Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Hands on with the 5D mark II

Christmas came a couple of days early when I took delivery of two new 5D mark II bodies on 22nd December. Since then I've had the chance to play around and get familiar with them in advance of my first assignments of 2009, and I thought I would share my initial impressions of this highly anticipated camera.

The Great:


Size
- first and foremost, compared the the 1DsII bodies that I have been lugging around the world for the last 4 years, the 5DII is wonderfully small and light. It makes taking the camera out and about fun again, without feeling like I have a brick over my shoulder. With a 50 f/1.4 or 28 f/1.8 on the front it's a wonderfully compact package. Being even smaller than my old film-based EOS 3, this is now the smallest SLR I've owned since 2001. Nice.

Screen
- The 3-inch 900,000 pixel screen is large, bright and crisp; none of which apply to the 1DsII. It's large and clear enough to be able to accurately test lighting, and not miss stray reflections and the like. It's also possible to set the camera not to rotate vertical format images so they use the whole screen, which is nice.

Auto ISO
- setting the ISO to "A" gives the camera free reign to set the ISO anywhere between 100 and 3200 to give you a handholdable shutter speed. This is great, as I can select the aperture or shutter speed I want and have the camera choose the lowest possible ISO to get a correct exposure. I only wish I could chose the range it selected from, as ideally I would have it max out at 1600, which is the highest really usable ISO on this camera.

Live View
- for shooting manual focus on a tripod, live view is great. You can zoom the image on the screen to 5x or 10x magnification to ensure you have focus exactly where you want it. Great when using the MF-only tilt/shift lenses or using a macro for food closeups. There are probably additional applications of this mode - I'll need to do some experimenting.

Sensor cleaning
- Yes! Does exactly what is says on the tin. It doesn't totally remove the need for the odd clean, but does make the need for them much less frequent.


The good, but not quite great:


Autofocus
- the AF seems to do a decent enough job, even in quite low light when using a fast lens. But compared to the 1DsII the focus points feel a little cramped together in the middle, especially on the diagonals. It is very quick and easy to scroll between them though, more so than on the 1Ds. I haven't used AI Servo mode yet for focusing on moving objects, so will reserve my judgment on that yet.

Build quality
- the camera certainly feels solid and is nicely made. And the manual says the weather sealing is almost equivalent to the EOS 1n film cameras from the late '90s. However, in the hand, while perfectly acceptable, it doesn't have the same rock-solid, bullet-proof feel of the 1Ds. It looks like I may need to reign in the rather cavalier attitude I took to the 1Ds when shooting in rain, snow and the like.


The slightly irritating:


Handhold-ability
- Maybe it's because of the lighter body, but I'm finding I can't handhold the camera at the same shutter speeds as I can the 1Ds. With a 50mm lens I find too many of my shots at 1/50th show some camera shake, when this speed is no problem on the 1Ds. I may have just been getting sloppy with the heavy 1Ds, where mirror slap is less of an issue because of the weight and larger grip. Time to refine my hand holding technique again (and wish for the in-body image stabilisation of the Sony A900!).

Playback
- It's not possible to have the post-shot image review display a different format when you hit the playback button. This might sound picky, but on my 1Ds I'm used to having the initial post-shot review show the image and the histogram, but when I playback the images to show the image only. On the 5DII I have to hit the info button to switch between them all the time.


Overall

Despite these niggles, I have to say that so far I'm very happy with the new cameras, and have no reason to hesitate in putting my old 1DsII bodies on the market. A quick look at 2nd hand prices suggest the swap from a 1DsII to 5DII setup should only leave me less than £1000 out of pocket, making it well worth it in my opinion.


Finally - a quick thought on IQ

You might be surprised I've not mentioned image quality at all. The truth is I wasn't really buying the new cameras for improvements in IQ. The images I could get out of the 1DsII were already large enough to print double-page without enlargement (approx A3 - the largest my pictures typically get used), and noise was excellent up to ISO 400 and very good even at ISO 800 if you nailed the exposure correctly. See my post "
Just how much is enough?" for my thougts on the megapixel wars.

The new cameras improve on this slightly, but not by a huge margin. Image size is up by 4.5MP, but this only translates to an image 500 pixels wider. This gives a little extra room for cropping, but is not a vast improvement. On A3 prints you can't see the diffrerence in resolving power. As for noise, I'm not sure the 5DII is really much better than the 1DsII, which is a little surprising given the 4 year gap in sensor technology between the two. I'll be doing a few more tests over the next week or so to be sure I'm seeing this accurately, but that is how I read it at the moment.


The truth is that image quality from the better digital SLRs surpassed 35mm film at least 5 years ago, and any modern high-end DLSR can produce images worthy of the most demanding magazine. It's reached the point where handling and other design factors are more important to me now.



That's all for 2008 - happy new year and see you all in '09!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Food for thought - or thoughts on Food

A large part of what makes travelling fun is the different food you encounter along the way. So it should not be too surprising to find out that most travel assignments will require you to shoot food at some point.

Now, there are many photographers who shoot nothing but food, and have a vast experience of tips and tricks to make food look scrumptious. However, they are usually working from a studio with lots of space and lighting options, and a food stylist helping them to make every dish look gorgeous.

As a travel photographer working with lightweight gear on location, you cannot usually hope to produce these kinds of images. Often there is very little time, and space is tight as you are shooting it right off the restaurant table.

If at all possible I try to get access to the restaurant before they open for lunch or dinner, meaning I get a bit more time and space to make the shots, but other times you will be there during busy meal times, relegated to a table at the back so as not to disturb the customers. Getting appetising food shots in these conditions is not always easy!




Style If you flick through a recent cookery book or food magazine, you will see that the current fashion in food photography is for overhead shots with very soft lighting. While these look great, they are often not a realistic proposition on location.

When working off a restaurant table there is usually not much space or time to get the shot. The low-angle, shallow depth-of-field shots that were all the rage 3-4 years ago are actually much easier to shoot under these conditions.
Get low down, use a macro lens to allow you to focus close, and light from the side or from behind to bring out the texture of the food. Depth of field is critical, I find shooting at f/4 on a 100mm lens about right - because the distance is so short, depth of field is very shallow. Use a wider aperture and so little is in focus that it is hard to tell what it is!

Even through the shutter speed may be high due to the wide aperture, work from a tripod as framing and focus are critical. Try and vary your shots a little between very tight close in shots, and some from further back which include some of the table setting. Placing a fork or other piece of cutlery on the plate can help provide context and something to lead your eye into the frame.



