Editor’s Pick at 360Cities

I have been lucky enough to have several of my panoramas selected as an Editor’s Pick at 360cities.net. The latest was one I took last year and only got around to assembling recently. I had made a similar panorama at the time but it didn’t make it as an Editor’s Pick.

This pano was challenging because of the lighting. The fountains would change colour very frequently. Add  in the movement of the crowd, it meant that I had to double the amount of shots to take in order to make sure I would have a seamless result. Instead of 4 shots in the horizontal plane, I took 8. I also took 2 of the zenith as the colour was changing. As each exposure was 30 seconds plus the same again for dark frame subtraction, this meant standing around for some time. I managed to find a spot in the middle of the fountain where I wouldn’t be hit with any water.

I timed my shots to capture the variety of colours lighting up the fountain. These were blended together in Hugin using masks. The final result was then exported as an equirectangular pano for upload, but I also played around with the Little Planet project you can see above.

So you’re shooting your first wedding…

If you’re serious about photography and your friends and family consider you handy with a camera, at some point you’ll be asked, “Can you shoot our wedding?” Here’s my point of view, having been in this situation as a relative/friend with a camera way too often.

First point of advice: Run away! You get the occasional cowboy but your working professional wedding photographer actually earns their keep and I have the utmost respect for what they do day-in, day-out. It’s not just about having expensive cameras, even more expensive lenses, or fancy software, what you should be getting when hiring a pro is years of experience handling a high pressure situation and getting the shots when it matters. You don’t get many second chances at weddings and considering how important the photos are to how it will be remembered, the couple should think carefully of not ascribing the appropriate budget to photography, especially considering the total cost of the wedding.

If possible, convince them to hire a professional photographer, one with experience and with a good track record, especially in being able to produce photos in the style preferred by the bride and groom. Just as a marriage requires matching the right people, it is important to get a photographer who will be appropriate for the occasion. The primary photographer should be responsible for the “money shots”, the ones which are the bread and butter of any photo album. Have the couple draw up a list of shots which they would like, especially the group photos which can be endless in their permutational possibilities. Having a trusted friend of the couple (usually the Best Man) handle the logistics of the group shots is one way of reducing your workload to simply taking care of the photos instead of herd management. The last thing you want to have to worry about is where is Aunt Murtle or nephew Johnny? It’s easier if there is someone familiar with friends and family who can go chasing up on errant guests.

Try to enjoy yourself and let the primary shooter get the primary shots, you do what you can to fill in the gaps. If I can get out of being the primary photog for friends, I usually end up doing street photo/candid shots to give a more informal behind the scenes sort of document to the day. When you don’t have the pressure of being first shooter, you can try for the more artistic or risky shots, most of them will fail but you could end up capturing their favourite shot of the day. This may require getting in close to the other guests, or hang back and observing. It depends on the situation and you have to be adaptable. I find that a wide angle lens and being in the thick of the action is a good way of getting fun and intimate shots.

Even as second shooter, I usually have two bodies to reduce lens swapping. One with a 70-200mm telephoto zoom, the other with a 16-50mm standard zoom. I’ll also have a 35mm/1.8 and 50mm/1.4 large aperture primes for low light situations. It is important to anticipate what camera/lens is required at any given moment and to have it ready. For the official ceremony, you should have a good idea of the sequence of events and what shots are needed. Rehearse following the bride down the aisle and the route when leaving the ceremony. Scout the areas where you will do the formal portraits and groups shots. During the more relaxed and informal moments, you have to keep a good lookout for photo opportunities. Kids are invariably cute, especially all dressed up for the occasion.

Preparation will make things run a lot smoother. Planning the day, where you have to be and when, what equipment is needed for which shots, and even the little things like where to park and how to get all your stuff safely to where it needs to be. A checklist can help prevent you forgetting vital tasks.

It is tempting to use your camera as a machine gun, shooting anything that moves. Afterwards you’ll regret having to go through thousands of images. Certainly take those extra safety shots for the ones which matter (groups shots, formals, portraits), but you should try to be selective about the other shots, making sure that each frame counts. It’ll reduce the amount of backing up, editing, and processing you’ll need to do. There’s no harm in keeping shots varied, just don’t get too focussed on repeated shots of the same subject.

Post wedding, you will need to sort, edit and produce a contact sheet for the couple to have a look at. Even at this stage, you should be ruthless in pruning extraneous shots. Couples always have a tendency of wanting even more shots, magnifying your workload. Particularly if you are doing a wedding as a favour or for reduced rates, you want to restrict the amount of unnecessary effort you have to expend. You need to be strict in the number of agreed final photos to deliver. The final output will determine the degree of post-processing required. A set of 6″x4″ prints to put into an album will require only cursory white-balance, levels and curves. Large portrait prints may require a visit to Photoshop to get rid of blemishes, sweat stains (not a task I relish, especially having to manually touch up a hundred or so photos), to smooth skin,  and generally make each shot look its best.

