Posts tagged: working

Away from the action

By , August 15, 2012 1:48 pm

Any sports photographer will tell you that what is going on around the field of play is as important as the action within the event itself – indeed it offers a rich seam of image possibilities, just look at the wonderful array of imagery to come out of London 2012. So too it is the case with other types of photography including weddings, and a good photographer will be watching what is going on all around them. This is image is a case in point, from the wedding I shot at the weekend. The bride’s son, an apparently quiet boy, kept to himself as the ladies were getting prepared, but he still wanted to keep an eye on what was happening for himself.

A boy watches the goings on from his parents' window

The bride’s son keeps an eye on the comings and goings at the house before the wedding. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

It’s the people, stupid!

By , June 11, 2012 4:14 pm

It’s curious that phrases can take on a life of their own. “It’s the economy, stupid” was never actually uttered by Bill Clinton in that form, but it is a phrase that immediately conjures him, and references the economic recession of the early 1990s. More interesting still is the idea that those four words are so perfectly conceived that they can be changed and the reference is still beautifully clear. Sometimes photos can do that too, but that is not what this (very overdue) post is about.

primary school children play the classic payground game hopscotch

Primary school children play the classic payground game hopscotch. © Michael Cockerham

I have always been of the opinion that the the measure of any institution is the people in it. The word “church” for instance, refers not to buildings (although it is usually meant that way now) but to the people who form it. The best institutions have the best people, and I would rather deal with great people who lack the latest equipment, than with mediocre people with the latest of everything.

Primary school teacher plays with the children

Primary school teacher plays with the children. © Michael Cockerham

Under the last government a huge amount of money was pumped into updating all sorts of things, in particular, schools. But then came the crunch, the crash and the recession. Schools now are lucky to see investment in their often dilapidated buildings. But in the new market they have to compete for  students with neighbouring institutions which may have had tens of millions of investment only two or three years ago. Some heads might take the view that competition was impossible, but the enlightened realise that it doesn’t matter how new the infrastructure is if you don’t have thehighest calibre of people within it. I have been approached by a number of such schools in recent months to shoot imagery for websites, brochures and prospectuses. The brief is simple: show that the children are happy, well-balanced and thriving, and that the staff enjoy their work. The physical school can melt into the background.

Primary school children play outside at break

Primary school children play outside at break. © Michael Cockerham

As a father of three young children myself, I say, “amen to that!”

A thousand shades of orange

By , November 25, 2011 8:56 pm

Been a strange couple of days. Yesterday I found myself dangling from the jib of a crane above south east London – something I quite enjoy. It’s starting to dawn on me, though, that I may not be normal. The site manager described me as “ice-cold calm”, before announcing that he would be feeling the polar opposite if it was him. The view was breathtaking, and I was able to get the shots I had been commissioned to take.

Had a whole load of big commissions book in over the last couple of days too, with my printer working over time, and good news from one of my best clients about use of one of my images – watch this space.

Today I found myself scurrying around under the tracks of the Southend Cliff Railway working for a different client. As I returned to my car I was presented with one of those wonderful moments that nature gives you from time to time. A sunset behind low cloud that was just thick enough to allow you to look straight at it, and just thin enough that you could still see the disc of the sun as it slipped beneath the horizon. And in it were at least a thousand shades of orange.

Sunset, Southend-on-sea, Essex.

Sunset, Southend-on-sea, Essex. November 25, 2011. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

A good rule of thumb

By , November 10, 2011 3:05 pm

Spend any great length of time working as a professional photographer, and you learn quickly not to become too absorbed in your subject. Why? Because if you do you fail to look around and see what else might be happening. Yesterday is a case in point. On the set of a short film I had a specific job to do and it did require my concentrated attention, but I still found a moment to look 90 degrees to my left when I was struck by this wonderful light. I let go of my tripod mounted camera, pulled the X100 to my eye and tripped the shutter.

Then it was back to the main action.

The scene to my left as I was on the set of a TV advert.

The scene to my left as I was on the set of a TV advert. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

You know you want to…

By , October 19, 2011 9:06 pm

Food photography today. I love my job.

three part dessert with strawberries and redcurrants

Dessert. © Michael Cockerham 2011

Bit of cheese to follow?

Cheese and figs

Cheese and figs. © Michael Cockerham 2011

Not to be messed with

By , September 16, 2011 2:51 pm

What ever line of business you are in, there will always be people and companies that you love working with. I am lucky in that I have many clients that I am very fond of, but one in particular is Sensei Tim Steel. I have known Tim for about 10 years, and he is one of the most affable and enjoyable people to spend time with, and I had the pleasure again this morning, shooting a series of images for a new website for his karate school, Zendo Kai. Don’t be fooled by the picture, he’s a wonderfully calm and peaceful character!

Tim Steel - Zendo Kai Karate

Tim Steel with his beautiful sword. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Final resting place

By , August 20, 2011 6:13 pm

Apparently yesterday, Friday, was World Photography Day. News to me, I have to say, but I thought perhaps I should share what I was doing on such an auspicious day.

