Back in June, I had the opportunity to visit Lanzarote with my girlfriend. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having not been to the Canaries before, but I did some research and found out that the diving is supposed to be amongst the best in the North Atlantic. I therefore persuaded my girlfriend that it was time for her to learn to dive too – and promptly packed my cameras and gear for a good-old wildlife photography trip…
As you may have seen in some earlier entries on this site – underwater photography is a growing passion of mine, and one that I’m only beginning to get to grips with. It’s still something which it is possible to make your first inroads into without spending a fortune. Indeed, I picked up one camera at the airport, a Nikon Coolpix S33, for about £70. This little camera is officially waterproof to 10m, and in the clear waters of Lanzarote, seemed very capable. I can also say that mine kept the water out to at least 30m, but the pressure stops the buttons working beyond about 12 to 15m. It makes it ideal for snorkelling and beginner divers though.
Taking photos underwater often causes trouble with light, as there is nearly always a blue cast to images (which can be fixed on a computer fairly easily) – but you also want to try and catch the light the right way. Hopefully you will be able to get yourself into a position for the light to reflect off the fish or corals, or you can shoot up with the light behind your subject.
When going a little deeper, however, I had a Panasonic DMW-MCTZ35 Lumix Marine Waterproof Case for a TZ35. This was an excellent combination of a very effective dive house and compact superzoom camera with a specific underwater mode. The total cost is higher at around £300 or higher – but it’s still relatively cheap for a combination capable of diving to advanced diver depths.
If in Lanzarote, and you get the chance to visit the dive site called the Cathedral, it is well worth a look! Get right inside and shoot out towards the light to create a silhouette as your dive buddy swims across the mouth of the cavern.
I should put out an extra special mention for the fantastic team at Manta Diving, Lanzarote – who looked after us fantastically on our trip. Also – please don’t think the only things to take photos of are underwater!
Lanzarote is also a great place for a spot of stargazing.
Like so many photographers, I love to travel and to photograph the world around me. Whether close to home or in distant lands, there’s nearly always something worth gazing at in wonder, just taking it all in.
Staring at things will hopefully give you an eye for what you like in an image – and if you’re like me you will then want to take a great photo as an aide memoire or souvenir of the scene, and how you felt at the time.(I have no idea why English people need to remember everything in French!)
As this blog is generally about making photography cheap, I’m not trying to suggest that to take great photos you need to do lots of expensive travelling. It’s simply that, if you are travelling, you should take the time to enjoy your photography, no matter how cheap or expensive your gear is. The photos you take on your travels will naturally feel more interesting and exciting to you than the more everyday shots near your home – and travelling throws up some wonderful opportunities to capture great images.
I thought it might be worth sharing a few ideas for things to try when travelling, which are free, cheap or at least well worth the expense. They’re all things that work for me, and hopefully might work for you too!
You don’t need to travel far to get some great photos
It’s always struck me as weird that people will take a camera on holiday and take photos of absolutely everything, but when they go on a day trip to fantastic places in their home country with family and friends, and not bother taking a camera at all. Take a camera with you everywhere – it’s great practice.
Don’t be afraid of including friends and family
Having photos of and with the people closest to you is really important. Sure – you probably can’t sell them and enter them into competitions, but you can pass them on through the generations and get some great moments. Plus they will actually mean something to you – and you will therefore look back at them again and again. You can still take some beautiful photos (even with your ugly mates and relatives in!)
Take a boat trip…
There’s so much to see at sea (or on lakes and rivers) and the time you spend sitting and staring means you notice things and take photos that you might otherwise have missed running around. Nearly everywhere you go on holiday, it’s possible to get a boat, and they hardly ever cost much. Just be prepared to jostle your way past other tourists!
Learn to stitch a panorama
Lots of phones and some cameras can do this for you in-camera, these days – but to get a truly huge effect (horizontally or vertically) you need to take several stills and combine them:
Practice makes perfect, or at least doing something over and over again statistically increases your chances of getting it right. This is a key theme for me in photography – and I think a helpful tip for anyone trying to take good photos on a tight budget.
