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

Benro FTA18C Travel Angel Tripod Review

Tripods are probably my least favourite thing in photography. For me a tripod is a necessary evil, a piece of gear that needs setting up, wasting shooting time, and takes up valuable space and adds too much weight to my bag. Sometimes I wish I did’t need to carry a tripod at all and indeed sometimes I can go a whole day walking in the mountains and not use it once, yet there it is, on the side of my backpack weighing me down and making me resent it bitterly.

Of course, sometimes my tripod is my best friend and for that reason I always have one with me, but, I refuse to allow a tripod to take over and for that reason I only use travel tripods and my search for the perfect travel tripod has now brought me into a relationship with the Benro FTA18C Travel Angel. But, have I finally found my perfect partner? Well, before I answer that, let’s talk about the tripod itself.

Long exposure of a tree on a hill
A 32 second exposure shot using the FTA18C Travel Angel on a gusty day proving it’s stability credentials. You can see how this shot was created and edited in the video below.

QUALITY

The first thing you notice when you unpack the FTA18C from the packaging is that it oozes quality. From the blue anodised finish on various parts through the magnesium castings to the sure feel of the twist locks this feels like a classy piece of gear. It comes in a bag that is inside another bag that has a detachable handle. That’s all I’m going to say about the bag(s). If you are the sort to carry your tripod in the bag it comes in then you now know it comes in a bag, 2 bags in fact. I, however, carry my tripod on the side of my backpack and therefore the bags will never be touched by me again.

Benro FTA18C Travel Angel Tripod
The Travel Angel comes with not one but two bags, plus a few nice little extras

WEIGHT

Being a grumpy old curmudgeon who doesn’t want to carry a tripod this one feels like all others I have ever lifted, too heavy. However, pop it on the scales and the figures that pop up make a liar out of me. Weighing in at just 1.5kg complete with ball-head this is a light tripod thanks to its predominantly carbon fibre construction. Sure, I have owned lighter tripods such as the Sirui T-005BX that I have reviewed previously, but the thing is those lighter, smaller tripods are not proper tripods. What you gain in weight saving you lose in stability. The Sirui becomes pretty much useless in a bit of wind, something that is not the case with the Benro. Make no mistake, this is a proper tripod that can stand up to all but the strongest of winds and whilst it may feel too heavy to me when I pick it up, once it is attached to my backpack I don’t even notice it.

IN USE

The FTA18C is simply a joy to use with a quality, reassuring feel and some nice features to make the tedious necessity of owning a tripod just that little bit more bearable. Thanks to the legs folding back on themselves 180 degrees it compacts down to just 44cm in length meaning that it will fit nicely in most photography backpacks. One small thing that is nice about this feature is when you swing the legs round and extend them the tripod is already at its maximum height of 154.5cm with the centre column already extended. Just pop your camera on top and even a six footer like myself is looking straight through the viewfinder without having to bend much at all. Even with the tripod in this fully extended position it feels stable and solid. The centre column is rigid and I could detect no lateral movement of the camera due to it being extended, but, if you do need to retract it this is achieved quickly and easily using a twist grip release and once retracted the tripod still stands at a very respectable 130cm.

The bottom of the centre pole features the obligatory spring loaded hook. Personally I simply do not understand the concept of these. I understand that the idea is you can hang a heavy weight on it such as your bag to aid stability in windy conditions, but I have never felt the need to use one and I can’t help thinking that if it’s windy your weight will blow around and cause more problems than it solves. Any, whatever the pros and cons, the Travel Angel has one if that is your thing.

The catches that secure the legs in position are not spring loaded as on some tripods but I actually prefer this. What they are is very solid with a nice positive feel making it a breeze to lock the legs in one of the 3 offered positions.

Bento Travel Angel Tripod Catches
The leg angle adjustment catches are not spring loaded but have a nice solid feel.

Leg height adjustment is done using dust and moisture resistant twist locks. Now, I know that these tend to polarise opinion, people either love them or loathe them but personally I love them and the ones that Benro employ on this particular model are the best I have used. The legs are 4 section units which means there are only 3 twist locks per leg and all the locks on each leg can easily be grasped in one hand to undo them. It only requires about half a turn before the leg sections extend with ease and tightening the locks again is easy as they don’t need doing up too tight to be secure.

One nice touch is the ability to replace the standard rubber feet on the legs with some included metal spikes. I have taken advantage of this a couple of times now in windy situations and I have found it makes a real difference to the stability. As can be seen in the picture below the spikes have a nut on them to allow them to be tightened with a spanner. Interestingly Benro don’t supply a spanner but do supply an allen key which fits snuggly in the hole and works great for tightening them.

