19/05/2017 Gardener’s Question Time!

Lord Gavin Hamilton, with Apley Park behind. Canon 1dx, 24-70 2.8, fill flash.

I hot footed it from a very hot and sunny Venice to get back in time to photograph a Gardener's Question Time session, organised by Chris Mackrell from the Telford Rotary Club and hosted by Paul Shuttleworth (Gardener's Question Time, BBC Shropshire) with a panel comprising Phil Allen (Head Gardener at Apley Walled Garden) and David Wassell, MBE (Landscape Architect). This event was for a really good cause - hosted by the Rotary Club to continue to pursue their aim to eradicate polio - more information can be found here https://www.rotarygbi.org/polio-eradication/

Despite a rather large difference in the weather (it thundered at one point!), it was a really good evening, with informative tours to the Apley Walled Garden hosted by Lord Gavin Hamilton and an excellent summary of how things are grown organically, using techniques dating back hundreds of years by Head Gardener Phil Allen. The Question Time session was equally good, with questions ranging from how to screen off a neighbour's unsightly camper van to getting rid of slugs!

All very interesting and very busy for everyone (including me). I got soaked twice - once on the Walled Garden tour and then sheltering from the rain a couple of hours later when the gazebo I was standing under tipped about a gallon of water on me (most of it went into my pocket!).

Head Gardener Phil Allen. There's nothing he doesn't know about gardening! Canon 1dx (water resistant!), 24-70 2.8

Paul Shuttleworth, BBC Shropshire fields another question. Canon 1dx, 24-70 2.8


13/5/2017 Suree Coates, Thai Chef of the Year

I had the pleasure today of photographing (and chatting to) Shropshire's Thai Chef of the Year, Suree Coates. I've previously photographed Suree at food events against the backdrop of a big crowd and enjoyed her banter and most of all, her beautifully prepared dishes. Well through a lens at least - I have to photograph the ravenous hoards when she invites them to try her dish, so I don't get a chance to "enjoy" it in terms of tasting it (and I didn't today either!).

Today it was a demo/masterclass for a relatively small group of people., based at Suree's restaurant - The King and Thai in Broseley. She works from scratch and prepared a fantastic Thai Yellow Curry and an equally amazing soup. Suree is great to talk to, we had a good chat about the success of her book (some of the photos are hanging in the restaurant and look fantastic) - it's been so popular it's sold out! Her restaurant is wonderfully atmospheric and the menu has a great range with "specials" often added - Suree told me that keeps the interest going for customers and gives her the opportunity to constantly bring new ideas to the table.

I wanted to get some nice natural shots but didn't want to be obtrusive - the last thing people want is a photographer blocking their view, so I set two soft boxes up and worked from the back of the room with a 200mm lens.

Suree Coates, Thai Chef of the Year

 


22/2/2017 Vintage Machinery

We're looking forward to quite a few diverse events this year! Our first one will be next month, a vintage tractor rally which is in aid of the Air Ambulance. It sets off from Apley Farm Shop, Norton, Shropshire and goes (slowly!) into Bridgnorth and then returns in the afternoon. We covered this last year and got some great photos - I was surprised at the amount of interest the event attracted - there was a continental market in Bridgnorth and a lot of curious people lining the narrow streets as the tractors squeezed through. Here's hoping for a bit of spring sunshine again although sometimes our weather can produce the most fantastic photos! I'm never discouraged by a bit of rain, it just needs some careful preparation to make sure everything is protected - cameras and lenses are weather sealed but they're not submersible and having had the experience once of a waterlogged camera (Newport Show 2016!), I always have a (somewhat convoluted) rain cover in the depths of my bag - although you can't beat the luxury of having an assistant standing next to you with a large umbrella 🙂

We always make a donation for events like this, it's a really good cause. If you're reading this and you've got some free time then come along, it's a great event and very interesting for adults and kids to see some very old machinery - some of the tractors are still in use I think while others are kept in pristine condition and arrive on trailers. I'm quite tempted to  ask if I can have a sit on one this year!