I got up at sparrow fart and drove to Poole to photograph the finishing touches being put to some large roof light sections of the new Farringdon Rail Station in central London. I photographed the same sections at a much earlier stage in their fabrication, but yesterday was to see two of these enormous erections transported from one side of the country to the other and raised into place.

It dawned on me that it would be the only journey these structures would ever make, and that once in position they will never move again until such time as the station is demolished, and who knows when that might ever be. I then realized that I am the only person to have witnessed the entire journey from the ground in a yard in Poole, to the roof of the station. But by the power of photography, you can witness it too.

Roof light lifted onto the wagon at the fabricator's yard in Poole, Dorset

Roof light lifted onto the wagon at the fabricator's yard in Poole, Dorset. This is one of nine such sections, eight of which, like this one, weigh 13 tonnes. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Loaded onto the wagon and ready to go. Two rooflights were moved in convoy with escort vehicles.

Loaded onto the wagon and ready to go. Two rooflights were moved in convoy with escort vehicles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Once out of Poole the roof sections head for London on the M27.

Once out of Poole the roof sections head for London on the M27. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

The convoy parks up at Fleet Services for a rest.

The convoy parks up at Fleet Services for a rest. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

The convoy had to leave the M3 at junction 3 and go across country to avoid a low bridge on the motorway.

The convoy had to leave the M3 at junction 3 and go across country to avoid a low bridge on the motorway. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

There were many places along the route where the clearance between items of street furniture was measured in fractions of an inch.

There were many places along the route where the clearance between items of street furniture was measured in fractions of an inch. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Last light as the covoy passes through Hanger Lane.

Last light as the convoy passes through Hanger Lane. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Once the haulier pulls up outside the site on Farringdon Road, the erection team get to work quickly to attach the rigging ready for the lift. All the traffic on the road is stopped once the lift begins.

Once the haulier pulls up outside the site on Farringdon Road, the erection team get to work quickly to attach the rigging ready for the lift. All the traffic on the road is stopped once the lift begins. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Once lifted from the wagon, the section is raised to the roof by a 600 tonne crane.

Once lifted from the wagon, the section is raised to the roof by a 600 tonne crane. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

The section is gently lowered into place on the roof of the new station building. The crane driver is blind at this point and the whole operation is guided by a skilled banksman.

The section is gently lowered into place on the roof of the new station building. The crane driver is blind at this point and the whole operation is guided by a skilled banksman. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

In their final resting place the roof light sections wait for the first day break they will see from the same position for the rest of their lives.

In their final resting place the roof light sections wait for the first day break they will see from the same position for the rest of their lives. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Great locations

By , August 15, 2011 3:13 pm

Most of the time when you’re commissioned to make a portrait and given very little leeway to produce something interesting, the biggest challenge is the location itself. But every now and then, a little gem presents itself. So it was when I was asked to photograph Richard Garriott, games maker extraordinaire, space entrepreneur and astronaut recently.

It’s not the first time I have photographed him by a long shot, but I wasn’t holding out much hope of anything interesting in an academic building in London. How wrong I was! My problem was not the location so much as the over abundance of red light. Bit of off camera flash resolved that, and a suitably space-age image of a space man was the result:

Cosmonaut Richard Garriott at The Centre of the Cell, QMUL. 2011

Cosmonaut Richard Garriott at The Centre of the Cell, QMUL, London. © Michael Cockerham 2011

The Fuji X100… putting my money where my mouth is

By , June 4, 2011 10:14 pm

In November 2009 I wrote a post bemoaning the absence of a decent compact camera on the market. If you don’t fancy reading it the gist was that all the offerings then available were marketed at people that were not professional photographers, by which I meant that they were too fussy to use, and the image quality was simply not good enough for anything other than small simple prints. In other words, for people who make their living from selling images either commercially or socially there was no option other than to lug around an SLR all the time if you wanted to be ready for those fleeting moments, which just isn’t feasible or desirable. So I wrote an open letter to the R&D departments of all the major manufacturers with a ten-point wish-list for my ideal compact. In short, these were:

  • A high quality fixed lens, equivalent to about 35mm focal length on a 35mm full frame camera, with a maximum aperture of f2 or greater.
  • A simple dial on the top plate to select one of four modes: M(anual), A(perture priority), S(hutter priority), P(rogram)
  • A shutter release button, which is firm and requires some pressure to trigger.
  • A reasonable grip for largish hands, with a thumb dial to control the shutter speed, and a finger dial to control the aperture.
  • A view finder.
  • Two file options: RAW and top quality jpeg.
  • An 8 megapixel sensor of a sufficient size that the images can be used commercially if necessary.
  • A simple reliable exposure meter to power the auto modes – something as reliable as the meter in my old Nikon F3 would be nice.
  • A small LCD display on the top plate that tells me the shutter speed and aperture selected, how many frames I have taken and have left, and a readout of the remaining battery power.
  • It actually needs to be compact but well built.

