5 Lessons From An Award Winning Photo

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Windermere Morning – Winner of the Olympus Global Photo Contest 2017

A few days ago I received an email telling me that my photo “Windermere Morning” had won the Olympus Global Photo Contest 2017. Apart from the kudos that this brings as well as the nice shiny new Olympus camera and lens, it also affords an opportunity to share my thoughts on why my particular photo may have won.

I did consider calling this article “How To Create An Award Winning Photo”, but then I realised that I have no idea how to do that. I simply took a photo that won a competition and I am fully aware that this is very different.

Lesson 1: You’ll never get the shot if you don’t get out and shoot!

Interestingly this shot very nearly didn’t happen. I was staying at a hotel right on the edge of Lake Windermere in the UK Lake District and had set my alarm for just before sunrise. When I woke I could hear rain tapping on the window and I was very tempted to just stay in bed. Luckily after a few minutes I told myself that is not the attitude of a landscape photographer and dragged myself out of bed and down to the lakeside where I was greeted by the scene in the photo.

Just imagine if I had stayed in bed. Things would have been very different.

Lesson 2: The Right Equipment Is Important. The Best Is Not.

Now let’s get this straight. In my opinion, if you are really interested in taking great photos you should invest in the best possible equipment that you can afford. Sure you can take great photos with a phone these days but what a really good camera and a really good lens allows is consistency. The better your equipment the more consistent your images will be. To a point. What my win proves is that whatever the reviews and camera shop sales people might tell you, you do not need a top of the range DSLR to take an award winning photograph. Despite the competition being run by Olympus it was open to entries shot with any make and model of camera. I happen to use Olympus but the more important point is that I use a mirrorless micro four thirds camera rather than a DSLR because that is what suits me for various reasons. Photography snobs the world over will tell you that you can’t shoot landscapes with micro four thirds. Well, I am proof that they are wrong.

This shot also happens to have been taken with a relatively cheap lens, certainly not one from Olympus’ Pro range, but it was clearly up to the task in this instance, as I knew it would be as I stood on the edge of the lake. But just as important as the camera and lens were the peripheral items. I could not have shot this without a good sturdy tripod. I personally use a Benro Travel Angel but the important thing is that you have equipment, such as a tripod that you are comfortable using and that you trust. Get to know your equipment inside out so that using it becomes second nature. That way when you have crawled out of bed in the wee hours against your better nature you may just get set up and ready in time for the shot, rather than fiddling with your equipment trying to remember how it works.

Lesson 3: Spend Time At Your Location

As eluded to earlier I very nearly didn’t get out of bed on the morning I shot this but once I did was important to maximise the opportunity that being in one of the most beautiful parts of the world affords you. I spent a good hour walking around the scene, weighing up the angles, monitoring the light and taking lots of photographs. From this position alone I took at least 20 photos as the ever changing light and conditions worked their magic. I also moved up and down the shore shooting the scene from different angles, sometimes shooting high and sometimes shooting low, sometimes adding foreground interest, sometimes removing it. I literally had no idea that this would be the shot that I would go with until it was on my computer and edited. I had seen it’s potential but only then did I realise it.

Lesson 4: Capture Something That Moves People

It’s not about being technically brilliant, it’s about creating an emotional connection with your audience. The judges comments when awarding my image first place were:

“The world can be a loud, fast, chaotic place. This location, free from troubles is the paradise that the modern person longs for – a place away from their busy lives. When the mind is at peace, ideas naturally come to us.”

That is why it won. He obviously felt a connection with the serenity of the scene. Remember, I am not responsible for that serenity, that was all Mother Nature, I was simply there to capture it, but when I was doing that I could see that it was a scene that would tug at people’s heart strings, because it tugged at mine. Since it won there have been a lots of comments on my various social channels and not one has said, “wow, it’s so sharp”, or “I love the leading line of the boats”. All the comments, and there are hundreds, have been about the serenity and the beauty or simply just how much the person loves that part of the world.

Lesson 5: You Have To Be In It To Win It

OK, this one may seem a bit obvious but it is amazing how easy it is over-looked. If you don’t enter a competition then you won’t win. Simple as that. But how do you know you’re good enough to enter? Well the easy way is to get feedback from your peers. Post your best (and I mean your very best) images on social media channels and photo sharing sites such as Flickr and 500px. If you don’t get any likes it should be a warning that you’re probably not ready to go for the big prize just yet. Have a look around these sites. Look at photos you admire and see how many likes they are getting. If you get to a stage where you are in the same ball park then that is a pretty good indication that your shots may just be ready for the big time.