15/2/2017 Gear Review – Elinchrom Ranger RX

Off camera flash is a difficult subject for some photographers. I've seen a lot of posts where photographers "prefer natural light" - which (to me) translates into "I don't like using flash". Well sometimes you just have to really or there's either a dull shot, or worse, no shot. Everything has its place, there are a lot of tools to learn and use and I'd say that flash isn't something to be feared, but it is something that takes time to get to grips with to get the right results. Things like balancing flash with ambient light and the relationship between flash duration, aperture and shutter speed can be a little confusing but once a few scenarios are covered, it opens up a lot of interesting options.

I've got the usual mains powered strobes but I've often wanted something a little more portable to use when I'm either shooting outside, or at events where I've stood and scratched my head while looking somewhat perplexed at a plug socket about 100 feet away from where I need it to be while holding a comically short mains lead. While speedlites do work a lot of the time, they can be a bit underpowered for some subjects. I really wanted to get myself in a position where I had no trailing mains leads, no reliance on a power socket and enough power to cover everything. That might seem to be a big ask but it's what I want to achieve - I don't like being limited by anything.

So some months ago I decided to invest in something with a bit more power than my Speedlites. My choice was narrowed down to the Elinchrom Quadra Ranger or the Ranger RX, and the very new and very portable Profoto B2.

Now guess what? I fell in love with the Profoto. Very light, portable but also very expensive. And of course my existing Elinchrom modifiers wouldn't fit, needing a completely new investment to add to the cost. I looked at the Elinchrom Quadra Ranger but l really wasn't impressed with the build quality. I'm careful with my gear but I wasn't convinced that this would survive even a year of careful handling. In fact every second hand kit I looked at seemed to have something broken on it, not a good sign.

so I decided on the Ranger RX Speed AS with standard heads. And yes it's heavy (8kgs, ouch) but it packs a lot of power at 1100ws, and best of all, there are two ports on the power pack that let me either use two heads with full power on one and 1/2 power on the other, or reduce the output power for a single flash head by plugging it into the second port. That's really important for me, when I'm shooting food or products I occasionally want a very shallow depth of field just to emphasise a particular area, and a low power lets me achieve that. Not having this flexibility means I have to completely set up again with lower powered speedlites, which of course takes time and effort.

I have to admit it's a lot of weight to drag around, and as with everything there are pros and cons. The biggest drawback apart from the weight is the non proportional modelling lights, that's annoying for portraits because you obviously want to make sure everything is correctly positioned and balanced, but it is possible to work around it. The other drawback is the leads are fixed to the flash heads and they're too short to set up two heads for a portrait session, meaning you have to pay an eye watering price to buy an extension cable. The pros are fantastic light quality, compatibility with existing Elinchrom modifiers, a very robust battery pack with clear controls and performance. I get around 150 full power pops, with fast (3 second) recycle times, and if I step the power down it comfortably lasts for the duration of a day's shooting. Recycle time on a lower power setting is around 1 second,

Would i recommend the Ranger RX? Yes, absolutely. It works perfectly. I use a PocketWizard MiniTT1 to trigger it via a PocketWizard Power ST4 and it works reliably, letting me adjust the power from the camera. It gets the job done and outside you can overpower the sun at midday so very useful for that (although I avoid shooting at midday as a rule but at events it can't always be avoided). I've got an additional Ranger RX pack which is useful, I can have two strobes set up and have the control I need over key and fill lights for portraits.

if you're thinking about battery flash with studio power, it's a great choice, particularly if you want something that has a lot of power in reserve. If you just want a little bit more grunt than your speedlites, look carefully at the Quadra Ranger or the Profoto B2. They're both a lot more compact and lighter, but bear in mind that they're certainly not as robust and they don't have as much power on tap.
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11/2/2017 Pies, Scotch Eggs and Valentine’s Day Cheese!

Canon 5D MkIII, 24-70L MkII @ 24mm Elinchrom Ranger RX, 4' softbox with reflector

Let's face it, you'd have to be either mad or a vegetarian to refuse a beautifully made pie or a scotch egg. Well I think so anyway but of course I happen to have a soft spot for anything a) wrapped in pastry or b) sausage. Cheese of course goes without saying! So armed with a very frugal breakfast (a Waitrose danish pastry and a coffee - not exactly healthy but still...) I set about today's product photography event, arranging Godminster cheeses, nine different pies and six different scotch eggs (there were supposed to be five, so the extra one was an unexpected bonus). The fun comes when everything is unwrapped - we take a lot of care to make sure that everything is correctly labelled, there's quite a bit of attention that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that we capture all of the products correctly. We have a precise shot list that ensures we capture everything in different orientations and different angles/lighting, according to our client's preferred style. Of course we also put forward a couple of different shots just to give some alternative ideas, but the main point is to capture exactly what's been requested, which is why we always take the time to discuss every shoot, no matter how small.

