Archive for October, 2008

Getting Pictures and Missing them

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

F8 and be there’ is the traditional advice for photojournalists, but something I’ve rather been ignoring in the last few days.

Well, the ‘f8‘ went some time back when I discovered the freedom of the  flexible program ‘P‘ setting along with ‘auto ISO‘ on the Nikon D200 (and now the D300.)  Now 99% of the time I rely on the camera to choose an appropriate setting within the fairly wide parameters I set, only bothering to think about that side of things when I know I need considerable depth of field or I’m shooting something moving really fast and have the luxury of time to think about it.

Using auto ISO is just a matter of choosing a suitable base ISO for the light conditions, along with a maximum ISO for me limited by the noise characteristic of the camera – ISO 1600 for the D300 is, so far as I’m concerned, the highest rating  where images are generally usable without any special processing to reduce noise.  It would be nice to have a system that allowed you to set a minimum shutter speed to use which was dependent on the focal length in use, perhaps following the good old ‘1/focal length*‘ rule, but you have to choose a single shutter speed. My usual compromise is 1/100th, which, thanks to the 18-200mm having vibration reduction, is generally fast enough to get usable results at the long end.  But when I’m working in low light and only using wide-angle I  happily choose a speed such as 1/30 or even slower.  With auto-ISO on and 1/100th set, you do get down to these slower speeds with the lens wide-open at the maximum ISO (1600 in my case) which is probably exactly when you want them in any case.

As I understand it, the camera uses the base ISO you set, varying aperture and shutter speed until it runs out of light at full aperture and your minimum shutter speed, then increases the ISO to keep exposure correct until it reaches the maximum ISO. Then it will let the shutter speed drop below the minimum set.   Using fill-flash complicates matters slightly as with that I set a minimum 1/60 second. Anyway, everything usually seems to work pretty well for me however it does it.

Around 1/60 – 1/100th is quite a nice speed for shooting, allowing just a little movement in images which can give them more life.

Rt Click, View image to see larger

This picture of a man demonstrating opposite the Colombian Embassy in London on the day of the general strike there (text and more pictures at Support the General Strike in Colombia on My London Diary) is a good example.  Looking at the picture at a normal size, it is clear that this man is waving his fist, not just holding it up in the air, though this may not be apparent at this scale.  I was using balanced fill flash (at -1/3 stop) , so the shutter speed was 1/60 and the aperture f5.6 at ISO 400 (my base ISO at that point.) It was taken with the 18-200 at its widest setting (where the max aperture is f3.5)  and just after 5pm on a dull evening as light was beginning to fade. The fill lifts the central figure slightly from the background and adds a sharp definition to the slightly blurred fast moving fist.

I don’t think I could have made better choices manually – and certainly not in the time available. Leaving the camera to handle things usually gets them done better and lets you get on with taking pictures. But of course it is important to know when and how you do need to take over from the automatic systems, even when such interventions now need to be rather less frequent as systems improve.

Of course, pictures aren’t complete until you –  or the camera – processes them. The in-camera jpeg doesn’t look quite the same as the above image. That’s an area where I don’t leave it on automatic, but take the data and handle it how I want in Lightroom.  Of course part of that is automatic – camera calibration setting, various presets, but on top of that there are various manual adjustments.  For example the flash rather washes out the bright yellow banner – the closest object to it – and a little burning in takes that back to an appropriate level, and the central face was also just a little too bright.

At that event I was obviously there, although ‘be there’ is perhaps more about standing in the right place at events. Often it’s a matter of working out what is likely to happen while you watch what actually is happening, and the pictures of the de Menezes family outside Downing St are a good example of where I made the right decisions. Of course there are many times I get it a little wrong too, but if you don’t think ahead you are less likely to get it right.

More pictures on My London Diary

And on Monday, I went to the ‘Big Blockade’ at Aldermaston knowing that I would be too late to ‘be there’ for the major events that were taking place.  But I think there are still a few interesting pictures even if I missed the real excitement. (More on My London Diary.)

