Category Archives: Photography

Picturing Zanzibar – Advice for Photographers

Welcome to Zanzibar!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9M2 | Date: 04-12-2023 13:37 | Resolution: 2628 x 2628 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm (~24.0mm) | Location: Shangani Lighthouse | State/Province: Stone Town, Zanzibar City, Zanzi | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8II

With my Zanzibar trip now firmly behind me, I’ve looked back and tried to condense what I experienced into guidance for future visitors and photographers.

This was my first trip to East Africa, and I came away with a lot of positive feelings. This appears to be a happy, vibrant place with lots of friendly people. Most of the practicalities worked fine, albeit sometimes a bit slowly, in a way familiar to anyone who has travelled in the tropics. I never felt the slightest issue in respect of personal security, and all my commercial transactions were honest and straightforward, although there was inevitably some haggling with shopkeepers to agree a price.

Dhow at BuBuBu (Show Details)

Photographic Subjects and Practices

I did get some great shots of people, beaches and boats, and the snorkelling was easily the best I’ve done in about 20 years. For those happy in a relatively small boat I would thoroughly recommend a dhow trip, and a snorkelling trip with Safari Blue.

Snorkelling near Kwale Island (Show Details)

Beaches aside, there’s no scenery to speak of. The island is as flat as a pancake, covered with either very generic tropical vegetation or small-scale agriculture, broken intermittently by what are described as "villages" but many of which are in reality small towns of several thousand people. The historical area of Stonetown is home to some fascinating old narrow alleys and tall buildings, but away from there the vernacular architecture is either 1960s communist blocks, or nondescript smaller constructions of concrete blocks and corrugated iron. Both are, let’s be honest, just ugly. In some parts of the world buildings are at least cheered up by being painted in bright colours, but most in Zanzibar are left unpainted in drab greys and browns.

Stonetown does have a wonderful tradition of impressive, studded timber doors. These were present, but unfortunately at the time of our visit almost every one was covered in complex sets of numbers scrawled in chalk, the legacy of a recent census. Hopefully when the process is complete most will be cleaned and returned to their usual photogenic state, but I’ve come away with relatively few shots of these vaunted features.

We didn’t see any wildlife except fish, a few birds, a couple of impressively large rats, and some amazingly colourful dragonflies which frequented the hotel pool but were impossible to photograph. An occasional rustle in the trees or roadside vegetation suggested some slightly larger fauna, but it didn’t make itself obvious.

That brings us to the people. Most were pleasant and interesting, but not all were willing photographic subjects. They seemed to split down into a few groups (albeit with lots of borderline cases):

  1. Those who are happy to be photographed without immediate reward. A lot of people in direct tourist-facing roles are naturally in this group, however they are not the majority.
  2. Those who can be persuaded, especially if you engage with them first and take a genuine interest in their activity or situation, and then ask permission. This is down to your powers of persuasion, or those of your guide.
  3. Those who are happy to pose on the transactional basis that they will be paid. As well as entertainers working for tips you will find a number of the general public who operate on a "dollar for photo" or similar basis. Stallholders who have either just made a sale of who have a real prospect of one are also usually willing.
  4. Those who really don’t want to be photographed. I reckon this can be 50% or more in some cases. Some will make it very obvious with a "no photo" or covering their face. You have to acknowledge and honour this.

Ladies happy to be photographed, for a fee! (Show Details)

The reticence of many of the people seems to be down to a combination of the standard Muslim concern about images of people, more modern concerns about publishing one’s likeness, and an annoyance that their daily lives are being scrutinised by foreigners. It has to be said that most of us would be the same if the situation was reversed. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable tramping around the villages, and after a while focused photography on those in groups 1-3.

You also should be alert to those who due to peer pressure appear to be in group 2 or 3, but are actually in group 4. You may detect unease, or just poor poses and expressions – these are passive expressions of the same unwillingness. A good example is where we were invited into school classes, but some of the youngsters were obviously much less comfortable than others. Again, there’s no point in pushing with an unwilling subject.

Finally you have to be aware of the psychological aspects of the photographic process on willing but inexperienced subjects. In a couple of cases we found a great model, but the first photographer in the group thrust an enormous camera and lens into her face and insisted on taking dozens of images, and the rest didn’t get a look in. That’s unfair on both the subject and the other photographers.

If you do have to pay a subject it won’t require much – 1 US dollar is a good reward for a some shots of an adult, and you can scale up to maybe $10 for a group. Carry lots of $1 notes. However it’s not a good idea to pay kids directly – this is clearly driving a lot of poor behaviours.

Tumblers on the beach (Show Details)

Photographic Kit

There’s not a great deal to say here. Any good camera should serve you well, and unless you’re going underwater the practical demands are limited. The beauty of Micro Four Thirds allowed me to take a range of lenses covering from ultra-wide angle to long telephoto without breaking the luggage limit, but the longer lenses got very limited use, and a standard pair of zooms covering the equivalent of 24-70mm and 70-200mm or similar would cover the vast majority of subjects.