Sunset over Shieldaig

I was returning from a hike to the Fairy Lochs with the sun rapidly descending towards the horizon. Some distant cloud cover prevented a truly magnificent sunset but the colours in the sky which remained were still impressive. I have very little time to set up my tripod, make sure my SAL 16-50mm/2.8 lenses was mounted properly onto the NEX-7 via a LA-EA1 adapter, and to set out to find a suitable spot to capture the scene. Luckily there is a beach next to the Shieldaig hotel which was at low tide at the time. I quickly set up the tripod, composed the capture both the sky and beach, and focussed manually, very easy to do using zoomed liveview. I took a few bracketed shots to make sure that I did not blow the sky, using both the live and post-shot histogram. I finally retreated under an onslaught of midges.

After importing the file into Lightroom, I was keen to see just how much detail I had managed to retain in a single frame, from the setting sun to the dimly lit beach. Cranking up the highlight and shadow recovery sliders, I was pleased to see that I could bring out detail both in the sky and the ground without too much trouble. A bit of clarity and vibrance completed the treatment of the photo. Some licence has been taken with the interpretation of the colours, but this more faithfully represents the impression of being there rather than actual photometric values.

Singapore Panoramas

I’ve returned from a business trip to Singapore. There’s always something new to explore every time I visit. On this trip it was Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay right next door. Marina Bay Sands (pano)  has been open for some time now but this was my first visit to the complex. It is an impressive are with lots of interesting shapes and sights. I was not able to have a look into the main attraction which is the casino, but I prefer to spend my money on photography rather than gambling.

Next door is Gardens by the Bay, a newly opened botanical garden. The most noticeable landmarks are the so-called Super Trees, artificial constructs which house plants on its sides and serve a host of functions. When the sun descends, they are lit up with a son et lumiere show.

The weather in Singapore is humid and often with cloud cover. This makes landscape shots during the day often flat and uninspiring. A reconnaissance visit during the did not lead to anything worth showing but as evening approaches, interesting colours start to appear in the sky. The time around sunset is known as the Golden Hour. In Singapore one degree North of the Equator, the period where the sky is evenly balanced (pano) against the ground is considerable less than hour (during the summer in Scotland, it can be several hours long, that is if it isn’t cloudy or raining). I had to be quick to catch the light, starting to take photos just as the sun was setting and continuing into the dark.

Since the light is often mixed and tinted, there’s no “right” white balance so you are free to choose an overall tint which complements the subject matter. When all natural light has gone from the sky, you are often left with city glow, at least in urban areas. This can be mix of sodium lamps, fluorescent lighting, and HID. It can reflect off clouds which in some cases lends some interest to otherwise featureless sky (unless you are blessed with minimal light pollution and can pick out the Milky Way). Here (pano) you can see the change in the tint of the sky. clouds came in and gave some texture to the sky. There is considerable city glow, not surprising in a built-up urbanised area light Singapore.

Another place I was able to explore a bit was the Sentosa Boardwalk which connects mainland Singapore to Sentosa Island to the South. This nice stroll has botanical displays along its length but also has several establishments in the middle and a lookout point from which you can see the cable car from Mt Faber to Sentosa. Here (pano), I’ve taken a pano from the stairs leading from the top path down to the lower deck. It was fairly dark, exposures being 30s at f/8 ISO100. The NEX-7 has tremendous dynamic range allowing me to pull out a lot of shadow detail. The shot below (pano) is the view from the deck showing the cable car, Resorts World Sentosa, and the city in the distance. There were a few other tourist soaking up the view.

Sony photokina announcements

Alpha A99: A fitting companion tot eh A77. I’m in two minds about the switch back to the old ISO shoe. Mechanically, it’s inferior to the iISO shoe but I understand the need to update the electronic contacts so I guess the switch will also counteract the criticism of a non-standard shoe. The revised 24MP sensor is intriguing. I hope that its performance will be a significant improvement over the A900, not that the old camera was bad. Having that extra low0light performance can’t hurt. I’m intrigued by the new multi-segment low-pass optical filter. I wonder how they are going to deal with the problem of both stills and video capture requiring much different low-pass characteristics.

NEX-6: I could have had one of these instead of the NEX-7. It’s what lots of people have wanted, a NEX-7 style camera with a 16MP sensor. The new on-sensor phase-detect AF will be interesting to watch. I think I’ll actually get a NEX-5R since I can use the NEX-7 for the times I require a hotshoe and EVF (studio), and the NEX-5R would be fine as a general travel and panoramic camera (should the sensor play nice with the Samyang 8mm/2.8 fisheye). I can use difference in price between the 5R and 6 to go towards the new lenses, especially the 16-50mm pancake zoom and the 35mm/1.8 OSS prime. The 10-18mm/4 OSS will be a nice option should I need conventional rectilinear wide-angle shots.