Rt Click, View image to see larger

But on Tuesday I managed to take not being there to new levels, turning up at entirely the wrong location for a photo-call, having neglected to read my diary properly before I left home.  It’s perhaps a pity that this aspect of photography can’t be made more automatic.

*There is some highly technical debate as to whether with DSLRs one should use the actual or equivalent focal length. Which I think is pretty stupid considering it’s only a very rough rule of thumb.  Whichever suits you is surely the answer.

Justice for Deaths in Custody

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Rt Click, View image to see larger
Family and friends call for justice for Sean Rigg, who died in Brixton Police Station this August

Being in police custody or prison should really be the safest possible of situations, but unfortunately as the over 2500 names on the list carried in Saturday’s demonstration by the United Families and Friends of those who have died in custody shows this isn’t the case.  It isn’t even easy to get the figures and the names, and even this long list covering the years since 1969 is far from complete.  Last year there were 182 known deaths – and at that rate the list would be three times as long.

The police, the prisons, secure psychiatric units, immigration detention centres all have a duty of care for the people in them, but it a duty in which they too often fail.  Some of those 182 will be people known to be likely to commit suicide who were not adequately supervised, others those who were restrained in a manner that caused their death.

One of the names on the long list was a young Brazilian man who took a bus to Stockwell station and walked through the barriers and down the escalator. He didn’t know that his perfectly innocent and ordinary movements were being followed by a surveillance team, even though they were very close to him as he entered the station.

While I was writing my post about this year’s United Families and Friends march, I watched the CCTV footage from the station on that morning, showing nothing untoward until about a a minute after he made his way to the platform, when three armed men jumped over the barriers and rushed down.

Someone had blundered, with the result that these men were sent to gun down an innocent man. The Met’s response was to try to cover up in various ways for the mistake, and even at the inquest they are still clearly doing so.  The order that was given was clearly a gross error which should have led to the immediate dismissal and almost certainly criminal charges against the senior officer concerned, but it also highlights a ‘shoot to kill’ policy that I think has no place in a civilised society. It remains to be seen what the inquest will determine.

When Maria Otonia de Menezes came to lay flowers at the gates of Downing St, I was there with others photographing and filming. Earlier, along with other photographers I’d been asked to give the family a little space as they were finding it difficult, and I’d immediately stopped taking pictures and turned away to photograph other things, although some others took no notice of the request. But when it came to the actual pacing of the bouquets and photographs my job was to show the grief and anger of the de Menezes family and others whose sons, brothers, fathers had died to the best of my ability.  At times I found it hard to keep taking pictures, but that after all was what I was there for, and I owed it to these people to do it as well as I could.

Rt Click, View image to see larger

More pictures and text about the demonstration on My London Diary

Lightroom 2.1 – some thoughts

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

Raw Conversion

Perhaps most importantly, the latest release of Lightroom does its prime job of conversion from RAW format pretty well. For some time I’ve been using the ‘Adobe Standard Camera Beta 1‘ camera profiles, which did seem to give a more pleasing result – and now the beta 2 profiles are available so I’m trying those. The differences between the two versions seem extremely subtle!

LR 2.1 also includes the latest Camera Raw 5.1 which is a part of the new Photoshop CS4 release, although for some reason it has a different version number in Lightroom.
There may still be a few images where I’d like a ‘second opinion’ by using Capture One or the Nikon software, but I think they will be very rare.

LR 2.1 also adds support for a few new cameras, including the Nikon D700. So that’s one reason less not to go for the full-frame model. However at the moment I’m feeling pretty satisfied by what I can get from the D300, and can’t justify the expense of a new camera – and the new lenses it would also need.


I’d hoped that the full release of LR 2.1 would be more stable than the release candidate, but it doesn’t appear to be so on my system.

LR is a great program, and the addition of a great ‘dodge’ and ‘burn’ tool in version 2 has dramatically improved some of my pictures. Before it was often too much trouble to load an image into Photoshop for a little cosmetic surgery, but mow its possible to add that correction rapidly in LR itself – so it’s far more likely to get done.

