Posts Tagged ‘Canon cameras’

Travels without a tripod

August 23, 2011

The first commandment reads that you should never, ever travel anywhere without a tripod and woe betide anyone who does. Nick Smith has just returned from an assignment where he forgot to take his three-legged friend…

Silk spinning in Cambodia. Photo Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Wide-angle floor-shot of woman spinning in a silk workshop in Cambodia (not Vietnam as the article implies). No tripod used, but the camera was set on the floor with a stack of lens caps to create elevation. Canon 5D MkII, Sigma 24mm, f/1.8 set at f/4, 1/10 sec, ISO 200, rear curtain flash, short duration self-timer. Photo: Nick Smith

I was once told by a veteran professional that the best piece of advice he could give any aspiring outdoor photographer was to always have your tripod with you. There wasn’t a single photograph, he insisted, that couldn’t be improved with the assistance of this indispensable stability-providing device. Doesn’t matter how steady you think you are, a tripod will always do it better. In fact, the answer is always: ‘Yes, you will need a tripod. Now, what’s the question?’

I’ve always tried to remember this. And so when a few weeks ago I stepped out of Ho Chi Minh City’s airport and into the solid wall of heat and humidity I was dismayed to find that I was without my faithful three-legged friend. Had I left it in the transit lounge in Kuala Lumpur? Had I somehow become separated from it in one of those interminable security checks that humiliate the innocent without ever uncovering a terrorist? No, it was exactly where I’d left it twenty-four long hours before. In my front room, along with all those other bits and pieces you leave behind because you can only carry 20Kg with you.

I remember now why I left it. My thought process went like this: tripods are big and heavy (even my state-of-the-art carbon fibre one that cost almost as much as a fish-eye lens); even the most well-intentioned of us hardly ever use them; they’re time-consuming and fiddly to set up; they get in the way of the creative process, and to cap it all, whenever you really desperately need to use one, there’s always a sign saying ‘no tripods’ because someone, somewhere has decided that they break health and safety regulations or something stupid like that. So I decided to take my monopod instead. But I forgot that too.

Now, I don’t know if I decided to punish myself for this laziness by looking for shooting opportunities where only a tripod would do, but pretty soon I found myself spending more time rueing its absence than taking photographs. I couldn’t adopt the simple solution of buying a new one because you can’t get a decent tripod in Ho Chi Minh City for love nor money, and even if you could I wasn’t going to lash out because I had a perfectly good one at home.

For anyone who’s not been there, Vietnam is brimming with caves stuffed full of Buddhas, enticing interiors of traditional brick factories, as well as countless museums and cathedrals where tripods are welcomed with open arms. Just about every low-light condition demanding a steady hand for a lengthy exposure rears its head at each turn. I burnt up energy looking for shots I couldn’t take, rather than working out how to improvise with the gear I had on me.

Psychologists will no doubt say that the importance of such shots was amplified in my mind precisely because I didn’t have a tripod and that I’d started to acquire an obsessive-compulsive disorder about it. And I think they’re completely right.

I’ve never liked the aphorism ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ because it hardly ever applies in the real world. After all, you can’t invent a wide-angle lens just because you need one, and a full flash card won’t suddenly invent for itself a few extra gigabytes just because you want it to. But you can, I discovered, with a little patience and practice, jury-rig quite nifty solid platforms for your camera with a little lateral thinking.

I soon became an expert with a big plastic bag full of (uncooked) rice and a self-timer, deftly stacked piles of lens caps and the occasional blob of Blu-Tack. And because in Vietnam there are very few convenient or level pillar-boxes, fence posts or any other sturdy platforms of a reasonable height, I drew the conclusion that the ground beneath my feet was my best friend. Wide-angle floor-shots became the order of the day, and as I reviewed my work on the Mac in the evening I found that I’d invented something of a ‘perspective idiom’ for my assignment in the Far East. Of course, from time to time there were clefts and niches in geological formations I could jam the camera into for – quite literally – a rock solid base, but mostly I lay on the floor, sweaty, dusty, attracting bewildered looks from people with fully automatic point-and-shoots, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Of course, in the process my camera body got horribly scratched, but I told myself this gave it the ‘lived-in’ air of an instrument that had served its time on the road. As another long-serving travel snapper once told me: ‘you can always tell the real old pros because their gear looks so beaten up.’ Now I know why.