Lighting The big challenge when shooting quickly like this is lighting. If I'm lucky enough to be shooting during the day and there is a large window nearby, then I will use natural light. Indirect sunlight gives a lovely soft yet directional light that is very flattering to food and makes everything look delicious.

However often you don't get these conditions, especially if shooting in Europe during winter when it might well be dark by 5pm. When that happens then you need to provide your own sunshine, and break out your flashguns.


Given the space and time constraints of shooting in a restaurant, and the limited amount of gear you can take on an editorial travel assignment, I only use one light on a lightweight Manfrotto stand with a shoot through umbrella. This is placed to the side or even a bit behind, with a small reflector on the opposite side for fill. This produces similar soft yet directional light which, while not as beautiful as window light, is the best you are likely to get when working quickly on location.

Normally you will want to keep your shutter speed close to your synch speed (e.g. 1/250th) to prevent any ambient light influencing the exposure. The colour temperature of the restaurant lighting will be different to that of your flash, and nothing makes food lose more unappetising than mixed lighting where the highlights are lit by neutral flash while the shadows are lit by ambient that looks orange or green.

Yes, you can gel your flash to try and match the ambient light, but in practice it is hard to do this exactly, and while you would get away with it for a typical interior shot, even the slightest difference makes food look dreadful.


Mixing it Up The advantage of working this way is that it is very predictable - you know you will be able to get an acceptable shot. The disadvantage is that all your shots begin to look the same!

So always be on the lookout for food shots that provide something a bit different - ingredients, people making or holding things, whenever you get the chance. Although they are more unpredictable they will often end up your favourites.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Portfolios revisited

Following on from my post a couple of weeks ago, I went ahead and ordered another portfolio from Plastic Sandwich. It took about a week and arrived here by courier on Monday. Total cost was £315 ex. VAT.

For those of you just getting into professional photography, that might seem like a large outlay, but if you needed more evidence to convince you to spend the money on a decent portfolio then here it is. Jen Jenkins, founder of creative reps Giant Artists, is interviewed on Too Much Chocolate (great resource for emerging photographers by the way). Talking about portfolios she says:

"The portfolio tells me a lot about the photographer and how ready they are for representation. I’ve seen a lot of top-notch websites and then really poorly compiled portfolios. The artist portfolio is just as important, and should be professional and well-edited. The prints should be of a consistent and high quality..... It takes quite an upfront investment to pull together your promotional materials, which is so so important in competing in this industry."

Read the full interview here (courtesy of A Photo Editor)

Thursday, 11 December 2008

On Assignment - Dresden

I recently shot an assignment in Dresden for Food and Travel Magazine, the same people I was out in Sri Lanka with earlier this year. You can read about some experiences from that shoot here. This one was rather different however.

Firstly, it was focused on a single city, whereas for Sri Lanka we covered half the country. Being based in a single hotel for the entire 5 days meant it was easy to take a bit more gear than usual, meaning a couple of extra lights and lenses over what I would take on a job with a more demanding travel schedule.

Whereas in Sri Lanka we would spend 6 hours in the car every day, in Dresden many of the locations I needed to photograph were within walking distance of the hotel, which was wonderful.

There were only two problems with this situation. Firstly the fact that it rained heavily for 3 out of the 5 shooting days. And secondly the cobblestones. I had taken my gear in my LowePro Pro Roller, and wheelie-bags and cobblestones don't mix very well!


The second big difference to Sri Lanka was that Dresden, being a European destination, it was inherently familiar. Although I hadn't been there before, the fact that the architecture and culture are not so different from home makes it a bit more challenging to find inspiting points of view for photographs. In more exotic locations I find subjects seem to jump out at me from every corner.
I found it necesarry to re-tune my visual eye a little to find the subjects and compositions that stood out.

Obviously a big part of a Food and Travel assignment is the food, and I'll talk a bit about photographing food while travelling in another post.

The issue had just hit the news stands so keep an eye out for it view it online
here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Portfolios

Well, my latest email promo went well, with a number of requests to send in my portfolio.
Which is great.

The only problem is that I have one portfolio - which means I can't send it out to more than one agency at a time! So it's time to get another one, or even another two.


So here are some things to think about when getting a portfolio.

1) Get ready to spend some cash - you'll probably be up for about £300 to get a decent portfolio.

£300! I hear you cry. Yes, while there are binders available from stationers or art supply stores, these are not what art directors and photo editors are expecting to see. Custom made portfolios are a lot more expensive, but they create a professional impression and will last for a long time.
You'd happily spend that kind of money on a new piece of photo gear, so why waste it all by presenting your prints in something that looks cheap?

2) Check how easy it is to change pages. You will constantly be tinkering with your portfolio; adding new material and changing the running order. So you want something where you can easily change the pages. Most portfolios are of the "screw and post" style, that allows you to swap out hole-punched pages which when closed look professionally bound. You also want pages that won't get damaged - you are hoping lots of people will be flipping through the pages after all.

Acetate sleeves are the norm, although some people prefer to put in naked prints, as they are more tactile and less reflective under standard office lighting. The disadvantage of this is the prints get easily damaged, and having double sided pages is a great deal of hassle requiring double sided printing, and can prove to be a nightmare when you want to change the running order or add new material. I use acetate.


3) You will need to think about what size you want. I highly recommend going with A3 or A4 pages. Having pages that are standard sizes for inkjet printers is a huge time and cost saver. I print all my portfolio on my HP Designjet 90. Modern high-end inkjets from Epson, HP or Canon are perfectly capable of producing outstanding prints as good as anything from a professional lab. In fact, your local pro lab will almost be certainly using one of these printers in any case. This way you can update your portfolio and tweak the prints quickly easily and (relatively) cheaply.

Also, standard A3 and A4 prints have almost exactly the same proportoins as a 35mm frame, so you won't need to crop images to fit the pages, which you will have to with 11" x 14", another popular size.

4) Finally you are going to want a courier bag to go with it to get your shiny new portfolio from one place to another without it getting damaged. Standard black ones are available from art supply stores from about £30, but more interesting looking ones with colours and can be had for about £80. House of Portfolios have a great selection.

My current portfolio is made by Plastic Sandwich and is very similar to the one in the picture. They make beautiful one piece leather books, with interchangeable acetate pages and your name embossed on the front. The only fault with it is there is no place to put business cards or a leave-behind promo card inside.

