Travelling light

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Blackley, otherwise known as the field at the end of my road. Canon EOS M3 and 18-55 zoom

Just recently I’ve done a lot of walking around my local patch as part of a personal campaign to return myself to full fitness after a year plagued with various different and debilitating ailments. I am a photographer so it was logical that where I went my camera(s) went too. My smartphone goes everywhere with me but when I say camera I mean just that; a “real” camera that has no ability for texting or making and receiving voice calls.

Initially, I prefaced each days walk with a period of indecision debating not which route to take or how far to walk but what camera gear I should take.  If like me you’ve been a serious photographer for many years you will no doubt have acquired various pieces of kit over the years. If, also like me, you shoot both film and digital and are not wedded to one brand then you’ve probably acquired more kit than could feasibly be carried on one trip. So, what to take for my walk along the canal? Or through the woods? Or up the very steep hill to Pinfold Lane? Decisions, decisions. I invariably ended up with a bag full and equally as invariably ended up using just one camera and one lens.

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Calder & Hebble Navigation. Nikon D7100 and 300mm prime lens

But all that changed last week when I had a minor photographic epiphany. It was raining and I did not have a lot of time because I needed to get back to collect the grandson from school so I grabbed the nearest camera on my desk and legged it. What an eye opener! I hadn’t even stopped to decide what lens to use.  I had a DSLR with a “standard” zoom lens and nothing else. Despite the rain it got used and when I got back home I realised that I didn’t have aching shoulders from lugging a bag full of metal, plastic and glass for a couple of hours.

So last week I went out with ONE camera body and ONE lens. Admittedly on the day I took the infrared-converted DSLR (still with a single lens) I also slipped the EOS M3 in my pocket as I did on the day I tested a newly purchased Canon EOS 300 film camera. But in general the one-on-one approach has been the order of the day.

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Woodland alongside the canal Infrared-converted Nikon D80 and 35mm prime lens

I did think I’d be plagued with thoughts along the lines of “if only I’d brought the fisheye/wideangle” or “why didn’t I bring the macro/telephoto” but after the first hour I started to embrace the challenge and by the end of the first week I realised I was looking at things differently. On the day I took the macro lens I actively sought suitable subjects and on the day I armed myself just with a 300mm prime telephoto lens I found myself looking ahead more for landscape scenes that would benefit from the impression of a compressed perspective. In short I made myself work with what I had and forget what I didn’t have (which was mainly a lot of extra weight).

The beauty of walking locally, literally doorstep back to doorstep, is I can always return another day.  For example, I have walked the Hebble Trail three times in the last ten days. The first day I went out with a DSLR and standard zoom capturing general views and the wider context. I noticed however several decent patches of bluebells including some atop a wall which I could get underneath and shoot with the sun behind them. Rather than bemoan the fact my macro lens was at home I made a mental note and went back two days later when the weather was similar taking just the macro lens this time. I also ended up going back a few days later with an infrared-converted DSLR having realised the potential of photographing within the woodland that lines the trail.

I’m going back next week with a Nikon F80 and a few rolls of FP4!

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Bluebells Nikon D750 and Sigma macro lens

So, will I now abandon my full kit when out for a full days photography on Skye or in the Peak District? Absolutely not!  Although I will think more carefully about whether or not I really need everything I’ve packed; my back is after all enjoying the lighter packs. But for my local wanders it has proved to be not just more comfortable but also has made me look harder for compositions and I think has also led me to be more creative. The photograph of a dappled, sunlit bend in the canal with a 300mm prime lens for example probably would not have happened if I’d been using the 24-70 on the camera even if the lens was in my bag.

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Looking towards Halifax Nikon D800E with a 40-year old 50mm prime lens

I’d previously tried the advice of photographic magazines to spend a day with just a 50mm lens on the camera and never really quite got the point. Ten days however of repeatedly doing just that, albeit with different cameras and lenses, has been an eye-opener and for my daily walks over the coming months it’s the way I intend to continue.

Now, what about using a different camera each day for a year? Might be time to hit eBay!!

A “new” lens reviewed: Nikon 300mm AF f4 ED

Yes. Two gear reviews in two days! Although in my usual fashion I’m publishing both on the same day but there we go.