My new Panasonic G9ii behaved faultlessly, and like its predecessor proved an ideal camera for travelling "light but fully equipped". I took 1662 images on it, about 110 on the Sony Rx100 mk 7, and about 316 using the waterproof Olympus TG6, across about 8 days of "active photography" (as opposed to lying by the pool). The count was lower than many trips, but reflected the limited need for multi-shot techniques or high frame rate action photography. About 50% of the shots have been retained for further processing after an initial edit, higher than usual for the same reasons.

Make sure you have a circular polariser for each lens. I just left mine on most of the time, as the light frequently demands it, and it’s good protection against the dust and moisture. Alternatively you might want to take clear or UV filters, but that’s arguably overkill. My ND filters didn’t come out of the bag, and I didn’t catch any of my companions messing about with square filters, ND Grads and the like – the subjects really didn’t call for it.

Underwater the TG6 worked well enough, and avoided the literally fatal failings of its predecessor. However the images are not that sharp, and battery life is very poor, as I found to my cost when I lost power halfway through the second snorkelling session. If you are doing a trip with multiple snorkel or dive sessions in the water, change the battery after each one, and accept the risk of opening the camera in a less controlled environment.

Sea star on Nungwi beach (Show Details)

You could get away without taking a tripod. Mine never left the suitcase. Obviously it depends on your style, and your tolerance for higher ISO for evening shots, but I worked exclusively handheld. By and large it was too cloudy for genuine night photography, and otherwise the light levels and subjects were always workable.

If you are travelling to that part of the world with significant photographic kit, avoid Emirates as an airline. They have a ridiculous 7kg and one piece limit on cabin baggage which they enforce quite enthusiastically. My work-around was to wear a photographer’s vest which ended up almost as heavy as my bag, but I shouldn’t have to be forced to do so.

Otherwise that’s about it. The phrase which sums it up well is "f/8 and be there…"

Practicalities

This section does need a significant "your mileage may vary" warning – it reflects my experiences and others may be different. For example all the advice beforehand warned that insects might be a major issue, but I was sufficiently untroubled that by the end of the trip I wasn’t even putting repellent on, just making sure the mosquito net was secure overnight. However another member of the group did get a very nasty bite on the first night…

Zanzibar is well set up for tourism, and a lot of things "just worked". With one ultimately amusing exception, I didn’t experience any major hotel room malfunctions. Toilets were uniformly clean and functional. Transport arrangements were unproblematic.

Money is straightforward. Take lots of small US dollar bills for tips and small purchases – these are uniformly acceptable, the locals are well versed in applying a pragmatic exchange rate and rounding up or down as required, and it keeps your wallet simple. You can also get Tanzanian Shillings, or you might receive some in change, and that’s not a problem apart from the fact that the exchange rate is about 2500 to the $, or 3200 to the £, so you need to be careful with the number of zeroes! Larger bills will be presented in USD and can be settled with a credit card – just live with the small surcharge.

You will need a guide unless you’re just sticking to the environs of the hotels, and you will need a driver if you’re moving around. The main roads between towns and around Stonetown are very good and I’d be perfectly comfortable driving them, but get 10m off them and they are biblically bad. Both services are readily available at reasonable cost, so let them take the strain.

It is hot – in the 30s Celsius during the day, low 20s overnight, and humid, often without much of a breeze. Wear high factor sunscreen and be prepared to change your clothing fairly regularly. Be respectful with your clothing, but I didn’t find it necessary to follow the "cover up" guidance you get from some sources. A T shirt and shorts should be OK.

Try and adapt to the temperature. In your hotel room turn the air conditioning off, and the fan on. I slept like a log, but then I am used to the tropics and run a warm house at home. This is one of those YMMV bits.

One complaint we did have is that not enough water is served in hospitality settings. In most warm countries the first thing that happens in a restaurant or hotel is you get a glass of cold water, served from a freshly-opened bottle when required. Not in Zanzibar, you have to ask for water at meals, and you may have to manage your own supply in the hotel room. It’s not a problem – bottled water is readily available and inexpensive, but you do need to be alert to the issue and make sure you don’t accidentally get dehydrated.

Be absolutely religious about sticking to bottled water for drinking and tooth-cleaning. One of our party made a mistake on the latter and was then ill. I did try filling a kettle from the tap, but the cloudy fluid didn’t look like even boiling it would necessarily remove everything untoward, and I switched back to bottled water even for tea.

We all suffered from some measure of "tummy trouble", some, as in my case, fairly minor, some less so. My suspicion fell on the attractive salads and ice cream served by the Z Hotel, and I switched to the "bottle and burger"™ diet. This is very simple: don’t drink anything you didn’t see come out of a bottle – water, wine, beer and spirits are fine, but no cocktails. Don’t eat anything which hasn’t been baked, grilled or fried immediately before serving. Hot drinks are OK, as are boiled vegetables but only if they are still steaming – cold rice and similar are a no-no. It worked for me.

After the trip we did share our concerns about the salads with the hotel manager who assured us that all vegetables were washed using boiled water. As they say in the British Parliament, "I refer the gentleman to my earlier statement."