Follow up: Simon Stanmore has a very useful blog-post detailing the options available for professional portfolios in London here. Well worth a read.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Marketing travel photography

Well, it's time to send out my final email promo of the year, so I thought I would share a few tips on marketing yourself as a photographer. With the economy death-spiralling out of control, the temptation has to be to cut back on spending. But for those of you who have been putting a bit of money away during the good times (as we all should do), then now is the time to make your marketing count as your competition cuts back their marketing budget. Healthy companies can grow their market-share in a downturn as their rivals struggle, and photography is no different.

A good primer and list of how to approach clients for travel photography has just been posted by Boston-based photographer Lou Jones, so if you're new to all of this then start here.

If that makes sense, but you're hankering after something with a bit more detail, I can highly recommend the website and services of Leslie Burns Dell Aqua. Leslie is a California-based photography consultant, and specialises in helping photographers setup and fine-tune their marketing programmes.

I have attended a couple of her lectures and had a private consultation with her and her advice is excellent. Her blog is well worth subscribing to, and every month she produces a thought-provoking podcast and a free manual in PDF. Finally, if you want the whole thing I suggest you buy her book, available for print or download on Lulu. Reading this you will learn how to set your marketing objectives, idfentify your target clients and deploy a range of marketing tools to get your work in front of them - highly recommended.

Another very useful book, only available in dead-tree format, is Richard Weisgrau's The Real Business of Photography. The accounting chapter is somewhat US-focused, but the sections on marketing and negotiating are excellent and applicable in any market.

Finally, if you're wondering how to contact clients, then take a look at Bikini Lists (if you're Europe-based) and Agency Access (if you're North America-based). Both componaies provide lists of photo buyers accross a range of industries. Neither are a subsitute for doing your own research, but they are a useful supplement to it. My very first mailing with bikini lists paid for the full year's subscription fees with new work.

So, no excuses now for not knowing how to go about marketing yourself...

Monday, 29 September 2008

Websites

As a photographer, your website is your greatest marketing tool. For most clients it is the first impression of you they will get.

Whether you have phoned an art director to drop off your book, or emailed an editor requesting an appointment, the first thing they will do is ask to see your website. They’re not going to waste their time seeing you work in person unless they like your site,. So you want to have something that looks slick and professional, and presents your images in the best possible way.

Robert Benson has provided a handy summary of the photographer-focused website packages on the market at the moment. I agree with his assessment of Fluid Galleries – the package we both use. It works pretty well, but I would like to have bigger images and be able to bulk-upload images, rather than one at a time as I am forced to do now.

Well worth a read if you are in the market for a new site.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Laforet releases 5DII video

Ok, Vincent Laforet has finally convinced Canon to release the video he shot with the new 5D mark II. I have to say that for $5,000 and less than 48 hours from conception to editing, it is pretty impressive stuff. The artistic and technical quality is superb, and I’m sure Laforet will get offers to shoot video for clients because of it. So for him this will have been $5k well spent in my opinion.

See the full video here. See behind the scenes here

The popularity of the video has convinced Smugmug, who are hosting the film for him, to set up a $25,000 funding for him to pull together a team to produce his next film...so he’s already on his way.

The main lesson to take away here: if you make great work and get it front of the right people then good things will happen. But you need to do both – there is no point shooting beautiful pictures is nobody who can hire you ever sees them. Likewise, when you do meet with a potential client, only ever show them your very best work.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The 5D Mark II is here at last

So after months of speculation, including some of my own, the most highly anticipated Photokina announcement came out on Wednesday. The Canon 5D Mark II is here, boasting a 1Ds Mark III equalling 21 megapixels in what Canon are calling their most advanced sensor yet, and shooting up to 30 minutes of HD video to boot.

If I had phoned up Canon and asked for my perfect camera, this is pretty much it. The killer improvements for me are the combination of high resolution in a small, weather sealed body.

Travelling with 2 1Ds mark II bodies is a hassle, and their height means they don’t fit easily into some camera bags, including my Lowepro Pro Roller. A pair of 5D Mark IIs will be significantly lighter and less bulky, along with smaller batteries and chargers.


I haven’t been using the current 5D because I was not prepared to give up the higher resolution and weather sealing of the 1Ds. Now I don’t have to. It will also be nice to have the additional features of the latest generation of cameras such as 14-bit colour, 3-inch screen and automated sensor cleaning.

A friend of mine was surprised it only had 9 AF points. But that seems plenty to me. My 1Ds has 45 focus points, but I use a custom function to reduce it to 11 as otherwise it takes too long to select the one I want.

And finally there is the ability to shoot video. I’ve never shot video in my life before, and I’m sure I won’t be using it professionally – at least in the medium term. But I’ll certainly play around with it and it may well prove to be ideal for grabbing some behind the scenes footage from my shoots to post on the blog.

So it will finally be time to say goodbye to the trusty 1Ds IIs.

Monday, 15 September 2008

New Zeiss primes for Canon

It is a fact these days that camera manufacturers are obsessed with zooms. So I am delighted to hear Zeiss has announced it is releasing prime lenses in Canon EF mount. The advantages of primes are numerous, but mainly they are smaller and faster than a zoom that covers the same focal length, and more resistant to flare. It also used to be the case that they were sharper than zooms, but these days I think high-end professional zooms are just as good. I started out with primes and still have a soft spot for them now.

When I first started to take photography seriously I spent 6 months travelling around South America with nothing but a Nikon FM3a, 24mm, 45mm and 105mm lenses and 150 rolls of film. The whole package was so small and light that I took it everywhere with me. The amount of gear I would take on a similar trip today frightens me.


Looking to recreate that "fast and light" feel today there are not so many choices for a Canon shooter. I'd love a nice 35mm f/2 as a walkaround lens, but the Canon version is one of the original late 80s designs with a buzzing micro motor and plasticy feel. Sure you can get the f/1.4L version, but it is enormous and costs £900. The same with the 24mm, and the 50mm.

So it's great to see the new Zeiss ZE lenses coming on the market. Can't wait until they release a 35/f2....

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The death of the photographic print?

There is an interesting article recently posted by Bernard Languillier on Luminous Landscape, suggesting that in 10 years time it may be common to buy fine art photographs on electronic display screens rather than as prints.

I can see the logic of his thinking. As screen technology continues to improve and drop in price, will there not come a time in the not too distant future when we will prefer to hang photos electronically on our walls, rather than in a traditional framed print?

Already high end LCD monitors have wider colour gamut and higher dMax than paper, and arguably are superior in displaying images. Over time these will only become cheaper and of even higher quality. Their cost as part of purchasing a fine art ‘print’ will not be much different from getting a custom print frame made today.