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Cosyspeed Camslinger 160 Review

Update: 10% off code below video. Scroll down 🙂

There are two things I dislike about landscape photography. Firstly, tripods. These are the bane of my life, a necessary evil that cannot be carried or stored in any satisfactory way. The sooner someone invents a self-levitating camera the better. My second pet hate is backpacks. I have yet to find a backpack that does anything more than hang on my back, feeling uncomfortable, making me sweat, and being a complete pain in the arse every time I have the audacity to actually use my camera gear. You cannot work with a backpack, you fight against it. You hike for miles with it weighing you down and then you finally see the shot that you want. At this point you begin the laborious task of contorting yourself into various bizarre shapes to extricate it from your back, laying it on the wet and muddy ground, and then rifling through endless pointless pockets and compartments to remove the required body, lens, filters, etc that you require to take the shot. By this time the gorgeous light that bathed the valley ahead has gone behind the mother of all clouds so you decide to pack it all away again and press on. After another 5 minutes of faffing you pick the backpack up, clean off as much of mother nature’s feculence as you can and swing it over your shoulder ready to begin the muscle tearing process of getting it onto your back. It’s at this point you hear a sickening thud. “What was that?”. Your blood runs cold. “Not a lens, please don’t be a lens”. With trepidation you slowly turn to take a look. “Bollocks!!!!”. It was a lens. In your haste to actually get on with the rest of your life you have left one of those myriad of compartments open and your prized glass has flown out and hit the only rock with 25 miles.

This for me is the reality of using a backpack. A backpack doesn’t aid my photography in any way, quite the opposite, it hinders it. And don’t even get me started on the prospects of being able to shoot spontaneously whilst hiking as this entails either having a strap around your neck or simply holding the camera in your hand, neither of which sit very well with long hikes, scrambling over rocks, crossing slippery stones, or any other treacherous undertaking you might perform whilst out and about. In my opinion backpacks were sent by Beelzebub himself to hinder photography and make photographers sweat and ache. I have not found a well designed one yet.

It was with all this in mind that I found myself wandering amongst the stands at the photography show back in March, searching for some kind of alternative, when I happened upon a stand manned by a friendly chap named Thomas. It turned out that Thomas was the founder of Cosyspeed and he proceeded to enthusiastically demonstrate their Camslinger system to me. I could immediately see the potential for street photographers, after all they have a Thomas Leuthard signature model and you don’t get a better street photography related endorsement than that. But I am predominantly a landscape photographer, I have to carry more gear, could it really be any good for me? There was only one way to find out and that was to acquire one. So, about a month later I received a parcel containing the following:

1 X Camslinger 160
1 X Camstrap 10
1 X Camslinger Lensbag 80
1 X Camslinger Stuffbag 30

So, 2 months on, what’s it like?

Well, it’s great, it really is. I think the most flattering thing I can say about it is it helps me do photography rather than hindering me. It not only acts as a carrying aid but also as a work bench. No more putting a backpack on the floor and working from that, it just stays around my waist the whole time. When I’m walking, when I’m cycling, and when I’m actually shooting. Every thing is there within easy reach.

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The Camslinger system puts your camera within easy reach for quick access.

My Setup

As mentioned above I have the Camslinger 160 and 2 smaller companion bags. As well as this I have a Lee Filter Pouch that also attaches to the belt. I have the Camslinger 160 on my right hip, the Lee pouch on my left hip and the other 2 bags behind me. “So what about your tripod?”, I hear you cry. Well, that is the one thing that this system obviously can’t accommodate, so I’ve had to start using a shoulder bag and whilst this isn’t ideal I have found it is a worthwhile compromise.

What’s in the bags?

Well, in the Camslinger 160 I have:

  • 1 X Olympus OMD E-M1
  • 1 X 12-40 f2.8 Pro lens
  • 1 X 75mm f1.8 lens
  • 1 X 45mm f1.8 lens
  • 1 X 9-18mm f4-5.6 lens
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The 160 takes 4 lenses and a body…..just. It is width adjustable.

In the Camslinger Stuffbag 30 I have:

  • 3 X spare batteries
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Stuff Bag 30 with 3 batteries.

In the Camslinger Lensbag 80 I have:

  • 1 X remote cable release
  • 1 X iPad lightning SD card reader
  • 1 X Cleaning cloth
  • Several SD cards
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Lensbag 80

In the Lee filter pouch:

  • 3 X soft edge graduated ND filters
  • 3 X hard edge graduated ND filters
  • 1 X circular polariser
  • 1 X circular variable ND filter
  • 1 X Hi-tech 10 stop filter
  • 1 X Lee Foundation kit holder
  • 4 X step up rings

Is it comfortable?

Well, after extensive testing the answer for me is a resounding, yes. It does take some getting used to as it seems extremely counter intuitive at first but once you get used to that you don’t really notice it even on a fairly long walk. You can simply swing everything behind you or keep the Camslinger to your side for quick and easy access. Even hiking between locations you should never miss a shot as you can go from bag to shooting in a matter of seconds.

