Long Exposure learning curve

Up until last September I was quite happy to grab the camera, a lens, usually with a polariser attached and go for a wander, snapping whatever took my fancy and then usually converting it to HDR. Then something happened… I discovered proper filters.

Now, I’d used filters, or more correctly, briefly filtered with some cheap screw in filters but to no great length, I had no real need as I was quite happy with what I was doing and the results I was getting. Then I started to take notice of some stuff on Flickr, those cream water seascapes and the likes and something kindled a new interest.

After some research, I decided not to go down the Lee filters route, yes, I know how good they are but being realistic, there was no way I could commit to the Lee system with the cost of the filters. I’m not a pro therefore didn’t feel I could justify the huge expense of these; it has to be said, very good filters.

Cokin was rejected after reading some horror stories about colour casts so I eventually bought myself a set of 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 Hitech ND’s and a set of 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 Hitch soft grads. Throw in a 67mm and 77mm adapter ring, holder, wide angle holder and a Kood slot in circular polariser and I was ready to experiment. Since then I’ve also added a Kood light tobacco grad, Kood red grad, Cokin 81A warm up filer and a cheapy ebay sunset filter. All in cost, less then the cost of 1 Lee filter. Nothing likes the quality but good enough for me to play around with on my D90.

First impression was this was going to be a huge learning curve. I got the dreaded colour casts while using the ND0.9 and ND0.9 soft grad and to be honest, I was ready to give up once I see that. BUT, I kept using them, mainly just a single grad and polariser and got some reasonable results. Steadily the grads especially became 2nd nature to use but something was missing, I wanted the flat sea and streaky cloud shots and these filters were just to giving me that.

Then, by chance I found an old ND8 screw in filter I had forgotten about, which being double threaded let me put the 77mm adapter ring on top of that, with the filter holder attached to the adapter ring, and the ND0.9, ND0.9 grad, ND0.6 grad in the holder I was able to push exposure times to 3 minutes and more in daylight, finally, the result I wanted without the expense of buying a B+W ND110 10 stop filter.

Cramond Island Causeway B&W

To be honest, it only works in B&W as the colour casts are horrible, but until I can get my hands on one of those B+W ND110’s then this do just fine for me. Very happy with the results.

Still got a lot of learning to do, I wish I had stacked 2 grads taking this shot but at least it gives me an excuse to go back and try again. Amazing what you can do with what you find lying about in the pits of the camera bag!

The Old Pier

Newhaven Lighthouse

In search of Supermoon…

There’s nothing better than a special event to bring out the photographers in Edinburgh, even more so it seems if it’s a once every 20 years lunar event as we had on Saturday 19th March. The event in question, the Perigee Moon saw the moon at it’s closest to earth for 18 years meaning it would look 14% bigger and 30% brighter. Would we even notice? Who care’s it’s a photographable event and plans had to be made!

Last week after being in North Queensferry I had noticed the moon directly above the Rail Bridge so that was a possible location. Blackford Hill was another but it gets slightly cold up there if it’s windy. So, with the help of Twitter and The Photographers Ephemeris, I decided on Calton Hill. From the Photographers Ephemeris you could see the position and time of the moonrise, around 6.30pm and due East.

On arriving at Calton Hill the first thing that struck me was the amount of photographers already setup at 6pm with cameras on tripods facing the wrong direction! I can only assume one set up incorrectly and the rest followed as they had all moved by 6.30pm.

It was cold on the hillside on Saturday and as you would expect, half 6 came and went with no sign of the moon. Typically, the clear skies of earlier in the day had given way to heavy cloud cover, not what you want for moon photography. My efforts were further hampered by missing my Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 lens, which has to go for repair earlier in the day leaving me with just my backup Sigma 28-300mm zoom, nice enough lens but oh so soft on the focus at the 300mm end. With that in mind, moon shots were out but moon above a landmark might still work out.

Just when I was about to give up hope the first glimmers of an appearance were in the Eastern sky, at this point I was up at the side of Observatory house and this was the first shot I got of any sort of moon just to the side of the National monument:

Supermoon

Walking past the monument revealed where at the photographers had went; they were dotted everywhere around the hillside here. The moon however, was not in a mood to show itself and the only other shot I got was this:

Supermoon

Long exposure and moon shots don’t go but there wasn’t even a remote chance of shooting the land and then the moon to combine in Photoshop. Fed up and cold I packed up and headed off being that I wasn’t interested in getting the moon high in the sky. Typically, on the way back to the car with all the gear packed away the moon popped out, just for a minute.