Bernard goes on to ask how will fine art images be sold, delivered and installed on the screens, and how will copy protection be managed.

But for me one of the more interesting questions is for me is how consumers will perceive the value of art delivered in this way. We have already seen the price of stock and assignment imagery fall as digital photography has made production and distribution of photography cheaper and more accessible. And younger people, who will be the fine art buyers of tomorrow, have very relaxed views about copyright and intellectual property – with piracy of music and software seen as normal.

There will always be room for fine art photographers using traditional techniques. Many already emphasise the “craft” aspect of their photography and believe the method by which they produce their art (often involving large format film and hours in the darkroom) contribute to its value. And certain groups of consumers will continue to value that too. But for the rest of us there might be some interesting times ahead.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Fast flash

One of the challenges when using flash with action shots is coping with the slow recycle times. Hotshoe flashguns such as the Canon 580 or Nikon SB800 take 3 or 4 seconds to recharge after a full power flash, by which time your subject is long gone.

Even with high powered battery flash such as the Profoto 7b you are only going to get a shot every second or so. This essentially means you only get one chance to get a shot before you have to send your model back for another go.


There are normally only two ways around this problem. If you’ve got the budget, use HMI lights. These are continuous lights (i.e. they don’t flash, so you can shoot as fast as you like) and they are also daylight balanced (unlike much cheaper tungsten ‘redheads’), so they are good for use outdoors. They’re what the movie industry uses, and if they can shoot at 25fps then its good enough for us at 8fps. The only problem is that they’re big, heavy, expensive and need to be run off a generator.

The poor man’s answer is to use reflectors. The recycle time on a reflector is pretty fast (humour alert), but they’re only good for fill light. If you need controllable light as your main light then you’re out of luck.

So I found it pretty interesting when the guys over at Competitive Image recently posted about how they used regular Canon and Nikon hotshoe flashes to shoot fast action. They managed to grab runners crossing the finish line at the end of a 1 mile race while still sprinting at full tilt. By running 4 flashes powered down to 1/16th power they were able to shoot at 7fps and still have the flashes recycle in time.

While there are some limitations to this technique (e.g. 1/16th power means you have to have quite low levels of ambient light to allow the flash exposure to dominate), it’s something I’m looking forwards to trying myself. Read all about it, and the problems they had to solve, here.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Just how much is enough?

Last week the medium format world was buzzing with news of the new Hasselblad 50 megapixel digital back. Exclusive to the H3D camera, it took the megapixel wars to new heights. And just as we were getting our heads around 50 MP, Phase One have just announced their new full-frame 60 megapixel back. So with pixel counts rising into the stratosphere, just how much is enough?

For the last 3 years I have been shooting with the Canon 1Ds MkII. When it came out in late 2004 it’s 16.7MP were class leading in 35mm cameras, and even medium format backs were only offering 22MP, not a huge leap forward in resolution. At the time 16.7MP seemed more than enough for any editorial and most commercial applications. Able to print a DPS (double page spread) without upsizing, for most shooters there was little need for anything more.

Even now, nearly four years later, the only 35mm camera offering more resolution than the 1Ds MkII is it’s younger brother, the 21.1 megapixel 1Ds MkIII. While there are some additional improvements in the MkIII, the extra 4.4MP certainly wasn’t enough to make me shell out £5k on a new body.

But by now 35mm was nipping at the heals of the twice-as-expensive medium format backs, so in 2006 we saw the introduction of 39MP backs from Hasselblad and Phase One. Knocking on the door of 5”x4” film quality, there was no job too big for these cameras and they were rapidly adopted for even the most demanding commercial shoots.

So we might have expected the megapixel wars to slow down as camera companies began to focus on other aspects of image quality such as dynamic range or colour fidelity. Instead we have just had announced these new 50 and 60MP backs.

So just who are these incredibly high resolving backs for? For sure, the true full frame aspect of the Phase One will appeal to many with legacy lenses or those needing to shoot super wide. But I can’t help feeling the increase in resolution is largely pointless. There will always be a group of photographers for whom the price will be worth it to help differentiate themselves from the pack. And I suppose these are the target market for the new MF backs – the few hundred or so photographers who are at the very top of the commercial photography pile who need to show that they are one step ahead of everyone else, even though most of that additional resolution will never be needed.

As for me, I’ll continue to stick with my ‘paltry’ 16.7MP cameras for now. Maybe some future 1Ds Mk IV will be enough to entice me to upgrade. But it won’t be resolution that makes me jump for the new camera – I’ll need to see improvements in other aspects of image quality, ergonomics and other features before I put down my trusty MkIIs.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Backlighting

A recent comment on my sports shooter post asked why so many of my pictures are back-lit by late afternoon sun. So I thought I would explain why and how I shoot backlit photos.

The Why?
Look around you. Contemporary lifestyle photography makes use of backlighting extensively. It creates a warm and soft feel to a photo that coveys wellbeing and naturalness, and that’s something that a lot of people want to associate their brand with these days. Take a look at photos used in advertising or the latest stock photo additions to Getty and Corbis, and you’ll see this look popping up all over the place.

The How?

OK, we’re going to shoot a lot of pictures. The key to making backlighting generate that lovely soft glow is to keep the sun either in the frame or just outside it. So here we go:

1. Wait for the light. The sun is one hell of a strong light source, so you need to wait for it to drop close to the horizon. All that haze on the horizon is your friend, and as the sun drops down the contrast will drop towards something that your camera has a chance of handling. Not only that, but with the sun low down you get more natural framing options for your subject while still keeping the sun in, or just out, of the frame.


2. Switch your camera to manual. If you shoot on Aperture Priority, your exposures will vary wildly depending on exactly where the sun ends up in the frame.

3. Get your exposure right. This is where digital offers such an advantage over film. Choose the aperture you need for whatever depth of field you require. Then shoot a bunch of frames at different shutter speeds until you get the exposure you want. It can be hard to judge highlights from the picture on the back, so be sure to be looking at the histogram. It’s OK if the sun blows out – it’s going to be so much brighter than anything else. Don’t believe that you have to hold ALL the highlights in the image, or else the shadows will be so dark you’ll either lose them completely or create too much noise when you have to lift them in Photoshop. You’re looking for a nice glow or lens flare, but nothing too nuclear.