I mentioned that in most respect most of the hotel rooms worked quite well. However we did get one new entry for the dysfunctional hotels blog. In my first room at the Emerson Hotel in Stonetown the active and spare toilet rolls were strung on a rope from the ceiling, conveniently positioned for when required. In principle this is a good design, however in a tropical downpour on the first night water got in from outside, ran down the rope, and soaked both rolls. Annoying, especially as this is not an obvious failure until your need is unavoidable!

Coconut weaving (Show Details)

Service and Sophistication

Service was always willing and helpful, but occasionally annoying despite the good intentions. Paying or signing for drinks at the hotels is a good example. The staff don’t want to bother you while, or immediately after, consuming your drink. That’s great, but it can turn into either an interminable wait when you’re ready to go, or to your being pursued around the hotel with an unsigned chitty at shift end. Being proactive doesn’t necessarily help: I got a great cup of coffee early one morning, but while the barman could work the coffee machine to good effect, neither he nor any of the other staff on duty could work the till. I had to come back later.

More complex services are a mixed bunch. I had absolutely outstanding service from Safari Blue who not only provided a snorkelling trip but also arranged my travel, meals and changing facilities for my final day.

On the other hand I was also hoping to get two additional side-trips into the last few days: a deep sea fishing trip, and a catamaran cruise. I have done each many times in the Caribbean, you just ring up, book your place, turn up and pay. Often they even provide a taxi from your hotel. Not in Zanzibar. You can’t walk 100 yards down the beach without someone pestering you about a fishing trip, but it’s a completely different commercial model. They will happily charter you a boat, for anywhere between $400 and $1000, but it’s then your job to fill it. There’s no such thing as a "shared" trip where they do that work, apart from the dhow cruises. I couldn’t interest my companions, so the week came and went without fishing or a catamaran trip.

It’s apparent that the challenges in the educational system are failing many Zanzibarians. The inability to work the till was one example, but in fairness that was obviously a "training" hotel. However I found quite a few examples of limited reasoning skills or "learned stupidity". For example, The Z Hotel will make you a nice latte and serve it in a tall glass as per custom. So far so good. They have two sizes of saucers in their crockery set: a larger one with a dimple the right size for the latte glasses, and a smaller one where the dimple is too small and the glass wobbles alarmingly on top. You can guess which one they had all been told to use, and no amount of demonstrating the issue to the waiters every day for a week made a blind bit of difference.

Compared with some other tropical locations, there does seem to be a genuine intention to try and reduce the environmental impact of both general living and tourism. Waste was minimised and well-managed, with impressive recycling or reduction of most plastics. I even saw an old lady recycling nylon rope, using exactly the same method as others use with coconut fibres. That said there are some messy corners in villages, and on some non-tourist beaches, but you feel that they are trying to do the right thing.

Dhow at Jambiani Beach (Show Details)

And Finally…

There’s a Swahili phrase which gets a lot of use: "Pole Pole" (pronounced pole-ay, literally "slowly, slowly"). Sometimes this is meant as "go carefully", for example when getting on or off a boat. But it’s also an excuse, like "island time" or "maņana". If you’ve travelled in the tropics before the relaxed timekeeping and unhurried approach will be nothing new. If you haven’t, then sit back and relax – there’s not much you can do about it!

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Posted in Micro Four Thirds, Photography, Travel, Zanzibar | Leave a comment

Jeepers!

Temple of the Moon
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 24-09-2023 18:39 | Resolution: 5917 x 3329 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Temple of the Moon | State/Province: Capitol Reef NP, Utah | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8II

One of the reasons we have not previously explored Capitol Reef is that although it’s an enormous, diverse park, it’s not particularly well served by either self-drive roads or shared transport like a shuttle service. You can drive through the middle of it on highway 24, and up and down Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge, and that’s about it.

In the morning we tried the Notom Road, which winds through a mix of public and private land on the East of the park. There are a few good views, but nothing that dramatic. Eventually the paved road gives out and rapidly deteriorates below a level we’re comfortable driving in a road car, even one with 4WD, and we returned to town.

That leaves the Cathedral Valley. This is home to some of Capitol Reef’s best known scenery, but even relatively optimistic guides like Martres make it clear that this is not for road cars or inexperienced off-road drivers. Good advice. I signed up for a jeep tour with one of the local specialists.

The full jeep tour, up the Lower Cathedral Valley and back through the upper part is not for the faint of heart, or the loose of fillings! It’s 58 miles of washboard, sand, deep dips, and the occasional segment where the road surface appears to be constructed mainly of pebbles the size of cricket balls.

Fortunately Backcountry Safaris had provided a Jeep Rubicon, and Alex a young lad who’s driving style on the highway was a bit disconcerting, but which came into its own as soon as we left it. Within 100 yards of the main road we descended a rough slope with about a 30% gradient, and then drove for some distance on the bed of the Fremont River, which brought back memories of getting stuck in a river in Iceland, but this time there was no such issue and the tour got started.

Cathedral Valley Trailhead, Capitol Reef (Show Details)

At the first stop we were somewhat surprised by a group of pretty ladies in nice dresses and inappropriate footwear – see if you can spot one in a pink dress below. Obviously one of the other tour operators does their photo tour with models. Maybe next time…

Bentonite Hills, Capitol Reef, with model! (Show Details)

The scenery is absolutely as dramatic as advertised, but the stretches between the landmarks were maybe longer than I expected. However that’s a small price to pay.