Although I am primarily a landscape photographer these days I do still photograph wildlife occasionally so when a close friend recently bought a new Nikon 200-500mm lens I once again toyed with the idea of adding a long telephoto to my kit.  However, at £1,200 that wasn’t going to happen any time soon so creative thinking was required.

Alongside my full frame DSLR I also have a crop sensor DSLR which got me thinking. A 300mm prime lens for example would  become a full frame equivalent of 450mm on my Nikon D7100. Include a 1.4x converter in the mix and you have an equivalent 630mm lens. If I could find a good quality prime lens of 300mm or perhaps 400mm on the secondhand market at the right price I might be able to go “longer” on a budget. It would need to be good quality glass though especially as it would also be used with a converter at times.  Time for some serious online research.

Fast forward several weeks and the arrival of a Nikon 300mm AF f4 ED lens in excellent condition. Oddly enough it’s a lens I’d been looking at for a while but whenever they came up for sale on that well known auction site the price always soared above my budget. But some things are meant to be and I found the lens via an online dealer at the right price and without the influence of the idiots who think they actually win when buying from an auction site rather than pay I was able to secure the lens at a fair and reasonable price.  Indeed, it cost almost a quarter of the price of the modern equivalent.

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Jay (Garrulous glandarius) Nikon D7100, Nikon 300mm AF f4 ED 1/1250th sec handheld at f5.6 ISO 400

So, I was warned to expect slow autofocus, especially compared to modern autofocus lenses, a fiddly automatic to manual focus change and a quirky lens cap. The reviews were right.

Compared to the newer breed of lenses this one does autofocus slowly. But, within a day of shooting with it (fast-moving little British birds, not my comfort zone at all) I was able to autofocus more quickly simply by taking the time to learn to anticipate how the autofocus would respond and adjust my approach accordingly. Pre-focusing helped tremendously as did back-button focusing especially when allied to a gentle approach with my thumb. As an aside, if you’ve not tried back-focusing then it’s worth checking out. It took me a week to get used to it and I went from hating it to using it exclusively. Indeed I would not buy a camera now that could not be set up for back-button focusing.

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Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). Nikon D7100, Nikon 300mm AF f4 ED 1/1000th sec handheld at f5.6 ISO 400

Once I was in the swing of it I missed very few shots through slow focusing issues although clearly I would have expected a higher hit-rate from a modern lens. Considering that this lens was made between  1987 and 2000 it is at best sixteen years old and possibly almost thirty I was very pleased with how well it worked.

So what about the fiddly automatic to manual focus change?  I have to admit that it is great to be able to just grab the focus ring and take control from the camera, as you can with the modern AF-S lenses. With this lens there is no full-time manual override and moving the lens into manual focus mode needs two separate actions. Firstly moving the AF switch on the lens to “M” and then changing the AF/M switch on the front of the D7100.  The reviews I read suggested this was clunky and awkward; it is. They further implied that it was a big hassle; it isn’t.  I have always taught myself to carry out the most common changes to my camera without the need to move the camera away from my eye. I simply took the same approach with this lens and with a bit of practice it works well.

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Bluebells. Nikon D7100, Nikon 300mm AF f4 ED 1/500th sec monopod at f5.6 ISO 400

The quirky lens cap? It’s a fake-leather sock with a drawer string. Very funky and no doubt cherished by many but I’ve just ordered a generic 82mm snap-on cap for day to day use.

Whilst handling is important the acid test for any piece of kit though is image quality. Practice can make the way a lens handles easier to cope with but nothing can improve poor quality optics. Well, the good news is that I concur totally with everything I’ve read about this lens. It’s image quality is superb. Crisp, sharp images with a very acceptable bokeh, I have been very pleased with the quality I achieved even on my first outing with the lens.  I photographed birds handheld  at Cromwell Bottom, bluebells from a monopod in the woods  and a few handheld landscapes on the Calder and Hebble Navigation for good measure.  The lens was a delight to use and more importantly it was a real delight to look at the files on the computer back at home.

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Reflections

One final point, the filter thread is 82mm which is not the most common. That said the only filter I’m likely to use with this lens on a regular basis is a polariser. I use a 105mm filter thread polariser and already have an 82mm – 105mm stepping ring which literally cost pennies as part of a set. This works fine although the built-in lens hood cannot be extended with the stepping ring attached. Sounds like a small point but given that the sun is likely to be to one side of you when using a polariser it may be something to consider in bright sunshine to avoid flare.

