Insta Inspiration [#44]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

Sunrise on the Quiraing [#38]

Sunrise on the Quiraing by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

 

Last night I did something incredibly simple which I have been terrified of doing for four months: I uploaded a photograph I took during our time on Skye.

It was a big deal, to me, for two reasons. First of all, I decided during our Islands & Highlands trip that I wanted to make more of my photography. Uploading to Flickr is a very slow process for me, which is why after a year and a half there are only three albums available. A large part of that is the desire to upload albums, not photographs; to tell a story in a single swoop, rather than drip-feed snippets shot by shot. It’s the main reason I like Flickr and it’s what the service is great at doing, but it means that very little content ever gets uploaded. The plan, then, was to repurpose/divide my Instagram account to utilise it for more than a running log of the beer I’ve tried, as well as reviving my old 500px account. On paper, that sounds pretty easy, but that meant starting new accounts, which has the knock-on effect of forcing me to pick the first photograph that was ever going to be uploaded to them. That was big deal number one, largely because I tend to overthink these things, but mainly because I like my projects to hit the ground running.

The second reason was those great artistic demons: imposter syndrome and rejection. I hadn’t even uploaded a photo but, somehow, doing so on a platform like 500px or Instagram feels much more loaded than Facebook, Flickr or even DeviantArt. Full time photographers, of course, use all of those platforms, but somehow I feel some of them are used to share their work whilst 500px and Instagram are used to curate it. That transforms those websites into portfolios, which sounds serious, even ‘professional’. But I definitely don’t see myself as a ‘professional’ photographer, so what right did I have to use those services? Worse still, what if I used them and was found out. I can deal with insignificance, to be lost beneath the ever heightening waves of content and uploads. My website gets an average of zero hits a week, but that doesn’t make me stop writing; my deviations would frequently go unnoticed, but I still fired up Photoshop. No, the problem is when you are noticed, but no one has anything nice to say. What if it turns out I have no photographic skill at all? What if I’m just copying other photographers*? What if I’m so bad that I get shared for the wrong reasons? Any chance of progressing my hobby, building a following, maybe even making a small amount of money, would all be dead in the water. Better to never try than to fail, right?

Well, obviously those were both terrible reasons for simply doing nothing and the result was just procrastination, plain and simple. At first I was “finding the right photograph”, but if I’m honest I knew which shot I should use within four days of the being in the Hebrides. Waking up on the Quiraing to that sunrise meant I would have to screw up pretty spectacularly to not have a great photograph. So, instead, the focus switched to “I need to set up the accounts” (achieved in June), then to “I need to edit it perfectly” (achieved in August, if not earlier), then to the simple “I need the time”. Ultimately, what it really boiled down to was “I need the courage”.

So last night I exported the file from Lightroom, found my old account logins and uploaded the shot. I never really found that courage, though. The reality is that not uploading was beginning to feel like more of a weight then the fear was. Still, the photograph was out there, despite some mild road-bumps. I have a real love-hate relationship with Instagram and I’m not particularly convinced  that the wait was worthwhile here, but that’s a story for another post. The flipside is that I am incredibly happy with how the photo looks on 500px and the response it has received. My wildest dreams of instant, viral success (hah!) haven’t come true but over 50 people have liked the photo, it momentarily hit the “Popular” page and I’ve even been added to a couple of galleries, within whose company I feel incredibly out-of-my-depth. Instagram hasn’t been as positive, neither has Facebook, but neither have been negative in the slightest. Above all else, though, I’ve finally breached the levy of fear that has been holding me back. It’s a very real weight off my shoulders, ridiculous though that may be, and I feel genuinely elated at the new-found freedom. Hopefully it’s just the first in an on-going series – though when have I said that before…


* By which I don’t mean “inspiration”. Obviously, you photograph a range of mountains the chances are good someone else did so before you, probably even from the exact same spot. I mean more being accused of genuine copyright theft, something which would gut any sense of achievement I’ve felt to date.