4. Use fill light to control the contrast. Shooting into the sun can mean that your shadows have gone to black by the time you’ve controlled the exposure in the sky. Fill flash usually causes you to lose that natural look, so you’re best off getting an assistant or two to bounce fill light back into the scene using white reflectors. Plus the recycle time on a reflector is hard to beat.

5. Get your model to go through their actions – see my ‘Looking natural’ post. Find a framing that catches your model as they pass across the sun, or where the glow falls on them in a particular way. Stick the camera on motor drive and just repeat and repeat until you get a natural looking moment with the glow or flare that you’re looking for. Chimp that screen on the back to be sure you caught the moment. In fact, I find it hard to tell whether I got the shot using the back screen sometimes, so I usually keep going until I think I’ve got 2 keepers. By the time I check them on the computer I’ll usually find that one of them has some flaws that I didn’t spot at the time. 6. You now need to get the look you want in Lightroom. Usually this just means controlling the highlights and pumping a bit of light into the shadows, and you’re done.

As it happens, the nice guys over at PhotoShelter published a guide to stock photography a couple of weeks ago, and one of the pages was all about creating backlit lifestyle images. Start reading half way down. Then get out there and shoot.

Thoughts on the new Nikon D700

In case you’ve been on Mars for the last 24 hours, Nikon have just announced their 2nd full frame (or FX in Nikon-speak) camera, the D700. As with all things Nikon, Thom Hogan has already posted some interesting thoughts.

It’s basically a D3 sensor packed into a D300 body, so it loses the built in battery grip, 100% viewfinder and 9fps of the D3 but gains the compact dimensions (for a pro camera) and built in flash of the D300.

That Nikon would use the highly regarded 12MP D3 sensor in a lower end body was widely expected, and I’m sure the new model will sell like hot cakes to pros and high-end amateurs alike. In fact, I'm also sure there are many people who have bought a D3 for whom a D700 is actually preferable.

Since inventing the category in 2005 years Canon has had the only offering in the ‘affordable’ full frame market with the 5D, so it is good to see some competition at last. In fact, at over 2.5 years old the 5D is now the oldest camera in Canon’s line-up (with no competition until now it's eay to see why!), and a replacement is expected to be announced soon – August has been a preferred month for their previous camera launches, so we may not have long to wait. As a Canon shooter I’m looking forwards to this one. I’d like to see something along the lines of the leaked German Canon website I posted a couple of months ago – 16MP, 5fps, weather sealed body. I’d happily trade in my 1Ds IIs for a couple of these, as I don’t really need the 21MP of the 1Ds III and would gladly pocket the savings in weight and bulk.

But if the new body isn’t weather sealed then at least one 1Ds II will remain in my arsenal – too much of my shooting takes place in conditions that are hostile to electronics, be it snow, rain, cold, heat or humidity, and while the 1Ds just shrugs it off I wouldn’t trust a non-sealed body to last long with that sort of punishment.

And most of us are expecting at two more full frame cameras, if not at Photokina in October then before. The new Sony A900 with its 24MP full frame chip has already been announced but we have yet to see a production model, and the hotly anticipated Nikon D3x which it is assumed will use the same chip.

It’s all good news for us photographers – more high end cameras from more manufacturers means more competition, delivering better products for us to chose from. Bring it on…

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Great new photo blog

The photo editor of the Boston Globe, Alan Taylor, started a wonderful new photo blog at the beginning of the month. Contemporary news stories shown via some of the best photography coming through the wires from Reuters, AP, Getty etc.

One of the most striking set if pictures are from the eruption of the Chaiten volcano in Chile.

Well worth adding to your RSS reader for a (near) daily dose of great photos.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Managing your images on the road

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when I say that travel photography involves a lot of travel. An assignment earlier this year had me on the road for 4 weeks. One of the challenges this creates is how to manage all your images while on the road.

In the old days for a month of shooting I would pack around 150 rolls of film in a bag, and just shoot. Once exposed, the rolls went in another bag. I flew home and sent the film to the lab. Job done.

But with digital things are different. Sure, I no longer have to worry about storing film in hot places but now I have to think about hard drive space, backups and power. Shooting digital on a 4 week assignment I might end up with 10,000 frames, which on a Canon 1DsII is about 150GB of images. I can pretty much guarantee that’s more than will fit on a typical laptop. So what to do?

Enter the NEXTO

My solution is a pair of NEXTO CF ULTRA portable hard drives. These are battery powered 2.5” hard drives in a compact enclosure, powered by an internal Lithium-Ion battery, with Firewire 400 and USB 2 connectivity and a CF card slot in the top.

There are a whole bunch of similar devices on the market, from the Epson P5000 to the JigaView Pro. So why do I like the NEXTO? Firstly, it copies images extremely quickly, downloading a 2GB card in just over a minute. This is more than twice as fast as many rivals. And secondly it doesn’t have a big colour screen. This means the battery is very long lasting, and since I usually travel with a laptop the big screen would be superfluous anyway.

And what about those other things I mentioned; backups, hard drive space and power?

Backups

I carry 2 NEXTOs, and at the end of each day copy all my CF cards to both drives. That way I have 2 copies of every image, in case one hard drive fails. While I’m traveling I can also keep the two drives in separate bags, so the chances of losing or breaking both are pretty slim. I usually run the ‘quick checksum’ that verifies the first 4k of each file on the disk matches that on the card. There is a full checksum but it takes quite a long time, so I’m hapy to use the quick version.

Hard drive space

Each NEXTO contains a 160GB drive. So even on a long shoot I’ve got enough space for all my images. The 160GB drive on my MacBook Pro typically only has about 30GB of free space, so relying on a laptop alone is really not practical. Additionally it doesn’t give you a second drive for a backup.

Power

The NEXTO is powered by an internal battery. Because it has very fast copy speeds and only a small LCD status screen, Once charged up the battery is good for about 30GB of downloads before you need to recharge. If you need more you can get a small external battery that lets you go for 80GB of downloads without charging. This came in handy when I went to Everest Base Camp and was away from power for 16 days.

Editing

If I’m traveling light, such as the Everest Base Camp trip or when hiking Tasmania’s Overland Track last year, then I just travel with the two NEXTOs. Between them they weigh about 0.75kg and take up a lot less space than 150 rolls of film.

If I’m able to carry a laptop then I can edit each day’s take while I’m on the road. I plug in one of the NEXTOs into my MacBook using the Firewire 400 socket and import the previews into Lightroom, leaving the original RAW files on the NEXTO. I can then select and rank and adjust the images without having to squeeze them onto my cramped laptop drive. Once I get back home I then back up all the images onto my main storage drives and most of my editing work is already done.

