If you get a chance to see the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition*, grab it. The images are breathtaking, and a testament to the enormous reserves of talent, enthusiasm and time that goes into capturing them. Photographing wildlife isn't easy at the best of times; doing it well is extraordinarily difficult.
Of course, being a closet anorak, I couldn't resist looking at the technical details alongside each caption. Two things struck me. First, that when I last went to see it two years ago, 90% of the entries were shot on film - this year over 90% were digital. Second, there was a very wide range of gear being used, from top of the range pro bodies to entry level dSLRs. And yet it was almost impossible to tell the (beautifully produced) A2 prints apart.
For example: a stunning underwater shot of a storm wave crashing over a coral reef, shot on a 6 megapixel Nikon D70. And right next to it, a shot of some King Penguins having an argument (no, really), shot on a 16 megapixel Canon EOS 1DS mark II. Could I tell them apart? Just. But only by getting in very close - less than 6 inches - and looking very critically at edges and fine details. I very much doubt that most people would notice any difference at all.
Which is interesting, when you think about it, if only because you could buy 10 of those D70s for the price of the Canon. Or, alternatively, a couple of D70s and a very nice long lens to get you closer to all the wildlife action. Clearly, many budding wildlife photographers are voting with their wallets and putting their money where it matters most: glass. Kudos to them for not buying into the hype.
Pixels help gather extra detail, but the differences are much smaller than most people (and particularly most camera store salespeople) would have you believe. The popular perception that doubling the pixels doubles the level of detail in an image is wrong. Because pixel count is measured in two dimensions and resolution in one, resolution only increases by the square root of the pixel increase. Put another way, to double resolution you need to quadruple the pixel count. The top-of-the-line Canon may have nearly three times the number of pixels of the humble D70, but that only adds up to around 60% more resolution. Law of diminishing returns, anyone?
I don't have any wildlife pics to prove my point, but here's one of my portfolio images, shot on a now-defunct 6 megapixel Nikon D100. I like it just the way it is, pixel-deprived though it may be by current standards.
* irony of the headline sponsor's impact on global wildlife habitats not pictured...
Got a new dSLR for Christmas? Welcome to the club! Here are a few basic but not-so-obvious pointers to help ease the transition from a point-and-shoot compact:
1. Left-handed rules
You need a stable, comfortable grip to get shake-free shots (even if your camera or lens has some form of image stabilisation). Don't use the camera's grip to support it - instead, turn your left hand palm upwards and cradle the camera body and lens in it, taking the weight of both. Tuck your left elbow into your body and use your thumb and first two fingers to control zoom and focus rings without changing your grip. Your right hand is now free to operate the other controls without supporting the camera's weight.
2. Squeeeeeze, don't jab
Now that your right hand isn't holding the camera up, you can concentrate on squeezing the shutter button instead of pressing it. Squeezing means you're less likely to move the camera during the exposure, which is another step towards sharper, blur-free shots.
3. Learn to see blind
A dSLR's mirror flips up out of the way during the exposure, meaning you can't see what you're snapping while it's being snapped. You need to anticipate the perfect moment for the shot and release the shutter just before that point. The faster your subject is moving, the more important this technique becomes.
4. One size doesn't fit all
Fully automatic modes are supposed to be the idiot-proof way to improve your pictures, but they don't always do what it says on the tin. For example, 'sports' modes tend to raise the shutter speed to freeze action - but moving subjects (like mountain bikes) are sometimes best captured with a slower shutter speed to give an impression of speed. Read the manual, take your camera off full auto and do some exploring. With digital there's no excuse not to, because you can see exactly what's happening as you try it. And every shot is (almost) free.
5. Think before you shoot
In an age of instant results and terrabyte storage capacities it probably seems odd to pause before you shoot. Why not just hold the button down and pick the best shot later? Well, you could do it that way. But thinking about what you're doing makes it easier to learn from your mistakes, which in turn increases your hit rate, which means you get more - and better - pictures. Get the basics right and the rest will follow...