Untapped Market [#30]

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time researching, and ultimately buying, a new camera. From an outsider perspective it might seem a little odd, as I already have a very good DSLR that, whilst by no means top of the line, still serves me very well. I love that camera and actively enjoy using it, but it does have a couple of issues.

First and foremost is the size. I can’t take a DSLR to a music concert, or on a night out, or even around to a friend’s house for a dinner party (well, I could take it to all of those occasions, but it would always be impractical or obnoxious or both). They aren’t the most practical cameras and they’re definitely conspicuous, so I also struggle to take photographs of people. That means we return from holidays to various locations with some pretty great shots of our food, the scenery we visited and any wildlife that stuck around long enough, but rarely anything of the culture or people we met. A large part of that is just me and what I feel comfortable with, but there’s also a practical side to having to carry so much gear.

There are a couple of other issues, too. Whilst my DSLR can be great in low light, it will never be able to get truly sharp, fast low light images without investing in some seriously expensive lenses. It’s also not the best camera in the world for shooting video. The 600D can shoot 1080p well enough, but has no image stabilisation and only manages a maximum 50fps. Whilst it can shoot in 24fps, making it perfect for fixed camera filming, as a travel video camera it isn’t ideal.

So that’s why I’ve bought a new camera. In the end I’ve stuck with Canon and plumped for the G7x Mark II. It’s an impressive camera, with some clever features, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it solves several of my issues: it’s small enough to go everywhere, robust enough to travel well, has enough zoom range to be flexible, shoots well in low light and has in-built multi-axis image stabilisation. It also has a couple of other nice video features, such as an internal ND filter and a time lapse mode. So far, I’m very impressed by the image quality and happy enough with the video (though haven’t given this a huge amount of testing). It has a couple of issues, such as lacking a viewfinder (which I’m struggling to get used to), a poorly designed battery release, partial incompatibilty with my Joby tripod and an insanely stiff mode wheel. Still, so far it hasn’t done anything awfully.

And yet, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Not with my camera, not exactly at least, but with the market in general. With the rise and rise of Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram and similar platforms, it baffles me that there remains no decent all rounder compact system for film and photography. Every major player has a couple of models seemingly aimed at that market, but none of them quite manage to tick all the boxes. The Canon lacks a viewfinder (ignoring the G5, which desperately needs an upgrade to match the specs of the G7x) and only has basic video modes; there’s no slow motion filming, no 4K and you still lose have to crop the sensor to achieve 1080p. The main rival from Panasonic, the LX15, appears to be a clear market leader on paper, boasting 4K, 100fps slow motion, time lapse videos, a larger maximum aperture, smaller crop factor and 5-axis stabilisation. Unfortunately, it performs far worse. Despite having a wider max aperture, the low light performance is better on the Canon and it may have a more advanced stabilisation system, but the Canon routinely out performs in tests. Plus, that crop factor is still not insignificant, the zoom range is only just sufficient and there’s no inbuilt ND or ability to add an external one (clever third party solutions aside). Nikon barely factored in my research, despite their Coolpix line being one of the longest running on the market. They achieve some of the features, such as 4K, but rarely manage to get the right sets of specs together to make much sense. Then there are the Sony rx100 series cameras. These have certainly dominated the market for several years, but they each have two major down sides: the price and the overheating. Sure, they can shoot 4K, ultra slow motion and have great glass which works well at low light (though not as well as the Canon), but they also cost twice as much and can only film in those settings for a seriously limited amount of time. These same problems persist even when jumping to 4/3 sensor mirrorless cameras.