The curious thing about that post was that all the response I had from it, both in posted comments and off-line conversations, was negative: “it can’t be done”, “there wouldn’t be the demand”, “fairy tales are no longer commercially viable”. Rather than supporting my open request, fellow photographers were distinctly pessimistic, so much so that I started to wonder if I was being a bit of a prat in even mooting the idea. As a result you can imagine the pleasure I had in posting news that the Fujifilm X100 had been announced at Photokina in September of last year – on my birthday in fact! But it is only recently that I have started to look at how close the X100 is in its spec to my wish-list: the lens is exactly what I asked for, as are the file options, the inclusion of a good usable viewfinder, the build quality, the sensor size, and the exposure meter. More tellingly, I had based my requests for thumb and finger wheels and a mode dial on what I thought was the most we could get out of manufacturers, but Fuji exceeded my demands by giving us an aperture dial around the lens, and a simple shutter speed dial on top. Not only that, but the sensor is higher resolution with astonishing low light capability. I am not suggesting for a moment that Fuji made the X100 because of my post (although Fuji, if I had even the slightest impact on your decision making, thank you!), but given that I made the request publicly, I really felt that I had no option but to put my money where my mouth is… so I did.

mass communication jesus and telecommunication masts

Mass communication: Jesus spreads his word surrounded by telecommunications masts. Summit of Mount Toro. May 30, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/55 @ f8 with ND filter ISO 200. Spot metered. © Michael Cockerham

The launch of the X100 has been met with fanfare, demand, and levels of comment that far exceeded Fuji’s expectations. I hate to say I told you so to my naysayers, but… hell no: I told you so!

In an age of mass communication it is astonishing how often the message can get lost, and the problem has been that its retro styling and unquestionable similarity to early Leica rangefinders has created an internet based Chinese whisper. It may have been launched as a high end compact, but that is not the way many perceive it and as a result their expectations are being warped.

Like many I read the early reviews avidly in an effort to make sure that my “investment” was not going to be misplaced, and I have been left with the feeling that a great many commentators have missed the point of the camera. It is not a rangefinder. It is not a replacement for an SLR. It is a compact, pure and simple. If you are put off buying one because it lacks interchangeable lenses or is not great at manual focusing then I really think your ideas of what the X100 is or should be about are wrong. I bought it because I wanted a compact that I could carry everywhere so that when unexpected shots presented themselves I would be prepared, and more importantly the ensuing results would be usable.

Page boy at a wedding

Page boy at a wedding. A grab shot when I went out the back of the reception venue. May 14, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/280 @ f2 ISO 200. Pattern metered. © Michael Cockerham

Perhaps I should make a statement in the register of interests before I continue: I am a photographer, not an equipment junkie. I am interested in images first and foremost, and on the whole I find that cameras have an annoying tendency to get in the way of a perfectly good picture. I have found the plethora of “unboxing” videos and expressions of admiration for its looks laughable and uninformative, and I know that I am not the only one, because the question I have been asked most often by other photographers is “is it any good?” Anyway, given that, you will not be surprised to learn that this “review” will be based on how it handles – it is for others to repeat ad infinitum what it does.

Car park at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.

Car park at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. May 2, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/60 @ f11 ISO 200. Pattern metered. © Michael Cockerham

The camera arrived as I was setting off for a three day jaunt around the UK photographing car parks (don’t ask – good client, good pay, and I think I now need therapy because I have started to appreciate the finer points of the multistory!), and naturally I took it with me so that I could familiarise myself with it when I wasn’t waiting for a car to move or the light to change. What struck me first and foremost was the accuracy of the meter and the dynamic range of the sensor. The shot above is a case in point: strong specular highlights off the steelwork and the deep shadows of the tree would create problems for many cameras, but the X100 was not fazed by it. Given the limitations of this website it seems appropriate to give you an enlargement to make the point. Although taken as a RAW image, I have made no corrections, and at 100% the details and accuracy of exposure speak for themselves with great colour and shadow detail. There is a hint of chromatic aberration on the extreme contrast edge, but nothing that could not be corrected in ACR or a similar RAW converter. And remember, this is from a compact.

Enlargement of car park photo - click to enlarge

Enlargement of car park photo - click to enlarge

Lest you think this is a one off, consider the next image. A dark wood front door set into a white rendered wall in full sunlight. There is good detail in the depth of the shadow and in the texture of the white wall itself, using pattern metering and no exposure compensation – you’ll have to take my word for it because I cannot be bothered to keep putting enlargements into the post. How many cameras would be thrown by all that white?

Door in white wall.