Jailhouse Rock Overlook (Show Details)

We did have a challenge with timing. Alex was obviously unused to dealing with photographers, and even with the best will in the world we probably spent more time at earlier stops than some tours. On top of that by the last week in September sunset at the Temples of the Sun and Moon is before 7. The result was a somewhat hair-raising dash to reach those final landmarks in the last of the golden hour sun, but we made it.

Overall an excellent experience, but I would advise others to discuss the timing of the trip with the outfitter, and maybe run a slightly earlier timeslot towards the end of the season.

Glass Mountain and Temple of the Moon (Show Details)

Sunset Point

We opted for another lazy morning. The reality is that magnificent as it is, unless you are going to do long hikes or drive off-road Capitol Reef only has accessible viewpoints and activities to fill two days. With the jeep tour done our remaining target was to witness a good sunset from Panorama and Sunset Points.

After breakfast we took a short drive which included the gift shop attached to one of Torrey’s camp sites. While not an obvious target there was just something about it which looked hopeful. 20 minutes later we emerged with three of my favourite Mountain t-shirts plus one for Frances, all in the end of season sale at an average price of about £12.

We had a leisurely couple of hours by the pool, then set off mid-afternoon for the final run through the park. This time the weather played ball. We found a couple of additional viewpoints on the Scenic Drive, then hit Panorama Point, The Goosenecks, and finally Sunset Point, timing our arrival almost perfectly.

Views from Sunset Point (Show Details)

Capitol Reef, done. Tick.

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Posted in Photography, Travel, USA 2023 | Leave a comment

UK’s Strongest Man (And Woman!) 2023

Action from the UK's Strongest Man 2023
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M7 | Date: 29-05-2023 13:17 | Resolution: 1553 x 1553 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 52.6mm (~145.0mm)

Great sport at the UK’s Strongest Man 2023 / UK’s Strongest Woman 2023. However not impressed by the new (on the day, as far as I could work out) ban on “professional cameras” which meant the G9 had to remain locked away, and I had to rely on the tiny Sony RX100 and lot of post-processing in Topaz Photo AI…

Also not impressed by the fact we both seem to have caught a cold at the Nottingham Motorpoint Arena. Outdoor venues are much better for this!

Action from the UK’s Strongest Woman 2023 (Show Details)

Action from the UK’s Strongest Woman 2023 (Show Details)

Action from the UK’s Strongest Man 2023 (Show Details)

Action from the UK’s Strongest Man 2023 (Show Details)

Action from the UK’s Strongest Man 2023 (Show Details)
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Splendidly Dodgy!

Horse Boarding at Burghley Park
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-05-2023 16:53 | Resolution: 3258 x 2172 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Welcome to a new sport, discovered on a visit to Burghley House and Park this weekend. Horse Boarding.

Horse Boarding at Burghley Park (Show Details)

You have to navigate a tight course of bends and slaloms on a skateboard. At speeds of up to 30 mph. While being towed behind a racehorse!

The wipe-outs are dramatic, but usually quite close to something relatively soft.

Horse Boarding at Burghley Park (Show Details)

Excellent.

I understand a small operation is required, to remove any sense of fear but leave the sense of balance intact…

Horse Boarding at Burghley Park (Show Details)
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Olympus TG6 – Does the T Really Stand for “Tough”?

Snorkelling on the wreck of the Bajan Queen
Camera: OLYMPUS CORPORATION TG-6 | Date: 25-04-2023 14:38 | Resolution: 4243 x 2828 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 4.5mm (~25.0mm)

I don’t do a lot of underwater photography, but I like to have an underwater-capable camera for snorkelling on holiday, and it’s also potentially a good option for working in very wet conditions above seal level. For the last 10 years I’ve used a Canon S120 with the Canon underwater housing, which works very well. It shoots RAW, and I’ve developed a very slick process for correcting the white balance to produce colour-accurate shots which can be put through my normal workflow alongside the output from my other cameras. A few years ago I also flirted with a Panasonic GF6, again with a dedicated housing, and that also worked well, but I decided it didn’t give me enough extra capability to justify the larger size of the kit.

Unfortunately as I’m getting older my eyes are changing, and on the last couple of trips I’ve struggled to see the rear screen of the S120 through the combination of snorkel mask and housing. I therefore decided I needed to remove at least one layer of distortions and reflections from the chain, by buying a camera designed for underwater use. To work for me it would have to have good stills capability, a large rear screen, RAW capability and physical controls (I don’t get on with phones as cameras, again it’s largely an eyesight thing). Those requirements eliminated most options but the Olympus TG6 seemed to tick all the boxes.

I approached the TG6 with a bit of trepidation: a lot of reviews suggest that even though it is underwater capable as-is, you should still put it in a housing for serious use. Also I had a bad experience with one of its predecessors, the TG2, which failed dramatically on its first use in the sea. However most reviews were positive, and I decided to have a go.