So I’m left baffled. I want a good point and shoot that gives me the best specs across the board and is aimed at the Youtube generation. That means full RAW control, in both photo and video modes, so that I can tweak my output as much as needed. That means the basic level of video features that the likes of Casey Niestat and Peter McKinnon have made the entry level for Youtube, such as 100fps @ 1080p, 24fps all of the time and a decent wide angle crop. It means good image stabilisation, the ability to hook up tripods and external mics, a decent battery life and no overheating issues. It means a viewfinder, touchscreen, selfie rotation and NFC connectivity. But, for some reason, that camera doesn’t exist. I guarantee it would sell insanely well, but for some reason no one is making it. Perhaps, as the LX10 has shown, the tech just isn’t quite there yet? Or perhaps the big manufacturers are scared that making a camera too good will mean less people taking up the 4/3, APS-C or full frame alternatives? Whatever the reason, I really hope at some point in the future they manage to move past it and release the camera I want. Just not too soon – I just spent a whole lot of money and something that isn’t perfect. I don’t want to have to do that again any time soon.

Hyperfocal Stone Rows [#18]

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Dartmoor. We ended up visiting Wistman’s Wood for much of the first afternoon, which was so captivating we would have definitely spent the whole day there had the heavens not opened. It was our main reason for going and it definitely did not disappoint; there is genuinely something ethereal about that location!

Before the weather turned, we also managed to get up to a couple of tors and visit some of the wonderful stone rows that Dartmoor is (apparently) famous for. I come from the Lake District, so standing stones and Bronze Age circles are nothing new to me, but I have never seen anything quite like the stone rows of Dartmoor. Combined with their incredibly curated streams, the rows create a fantastical landscape that I really wasn’t expecting. I will definitely be back, during better weather and with more time.

However, the combination of rows and stones also offered a great opportunity for creating leading lines in landscape photographs. I’ll admit to spending far too long waiting for specific lighting conditions, wind directions etc. but I also had a lot of fun. The odd part was, I really struggled to get my shots in focus. To try and foreshorten the shots a little bit, hopefully creating a feeling of being ‘pulled’ into the photo, I was shooting landscapes using zoom lenses, which is not a technique I’ve tried before. Part of the reason I’ve steered clear of this setup is that zoom lenses tend to have tighter depths of field, making it harder to get the full shot in focus. Still, with scenes of prehistoric landmarks marching off to distant, cloud-shaded peat fells, I wanted to capture the sense of vastness that seemed to be all around me.

Logically, I know that the next step is to reduce the size of my aperture. But what I found was, on a windy day without a stable tripod, that at the apertures needed for full focus I was losing clarity. I was also struggling to get the foreground and distant background in focus, no matter the exposure I went for. I happened to notice that focusing on a particular stone, about a third of the way into my composition, was giving me much better results. I’ll admit, at the time I just went with it, though it felt counter intuitive. Having come back and done some research, it turns out my intuitions were just wrong.

Hyperfocal distance. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, doesn’t it? In reality, however, it may finally be the answer to one of my biggest ‘errors’ when taking landscape photographs. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail in this article about the whys and hows of hyperfocal distance (though if that’s what you’re after, there’s a reading list at the end) but just coming to understand it a little better has been enlightening.

In brief, the hyperfocal distance of your lens/camera/setup is the point within your frame that allows for the broadest depth-of-field when in focus. That sounds a little odd, so to understand first realise this: it is impossible to get an image completely focused in one shot. No matter how good the lens, how wide the focal range, how small the aperture you will always have some areas out of focus. But, the level of “out of focus” can be completely imperceptible, so a lot of photographs appear to be in focus. These shots are using their hyperfocal distance; the actual, truly focused region will be at the precise point in the frame that enables 99% of what’s left to be only slightly out of focus. Our brains fill in the rest.

Now, that isn’t something I’ve ever come across before and it’s not something I’ve specifically learned, but it does seem completely intuitive to me. My problem is that the solution I’ve been using for years fails to understand the actual cause of the issue. I think I have always assumed that focus works by focusing from me to wherever I set the focal point. Changing the aperture, I believed, then changed the focal grading from that point outwards, so a large aperture has a steep gradient and clear blurring/bokeh, whilst a small aperture produces a very shallow gradient where only the very closest extremes are noticeably fuzzy. In a way, I was right, but the effect is far more centred on the focal point then I had realised. It’s not a line in the image, in front of which everything is focused, but more a circle or ellipse, around which the focus slowly worsens in a semi-linear manner.