It’s very easy to get blown away or intimidated by some of the truly awesome photos out there taken by professionals, or occasionally by a lucky amateur in the right place at the right time. A key thing that can be learned from all of these photos, though, is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time. Also, know what to do when you find yourself there.
…a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.
I thought today, it might be fun to think about wildlife photography. This is a real passion of mine, and I try to take photos of the animals I find around me all the time. Many of mine lack the finesse and perfection of the work of the experts, but I think I have managed to get some nice images over time and this is almost certainly because I repeatedly set myself challenges and will carry on trying until I’m pleased with the result (and will carry on trying to get better even after that).
To make an obvious statement; you can categorize wildlife photos into two sorts: Photos of exotic animals where the simple inclusion of the animal itself makes the subject interesting and photos of everyday animals where you need to capture something more to keep the viewer interested.
If we examine this statement closely, though, how true is it really? After all, the animals which are exotic to you will seem everyday to someone else. The locals in Thailand (or even the South of France!) always laugh at me for spending my time taking photos of lizards, of which we see very few in England but are literally everywhere, there. Similarly, a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.
On this basis – I would recommend you set yourself a challenge and get out near where you live regularly and try and shoot the animals that you find. There’s no need to worry too much about what equipment your using. True – to shoot distant subjects you will need a long lens and to shoot really close-up you will need some sort of macro kit. This can be a lot of fun (and I’d encourage you to try it) but most animals can be shot with just a compact camera or a smart phone and a bit of patience. Just try to get yourself into the right place and learn how to get close to the animals, whether domestic or wild. After all, taking a photo of an animal is free!
…the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you. You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.
If you get the chance, also try taking photos of animals at the zoo, or somewhere like Longleat safari park, or just at a farm.
In some cases, its a question of quietly “stalking” and not startling an animal. In other cases, it might be a case of attracting it over. Remember, a lot of animals have very sharp hearing and eyesight, so even if you’re shooting from a distance, sudden movements could scare them off. A hint, for example, is never make eye contact with a wild deer…
The great thing about doing this near your home and with your local wildlife is that you will learn skills which will stand you in good stead when you’re face-to-face with a more exotic animal, on holiday, or in those great chance encounters, like a barn owl sitting in your garden fence. So the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you. You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary. (Check out the British Wildlife Photography Awards website for some great examples).
Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”
If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws). So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$
“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”
As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.
It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities. This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR. This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:
Underwater shooting with zero preparation
If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday. You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast. Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.
However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working. Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing. The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!
This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright. If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.
The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap. True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your photos developed.
Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:
So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones. They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do. They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use. They’re also more environmentally friendly. Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though. These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it. It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below). If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
Always check the “use by” date. Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries. You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded. If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set. Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
It’s more about the effect than image quality…
So what photos can you get? – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:
I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory. However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.
Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing. This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.
Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?
So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan. Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?
Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag. There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).
I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea. The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim… (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)
Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7. It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite. I’ve dived with it several times and it still works! At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.
The key problems are:
The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus. Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.
You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window. Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems. The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.
A “proper” waterproof compact camera
Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive). In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land. Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.
Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken. A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…
A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).
As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.
I promised in Maddening Macro to return to the subject a few more times. For a while, I have shied away from writing about this particular approach, because it is only of use to Canon EOS users (either SLR or DSLR) and I try not to be too brand-specific. In this case, though, I think this is well worth writing about because it is one of the best and cheapest ways I have found of getting into Macro since buying my first DSLR.
The whole thing works because of the specific construction of one common lens, the Canon EF 35-80mm 1:4-5.6 USM (particularly the Mk I version) – available for well under £50 second hand. The lens looks like this:
I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details of how or why this works, but basically, you can very easily turn this lens into a macro lens, simply by removing the front element. This sounds really drastic (and like it would do irreparable damage to your lens) but in this case, it is really quick, and simple, and the front element can be put on in a matter of seconds. (You don’t even need to undo any screws). The lens will then function perfectly normally again as a standard lens.
To use this lens for macro, you simply need to pop a screw driver into the nick shown in the photo, flick out the plastic ring and twist off the front element, as shown in this video:
It really is as simple as that!