But this seems to be one area that causes LR2.x to fall down occasionally, perhaps on average after around half an hour of working. It’s not so far been a great problem; either the program exits nice and cleanly or hangs so I need to kill the process in Task Manager, then reload LR  – it takes perhaps less than a minute, and at least so far I’ve never lost more than the actual final alteration to the image I was working on.

The second area where I’ve had problems is in writing out batches of files. Normally while I’m doing this LR takes up a high % of processor time and anything from 250-750 MB of memory. But occasionally the memory goes up to well over a GB and LR fails to write some files  – and gives an error message. So far I’ve not had it fail when writing single images.

Keyboard Shortcuts for Adjustment Brush

Like me you probably didn’t bother to read the manual!

k      toggles the brush on and off
Space    hold down to use the mouse to zoom in
h    Hides and shows the adjustment pin
Delete     Over the adjustment pin deletes the whole adjustment
Ctrl-Z deletes the latest item in the history (can repeat)
   toggles the mask display (see below)

To see the mask you have created, mouse-over the adjustment pin
To erase parts of the mask, use the erase brush

I expect there are a few other useful things I’ve forgotten – which means I don’t use them.

Annoying Gaps

There are still some annoying gaps in LR. It would be nice to have the distortion correction capabilities of PTLens – and although you can add recent versions of the standalone software to the ‘Edit with‘ list in LR it is actually rather less convenient than using the plugin via Photoshop. As well as distortion, PTLens also does a decent job of converting fisheye images to rectilinear, which can occasionally be useful, although the angle of view is simply too great for a rectilinear approach to work for most images, at least without extensive cropping.

Another Photoshop plugin I use with fisheye images is Fisheye-Hemi from Image Trends Inc. This is a fairly cheap but effective way of removing some of the curvature and distortion from fisheye images, and often but not always improves the result. You lose the extreme corners of the image, but it retains the content at the centre of the sides and top of the frame.  This is now also available as a plugin for Apple Aperture, but not for Lightroom.

There are Lightroom Plugins, but most seem simply designed to add “effects” to screw up your images while giving you the entirely undeserved feeling that you are being creative (rather like “lith” printing. – in fact I’m sure there are several that give you just that, a “lith” effect, along with sepia etc.) All these effects are possible without having a plugin by using appropriate settings in the various Lightroom tools, and you could always make your own presets if you were that way inclined. But some are available for free and will be easier to use.

One of the few possibly genuinely useful filters currently listed on the Adobe Lightroom Exchange site for Lightroom Plugins is LR/Enfuse, which allows you to blend multiple exposures (which can be virtual copies of files) to cope with extremes of lighting (there is an example on author Timothy Armes‘s site. I haven’t yet felt the need to use this myself.

Again thinking of wide-angle images, it would be very useful to have the ability to correct normal wide-angle distortion in Lightroom – as you can with the ‘Free Transform, Warp’ command in recent versions of Photoshop.

Lightroom also lacks an automatic detection and removal of chromatic aberration, a feature whic is implemented fairly well in the latest Capture One software. Purple fringe removal is another area where LR lags sadly behind CO. There is a ‘Defringe’ in LR, but it seldom has a great deal of effect.

Guy in Hospital

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Not an early Nov 5th story, but a kind of follow-up to my recent post Police attack Photographers where I mentioned that a photographer was attacked by a police dog.

On photographer Marc Vallee’s blog, in the post Guy Smallman in Afghanistan, you can read about another incident in which the same photographer was injured. I’m not quite sure why, but the words that Oscar Wilde put into Lady Bracknell’s mouth about losing parents came into my mind.  Guy certainly has suffered misfortune, but I think it is more a matter of working in dangerous places rather than carelessness.  And being rather cautious, as I tend to be (unkind people might call it timid) is seldom the best way to get good pictures. (You can see more of the Swiss incident in which he was injured on PigBrother.)

Elsewhere on Marc’s blog you can read a lot more about the problems that photographers have with police harassment. On Tuesday he was in the committee room when NUJ Gen Secretary was giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and he gives this link to the long video of some of the proceedings. As he says, parts of it make interesting viewing, though there is a lot best fast-forwarded.