So, in conclusion, I paid just under £400 for this lens, a “saving”* of around £1,200 compared to the modern equivalent. Aside from being arguably more difficult to use (I would argue it isn’t, you just need to learn to use it properly) I would put it’s real world performance as being comparable with the best of modern lenses. It’s all-metal construction makes it considerably tougher than modern plastic lenses too which is a real bonus. At a time when far too many of us rush around like busy little bees snapping away at anything that moves and anything that doesn’t it is good to slow down, get to know a piece of kit very well and shoot fabulous images.


  • * Why the quotation marks?  I prefer to say I spent £400 but my wife would say I’d “saved” by buying this lens.

Canon EOS M3 – first impressions

It’s rare for me to bother with reviewing an item of gear; they either fit with my way of working or they don’t.  However, I’ve made an exception for my latest purchase, the Canon EOS-M3 which is a replacement for the original EOS-M that I’ve owned for a while now.

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Pinfold Lane

Read any of the reviews and you will hear all about the lack of a viewfinder, slow burst rate or the problems that the original M in particular had with focusing speed etcetera. However, these need to be placed in context with what you are going to use the camera for and why you bought it in the first place. I am principally a landscape and portrait photographer although I do dabble in other genres from time to time including macro and wildlife. Would I use this camera for such specialist activities as macro and wildlife? Absolutely not. I have the appropriate tools for these jobs and why would I not use them? Likewise for portraits, I have specialist lenses and use a full frame DSLR on these occasions. So why did I buy a CSC? Simply because I wanted something pocketable and light to take on my walks which would offer me RAW capture, full manual operation and good image quality.

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Moooove that camera outta my face!

The original M gave me all these and given that 95% of the pictures I take whilst walking are landscapes the burst rate, focus speed and lack of a viewfinder were never a major issue.  It was also great fun to use.  So when I saw the specifications of the M3 and the improvements to all aspects of its performance I was immediately interested although I have deliberately delayed my purchase until I was able to pick up a pre-owned copy in near mint condition. I’m a pensioner on a budget after all.

I took the M3 along with two native EOS-M lenses, the 18-55 “kit” lens and 22mm pancake lens, and a Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens with an adapter to fit the lens to the M3.   I also took a small carbon fibre tripod. So that’s a camera, three lenses and a tripod in one small shoulder bag with room to spare and the whole kit weighed considerably less than the Nikon D800E with 24-70 f2.8 lens I sometimes squeeze into the same  shoulder bag.  So in terms of portability and flexibility this set up scores well for me. On a three-hour walk, especially one involving a fair bit of uphill walking, I really appreciated the lack of noticeable weight.

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One man’s rubble is a photographers subject

The M3 is also great fun to use. As a lifelong Canon user I find their menus intuitive and familiar. The M3 has several additional dials compared to the original M and these make changing shutter speed or aperture for example much quicker.  The touch screen can also be used to make adjustments to camera settings and all in all the ease of control is excellent. The tilting screen is also great for shooting from waist level or lower and I found it particularly useful as it enabled me to hold the camera over walls to include more interesting foreground interest for example. My grandson and I also had great fun tilting the screen right up and taking selfies but that’s another story!

© Dave Whenham

The tilting screen makes it easy to hang over walls to create interesting foregrounds

One area where I struggled at times was composing without a viewfinder, particularly with high contrast scenes when I myself was in bright sunlight.  This is less of a problem when working off a tripod as you can more easily position yourself to shield the screen from sunlight for example. This was probably exacerbated in my case as my eyesight is poor and I need separate pairs of glasses for distance and close-up work; I need one or the other at all times and can often be seen with both pairs on my head at once.  Not everyone will have the same problems though and the occasional difficulty was not sufficiently annoying for me to consider spending the £200 or thereabouts for the optional EVF.  Sure, Canon should have incorporated a viewfinder but they didn’t and I knew that when I bought the camera so no point complaining now!

The focus peaking is a fabulous improvement that I hadn’t fully appreciated until trying it in the field. With a choice of red, yellow or blue it coped with most circumstances and by adding the menu item to My menu I could change the overlay colour quickly and easily when needed.  For difficult scenes I found that changing the Picture Mode to black & white (not a problem as I shoot RAW so still have the colour file) made it easier to see the colours especially with a lot of grass in the shot.