While the front element is off, the autofocus function will not work, but this is actually not too much of a problem, because the zoom still does, and at this level of magnification (macro of more than 1:1) means the focal distance is very short. It is generally much easier, therefore, to focus by moving the camera physically closer or further from the subject.
Absolutely key to the success of this “hack” is the fact that the electric connections are still fully functional, and you can therefore set the aperture for your preferred shot, increasing or decreasing the depth of field as you see fit. Below are some examples of the type of photo you can take with this lens (with no other added filters etc.):
When you’re done, you simply twist the front element back on, and replace the plastic ring (again, the work of seconds):
For more information on using these lenses for macro – there is a long-term thread on the Canon user forum thread here. This also talks through the use of other lenses (such as the Mk II and Mk III version of the 35-80mm Canon lens) which can be used for macro in this way, but these lenses tend to be slightly more expensive – and you need to undo some screws. The Mk 1 version here can easily be carried and used on the go for macro, because of the ease with which the front comes off. It really is almost as easy as changing a filter!
When using the lens normally (i.e. with the front element in place), it is a perfectly serviceable little autofocus lens. It’s focal length on a APS-C sensor gives a slightly odd range of zoom, but it sits quite nicely alongside other common lenses like the 18-55mm kit lens or 75-300ish tele-zooms, as a reasonable portrait length lens. If you want to use if just for this, you will find better (but not many cheaper) lenses. If you want to shoot macro on a Canon camera, I have found few lenses that exceed this in terms of image quality and none which are anything like as cheap!
WARNING: This is something new I have recently found on the internet – there are a number of ebay sellers and other websites which are now selling these lenses “already modified” for macro – charging a huge premium (around £90 – £100 rather than the more common price of £30 – £50 for an unmodified Mk 1 lens on Ebay today). These modified lenses do not normally retain the full front element and therefore they can’t be used for non-macro work. Some have been modified to allow limited autofocus, but the extra cost you would pay is (in my opinion) not worth it.
There’s a truism about photographers who like to try different types of shots, just to see how well they can pull them off. And that’s that everyone needs a good moon shot.
It’s probably not surprising that so many people have tried to take photos of the moon, after all, you can see it from every continent on Earth and it’s easily the most noticeable object in the night sky. But while nearly all photographers try to take photos of the moon at some point, many find it difficult to get a really satisfying result.
“Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think.”
Having tried several different approaches to photographing the moon, I’ve realised there are two areas which need some consideration – exposure and equipment (in that order).
Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think, and brighter than just about everything else in the night sky. It is an object bathed in (and reflecting) direct sunlight, and your exposure should account for this.
Normally, to take shots of stars, you need a wide aperture and high ISO to gather enough light to get a useable exposure, without creating long star trails or without a some kind of tracking/rotating mechanism to account for the earth’s rotation. For the moon, however, this sort of setup would massively over-expose the moon, creating a burned out homogenous blob. For this reason, when shooting the moon, if properly exposed no stars will be visible in the same exposure (though some shots can be combined very effectively).
The moon also moves relatively quickly across the sky, so any exposures of more than a couple of seconds will “smudge” (how noticeable this is will depend on your focal length / magnification). To get a really crisp shot, it’s normally best to aim for a low ISO, an optimum aperture of around f/16 and an exposure of well under a second. Always try to use a tripod of you want things to be really sharp (though, because it is bright, it IS possible to shoot the moon handheld).
If you are using in-camera auto exposure, then you are likely to need to dial in several stops of exposure compensation, or you will need to use spot metering, as the dark mass of surrounding night sky will fool the camera into over-exposing the moon.
To shoot the moon, you don’t need particularly expensive equipment but if you want to really get fine detailed, zoomed-in shots, you will need a lens with quite a long reach. Most point and shoot cameras will not be sufficient (though I have seen some startlingly clear results shot with a mobile phone held up to a telescope!)
The new wave of super-zoom bridge cameras (with 42x or 50x optical zooms) have a far enough reach to photograph the moon as the primary subject. At these very long focal length, a tripod is pretty much essential – especially when using Bridge cameras which tend to have smaller front-elements and are therefore less good at gathering sufficient light than dedicated fixed focal length tele-lenses. Auto-focus can also be tricky, so switch to manual focus and zoom in, in live view, if possible to get things pin sharp.