Canon 5d MkIII, TS-E 90, Elinchrom Ranger RX flash with 4' softbox

Apley Farm Shop stock some really exclusive products for the discerning shopper - the cheese is of course marketing for Valentine's Day, the pies for general web based marketing (including two potential award winning ones) and the Scotch Eggs for marketing - having looked closely at the finished photos they'll also find their way into my food portfolio. I'm of course very selective about the content of my portfolio, we shoot a lot of products and it's a very crowded marketplace so only the best shots get considered.

It was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, I had a good rummage around our props to find some nuts and a very romantic heart handled cheese knife along with a battered French chopping board (a story in itself) and we set about with the usual single light and a reflector - I've been using a really big softbox lately for marketing shots, preferring the softer wrap of light that results from having it almost in the shot. Food photography can get quite complex with lighting setups, particularly where highly reflective items are concerned, but there's really no need to over complicate things when you've got it well arranged and a single carefully positioned flash to emulate window light can do the job perfectly well, with a big reflector helping to bring the shadows out a little and reduce the overall contrast. I sometimes put a very small amount of dodge into the shadows during post production and also increase the saturation a touch on the main product just to make it pop a little more.

I wanted to get a really rustic, clean spring like feel for some of this shoot and having the luxury of plenty of time I think these do the job nicely and they pass the "look good enough to eat" test, in fact my stomach is rumbling as I look at them now......

 

 

 


28/12017 Portraits and Products!

Canon 5d MkIII, 85mm f1.2L @ f16, 4'x5' softbox

wow, What a fun week! We're in Valentine's Day photography mode now, shooting commercial marketing photos for Apley Farm Shop, Shropshire for some fantastic ideas they have. It makes a welcome change to events! Bob the butcher has put together some great cuts of chicken, beef, steak and lamb and they're selling these as a meal deal complete with high quality organic veg and a choice of dessert - a lot better than the supermarket packages!

 

I had a busy couple of hours photographing Valentine's Day menu specials, these looked lovely, I was so rushed I didn't get to sit down and eat any of them (but I did have a slurp of wine halfway through)!

Canon 5dMkIII, 24-70 2.8L, f8, softbox

 

I went out on Saturday for a portrait shoot with a family of six! We had a great afternoon, these sessions are good fun. We're quite versatile so I'm always looking to listen to what my customers want while suggesting a few ideas although they knew exactly what they wanted so I was more than happy to make their ideas come to life! An hour absolutely flew by, then another couple of hours editing and we released our final set of shots that evening. Really looking forward to our next session which is at Apley Farm Shop on 25th February!

Canon 5dMkIII, 24-70 2.8L, Eninchrom Rotalux & 6' reflector


16/1/17 Butchery and Chefs

It was my Birthday last Monday. Happy Birthday to me etc etc. A major event on my calendar! Rather than spend the day sulking that I'm another year older (which someone once told me I'd done since I turned 30), I got out with camera in hand to Apley Farm shop in Shropshire to photograph a butchery course, featuring Bob, butcher extraordinare, three willing subjects and a predictably large amount of pork.

These courses are meat themed - lamb, pork and beef, so the theme was (you've guessed it) pork. And very interesting it was too, one thing I always go on about is how much you learn just standing behind a camera about the business you're photographing. Bob and I have worked together setting up some great photos of the Apley Farm Shop products, he's very creative which is a good combination, we have a good laugh while we're producing some seriously good quality images so it's something that I always look forward to when I know he's going to be involved. Anyway, back to the evening! It really was quite fascinating watching a leg of pork being reduced to the right cuts. We had a conversation about the delicacies like cheeks that seem to be more popular in my native south (and tapas bars) than in the Midlands - surprising really, I first sampled pigs cheeks in a tapas bar in Newcastle and despite wrinkling my nose a bit at the thought of it, I was amazed at the taste and the texture, absolutely amazing.