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Calder & Hebble Navigation. Quite a large crop of the full frame

As to that “slow” focusing system all I can say is that it was very fast out in the local countryside. We’ve all seen the YouTube reviewers trying to focus on a swinging yo-yo from two feet but in reality when am I likely to need to perform such a feat on one of my walks?  I sometimes wonder if some online reviewers ever take their cameras out of their house but again that’s another story.

Day two of the review was meant to test the handling when using filters for landscape photography but came to a halt prematurely when the battery level started flashing red after nineteen shots. Now, this, it has to be said, was a schoolboy error on my part. I know from the spec sheet that Canon rate the battery life at around 250 shots and up until last night I’d taken 300 shots on a single charge so really should have charged the battery especially as I know from the M that the meter doesn’t give much warning before it conks out.  I’d already taken an additional nineteen frames and took the pragmatic view that returning to base and heading out again later in the day with a recharged battery was the wisest course.  Note to self, buy a spare battery!

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The Master at work

Instead, once I got home and recharged I had a play with the other adapter I have for the M which allows me to use Nikon G lenses. As my main DSLR-based system is Nikon this gives me a further set of opportunities. The  Fotodiox adapter, at £27, is fully manual with a slider to adjust the aperture. The M3’s on-screen histogram was very helpful here in judging exposures when in manual mode on the camera too. There is no EXIF data as the camera doesn’t realise there is a lens attached and apertures are guesses rather than precise but all in all it worked. It would not be practical in situations where speed of operation was called for but off a tripod and with time to play it all works very well.  As ever, horses for courses.

A small niggle and one not uncommon with these types of cameras is that the battery/card compartment is not accessible with a tripod plate in place. That said, and I’ve said as much before, these small limitations are known before you buy the camera and seasoned photographers in particular have no real justification in complaining after the event.

So, with a spare battery now in my pocket I set off for what has become Day Three of this quick review.

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Lee three-stop neutral density graduated filter

With the M3 on a tripod I was able to use my large Lee filters without any issues. I was using them on a Canon EF-S 10-20 lens as I have no adapter rings small enough to fit the native lenses I have for the M3. Positioning of the graduated filters was a breeze, especially as the screen tilted so I did not have to crouch to peer at the back of the LCD screen. The camera was even able to “see” through a six-stop neutral density filter and still display an image on the screen and  when in manual mode I was still able to use focus peaking. All in all I am confident that for general landscape work the M3 and my Lee filters will work well together.

© Dave Whenham
Grasses – and some nice bokeh

In conclusion, whilst I’m not yet ready to ditch my heavy and cumbersome DSLRs and lenses I have to say that I am really appreciating being able to carry a full kit without compromising on image quality and without needing back surgery. A simple, relatively small shoulder bag holds the M3, three lenses and the lens adapter, a Lee filter holder with filters and spare battery (yes, I have a spare now)  with a lightweight carbon fibre tripod and I am not really conscious of the weight. Oh and I can get my hat and gloves in the bag too!

The Canon EOS-M3 may not be the most popular CSC on the market but it does me proud.

It’s #Steller!

Not a typo. Just referencing a new iPad App I’ve been introduced to. It’s a free storytelling app which lets you create photo and video stories with an emphasis on design. Simple to use, intuitive and great fun – almost addictive lay so!

In the first week since discovering Steller I’ve pulled together six of my own stories, one of which was shot and conceived specifically for the app.  It is a great way to harness my photography, iphoneography and experimenting with the iPad as a post processing tool.

© Dave Whenham
Six #Stellerstories in a week

Find me at https://steller.co/s/5WpD7faGRcs

Textured amusement

I’ve been trying out a new way to light floral studies today using an A3 light panel and three off camera flashes.  I’m away for a few days now so processing the images will need to wait but I was keen to have a quick look so downloaded a handful to the iPad.

 

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Simplicity is the aim on ths shoot
 
I was pleased with the outcome from this experiment (see above) and am looking forward to processing and printing the images next week. In the meantime I had a bit of fun on the iPad using a couple of Apps that have become my go-to apps for processing on the go. Snapseed is used for basic processing and then for some images I open the image in DistressedFX to apply a texture as I did in the case of these floral images.