Here in London, the police appear to have been easing off recently, especially over the SOCPA restrictions on demonstration.  On October 11, ‘People in Common‘ and others, including FitWatch, staged a Freedom not fear 2008 event outside New Scotland Yard, although a smiling officer handed out the usual maps and warning, it seemed clear that while reminding people of the law they had no real intention of enforcing it.

Rt Click, View image to see larger in Firefox
A warning that eating in the SOCPA  zone could be an offence

But perhaps the strangest thing about the demonstration was the little person I photographed trapped inside the hood of a large black suit

Rt Click, View image to see larger in Firefox
See the detail view below:

More about that demonstration – and more pictures on My London Diary.

Cheney & Iraqi Oil at Shell UK

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

It’s good when someone actually comes up with a visual idea for a demonstration that you can photograph; too often you really get things that would only look good from a helicopter. Actually it’s usually better if people don’t try to be too clever, but give us something a little out of the ordinary in the way of masks or makeup or costumes or props that we can play around with and find a different way to photograph.

Firefox: Rt click and 'View Image' to see it larger
Dick Cheney, Iraqi Oil and the Shell Centre (right)

So although a giant Dick Chaney was a nice idea, and he was very well produced, and we all had some fun photographing him, I have a feeling that every other photographer there will have produced a picture more or less like mine. But perhaps not quite.

100 Days to stop Bush & Cheney’s Iraq Oil Grab! was of course a protest about a very serious issue, basically the pay-off US and UK forces were sent to Iraq to bring home. Forget WMD, Iraq was about another three letters, OIL, and Cheney with his friends at Shell and BP are now getting down to wrapping it up and bringing the swag home.

It’s a simple plan. A nationalised oil industry belonging to the Iraqi people (even if much of the proceeds went into palaces for the president) does nothing for multinational oil companies. So you invade, topple Saddam, put a puppet government in his place and send them your “oil experts” to draft natural resources laws that hand out the oil to your friends. 

I photographed the demonstration outside Shell’s UK Offices in Waterloo, before it set off for the BP offices and then the US Embassy at Grosvenor Square. There is some opposition to the proposed handover in the Iraqi Parliament – and rather more among the Iraqi people. If the give-away goes ahead I think we can forecast further trouble in the Middle East after US forces finally pull out.

Lords Fail Chagos Islanders

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I wrote briefly about the disturbing case of the Chagos Islanders in May 2007, having met them at the May Day March in London. They were turfed off their homeland in the late 1960s by the Wilson government so we could give the US the island of Diego Garcia to build a huge military base. (The picture of them is in the middle of this page if you don’t want to look at the rest of the pictures from May Day.)

Rt Click, View image to see larger

Earlier this year they were picketing the House of Lords where an appeal was being heard on their case. Our Labour government, having lost over the fundamental justice of their case, and lost an appeal in the High Court, had decided to take the matter to the final stage possible in this country, appealing to the House of Lords.

Today’s judgement, reported on the BBC web site, appears to be a matter of politics and pragmatism rather than justice.

It’s hard not to agree with John Pilger, quoted by the BBC, who described it as a political decision which upheld an “immoral and illegal” act. The case seems likely to go to the European Court of Human Rights, where perhaps justice will prevail over politics.

Northeastern Pennsylvania – Urban Landscapes

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Philip A Dente writes that in his pictures of towns in Northeastern Pennsylvania he tries to “to demonstrate the feeling of a continual loss of the past through the disruptions of the present.”

Rt Click, View image to see larger
Pittston (C) 2008, Philip A Dente

Visually we see this in many images where we see through gaps or past obstructions giving a layering of planes and also in the softish light and muted colours that appeal to him. The pictures are his account of “an exciting journey …. in the context of vision and emotions.”

Philip is the latest photographer to be added to the Urban Landscape web site I run with Mike Seaborne, the full international eleven now being:

John DaviesPhilip A Dente , Lorena EndaraBee Flowers, Nicola Hulett,   Peter Marshall, Paul Anthony Melhado  Neal OshimaPaul RaphaelsonMike Seaborne and Luca Tommasi.