Oh, and above all - have fun!
Well, that's it. I'm off for another Christmas of eating and drinking more than I should, trying not to offend any of the extended family and attempting to squeeze in a short ride or two. Just like most other mountain bikers, then.
I'll be back sometime around the new year, or possibly a bit before. Have a good one, and make sure you leave some tyre tracks in the mud over the holiday period. I'll leave you with a pic to remind you of long, hot, dry and dusty summers...
Over the years I've accumulated more gear than I strictly need, and certainly more than I can carry. Of which, more some other time.
But it got me wondering what I really need to get the job done, so I decided to work out the five essentials that I wouldn't want to be without. It's obviously an incomplete list (for example, a radio slave isn't much use without a flash), but it was an interesting exercise all the same (hey, it's December - I'm not exactly rushed off my feet right now...)
Here then, in no particular order, are my five essentials:
1. The met office website
It's a running joke in my house that this is my homepage... but I don't walk out of the door without checking it first. Weather's important to a photographer, partly in terms of keeping gear as dry as possible but mainly because it affects the light. The met office site isn't always right, but it's the most accurate of the lot and it's saved me a lot of time and hassle over the years.
2. Bibble Pro raw conversion software
I shoot raw because it gives me more flexibility, allows me to extract the maximum possible quality out of my cameras and means I can tweak the overall look of my pictures. I like my images to look as film-like as possible, for example, so this tends to be reflected in the choices I make around contrast, colour and noise reduction. Whilst Nikon's raw software undoubtedly gives the best results, it's excruciatingly slow. Bibble's quality is pretty good, but more importantly it's blazingly fast. Result? I spend less time in front of a monitor and more time out riding and shooting.
3. Quantum radio slave
The ability to take my flash off the camera and put it (almost) anywhere I wanted revolutionised my photography. Suddenly I could shoot through foliage, between trees, from behind rocks... and still throw a bit of fill light on the rider. Held together with insulating tape, my original radio slave is still going strong despite being dropped, rained on and generally mistreated.
4. Nikon D200
Well, I'm not going to get very far without a camera, am I? In many ways I prefer my D2X. It feels faster, it's got useable autofocus and the image quality is cleaner and more detailed than the D200 up to around ISO400. But it's a big, heavy beast. The D200 is close enough to the D2X in terms of speed and quality, and it's a whole lot smaller and lighter. If I had to choose just one camera, it would be this one.
5. Nikon 12-24mm f/4 DX
A camera's not much use without a lens. This isn't the greatest piece of glass that Nikon's made - I wish it was faster and a bit sharper wide open, for a start. But it matches my view of the world, which has got wider over the years. I seem to default to seeing things in 18mm widescreen, and that translates to 12mm on my D200 and D2X.
Of course I'd like a longer lens too, but that takes my list over five...
In 1999 the original 'Froride* lineup of Schley, Wade Simmons and Brett Tippie had been around just long enough to raise more than a few industry eyebrows, help bring the original North Shore both fame and notoriety and start a whole new mini-industry centred around riding bikes where they had no place being (in mid-air, mostly).
Most of the bike industry was unprepared, much of it was sceptical and some of it was outright hostile to the idea of of riders piloting bikes anywhere they damn well pleased. But the 'Froriders' easy-going nature made them a pleasure to work with, back in the days before freeride was a media circus and Kranked was little more than a mis-spelled word. Richie Schley shares the credit with his 'Fro team-mates for helping to put freeride - and BC - well and truly on the bike industry map.
* The 'Froride name, in case anyone's wondering, resulted from a well known bike company (who claimed to have trademarked the word 'freeride') threatening Rocky Mountain with a lawsuit. Neatly sidestepping a protracted court battle, RM simply changed the name of their team to 'Froride, provided Schley and co. with some comedy afro wigs to wear at events, and got themselves a heap of good-humoured publicity into the bargain. A very Canadian response, eh.