So an hour passed by really quickly, I got some great shots without being too intrusive, enjoyed the very detailed tuition and also managed to nip over to the café and photograph the chef preparing a pork themed dinner as well, something I've meant to do for quite some time. Chefs are busy people, working to tight deadlines and they don't like to stop for a photo when they're in full flow, so it takes a bit of observation and understanding to get some good photos while trying not to be distracting.  Otherwise everything gets burnt and you have to make a hasty exit 🙂

By the way I don't really sulk on my Birthday!

 

Bob (with the bow tie) giving some detailed instruction. Note the hacksaw - his advice was to always finish the job with a (sharp!) knife. Canon 5dMkIII, 24-70 2.8, off camera flash, balanced with ambient light.

Careful jointing of a leg. It was a lot bigger at the start! Canon 5dMkIII, 24-70 2.8, off camera flash balanced with ambient light.

Dan the chef, preparing a fantastic pork main course. Canon 5dMkIII, 24-70 2.8L, 1/160 @f5

 


2/1/2017 Fog!

I have to admit to being fascinated by fog and mist. Almost excessively so. There's something mysterious about the way it shrouds everything, especially as it rises off the fields. It's not a unique event in Shropshire so every photographer seems to have it in their portfolio!

I remember as a kid living just outside London, the fog would occasionally be so thick that you couldn't see more than twenty feet in front of you. Getting to school was a major adventure, half the journey would be spent bumping into things (mostly intentionally). Some of the kids ended up lost for days, being immediately disoriented and turning the wrong way out of the front door. They'd be found confused and walking around in circles in a field somewhere.

I was actually kept at home once for three days by my mum. I wanted to go to work but she was an insistent woman 🙂 I remember it clearly, when you opened the front door the fog would drift into the house and street lights stayed on throughout the day. I'm joking of course (well in part at least) but in case you're wondering, this wasn't Victorian London (I'm not that old) it was the suburbs but the yellow tendrils of smog still reached a long way.

I've read numerous books (no really, I have, honestly. The Woman in White (at least the bit with the fog), The Woman in Black, Jamaica Inn, The Fog) where dense mist has been a feature, adding to the tension. Watch any film interpretation or adaptation based on the classics and you'll see plenty of fog being used to heighten the mood.

"So what's this got to do with photography?" I hear you ask. Well, it's actually a great backdrop, but it's actually very hard to get a good photo, or any photo come to that, at least for me it is anyway. You see, the trouble is you either get up in the morning and find a thick blanket of fog in front of you, sometimes so thick that you wander onto someone else's drive and try to get in their car because you can't see your own - or it forms while there's no camera gear to hand. Which let's face it is a fundamental problem. Both are frustrating (first example - might as well photograph a white sheet).

So the other day, while taking a break and driving back from a Sunday afternoon coffee, I noticed mist rising as I drove out, and it was still hanging there as I drove back. It was about 4pm, the sky was a lovely violet blue and the mist was close to the ground, such that the trees were clearly visible above it, but nothing else was. Perfect. I had a couple of locations in mind for a shot like this, so I raced the 5 miles home, all the time marvelling at the sight from the car, grabbed my camera and a lens and raced out again, 5 miles to my chosen spot.

Well by the time I got there at 4:30 it was just a solid grey wall of fog. And I mean solid. Memories of my childhood returned. I got out of the car and I couldn't see a blasted thing. Apart from fog that is. It was even foggy in the car when I got back in, that's how thick it was 🙂 An hour later it had cleared. Opportunity well and truly gone, later on that evening I saw someone's photos from the top of the Wrekin and they were fantastic.

I know, I know, I should be prepared and keep a camera in the car, but last time I tried that, when I went to use it the battery was flat and I'd also taken the memory cards out and forgot to put them back.

Anyway I'll persist with my challenge, I'll steel myself and get up early through the rest of the winter to at least have a look out of the window and make a judgement call.

Shropshire Mist. Canon 1DX, 200mm F2L, 1/30 @F2

here's a photo taken recently when I did have a camera with me, having just finished a shoot, around 5pm. No excuse there eh! But I want the fog to be a little bit thicker, and I want the light to be a little bit brighter as well. It's seriously a frustrating but intriguing challenge. I have seriously considered camping out somewhere in favourable conditions to get my shot, that'll be an adventure to look forward to although I'll have to take plenty of supplies with me. And a fully charged battery of course!