Now, I hate not getting the shot I went for so the next night, the moon was due to rise at 8.15pm again, due east. On checking possible locations this time I went, appropriately, for the car park of the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill. You don’t want to be parking in the public car park up here at night unless dogging is your thing…

Predictably, 8.15 came and went and it was nearly 20 minutes later till the first glow in the clouds gave away moon position. Higher than I’d have liked I started to get some exposures of the land hoping if the cloud cleared I’d get a change of an exposure for the moon to combine in. After another 20 minutes of hanging about, finally the clouds obliged. 2 shots were got, first of the moon then without moving the camera a longer exposure for the land. This was the final result of the 2 combined with Photoshop CS5.

Not quite so supermoon but still quite super

Not quite the weekend of lunar photography I’d hoped for and 18 years to wait for it to happen again.

Or fake it?

Processing this shot last night I thought an added moon gave it a nice balance!

Blackford Twilight

Not that dissimilar to another faked shot from a couple of months back:

Full Moon and Arthurs Seat

Lesson to be learned? You can’t control the elements so if you really want the shot, learn to fake it! ;o)

Fog on the Forth

When the Forth Road Bridge Twitter stream tells you there’s a speed restriction on the bridge because of fog, what’s the first thing you should do as an Edinburgh photographer? Check the road bridge webcam of course! Which I did and it confirmed what I’ve been looking for now for a while, the fog was heavy enough to obscure the opposite bank, meaning that the elusive bridge disappearing into the fog shot I’ve been after might be possible.

Heading to North Queensferry just after work seemed like the best plan, get in underneath the bridge and get “that” shot. In the event, the good people of Fife had other ideas and in their scramble to get home the bridge was chockers with traffic. Plan B swung into action as the sunset was approaching and a path was blazed down to South Queensferry instead.

If you drive in past the rail bridge there’s a spot with some parking and you can get down to the beach at low tide. Perfect spot and the fog was also perfect, more on the North side of the water it was low and thick. It obviously drew out the photographers as there were loads of them about.

Highlight of the night down here wasn’t the fog, or the bridge or anything even related to why I was there; nope it was watching the Rover 25 slide off the road, down the slope and end up at a 45 degree angle against the sea wall. Any thoughts of offering help went out the window when the driver stormed out the car shouting at the other occupants to move it as “a cannae be here…”, intrigue indeed.

Anyway, back to the photography.

Sun was setting and I went to work with the filters, what was apparent though was that the fog was getting worse. With the last of the decent light I got some shots off but just as we were looking for the sunset the fog went all pea souper on us and blocked out the last of the golden tones.

Still, I did get this shot before it closed in…

Forth Bridge in the Fog

By this point light was fading fast and the fog was so thick options were getting limited. Took some shots with the Nikon 18-70mm to let me zoom out past the rocks and also tried out the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM to get close in and get some detail.

Forth Bridge in the Fog

And the detail shot at 200mm from the beach:

Foggy Forth Bridge (detail)

With the light going fast a change of location seemed like a good idea so moved up to the Binks car park and headed down to the beach at the side of the little harbour. Now, this is normally a pretty good location but with the tide right out it wasn’t the best tonight so after a few shots abandoned here and headed over the bridge to the North Queensferry side.

Driving over the bridge the thickness of the fog was apparent, nearer the north bank you could hardly see 20ft in front of you but as soon as you cleared the water the fog thinned right out.

When you come into North Queensferry if you go right at the first junction you come to you’ll head towards the bottom of the road bridge. You can park up near the houses and there is a little gap in the low wall leading to a grassy area that leads to a fantastic spot to get shots of the underside of the road bridge.

I was kind of glad I didn’t get here till the twilight was setting in as the lights were on on the bridge and and casting a sort of eerie glow in the fog. I’d only taken the Sigma 10-20mm with me and to be honest, this lens doesn’t perform well from the side of the bridge; the wide angle distortion is VERY obvious. The Nikon 18-70mm lens would have been a better choice.

