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:

- 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.

- 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:

- 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:

- 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!).

- 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.


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

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


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.