Tag Archives: Compact Camera

Shooting into the blue… (Lanzarote)

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.

Sarpa Salpa fish in the shallows while snorkelling with a Nikon Coolpix S33
Sarpa Salpa fish in the shallows while snorkelling with a Nikon Coolpix S33

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.

The Nikon Coolpix S33 is ideal for snorkelling and use on shallow scuba dives.
The Nikon Coolpix S33 is ideal for snorkelling and use on shallow scuba dives.

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.

Young baraccudas shot with DMW-MCTZ35E Marine Case and Lumix TZ35 camera
Young baraccudas shot with DMW-MCTZ35E Marine Case and Lumix TZ35 camera

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.

The Cathedral
The Cathedral (La Catedral), dive site, Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote

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!

Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote - one of the many volcanoes in a still active region.
Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote – one of the many volcanoes in a still active region.

Lanzarote is also a great place for a spot of stargazing.

The Milky Way over Puerto Calero, Lanzarote
The Milky Way over Puerto Calero, Lanzarote
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Set yourself a challenge… (because the best things in life are free)

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).

Friendly sheep
A friendly sheep in the field behind my office, shot with my mobile phone. (He wanted me to feed him fresh grass so trotted over).
Common Grey Squirrel
A common grey squirrel on the miniature train tracks in a local park.

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.

Swanning around - a different take on a swan, as it comes into land.
Swanning around – a different take on a swan, as it comes into land.
Gulls fighting
Gulls fighting at the lake behind my house.

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.

A giraffe in Longleat Safari Park
A giraffe in Longleat Safari Park – shot with a Canon 75-300mm zoom lens (second hand for £50).

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…

Deer in Knole Park
Deer in Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent. Shot with an Optomax 500mm f/8 telephoto lens bought for £25

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).

Making the most of what you’ve got…

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.

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought 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:

St Paul's from 25 Cannon Street
St Paul’s from 25 Cannon Street

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:

St Paul's unedited

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!

Great shots of cities at night? You need to learn to let go!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been on holiday to some amazing places, but come back disappointed that you didn’t get enough (or any) good photos.  This might be because you were too busy having a good time, in which case great, but it might also be because you didn’t feel you had the right kit, you didn’t want to carry around a tripod or you didn’t feel you had time to make the effort.  But it needn’t be so!

For today, I’m going to focus on night time shots, because I think this is often when cities look best.  The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.  In general, though, I think that a little bit of thought can help with your photographs at any time of day.

Again – let’s break it down to some simple “rules”.  The camera you use is pretty irrelevant here – an expensive DSLR, a bridge camera or compact can all take pretty nice shots.  For a couple of reasons that will become clear, though, mobile phones can struggle in this area.

“The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti.  All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.”

Rule 1: Learn to let go!

Shooting shots at night means slow shutter speeds if you’re going to get a reasonable looking shot.  Shooting handheld is a lost cause (you are never as still as you think you are).  Find something to put your camera on and let go of it completely.  This will normally mean not even pressing the shutter button yourself – try using your cameras self timer (just a 2 or 3 second delay is fine) so that you don’t nudge the camera when taking the shot.  You don’t need to walk away from your camera and leave it unattended in a strange city, just make sure you’re not touching it!  (One of the problems with trying this with mobile phones is that they’re now so thin, they tend to fall over!)

Bordeaux by night - sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles.  Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect!
Bordeaux by night – sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles. Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect! (Shot with a Fuji s8000fd bridge camera) 

Rule 2: Turn your ISO down and turn your flash off!

Okay, so rule 2 will only work if you’re already following Rule 1 (or if you’re using a tripod).  Otherwise you’ll end up with some really blurry photos! But as a general rule, flash will not be helpful when shooting night time urban landscapes, where everything is too far away to be usefully lit.  Instead, manually set your ISO low (if your camera allows you to do so) to keep image noise to a minimum and let the exposure be nice and long.  Some simple point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow these to be manually adjusted, but generally if you select flash off and night mode, it will do the rest for you quite successfully.

Budapest from above - shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot camera (back in 2007).  Modern cameras will give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed.  A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.
Budapest from above – shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot compact camera (back in 2007). Modern cameras would give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed. A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.

Rule 3 – Head for the high ground!