Undeterred, the one spot this lens does work well in directly under the bridge, not somewhere your really supposed to be so nipped in and out quick, got the shot and headed out. Glad I did as this was the result…

Into the fog

Finished the night off round at the harbour and by the side of the rail bridge getting some shots of the lights in the fog, which I’ll process later.

All in all, a 3 hour night on the camera with some fairly satisfying results and very glad to finally have got the Bridges fog shots at last, another one ticked off the list. Not that I won’t be back for the next bout of fog as well…

10 Minutes Photography at St Giles

So last nights outing was a last minute run into St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile. I literally got 10 minutes to get a few shots so working quick was the order of the night. St Giles is handy for a quick few shots as you can usually get parked pretty close, at night at least, and it’s generally a lot quieter than it is during the day.

The plan for the night was some low down shots with the extra wide Sigma 10-20mm lens on to capture some nice damp cobbles as foreground interest. In the event, amazingly after the snow and rain we’ve had in Edinburgh over the last few days the ground had all but dried up by the time I got there. Still, once your there make the most of it!

Like I’ve said, the Sigma 10-20mm lens was on the D90, tripod was set to it’s lowest and as it was dark, no filters at all on the lens. Shooting down low with the D90 isn’t the easiest, it’s one of those times you wish it had the D5000 flip out screen, not that live view is a lot of use at night but at least it’s better than having to practically lie down on the damp ground to compose a shot.

In the spirit of experimentation I went for ISO200, f10 and shot bracketed exposures so I had the option of HDR should I want it. This meant the last overexposed shot maxxed out at 30s but it’s usually fine for HDR work.

This was the first shot of the night, taken from the left hand side of the Cathedral next to the, thankfully no spat on, Heart of Midlothian. Why do people spit on it? Football nonsense no doubt.

St Giles at night

Happy enough with this HDR version of the shot, just wish that Arnold Clark hire van on the right had moved off!

From here I moved over to the other side of Parliament Square and managed to get a nice wide angle, again with the tripod low and managing to avoid the van this time. Not an HDR conversion but looked so much better as a monochrome.

St Giles

This was processed from the RAW file using an Adobe Camera Raw preset for high key B&W. It’s handy to have some presets in ACR, for those times you just don’t want to spend ages processing shots. There’s loads of sites out there to download them from an you’d be surprised at just what you can do with some of them.

So, that was about it for the night apart from a few last shots of the stature and Cathedral together with the tripod fully extended that I didn’t care for in the end.

Hopefully the crap weather is on its way out again, getting fed up doing night shots now this winter!

Snow and Mist over Edinburgh

Lets be honest, this is Edinburgh, a wee bit of snow in mid-March isn’t that unusual, what was through was the amount the weather forecast said we were going to get, anything up to foot of the white stuff. Now, having had well over a foot of snow back in November/December I had kind of mixed feelings about this. On one hand it’s a major pain in the back end especially now I don’t have the luxury of a 4WD car now, but on the other hand, it’s a rare photographic opportunity. I wish I had made more of it when I had the chance back in November but when every day was a struggle to even get the car out the drive the focus was somewhat elsewhere!

In the end, this major snow event was kind of disappointing. Edinburgh got an inch or so of slushy stuff. Not quite what I’d hoped for. Undeterred, I made my way down to Calton Hill, yet again. I know I photograph this place far too much but what the hell, it’s an amazing view and it’s a good spot to walk the dog at the same time. With different weather conditions it was also another chance to go the “classic” Edinburgh shot from the hill slightly different again.

I probably should have got there earlier as when I did about 1pm the snow was melting fast, so much in face that there were torrents of water running down the steps up the hill. On the hill itself, there was still some slushy stuff on the ground but the city rooftops were largely clearing fast. There was also a little fog on the top of the Crags so if nothing else, that might have made a decent shot.

Light was very flat and with a drizzle in the air using the filters was always going to be a hiding to nothing so again opted to shoot for HDR. The fog on Arthur’s Seat thickened up and it made for a little atmosphere over the city but nothing to get excited about.