Door in white wall. Ciutadella. May 28, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/140 @ f5.6 with ND filter ISO 200. Pattern metered. © Michael Cockerham

But like any meter it can be fooled, and with experience you learn to predict when it is likely to be wrong and dial in some compensation. In situations where things are just too demanding there is always spot metering, and as the photo of my wife and eldest son on an airplane shows, it is utterly reliable despite the huge contrast range in the situation. Using the optical viewfinder the selected focus area is the point which also determines the spot meter.

Laura and Joshua relax in flight.

Laura and Joshua relax in flight. May 25, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/250 @ f2.5 ISO 250. Spot metered. © Michael Cockerham

After a month I feel confident that I know what it can and cannot do, and have got to grips with its idiosyncrasies. I cannot claim that it is perfect, but there is a tendency to compare its performance to my D3, and that simply isn’t a fair comparison. If I temper my criticism with the constant reminder that it is a compact, then there is much to like about the X100 and precious little to complain about. In fact, most complaints I have found are resolved by learning to understand how it works, and not assuming that it should work the way one expects. For example, the focusing can be notably slow, particularly at close quarters, a complaint that many have made, usually at the same time as saying that it is not possible to get in close to the subject. In practice, with the camera at your eye you can make two clicks of the left edge of the jog wheel to put it into macro mode. The viewfinder switches to the electronic (EVF) version – presumably because the parallax with the optical finder would be too great – and instantly you are able to focus very close indeed. At this point though the normal practice of holding the shutter release halfway down freezes the image in the finder while the focus hunts and the image in the finder catches up. Irritating. But I have found that more often than not if I just trust the camera and press the shutter release all the way down it gets the shot, and it gets it right. It is counter intuitive given the way we all focus with SLRs, but it works.

The bride's hands while she is made up.

The bride's hands while she is made up. May 21, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/30 @ f2.8 ISO 640. Average metering. Macro mode. © Michael Cockerham

Of all the complaints I have heard the one I agree with the most is the absence of a locking button on the exposure compensation dial. The dial itself is a joy to use and a very welcome control to have easily to hand, but given its location on the top-plate it is easily jogged out of position when the camera is hanging from your shoulder. However, after the first few times of scratching your head wondering why a seemingly straight forward image has fooled the meter you learn to check the display in the viewfinder for confirmation of the dial’s position as you put the camera to your eye. That said, assuming Fuji bring out a successor to the X100, being able to lock the dial would be one of the changes I would welcome.

Wet cobbles and umbrellas in the evening.

Wet cobbles and umbrellas in the evening. Ciutadella. May 30, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/30 @ f2.8 minus 2/3rds of a stop in compensation ISO 1250. Pattern metering. © Michael Cockerham

One thing that takes some getting used to is the way maximum aperture can be a problem in bright light. Basically the nature of the shutter mechanism in the lens makes it physically impossible to use the wider apertures at speeds over a thousandth of a second, although on the plus side it does make it possible to synchronise flash at any speed, something which you can’t generally do with SLRs. Fuji have solved this by providing a built in 3 stop neutral density (ND) filter in the lens so you can still use f2 when the sun is out. The problem is you have to remember to set it, and going through the function menus is not the most intuitive way to go about it. Again, it isn’t long before you figure out that setting the ND filter to be the function controlled by the function button on the top-plate is the best solution. Frankly, if you are out in bright light it just makes sense to switch the ND filter on and forget about it, because one of the things that makes the X100 so compelling is the capacity to use that wide aperture and bring some depth and shape to your images in a way that is beyond the scope of conventional compacts. This is also a good point to mention how effective I found the Auto ISO control to be. You can set the upper limit on ISO where you want, and the trigger shutter speed below which the ISO is pushed up. I have found it to be very effective, allowing me to concentrate on my subject and forget about technicalities. Given how good this camera is with low light (and believe me, it is really very good indeed, compact or not) Auto ISO is not to be avoided but embraced.

Childrens' outdoor chess competition.

Childrens' outdoor chess competition. Ciutadella. May 28, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/1000 @ f2 ISO 200. Pattern metered. © Michael Cockerham

I have already made some disparaging remarks about those who have concentrated on the X100’s looks – for me it’s a tool and form should follow function. Interestingly, I have found that in some situations its looks can actually be a problem. I used it at a wedding of two designers. Needless to say many of the guests worked in design as well, and I found myself fielding questions about the camera from several people who were apt to comment that it was a “nice piece”: so much for being discrete. Similarly, a few people with more than a passing interest in photography have stopped me to ask if it is a Leica. There may actually be a case for making it a little less pretty!

Shapes, colour, light, bicycle and cobbles.

Shapes, colour, light, bicycle and cobbles. Ciutadella. May 30, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/30 @ f4 minus 2 stops in compensation ISO 1250. Pattern metered. © Michael Cockerham

The camera is unquestionably well made, but it is not a tank and would not take the punishment you might throw at a 5D or the like. Given its price I am surprised at how susceptible to scratching the LCD screen is. I have become accustomed to the scratch resistancy of the screen on my D3 (the rest of the body looks dreadful, but the screen is still pristine), and I had expected, wrongly as it turns out, something similar on the X100. In practice it needs care. Again a simple solution is stick on screen protectors. I have now acquired half a dozen on EBay for the princely sum of £1.49 including postage, if you have forked out for the X100 I suggest you do the same. Perhaps Fuji might like to consider upgrading the quality of the screen glass in any update.