This article first appeared as an ‘Inside Track’ column for Outdoor Photography magazine

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Trigger happy in Antarctica… too many penguins?

May 24, 2011

Let loose in one of the last pristine wildernesses with an open brief can lead to an embarrassment of riches. But you can take too many photos, says Nick Smith

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica

When I told a photographer friend of mine in a pub in London last November that I was heading off on assignment to Antarctica he was suitably impressed. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, for many of us outdoor photographers, the chance to visit the White Continent, to see what the likes of Shackleton and Scott saw only a century ago, is the stuff of dreams. The chance to tick off my sixth continent was also alluring, leaving a relatively pipsy Australasia last on my list. ‘Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures of penguins,’ was his considered advice.

I won’t bore you with how far away Antarctica is. Two days flying – London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia – followed by three days sailing in a converted Argentine navy ship across the fearsome Drake Passage. But it would all be worth it, I told myself, as my three cabin mates vomited their way to the South Shetlands, when I see my first penguin. Not that I’d been commissioned to photograph penguins specifically: my helpful editor on the national newspaper I was on assignment for had merely told me to ‘get some nice shots.’

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Well the news is, for anyone who’s not been there, in Antarctica you can get ‘nice shots’ a-plenty. To be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. Once you’ve passed the Convergence (where the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic meet) it’s pretty much plain sailing: cobalt blue skies, lagoons as smooth as glass and smoked salmon skies. I’m not going to say that it’s warm, but I was there in the Austral summer, and chilly though it may have been at times, it beat the pants off winter in London, camping at Heathrow and the Eastenders Christmas Day special.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Ever mindful of my friend’s advice, when I finally got ashore at Aitcho Island, I decided that penguins were the order of the day. At the South Shetlands you’ll be lucky to see anything other than chinstraps, gentoos and adelies, so I considered myself lucky indeed to find all three in the first rookery I visited. The light wasn’t great, but it was my first landfall in Antarctica and so… bang. Eight gigabytes in one hour. As I was shooting RAW images on a full frame sensor camera, that’s not too bad I told myself, but I knew that not one of the 250 shots would be a keeper. Safely back on the mother ship I duly downloaded and tagged the whole lot. I was right: there were no keepers, but these might be my only sightings.

In Antarctica there are strict rules when it comes to interacting with the wildlife. The penguins effectively have a 5-metre force field around them. You don’t enter their personal space or you risk negatively modifying their behaviour and causing stress that could ultimately lead to parents abandoning their young. However, they are inquisitive birds and if you sit still for long enough, as they have no fear of humans, they will simply come to you. And they did. And for first and perhaps the only time in my career I used my pride and joy 135mm f/2 prime for photographing birds. Seeing the results on my laptop later, I was amazed by just how well what’s fundamentally a portrait lens performed in such circumstances. You won’t find the manufacturer recommending this lens for penguin photography, but part of the fun is making your own decisions about kit.

penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

A week into my voyage around the Antarctic Peninsular I found myself sick of bloody penguins. Not because I don’t like them – I think they’re tough, gutsy little animals that command the respect of all of us – but because I’d got 2,000 of the buggers in my laptop and I was getting extremely bored with editing, night after night (except it never got dark) what were essentially the same photos. And then it happened. Error message ‘Start-up disc almost full’, which if you are a Mac user (and I suspect that’s nearly all Outdoor Photography readers) is the one error message you don’t want to read. It means your computer has reached its capacity. Warning: your laptop is full of penguins, icebergs, clouds, reflections, mountain range silhouettes… all the ‘nice shots’ my editor had asked for.

Given that no photographer’s computer should ever each this point, something was going seriously wrong. I was, to put it simply, taking too many photographs and not spending enough time considering the lilies. I’d made a basic schoolboy error of being trigger happy, seduced by the beauty of my surroundings into taking so many trivial variations on the theme that I’d become over indulgent.

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

On the leg home from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I opened for the first time, as I so often do, the guidebook to the place I’d just visited. ‘Leave nothing but footprints’ it intoned with environmental piety, before reminding me to ‘take nothing but photographs.’ Perhaps it should have said: ‘before taking any more photographs, ask yourself if you’ve already met the editor’s brief. Do you really need more?’