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It’s easy to swing everything round behind you for walking / cycling

On a bike it’s great. I’ve never felt comfortable with a backpack, I find it makes me sweat too much. I’ve tried handlebar bags but that just makes the bike handle badly. In my opinion you certainly notice it much less than a backpack but if you are undertaking a self-supported tour and need to carry clothes, etc than it leaves you the option of a backpack as well to carry that stuff rather than your photography gear.

What is it like to use?

Brilliant! This is where the Camslinger system comes into it’s own. It’s like having a photographic work bench around your waist. Everything is at hand and easy to access, no more turning round, bending down and rifling through a backpack on the floor just to change a filter or lens, it’s all there, ready to go. It’s difficult to put into words how good it is so I have made this video in the hope that will get it across.

Note: It turns out that Cosyspeed like this video so much they have given me a discount code. So if anyone feels inspired to get themselves a Camslinger just use street316 at http://www.cosyspeedshop.de to get 10% off.

The quality and construction appears to be second to none and the double fastening system gives you confidence that you won’t lose your gear. It also comes with a waterproof cover that hangs off the bottom and can be put on in seconds as well as a pretty clever system that allows you to adjust the size. You can see more on this at http://www.cosyspeed.com

Any drawbacks?

After using the system for 2 months I have only found a couple of small problems and these really only apply to me. Firstly it’s just a little too small for the gear I carry. This is not the fault of the bag of course, indeed it is testament to it that I can carry so much, but for me it would be great if it was just a few mm taller so that it could take the E-M1 fitted with a 12-40 Pro lens just a little easier. The only other thing is that the Velcro on the lens bag seems a little weak. I can fit the 75mm f1.8 lens in but it has a habit of forcing the top open. It is fine with the stuff I have in it though.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a viable alternative to a backpack for landscape photography then I would thoroughly recommend giving the Camslinger a go. At under 40 euros it is great value and if you’re a street or casual photographer I’d say it’s a no brainer. Just remember, it’s for mirrorless users only 🙂

More at http://www.cosyspeed.com

Lightening The Load (Part 1) – The Sirius T-005X Tripod

It’s over a year now since I sold my Canon 5D MKII and all my lenses and took up photographic arms with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and whilst I can’t put an exact figure on the weight saving that process garnered me, it is substantial, at least 2.5kg, and what’s more it has made everything easier in terms of handling my equipment. The camera swings over my shoulder better and is less strain on my neck and one of the first things I was able to do at the time was get a smaller backpack.

But, old habits die hard as they say and recently I found myself wondering 2 things. Firstly, why am I even carrying a backpack at all? Isn’t there a better bag I could be utilising? Well, more on that in part 2, but the other thing I have been contemplating was whether I needed to continue with the same tripod? You see when I moved to M4/3 it didn’t occur to me to re-evaluate my choice of tripod but over time it has dawned on me that a tripod and ball head that will take a 5D MKII and 70-200 lens may well be a little over the top for an OM-D E-M1 and the M.Zuiko 9-18mm, or even the 12-40mm for that matter.

A seagul sitting watching the ocean roll in.
The same desire to cut down on the amount of weight I carry around that led me to M4/3 in the first place has now led me to a smaller lighter tripod. This is one of the first shots I took with it. More at www.richardwalkerphotography.co.uk.

So, after much debate with myself and online research I jumped in with both feet and purchased a new, smaller, lighter tripod and ball head. I haven’t gone mad and spent a fortune to get the weight and size down, the new tripod cost £99 and if I am honest I haven’t so much jumped in with both feet as dipped a toe in the water as I still have my old tripod and head. But having initially dipped that toe in I am now well up to my waste as I haven’t used my old tripod at all since I got the new one. But more about the new one shortly, first let’s talk about the old one, my trusty Velbon Ultra REXi L with Manfrotto 496RC2 ball head.

Velbon Ultra REXi L

I purchased the Velbon a couple of years ago from a little shop in St. Ives, Cornwall after my piece of junk Manfrotto started to fall apart. It was the first tripod I had owned that used a twist operation to extend the legs and I quickly grew to like this way of doing things. Over the 2 years I have had no complaints about this tripod and ball head combination and it has served me well, but it is 45cm long when folded down and weighs 2.2kg. This is not too bad when carried on a backpack but it was just too heavy and unwieldy to carry in any other way such as in one’s hand for any longer than a few minutes and with me looking to move away from always being forced to take a backpack it was time to consider a change.

Less is more? The reduced bulk of the Sirius T-005X makes it much easier to carry around

The Sirius T-005X

My search for a replacement started with a very simple brief. Find a tripod that is lighter and small enough to negate the need for a backpack. A quick Google search presented me with the MeFoto Backpacker which had some really good reviews and was almost the one I went for until I happened across a review comparing it with the Sirius. The Sirius compared favourably and as it came in a few quid cheaper I decided to give it a whirl and I have to say that I haven’t been disappointed.