Weathered building, electrical sign and blue sky.

Weathered building, electrical sign and blue sky. Cala N Blanes. May 27, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/2000 @ f4 ISO 200. © Michael Cockerham

Another criticism that has been levelled at its performance is the length of time it takes to write data to the card and clear the buffer. Certainly when shooting raw if you press the review button straight after shooting, nothing will happen. In fact you will have to wait until the indicator lamp has almost finished flashing before the display will show you the shot you have taken, and the more frames you fire in sequence the longer you will have to wait. Some reviewers have said that you “have” to use the fastest, most advanced cards to get the best performance, and even that won’t be much of an improvement. I have used simple class 4 4Gb SanDisk Ultra SDHC cards, and I can confirm that all of the above is true… but, if you look at my original post you might notice a comment I made in my wish-list which is particularly relevant at this point; I said that I was not bothered about having a screen for reviewing the images because:

I know it is nice to check that you got your picture, but I made a living from using film for over ten years, and I knew then that I had the picture even though I didn’t see it until I processed the film. Not being able to see the picture instantly will remove the distraction and make me concentrate on my subject – you know, I actually think it might make me a better photographer.

Just because technology allows us to do something that we could not do before does not mean that it is necessarily better, and I, like many photographers, find it hard to resist the temptation of “having a quick look just to make sure”. Fortunately, Fuji have thought about this. It is possible to set the camera to give a quick confirmation view in the viewfinder (even when you are using the optical version) of what you have just shot. I have it set for 1.5 seconds, which is just about short enough to stop it being intrusive. Personally being able to shorten it to 1 second would be ideal although I doubt enough people will ask for this to persuade Fuji to create a firmware upgrade that would make it possible. Nevertheless, it means I know whether the shot is in the bag or needs to be adjusted without taking the camera from my eye. For that reason I find the cards I am using more than adequate.

Phineas and Joshua in the hotel corridor.

Phineas and Joshua in the hotel corridor. Cala N Blanes. May 28, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/420 @ f2 ISO 640. Spot metered. © Michael Cockerham

I admit that in my wish-list I asked for RAW and high quality JPEG file formats, but to be honest the JPEG option was a sop to those who prefer to work that way. In my own workflow I cannot understand why anyone would not shoot RAW and only RAW, and that is the way that I use the X100. Having said that, the JPEGs straight out of the camera are incredibly good and if that’s the way you like to work you will not be disappointed. I can’t comment on how many shots you will get on a 4Gb card using JPEGs, but with the camera set to RAW I was getting about 200 images. The JPEG RAW question does highlight one of the more curious peccadilloes of the X100, though, and that is the RAW button on the camera back. The design idea is that you set the camera to shoot JPEGs, and if a scene presents itself for which you simply have to have a more fulsome file, you can press the RAW button and the next frame you fire will be captured in both formats before the system reverts to the default setup. The problem is, if like me you shoot only RAW, then the button is utterly redundant. Others have called on Fuji to issue a firmware upgrade that allows the button to be programmed as a second function button, it is a call to which I will add my voice here, although I am not sure what function I would be inclined to assign to it.

On a practical level the battery is claimed to give about 300 shots on a single charge, and while I have found that it does a little better than that, there is a strong case for getting an extra battery.  Also call me old fashioned, but the single most important tool a photographer can use with his lenses is a dedicated hood. Fuji, really, if you are marketing this at pros at a thousand pounds a pop: include the bloody hood. I don’t begrudge spending the extra (which I did) I just think it should come with the camera as standard, not as an optional extra.

Dusk and shop lights.

Dusk and shop lights. Ciutadella. May 30, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/30 @ f2.8 minus 1 stop in compensation ISO 400. © Michael Cockerham

The viewfinder has been the most talked about feature of the X100, and justifiably so. I have yet to meet a photographer that likes working with a camera at arm’s length – it just isn’t natural. So it ought to be surprising that the inclusion of of a viewfinder would generate so much comment. Personally I like working with the optical finder, but there have been moments when I have felt that switching to the EVF would be a good idea, and the facility to see shooting data displayed on the optical viewfinder is a real boon. I have found the frame guide on the OVF to be pretty accurate, enough so that I have not been disappointed by it. One thing I would like though is a display of approximate number of images left on the card  – I am putting my neck on the line here as I must admit that I have not read the manual, and it is possible that there is a way of setting this up, which some eagle-eyed reader will no doubt inform me of.

I should probably comment on the Menu/OK button. Many have said that it is too small. I agree; it either needs to be bigger, or probably more usefully it needs to be made to stand a little proud of the surrounding dial. That said it is not long before it becomes second nature to use the very tip of your thumb, and once you get used to it it really isn’t a problem even with my fat thumbs.