Although I feel it’s a strong team, new players are always welcome, but sometimes it takes us rather a long time to come to a decision.  One key problem is always to decide whether a particular body of work fits our concept of ‘urban landscape‘. It isn’t just a matter of pictures taken of cities or areas of cities -whether pretty or gritty, and there seem to be quite a few groups now on Flickr and elsewhere dedicated to one or other of these.

Nor is it straightforward architectural images. Last year in Brasilia I talked about this distinction – and you can read my thoughts in the excessively literally titled post
Architecture and Urban Landscape photography

You can also of course read  the page from which that post quotes on the urban landscapes site where there are some more picture examples, which also has a page of advice for contributors. As well as showing urban landscape projects we would also be interested in essays related to the area – but do read the advice before contacting us.

Of course as well as appropriateness, quality of work is also important and an even more subjective area, and not one that is easy to write about.  It’s something that perhaps comes across more obviously not in individual images but in a body of work, and is more about the visual thinking that this demonstrates than the technical aspects of making and presenting work or the ability to write a polished academic statement  (indeed many of the better photographers suffer from dyslexia.)

Mike Seaborne and I are the initial selectors of work, but if we have any doubts or are unable to agree, then we seek the advice of whichever of the others with work  already on the site seems most appropriate.

Light on the Lucie

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

For several years I received an free invitation to attend the annual Lucie Awards, US-based photography awards based on the Oscars and almost as ludicrous and self-congratulatory. I never went, mainly because a Travelcard can’t get you to New York. And as I wrote last year, Who Needs Oscars?

This year the sixth Lucie awards were presented on October 20, with the top award, for Lifetime Achievement going to the Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin.

Gardin, born in 1930, started taking pictures in 1954 and has been awarded most of the major photography prizes, published around 200 books of photographs, had around 200 shows around the world (including at Arles and in Paris, New York…)  He has pictures in museums around the world, his work has been in leading books and shows but is almost totally unknown in the UK.  He’s a photographer very much in the mould of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Willy Ronis, but who remained working in that mode into the 2000s.

Y0u can read more about him at PhotoCentral (more pictures)  and at Photostream there is “half a review” of his 2005 retrospective book and half a discussion of why he is not better known here.

RAW Converters: Capture One Pro 4.5

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

When I first started shooting digital, the RAW converter favoured by many pros was Capture One (CO), and so I bought a copy, and was reasonably impressed by the quality of the output although never by the speed of operation.

When Pixmantec brought out their RAW software I was easily converted, at least when the improved Pro version appeared. The output files looked more or less as good as those from CO, but the big advantages were in speed, workflow and a more intuitive interface.

Then Adobe bought up Pixmantec, wanting to incorporate its superior technology into their own products. Many of us were disappointed, but at least Adobe did give us the promise of a free copy. Lightroom when it finally arrived took a little getting used to (and I had to buy a higher spec computer to run it) but soon had me convinced that its integrated approach covering image management was the way forward.

More recently I’ve been more than impressed by Lightroom 2.1 RC (not a Catholic conversion but “release candidate“) which Adobe brought out rapidly to redress the problems which hobbled the performance of 2.0 on my machine.) Its burn and dodge tool in particular has almost completey removed the need to transfer any of my images to Photoshop in normal processing.

Long ago I’d subscribed to several future upgrades for CO, so I’ve kept up with the various releases of this. Although I didn’t use it often, there were occasional images where I just was not satisfied with the results I could get from Lightroom, and often found I could get a visibly better result with CO.

For some time, Phase One has been heralding the appearance of Capture One 4 PRO, and finally it has arrived. I downloaded and installed it this afternoon (I find it is version 4.5) You can see more about it on the Phase One site and download a trial copy if you want to try it out.

It is a real improvement over earlier versions, with improved tuning of image colours as well as a new skin tone tool. But even in these new tools there were some disappointments. One of the program’s problems has always been that it is in part a specialised tool for photographers using Phase One’s digital camera backs. It would simplify the software if this support (and that for some other tethered cameras) was eliminated from the normal version of the software. It remains rather less intuitive than Lightroom.