Bento Travel Angel Spiked Feet
The ability to replace the rubber feet with metal spikes is a nice touch that pays dividends in difficult conditions.

BALL HEAD

So far everything about the Benro Travel Angel has been positive, but as with any tripod it is only ever going to be as good as its ball head, so wouldn’t it be a pity if this crucial part let it down. Well, thankfully it doesn’t. The ball head on the FTA18C is equal to the rest of the tripod and performs well.

The unit as a whole is rated to hold up to 8kg which is a weight that I simply cannot test it to. My whole backpack complete with the tripod in it only weighs 6kg and the heaviest combination I could put together to put on the tripod was my OM-D E-M1 and 12-40 Pro lens which weighs in at less than a kilo combined. With this kit on the tripod the ball head is a pleasure to use. It uses an Arca Swiss style quick release plate which thankfully has a hoop on it for tightening, this is a big plus, too many manufacturers insist on forcing you to utilise a coin or allen key to attach the plate to your camera. This is a pain and Benro have quite rightly made things easy on this front. They have also employed a very nice safety mechanism when attaching the plate to the ball head which stops you accidentally loosening it enough to allow the camera to fall out. Another nice touch.

The ball head has just 2 knobs, a pan lock and a combined friction / ball lock control. Both have a nice positive feel and work well and the ball head itself has a nice fluid feel with a good range of movement. The friction / lock control has a nice feature which employs an inner adjuster which allows you to set the maximum it can “open” up meaning that when you unlock the ball you get a consistent feel every time and never get your camera flopping down because you have undone it too much. Another nice touch. Panning is smooth an the lock is quick and secure.

Benro FTA18C Travel Angel Ball Head
The ball head has some nice features and is smooth and fluid in it’s operation

SHOOTING LOW

Benro claim a minimum height of 44cm on their website. This is the height that the tripod stands at if you simply just put the legs at their widest angle, but there are a couple of ways you can go lower than this.

The first way is to remove the centre pole and use the included short centre pole. This reduces the height to 25cm. The second way is to reverse the centre pole and hang your camera upside down. Obviously this makes things a little more difficult for shooting but is certainly a viable alternative if you need to get really low.

Benro Travel Angel Tripod
With the standard centre column in the Travel Angel can go down to 44cm, but it has a couple of tricks to go lower.

 

Benro Travel Angel Tripod
Using the short centre column allows you to get down to 25cm

 

Benro Travel Angel Tripod
Reverse the centre column and you can go right down to ground level, but this does mean shooting upside down.

MONOPOD

If you are someone who uses a monopod then Benro give you an extremely competent one which is quick and easy to set up. Simply unscrew the designated leg, remove the centre column and screw the 2 together and hey presto, you have yourself a six foot monopod complete with ball head. I’m not a big user of monopods but I have given this a try and as well as being quick and easy to set up it makes for a very usable monopod.

Benro FTA18C Travel Angel Tripod
The monopod is quick and easy to assemble

WALKING STICK

Ok, so far I have loved everything about this tripod but there was bound to be something that frustrated me and here it is. Benro have included a feature that is both excellent and frustrating in equal measure. With the inclusion of a simple wooden knob and a wrist strap that attaches to the top of the detachable leg Benro allow the user to create a walking stick / hiking pole. But here’s the thing, why just the one? Why not include 2 wooden knobs, 2 wrist straps and make 2 legs detachable? That way you have a really useful set of hiking poles rather than a pretty gimmicky walking stick. I do a lot of hiking, most landscape photographers do, and I have often wrestled with whether or not to purchase a set of hiking poles but I have always been put off by having to carry them, as well as all my photography gear, if I am not using them. So I have never made the purchase and my knees probably suffer as a result.

With a very simple change of design Benro can save my knees and ease the weight in my backpack whilst I hike. So come on Benro, if you change one thing on the next iteration of the Travel Angel please make it this. I’ll wager I won’t be the only one who finds this extremely useful.

Benro Travel Angel Walking Stick
The addition of a wooden knob and and wrist strap to make a walking stick are a nice touch but unless there are 2 it seems a little gimmicky to me

CONCLUSION

Minor gripe about the walking stick aside this is a superb tripod that has rightly taken pride of place in my backpack. At an RRP of £299 it gets the balance between cost, weight, stability, ease of use and quality pretty much spot on and with a 5 year warranty you should have nothing to worry about as long as the Benro customer service is good.

I’ve tried travelling with larger tripods and I’ve tried travelling with smaller ones and have never been completely satisfied, but with the Travel Angel Benro appear to have delivered almost everything I need and it will be quite a tripod that dislodges this one from my backpack. I just hope that it is the next iteration with 2 hiking sticks that eventually does, then I’ll be a very happy chap.

