18 March 2013

New Forest ponies

New Forest ponies

I had a close encounter with a herd of New Forest Ponies as they grazed open heathland within the New Forest National Park. The "New" Forest is in fact one of the UK's oldest, dating back to the ice age, and was claimed as a Royal Forest by William the Conquerer around 1079.

The New Forest ponies run wild here, as they did even in the Bronze Age, and are a native species to the British Isles. They form an important part of the New Forest National Park's delicate ecosystem, as their grazing keeps the heathland from becoming overgrown. But the ponies are not completely feral: each one is owned by a "commoner" and is branded with their initials.

Sadly many ponies are killed each year as they wander into roads. Some are also thought to have found their way onto dinner plates in the recent Europe-wide scandal over horse meat being passed as beef. A sad end to such beautiful animals.

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09 March 2013

Christmas day in Venice

Venice HDR panorama photostitch

Christmas is a good time to visit Venice. It's quiet (by Venice standards), cool (ok, freezing, actually), and you avoid the stink of stagnant water that permeates the city in summer.

The downside? Weather, not so good. We had four days of low cloud, poor visibility, featureless skies, and not a hint of sunlight. The classic views of Piazza San Marco and Canal Grande were all rather drab-looking, so I had to explore the streets for interesting details to capture.

Venice's narrow streets are like a labyrinth. One wrong turn and you're hopelessly lost. This was to be our second visit to Venice, but I still prepared by spending hours beforehand on Google Maps. By the time we arrived I felt like I knew my way around. It certainly paid off, and yes, we still managed to get lost a few times.

But sometimes getting lost pays off. We stumbled upon this street on a very unexpected detour back to the hotel one evening. Timing couldn't have been better, as there was just a little daylight left in the sky. With my tripod set up, I waited for a break in the endless stream of pedestrians. (Even in winter, these "secret", off-the-beaten-track streets are full of tourists). Then I took a series of 5 photos to stitch together into a panorama. Each photo was itself comprised of 3 shots at different exposure settings, to capture the huge range in tone, from the dark shadows on the canal, to the brightly lit shop windows and street lighting. That's a total of 15 shots combined into one, 43 megapixel photo.

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19 November 2012

Photographing people in Bangalore

Indian workerIndian auto rickshaw driver

Bangalore (or Bengaluru as it is now known) is the 3rd biggest city in India and a major centre for commerce, but it's certainly not an international tourist destination. I soon learnt that this is a mixed blessing.

"Don't take photos in public," a concerned local warned me. "The police will arrest you." He went on to explain that in Bangalore there's a heightened fear of terrorism. "The authorities warn people to alert the police if they see ‘foreigners’ acting suspiciously or taking photographs." It’s a familiar story, one that makes travel photography ever more difficult. And it didn't bode well for a conspicuously tall white bloke toting a camera worth several times the average salary in India.

But I was undeterred, and determined to come home with some candid portraits of people of Bangalore. Travel photography requires just the right mix of naivety, smiles, and outright balls. I also had a secret weapon: my wife is of Indian descent and knew a smattering of Hindi should we have to talk our way out of a tight corner. We also took along a clutch of rupees in case a "facilitating payment" was due. I’ve photographed people in India before, albeit in more “touristy” locations, and have been swamped by kids demanding money. I expected the worst.

Poor Indian children

As we set out to take the first photos, the reality was far from what we expected. Everyone we approached seemed more than eager to have their photo taken. Three girls, playing by the road, lined up like soldiers when I approached them. I took a couple of shots and showed them the back of the camera. They said (in perfect English) "Thank you, Uncle," with such manners that it melted my heart. Two mature women were taking a break from tough manual work on a building site, to drink tea at a roadside vendor. They were absolutely thrilled to be photographed and shrieked with delight when they saw their photo on the camera back. An auto rickshaw driver sat nonchalantly waiting for a fare. Surely he wouldn’t take kindly to being photographed. But no, he nodded his consent, stayed in the same effortless pose that had drawn me to him in the first place, and shrugged with cool indifference when I thanked him.

Of all the people we approached in Bangalore, just one woman with young children declined to have her photo taken. Only one man asked for money, and only after he'd patiently posed for his photo. Rachael gave him the smallest note she had, (10 rupees, about 20 cents,) and he nearly fell off his bike in shock. India may be one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but the reality remains that it is also home to a third of the world’s poor.

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe on another trip, or in another neighbourhood, we'd be hassled, arrested, or worse. But this time I left Bangalore with my faith in humanity restored.

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19 July 2012

Photographing Las Vegas

The Las Vegas strip is so often photographed at night that it has become something of a cliche, but the city has so much more to offer. Stunning architecture and chic shopping malls abound, so I set out to shoot with a fresh perspective.

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07 April 2012

First impressions of the Canon 5D Mk III

Canon EOS 5D Mk iii

In the past few weeks I bit the bullet and made some serious investments in the business, with three new bits of gear.