Half an hour later, getting bored, wet and cold and facing dealing with a soaking wet dog I was about to call it a day when the fog started to roll in. And what a fog it was. Within minutes the Castle was totally obliterated and even the Balmoral Clock was starting to disappear. As I was at the front of the hill I headed back up to the side of the Observatory house to get “that shot” again, in a way I’ve not managed to get before.

There used to be a castle there

And a closer view:

Edinburgh Fog

Within 15 minutes the entire city centre was hidden below the fog and it was starting to thicken up on the hillside too.

Fog on Calton

By this point there was not a lot of reason to hang around, the lens was getting wet and basically you couldn’t see anything!

Pleased with the shots though, something a bit different in an often photographed place which is always a good thing. Sadly, my next stop at the Forth Bridges was a washout, no fog to speak off down there. One day, I’ll get that shot of the Bridges disappearing into the fog! It’s eluded me so far but I’ll be back for it one day!

A windy night on Calton Hill

Ok, so first of a new blog posting type for me that should get me blogging more regularly. I’m going to start and document some of my photographic trips out around the city, which as I’m out most night should be hopefully fairly regular and with any luck give a more in depth insight into photographing Edinburgh.

I’m going to start off with a trip I made up to Calton Hill on Thursday 10th March. So if you’re all sitting comfortably?

Thursday had been a belter of a day weather wise. Sat at work during the day we’d gone from sunshine and blue sky to torrential rain, hail and sleet on and off all day, thanks mainly to the gale force winds. With all this in mind, plans were hatched for a trip to Calton Hill for long exposure streaky cloud shots after work.

As usual with the best laid plans I got held up and didn’t even leave the house to head down to the hill until nearly 5.25, not the best with at least a 20 minute drive through the city centre at rush hour and sunset due at 6.05. This time of year is one of the last chances to get a sunset over the Castle as the sun starts to set to far to the right and sunset over the St James Centre isn’t as quite as attractive a proposition.

Arriving at Calton at nearly 5.50 thanks to a dittering woman driving in front of me for most of the way I was thankful I’d sorted out what gear I’d use on the night before I left the house so rather than take everything I left only what I needed in the Lowepro mini trekker to save on weight which I was thankful for after heading up the hill at high speed.

Sadly, once I got the top, the fantastic sunset that was happening as I left the house was now hidden behind a massive black cloud and the rain was starting. Undeterred, I got myself up at the side of the Observatory House and slotted in the CPL, Hitech 0.9ND and Hitech 0.6ND soft grad and tried some longer exposure stuff. I was getting about 40s as the light was fading fast but it soon became very obvious that there was no hope of keeping the tripod still enough for very long exposures in the wind, which by this time was picking up big time.

So, in this situation what to do? Wasted trip or make the most of it? In an effort to make the most of it I took at the filters off which were picking up rain spots anyway, fitted the lenshood and set to aperture to around f10 which with no filtration was giving me a fairly quick shutter on ISO200. 3 shot HDR was going to be the order of the night. Not that bad an option too looking at the epic skies over the city.

Storm over Edinburgh

This was one of the earlier shots from the night, a 3 shot HDR conversion, camera set at f10, ISO200 on aperture priority. No filters and auto bracketing set at 3 shots -2,0 and +2ev. Thankfully the rain was staying off and it was much easier to clean the odd drop off the Nikon 18-70mm lens rather than the filters. By this point I had abandoned the Sigma 10-20mm and the wide distortion was starting to annoy me.

From here I wandered around the Observatory, took a few shots of the National Monument and thought about packing up for the night. I was after 6.30 and it was shall we say, “brass monkey” weather up on the hillside.

However… as I rounded the corner looking back towards the city the clouds had started to move over and there was the tail end of a sunset peeking through. An unexpected bonus indeed. The only problem was that the wind was getting worse and the light was dropping fast so the longest exposure of the HDR 3 was going to be around the 30s mark. Thankfully though, I got a little sheltered spot just to the side of the Observatory house that kept me out of the worst of the wind and this was the results!

Edinburgh Sunset March 2011

Calton Hill sunset and storm clouds March 2011

These were about the last 2 shots of the night and I’m well chuffed with the results, it paid to tough out the conditions for a bit. Doesn’t always pay off but as long as the rain stayed off you can always warm up again later can’t you?

I’d say for this particular location it’s always well worth waiting till after sunset a bit, once the lights come on over the city it makes for a fantastic image, especially at twilight more than the proper dark of night.