Benro Travel Angel Tripod In Backpack
The Travel Angel has now taken pride of place in my backpack and it will take some dislodging.

 

 

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.

To crop or not to crop?

That is the question….

To be honest it’s not actually the question for me, in my opinion one should do whatever it takes to create a great end product but the subject of cropping has just “cropped” up (sorry, couldn’t resist) in a forum that I regularly frequent so I thought I’d have my say on the subject.

First I need to confess publicly, if you hadn’t guessed already, that I am a cropper. If you visit my website (www.richardwalkerphotography.co.uk) you’ll see all sorts of different crops ranging from subtle to extreme all with one express purpose in mind, to get the best out of the shot. On the forum I was reading a fairly well known photographer by the name of Jared Polin was mentioned. Apparently he doesn’t advocate cropping, ever, his tagline being “Shoot RAW and don’t crop”. Now, Jared is a superb photographer, but whilst I agree with the “shoot RAW” mantra the anti-crop stance just doesn’t make sense to me and here’s why.

I Don’t Like My Camera’s Aspect Ratio

Whilst I love the micro 4/3 format for it’s small size, superb lenses and wonderful technology, I actually don’t care much for the 4 x 3 aspect ratio. For me as a landscape photographer it is just too square. So what can I do? Well, I can set my camera to a different aspect ratio but firstly the only options are 3 x 2 or 16 x 9 and I prefer 16 x 10, and secondly, what am I doing? Surely I’m cropping, I’m just doing it using the camera software rather than Lightroom and I’d much rather do it in Lightroom.

The point is that in my opinion it is the lack of cropping that will compromise my composition by forcing me to have an aspect ratio that doesn’t suit landscape photography.

You Can’t Always Be Exactly Where You Want When You Want

It is all very well for “experts” to keep trotting out the “get it right in camera” rule but it’s just not always possible. As an aside I also think that we should stop referring to these photography “rules” as I feel that beginners can be very put off if they don’t manage to adhere to them. Perhaps we should start referring to them as “pointers” or something like that because in 2015 the fact is that whilst you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear you can fix a lot in post and save a photograph that may otherwise have been a throwaway and one of the things you can fix is the composition.

The Langdale Pikes rise above Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK
This image was shot with a Canon 5D MKII which has a resolution of 5616 × 3744, yet after cropping this image came out at 4987 x 2153. The reason I had to crop was because this was the only vantage point from which to get this shot. I was shooting from a hillside, to move forward I had to move down the hill and lose the view.
Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.15.43
Original of above crop

From what I can see Mr. Polin shoots in a very controlled environment where I’m sure he can take the time to ensure he does get it right in camera but as a landscape photographer I don’t always have that luxury. When I’m out shooting my two main concerns are light and sky. I will think nothing of compromising composition by not being exactly where I want to ensure that I get the right light and sky. It is incredible how fast a scene changes, how fast the clouds go from beautiful white fluffy ones to a dull grey sky, how fast the light on a field changes from beautiful dappled light and shadow to flat and dull, and how the sun can disappear for the rest of the day leaving you having travelled miles staring down-hearted at what just a few seconds ago was an incredible scene that has now been replace by a boring, dull landscape that no-one will want to look at a photograph of.

This is why when I arrive anywhere I always quickly get a “banker” if the light is right. This is very often not taken from where I know I want to be but it sometimes turns out to be the best shot once it has been cropped.

You Shouldn’t Crop Because You’ll Lose Resolution

The main reason people cite for not cropping is that you lose resolution. This is true and I cannot argue with it for one second. It is absolutely correct that if you move your feet or zoom to re-compose and hence “get it right in camera” then you will keep the image at the full resolution that your camera will allow. But why does this matter? Well, bottom line is, in the real world it doesn’t. If you are sharing your images on-line or viewing them on your computer then with any decent camera you can crop severely and the resolution will still be plenty. But what about printing? Well, this is where it can matter, but generally you will have to go pretty mad with your cropping before you make an image unprintable, depending how big you want to print.

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Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.24.57
Original of above crop. The crop is 2724 x 1703 or 4.6MP, still big enough to print at 34cm wide.

Let’s say you want to print at A3 size. I would suggest that 200dpi is more than acceptable so armed with this information we can work out the size of image we need to get a good print. So what is it? 36MP? 21MP? 16MP? Well, A3 is 16.53 x 11.69 inches, so 16.53 x 200 = 3306 and 11.69 x 200 = 2338px. So the size image we need to print A3 at 200dpi is 3306px X 2338px or 7.7MP. Will it be as good quality as if you’d got it right in camera? No it won’t. But will it be noticeable enough to stop you cropping a shot that doesn’t work into one that does? No, absolutely not, I have sold many images, some of which are on this page, that have been severely cropped.