NB – I’m in no way affiliated with NEXTO – just a happy customer.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Is travel stock photography dead?

A lot of people starting out in travel photography think they will be able to make a living from selling stock. They aim to travel the world shooting everything they see, upload it all to Alamy and carry on shooting.

 

Well I hate to be the one to shatter your dreams but think again. Yes, millions of pounds a year are made from selling travel stock images, but they won’t be yours.

 

Why? Because the market is already saturated. Do a search for pretty much any travel destination on Getty or Corbis (who distribute 50% of the world’s stick between them) and you will get thousands of hits. And most of the shots will be beautifully executed, high quality images.

 

But when you submit your collection of high quality travel shots they won’t be interested. You just did the search right? So you know why - their collections are already stuffed with similar images, and they’re no longer taking on contributors for traditional travel imagery. That leaves you with the smaller players who, while they are viable businesses, will never sell enough of your images for it to be a viable income to you.

 

So how can you make any money from shooting travel stock? Well, the stuff that Getty and Corbis will still take on, and that sells for more money, are highly produced ‘travel lifestyle’ images. You know the kind of thing – you’ve seen them in adverts, in brochures or on billboards for resorts or tourist boards – fun, active or romantic images of beautiful people enjoying a stunning location. But these images are expensive to produce – they have high production values and use models, exclusive locations etc.

 

So what’s the solution? How can you shoot highly produced lifestyle travel imagery without breaking the bank? Simple: shoot for high end magazine and commercial clients, make sure you retain rights to your images and then use the outtakes as stock.

 

Stock travel photography isn’t dead. But to make any money out of it you’re still going to have to focus on high-end commercial and editorial clients. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Getting started

People often get in touch with me asking how to get started in travel photography. So here is some of the advice I usually give people.


Are you good enough?

The first thing is to gauge whether you are good enough to start making money from photography full time. Almost anyone can get a picture published these days, because there are a large number of publications that accept mediocre photography. But they are also the ones that pay the least. If you want to know if you are actually going to be able to make a sustainable living from travel photography you need to browse the high end magazines such as Conde Nast Traveller, National Geographic Traveller, Islands, and Travel + Leisure. Look at the features they use to illustrate the articles, especially when they feature a place you have photographed yourself. Then look at the adverts, especially those promoting hotels and resorts. Then be brutally honest with yourself - if you genuinely think you could shoot photos of the same quality and subject matter you’re you are ready. If not, it’s time to get practising.


OK, I think I’m good enough – what now?

If you’re convinced you are ready to take the plunge, then you need to get ready to show your work as a professional.


Firstly, get a decent website. Unless you are showing your work on a slick, well-designed site, no art buyer will give it a second look. Remember that you are a photographer, not a designer, so don’t think you can build a good site yourself. The easiest way to get a slick looking online presence is to use one of the packages designed specifically for photographers. Livebooks is very popular, and has packages starting from $800 going up to $3200. There is also Fluid Galleries which at $400 is more affordable when starting out. Both allow you to customize the look and feel of your site while allowing you to easily change the content as your portfolio grows, and have a slick professional look.


Secondly, get a proper portfolio. When I started out I had my photographs in an A4 plastic binder that looked simply terrible. Now I use A3 leather portfolios by Plastic Sandwich. They’re not cheap, but they look fantastic and are very durable. You should aim to have about 25-30 prints, showing only your very best work and only the kind of photography that you want to shoot. If you have your own high quality inkjet printer then by all means print your own – I do on an HP Designjet 90. This has the advantage of allowing you to reprint an image until you get is exactly the way you want. Be sure to get a custom printer profile made up if you are using off-brand paper. Alternatively, take your files to a high-end lab and get them to print them for you.


Getting your work out there

Once you’ve got your website and printed portfolio together you need to start getting your work in front of people who commission photography. Start out with all the publications you would like to work for. Look at the masthead to find out who the Art Director or Photo Editor is. Add them to your list. Next, find out who are the Art Buyers at the advertising agencies. Add them to your list. If you need help, subscribe to one of the list services such as Bikini Lists (UK) or Agency Access (US).


Every couple of months send out an email with an image and a link to your site. Pick a few of your target clients and follow them up with a phone call. Those that have seen your site and like what they see will call you in to see your book. Here is when your printed portfolio will pay off. A lot of stuff can look good at 500 pixels on a website, but an A3 print will quickly show up any flaws in an image. And almost any image looks better when printed larger. Once they’ve seen you then continue to keep in touch, sending emails when you have new work on your site.



As you work through your list, eventually the phone calls will start to come in. It all takes a lot of time, but eventually your hard work and patience will begin to show rewards.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The PDN Photo Annual is here...

If you want to see what the state of the art in American photography is at the moment, take half an hour out of your day and browse through the 2008 PDN Photo Annual. It should be required viewing for any emerging photographer.

PDN (or Photo District News to give it its full name) is the leading magazine and website for commercial and editorial photographers in the US. It is widely read by photographers and photo buyers and their awards give significant exposure in the industry. I was lucky enough to be one of the winners for their "World in Focus" award back in February. Wahoo!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Sports shooter

I've been shooting a lot of sports recently. If you didn't know that then it means you haven't been to the website and checked out my new 'Active' portfolio. So get over there now.

OK, welcome back. So - what are some of the things you need to think about when shooting high speed subjects like runners and skiers? I'll talk about this photo to illustrate what I mean.

The first thing to realise is that you are going to need to explain what you want to your model. Believe it or not, getting a skier passing through the sun with a giant spray of powder doesn't just happen by accident. Explain exactly the path you want your model to take, including which way they are going to turn, where you want the powder spray to go, what body position you want - everything you need in the final picture.

This is especially important for ski photography for two reasons: firstly you only get one try before you get tracks through that beautiful patch of powder you were counting on and secondly its hard (sometimes impossible) to hike back up the hill to take the shot a second time.

To communicate effectively make sure you pack 2-way radios, or at a pinch mobile phones. Sometimes your model will have to start their run from far uphill, or even out of sight, and shouting just won't cut it. Trust me.

Once you've got everything lined up you need to get the shot. There are a couple of ways you can go about capturing high speed subjects. OK, actually there are 3, but I'm saving one of them for another post. Which you use depends on the type of shot you need to capture. There's the 'static' method and the 'panning' method. I'll start with panning.