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine… without Nick’s photos of penguins

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Nick Smith’s interview with wildlife photographer Henry MacHale in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 24, 2010

Beating about the bush

Most people dream about giving up their day job to become a wildlife photographer. But Henry MacHale went one step further and turned the dream into reality. Nick Smith hears his story…

Adventure and wildlife photographer Henry MacHale. Portrait: Nick Smith

Adventure and wildlife photographer Henry MacHale. Portrait: Nick Smith

Henry MacHale read business studies at Edinburgh University, but in his holidays he spent much of his time in east Africa. In Kenya he took the first steps from being a burgeoning amateur to entering the world of the professional. Over the past decade he’s lived there, worked as a guide, managed a game reserve and got to know his way around the bush. ‘I can speak the bit of the language and so I just get in my Land Rover and go.’

After college Henry worked in a well-known financial institution in the City, but after a year it was clear that it wasn’t working out for him. He wasn’t enjoying his job and the call of Kenya’s wide-open spaces was too strong. And so at the age of 25 he turned his back on a lucrative career and a jet-set lifestyle and set off with just one camera and two lenses.

Success came quickly for Henry, who within a year had his first exhibition of his evocative black and whites in London. Called ‘Images of East Africa’, Henry’s work can also be seen online.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Henry MacHale: I’ve been taking photos seriously since I was about 16, but the moment I realised I wanted to become a professional was about a month before I left my job. I thought: I’ve got an eye for photography. I love Africa. That’s it. I’m going.

NS: What was your first camera?

HM: A Nikon F65 film SLR. Quite basic, but I liked the control and the way you could take real photos with it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

HM: I went to London School of Art for four months where I did a crash course on the marketing side of photography. This was hugely helpful, not so much form the creative side of things, but from the business angle.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

HM: It’s important to me. I’ve always been interested in Africa. I’ve got a huge competitive advantage out there because I’ve spent so much time in the bush and know my way around.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

HM: Gorillas in Rwanda. I think I enjoyed it so much because I’ve only done that once, and there was a novelty factor in that it was a very different kind of photography from what I’m used to.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

HM: I’m away seven months of the year and my friends are in London. So I’m saying ‘no’ to weddings and parties. But you can’t have it both ways. Also you tend to worry about where the next pay cheque is coming from.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

HM: Digital. It’s cheaper. You save all that money on processing. I suppose the equipment is more expensive, but you’ve got that ability to edit in the field.

NS: Which photographers have had the most influence on your work?

HM: One of the photographers I most admire is Sebastião Salgado. His work isn’t wild or wacky or crazy, but it’s beautiful and simple. He’s done quite a lot in Africa and so that links in a bit. Peter Beard shot exactly the same areas that I photograph now, and so I’ve always been interested in his work. Nick Brandt’s stuff is really cool too.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

HM: In twenty years time Africa will be a different place – some of the people and wildlife will simply not be there in the same way. It’s important to try to capture this moment in a skilful and beautiful way. It’s impossible to capture an African landscape as you see it sitting on a hill. But I want to get as close as possible to that.

NS: What makes a great outdoor photograph?

HM: Everyone knows what a wildebeest or a Maasai looks like, and so what you’ve got to try to do is make the familiar look beautiful, perhaps with the light, or the dust or the way they’re standing.

Henry’s 5 golden rules

1 You can shoot a 1000 shots but don’t

2 Be patient and willing to sit there for five hours

3 Be prepared to throw yourself into it

4 Spend a long time on location just looking

5 The unusual is not always a good photo

Henry’s gear

Camera: Canon 1DS MkIII

Lenses: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 24-104mm f/4 IS

Check out Henry’s website: www.henrymachalephotography.co.uk

Nick Smith’s column ‘A shot in the dark’ – Outdoor Photography, February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

A shot in the dark

When he was asked to report on night kayaking on a phosphorescent lake in November, photojournalist Nick Smith thought that someone was pulling his leg…

One of the great things about being a photojournalist is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re embroiled in a public spat over the latest Arctic ice-thickness statistics and the next you’re being flown to Ireland to take photographs of people kayaking in pitch darkness.