New gear #1: Most recently I bought the new Canon 5D Mk III. I've been shooting with my trusty 5D for the past 5 years. I could not justify to myself an upgrade to the Mk II. But the release of the 5D Mk III left me seriously wanting. So this week I took the plunge. Boy, am I glad I did.
Read more »

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02 February 2012

Hiking the Peak District in winter

Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @58mm.

This weekend we headed to the Peak District to capture some winter hiking scenes. I'd hoped for a covering of snow on the hills, and for once the British weather didn't disappoint.

We arrived in the late afternoon and climbed Mam Tor, only to be engulfed by a blizzard so severe that we could barely see. Photography was out of the question, except for a few grab shots of poor Rachael as she braved the gale force winds and stinging snow. As darkness descended we gave up and retreated back to the Jeep, then headed for our B&B on roads that by then were almost impassable. Thank goodness for four-wheel drive!

The next morning was a different story. We awoke to still air, clear skies and a thick carpet of snow. After a stiff hike up Kinder Scout we were rewarded by views across miles of pristine, snow-covered moorland. There were plenty of landscape opportunities to be had, but crucially there were also other hikers around, kitted out for the winter and knee-deep in snow, that enabled me to get the adventure lifestyle shots I was after.

Gear on the day: Canon 5D (and a 600D for backup), Canon 17-40 L, 24-105 L and 50mm f1.8 lenses, Manfrotto tripod (although conditions were so good that I never used it), map, compass, phone & GPS (just in case), and of course plenty of food and warm clothing!

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19 January 2012

New portfolio

In 2011 I really wanted to get back to my travel and nature photography roots, so I set myself the goal of compiling and building on a portfolio of travel and editorial photos. Having this end in mind provided a great source of motivation. The photos are sorted by my most recent work first, and you can find them here.

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26 October 2011

When in doubt, add a big red bus

Iconic London

It's fair to say that the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf have been photographed to death, so I set out to find a more unusual viewpoint. Ironically, I had spent nearly half an hour waiting at this spot for the busy road to be clear of all traffic, when a solitary double decker bus came along. It suddenly struck me that the image had been lacking something all along. Now three iconic images of London were successfully juxtaposed in one photo: Canary Wharf, Christopher Wren's architecture, and a big red bus.

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28 June 2011

Wimbledon Championships 2011

Maria Sharapova (RUS). Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @220mm.

One shot from one day at Wimbledon, Court number one. I came away with some fairly decent photos. Maria was even happier: she went on to win the match.


09 June 2011

Hugin - Free panorama photo stitcher

Point Lobos, California
Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @100mm, 7 frames stitched.
A few years ago I'd concluded that panoramas and other "photo stitching" were simply not worth the trouble. My end results were hit-and-miss, with obvious mismatches from one frame to the next that needed hours of tweaking. This put me off photostitching of any kind for quite a number of years.

Then I discovered Hugin. It's a completely free bit of software developed as a front-end for Panotools, which is a very powerful program written by German physics and mathematics professor Helmut Dersch.

Hugin is not the most user-friendly bit of software. The shear wealth of features and options can be overwhelming, but that's because it is a truly powerful tool. Having said that, stitching together a panorama is actually pretty easy to do. Simply load up the source images, then do a bit of mouse-clicking to create some control points that help the software to match the images at the joins. The software will do everything else automatically, even correcting for exposure variations and lens distortion, and neatly cropping the end product.

The results are simply amazing. The above photo of Point Lobos, California, was constructed from seven individual frames that I shot handheld, yet the result straight out of Hugin is pixel- perfect at the joins, with no manual fixes needed whatsover. I expected to have to do some photoshopping where the seaweed was moving around in the water. Yet even here, Hugin managed to stitch the images seamlessly. Truly impressive!

So give Hugin a try. I for one will be shooting panaromas and other photo-stitches fearlessly from now. Just make sure you follow these tips to achieve the best results:

  • Use a tripod and spirit level when possible, especially for traditional panoramas. If your horizon isn't level Hugin will still manage to stitch the frames together, but you may lose a lot of the image in the final crop.
  • Keep the camera settings constant to ensure a consistent exposure and depth of field across all the frames.
  • Allow plenty of overlap from one frame to the next. The more overlap, the better the end result out of Hugin.
  • Avoid using wide angle lenses as they tend to suffer from distorted perspective that can be problematic to stitch.
  • Shoot RAW, and make sure any RAW processing is applied consistently to every frame prior to stitching.
  • Hugin can't handle RAW files directly, so convert to 16-bit Tiff's before importing to Hugin. Don't be tempted to work with Jpeg's as it will limit the processing you can apply to the end product. Save the stitched result as Tiff, too.
  • Use a wide-gamut color space such as AdobeRGB or ProPhotoRGB, rather than the standard sRGB. However, I found that Hugin did not assign the color space properly to the output image, so I had to apply it manually in Photoshop afterward.

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