23/12/2016 Santa…it’s you!

well I have to say that being the photographer at the Santa's Grotto event at Apley Farm Shop, Shropshire was absolutely brilliant! Alongside the fantastic staff, Santa was a joy to work with and the kids absolutely loved him (mostly anyway!),

Our photos were consistently spot on and we had a lot of very happy customers. I'm very relaxed at shoots like this, I had a lot of great chats with customers and other enthusiastic photographers who'd brought their cameras along and I was more than happy to hook one of them up to my remote flashes so she could enjoy my lighting setup. Word got round very quickly about the quality of the shots we were producing so I spent a lot of time rushed off my feet, which is what I enjoy about shoots like this.

Santa plus Santa's helper. If only it was an elf outfit 🙂 Canon 1DX, 50mm F1.2L 1/60 @F4.5

Everything worked as it should, which was good given the need for a very slick workflow. Apart from a disaster with a broken monitor (ouch. Had a spare thankfully) and a broken keyboard (smaller ouch but had a spare one of those too! - I wonder why things suddenly break almost at the same time though). We even survived a storm of monsoon proportions which suddenly left me and my camera bag standing in two inches of water. The grotto itself was in a very cosy location but to remain unobtrusive I spent a lot of time standing outside - so while about an inch of rain fell in less than five minutes I ended up soaked through! I don't think I've ever been so wet but I did man up and got some lovely photos despite my flash umbrella disappearing after a particularly strong gust of wind.

The fantastic Lydia (Mrs Claus) at Afternoon Tea with Santa. Always smiling and always professional! Canon 1DX, 35mm 1.4L 1/30 @f5

For this event I took the opportunity to test an upgrade to our mobile 4g network to pull in a better signal. We did this for two reasons, primarily because we've been continually frustrated with intermittent failed credit/debit card payments for a couple of months which is equally frustrating for our customers who have to hang around while we try to make the transaction go through - so it was well worth doing, it's one of the only areas that I've been unhappy with throughout the year and it was good to get it resolved at last. We run a very stable and reliable closed network at events, both cameras transmit images on the fly and we don't allow anything else to be connected to it (not even USB sticks) so the other area I wanted to implement was a file upload configuration which allowed customers to have a download from a secure area on our web server - not perfect yet and a little buggy because it's dependent on their phone's network signal but I was really pleased to be able to run it live and it was well received - people love to have prints but we recognise that providing social media images is equally important and we gave digital images to people free of charge during the event so they could share them on the day.

I'd really love to post lots of photos just to show the quality of what we produce at events like this, they're very different to the run of the mill Santa's Grotto shots, but we take privacy very seriously when children are involved (all galleries that customers have requested on our web site are password protected and we only put them up with written permission). And there were no adults who wanted to sit on Santa's lap (which I could have posted!). But I am able to show one of my favourite shots - the delightful dog, all dressed up, who was perfectly content sitting on Santa's lap for as many photos as I wanted to take. A couple of days later another customer arrived with their dog, then another, making me wonder whether a grotto for pets would be an interesting idea! Could you imagine it?


22/1/17 Camera gear – and a review of the Canon 200mm F2L

I get a lot of people asking my about the gear that I use when photographing events, why I use what I do and what makes a great photographer. Wow, Shropshire people do ask some great questions! My choice of equipment is a bit subjective at best. I don't like to fall into the trap of just using one lens for every similar type of shot, preferring to mix it up a bit (within reason of course, portrait or equestrian photo shoots with a fisheye lens wouldn't go down too well).

The main point is that for commercial work, every client has their vision for their photos, they have a corporate identity and branding and I have to maintain that as well as bringing some creative and fresh options to the table at the same time. I do have my mainstay kit though. For commercial/products it's a 24-70 f2.8l or a tilt shift TS-E 90 if the shot needs something a little different. For indoor studio portraits I'll use an 85mm f1.2, outdoors I'll occasionally use a 200mm f2 to get some separation between me and my subjects (especially children if they're nervous of the camera). For sports it's a 400 2.8, or a 70-200 2.8 - and the 200 f2.