Let me explain. The phone call went like this. ‘We’re looking for a photographer to cover one of our tourism attractions’, chimed the mellifluous tones of a sophisticated West End PR lady called Kath. It turns our her client, Tourism Ireland, was flying a gang of UK newspaper journos to do some kayaking in Lough Hyne, a marine lagoon west of Cork. Would I like to take the photos?

Well, when anyone asks me if I’d ‘like to take the photos’, I tend to answer in the affirmative without so much as a second thought. But this sounded like it could be a poisoned chalice. I asked Kath to tell me more, and after a long conversation it boiled down to this. She was asking me to take photographs in the middle of November, in the dark, in Ireland where you could wager the shirt on your back that it would be raining. ‘But the good thing’ said Kath, ‘is that the lake is naturally phosphorescent, which should make your photos even more special.’

There’s something magical about arriving at Cork airport in the late afternoon with the autumnal sun setting in the west. The almost horizontal rays skimmed across the idyllic countryside and instinctively I started to write stuff in my notebook along the lines of ‘it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing’. But, by the time I’d got off the plane the coppery sun had given way to a ‘soft day’, which roughly translates as a slate grey sky with precipitation in the form of stair rods.

As we drove west to Skibereen – famous for its famine burial pits – I started to realise the magnitude of my task. To add to the rain, it was now very dark, and I was beginning to entertain no hope of getting any photographs at all. Rubbish, I said to myself. As my mentor Martin Hartley tells me – there’s always something a professional photographer can shoot. But what if he’s wrong?

Feeling that I was sliding into the photographic equivalent of the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to cheer myself up by getting my brand spanking Canon 5D II out of the bag. I reasoned these babies can take photos in the dark, and since this is exactly what I was commissioned to do, I’d obviously bought the right tool for the job. Although I’d never ramped it up that far, the 5D II has an ISO upper limit of 6400, which lifted my spirits. I rootled around in my gadget bag for the lens with the widest aperture (Sigma 24mm f1.8) and screwing it onto the body thought life couldn’t be that bad after all. What with a little noise reduction here and a tad of sharpening there, we’d be in business.

Lough Hyne, as I later found out, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But when I arrived in the bible black darkness and thick drizzle that penetrated every layer of clothing, I was too miserable to care. We strapped on our headlamps, got in our kayaks and paddled out onto a phosphorescent lake that refused to phosphoresce. I took my first look through the viewfinder. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Big fat zero.

This was just before I found that you can’t direct a torch, use an off-camera flash cord and press the shutter at the same time. The idea was that I’d illuminate another kayak, get a fix on the autofocus and get shooting. By now you’ll realise that this was a bad idea for so many reasons but the main one is that if the autofocus can’t see anything it can’t autofocus. In desperation I switched to manual focus, shoved the aperture on F8, set the focal length at infinity, and blindly accepted whatever shutter speed the camera decided to give me while in aperture priority. Please don’t write in and say I’m an idiot. I knew that the moment I got on the plane to Cork.

But then I broke what for me is a cardinal rule. My first commandment is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, stop and think. But I didn’t and I carried on regardless and over the next hour I blasted away and filled an 8GB card. Back in the hotel, after several much needed restorative glasses of Jamesons I reviewed the evening’s carnage. I’m not proud of this at all, but there were enough salvageable shots to put a small set together, and the results have already appeared on several national newspaper websites.

And the moral of the tale? Well I’m not sure, but talking the PR boss of Tourism Ireland on the flight home to London I tried to manage his expectations. ‘You see the thing is’ I explained gently, ‘cameras can’t really take photographs in the dark.’ Of course not, said John. That would be silly.