This isn’t really a rule, but I think a good piece of advice (particularly for high rise cities).  I would summarise it like this – Everything looks better from above (except for the stuff that doesn’t).  In New York, head to the top of the Rockefeller or Empire State buildings, (actually do both – Empire State at night, and Rockefeller in the day).  In Tokyo, there are lots of choices, but the Tokyo Tower seems an obvious choice.  In London, head to the top of the shard…

New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
Tokyo
Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower (shot with a Fuji Finepix s8000fd)
London
London – from the top of the shard (shot with a Canon EOS 1000D)

All of these were shot without a tripod, but a few words of warning regarding the Shard.  Firstly, it is really expensive to go up.  Secondly, they won’t allow you to take a tripod, even if you want to!  Which leads to the third point, there are no flat surfaces in the Shard. My earlier advice was to find something to rest your camera on, that simply won’t work at the top of this building.  Therefore, you either need to get very good at bracing yourself against the wall, or take a bean bag and balance your camera carefully, or sneak in some kind of miniature clamp-on or flexible tripod.  Lastly, the shard is in glass all the way around and it’s very difficult to deal with the reflections.  Get as close to the glass as possible and be prepared to remove reflections by selectively adjusting the levels using software later.

The hard truth about software

“inbuilt software is not infallible and of course, it can’t “look” at an image with a critical human eye”

The hard truth about software is that you need it. There are purists out there who argue that an image should be left as taken and that any form of digital manipulation or post processing is somehow cheating.  Frankly, I think that’s rubbish.  Digital cameras are all driven by software (firmware) specific to the camera, which helps them capture the images, setting the white balance, giving an interpretation of the dynamic range of a scene, carries out the automatic light metering to set the exposure etc. This inbuilt software is not infallible and of course, it can’t “look” at an image with a critical human eye – the camera may therefore not be able to capture a scene the way that you can in your mind’s eye.  Software allows you to make adjustments to the brightness and contrast of images, selectively adjust the levels to change the depth of shadows or brightness of highlights, crop images, straighten them and to sharpen them as necessary.  In short – software helps us ensure that our images are as good as they can be – and photos from all sorts of different cameras will benefit from this process.

So; the question is, what software?  And how much does it cost? Well, like so much else in Photography, the answer is as much as you want to spend.

Probably the most famous single piece of software for photographers is Adobe Photoshop, but it doesn’t come cheap.  It is now primarily available through monthly subscription (of £7.49 per month) so over the course of a year you’ll be paying around £90, and this would be an ongoing commitment to stump up that sum each year.  Photoshop Elements is a simpler version (and my preferred software) but even that will set you back around £60.  There are a number of other programs, such as Adobe’s Lightroom (£100) that many photographers swear by either alongside or instead of Photoshop, so you can see how costs can quickly escalate.

PhotoScape
PhotoScape is a free online photo editor with a selection of basic and useful tools.

It doesn’t have to be one of these expensive programs, though, and there are a number of free programs out there which can be extremely useful if you’re trying to avoid costs.  One that I think is particularly worthy of mention is PhotoScape. This free software includes RAW conversion to JPG and a competent photo editor including resizing tools, brightness and colour adjustment, white balance, backlight correction, cropping, various filters, red eye removal, blooming, paint brush, clone stamp and an effect brush.  It’s certainly no Photoshop, but for a photographer on a budget, it’s hard to find cheaper than free!!

“for a photographer on a budget, it’s hard to find cheaper than free!!”

Use software to turn this:

Manhattan (unedited)
The Manhattan skyline, but the white balance is a little off, and the image lacks contrast.

Into this:

The white balance has been corrected and the contrast increased.  The image has been cropped and sharpened.
The white balance has been corrected and the contrast increased. The image has been cropped and sharpened.

This shot was taken using my trusty Fuji bridge camera – but one of the great things about software like this is that you can use it to enhance images from any sort of camera (or cameraphone) really helping you get the best from modest equipment. An example of this is given below, shot on an old Pentax Optio E50 – a basic “point and click” compact:

Santa María la Real de La Almudena unedited
This image suffers from the shadows being too dark, and having an ugly date stamp on it.
Santa María la Real de La Almudena  edited
This image has been straightened and had its vertical perspective corrected, as well as the shadows lifted, date stamp removed and cranes in the background removed.