What that means is that focusing on the distant horizon, effectively to infinity, which has always been my go-to technique, will result in an out-of-focus foreground. Seems obvious, right? But it will also reduce focus in the mid-ground. Conversely, focus near to the camera and the horizon becomes blurred. The trick, as I had accidentally stumbled upon, is to focus somewhere in between the two, effectively allowing your focal circle the widest diameter possible.

Fantastic, right? I just need to focus at the mid point of the frame and everything will slot into place! Well… no, not exactly. Or at least, not easily. Drawing a line between yourself and the horizon and estimating the mid-point isn’t going to give you the hyperfocal distance. Why? Well, that’s because the camera doesn’t “see” in three dimensions, instead it effectively “sees” in 2-D. Especially with zoom lenses, that foreshortening of the landscape matters, moving the hyperfocal distance towards you. It seems a good rule of thumb is to focus somewhere around the one third mark, but in reality that will be wrong more than it is right. The internet is full of suggested methods to work out your hyperfocal distance, some easier than others, but as of yet I haven’t actually tried any of them out.

But it won’t be too long until I do. We’re heading to the Outer Hebrides in the next few weeks and you can be sure that I will be taking a lot of landscape shots whilst we’re there. Learning about hyperfocal distance (as well as other factors that can result in reduced clarity) has really lit a spark in my mind. I’m itching to get out and try some of this theory in the field; it’s a nice feeling, one I haven’t had for a while (with photography, at least). Hopefully, next time I report back, it will be to say that I’ve finally answered one of my longest standing conundrums with landscape shots: how to focus, well, everywhere.


Whilst researching the topic I came across a whole lot of really informative and interesting articles around the web. Some are specifically about hyperfocal distance, but some are more focused on lens sharpness or landscape techniques. Hopefully, combined, they will form a good bed of information to start practicing with.

Hyperfocal Distance ExplainedPhotographyLife

How to Choose the Sharpest AperturePhotographyLife

What is the Sharpest Aperture on a LensImprove Photography

Panoramic Photography TutorialPhotographyLife

How to Calculate the Sharpest Aperture of Any LensEnvatotuts

Willow, Wetlands & Nostell Priory [#10]

Nostell Estate & Wetlands Centre

Well, despite my best intentions, it has been almost a year since I last finished and uploaded a Flickr album. There are many, many albums at 90% complete or over, but I tend to find that I lose interest right at the final hurdle. It’s something I’m working on, much like my writing (speaking of, we’re at #10 and counting!), so hopefully there will be plenty more posts like this in 2017.

The first half of the pictures were taken in the grounds of Nostell Priory, a National Trust property located near Doncaster which we dropped into on our way back from visiting friends in Durham. It was a flying visit, really just allowing us to break the trip and stretch our legs, so I’d say Nostell has a lot more to offer than what we experienced, but what we did see was rather charming. I’m not sure if it was the Spring flowers coming into bloom or the rarely nice weather, but the grounds had a slightly enchanted feel to them. The various follies, Medieval quarry and distinctly Victorian concept of the Menagerie Garden combined to imbue certain areas with a quality reminiscent of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. It felt like the house and grounds had been built on top of a more fantastical, ancient and much more secretive estate. I imagine it would have been an amazing place to grow up in and would definitely recommend it, whether for a full day out with the whole family or just an idle wander.

The second half of the album is comprised of a small number of shots from another brief outing, this time to the Willows & Wetlands Visitor Centre. Run by Coates English Willow, the centre is really just a shop and small (but very pleasant) café that allows access down onto a part of the Somerset Levels. There is a small museum and plenty of information displays, but we didn’t spend too much time with either. Instead, we spent our time exploring the various trails through the surrounding farmland, woods and down onto the flats themselves. Various willow animals have been scattered amongst the paths, all of which were wonderfully well set (I was particularly fond of the swooping eagle). Again, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time at the centre but I would definitely say it was worthwhile. Seeing an area of Somerset which still actively pumps the fens and plants up the willow beds was really interesting and, in its own way, quite beautiful.