An Image Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

This is one for all the pixel peepers out there. Stop getting obsessed with the fine detail and look at the overall image. Does it work? Does it draw the viewer in? Do people say “wow” when they first glance at it? If the answer is yes then who cares if it is a little soft, or not perfect when viewed at 100%? Don’t throw away a good piece of art just because it is technically slightly flawed.

A fishing boat returns to St Ives harbour, Cornwall

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.19.52
Original of above
The point here is that whilst one should always aspire to perfection it is generally impossible to achieve it. When I first started in photography all I read was “get it right in camera” as if this was a golden rule that could never be broken. The way I read it back then was if you didn’t get it right in camera (whatever that actually means) then you may as well throw it away. The first problem with this was that I had no idea what “right in camera” meant so it was difficult to know when or if I’d got it right. But more importantly it dawned on me that this was not a rule, it was an aspiration, what all those people were saying, badly as it happens, was if you can, get it right in camera, but if you can’t and the scene warrants a shot then give it a shot to the best of your ability and then do whatever you can to bring out the best in it using whatever technology you have available to you.
The bottom line is, don’t hang on every word of any photographer, not even me. Take advice, but always be prepared to ignore it and go with your gut instinct.

Poor Light? Try Black and White

Devoke Water, Lake District, UK. Shot with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 | Oly 9-18mm lens | 36 second exposure | f8 | ISO 100

It’s a dilemma isn’t it? You’ve packed up all your camera gear, booked hotels, travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles with hope and excitement running through your veins, your mind overflowing with images of beautiful landscapes bathed in wonderful golden dappled light………and then you arrive and are greeted by leaden skies and dull grey land. So, what to do?

Well, this is the scenario that occurred to David and I on a recent visit to the English Lake District. There were, as usual when the two of us are together, two schools of thought. David favoured the “sitting in the pub taking wide aperture images of pints of beer” approach. But whilst I could certainly see the merits in this I could also see the downside, there are some seriously strong ales in that part of the world after all. Plus, my passion for landscape photography is at least as strong as David’s passion for beer, so we hit a compromise. Photography until sunset (only 4pm after all), then pub!

“But what about the lack of light?”, David enquired. “Surely light is the thing that adds depth and interest to a landscape photograph”. This is indeed correct and an extremely valid point, especially from a man who is used to shooting in the tropics where gorgeous light is the norm. But there are things that one can do when the sun decides not to play ball, a scenario that I am much more used to than my spoilt brother.

When life deals you lemons make lemonade right? Well, when life deals you a lack of colour in a landscape, simply think about removing all the colour. The temptation can be to try and shoot the scene and then bring out more contrast when post processing but whilst this is certainly an option I have never found it to be as satisfying as going down the black and white route. But to get the best out of black and white photography you have to think a little differently right from the moment you arrive at your location. You need to think in black and white and shoot accordingly.

Think Black and White

What do I mean by think black and white? When shooting colour it is very much about the light and the colours but when shooting in black and white I find it better to think about textures and shapes. Strong textures and shapes are the order of the day. Using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 as I do I am lucky that there are some great settings that allow me to visualize the scene through the viewfinder and the screen in black and white, I always make full use of this functionality and it is one of the things that I love about using the micro four thirds format.

Textures

When shooting black and white images I think much more about textures. I look around the scene and identify subjects that have interesting textures and think about how I will bring out those textures when post processing. In the above image the boathouse and rocks have a very defined texture. The sky too has texture to it, albeit a little more subtle. The water too had texture to it as there was a fairly stiff breeze but for me landscape images like this are all about contrast so I wanted to flatten the water out. I did this by using an 11 stop filter to get an exposure time of 36 seconds at f8. To my eye the smoothness of the water draws the eye to the rocks with their bold texture and these in turn lead the eye to the boat house.

Shapes and lines

Strong shapes and lines add to the dynamism of any black and white shot and landscapes are no different. The line of the horizon, the solidity of the boathouse and the triangular shape of the collection of rocks in the foreground all help to create a strong dynamic.

 

The beauty of black and white is that it can remove distractions allowing the mind of the viewer to concentrate on the main elements of the photograph. It’s beauty is in it’s simplicity. Take the distant mountains in the above photograph, even with relatively flat colours (take a look at the video below to see how dull it was) that a dull day displays the eye would still be drawn to these, perhaps more so than on a sunny day as the viewer would be subconsciously searching for some interest. But in black and white, whilst still an important element of the scene as a whole the mountains stand out much less allowing the main elements to become more bold and striking.

So, next time you look out of the window and it is dull and overcast remember, beautiful locations are beautiful locations no matter what the weather, you just need to shoot in a way that brings that beauty out in the best way that the conditions allow.

Dicki