There are many things this camera can do like motion panorama and stereo sound HD video, and mind boggling varieties of bracketing, all of which I have tried. They work. Are they good? They seem to be, but I am not the best person to judge as these are not features I use nor do I have sufficient experience of them (with the exception of basic exposure bracketing) to comment on their performance.

Ultimately the worth of any camera is whether you want to use it, and whether if you do it gives you the results you’re looking for. I have to say that for a man that does not like cameras I have rather fallen for the X100. Not because of it’s looks, but because it is effortless to use, unencumbering to carry all the time, and the images it produces are technically nothing short of stunning, even if their aesthetics are down to me.

The X100 has brought me back to that place I used to inhabit about 12 years ago with the Yashica T4. Once again I can have a camera on me everywhere, but this time with the inherent capability to be playful and experimental that digital capture affords, coupled with an image quality that is genuinely saleable (I have already sold over £200 worth of prints taken on the camera) so that it earns its place in my equipment inventory. Carrying a camera everywhere is fun again.

Is it any good? Without question, yes: it is better than good. Is it perfect? Of course not, but then no camera is. Fuji have marketed this camera as the “professional’s choice”, a claim which some have criticised as over reaching, but I fervently believe it depends as I have already said on what you think the camera is. If you think it is intended to be a competitor for Leica’s M9 then the criticism is justified. If, like me, you think it is a compact that professionals can use with confidence, then I think for once the manufacturer has a claim which can be taken at face value.

Personally I am just looking forward to what I will witness and capture with this wonderfully crafted tool, and given my post of 2009, you’ll forgive me if I do so with a certain smug self-satisfaction.

Waiting for the flight home.

Waiting for the flight home. Joshua and Toby watch the planes at Mahon Airport. June 1, 2011. Fuji X100. 1/850 @ f2.8 ISO 200. Pattern metered. © Michael Cockerham

 

 

The Big Day

By , October 8, 2009 2:03 pm

A wonderful, if cautionary, tale was posted today on the BBC News Magazine pages about the hazards of inept wedding photographers, and it is well worth a read for aspiring photographers and prospective couples alike.

Ever since the digital revolution there has been this misconception that everything is easier (and quicker and cheaper) than it used to be in the days of film. This article seems a good point to set a few things straight.

Let’s start with the “easier” part. In the old days – by which I mean pre-digital – most people accepted their limitations as photographers. It was not uncommon for people to have photos from their summer holiday on one roll of film sandwiched between Christmas pictures at the start and end of the roll. Even the more snap happy did not kid themselves over their talent or lack thereof, because when they picked their photos up from the processor they usually found they had a couple of good(ish) photos, with thirty odd that went straight in the bin. Thus it was that “real” photographers were seen to be performing some kind of alchemy, producing excellent work from one end of the film to the other in seemingly impossible conditions. By and large wedding practitioners were shooting on Hasselblads or Rolleiflexes (my preferred medium format kit) – cameras that the average Joe never saw let alone knew what to do with. As a result, when people got married, they expected to use professionals to get the pictures. Don’t get me wrong, there were some really dreadful photographers around, but the proportion was rather lower than I expect it is now.

Then came the revolution. The average Joe could see what he was shooting instantly, and as he scrolls through the images he has on the back of his camera anyone would think he had talent. The problem is, that while we wince at the cost of throwing away prints from negatives, deleting files has no effect on us. Most people changing from film to digital have got no better – their hit rate is much the same, deleting thirty something pictures for every couple they keep. The simple fact is, whether someone is shooting on film or a chip, they still have to understand the effects of shutter speed and aperture, sensitivity and light, focus and composition, lens choice and – most importantly of all – subject. A good photographer will take good photos even with dreadful equipment. A bad photographer will produce crap no matter how expensive their kit. And that is not all. One of the ironies of “easier” digital is that it is actually less forgiving of mistakes than film was. With film (negative, less the pedants point to the unforgiving nature of transparency) your exposure could be off by a stop and a half in either direction and you could still get an acceptable print. With digital, overexposure is a real problem to recover from, and shadows can block up pretty quickly too, although to be fair the dynamic range of the latest generation of digital SLRs is much better than it was. How much of a problem is this for the unsuspecting “wedding photographer”? Well, imagine photographing the wedding of a very pale skinned man from Dundee in a black morning coat to a deep black skinned woman in a white dress on a bright sunny (I’m talking 500th at f8) day. You have to get detail in everything – it’s no good telling the bride and groom that it was too sunny, they want to see their faces and the detail in what they are wearing. If you are not bang on with the exposure you might as well forget it.