The lens correction tools are very welcome, but limited, again due to the software being seen as a support for Phase One. A product intended for pro use should at least come with lens profiles for popular Nikon (and Canon) lenses allowing the easy removal of lens distortions and chromatic aberration. However the the automatic CA removal works quite well and is fairly fast, and purple fringing is also handled quite well. (Presets are supplied for a few Contax and Hassleblad lenses.)

I was unable to carry out distortion correction as there were no presets for any lens that I use. The manual suggests you can adjust distortion manually (and save the results as Style presets for a very limited approach to automatic correction) but this is generally very difficult to judge with any accuracy. There is only a single control so more complex distortion cannot be handled. Manual vignetting adjustment is also possible, but so far whatever I’ve tried the ‘Color Cast’ check box and ‘Sharpness Falloff’ and ‘Light Falloff’ sliders and check boxes are simply unavailable clutter on the interface.

The other unacceptably poorly implemented feature in CO is Metadata support. You can add IPTC caption and copyright information, but not other essential fields such as keywords, location, date, category etc.

CO is probably a decenttool for studio-based photographers who don’t work with agencies or picture libraries and where optimum image quality is a high prioriyt. In particular it will appeal to those who find its “styles” useful rather than those who prefer their photography untrampled by such “creative effects.”

If you shoot on Nikon and need software to deal with the occasional file where Lightroom 2.1 doesn’t quite come up with what you need, then probably the best overall choice is the powerful if almost terminally unfriendly Nikon Capture NX RAW software (now actually NX2.) Just don’t ask me how to use it.

Should Magnum do fashion?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Alec Soth continues his campaign to turn the Magnum blog into a true ‘Web 2.0’ site interacting with its users rather than simply feeding them with some of Magnum’s truly fabulous eye-candy by posing the question ” Should Magnum do fashion?”

Of course Magnum photographers have done fashion in the past, and most particularly (as he points out) Magnum have  produced their Fashion Magazine series, with issues shot by a single photographer – previous issues have been by Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden and Soth himself.

The latest – just released – Magnum Fashion Magazine, shot by Lise Sarfati raises the issues more starkly for several reasons. Firstly because of her whole approach to documentary which has dealt more intensely with the people she has photographed than the other photographers, but most importantly because she has made use of those same people as models in her fashion pictures and shot in many of the same locations.

Of course there are those who argue that Magnum lost its true documentary heart some years ago, particularly with the inclusion of Martin Parr, whose approach caused some apoplexy among some more traditional documentary photographers at the time (and I think smoke was seen rising from at least one of my heroes.)

Until now it was always possible for those who had some sympathy with this view to apologise for Magnum and say that even if some of the work lacked the old spirit, at least Magnum was still supporting the serious work of photographers such as Lise Sarfati…

Had we looked at these pictures simply on the web or gallery wall would we have simply seen them as an extension of her earlier work? After all they are marked on Magnum as “Not for use in advertising or retail calendars“, so are they really so different from her other work?

Seen as a whole, I think they are, and I think they cheapen her work. Although taken individually most would fit into her approach, as a set of over 70 images the fashion fiction seems to me to take over, spreading a certain sameness and repetition.  I don’t know if it is the presence of stylists, the expectations of the “models” themselves or the pressure on the photographer to produce in a limited time-scale, but there seems to be a lack of intensity as well as a certain unwelcome gloss in these images.

I also wonder about the relationship between the documentary photographer and the people she is photographing, not just in this case but in general.  For me certainly, I’ve always felt that what I do is justified by the story that I tell; sometimes it may be of direct benefit to those who work with me,  or promote their cause or in some way enlarge people’s understanding or appreciation of the world.  Somehow I can’t fit selling frocks into that relationship.

So should Magnum do fashion? Well, Magnum photographers need to make a living and fashion is one of the safer and better paid ways to do that, so I’ve no problem with them doing a little on the side.  Even do a few weddings if they really have to. But I’d rather Magnum itself didn’t confuse it with their real work.