Visit Tourism Ireland at www.tourismireland.com

Nick Smith interviews BBC wildlife photographer Doug Allan in Outdoor Photography magazine

December 1, 2009

Into the cold, wet world

BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan spends his life in remote, freezing places, quite often underwater. All in the pursuit of that magical image. Nick Smith hears his story…

Doug Allan is a freelance wildlife and documentary photographer and cameraman working underwater, on land and especially on the polar ice. Born in Scotland, he graduated with a degree in marine biology from Stirling University in 1973. This was to propel him into a career in field science that gradually transformed into one of wildlife photography. Today he is one of the leading wildlife photographers of his generation with a feast of credits including the BBC’s  ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

Doug was working as a diver on an Antarctic research station when he met David Attenborough in 1981 while the BBC was filming polar sequences for ‘The Living Planet’. For Doug that was the ‘decisive moment’, as it dawned on him that the cameramen he was watching weren’t doing anything physically that he couldn’t. With his specialist knowledge and prodigious abilities as a diver, all he had to do was ‘work on my photographic skills’. And so a career-long relationship with the legendary presenter was launched.

Much of Doug’s wildlife photography involves physically overcoming the environmental harshness of some of the world’s wildest places and then waiting for his subject’s behaviour to reveal itself. ‘I do like working in really wild situations’ he says. The advent of digital has improved his life no end – he can spend more time underwater without having to surface to reload film. As for processing, he remembers Kodachrome film taking a year to get from Antarctica to a UK lab and back.

Doug has won the underwater category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year twice as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Photography Medal. He has also won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his moving images.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a wildlife photographer?

Doug Allan: When I first went to the Antarctic in 1976 I was thrown into an overwintering environment with only about 15 other people on base. Most were photographers and some had a very good eye. With the penguin colonies and the seals on my doorstep a serious interest was kindled.

NS: What was your first camera?

DA: A Petriflex given to me by Dad in 1971. It was a very simple SLR. I don’t think I had a wide- angle lens, just a standard 50mm. For underwater photography it was the old faithful Nikonos II – it was the most advanced then, but no electronics at all.

NS: What formal training do you have?

DA: I didn’t have any. I feel almost more in need of formal training now with digital than I did back in the days when we used to do our own processing. Now there is so much you can do in post processing, and you have to be careful if you want your digital files to be around in 30 years time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

DA: I’m a specialist in wildlife and wild places with an even narrower niche of cold weather environments both underwater and topside. I don’t shoot weddings. Well, I shot a wedding once as a favour and it was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

DA: It’s hard to pick one or two. What I’m interested in is ‘difficult-to-get-behaviour’ from genuinely wild animals. That’s where I get the buzz – being in the wild and seeing things happening for real. What turns me on is being in the company of big mammals. You can’t hide from a polar bear – he hears and sees as well as you do, and yet his sense of smell is better than a bloodhound. In those situations your body language, behaviour and even what you’re thinking are ultra important. It’s like you have to talk to your subject in a non verbal way.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

DA: It can be frustrating if you’ve put a lot a lot of effort into a shoot and you feel it’s not been given the best chance on screen because the editing or production is sloppy or misses the point. But, mostly I’ve had the chance to work with high class production teams.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

DA: Digital encourages experimentation and as a stills photographer the field is absolutely wide open to interpret whatever you see in whatever way you can imagine. Shooting with film teaches you  the basics very well, with each press of the shutter having an associated cost. There was no alternative when I started. Digital frees you up creatively and the sky’s the limit.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

DA: I just went the classic route – the base I was on in the Antarctic subscribed to National Geographic. We’d look at the pictures and admire them. I’ve always preferred the wide-angle from up close rather than the telephoto. I liked Ernst Haas with his long exposures to experiment with blurring movement. We used to try that on base and quickly realised it was much harder than it looked. Also the early Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass books influenced me a lot – the idea of exploring the undersea world with a camera.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

DA: I realised after 10 years in Antarctica that photographing and filming animals encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed doing. Travel, adventure, being part of a team, doing something you think is worthwhile – all those things come together in what I do.

NS: What makes a great wildlife photograph?

DA: You have to take yourself to exciting landscapes or put yourself in front of inspiring animals. Unless you’re really interested in your subject you’re not going to catch that special magic.

Doug’s 5 golden rules

1 Look around and find out what impresses you

2 Ask yourself what your shot is trying to convey

3 Stand on the shoulders of the great photographers

4 Get out into inspiring landscapes

5 Underwater, remember: the closer the better

Doug’s gear (stills)

Canon EOS 1Ds-Mk II,

Lenses: 14mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm IS f/4, 100-400mm IS, 600mm IS f/4

Seacam housings

http://www.dougallan.com