Some of the issues with the TG2 have been fixed. The newer camera supports RAW, and has an extensive menu of underwater focus and white balance options. The screen is no larger than the Canon S120’s, but without a housing it is easier to see. Generally the TG6 a “high capability” small camera, with some features such as macro focus bracketing which I don’t have with any other camera. The external seals have been improved, with a clever double-locking mechanism to make sure they are shut and stay shut. Importantly, the camera survived two snorkelling trips without springing a leak, which shouldn’t be an achievement for this type of camera, but based on my previous experience, it is.

However I really struggle with the “tough” designation. By default the lens comes without any protection at all, so I shelled out an extra £35 on the LB-T01 “lens barrier”, which clips on in place of the filter ring and provides a neat “twist to open or close” lens cap. However on the second snorkelling trip I had to wade back onto the beach through some sandy surf. Some of the sand obviously worked its way into the lens barrier, and it jammed open. I await a replacement, and probably a future recurrence.

You imagine these devices being thrown into kit bags and dropped on floors, but if you do so you’ll rapidly scratch the rear screen out of usability. I carried the camera on its first trip in the side pocket of my snorkel bag. Just an empty, clean pocket in a nylon bag, nothing else in it. When we reached the boat the rear screen had picked up a couple of small but distinct scratches. I’ve just watched a program where they showed the “key scratch test” used on FitBit screens, but heaven knows how the TG6 would survive that. What’s annoying is there’s a very simple solution short of engineering the screen with genuinely tough glass – why doesn’t it come with a screen protector fitted as standard, and then you can just replace that when it’s damaged? I’ve fitted one now, but it’s a bit too late…

You still have to open either the USB port cover or the battery cover to recharge the battery. Why can’t it have an exterior charge point like a FitBit, or inductive charging like my toothbrush? Then if you set up WiFi to access the data you could leave the camera sealed for a whole trip, which would be much more secure. As it is I’m still not 100% convinced that the next time out won’t be the time the seals fail and it goes the way of the TG2.

Given my changing eyes I’ll hang onto the TG6 at least for a planned beach trip at the end of the year, but unlike some cameras, it’s a bit on sufferance and not an entirely comfortable relationship.

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Posted in Barbados, Photography, Reviews, Travel | Leave a comment

Getting High (But Not That High)!

Andrew with the AirSportsBarbados microlight
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 22-04-2019 20:00 | Resolution: 4621 x 2888 | ISO: 125 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 8.8mm (~24.0mm)

Back in 2019 I was privileged to take what is a pretty unique airborne trip. Paul Nugent of Airsportsbarbados had one of only four two-seater microlight aircraft in the Caribbean, and at that time was running tours. To make it interesting, he was based at the International airport (Barbados only has one), so we queued up for take-off behind a 747 bound for Canada, and formed an orderly queue behind a Lear Jet to land!

View back over Grantly Adams International Airport – through the propeller of a microlight! (Show Details)

Camera and lens choice was important, as I needed something light, easy to manipulate and which wouldn’t stick out too far into the slipstream. Also I wouldn’t be changing lenses! The Panasonic G9 was the ideal body, and I paired it with the jewell-like Panasonic 45-175mm. That’s a real gem: only 90mm long (and no longer, it’s an internal zoom) weighs 210g, and its tiny size means that it can be held stable in quite a strong wind.

We flew up the East Coast and back, which gave me great views of The Crane, where we stay. On a really good day I might be able to get these shots with a drone, but the prevailing wind would make it a challenge. it’s less of an issue if you yourself are 300ft up.

The Crane, Barbados, from a Microlight (Show Details)

The pools at The Crane, Barbados, from a Microlight (Show Details)

The trip also took in other well-known sights on that side of the island including Codrington College, Bathsheba and the Morgan Lewis Windmill. Being able to photograph Morgan Lewis from the air was especially entertaining as it had just re-opened after a multi-year restoration, and by coincidence we had visited it, on the ground, the previous day.

The Morgan Lewis Windmill, from a Microlight (Show Details)

This wouldn’t be for everyone, but if your phobias allow it and you ever get the opportunity to do something similar, take it!

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The World’s Worst Panorama 2023

The World's Worst Panorama 2023
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M7 | Date: 22-02-2023 19:49 | Resolution: 24420 x 2802 | ISO: 1250 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 9.0mm (~24.0mm)

Here’s my “group panorama” from Richard Bernabe’s Feb 2023 trip to Patagonia.

From the left: Gero, Nigel, Thomas, Karsten, Jörn, Lisa, Richard, Alejandro, Glenn, Alex, John, Pat, Yours Truly and JoAnne.

Please don’t study the stitching too carefully, or complain about the fact that Ale has become a hobbit – this is much, much easier on a round or square table than a very, very long thin one!

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This is Really Scary…

A photo of a guanaco on a paddle board on a lake in front of the Torres del Paine mountains (courtesy of Dall-E)

This morning’s subject was a “guanaco hunt”, capturing one or more of the charming Patagonia llamas in a nice pose, ideally in front of a mountain or similar.

Over lunch, as beer was consumed, we got talking about how we could improve the images we had captured. Looking at the wonderful view from the restaurant, I came up with the idea of a guanaco on a paddle board in front of the mountains.