RX1: I think this product is at once exciting but personally irrelevant. It’s one of those YMMV products which has already polarised the general photographic enthusiast market. There’s been so much projection of personal needs and desires onto this niche product. The fact of the matter is that it is not for the masses, any more so than a Lotus Elise. For what it offers, it is quite reasonably priced. A 35mm/2 Zeiss lens mated with a full format 24MP sensor all wrapped up in a very compact package will be a marvellous tool in the right hands. I can see photojournalists, street and candid photographers clamouring to get one as their personal go-everywhere camera.

VG900: It will be intriguing to see where this fits in. Does it aim for indie movie makers wanting to get the “full-frame” DSLR look but in a much more traditional camcorder package? If it offers clean and full HDMI out, could it act as a B camera on large productions? Without native full-format E-mount lenses, it doesn’t seem to be geared towards the wedding or field reporting crowd which would appreciate AF or a power zoom. The fact that they can stuff a full-format sensor into an E-mount body bodes well for even higher end NEX still cameras.

Thoughts on the Sony RX1

The interwebs are abuzz with rumour and speculation, one of the most unexpected being that of the Sony RX1 fixed lens large sensor compact camera (Photos from Sony Alpha Rumors).

The rumoured headline specifications are a 36mm x 24mm CMOS sensor (probably 24MP), 35mm/2 Zeiss Sonnar lens, and a price of $2799. We’ll find out whether these are true in a few days but I’d like to comment on the reaction around the web to these (alleged) details.

Common laments:

  • It’s too expensive
  • It’s a fixed lens
  • It’s not pocketable
  • It doesn’t have a OVF or EVF

It’s perfectly reasonable to express how it does or does not fit within your own circumstances or shooting style, but then some proceed to project their own feelings and requirements onto everyone else and declare the camera an “epic fail” or similar. Just because it isn’t appropriate for your use doesn’t mean it won’t be entirely fitting for someone else.

“It’s too expensive!” If the rumoured price is correct, then it certainly won’t be a cheap camera. The question whether it is too expensive is solely a function of the market. Consider the premium which Leica cameras command. An M9P is £5200 body only, to which you can add an extra £2100 for a 35mm/2 lens. The Leica X2 (APS-C sensor, 24mm/2.8 lens) is £1500 which makes it marginally cheaper than the RX1. If you are the market for a Leica X2, then the RX1 will be a strong contender (unless you must have the red dot on your camera).

“It’s a fixed lens” A 35mm/2 lens is a good choice for general purpose candid/street photography. Many notable street photographers would happily shoot with just a 35mm lens on a Leica. If you live and breathe street photography, this camera could be just your tool of choice. It may not be your only camera, but it could easily serve as a great travel camera, street/candid camera, or backup camera.

“It’s not pocketable” Depends on how big your pockets are. It’s not going to replace your phone camera, it won’t replace a small compact digicam, but it could replace having to carry a DSLR or a Leica M9 when shooting discretely. From what can be discerned from the photos, it should fit in a coat pocket easily, something you cannot say about a 5DIII or D700.

“It doesn’t have an OVF/EVF” Further rumour has it that external OVF/EVFs will be available. For a fixed 35mm lens, an external OVF would be fine for quick candids and street photos. Having used both a NEX-5 and NEX-7, the built-in EVF of the NEX-7 is more convenient but I was still able to use the NEX-5 without too much trouble. Having the option of an external EVF should assuage the doubts for most people.

The main problem is evaluating such a niche market camera by criteria which don’t represent the niche it is aiming towards. It is nonsensical to evaluate the people-carrying capability of a Caterham 7, just as the quater-mile time of a Nissin Micra is mostly irrelevant. The RX1 is not an NEX camera, it is not meant to fulfil the general needs that an interchangeable camera can fill. You are not going to be shooting sports, classic portraits, go birding, or make ultra-wide angle shots with this camera. However, if you need a small and discreet camera with a large sensor and moderately wide prime with (presumably) superb image quality and tactile feel, the RX1 should be high on your list.

Personally, I can’t see myself getting the RX1 even if it were much cheaper. Even though street and candid photography are a major photographic interest, I don’t earn enough from it to justify getting a single camera for this purpose. Should I win the lottery, then I would considert the RX1 as a luxury item to enjoy shooting with. Instead, I look forward to the NEX-6 and the 35mm/1.8 OSS E-mount lens as a street/candid combo.