Only thing I will say is that don’t do it on a weekend night, Calton is safe enough to be on after dark but with the added threat of drunken wee arseholes a lot higher at the weekend I’d say keep yourself and your expensive camera gear clear of the hill after dark then. Otherwise I’ve been up there a few times over the last year after dark and never had a problem, it’s mainly joggers and other photographers you’re likely to bump into!

Edit!
I’ve finally got around to processing more of the images from that night so without further ado…

Storm Clouds over Edinburgh

Old Town Twilight and storm

Leith Walk Twilight

Leith Twilight

Why I’ve no ambition to be a professional photographer

This is something I hear often; amateur photographers who would love nothing more than to take photographs for a living. Me, I’ve no ambition ever to earn my living from photography. Don’t get me wrong, I like to sell the odd print; I’ve got my own website for just that purpose. I’ve licensed a few images and while it’s always welcome, I’ve no intention of ever treading on the toes of the actual pro’s out there, of which there are many.

Let me explain further.

Firstly, photography is my hobby. I love it. I can be found out and about in Edinburgh most days, usually after work looking for something new or trying to improve a shot I’ve already done. It gets me out and about and I get a huge amount personal satisfaction from it.

So what’s the problem? Why wouldn’t you want to earn a living from something you love doing? Well, I’ve been there and done that already. Many years ago, when the internet was but a young upstart I got an interest in web design, it was so long ago I can remember upgrading to IE3. I loved it, every day I taught myself more and more, built websites on subjects I enjoyed and while I never had an ounce of formal training in it, with a graphic design background I thought I was quite good at it.

Well, I must have been as I went for a job as a graphic designer with a tour operator and ended up building their first e-commerce websites. Fast forward 12 years and I’m still building websites for a living, although I’m now a Web Development Manager rather than just a web designer. This hobby became a job and do you know what? I’d rather stab myself in the eye with a rusty fork than sit building a website after I finish work now.

I build, plan, test, manage, design, eat, breath and shit websites it all day, 5 or more days a week, it’s not fun anymore, it’s a job. Once you cross that line and you depend on it for a living, the initial fun and freedom get replaced with restrictions, deadlines and reams and reams of paperwork and regulations to deal with, in short, it’s not fun, it’s serious, it has to be, it’s how I exist and I don’t ever want photography to go that way.

There’s another reason too. When I first got serious about photography I specialised in motor sports, especially stage rallying. I started off with a bridge camera and finally progressed to a Nikon D70. I got quite good at it even though I do say so myself.

At the same time I had a website I had built dedicated to rallying which was doing rather nicely, it was at one point the 5th highest traffic motor sports website in the UK. This gave me a huge audience for my work and I sold a fair amount of photographs. I was published regularly in the motor sport press and had progressed to the point of gaining press access at events and even being the ONLY website accredited for the Rally GB one year.

However, this brought with it a sinister side of the industry.

Now, my images were typically different from what some of the seasoned pro’s used to do. They went out, usually to a slow corner and made sure they got a least one shot of every car, always the same stuff, high shutter speed and boring shots. I tried to be different and it must have worked, I maybe didn’t get usable images of every car on every event but I got 90% of them and they sold well.

Then it started. I found myself banned from some single venue events where the rights of the official photographer were being protected. Even just as a rally fan with no camera I was banned from entering some events. I also found press officers had been spoken to and some events pulled my legitimate press access. It even went as far as threats of physical violence.

While this never stopped me doing what I done, it made life difficult. Now, as a professional web developer I’ve never once, had a go at anyone who builds websites for fun, I’m more often supportive and ready to offer advice. So why did these professional photographers feel the need to remove me from their little clique? Maybe it’s just the motor sports industry but it left a very sour taste for me.

At one time I had fully planned to make the leap to a professional rally photographer but after this experience I slowly drifted away from the sport and so did a lot of talented amateurs like me who were trying to build up to the point of taking the chance of turning pro. Sad but true but the sport was the worse off for it as it ended up dominated by the same few names taking the same crap images event after event.

So, there you go. A bit rambling perhaps but that’s my reasons for never wanting to be anything more than a keen amateur. Photography for me is all about fun and I’d like it to stay that way.