Always up for a challenge I had my first go with Dall-E, the AI image generator. I gave it this simple prompt: “A photo of a guanaco on a paddle board on a lake in front of the Torres del Paine mountains”. Two of the four images it created were unusable, but the first was OK, the third was exactly what I had in mind. OK the guanaco’s legs are a bit odd, but the concept has been correctly interpreted and executed, and that’s the difficult part.

It really shouldn’t be that easy. Be afraid, be very afraid!

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Meet the FrankenTripod

The FrankenTripod
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 27-12-2021 10:30 | Resolution: 2774 x 3698 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/6s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Is this the perfect travel tripod for the man who doesn’t actually like carrying a tripod? Legs from a 45 year old Slik 500g. New head from Manfrotto – lightest in the range. I did have to cut off the old head, and mount a new screw adapter which meant a bit of work for the tap and die set, but total weight is 675g and it fits neatly into the side pocket of the new bag!

OK, I wouldn’t use this with a Canon 5D and 600mm lens, but for my Panasonic G9 it’s about perfect. Now, about all that money I’ve donated to Messrs Gitzo and Manfrotto over the years since I bought the Slik…

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Cool Cab – Hold It Right There!

Cool Cab Unshaken!
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 17-11-2010 23:43 | Resolution: 5407 x 3041 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -1/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/6s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 15.0mm (~24.3mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I continue to be blown away by what modern AI-powered processing tools can do with early digital photos. This photo was taken from the back of a very jittery 1950s Ford Consul, by someone unfamiliar with my camera, in fading light which meant a 1/6s exposure time but still a high ISO. The result was a decent memory shot of an entertaining ride in an ancient Cuban cab, but it was a bit shaky, to say the least.

Cool Cab – Shaken but not stirred! (Show Details)

Mainly for my amusement I decided to see what would happen using the latest tools. First I re-processed the original RAW file with Capture One, to adjust the aspect ratio, lift the shadows and fix the blown highlights. Then I fed it through Topaz Sharpen AI in Stabilise mode, to reduce the effects of camera, photographer and platform (1950s Ford Console) shake. This produced an image which was much sharper, but a bit noisy. Finally I passed that image through Topaz Denoise AI, with a relatively low noise reduction setting (just 15%) but moderate sharpening. That seemed to be the best compromise to retain the original textures but remove the noise.

The result is above. It’s not only removed the blurring of my face & glasses, but also sharpened the lines of the scenery passing and the rain on the windscreen. I think it keeps the feel of the original, but is a bit less apologetic. What do you think?

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Multi-shot Photography: Alive and Clicking

Sunrise lighting the rocks at Combestone Tor. Panorama from 4 exposures
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 04-11-2020 07:28 | Resolution: 13833 x 3717 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Combestone Tor | State/Province: Holne, Devon, England | See map

When I first made the transition to digital photography, I got into several forms of multi-shot photography, techniques where you take two or more independent exposures and combine them to get a result not possible with a single frame. As cameras and processing have improved I have sometimes questioned whether these techniques are still required, but after a recent trip to Dartmoor I’ve come to the conclusion that they very much are, and they still suit my style of photography well.

All these images were taken in a single session at a single location: Combestone Tor.

Panoramas

Combestone Tor: panorama from 4 images (Show Details)

Let’s start with a non-controversial one. Sometimes a scene is wider than your lens, and the subject matter suits an image with an aspect ratio of 2:1 or more. The simple solution is to take multiple shots, rotating the camera between shots, and then join them together after processing. There are few workable alternatives for a high-quality image. You might get enough of the image into one frame with a really wide lens, but my widest lens is 14mm equivalent and I find that it is still not wide enough for a genuine panorama, plus it introduces a number of distortions which are not present in a good multi-shot panorama merging shots taken with a lens somewhere between 28mm and 50mm equivalent. You could use your phone in panorama mode, or a 360 degree camera like the Ricoh Theta, but that’s a compromise on quality. You could go the whole hog and get a dedicated panoramic camera like the Hasselblad XPan, but that’s an expensive film-based option, and means carrying a large piece of “single purpose” kit. None of this is necessary if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, or even a point and shoot as long as it has manual exposure control.

There’s a bit of technique required. Firstly you have to either select a scene with little/no movement, or you have to choose a shutter speed and shooting strategy so that moving objects are either blurred consistently (e.g. moving water) or excluded from the overlaps between images (e.g. people). You have to select a manual, fixed exposure and white balance which will work across the image, so check that it won’t be over-exposed at the brightest point, or too far underexposed at the darkest. The exposures need to be made in a controlled sequence (e.g. left to right), making sure that they have sufficient overlap, are level, and have some room to crop at the top and bottom beyond the desired subject matter. All of this is easy using an “advanced amateur” camera like the Panasonic G9 which has a level and shooting guides built into the EVF display, but benefits from practice. If the subject is all at least 3m away there’s no need to worry too much about “rotating around the optical centre” and you can just either twist your body (if working handheld) or rotate the camera on top of the tripod. (Both the panoramas in this article were taken handheld.)
If you do want to include much closer elements then you need to counter the effects of parallax (near objects moving relative to the background between frames). As always there are all sorts of complex, over-the top “perfect” solutions, but I’ve found a very simple yet reliable one: I have a plate about 6” long with a tripod screw hole at one end, and a slot with a 1/4” screw (the same size as a standard tripod fixing) at the other. I mount the camera with the tripod attached to the plate’s screw hole, and the camera attached to the other end of the plate so that the front lens element is positioned roughly over the centre of the tripod. Rotate the tripod head and the camera rotates around its optical centre. This approximate method is good enough to eliminate parallax issues in all but the most extreme cases.