If you want to get really good images, then you will probably want to get a fixed focal length telescopic lens. These don’t need to be really expensive, especially if you get a t-mount or M42 mount manual focus lens, such as the Photax / Optomax / Sunagor 500mm f/8 lens (or another similar design). You can pick these up second hand for as little as £25, and coupled with a tele-converter, they provide a huge reach. The shot below was taken with this setup and is pretty crisp and free from chromatic aberrations etc. Manual focus is pretty easy using live view.
An alternative is to use a mirror lens (a much smaller lens) such as the Opteka, Samyang or Neewer 500mm models (normally f/6.3 or f/8, fixed aperture) which can also be fairly successful. They are virtually completely free from colour fringes, but they do not give such impressive contrast and (because of the shadow of the mirror itself) tend to need a higher ISO and therefore create a noisier image. They can be picked up new from around £50:
Both of these lenses are considerably cheaper than, say, a 75-300mm tele-zoom, which tend to be the cheapest entry level telefocal length lenses produced by Canon and Nikon. While these may have the benefits of electronic aperture control and autofocus (which doesn’t always work well for the moon), they also struggle with colour fringing (which can be taken out in post-processing) and are not as sharp:
While this is no-where near as clear as the results achieved with the manual focus, fixed length lenses, it is a significant improvement on the results I have achieved with a bridge camera with an 18x telephoto zoom (although more powerful zooms are now available).
A final piece of advice…
No matter what camera you are using, you often get the best results photographically when you shoot the moon in a waxing or waning phase, rather than full (or nearly full). This is because the shadows across the craters on the moon’s surface are longer, darker and have greater contrast in the lunar twilight, between day and night (or the light and dark side’s of the moon).
Another point worth noting (given the time of year) is that some of the clearest, stillest nights come during the winter – so get your gloves on at night over the next few nights, and get out shooting!
As winter sets in, I find that the opportunities to take photos get harder and harder to find. The hours of daylight are shorter, and tend to be while I’m at work – and the weather conditions and lighting all get worse. As I find it impractical to carry bulky camera equipment with me everywhere, instead, I try to carry a small compact camera with me. I can then grab a few minutes taking photos if I find a nice scene or conditions are good.
At the same time, I also like setting myself little challenges, to see how far I can push the equipment I’m using, trying to get the best from the situation with simple gear.
Recently, I came out of work and I was walking near St Paul’s cathedral in London. I spotted an opportunity to shoot the cathedral (a very over-photographed building) through an archway, to form a nice “frame within a frame”. The camera I had on me was my ten year old Casio Exilim EX-Z120, which I recently bought second hand for £6.
The camera itself is nothing special (though I am rather fond of it, because it has a view finder, which comes in handy on bright days, and takes pretty decent “snaps” for most casual purposes). It is pretty limited, though, in terms of its metering capabilities, low light response and dynamic range. It’s therefore a challenge to coax the best out of it that you can. Here is the final shot, which I will then give a bit of background to:
Overall, I am quite pleased with the result, but to get the photo to this state required a fair amount of post-processing (digital manipulation).
The shot, as taken, looked like this:
You can see from the image, that the camera was not able to expose well for the darker sections of the image and the sky at the same time, lacking the dynamic range to do so. The image also struggles because the parallel lines of the arch converge. This could not be avoided in-camera, because it was not possible to stand any further back (my back was against the wall). I had to look up to frame the image. Sure, it would be possible, with an expensive tilt-shift lens on a DSLR, but that would have been very impractical – so you have to rely on software, such as Photoshop elements to correct the so-called “barrel distortion” in the final image.
Similarly, the original needed quite a lot of levels adjustment to bring up the dark shadows of the early evening, and lastly it needed the sky restoring to it’ blue glory. The sky was shot at the same time, in the same place, but correctly exposed for the sky only. With multiple exposures, it would be possible to achieve the same or a similar effect using HDR compositing. In my case, I simply cropped a square of sky and dropped it into the original image as a new layer and used the “darken” tool in Photoshop elements. While some may view this kind of manipulation as cheating – all I was doing was restoring what I could see with my own eyes, but the camera was not capable of capturing directly.
Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you’ve got!