Then comes the “quicker” bit. In the old days (sorry, I sound like Uncle Albert in Only Fools!) at the end of a wedding you could drop the film in to your chosen professional lab (important to qualify “professional” – the people working in them are highly skilled technicians rather than school leavers who have been told which buttons to press). The best ones would stagger the process with other photographers’ work, that way if something went wrong chances were that you would lose a few shots rather than loads. A couple of days later you picked up the negs and the proofs, marked them up, filed the negs, and waited for the happy couple to get back from the honeymoon. Now we have “post-production”.

The average punter tends to be a bit bemused by this, after all they take pictures and just look at them on their computer. The explanation, sadly, is not straight forward.

Unprocessed image

Unprocessed image

In essence consumer cameras process the image files to make them instantly pleasing to look at, while professional spec cameras do not, the reason being that the cameras are designed to give the user as much leeway as possible to produce the right results for the right output. For instance, a picture that has been optimised for a computer, and is only ever going to be looked at on a computer, looks dreadful if it is printed, and a file that is great for a big print, is way too big for use online. The adjustments that need to be made for each type of use are not the same, so there cannot be a one size fits all approach to processing the pictures in camera. The majority of good photographers shoot RAW files rather than JPEGs. That is, the camera saves all of the raw data from the image that falls on the sensor. These files tend to be flat, lifeless and soft, and bear little relationship to the view that the photographer sought to capture. In a very real sense the move to a RAW work flow has taken professional photography back to the days of negatives, where (to paraphrase the great Ansel Adams) the original file is akin to a musical score, and the final JPEG is the performance. Unlike the film days, though, the post-production can’t just be handed over to a lab – well it can, but wedding customers are unlikely to want to bear the cost. As a result it falls on the photographer to do it him or herself, and this can easily be another day on top of the wedding: the one day’s work of old just became two for no additional money.

post processed image

post processed image

Just to be clear, post-production in this context does not mean “photoshopping” – that is, to add and subtract bits from the picture – rather it is about balancing the colours, getting the contrast right and fine tuning the exposure – exactly the kinds of things that labs did with film. Once the basic post-production and editing (taking out the images where people are blinking etc) is done, the files can be converted to JPEGS to create proofs, either physical, or (more commonly these days) online. But the work does not stop there. Each file needs to have a distinct file name (no good having the generic file name DSC_1025 on 17 different shoots, you’ll never find what you are looking for again!), and the original RAWS need to be backed up several times, preferably in different geographical locations. Why? Well, in short, hard drives fail; not so much a matter of if but when. Furthermore, computers are likely targets for thieves, so having things in different locations is a fail safe against losing all your work. With negatives the only real risk was from fire or water damage; to the best of my knowledge they never had the habit of suddenly not working – unless of course they were not properly fixed, but that’s why you didn’t get them processed at the chemist.

That brings us to “cheaper”. The simple fact is that the saving on film is minuscule, especially set against the expense of the equipment required. A pro-spec film camera would have set you back about £1500, and they tended to last for five to ten years provided they were maintained. It is worth noting that Nikon only ever released 6 professional camera bodies, and look at the dates of their going to market, and then compare this to the release dates of their digital bodies:

FILM BODIES                                                    DIGITAL BODIES

  • Nikon F     1959                                              Nikon D1     June 1999
  • Nikon F2   1971                                              Nikon D1x  February 2001
  • Nikon F3   1980                                              Nikon D2x  September 2004
  • Nikon F4   1988                                              Nikon D3x  December 2008
  • Nikon F5    1996
  • Nikon F6    2004

In essence they were releasing a new camera to market at the rate one a decade (compared with four digital bodies in under ten years), and the last one, the F6 (still available) came as a complete shock since no one thought Nikon would bother releasing a new design well after the digital revolution. With digital bodies though, the pace of change has been breathtaking, with pro-spec bodies costing around £3500 and needing updating every couple of years. Over a ten year period film cameras would have cost £3000, while digital bodies will set you back about £14000. Before you say that you can buy a DSLR for £300, remember that if you are doing this for a living you will likely be shooting over a hundred thousand frames a year; the cheap bodies just can’t cope, and your wedding customers won’t be pleased if your kit stops functioning because you were too cheap to get the right stuff – that reminds me, you do need to have at least two cameras, just in case one packs up on a shoot… don’t say it won’t happen: it will. Then there are the lenses, the flashguns, the spare flashguns, the memory cards, the batteries and chargers, the tripods, the bags (believe me, they aren’t cheap). Once you have shot all your images, you need to be able to process them on a computer, and the first time you try to deal with a 30Mb to 50Mb file on an insufficiently powered machine you’ll be beating a track to the shops to spend a fortune on something more powerful that can cope with processing four or five hundred such files at a a time. And remember my warning on storage and back up? Much more expensive than filing negs.

So that’s the cost of the equipment dealt with. Then there is professional insurance (which I bet the subject of the BBC story wishes he had) at about a thousand pounds a year, and don’t forget to factor in the time for all the meetings with the customer before and after the wedding, and the time required to do the layouts and revisions for their storybook. All told you can be looking at five days in total on one couple. With the cost of the book production at about £350, the depreciation of the equipment plus other overheads, a photographer charging £1500 for a wedding might be getting about £120 a day – not quite as extortionate as the headline rate would have you believe, and even that assumes they are shooting 52 weddings a year and most are not.

