t have the ideal lens. However, I chose this as my Photo of the Month for the very reason that it goes to show what kind of shot you can uncover, especially when you are not actively looking for one. The fact this was unplanned made me feel more confident in making bolder decisions when it came to processing. The end result is a shot I am extremely fond of: a very simple composition, subtle tones, colour and balance. Getting a ‘keeper’ when you least expect it is always rewarding.

Fuji X100S Review: Part V: Final Opinion

I started this review back in July and after three months of near constant use I feel that I’m pretty well acquainted with the Fuji X100S. So it is time to wrap it up and give you my final thoughts on the camera. Before I do so, here are the links to the previous four instalments of this review:

Part I: Putting Down the DSLR

Part II: Appearance & Handling

Part III: Focus, Exposure & ISO

Part IV: In-Camera Features

Outstanding quality, with some minor quirks

I’m not going to dwell on image quality as there is no doubt that the X100S excels in this respect. It consistently produces excellent quality across the ISO range, irrespective of aperture size. It took me a while to break my old DSLR habits; I often found myself stopping down to f/5.6 – f/8 to find the ‘sweet spot’ of the lens. But truth be told, from f/2 – f/16 the X100S has no discernible shortcomings (lab results will probably prove me wrong, but as ever, I base my reviews on real-time use). And then there is the outstanding ISO performance. I’ve never used a camera, before or since, where I’ve felt completely at ease using a base ISO of 640, or even 800. Finally, of course, is the altogether beautiful design, but you don’t need me to tell you about that.

When it comes to usability, there is certainly a learning curve – and I suspect this curve gets all the more steep if you are coming from Canon/Nikon DSLR territory. Assessments on this are subjective, but I stand by one of my initial impressions that the X100S is less intuitive than DSLRs. After three months of use I am now confident enough to use most of the controls blind and a lot of the menus by memory. But there are still instances were I am staring at the LCD and asking myself “where is this option located?” This is perhaps one of the key distinctions between the X100S and a DSLR; the latter (at least the good ones!) do not have that ‘thinking time’ when it comes to use – it is more natural and instinctive.

Finding genuine criticism is tough. There are, however, a few quirks. For me, by far its biggest failing is the battery. It would be asking too much to get DSLR equivalent battery life, but I can’t believe this is the best that Fuji have to offer. I took the X100S with me on a recent trip to Italy and I was going through two full batteries every day. The battery indication meter is also dire, as I have already complained about. It’s like driving a car with a faulty fuel gauge; you have to guess how much juice you have left based on time used. I’d say that I can get approximately 3-4 hours of constant use from one charge. Finally, although the AUTO ISO feature works well, it would be good to see an improvement in its ability to detect good light situations. There are too many occasions when shooting outdoors in fine light that the X100S will push the ISO to unnecessarily high levels.

Another criticism, if you can call it that, is the price. Retailing at £999 here in the UK (July 2013), the X100S is not a purchase that most of us would make lightly. With entry level DLSRs, complete with a zoom kit lens, typically being priced around the £350 mark and even prosumer models starting around £800, it does take a pretty big leap of faith to pick the fixed 35mm Fuji if you are choosing between the two. It took me a few shop visits and a lot of research before I finally decided to bite the bullet. Do I regret it? Of course not – it’s one of the best purchases I have ever made. But I appreciate that its price-point will put a lot of people off, which is a tremendous shame. What’s more, I don’t think the situation is helped by the reputation that the X100S has cultivated in some quarters as being gimmicky – something to play with on the side.

Going beyond technical performance…

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the X100S. I purchased it as a means of bringing more freedom to my photography and it has certainly fulfilled that desire. I am taking the X100S to places I most likely would not have bothered if my only option was a DSLR. Subsequently, I am taking more shots and getting more ‘keepers.’ Popping out with the camera becomes just that; I don’t have to think about its weight, which bag to carry or the ever complex lens-choice conundrum. So on this basis, the X100S is a definite winner.

If you have a DSLR and are contemplating purchasing the X100S, think about why you want it and what you want to get out of it. If you fall into the category of ‘freedom seeker,’ i.e. someone who seeks more opportunities to shoot, free of a DSLR, then I would thoroughly recommend that you purchase it and never look back! If you are going through a creative lull or feel that are starting to get constrained by your photography, the X100S is so refreshing in forcing you to go back to basics and concentrate on the fundamentals.

If you are tempted by the image quality, ISO performance or other technical aspects alone, I would perhaps be more cautious before you stump up the cash. Yes, the X100S excels in these departments, but so does your DSLR. Let me put it another way: if Fuji took the X100s’ high ISO performance and stuck it in a DSLR body, would you buy it? Personally I would not, as I am pretty happy with the technical quality that comes out of my Nikon. If you think that you would be tempted, perhaps upgrading your DSLR would be a better option.

And what if you are completely new to photography? Common sense would suggest that the X100S is not a suitable camera for a beginner. Its fixed focal length is too restrictive, there is too much emphasis on manual control and it is very expensive. I would happily counter all of these points. The X100S makes for a fantastic beginner’s camera for the very reason that it is restrictive and does give the user more control. One focal length will be your greatest teacher when it comes to learning about compositional rules. And full manual control means, yes, you will no doubt make a lot of mistakes, but surely this is the best way to develop your skills and learn about focusing, exposure and metering. As for the cost, well you add another lens and a tripod onto your entry level DSLR and you’re not too far off the price of the X100S. I’m not saying that the X100S is a better camera to learn on than a DSLR, but its simplicity shouldn’t put people off. I would love to see more beginners having the confidence to take on a X100S. It is a steep, but extremely rewarding, learning curve.

…for the simple pleasure of taking photos

My closing advice would be to determine why you need to buy a new camera in the first place and make your decision accordingly. For me, I have no regrets. The sheer amount of use the X100S has been given over this summer is testament to that. Personally, I was seeking a camera that would complement, not substitute, my DSLR and I can say with a great degree of confidence that the X100S fits this gap perfectly.

What I perhaps didn’t anticipate was the way in which I would view them. I always imagined the DSLR would  be the superior older brother in this partnership. However, I now consider them to be fairly comparable. Comparable, but different. Each has its own job and each performs excellently in that respect. For serious landscape work, professional headshots or sport, it will always be the DSLR. But for street photography, travel or informal portraits, there would need to be a compelling reason for me not to pick up the X100S.

If you currently feel that you get everything you want out of your DSLR, then the X100S is probably not the camera for you. I think the desire to own it goes deeper than merely wanting to upgrade your technical specs. But if, like me, you have experienced DSLR fatigue and feel like going back to basics with a stripped down camera, or simply want to open up more opportunities to get out and shoot, take a serious look at the X100S. Since purchasing it, I have been taking more photographs than ever before. And shouldn’t this always be the primary goal?