 © Dave Whenham  
© Dave Whenham  © Dave Whenham 
This provided me with some amusement this afternoon, making for a pleasing half hour diversion from my domestic chores. I hope you enjoy them too.

Musing on a Sunday Morning

What is it about Sunday mornings that brings out the muser (is that a word?) in so many of us?  I don’t propose trying to answer said musing but I’m grateful to it as, in the way of such things, it has led me to consider how to harness the recent learnings (iPad processing etcetera) and use them in my photography going forward.

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Amaryllis – outwardly well past its best but to the creatively-wielded macro lens still a visual delight.
 
I’m not sure who said it first, if I did I could credit them, but I like the mantra “don’t focus on being the best, just focus on being better than last week”.  I can relate to that and thinking back it was something I unconsciously adopted throughout my working life.  Being the best brings with it unnecessary pressures and to my mind the more modest objective of being the best that you can be, step by step and without undue pressure, seems a far more desirable state of being.
 
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Shooting into the sun (Nikon D750 with plastic Lensbaby lens)
 

As I’ve sat here musing a thought has started to percolate through my aged grey cells. A project. I know from my own experiences and from that of other people that a photographic project can give some impetus and direction to some really creative and rewarding work. I also know that it can become a millstone around the photographer’s neck.  So it’s important to choose the right project at the right time and not to set totally unrealistic targets. That way lies madness and despair (although that may be slightly over-dramatic).

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Lensbaby

So, taking a leaf out of my friend Janet’s blog, I’m going to ponder over the next few days before committing to anything, at least in these pages. A public commitment can work wonders for personal photographic projects I know but it can also put a lot of pressure on the photographer so pragmatically I’m going to let it gestate for a few days.  Now, I know that it is very possible that  apart from myself no-one reads these ramblings – but it pays to be optimistically cautious to avoid public shame and humiliation when a project doesn’t get off the ground 🙂

Thank Friday …

© Dave Whenham
Ted can be relied upon for an interesting facial expression! Nikon D750 with SB800, processed in Lightroom Mobile on iPad

The time spent apart seems to have done my cameras and I some good. I spend a lot of my time child-minding my youngest grandsons who provide lots of opportunities if I have the time and inclination to take them. These opportunities have also gone begging in the last four months until this week. I had so much fun on Hackpen Hill that the cameras and speedlight both found a home next to my chair throughout the week.  I’ve never taken so many pleasing photos of the boys in a single week before and coupled with a new found interest in processing on the iPad this has meant a continual flow of images for my daughters and wider family to enjoy.

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Zac and his new glasses. Usually camera-shy but unexpectedly cooperative this week.

Frustrated with many of the Apps that purport to offer “amazing” and “stunning” black & white conversions but in the final analysis leave a lot to be desired I turned to Lightroom Mobile which is part of my Adobe Creative Cloud package. What a difference! I’m still doing all the basics in Snapseed (it works well, I’ve established a good workflow and unless I want mono it does everything I need) but for the black & white conversions I have been delighted with the Lightroom option. Both the images above were converted with the Creamtone preset as a starting point and its great to have my favourite preset available on the move.

 

© Dave Whenham
It’s not just the cameras that have had use this week – iPhone, processed with Snapseed on iPad
 
As well as the DSLRs I’ve also rediscovered the simple pleasures of using my mobile phone for photography. I reverted back to an iPhone a month ago and the photographic experience with my new toy is immeasurably superior to the previous two smartphones I’d tried in an attempt to break the Apple-centric hold on my technological life. Used sensibly and applying the same principles as I do with my “proper” photography has yielded some excellent results. And there’s the nub of using a phone as a camera I think; it’s far too easy just to wave it about and press the onscreen button whereas slowing down, holding it steadily and gently tapping the shutter release all combine to improve the quality of the image. Slowing down and considering the scene before whipping the phone out also leads to more pleasing compositions. Most of us wouldn’t use our digital or film cameras in such a way so why do we think it’s OK to do it with a smartphone I wonder? 

 

© Dave Whenham
Getting down low with a wide angle lens for a truly immersive image. Nikon D800E processed in Snapseed
 
 
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Nikon D750, processed in Snapseed
 
Why title this piece “Thank Friday”? I’ve no idea but I am thankful I’ve made it to Friday once again so here’s to many more Friday’s.