There are a number of options for processing the images. I process the RAW files in Capture One, making sure I apply the same exposure and colour corrections to all frames, and also ensuring that the images are not cropped at all at this stage (Capture One’s Copy and Apply Adjustments functions work perfectly for this). I then drop the developed JPEG files into Autopano Giga to create the finished panoramas. Autopano does a pretty good job of automating most steps, but you have full control including a range of different projections for the panorama if needed.

 

HDR

Sunrise over Coomestone Tor (Show Details)

There seem to be four schools of thought regarding multi-shot HDR…

“You can get any shot using ND grad filters if you know how to use them properly”. This is complete rubbish. Now I have no desire to diss generations of hard-working landscape photographers who have done their best with the available tools, and there are many great photographs taken with ND grad filters which I truly admire. However the reality is that this is a painstaking, static method and unless there’s a pretty straight horizon between the areas of different lighting there are going to be major compromises. Look for mountains with the top much darker than the bottom, or trees and rocks arranged against others when breaking the horizon would be a much more dramatic composition.

“With modern cameras and processing there’s no longer any need for HDR”. This is partially true. With the increased dynamic range of modern sensors, and better highlight and shadow recovery, you may be able to get much of the same result from a single frame. The following is my attempt to re-create the image above but from a single original. There’s a trade-off: the single image version is likely to be sharper and look more “natural”, the HDR version may be more dramatic. There are also hard limits: no single image will capture a dark interior with a well-lit scene outside the window.

Sunrise over Combestone Tor. Single exposure version. (Show Details)

“If you can’t get an image using the first two methods it’s not worth taking.” Pure, unadulterated snobbery. There’s a closely related version “I like to get things in one shot rather than messing around on the computer”. By all means choose not to take such an image, but accept that doing so is a limitation of your technique, and may disbar you from getting a great image.

“HDR still has a role to play, but needs to be used carefully and appropriately”. Absolutely correct. With a modern camera and processing software it’s an easily-accessible tool which you can use when it’s useful to do so. If you have a way to set up your camera to take a high speed exposure bracketed sequence you have the best of both worlds – develop a single frame, or use several for HDR, or both, and make the choice at your leisure after the shoot.

Like any multi-shot technique you need to pay attention to any moving elements, and you also need to check the shutter speed on the slowest frames. I can usually take HDR brackets hand-held, but the slowest frame for the image above was 1s, and I did need my tripod!

There are numerous options for developing such images. My solution is to develop the RAW files in Capture One, applying any desired crop and with the option to further tweak the exposure per frame if required, and then combine the JPEGs in Photomatix Pro.

 

Focus Stacking

Detail in depth: focus blend from 6 exposures (Show Details)

Just as a single image may not be able to capture the breadth of a scene, it may not be able to capture it’s depth, at least not all in focus. To get a close-up object and those further away all sharply focused then you have to use a smaller aperture, but you may hit the limits of your equipment, or simple physics. The effects of diffraction become noticeable above about f/6.5 for a 20MP micro-four thirds camera, and above about f/8 for a 50MP full-frame camera.

At this point you can choose to ignore the softness of the more distant elements, you can increase the f-number further and accept some loss of overall sharpness, or you can use a larger aperture and throw the more distant elements deliberately out of focus. These are all valid artistic choices, but they are work-arounds, not resolutions.

However if you’re in an environment which supports multi-shot photography there’s a further option: take a set of images bracketed at different focal distances, and use focus stacking software to combine them.
The usual multi-shot constraints apply, especially in respect of any moving elements. Where panorama and HDR software tend to be able to deal with “ghosts” (items which only appear in one frame, or move between frames), focus stacking software is less able to do so. Unless you’re a very steady photographer getting a suitable set of images may demand the use of a tripod, although I now get fairly reliable results hand-held with the Panasonic G9’s high-speed focus bracket mode.

The gold standard for focus stacking software is probably Helicon Focus, which works well with Capture One or similar for the initial image development.

3D

If you have the ability to display 3D images, such as a 3D TV, then this is a very rewarding type of multi-shot photography. To my annoyance I didn’t take any 3D photos on Dartmoor, I just wasn’t in that zone for some reason, but I have written about how I create 3D images at length here.

If you work with a single camera the usual constraints apply to moving elements. You can take these constraints away if you have two cameras with the same sensor and lens – simply mount them side by side with identical settings and trigger both simultaneously – but the single-camera method is probably easier.