Camera manufacturers obviously keep pushing the latest technology, it's a fast paced area and research and development costs are huge to enable them to stay ahead of their competitors. I prefer not to renew my cameras until they're worn out or there's something that's REALLY important that I decide I can't do without. I can't actually think of any technical developments in the last 5 years that have made me dive for my credit card and replace my gear, but it was different about 10 years ago when the technology was developing much more rapidly. I have a nine year old Canon 1ds mark iii which I still use for product shots, I happen to prefer the quality of images it produces. It's still reliable and when you look at magazine photos from 10 years back they certainly weren't poor quality (in fact they're indistinguishable from what you see now). I have a 1dx body that's used for sports and equestrian where some weather proofing is handy and the frame rate results in more "keepers", and a 5d mkiii which occasionally comes out at the end of a long day when I feel tired (pathetic I know, man up). But having said that, my portfolio still contains great photos shot with a 5d classic.

it's very easy to get caught up in "a lens for a purpose" approach - of course there's the right lens for the job but improvisation is relatively straightforward. I've been caught a few times with clients who want an additional couple of photos and while I don't have my go to lens in the bag, I can still get the right shots with the gear I have with me. I always tell people it's about their creative vision - a lot of my favourite photographers managed with just one 50mm lens, their legs were their  "zoom" and the photos were better for it. Getting that interaction with the subject is often more important than the equipment (unless it's a pork pie of course). You don't need all the latest gear or a bag of lenses to get a great photo.

which brings me (in a roundabout way) to Canon's 200 f2L. I can honestly say it's a lens that spends a lot of time on my camera, to the extent that I rarely go anywhere without it. I'm not going to go into the geeky charts to look at sharpness and distortion etc (honestly don't understand why some reviewers get so hung up on this sort of thing. It's all about having a great photo at the end of the day).

Beautiful form and one of my favourite jumping photos, the white mane provides just the right amount of reflection to fill the shadows on the rider's face. Canon 1DX, 200mm F2L 1/1250 sec @ F2

 

Yes it's a moderately heavy lens, but certainly not unmanageable, weighing about 1kg less than the 400 2.8. The design is ergonomically perfect, I'm not a heavyweight by any means but I shoot it hand held for hours on end (sometimes for 8 hour sessions over ten consecutive days) and rarely get a poor shot - because it's my main lens I've learned the balance and how to use it to its best effect. Depth of field at f2 is very shallow, an advantage for the fantastic separation and bokeh but you can't use it for some subjects without careful thought, it's all about knowing when it will work for you. Contrast is exceptional, I often use the drop in polariser when shooting against a sky to pull the contrast and colours up a little more, image stabilisation is excellent so the 1 stop reduction in shutter speed is easily handled.

It does happily take a 1.4x converter, stepping it up to a 280mm f2.8, but it does affect the balance and I personally don't find it as comfortable to use. For those who hope it will rival a 300 2.8 at that length - sorry but it just won't wide open. Stopped down to f5 it's perfect, at 2.8 it's ok and for the photos we sell it's sharp enough across the range. I sold my 300 2.8 because I just didn't use it enough after buying this one but that's because for the majority of my photography 200mm is fine and 300 is an occasional need. If I went back to photographing something where 300mm was the optimum focal length, I'd get another 300mm 2.8 rather than getting by with a 200 and 1.4x.

I've heard a lot of grumbles about the lens cover, it's honestly not a problem. In fact I'd go so far as to say that I quite like it. It's fondly known as an "elephant's foot". I do look after my gear but the lens has a sacrificial front element and although the cover takes about 10 seconds to fix in place it does spend all day with the front element exposed even when not in use but it's not exactly a challenge - although it was a bit of a fumble when I first got it. Hardly worth mentioning though. Let's face it, it should be off the lens most of the time!

Overall I'd say it's the best lens I've owned. I've had it for a long time, it's been used for countless thousands of shots and I wouldn't dream of changing it for anything else. But that's because it suits me and my style. Anyone thinking about buying one should also consider the Canon 200 2.8 though at significantly less cost, or the 135 f2 if you don't need as much reach, both excellent alternatives. If you're looking at this lens then you're buying for one thing and that's the big f2 aperture, and it absolutely excels wide open (which at the end of the day is what it was designed for) - but like everything, it's a tool. You have to learn how to handle it to get the very best from it.


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