Looking for a way to brighten up your computer while it's snoozing at your desk? My new PC screensaver is ready to go from the 'downloads' section* of my portfolio site. The Mac version should be available in the next week or so.
Both screensavers include some of my favourite pics (the one below is from an early beta and doesn't appear) as well as a clock and date function, so you can kid yourself that staring at mountain bike pictures serves some useful purpose. Enjoy!
*If you can't see the 'download' section, try emptying your browser's cache before trying again. You'll need a minimum screen resolution of 1024x768 to use the screensaver. Larger resolutions will display the images within a grey border.
Will a better camera improve your pictures? With moving subjects the answer's even fuzzier than usual, because variables like shutter lag can actually become quite important. The conventional wisdom is that the inherent delay between pressing the button and the picture being recorded will make action shots with cheaper digital cameras difficult or impossible.
But I've never been a big fan of conventional wisdom.
Earlier this year I picked up an Olympus C-8080 from ebay for, well, not very much at all. With one of the sharpest lenses ever attached to the front of a 'prosumer' camera, 8 megapixels and a wide range of (fiddly) manual controls, it was one of the last of the high-end, over-priced all-in-one cameras before budget DSLRs conquered the world. If it was good enough for Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, I reckoned it was worth a try. I wanted it for the sharp glass, smallish size and lowish weight. I was less ecstatic about the shutter lag. Although average for its class, in comparison to my usual cameras it felt as though I'd have time to put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, drink it and do the washing up in the time it took to actually record an image. Perfect for action photography, then.
One of the best ways to reduce shutter lag is to prefocus. Since this is the way I normally work anyway (and the 8080's autofocus is so slow it'd have trouble tracking a moving tortoise), I figured I might as well try it for the kind of pictures I'd normally shoot with my DSLRs: close-cropped action pics of bikes and riders. Once I'd got used to the extra shutter lag, it was simple enough to compensate by pressing the button a bit earlier than usual. It means you have to anticipate the peak action, but hey - you can't have everything.
I shot about a dozen images, of which most were usable and the best are shown here. They're hardly masterpieces, but they're certainly sharp enough to run across a magazine spread. In most respects I doubt I could improve on them even with my normal setup, which cost around 20x the price I paid for the Olympus.
So will I be using my 8080 for my next cover shoot? Probably not, on balance. But I'd like to think that, if I absolutely had to, I could persuade it to do the job. So the next time you get a gleam in your eye about that new DSLR and lens combo, ask yourself if you've really squeezed the most out of your current camera? If your technique isn't up to scratch, even the shortest shutter lag and whizziest autofocus won't improve your pictures...
It's a sign of the times that I only found out about the closure of my local E6 lab several weeks after the event. Pro film processing labs have been closing all over the country as a direct result of the stampede to digital, but I'd kidded myself that it wouldn't happen here. The guys at the lab were very, very good - and extremely passionate about what they did. Sure, I hadn't taken a film to be processed there for over a year, but still... they'd always be around, wouldn't they?
People who've developed - no pun intended - their interest in photography in the binary world of pixels and histograms will probably wonder what all the fuss is about. Everyone knows that digital is cheaper, easier, better quality, right? Well, maybe. But if you've never gazed in wonder at the sheer brilliance of a sharp, perfectly exposed slide on a lightbox, you're missing out. There's a three dimensional quality to those tiny, inch-by-inch-and-a-half rectangles of colour that digital can't replicate - even on a large, high-end monitor. And there are no second chances - you either got it right, or you didn't. It was part of the challenge, I suppose.
There are a few things about film that I don't miss. The worse-than-exam-nerves wait for the films to come back from the lab, never quite sure which shots had worked and which hadn't. The occasional tramline scratch across an otherwise perfect frame. The hassle of getting dozens of rolls of film through multiple airport security searches.
But mostly, there was nothing much that needed fixing. Film technology has been maturing for over 150 years, and films like Fuji Velvia have a vibrant, tactile quality that's hard to replicate digitally. It's a reliable, versatile and trusted medium. And I, for one, am going to miss working with it.