The reality is that traditionally wedding photographers made their living from print sales. The pictures would be so good (hopefully) that relatives and friends of the couple would order a few prints each. The widespread use of compact cameras knocked that in the 1990s, so the best photographers had to up their game and get pictures that were so much better than everyone else’s that they still had good sales. The crap photographers just made demands that no one else was allowed to use cameras at the weddings they were working on. I have heard of this so many times, and it still makes me shake my head with disbelief. The question you have to ask is: how much confidence have such photographers got in their own ability if they can’t stand the competition from people who have no idea what they are doing? Personally I have no problem with guests taking pictures at weddings I work on, in fact I often give them tips on how to take better pictures.

The real threat to print sales has not been guests with cameras, but rather the editors of bridal magazines recommending that couples ask (or demand) that photographers “give them a DVD with all the pictures on”. Why? They never recommended that photographers give the couple the negatives, but for some reason they think the democratising effect of the PC makes handing over your work perfectly legitimate. The day I had a the editor of a bridal magazine ask me to supply one of my images for the cover of her magazine (she cold called me) while informing me that she would not be paying me and I had to take out a four month advertising contract with them was the day they lost all my respect. Personally I would like to string the lot of them up, and if you think I am being petulant consider what the publishers’ response would be if prospective brides asked to be given copies of the magazine (rather than paying for them) using the argument, “well you have already written it and printed it, so what use is it to you now?” Rightly the response would be that it is copyright material, and if people want it they have to pay for it. So it should go for wedding photos. Any photographer who values their work should offer to supply a disc for a rate commensurate with the average sales that they would expect to get for a given wedding; if that is a thousand pounds, then the price of a disc should be in that region. If your photographer offers you the disc for nothing what does that tell you about how much they value their work?

The thing is, many photographers might consider the effect on sales of giving a disc (and I am not even talking about copyright, that’s a whole other issue), but very few seem to think about the effect on their credibility. Consider this:

You spend a fortune on equipment; you strive to produce the best photos you can; you toil over colour and density correcting all the files, and making sure the unsharp masking is just right; you hand over a disc of perfect files in a recognised colour space; the couple put them in their computer; the monitor is not calibrated and profiled, so they fiddle to make them look right; they print them on cheap paper with cheap inks with no colour management or profile, but plenty of banding and colour casts; they then show these to everyone they know as examples of YOUR work. What does that do for your reputation? One of those friends was thinking about getting in touch with you to shoot their wedding… not anymore they’re not!

Bruce and Claire - Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Bruce and Claire - Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

One correspondent to the BBC article – Caroline from Winchester – said: “Your mates know how to take your best picture.” I disagree. Your mates know what is you and what isn’t, but they do not necessarily know how to take a good picture of you. Virtually every wedding I do there will be someone who puts on a mock display of not wanting their photo taken: “I look terrible in photographs,” they say. If Caroline was right no one would ever say that. Eventually I get them to give me two seconds of their time, and the response is always the same: “that’s reeeally nice!” Why are they surprised? If you only ever had your hair cut by your mates (assuming they are not all hair dressers) you would soon come to the conclusion that it was impossible for your hair to be cut nicely. Likewise since most people’s experience of having their photograph taken is by their mates, they labour under the misapprehension that they are not photogenic.

Ultimately a good wedding photographer needs to be at the top of their game. There is a huge amount to do in a very short space of time, and unlike virtually every other area of photography, there are no second chances. There are many top flight photographers working in different genres that don’t do weddings. Some claim that it is beneath them, others – possibly more honestly – don’t want the responsibility.

Photography is only a small part of what is involved. Most of it is being able to get a large group of people to do what you want and enjoy it – part drill sergeant, part stand-up comic. You have to be patient, but firm. You have to know when to take control and when to let people enjoy their day. I have a rule of thumb: while I might want to take the best photographs I can, it has to take second place to the couple having the best possible wedding day. A few years ago I was shooting a wedding when my camera informed me that it had formatted everything I had shot up to that point. It has the greatest laxative effect of anything I have ever known! But this is where professionalism and experience come to the fore. My options were either to have a fit, start swearing madly and tell the couple they would have to repeat everything; or hide my terror, take stock of where I was, figure out what I could re-shoot without alerting anyone that anything was amiss, and try to carry on as normal. The first option ensures that no one ever hires you again, the second ensures that the couple continue to have a dream wedding and if worse comes to worse you deal with the consequences on another day. As it happens by about two o’clock the following morning I had become something of an expert in forensic data retrieval, and all was recovered – the couple had no idea anything was ever amiss.

So the answer to the BBC’s question, how hard is it to photograph a wedding? Harder than simply pressing a button might make you think.

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