The first thing to say about the tripod is that it is very light, weighing in at bang on 1kg including the ball head it saves me another 1.2kg, which added to the 2.5kg saved on body and lenses gives a grand total of 3.7kg less for me to lug around. Believe me, this makes a huge difference. Just as importantly it collapses down to just 33cm including the ball head, whilst the Velbon can only cram itself into 45cm. This has made my tripod carrying life a whole lot nicer and I wouldn’t want to go back. But what about the drawbacks? How does it compare in use with the Velbon?

Whilst the Sirius can’t match the height of the Velbon it’s not too far in normal use although the Velbon does have another 27cm up it’s sleeve should the need arise. In reality in rarely does for me.

Well, the main thing is that it doesn’t go as high. The Velbon extends to the dizzying height of 1.70m when you raise the centre pole, although I rarely ever did this and usually had it at a height of around 143cm including the ball head.

The Sirius max’s out at around 123cm which is pretty impressive although due to it’s design this is reliant on the centre pole and this can certainly make it considerably less stable than the Velbon, especially in windy conditions. To try and counteract any stability issues the folks at Sirius have added a hook on which you can hang your bag or some other form of weight. The Velbon didn’t have this feature and although I have often heard people refer to this practice I have never tried it and I am somewhat sceptical as I can’t help thinking that if it is windy then your bag will blow around and cause vibration. Someone please let me know if I am missing something here but assuming that this is the gimmick I think it is then there is no doubt that the Sirius is less stable than the Velbon. This is compounded by the fact that the legs don’t spread as far in the standard position as well as the fact that the legs and centre pole are much smaller diameter.

Does any of this matter? Well, so far it hasn’t to me. Sure, I have to be a little more careful when setting it down on uneven ground but so far this slight trade-off has been well worth the weight saving and ease of carry. What’s more the Sirius holds the trump card for the situation that I more often find myself in, going low.

How Low Can You Go?

I actually don’t like shooting at eye level if I can avoid it. Sure, some of the time it’s what the scene dictates but if possible I like to shoot from a perspective that the viewer wouldn’t normally see and this invariably means going low and this is where the Sirius shines.

One thing that I struggled to find out when researching this tripod was whether the centre pole was detachable, so if you have stumbled across this blog post with that concern then let me put your mind at rest right now. The centre pole can indeed be detached and the ball head can be attached directly to the legs. This is superb and gets your camera to a height of just 12cm above the ground. This isn’t actually any lower than the Velbon can go as you can see below, however there is something that the Sirius can do that the Velbon can’t and it’s something I really rather like.

The Sirius and Velbon are will go down to almost identical heights but the Sirius has a trick up its sleeve that the Velbon lacks.

Because the Sirius has the ability to fold its legs back on itself it has the ability to hang your camera upside down for really low shots, much lower than the Velbon could ever hope to achieve. The only limiting factor in how low you can get your camera is how tall your camera is. The built in level on the E-M1 helps a lot here. With my old 5D MKII I would have been forced to have a hotshoe level attached meaning that the camera lens would have been further from the ground, but with the E-M1 you can simply tilt the screen up and use the built in level and if you don’t want to get down there at all you can simply fire up the wifi and use the remote app to control everything.

I’m looking forward to trying this setup for landscapes but I’d imagine it would also be pretty cool for macro shots.

The tilt-able touch screen on the E-M1 along with the built in level makes upside down shooting a breeze.

Conclusion

So, what’s my verdict? Am I glad I switched?

Yes, extremely. Whilst the Sirius inevitably has its drawbacks when compared to the Velbon it is replacing they are not deal breakers and are far out-weighed by the reduced bulk I need to carry and some great little features. The ball head is pretty good too. Is it better than the 496RC2? Well, that is subjective but you know what? I never liked to 496, and I do like the C-10X ball head that comes with the Sirius. It’s pretty smooth, locks well, pans well and has marks for panning. I wouldn’t recommend it for a DSLR but for M4/3 it’s great. The only thing letting it down is the lack of quick release for the plate and the fact that the plate has to be tightened to the camera with a coin. But this is an exercise in weight saving and a 5p doesn’t weigh much.

The main thing for me is that the Sirius fulfils my needs as a tripod whilst allowing me to do what I set out to do, junk my backpack in favour of a nice light-weight, over the shoulder (or even clipped to my belt) bag. I am now travelling light and can take the same equipment whether I am walking around town or hiking in the mountains and it never seems too much. More on the bag in part 2 but for now here’s another shot from the Sirius mounted E-M1.

Long exposure view of buttercups with the Chiltern Hills beyond
A 73 second exposure shot using the Sirius T-005X. As you can see it’s pretty sharp so the tripod must have held firm throughout. More at www.richardwalkerphotography.co.uk.