The Panning Method:
1) Switch your camera to 'tracking' autofocus. On Canon cameras this is called AI Servo.
2) Start your model off on their run
3) Find the model in your viewfinder and allow the autofocus to lock on
4) As the model reaches peak action, hold down the shutter button with the motor drive screaming
5) Hope you got the shot

The advantage of this method is that it is relatively easy. The tracking autofocus on high end Canon and Nikon bodies is now exceptionally good, and once it has picked up your subject, 90% of the subsequent frames will be in sharp focus. Secondly, you can follow your subject through the viewfinder and shoot when the action is at it's peak - at the centre of the turn or in the middle of a stride.

However you pay a price for it being easy. Firstly, the autofocus sensors, even on top-end cameras, are clustered around the centre of the frame, making it impossible to have your subject far off center. Secondly, because you are tracking the subject not the background, it can be hard to get the background framed the way you want.

So if you're finding these limiting you can try another way: the Static Method. This allows you to have off centre subjects and frame your background accurately, but requires you - and your model - to have very good timing. It works best when shooting very close to your subject with a wide-angle lens.

The Static Method:
1) Frame the background you want in the viewfinder.
2) Focus on the point where you want the model to be in the picture
3) Switch to manual focus - either disengage autofocus from the shutter button (CFn 4-1 on Canon) or switch the lens to manual
4) Keep the camera framed on your background and have your model start his run. It can be helpful to have your assistant count down their approach so you are ready
5) As the model passes into the correct point of the frame, shoot

As you can see, this requires you to have very good timing on the shutter, and for your model to hit his mark precisely. To maximise your chances it helps to shoot with a high resolution camera and frame the shot a little loose, giving you room and resolution to crop in post. Also, to ensure critical focus, close your aperture down to give you more leeway with the depth of field.

It's hard, but when you get it right it gives you results that can't be had any other way.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Venice

I've just returned from an assignment in Venice for Photo Plus magazine. We were shooting for one of their Apprentice features, where they team up a reader with a professional photographer. Tony was a great guy and it was a pleasure to pass on the tips and tricks I've picked up over the years.

The strange part for me, however, was that I wasn't the one taking the pictures. We were accompanied by Rob and Chris, the photographer and writer from the magazine, and the photos they publish will be Tony's and Rob's - not mine. So for once I had the luxury of experiencing a place with my own eyes rather than through the viewfinder of my camera.

I wouldn't be a photographer if I couldn't resist taking a few shots though - so here is one of the Grand Canal, taken from the Rialto bridge at dusk. Look out for the full feature in issue 11 of Photo Plus, on sale in early July.

New work online

Over the last couple of months I've been using the time in between jobs to shoot for a new portfolio - focusing on outdoor sports and lifestyle imagery. There's now a new 'Active' gallery on the website - let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Looking natural

Lifestyle photos are all the rage these days. Pick up a magazine and I bet half the adverts feature casual 'slice of life' photography. But any photographer who has worked with models will know that one of the hardest things is to get them to look natural in front of the camera.

It's not hard to understand why. Most advertising shots have very high production values. Along with the photographer there will most likely be an assistant or two helping set up lights and reflectors, a producer making sure their is access to the location and getting everyone co-ordinated to turn up on time, a stylist looking after the wardrobe, a make up artist, and finally the art director to make sure the shoot matches their original idea.

With all that going on around them while they try to follow direction from the photographer, its not hard to understand why the models, unless they are very experienced, tend to look a little wooden in front of the camera. Here are a few tips that can help:

1) Give them a story
Be sure to communicate with your models and give them a scenario to work with. What have they just been doing? What are they feeling? What should they be doing next? How about they've just come to the end of their afternoon run in the summer heat and need to cool off in the fountain?

2) Put down the camera
One way to guarantee static photos is to accurately place the models in position and then shoot. Instead, put the camera down and try getting them to act through the moment. Look for the little things that make the scene natural - a facial expression, or a body position. Often it is the 'in between' moments that look most casual. Here the models just started kicking water at each other - it wasn't anything either of us had planned.

3) Shoot, shoot and then shoot some more
Now that you know what it is you want to capture, get the models to work through their vignette over and over again until you capture exactly the moment you want.  Turn on the motor drive and just hold down that shutter button. You'll have 500 frames to edit, but one of them will have that spark and capture the snapshot feel you're looking for.

So there it is: the more natural you want the scene to look, the harder you have to work for it.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Semantic Video Analysis... or why I hate keywording

The Economist has an article about how computers are now beginning to be able to recognise the content of photographs and video. Modern point and shoot cameras now all have a 'face detection' mode to make sure they focus on the person you are trying to take a picture of and not the wall behind them. And some even now sport 'smile detection', only taking the picture once everyone is at full grin. Useful for granny's birthday party no doubt.

But the new technology being developed has a far more useful application. It may eventually allow the content of pictures and video to be determined automatically. Currently if you search for a picture online, e.g. at a stock agency, you can only find images if they have been carefully keyworded. These keywords are then stored as 'metadata' along side the actual image file.

As someone who submits images for stock I can vouch for how time consuming this can be, so I'm looking forward to the day when our computers can do it for us - even if it does mean I have to get my mouth around Semantic Video Analysis.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The future is now

Michael Reichmann over at The Luminous Landscape has an interesting essay about the forthcoming convergence of digital stills and video.

This has already begun to take place at the top end of the market, with a number of films and TV shows now being shot using the RED One. Shooting 12 megapixel 30 fps video in RAW format, it allows film makers to treat their video output just as us still shooters treat our RAW files - colour correction, cropping and other post processing can be done much more quickly and efficiently than with film or JPEG output. And if a still shot is required, a 12MP RAW file can be pulled from the sequence and used, just as if it had been taken with a still camera.

He also has a review of the new Casio EF-X1. This is the first of a new generation of consumer cameras that combine high definition video with RAW format digital stills. Over the next couple of years we can expect to see more and more of these products come to market. What does this mean for stills photographers? Right now I don't know.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

On Assignment: Trying to avoid the cliché

I spent most of February in India shooting photos for a new guidebook. One of the locations on my shot list was the Taj Mahal. It was great to have an excuse to visit one of the most famous buildings in the world. But how do you photograph it without just endlessly repeating what's been done before?

The Taj was completed in 1643 and the earliest photograph I can find of it was taken in 1854 by a Dr John Murray. He put it on display in the Bengal Photographic Club. With a photographic legacy stretching back over 150 years, how can you hope to come up with something that is new?

Often I find the answer is not even to try.