 

Image Stacking

This is a technique I use less often, but there are valid cases for it. The idea is simply to take a number of “near identical” frames over a period of time (tripod and some form of automated shutter release required for this one!), and combine them. There are two very different objectives:

  • Removing moving objects from the scene. For example you can take a number of frames each of which has other people in it in different places, but combine them so the net image has none.
  • Combining the elements which have changed between the images. The best known application of this form is star trails, like here.

How you take and combine the frames will depend on your objectives for the overall image, and I’m not an expert, but when I have used this technique I’ve found plenty of guidance and solutions online.

 

Setting Up Your Camera

You can use just about any digital camera with a reasonable level of manual control for any of these techniques. Just make sure the exposure is under your manual control, and either consistent across the frames (for panoramas, focus stacking, 3D and image stacking) or varied in a predictable way (for HDR). However more recent cameras in the “advanced amateur or professional” class tend to have a number of features which make things very much easier. The Panasonic G9 is a good example.

It’s very much easier if you can program good default settings for each technique as a custom mode on your camera. On the G9 everything except the frame rate and auto/manual focus can be set in a custom mode, and, intelligently, Panasonic enable high frame rate when you select a bracketed mode, even if the switch is on “single shot”. Here’s how I set up my custom modes:

  • HDR

    • Aperture f/6.3
    • Auto-exposure bracketing 5 steps ± 2EV
    • ISO 200
    • Auto white balance
    • Auto exposure bracket burst mode (This enables the bracketed set to be taken quickly with one shutter depression, even if the camera is nominally in single-shot mode)
    • Standard AF & metering
    • 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Panoramas

    • Manual exposure: f/8, 1/60s (This is a starting point, the first action is to adjust it to fit the brightest part of the scene)
    • ISO 400
    • Daylight white balance
    • Level On
    • Single shot
    • Standard AF & metering
    • 4:3 aspect ratio
  • Focus Blending

    • Aperture priority: f/6.3
    • Auto ISO and white balance
    • Focus bracket mode: 5 step, 5 images, sequence 0/+ (This moves the focus from the point you select for the first image to infinity in 5 steps)
    • Low speed burst mode
    • Standard metering
    • Natural Picture Style (This is so that in my workflow I can quickly identify focus bracket sets and move them to a separate directory)
    • 4:3 aspect ratio
  • 3D

    • Aperture priority: f/7.1
    • Auto ISO and white balance
    • Single shot
    • Standard AF & metering
    • Scenery Picture Style (Again just to identify 3D pairs in my workflow)
    • 16:9 aspect ratio

If your camera doesn’t really support custom modes, and instead has explicit switches for everything, then it’s worth making a note of the starting point for each multi-shot mode rather than having to make it up as you go along. It will be a bit more work, but perfectly feasible.

Conclusions

“If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” While developing your mastery of “getting the shot in camera” is important, single-shot techniques won’t get every image, and it’s important to have other options. Specialist equipment, or the steadily increasing capabilities of phone cameras may come to the rescue, but a number of simple multi-shot techniques will work for almost any camera, anywhere, and provide you the raw material to create great images which might otherwise escape.

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Last Light: A New Dawn?

Combestone Tor
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 04-11-2020 07:35 | Resolution: 5182 x 3239 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 25.0mm | Location: Combestone Tor | State/Province: Holne, Devon, England | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

We awoke on day 2 of the Dartmoor trip to a changed world at multiple levels: news from the US election of Trump’s likely demise, and much crisper, drier weather over Dartmoor. Lee decided to return to Combestone Tor for the pre-breakfast shoot, so we could see it literally in a different light, and it was scarcely credible as the same location. We had the sun rising clear in a pale orange sky, the valleys below the tor filled with frosty fields and wisps of fog, and glorious red light on the stones as the sunlight reached them. Almost too many things to point a camera at.

Combestone Tor (Show Details)

After breakfast we took a short drive, and slightly longer walk, to the Windy Post, an old cross next to a small weir which rewards a low viewpoint and long exposures.

Windy Post Granite Cross (Show Details)

After that it was back to the hotel, which was threatening to lock the doors and barrier the car park at 4pm, to form a long convoy for the next part of the journey, to Saddle Tor. At the top of the Tor we were delighted by having a beautiful Dartmoor pony pose for us in front of the stones, and lower down we got shots of the fascinating Holywell rocks. I ate my lunch behind the rocks, with almost no-one in view for miles around, yet all the car parks were absolutely packed, with a very large number of other people having the same idea of enjoying the last good day on Dartmoor before lockdown.

Saddle Tor, and a nice Dartmoor pony! (Show Details)

The day’s last location was Bowerman’s Nose, a great outcrop which really does resemble a head and shoulders bust. The drive out was really hairy, as by then dark had fallen and at one point I had to negotiate a stretch of road at least 100m long between stone banks closer together than the walls of my garage, which set both front sensors on the car tweeting continuously. Fortunately I got out without a scrape, and in another stroke of fortune Gurinder had discovered that the Travelodge on the M5 was still taking overnight bookings for the Wednesday night, so at least I could defer the long drive back home to a very pleasant Thursday morning. Mission accomplished.

Bowerman’s Nose (Show Details)
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