I arrived at the entrance while it was still dark and waited for it to open at 6am. There were about 20 people behind me when they let us in, and after a short walk to the massive southern gate I was face to face with one of the most photographed views in the world. Through the darkness I could just make out the line of the rectangular lake leading up to the silhouette of the four towers and perfectly proportioned dome. It was magical. We all just sat down and watched as the sky slowly lit up as the sun rose.

And when it did, I took a photo. More than one in fact. Yes, it is a view that has graced a million postcards and been on the front cover of hundreds of books. But there is a very good reason for that - it's a truly beautiful view! I can't imagine any photographer visiting it for the first time not taking that picture - you can't help it. 

Over the next few hours I wandered through the whole complex and took maybe 200 pictures. Some of them I think are a bit different - like the one at the top of this post - or at least I haven't seen one from this perspective before. But whenever I visit a famous place, it's the same. I have to get the cliché shots out of the way first. Only then can I free up my mind to see the subject in a different way.

So don't be afraid of shooting clichés. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to get beyond them.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Cairo as you've never seen it before...

Cairo is a city dear to my heart. I worked there for 5 months in 2005, and have returned every year since. I'll be back there next month for an assignment.

American art photographer Philip-Lorca di Corcia has done a fashion spread in the May issue of W Magazine with Cairo forming a beautiful and evocative backdrop. For a fresh take on this wonderful city see the slideshow online here.

Canon shoot too soon?

Wired reports that details of the hotly anticipated Canon 5 D Mark II camera were briefly leaked on Canon's German website. The specs looks great so let's hope its true...

On Assignment - Travelling light(s)

Most travel assignments present the photographer with something of a packing dilemma. On the one hand the very nature of travel means that you don't quite know what you're going to encounter, so need to be prepared to shoot anything. But on the other hand, travel also means you have to be mobile, and don't want to be loaded down with a ton of gear.

The portrait of this jeweller in Sri Lanka is a case in point. The island is famous for its sapphires, and they are mined, polished and sold near the southern city of Galle. On the day we were in the city I asked our guide the best place to get a shot of one of the gems. It turned out a  friend of his was a jeweller in the city - one quick phone call later and we were on the way to his shop.

I had pre-visualised a shot similar to the one above, with the jeweller peering at a sapphire through a magnifying glass. On arrival at the shop I was presented with two problems.

Firstly the lighting inside the shop was terrible - small windows, necessary for security, meant there was almost no natural light, leaving the overhead fluorescent tubes to do all the work. Secondly, the jeweller was a youngish, slightly overweight chap wearing a dirty t-shirt. Not quite what I had in mind.

I solved the lighting by using two flashguns. It's impossible to travel with studio lighting equipment on assignments like this - there just isn't the space to carry them. But a couple of flashguns, light stands and radio triggers is perfectly manageable.

I set up one 580 EXII with a silver umbrella as a key light on a stand about 2m and 45 degrees camera right and another with a snoot to restrict the light and provide a highlight down the left side of his face 2m camera left, about 30 degrees behind the subject. Both were triggered with Pocket Wizards. By using a shutter speed of 1/250th the ambient exposure was zero, so I didn't have to worry about gelling the flashes to get the colour temperature to match the fluorescent lights above us.

However, solving the second problem required diplomacy rather than technology. I set up and shot several pictures of the shop owner. But while I had been setting up I noticed one of the store assistants looked rather more like the kind of jeweller I had in mind: older, wearing glasses and a clean button up shirt. So after shooting the owner I politely asked if I could take a photo of the assistant. Of course he obliged, and I got the far superior picture above.

So next time you are packing the kitchen sink into your camera bag, remember that a lot of travel photography relies on similar problem solving skills: making do with lightweight equipment, and planning and interacting with people to get the shot you need.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

On Assignment: Why you carry a backup

The iconic travel image of Sri Lanka is the famous stilt fishermen. Sometimes grouped in hundreds along the southern shores of the island, they rest on their perches, rods draped over their arms, waiting for the day's catch.

So it wasn't a big surprise when the Creative Director sent through the shot list for the Sri Lanka assignment. There it was, right underneath coconut plantation: stilt fisherman.

I'd talked the shot list through with Nisanka, my guide, right at the start. The bad news was our schedule was so tight we were only going to get one chance to get the shot. The good news was that chance was going to be at the end of the day, so I'd be able to shoot against the setting sun.

On the day we left the tea plantation we'd been staying at nice and early, but I hadn't been prepared for the drive. The mountains and valleys were beautiful, but the winding hairpin road was slow going. We were only averaging 40km/h. And we had 400km to travel...

We had a brief stop for lunch and to stretch our legs, but as the afternoon wore on I was starring to get edgy - here in the tropics the sun dropped under the horizon at 6.30 sharp. If we arrived after sunset then there was no shot, and our schedule meant I wouldn't get another chance.

By 5.30 I had almost given up hope, but out driver made a Herculean effort, forcing his way through the traffic as the sun dropped lower and lower until we finally reached the sea and pulled up beside the a long row of stilts. I glanced at my watch - it was 6.20. The sun was about 3 diameters above the horizon, and quickly dropping into haze.

Just one problem. The stilts were empty. While Nisanka raced to the local cafe to find some fishermen, I grabbed my camera, 24-105 lens and tripod, stuffed the 70-200 into the writer's hands and telling him to follow me, scrambled off over the boulders along the shore to set up the shot.

I hadn't counted on the tide going out. The rocks were glistening with moisture from the departing sea, and sure enough as I lost my footing the camera came crashing down on the nearest boulder.

My heart stopped. I picked up the camera and could see a huge scrape on the top plate where the black paint had been chipped away. I held it up to my eye and checked a few functions. It seemed to work. I took a picture - it showed up on the LCD. I checked the lens - not even the filter was broken. Against all the odds it looked like I had got away with it.

By now a couple of fishermen had climbed up onto their stilts. My hands still shaking with the adrenalin, I took a few shots and began to concentrated on the most photogenic one. I asked Nisanka to tell him to lean back to give me separation between his hat and the stilt. I nailed the shot just before the sun disappeared into the haze on the horizon.

It ran as the opening shot for the feature.

Lesson 1: Buy tough gear - you never know what will happen. It's not the first time my 1Ds II has survived a big scrape and I'm sure it won't be the last.

Lesson 2: Always carry a spare. If the camera had failed and I hadn't had my 1D II backup in the car, the assignment would have been over right there and then. And the chances are you'd never be hired by that publication again.